Thursday, May 31, 2007

Today's Thought: The Silver Swan

It is unknown who wrote the poem "The Silver Swan," although it's said to have been written around 1600. I love it, though, and it's one of a cluster of poems that I've memorized. It keeps things in perspective for me with its timeless (and ironic) theme.


The silver swan, who living had no note,
When death approached, unlocked her silent throat;
Leaning her breast against the reedy shore,
Thus sung her first and last, and sung no more:
Farewell, all joys; O death, come close mine eyes;
More geese than swans today live, more fools than wise.


Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Calling All Librarians

I love this cartoon. How undersung are the world's librarians, the true search engines who never give us error messages like "access denied." Whenever I'm doing research and I call a librarian with some bizarre question, she or he will always say, "That's interesting. Let me get back to you." And they always do.

So hurrah for librarians everywhere!

Note: Are you a librarian? Would you like to receive some info about my new book, Madeline Mann? If so, e-mail me at and I'll send it out!

If you're not a librarian, stop by your local library this nice May Day and enjoy its special atmosphere.


Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Talk of Anniversaries and Synchronicities

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Today is the nineteenth anniversary of Jeff's and my marriage. (There we both are, squinting in the sun). Birthdays and anniversaries are weird things, because when you're forced to contemplate them you end up saying things like "Gosh, it doesn't seem that long--but then again it does." And of course that doesn't really mean anything.

As ever, we were too broke to do anything really lavish, but we went on a date yesterday, and that was fun. Sometimes it's nice to remind yourself why you married a person, especially when you have to spend your evenings sternly discussing the consequences for what the children did THIS time. :)

As I perused the net looking for other anniversaries on this day (all I found was Kirk and Anne Douglas, who married in 1954), I realized some ironic comparisons.

For one, I graduated from high school on this date in 1983; five years later exactly (but not by design), I got married. Then, while I was celebrating a ninth anniversary with my Jeff Buckley in 1997, another Jeff Buckley died.

It was the birthday of both John F. Kennedy and Bob Hope; it was also the day that, in 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary and his sherpa, Tenzing Norgay, reached the summit of Mt. Everest--they were the first to do so. It also happened to be Norgay's birthday. He was born on May 29, 1914.

I suppose we all have our Everests in life, but Tenzing's birthday accomplishment would be pretty hard to beat.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Memorial Day

On this solemn Memorial Day, I invoke the words of Abraham Lincoln:

"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan - to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations."

Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

C.S. Lewis on the Ultimate Mystery

"You cannot go on 'explaining away' for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on 'seeing through' things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it."

C.S. Lewis

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Ahhh, Saturday!

I think I'm going to emulate my dog today; he's always relaxed. I'm hanging out, making my to-do list for the day, listening to Dolly Parton sing "The Grass is Blue," and generally being glad that the work week is over. True, I won't be able to sleep quite as much as the ol' Beagle does, but there's that lovely lassitude that one can allow on Saturday morning, even while doing chores.

My senior students graduated last night, which was bittersweet; I think they'll appreciate Saturday most of all, because they had an emotionally exhausting week, and Saturday is the day they can take off all the graduation finery, put on the sweats, sit around, and say AHHH. At least that's what I'm going to do. :)

While I do that, I'm going to read more of Craig Johnson's THE COLD DISH, which is so far fascinating both in story and style. I've never read writing quite like his before, and he's got me hooked.

Have a relaxing Saturday, anyone reading this blog!

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Michael A. Black on Learning the Martial Arts, Taking the Stairs, and Being a Cop

Hi, Mike! Thanks for talking with me.
My pleasure, Julia.

First, I have some questions about your website. ( Along with some cool book covers and synopses, there are some photos of you looking –shall we say—intimidating. In one you are apparently kicking a man’s throat out, and in another you are shooting the biggest gun I’ve ever seen. Not to mention the one that shows off your substantial muscle. Is being tough a necessity for a cop?
It helps, but being tough isn’t really about muscle as much as it is mental strength. It’s about being able to make those tough choices and do the right thing, even when you don’t want to. You see a lot of things as a police officer that’ll break your heart. You’ve got to develop an emotional toughness or it’ll destroy you by inches. I’ve never thought of myself as particularly tough or intimidating. I’m just your average guy. By the way, in that picture of me kicking I was breaking a board at a martial arts demonstration.

Cool. Have you ever had to beat someone up? I would think all that training would come in very handy if someone tried to mug you or something.

I was bullied quite a bit when I was a kid. I was a bit younger than the rest of my classmates, and very shy, too. There were several punks who got their supplemental income by beating me up and stealing my lunch money. This continued until my dad, who’d boxed in the navy, taught me the rudiments of the sweet science and then enrolled me in judo classes. My parents also bought me a set of weights for my grammar school graduation. The bullying tapered off, but continued a bit when I entered high school. Finally, at the end of my freshman year, a big upper classman picked a fight with me. It was like all the anger and humiliation I’d suffered through my entire life suddenly burst through. I beat the holy hell out of him. After that, no one ever tried to pick on me again.

