Saturday, June 28, 2008

Mysteries Are Universal

I found a terrific new website called World Mysteries, in which the little unexplained events, sights, and objects observed over thousands of years are presented for our inspection.

You can read about the surprising link between Egypt and the Americas, or about the Mesopotamian Tree of Life and its connection to DNA--the modern tree of life.

It's a very fun way to spend a couple of hours--remember, it is Saturday. We owe ourselves some fun.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Ode To the Literary Imagination

Gaston Bachelard, a French philosopher who was born on this day in 1884, has some lovely things to say about language, imagination, and writing:

"Literary imagination is an aesthetic object offered by a writer to a lover of books."

"Reverie is not a mind vacuum. It is rather the gift of an hour which knows the plenitude of the soul."

"A special kind of beauty exists which is born in language, of language, and for language."

"Man is an imagining being."

"The great function of poetry is to give back to us the situations of our dreams."

"The words of the world want to make sentences."

What wonderful mantras to take me through the day! I have, I must admit, spent my morning in a reverie, but Bachelard has made me realize the value of a good daydream.

Here's to the memory of Bachelard, philosopher and word-lover.

(photo: Julia Buckley, 2006)

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Portrait of an Artist

Today is the birthday of Pamela Quimby, one of the only artists I've ever known. It seems her career (as artist and art teacher) was inevitable, because she has such style and flair and joie de vivre that I really can't imagine her in any other context.

Pam is one of those multi-talented people who makes doing twenty things at once look effortless, and whose meticulous artwork and eye for detail make me envious of her talents. She's not limited to right-brain capabilities, though--she was originally going to major in math or economics or something.

Pam loves the color yellow and uses it creatively in her work; you can see her artist's webpage here. Scroll down to see her lovely paintings of Ohio landscapes and trees--she captures the American Midwest in subtle and simple hues.

Pam herself is a work of art, which I hope she is celebrating on this day of her birth.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Coming Soon . . .

An interview with Jo-Ann Power, the author of Missing Member and Baring Arms, as well as many other books!

Ms. Power, formerly of Washington D.C., is now a Texan, and some of our discussion will deal with that geographical move.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Some Valuable and Life-Saving Information

What I learned this weekend:

--If some mysterious lurking creature attacks your defenseless cat (who just happened to sneak out the door to get some sunshine), that cat can quickly move from predator to prey.

--Treatment for injuries caused by the anonymous creature can exceed the funds you actually possess. (This is true of injuries to human beings, as well).

--If a cat bites you--even a normally friendly cat who is just frightened--and it breaks the skin, you must get a Tetanus shot and go on antibiotics.

--Cat saliva is the most infectious of any animal saliva.

How was your weekend?

(More on this tale tomorrow at PDD.)

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Charity from our Chairs

If you often have the charitable impulse but not the funds to follow through, here is a free way to give rice to the hungry--and I also use it in my classroom as a high-level vocabulary builder.

Click here and see how you can build your own brain while helping the United Nations give rice to those in need.

(Photo link here)

Friday, June 20, 2008

An Encore Tribute to Errol Flynn

Although I posted the same thing last year at this time, I feel nostalgic enough to say again that today is the date on which Errol Flynn was born in Tasmania in 1909. He grew up to become one of Hollywood's most famous leading men, partially because of his reputation as a bon vivant and womanizer, and partly because of his acting ability. Flynn could say a lot with his eyes, which is why I fell in love with him in the 70s, as a little girl watching FAMILY CLASSICS on Sunday afternoons (hosted by Frazier Thomas--anyone else watch that show?). It was on FAMILY CLASSICS that they showed Robin Hood over and over again, and I fell in love with Flynn at his swashbuckling best: sword fighting with the evil Basil Rathbone, wooing Olivia DeHaviland, the gentle Maid Marian; or hunting game on the king's grounds and then carrying in his deer carcass and slamming it right down on the dining table of the king's perfidious brother John.