As far as adulthood, between being an MP in the army and being in police work for most of my adult life, I’ve been in a lot of physical confrontations. The worst one that comes to mind was with this big ex-con who’d just gotten out of the joint and decided he didn’t want to go back. I was by myself, trying to take him into custody and the battle was on. We were fighting on the upper level of a shopping mall. I was in plainclothes, so the security guys didn’t know I was a cop. I was on the offender’s back trying to get a chokehold on him, and he rammed me into the banister trying to knock me off. Luckily, I managed to hold on and took him down a few seconds later. As I held him on the floor, I remember seeing the security guys talking on their radios, afraid to move in. When I finally saw the uniformed officers running down the corridor to assist me, I felt one of the settlers in the old western movie holding off the Indians: the cavalry has arrived!

I have knocked people out in the ring, and a few times out of the ring, but I take no pleasure in hurting others. I used to spar with my buddy, Mike McNamara, who’s also a copper in Park Forest. He was a world-class professional kickboxer. Sparring with him was always a reminder that it was better to leave the rough stuff to Ron Shade.

Good point. Okay, okay, I’ll stop asking tough guy questions. Let’s chat about your books. What came first: you the writer or you the police officer?
Well, I’ve been writing all my life. I wrote my first short story in sixth grade. The hero was a private detective, and the villain was a crooked cop. Kind of ironic how that turned out, isn’t it? As far as being a published writer, I endured fifteen years of rejection slips before that happened, so I guess the cop came first.

What’s a reality about being a Chicago cop that people might not know?
I’m actually a cop in Matteson, a suburb of Chicago. I entered police work because I wanted to help people. To make a difference in someone’s life, even if it’s only being there to show them some compassion in a moment of crisis for them, is very rewarding. There were times when I’d walk out the back door of the station after a hard shift feeling ten feet tall. It’s still all about helping people. I think most cops feel this way.

Two of your books, Freeze Me Tender and A Killing Frost, have wintry titles. Is this a recurring theme in your fiction?
Actually, spring is my favorite season. I got the title for A Killing Frost from Shakespeare. “The third day comes a frost, a killing frost.” King Henry VIII, act 3, scene 2. That book, which is going to be released in mass market paperback in October from Leisure Books, is actually set in the fall (my least favorite season). Freeze Me, Tender is set in Vegas in August. You can’t get much hotter than that. The title is an allusion to the theme of the story: what if the king of rock and roll had been cryogenically frozen after his death. What if he really didn’t die. The protagonist, a reporter, journeys to Sin City to find out if it’s really Colton Purcell (my name for the King) suspended in that vat of liquid nitrogen. My second Ron Shade book, Windy City Knights, is set during the winter, though.

You and I both like those Shakespearean allusions. In your first book you introduce Chicago private detective Ron Shade. He’s in a slump, and to boost his spirits he buys a Camaro Z-28. Do you recommend that I do this when I need to boost my spirits?
The gas prices have been going up; you and Shade might be better off with a couple of those new hybrids.

Sad, but true. Ron Shade, with his loneliness, his tough assignments, and his former lovers, reminds me of Philip Marlowe. Were you influenced by Chandler?
I read Chandler when I was in college and was struck by what a good writer he was. He made the smooth narrative style seem effortless. I certainly would list him among my major influences. He was a master prose craftsman. I should also mention Joseph Wambaugh. I was facing the draft back in 1971 and read his first novel, The New Centurions, about the LAPD. It influenced me to go into the Military Police and into civilian law enforcement after my discharge. I got a signed copy of his latest book, Hollywood Station, for a Christmas gift. I can’t wait to start it.

What other mystery writers are heroes to you?
Wow, there are so many good writers in the mystery field it would be hard to list them all. Dashiell Hammett, certainly influenced me a lot, as well as Ross MacDonald and Stephen Marlowe, who was gracious enough to give me a blurb for Windy City Knights. John D. MacDonald perhaps influenced me the most of any writer. Sara Paretsky has been very nice to me, and gave me a lot of great pointers when I was starting out. My personal hero and great friend is my “brother,” Andrew Vachss. Knowing Andrew is like being in the presence of American royalty. He does in real life what the rest of us only dream about doing. There are so many other fine writers, I can’t list them all here. The only exception I will make is including my writing partner, Julie Hyzy. She’s the best writer I know.

Julie is a class act, too. What are you reading now?
Let’s see . . . I just picked up Elmore Leonard’s newest book, Up in Honey’s Room. I can’t wait to start it. I also have my buddy, Sean Chercover’s Big City, Bad Blood, on my to-read list, and Sam Reaves' new one, Homicide 69. Prior to that I’ve read so far this year are Andrew’s Mask Market, James Reasoner’s Texas Wind, Sue Grafton’s S is for Silence, Robert B. Parker’s Hundred Dollar Baby, Marcus Sakey’s The Blade Itself, Mark Winegardner’s The Godfather Returns, Tom Keevers What the Hyena Knows,, Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer, and Julie Hyzy’s Deadly Interest. I wish I had more time to read. It’s one of the greatest pleasures in life.