Ah, that Errol Flynn could really hurl a deer carcass in a way to win a little girl's heart. My mother, watching with a stern expression while she did her knitting, told me that Errol Flynn was too MUCH of a heartbreaker, that was his problem. But I think she liked him too, falling captive to the Flynn charm that is captured forever on film even though Flynn lived for only fifty years.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

A Mysterious Day

I spent the morning with my summer school students. There are nine of them signed up for my Mystery Writing class, and their mysteries are really shaping up. They have great titles like The Tower Mystery, A Formal Death, Kidnapping in Kensington. The Graphic Design class down the hall is designing the covers for these mini-books. The results will be quite impressive, I think.

Never mind the fact that the copy of The Big Sleep which I rented to show them ended up having a giant scratch on it, rendering it unreadable by the DVD, or that the clips I tried to show on YouTube were also unavailable because the school cut off access. We still managed to make it through the morning doing other mysterious activities. :)

When I got home my dog met me resentfully at the gate. He is not so much mysterious as annoying; he is not pleased when I leave. You might also notice the Mystery of the Missing Garden Brick, which I attribute to the two adolescent boys who will NOT leave their mother's things alone, which is in itself a motive for murder on a hot day. (And that brick is a potential murder weapon for some future novel).

Anyway, once inside I read my mail and found a postcard for a new book: Michael Beres' The Chernobyl Murders, with a glowing blurb from Gail Lynds. I may have to make another rapid trip to the library, although I haven't yet finished my last little pile of borrowed books. When will I find time to read? That, too, is a mystery.

(Top photo: the honeysuckle on my garden gate. If you inhale deeply, you can smell it).

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Mystery of Motive

The other day Sandra Parshall posed a question online: "What would make you kill?" Several people answered, both on Sandra's blog post and on mystery forums. There are reasons for people to kill.

Perhaps no author has ever plumbed the depths of those reasons for me better than Fyodor Dostoevesky, who wrote two of the greatest crime novels ever written: The Brothers Karamazov (in which a father is murdered) and Crime and Punishment, (in which an old pawnbroker is murdered).

In discussing these crimes, however, Dostoevsky discusses much, much more. Ultimately he strips away the pretense of humanity. Here are some of my favorite quotes.

From The Brothers Karamazov:

"The stupider one is, the closer one is to reality. The stupider one is, the clearer one is. Stupidity is brief and artless, while intelligence wriggles and hides itself. Intelligence is a knave, but stupidity is honest and straightforward."

"A man who lies to himself, and believes his own lies, becomes unable to recognize truth, either in himself or in anyone else, and he ends up losing respect for himself and for others. When he has no respect for anyone, he can no longer love, and in him, he yields to his impulses, indulges in the lowest form of pleasure, and behaves in the end like an animal in satisfying his vices. And it all comes from lying--to others and to yourself."

"The more I detest men individually the more ardent becomes my love for humanity."

From Crime and Punishment:

"Taking a new step, uttering a new word, is what people fear most."

"Actions are sometimes performed in a masterly and most cunning way, while the direction of the actions is deranged and dependent on various morbid impressions--it's like a dream."

"Accept suffering and achieve atonement through it -- that is what you must do."

"Nothing in this world is harder than speaking the truth, nothing easier than flattery."

Classical Versus Hard-Boiled . . . What's Your Favorite Type of Detective?

I blogged about the classical and hard-boiled traditions at Poe's Deadly Daughters today . . . check out the features of both types of detectives and cast your vote for some modern-day examples.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

For Fathers, Especially Mine

A Happy Father's Day to all fathers, especially my own dear Dad.

He reminded me yesterday that he has been retired for twelve years now, which surprised all of us, since they have been twelve of the busiest years of his life. He lives in service to others, especially his five children. He is so good at most everything that we are constantly seeking his aid and his wisdom.

I borrow a quote from John Gregory Brown: "There's something like a line of gold thread running through a man's words when he talks to his daughter, and gradually over the years it gets to be long enough for you to pick up in your hands and weave into a cloth that feels like love itself."

Happy Father's Day to all of you undersung heroes!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Who Plants a Tree . . .

For the first time in my life, I have planted a tree. This is a member of the tulip variety, and we ordered this rather nondescript branch from an arborist in Oregon. Our little tree traveled here in a box and was planted in our back yard.

We chose this type because it has lovely green leaves in summer and bright yellow ones in autumn; it is fast-growing and sturdy. It can grow to 30 or 40 feet tall.