You have lots of neat photos on your site, including a series of The Loop in Chicago. Is photography a hobby? When do you find the time to do all that you do?

I used to take pictures all the time. I still do a lot of photography. I try to research the locations I write about, and it helps if you have a few things captured on film to jog your memory. When I was writing The Heist I spent quite a few days walking and driving around Chi-town. I actually discovered the culvert that goes under the railroad tracks by the old Wisconsin Steel works that I used in the climax.

There are pictures of stairs on your home page. Is this symbolic? Are we supposed to question the nature of ascending and descending and determine that it’s all an illusion? Or do you just like stairs?
Well, in my Shade series, Ron has an aversion to elevators and always considers it great leg training to take the stairs instead. I’ve always enjoyed running up flights of stairs, too. When I was a kid delivering packages in the Loop, I walked everywhere and always took the stairs instead of waiting for elevators, if I could manage it. I suppose, in a way the stairs symbolize the ups and downs of Shade’s life, which I put in the first book.

Cool. You write short stories as well. Which form comes more naturally to you: the novel or the short story?
I started out writing short stories, then gradually expanded to novels. What many people don’t realize is both are completely separate art forms. I’ve heard it said that writers who start out writing short fiction can make the transition to novels, but those who start out writing novels often have difficulty writing short stories. For me, which form to use is more intrinsic. There are certain ideas that I get which would be better as a short story, and others that would be more suited to the novel length. Incidentally, Julie just won the Derringer Award for her short story in These Guns for Hire, an anthology about hitmen. I had a story in that one called “The Black Rose.” I also have “Chasing the Blues” in the upcoming Chicago Blues anthology edited by Libby Fischer Hellman. It’ll debut in October and we’ll be doing a bunch of appearances.

We'll watch for that. What are you writing now?
Honestly, I just finished a novella called “The Falcon’s Granddaughter” for a contest. I have to write a Hercules short story for a buddy of mine, which will round out an anthology of mythological heroes. I just finished polishing the second novel in my police procedural series, and Julie Hyzy and I just completed a collaborative novel featuring Ron Shade and her character, Alex St. James. We had a blast.

That is a great idea. What’s the next big conference where readers might get a chance to meet you?
I hit just about every conference there was last year, so this year in was in resting mode. I have a couple booksignings scheduled. I’ll be at Printer’s Row in Chicago in June. I haven’t committed to any other ones except Magna Cum Murder in Muncie, Indiana in October. My buddy, Dave Case, and I will be doing a two-day crime scene presentation at a library near Cleveland this summer, but the dates aren’t set yet. Hopefully, the Midwest Authors’ Fair will be in Aurora again this year. That’s always a great conference.

If Steven Spielberg said he would make one of your books into a movie, but you could choose which one, which would you choose? Is that like asking you to have a favorite child, or would one make a better movie than the others?
I’d have to go with Freeze Me, Tender. But I’d only let Mr. Spielberg do it if I could play Lance Fabray, one of the beefy Colton Purcell imitators. Of course, if he’d let me play Doc Atlas, he could film Melody of Vengeance as well. He’d have to stretch his Dreamworks CGI to turn me into leading man material, though.

All you need is intensity, and you're leading man material.

How can readers find out more about you and your books?

Well, as you so kindly mentioned, my website is My website expert, Beth Tindall at Cincinnati, does a great job keeping it updated and all my books are featured on it. I also have a couple of short stories on the site that people can read for free. And when A Killing Frost comes out in October, it’ll be everywhere--- Book stores, airports, drug stores . . .

I hope it sells like hotcakes. Thanks, Michael!
You’re welcome. Thank you, Julia for this opportunity. Take care.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Wind's Will

My eight-year-old son is marking down the days on a little calendar he made himself. He has, I believe, nine days left of school. Of course I want him to value education, to be even a little reluctant to leave his classroom and teacher behind--but who am I kidding? I did the same thing. Summer is the siren that sings annually to promise children an eternal freedom, an endless fun, an escape from drudgery.

I was trying to plan some book events for the summer, and one of them involved choosing between one-day attendance and an overnight stay. My son's opinion was quick and honest. "Go for the one day," he said, holding up a wise finger. His desire to be with me squashes some of my ambition, and our plans for the summer are basically these: lie around; have fun; go to some movies; have family time.

Amidst that lazy, sultry few weeks, I need to get myself in gear. Madeline Mann comes out on August 1st, and I have yet to contact everyone in the world. Based on what I see of my sons and the way that they're gearing up for laziness, almost as if they're about to hibernate, I don't think I can count on much help from that quarter.

But that's okay. As Longfellow so aptly wrote: "A boy's will is the wind's will, and the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts."

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Happy Birthday, Arthur Conan Doyle

The great Conan Doyle was born on this day in 1859. He is most famous for creating Sherlock Holmes, a detective he eventually wanted to destroy because, as Doyle put it, "He takes my mind off better things." Doyle believed that Holmes did not represent his best work, but the public felt differently, and when Doyle killed off Holmes in 1892, there was much hue and cry. By 1901 Doyle could stand it no longer, and brought Holmes back with The Hound of the Baskervilles, which was set in a time that pre-dated Holmes' "death." (Paraphrased from The Great British Detective, Penguin Mentor, 1982). has this great quote in honor of Doyle's birthday:

Holmes: "I followed you."
Man: "I saw no one."
Holmes: "That is what you may expect to see when I follow you."

Holmes was the penultimate classical detective: superior, always successful, ever preferable to the bumbling police inspector, Lestrade. This formula, created really by Poe but expanded by Doyle, has been a classical model since the nineteenth century, and holds up well in Doyle's fiction.

While I greatly enjoy The Hound of the Baskervilles, I'm also a fan of Conan Doyle's short mysteries, and an especially good one is "Silver Blaze," in which Holmes goes to the moors to solve the mystery of an inexplicable death and a missing racehorse.

Doyle himself would have written his destiny differently, perhaps, but of course none of us can control how we will be remembered, and Doyle's name will always be synonymous with Sherlock's.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

In Defense of Vicarious Cruelty

In the world of mystery writing, I suppose we authors do indulge in some vicarious cruelty, in that we might kill off people who remind us of people we don't like. It doesn't hurt anyone, because it's fictional.

To my surprise, though, this doesn't only happen in the world of books. Today my children earned some Playstation time by doing some morning chores; imagine my surprise when I heard my husband, in the next room, say, "It's not nice to torture, son." Wow. I don't think my parents ever had to share that particular wisdom with me. Mind you, these are PG games, but I guess Graham was given the option to do something bad to a "bad guy." He's bad, therefore it's okay. Hmmmm . . .

On another occasion my older son was playing an educational computer game. He's actually learning things about history, including terms like serf, vassal, fiefdom, tariff. He is the lord of his own kingdom, and the way that he is able to build and expand his empire is, of course, by taxing his people. However, he was given the choice of being a benevolent or a cruel ruler. He was able to choose "no tax," "mild tax," or "severe tax." Naturally, my son chose "severe tax," and one of his serfs knelt in front of him begging him not to do so. I intervened here, suggesting that he NOT tax his people into lives of misery, but he just chuckled and told me that he needed to build a bridge, and this would fund it.

I suppose this would prepare him nicely for a career in politics, but I'd prefer to think of him as a compassionate boy. Still, who am I to judge? I spend my evenings trying to think of someone to kill, and then daydreaming about who would be most likely to kill him. Perhaps sometimes this vicarious cruelty lets us work out that ol' original sin and then allows us to be nicer in real life.

Or so I would like to think. :)


Saturday, May 19, 2007

Thought for the Day


"Oh, God of dust and rainbows, help us see
That without dust the rainbow would not be."

--Langston Hughes


Friday, May 18, 2007

Remembrance of Libraries Past

I recently asked my 8-year-old son if he had remembered to return his library book at school.

"Yup," he said.

"Did you get a new one?"

"Yup. My Father's Dragon. We have to take out chapter books now," he said with studied casualness.

But I could hear the pride beneath the words--chapter books! Such a big boy endeavor. Graham had been furious when his older brother learned to read. He, at five, still couldn't, and it frustrated him beyond belief. I doubt he remembers that frustration now, but his joy in being able to interpret what were once inscrutable symbols is evident.

It made me remember my own grade school library--just a tiny place, and for many years my mother was a volunteer librarian there. When my class would march down for library time, then, my mom had already selected several volumes she thought would interest me (and she was always right). Through that teensy library I discovered, of course, Nancy Drew, but also Cherry Ames, Student Nurse, and Trixie Belden, and some series I can't remember about three stewardesses living in an apartment together and doing wonderfully independent things while enjoying the city. (I don't remember what city).

I discovered P.G. Wodehouse through a book for children called Mike at Wrykyn, and I never gave P.G. up after that; I also discovered a delightful book called Andrew, The Big Deal,by Barbara Brooks Wallace, which I found recently in a vintage book shop and bought at once, and I read it to my children now (but would read it to myself just for the pleasure).

The more I read, though, the more I read mysteries, and that was thanks to the wonderful plenitude of books by people like Mary Stewart, Phyllis Whitney, Victoria Holt, Velda Johnston. That genre helped me discover people like M.M. Kaye, P.D. James, Martha Grimes, Patricia Moyes. And on and on.