Right now our tree casts only a finger of shade (although the dog already tries to sit in it). Someday, though, if the rain and soil are compliant, and if my daily waterings are successful, this tree will be lovely and large, and will contribute something important to the environment.

My tree experiment was inspired partly by my 20th wedding anniversary--I joked to my husband that if anything happens to this little Charlie Brown twig then we'll have to carefully evaluate the state of our marriage.

But each day when I look at it, I am invested with a certain amount of hope, and I'm reminded of a poem on a stake in my mother's garden:

"Who plants a seed
Beneath the sod
And waits to see
Believes in God."

I will update occasionally with pictures of the tree project. It's already got many more leaves than this early photo suggests. :)

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

A Literary Birthday

Today, according to the New York Times' On This Day page, was the birthdate of Yasunari Kawabata, the first Japanese to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (1968). (Wikipedia lists his birthdate as June 14, so once again I find disparate sources regarding an author's birthday).

In any case, Kawabata earned the Nobel Prize for three of his books in particular, one of which is the spare and lovely SNOW COUNTRY. I have a colleague who absolutely hates this novel, but each time I read it I find something more lovely in it because of its sadness, and because of the very Japanese notion that what is fleeting, what is temporal, is more lovely because of its evanescence.

It is the story of a married man who goes to a Hot Springs resort in the snowy mountainous region, where the Geisha have bad reputations and limited futures. He falls in love with the Geisha he meets there, and she with him--but that's all I can say without spoiling the story.

Kawabata himself had a reputation for melancholy in his work. He addressed this in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: "My own works have been described as works of emptiness, but it is not to be taken for the nihilism of the West." A noteable distinction, as was his mention of some of his peers who had died by suicide. Kawabata seemed to find this regrettable but at the same time interesting; he said "I neither admire nor am in sympathy with suicide . . . " but later in the same paragraph he asks, "Is there one who does not think of suicide?"

Perhaps he foreshadowed his decision to take his own life (in 1972).

I wonder if it was the poet in Kawabata that kept him always on the verge of thoughts of sadness and death. He likened the style of his novels to the style of the Japanese haiku; in fact, he began his Nobel Speech with a poem he loved:

"The winter moon comes from the clouds to keep me company.
The wind is piercing, the snow is cold."

This poem, ironically, sums up the mood of SNOW COUNTRY, a novel which is both beautiful and sad. Kawabata, I think, would suggest that the two often go hand in hand.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Printer's Row and Lovely Chicago

We hopped on the El and braved the humidity today to man a booth at Printer's Row, the book fair sponsored by the Chicago Tribune. The event was great, and the people so friendly, that I'll be sure to sign up again next year.

I was lucky enough to sit near Julie Hyzy (MWA Midwest President) and Jess Lourey, whose Murder by Month mysteries sold out in just over an hour. (You can read more about this at Monday's Poe's Deadly Daughters post).

The people who stopped by were generous and most encouraging--Chicago loves mystery writers! One of my visitors was this friendly fellow with a turquoise balloon. My camera malfunctioned at first, but he gamely waited, smile still in place, while I made my adjustments.

I was also reminded, as we jogged down Dearborn street trying to beat the impending storm, what a lovely city Chicago is. Here's a shot we took outside the Goodman Theater, where we've seen many a wonderful show.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

What Writers Need More Than Anything

These lovely ladies are Martha and Kathi. They are friends who are also writers, and we try to meet once a month or so to talk about the business. NOT necessarily the business of publishing (although we talk about that, too), but the business of writing: how it fascinates us, why we feel compelled to do it, how it frustrates us.

Writers are told all sorts of things in the advice books: write what you know; follow your inner compass; write something every day; write for yourself; write for your audience; write for the trends; don't take anyone else's advice. Naturally, this plethora of information can be quicksand to the poor writer who struggles alone in a home office and has never made (or understood) the New York scene.

What helps the individual, inexperienced writer the most, I think, is the friend who shares the questions. Kathi and Martha and I can easily fill two hours just sharing ideas, experiences, and yes--truly heartfelt questions about why a query didn't work or why a manuscript deemed perfect by a discerning and critical writers' group was rejected again and again. We celebrate successes (Kathi's poetic debut novel and Martha's upcoming intensive conference to polish a truly brilliant book), and we dissect failures. We offer unlimited support of the "I've been there" variety. We have forged friendships that are rooted in the experience of writing.We take a morning every month to share breakfast, but more importantly to offer hope, which is the most efficient fuel to any writer. Without hope we lose our energy; with it we become farmers of an entire crop of ideas.

I'm grateful to these women for helping to keep my writer's mind intact. They've been with me since my first book was accepted for publication, and just as I know that the next time I have a booksigning they will be there, they are just as certain that my face will be in the audience when their blockbusters reach the shelves.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Finding Books Worth Reading

Patti Abbott has a neat feature on her blog called "Forgotten Books." She asks readers and writers to recommend books that might have fallen off the public radar. Today I recommended a book, and you can read the link at Pattinase.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Ahhh . . . For Now

On this very hot and humid June day, we watched the high school students bang and scream their way out of the building, rejoicing that their last final was over. We stuck around, grading our papers, doing our clean-up chores, but soon we too (far more wearily) will drive away and begin our breaks.

Sort of. The reality for teachers, much to the surprise of some not in the profession, is that many of them don't really have summers off. They have second, even third jobs, the hours of which merely expand now that they have more availability. Teachers like me are also still slogging away at that master's degree (I'm on the 1000 year plan), so we take classes and teach classes, and really it's not much like being on vacation at all.

Still, I have tomorrow off, and it will be nice to sit in my air conditioned house while the heat bakes my back yard. Maybe I'll read a book. But what I really need to do is clean my house, and that, I assure you, is also nothing like a summer vacation. :)

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Want to Feel Old?

Parker Stevenson, who played Frank Hardy in the 1970s series The Hardy Boy and Nancy Drew Mysteries, is 56 today.

I can still remember finding out that there was going to be a televised version of my favorite kids' mysteries. My excitement meter was at maximum. And the shows, when they arrived, were nothing like the books, but were fun in their own way.

And now suddenly one of the Hardy Boys is 56! Where does the time go, and how do I slow it down?

Monday, June 02, 2008

Crime Writer Doug Cummings on Dark Suburbia, Exhilarating Experiences, and Addicted Felines

Doug, your first mystery, Deader By the Lake, is now available, and your second, Every Secret Crime, comes out in June. Are these books set in Chicago?
Deader is set in the city. Crime is set in the suburbs. At least a suburb, an entire county really, that I found in my imagination. Speaking of imagination, have you watched the video trailer for Every Secret Crime? Even if I don’t sell more than twenty books, that darn trailer is way cool.

I have not, but I will now. :) You have had many careers, but you went from being a news reporter to being a deputy sheriff, and then got back into broadcasting. Are there similarities between those jobs—-sheriffing and broadcasting?

Let me answer that two ways.
A couple of years ago, my media-training partner Mike, a 30-year veteran of the Illinois State Police, did a reverse ride-along with a crew from a local TV station. He said that if he’d closed his eyes and just listened to them talk, he would have thought he was with a bunch of cops. They had the same gripes about working conditions, equipment, their bosses and the business. So in that sense, there are many similarities.

I worked street-level jobs in both professions. For the most part, you see the same stuff, although the blessing of being a reporter and not a cop is you don’t have to look at mutilated corpses (most of the time, anyway). You get the same sort of adrenaline rush. Have to deal with, or suppress, the same emotions. I attended crime scenes, covered or took part in high-stress situations and dealt with bad guys as well as crime victims, their families and their friends. However you approach it, as a cop or reporter, you’re dealing with people on the worst days of their lives. I like to think that, because I had spent time in law enforcement, I had a better sense of how to cover high-profile investigations, specifically what questions to ask and perhaps even what information to leave out of my stories. There are some aspects of a murder case, for example, that the public doesn’t have a right to know. The other side of that issue is that police investigations are news, whether the cops like it or not. Most of my police sources respected me because I knew when to push and when to back off or try a different approach. A lot of reporters don’t ever figure that out.

Very interesting!