My mom and I still have book exchanges. When I handed her my entire Boucheron sample bag she was in heaven.

And my sons, hopefully, will have book exchanges with me. :)


Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Nancy Drew, Where Are You?

Like a billion other girls, I loved Nancy Drew growing up. My sister and I collected the yellow-spined books, requesting them at every Christmas and birthday, saving our own money to buy more, more, more. They were terrific. They had hard backs and chapters like big people books, and they always bore art that attested to the life of a glamorous, independent young woman. Nancy was cool.

I remember being excited, and then vaguely offended, by the series with Pamela Sue Martin, back in the seventies (alternating weekly with the well-coiffed Hardy Boys, Shaun Cassidy and Parker Stevenson). The series, it seemed to me, kept very little of the Nancy books intact, and that did not please me as a reader.

Imagine my surprise to see the first commercial for the movie called "Nancy Drew." I had the television on mute, so I had no idea that this flick was even a mystery until the very end, when the words NANCY DREW flashed on the screen. Until then it seemed like any other generic teen movie with lots of close-ups on a star with reddish hair. Hmmmm. Not impressed so far.

Nancy has lasted this long because people stuck with the formula--although I have no idea if the Nancy of today sells as well as the Nancy of my era, or the early Nancy who had her birth in the 30s. I know that Nancy was reinvented a few times, but she still presented the same basic image: young, smart, independent, mystery-loving. I sure hope that this movie doesn't taint that image.

My new book, Madeline Mann, has been touted by my publisher as a book that people would enjoy if they grew up reading Nancy Drew. To me, this is high praise indeed. Would that I could enjoy Nancy's longevity, her name recognition, her sales. But for now, the comparison is flattering enough.

Here's to Nancy: long may she reign.


Monday, May 14, 2007

That Marlowe Magic

Here's Bogey playing Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep. It's a great picture, although Humphrey Bogart is the last person I would have cast as Marlowe, who I picture as an entirely different guy when I read Raymond Chandler's books.

It doesn't really matter who plays him, I suppose, as long as they try to capture that Marlowe mystique, that Marlowe manner. But to be honest I don't think any actor has quite captured it. My mother-in-law once insisted that Robert Mitchum did, but he was a particular favorite of hers; I have to disagree even with that assessment.

But I'll bet there's a man out there who can capture what Chandler created on the page, that magical Marlowe combination of grit and style. Oddly, one of my favorite Marlowe lines is sort of a throwaway line--it doesn't have anything to do with the plot, but it has everything to do with why I love Marlowe. It's in The Long Goodbye, when a lackey of the gangster Mendy Menendez approaches Marlowe and they have this dialogue:

"In the morning I shaved again and dressed and drove downtown in the usual way and parked in the usual place and if the parking lot attendant happened to know that I was an important public character he did a top job hiding it. I went upstairs and along the corridor and got keys out to unlock my door. A dark smooth-looking guy watched me.

'You Marlowe?'


'Stick around," he said. 'A guy wants to see you.' He unplastered his back from the wall and strolled off languidly."

Marlowe's narration is perfect enough, but it's that quirky "so?" that won me over the first time I read this book. My husband loves it, too, and we say it to each other all the time. It's what I like to think of as the Marlowe attitude, and I've decided to adopt it this Monday as I face the world: my students, my colleagues, etc.

"You didn't get all our research papers graded?"



Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Great Multi-Tasking Dilemma

This weekend I'm still trying to finish grading papers (I have twelve left); I'm also preparing the house for my son's Communion reception. This is a multi-layered task, as it also involves mowing the lawn, watering flowers, finding places for a lot of clutter, picking up food, etc. In addition, I'm supposed to use this weekend to put together some Madeline Mann publicity packets (a little at a time is my motto) and write some essays to apply for scholarship aid for my Master's Degree.

Sadly, it's always sort of like this--lots of balls in the air. My husband recently read an article which suggested that if people continued to multi-task with the ferocity that we Americans do now (especially American young people, I think), that human brains would eventually be capable of more multiple shallow thoughts, but less deep thought on any one issue. There's a frightening prediction. I try to remind myself of that when I sit making my endless lists of WHAT MUST BE DONE TODAY. :)

There's a wonderful story by the German writer Heinrich Boll called ACTION WILL BE TAKEN. It's a satire about people's tendency to multi-task and how ridiculous that really is. I think I'll have to re-read it today so that I don't go a little crazy. Or I can turn to the ever-wise words of Robert Frost, who advises in his poem "Take Something Like a Star" that one should find something large, permanent, miraculous to focus on when life gets out of control:

"So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far
We may take something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid."


Thursday, May 10, 2007

Where Have You Gone, Fred and Ginger?

Today is the birthday of the great Fred Astaire. Even after all this time I miss Fred Astaire. I loved him when he danced with Ginger Rogers, and I loved him when he danced alone, or with a chair, or a broom, or whatever prop he thought might be amusing. There were all sorts of dancers in Astaire's time (Gene Kelly is the particular favorite of my father's), but Astaire, I think, was considered the leader of the pack.