Okay, this is an important question: you claim as early reading the books of Ross MacDonald and John D. MacDonald. These men were never quite on friendly terms, and sometimes readers take sides. Is one MacDonald better than the other?

Not necessarily better, just different. Lew Archer was the quintessential loner who delved into the psychological and sociological mores of post World War II Southern California. Travis McGee was a free-wheeling hedonist in the make-love-not war era of the 60’s. Where Archer was dark and brooding, McGee could brood with the best of them (with The Green Ripper probably the best example) but overall enjoyed a sybaritic lifestyle of wine, women, sex and a really cool boat. Ross McDonald’s stories tended to plod while John D’s snapped along and were more action oriented. As a fan in my early teens of both men, I have to say I much preferred McGee’s approach to Archer’s. And his living arrangements, too.

Would you cite any particular author(s) as an influence on your mystery writing style?
I’ve always tried (and failed) to write description like John D. He could draw us into scene just by telling us how someone looked or wore their clothes. James Lee Burke is another writer who creates an incredible sense of place and character. Burke, Ross MacDonald, (and Chandler and Hammett) all have helped me understand that the hero of a crime novel, while somewhat larger than life, should nevertheless be a real person with flaws and emotional burdens. Asa Baber, the delightful and iconoclastic author and Playboy columnist, was also a significant influence. I took a short-story writing class from him a few years before his death. After reading a piece I’d written where the hero was ever so gallant and the bad guy disgustingly villainous, he made one comment: “Consider the true nature of evil.” It’s something I’ve tried to do in everything I’ve written since.

Wow! Great story, Doug. And a thought-provoking comment.

David Morrell says that you write about “Suburbia’s dark underside.” Just how dark is our underside? :)

Covering crime, you see a lot of darkness in the ‘burbs. Well-to-do families that seem happy and together on the outside until the son kills the father because he doesn’t like the way he plays the piano, or a mom who poisons and then smothers her three kids because her M.D. husband is divorcing her. Even more than that, you see the way communities, mostly wealthy communities, try to cover up the bad things and how they encourage their cops to stonewall the media. Although I have to say, I’m grateful for those experiences because they led me to write Every Secret Crime.

Do you live in Suburbia?
I do. And, before you ask, the only dark underside I deal with regularly is my cat’s shameful addiction to margarine. Oh, and my one neighbor’s insistence that commercial jets dump their extra fuel as they fly over our town. “Smell that gas? Smell that?”

Okay, I won't pursue that. For now. Like many of the writers I’ve interviewed here, your muse and partner is a cat, whose name is Socks-Monster. How has S. Monster influenced your writing?
He encourages me to awaken and write early in the morning by placing his dark underside on my chest and squeaking loudly into my face. Being the Feline Action Hero, he helps me construct fights and shootouts. He also teaches by example the value of eating small meals throughout the day, bathing regularly, and taking naps in warm places.

What do you like to read, aside from the aforementioned MacDonalds?
Lemme see. Looking at my bookshelf, I’ve got John Sandford, Lee Child, Thomas Perry, John Connolly, Michael Connelly, James Lee Burke, and Chicago authors Marcus Sakey, Linda Mickey, Julie Hyzy, Tom Keevers, Michael Black and Sam Reaves. I’ve just finished Black’s Random Victim. He’s a cop, it’s a procedural, and it’s terrific. Reaves’ Dooley’s Back and Homicide 69 remind me of the best of Bill Granger’s Chicago Police series of years ago. Reaves is not a cop but he gets it just right.

What’s one of the most interesting stories you ever covered in Chicago?

One I’ve talked about when I do media training for police departments.
A guy shot his girlfriend to death in front of her kids in the parking lot of a suburban apartment complex and took off. He was in the wind. We got there and the cops initially didn’t want to talk. My TV cameraman buddy and I convinced them that they’d be better off spreading the news rather than hiding it. Good thing they agreed. All the early morning radio and TV newscasts had the piece. As it turned out, the guy went to his friend’s parents’ house and sacked out on the couch. The parents saw the story on TV, heard it on our radio station, called the cops and slipped out of the house before he could wake up and take them hostage. HBT surrounded the place, got a negotiator working and pursuaded the guy to come out. He was a whackadoodle and wound up getting shot, but nobody else was hurt. It was an exciting story to cover and I think it was a great example of the good that can come from the media and police working together.