What's interesting is that he wasn't a handsome fellow by most people's standards--he had rather an odd face. I bought him as the leading man in every film he made, though, and it was because Fred had grace, wit, and charm. Fred had charisma. When my students learn the word "debonair" in their vocabulary books and want an example of what it means, I always ask, "Have any of you ever heard of Fred Astaire?"

It became a family tradition of ours to watch Fred Astaire movies on New Year's Eve, back when I was a kid. We'd make milkshakes or sundaes or some ice creamy treat, and we'd lose ourselves in Top Hat or The Gay Divorcee or Daddy Long Legs. I'd be thrilled by Fred's antics as he tried to win a lady--or win her back. I'd gasp at the misunderstandings of these farcical films and swoon over the romance of the dance scenes--long, long dance scenes in which Ginger's dress frothed over her ankles like something made of the lightest whipped cream and Fred lifted her effortlessly into the air again and again, looking deeply into her eyes. Fred Astaire made me believe in romance, and I'm a hopeless romantic to this day.

But who could ever replace Fred Astaire? Thank goodness for DVDs of old movies.

Try Not To Envy My Glamorous Life

I took the day off of work today so that I can catch up with my grading; therefore I am sternly only allowing myself about five minutes for blogging. The research papers are, refreshingly, quite good, but they still take forever to grade. In between clusters of papers I am trying to clean my house (no small task, I assure you) because my littlest son makes his First Communion this Sunday, and we shall have people over. Naturally there is the desire to prove to them that I do not live in a filthy, sloppy environment, which means I must clean my filthy, sloppy environment.

My husband and I are darting around, wondering what to do first, intimidated in the way that, perhaps, some ancient workers were when they looked over the plans for the Pyramids. The dog and cat keep winding around our legs, confused as we are.

So back I go to the sheaf of papers, and perhaps I'll multitask by vacuuming while I read.


Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Michael Allen Dymmoch on How She Became a Mystery Writer, A Blogger, and a Student of Life

Hi, Michael. Thanks for chatting with me. Of course I have to ask this first: How many people, when meeting you at signings, say, “But I thought you were a man?” Do you ever feel a kinship with George Eliot or George Sand?
“I thought you were a man.” or “You’re a woman!” used to be common reactions. I guess the word is out because I rarely get that anymore. I don’t know enough about George Elliot or George Sand to feel much for them. I majored in science and came late to literature, and I have to confess that I’ve only read one book by Eliot, none by Sand.

Your current book is Death in West Wheeling. What’s it about? Do you have other books set in West Wheeling?
Death in West Wheeling is a police procedural complicated by a Chinese fire drill. Homer Deters, the protagonist, is a well trained law enforcement officer, but his investigations tend to be hindered by eccentrics and events beyond his control. I hope readers will find the story amusing.

Everyone loves a good eccentric character! Library Journal said of your first book, The Man Who Understood Cats, that it “shines with unexpected talent.” Why do you think they didn’t expect you to be talented?
Maybe most of the first novels they get are written amateurishly or poorly edited?

You have four novels with cat references in the title (well, two are cat, one is “tiger,” and one is “feline.”) Do you like cats? Is there a significance to the repeated theme?
Actually all of the books in the John Thinnes/Jack Caleb series were submitted with cat titles. Incendiary Designs was supposed to be called Cats Burning (no actual cats were injured in the production of that story) but St. Martin’s refused to publish it under that title. In those books, cats are a metaphor for detectives, who have a great deal in common with feline hunters.

Cool. What made you start writing mysteries? When did you start?
Just for the hell of it, I took a screenwriting course and had to write a screenplay about something. I’d seen a bad police/buddy film and decided to try to write a better one. That became a screenplay for The Man Who Understood Cats, which no one in Hollywood would look at. On Barbara D’Amato’s advice, I novelized the story and entered it in the Malice Domestic contest. After the story won the contest, my editor asked if I was going to write a sequel. What can you say to that but “yes”?

Good for Barbara D'Amato! And now I’m dying to know what the bad buddy film was. You can tell me at the next MWA meeting. :)

You blog with some other big-name writers at The Outfit: A Chicago Collective. How did you happen to start this blog?
I was lucky enough to be a friend of Libby Fischer Hellmann’s. She wanted to start a blog, but didn’t want to have to update it too often. She decided to join with other writers so we could all benefit from blogging without taking too much time out from out real writing jobs. Libby graciously asked me to join, and had the connections to convince the others to participate. I’m honored to be with Libby in the company of Sara Paretsky, Barbara D’Amato, Sean Chercover, Marcus Sakey and Kevin Guilfoile, great writers all.