The best times are either like that, or when you spend hours talking to everybody you can think of to get the facts about a crime and then are the first to put the story on the air. I try to capture that feeling in Every Secret Crime. It’s exhilarating.

Your website says you’ve “been shot at.” Who shot at you?
Beats me. The stories aren’t very exciting. I was a deputy, headed back to the station one night after a truly exhausting shift of call after call after call. I passed an alley, saw a guy pointing at me, heard him yell something, thought he was just a drunk and then saw a flash and heard a bang. Bullet didn’t even come close. Never found the mope. The two extra hours of O.T. looking for him seriously ticked me off, however.

A better one was the night a TV photographer and I were headed to cover an armed robbery with shots fired, turned a corner at just the wrong moment and got into the middle of a chase with more shots being fired by both the cops and the bad guys. I was trying to steer from the passenger seat while the photog hung his camera out the window getting footage. Needless to say we ran off the road but the story of my bravery in the face of certain death gave me a certain fighter-pilot mystique with the ladies for weeks.

Your detective is named Reno McCarthy. Any story behind how you selected that name?
“Selected” is a little too precise. It popped into my head while I was at one of the top five worst stories I ever covered. . . seven people shot dead, piled up in the cooler and freezer of a (again with the dark underside) suburban fast-food restaurant.

Basically, it was a huge “heater” (Chicago term for a case with serious political and/or media implications). I was the first reporter to the scene about 3am and, with the help of two camera buddies, broke the story both locally and on CNN. During the down time, between phone calls and on-scene visits with various sources, somehow “Reno McCarthy” popped into my head. I have no idea why or how, other than the fact I was considering using an Irish name for the protagonist of a novel I was writing and the subconscious is an amazing resource.

You got a starred review in Booklist, which called your mystery “street smart.” Are you street smart, too, or is that just Reno?
I never got shot, seriously beaten up or even received as much as a traffic ticket the entire time I was a reporter. Nor did I get seriously hurt or have to shoot anyone while I was a deputy sheriff. Actually that is a blessing and has nothing to do with street smarts. Okay, put it this way. I arrested bad people, switched jobs, broke dozens of stories (resulting in arrests in some cases), treated victims with respect and managed to maintain good relationships with probably 95 percent of my sources and my bosses. If that’s what you’d call street smarts, yes I have them. As far as actual “street” smarts, no. Ask my freelancer partners about all the times I came up on the two-way radio in a panic, asking for directions and they’ll laugh their butts off.

Are you writing a third book in your series?
Yes. More of the dark underside. From a guy who, as my publicist loves to say, has worked both sides of the crime scene tape.

Since you write about Chicago, I’ll ask you a Chicago-oriented question: what’s your opinion about whether or not Daley’s third airport should become a reality?
Personally, I’d never use Peotone and I suspect most people who live anywhere to the north wouldn’t either. It’s so easy to jump on the tollway (ok, when it’s not under construction that is) and shoot up to Milwaukee that I do that now whenever I can. Especially with cutbacks in flights and the consolidation we’ll see of the airlines over the next few years, my vote on a new airport would be no.

What are your summer plans?

I am excited about the many book signings on my agenda. Just in the first week and a half, we’ll launch July 13th at Centuries and Sleuths in Forest Park, which should be a grand party. The following weekend I’ll be at Lake Forest Bookstore on the 19th and then in Winnetka at the Book Stall on Weds July 23rd. They’re all fantastic independent book stores that support emerging authors. Take a look at the rest of my schedule here: . . . we’re adding appearances every day it seems. Please come visit if you’re in the area.

Thanks for chatting with me, Doug!

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Coming Soon . . . Printer's Row

This year for the first time, the MWA Midwest will get a spot at the Printer's Row Book Fair in Chicago, sponsored by the Chicago Tribune.

I will be promoting The Dark Backward at this event; I'll be lucky enough to share tent space with the talented Jess Lourey.

Let's hope the weather in Chicago is as beautiful next weekend as it is today!