That is good company. When you’re not writing mysteries, what do you like to do?
Life has too many wonderful diversions—dinner and great conversations with friends, movies, plays, TV (on DVD), the Art Institute, The Field Museum, Millennium Park, the El (fantastic for watching people as well as for getting around). I’m also a compulsive recycler and enthusiastic (if unskilled) gardener.

You mentioned, in our last conversation, that you once drove a bus. It sounds incredibly stressful. Was it a learning experience?
Everything is a learning experience. Driving a bus isn’t a bad way to make a living if it’s not a school bus. That would be stressful.

What other interesting jobs have you had?

I’ve worked in a veterinary hospital, a medical research lab (briefly!), a print shop, a library, and as a truck and snow plow driver, babysitter, newsletter editor, and recycling center volunteer. I’m not sure any of them was interesting, but unless you’re brain-dead, you can learn something from everything you do. And the wise (wo)man takes power where it’s offered.

You are a very wise woman, and I am learning from you!

What are you writing now?

I’m currently working on another stand-alone novel, and a sequel to Death in West Wheeling.

Whose mysteries do you like to read?
Where do I start? I have 1500 mysteries in my personal library. I tend to prefer police procedurals like Homicide 69 (Sam Reaves) and the darker stuff like God Is a Bullet (Boston Terran) or Rain Fall (Barry Eisler), but I adored The Book of Lost Things (a fairy tail for grownups by John Connolly), and crazy stuff like 47 Rules for Highly Successful Bank Robbers (Troy Cook) and Dirt (Sean Doolittle). And I couldn’t put down Nancy Pickard’s The Virgin of Small Plains. My main criterion is that the book be well written.

When friends of yours come to Chicago, where do you like to take them? What Chicago sights are not to be missed?

A Chicago River boat trip, sightseeing on the free downtown trolley, The Field, Navy Pier (which has a great, free, stained glass museum), The Art Institute, Harold Washington Library, a drive up Lake Shore Drive, The Chicago Botanic Garden (in the north suburbs), one of our great restaurants...

How can readers find out more about you?
The Outfit will be appearing at the Harold Washington Library on August 7 as part of the “City of Big Readers” program (June 1 to August 30). Come and introduce yourself. Or visit my website
Or read my books.

Sounds great. Thanks for chatting, Michael!
Thank you, Julia.

Monday, May 07, 2007

The Pensive Pine: Nature's Mystery

"The loud wind through the forest wakes
With sounds like ocean roaring, wild and deep,
And in yon gloomy Pines strange music makes,
Like symphonies unearthly, heard in sleep;
The sobbing waters wash their waves and weep,
Where moans the blast its dreary path along,
The bending Firs a mournful cadence keep."


Once again I have consulted my Bullfinch Flower Guide to learn about the pine tree, Nature's fragrant and wonderful creation which should be lauded in all seasons, not just Christmas. There is a long mythological tradition relating to the pine tree, which is a symbol, in flower world, of pity. "It is dedicated to Bacchus and also to Pan because Pitys, one of the many nymphs that Pan loved, was changed into a pine tree to escape the embraces of Boreas."

There was also a mythological tale of young lovers who were changed into a pine and a vine, so that they could forever embrace.

And of course I must mention that in Shakespeare's THE TEMPEST, it is in a pine that Sycorax imprisons the delicate Ariel, and only the power of Prospero can set Ariel free to work his dainty magic on the island, and in Prospero's heart.

The smell of pine is in my top ten fragrances of all time, but now that I know this, I shall always think of it as the smell of pity.

(Quote is from "Forget Me Not: A Floral Treasury," by Pamela Todd, Bulfinch Press, 1993).

Captain Jack's Existential Nightmare

This is our fish, Captain Jack. He's had a surprisingly long lifespan, considering that some of the goldfish our boys won at the school carnival, despite my desperate attempts to keep them alive, did not last more than a couple of days. Captain Jack's going on two years in the bowl, and the other day, perhaps because we were discussing Waiting for Godot, I suddenly wondered how anything could be more of an existential misery than a fishbowl.

First of all, there's the circular nature of the environment; does he ever wish he could dart down a side alley, I wonder, or swim straight rather than in that eternal round? Can fish become insane?

Second, there's the little castle and shrubbery. We put it in there so that he wouldn't be bored, but he has to be sick of that view by now! When I tire of a room in my house, I paint it. What can Jack do? Swim away? No, poor thing. Just keep going in circles.

Third, there's the hope of freedom, which I suppose he gets every time I scoop him out to clean his world. He sits in the little waiting bin, perhaps wondering if this time he'll be dumped into the ocean, or a bigger tank, or something else, anything else, and then Bloosh! He's back in the bowl--same castle, same rock.

Poor Captain Jack. You see what reading Beckett has done to me?

Sunday, May 06, 2007

An Outing With The Boys

Today the boys are taking me to see Spiderman Three. Mind you, when I wanted to see The Queen and Music and Lyrics there were no takers; but for Spiderman, we manage to get out as a family. :)

It should be interesting to see how they manage to maintain tension in the film, since certain things were resolved in Spiderman Two. I do enjoy the story, and my husband has loved the whole Spiderman saga devotedly since he was a tike reading the comic books.

In any case, I haven't been inside a movie theatre in months!

Saturday, May 05, 2007

A Calendar Powerhouse

Today is notable in that it is the birth date of both Karl Marx and Soren Kierkegaarde, two giants of philosophy and original thought. Kierkegaard, who noted as his primary influences the names of Socrates and Christ, said famously that "Adversity draws men together and produces beauty and harmony in life's relationships, just as the cold of winter produces ice-flowers on the window-panes, which vanish with the warmth," but also pessimistically noted that one should
"Listen to the cry of a woman in labor at the hour of giving birth --look at the dying man's struggle at his last extremity, and then tell me whether something that begins and ends thus could be intended for enjoyment."

Karl Marx wanted the proletariat to rise up and confront the bourgeousie. In his famous Communist Manifesto he wrote " The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable." Marx saw the workers as manipulated by the rich to achieve their own ends.

I find myself relating to young Karl Marx, not only because I sometimes feel like a struggling prole, but because Marx was often broke and had difficulties finding funding for his writing. Hmmmm . . .

So why the photo of Monty Python game card with Terry Jones pretending to be Karl Marx? Why, because it is ALSO the birthday of Michael Palin, the Pythoner who is famous for such lines as "No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!" and "I'm a lumberjack and I'm okay, I sleep all night and I work all day." Palin is known as the "nice one" in the Python troupe, and now makes his living traveling the world for a tv series currently called "New Europe with Michael Palin."

I love Palin for a little-known series called "Ripping Yarns," which I found quite funny.

One more thing: it's also the birthday of Tammy Wynette. So stand by your man in her honor.


Friday, May 04, 2007

Audrey's Mysterious Roles

Had iconic beauty Audrey Hepburn not died an untimely death from colon cancer in 1993, she would have celebrated a birthday today. She would have been 78 years old. I imagine that Audrey would look lovely at any age, including 78.

Most people probably remember her for her sweetness in Breakfast at Tiffany's, and her rather heartbreaking rendition of Moon River; but being a mystery lover, I connect her most with the rather mysterious movies that she made. First, I remember being a little tike and watching her in re-runs of Wait Until Dark, which first came out when I was three. Audrey held me spellbound as the blind woman terrorized by bad guys. Of course I have no memory of the plot exactly (although a quick search tells me that "a trio of thugs searches for heroin hidden in a doll they believe to be in her apartment"), but I remember the raw emotion, the fear and helplessness that she conveyed in this tense drama. My mom was a sucker for movies like that, so naturally I grew up to be one, too.

Another of my favorites is Charade, in which a young, lovely Audrey falls for an older, rather grouchy Cary Grant. I must say, though, that even though my father has long despised Cary Grant for unknown reasons, I find him charming in every CG movie I've watched, and I fully understand his popularity. Even in his fifties he was leading man material, and a perfect foil for Audrey's youthful energy. In the Mary Stewart spirit (and she was certainly a contemporary of these actors), the movie contains romance amidst the tension of a difficult plot, and the knowledge that no one is entirely trustworthy.

Hepburn was undoubtedly lovely and fashionable, and I dare anyone to find an unflattering photograph of her. What I remember her for, though, is her innate sweetness; perhaps it was this that prompted her to become a UNICEF spokesperson in her later years, and it was UNICEF and her work there that was on her mind in the final years, and even weeks, of her life.

I suppose the greatest tribute to Audrey Hepburn that we could give her is the fact that she is still a household name, a permanent icon of beauty and fashion, and a sure influence of future generations.


Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Evil of Ignorance

Socrates, the Greek Philosopher who stated that "I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance," also stated this as a truism:

"There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance."

(cited in Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers).

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Ancora Imparo

On this day in 1519, Leonardo Da Vinci died. At left is an image of the artist's self-portrait. His many achievements are well known, I think, as is a controversial book that was inspired by his works. What I appreciate about Da Vinci was his willingness to embrace learning. He famously said, "‘To develop a complete mind, study the science of art, study the art of science. Learn how to see. Realise that everything connects to everything else.’

He was also said to have first coined the motto "Ancora Imparo" or "I am still learning." I hope to embrace this idea all of my life.


Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Dickinson's Diction

I've always admired Emily Dickinson for her precise word choice--so evocative, so right. She's a role model for any writer. Here's one that I like for its use of adjectives. It also make me wonder about the world in Dickinson's time. Was it common to stargaze then? Was the sky, without the distraction of endless earthly lights, something spectacular to see? (Even more spectacular than now, I mean). One wonders . . .


Lightly stepped a yellow star
To its lofty place.
Loosed the moon her silver hat
From her lustral face.
All of evening softly lit
As an astral hall.
"Father," I observed to Heaven,
"You are punctual."