Saturday, February 28, 2009

Why Billy Joe Jumped

A mystery that has always plagued me can be found in the lyrics of a 1967 song by Bobbie Gentry called "Ode to Billy Joe." The song is narrated by an anonymous girl who knows Billy Joe McAllister, and in fact was seen with him right before he "jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge." Billy Joe's suicide has always bothered me; the song neither reveals why he jumps, nor what mysterious reason he and the girl had for "throwin' somethin'" off the bridge before his death.

Many people were intrigued by Gentry's song. Herman Raucher adapted it into a novel, in which he suggested a reason for the title figure's suicide--this was later made into a film starring Robby Benson. The book and film changed the spelling of the main character's name from "Billy" to "Billie" for reasons unknown.

The book and film, though, offer only one possibility for Billy Joe's death, and Bobbie Gentry, who wrote the song, claimed that she did not know why Billy Joe died. Therefore, the song remains an unsolved mystery, as do these compelling characters that Gentry created. More intriguing than Billy Joe is the girl who tells the story--the girl who obviously has all sorts of secrets, and spends her time throwing flowers "into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge."

For those who remember this song, I wonder how you interpreted it back in the days when it was played on the radio? And if you've never heard it before, what would your theory for Billie Joe's suicide be, based on the enigmatic lyrics of the song?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Unsolved and Provocative

According to the Times Online and writer Albert Jack, there are ten compelling mysteries that continue to haunt the world--in many cases for years and years after their initial appearances.

The Loch Ness Monster, (listed at number four), is a perennial favorite, not only for of the lovely, lonely setting of this legend, but because of the potential surprises that one might still find at the bottom of a deep, dark Loch.

But perhaps every mystery fan's favorite is Albert Jack's number two: the Disappearance of Agatha Christie in 1926--a mystery never really explained to the satisfaction of the public.

The most fun parts of this post, though, are the comments underneath it. :)

Monday, February 23, 2009

Fail Again, Fail Better

I read a great article by Geoff Nicholson in Sunday's New York Times Book Section. In it he examines the notion of the prolific text producer, and whether or not that affects the readability of one's work.

In Nicholson's article (along with a mention of the great Georges Simenon and his more than 500 books), was this gem of a Beckett quote (from Worstward Ho):

"Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better."

It took me a while to come to appreciate Beckett's genius, but now that I'm a fan I find quotes like that wonderful in their simplicity (and their truth).

Speaking of Simenon, I recently recommended his book Red Lights. There's a link to my review here.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Cure For Stress: Play

My cat Mulliner and Spongebob Squarepants have taught me some simple philosophies about dealing with stress. I can always tell when I'm getting too wrapped up in my duties:

1) I feel that, no matter where I am, I should really be someplace else.

2) I am convinced that no matter how much I work, I will not be finished by bedtime.

3) I snap at people (not an attractive trait, stress or not).

At these times I have to take a step back and look at me through someone else's eyes. Or, alternatively, I try to use someone else's way of dealing with it all. In the case of Mulliner, a Kleenex can provide distraction and delight for endless periods of time (I tend to make them utilitarian devices, but to him they are wonder toys).

Spongebob does the same with a simple piece of paper. It can become anything one's imagination wants it to be.

On a recent work retreat, we were encouraged to color patterns--things like stained glass window shapes or patterned circles. Apparently this is a wonderful stress therapy because a person must sit, be silent, and concentrate on nothing more than making a pretty visual. I enjoyed it a great deal.

So my new stress reducer involves making myself play, even if I am only playing with a piece of paper or doing Spongebob's perennial favorite--blowing bubbles. It's amazing how rekindling the childhood imagination can bring respite to the tortured adult soul. :)

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Language, Identity, and Eternal Snows

My son uses me as a dictionary while he writes mysterious things on his Facebook page.

"Mom. How do you spell 'regurgitate'? How about 'thorough'? How do you define Marxism?"

I tell him. I could be a stickler and make him look it up the old fashioned way; after all, no matter how great I may think my spelling is or how complete my definitions, there is a margin for error in using the mother method. But I am, for my sins, his main resource for the meanings and spellings of words.

In my current graduate class we are reading all sorts of rhetorical theory, one example of which is that we are entirely the products of our environments, and that the language we create is never original, but plucked from a framework that is already created. I resist this theory even while I see a certain sense in it. While expressionist theory tells us that writing is a quest to find identity, social-epistemic theory insists that there is no such thing as an individual identity, and that all writers are the products of their time in history and the political structure around them.

If I buy into the second theory, then my sons will be unable to escape the writer's life. It is in their environment--in the vocabulary they hear at home, the very dialogue around them, and the ideology that they have unconsciously adopted (for example, my son refuses to use text-message speak. He says, with the utmost snobbery, that it dumbs down the language. That is a snobbish attitude, but I am secretly proud that he clings to the formality of the language I (and therefore he) value.)

In any case, it is easy to think theoretically while I sit under a pile of assigned reading and the snows that have returned to Chicago fall relentlessly on the newly-shoveled pathways.

This Saturday, if I lived alone, would be most solitary, so thank goodness for my ten-year-old, who is making superhero fight sounds in his playroom, and my fourteen-year-old, who paces like a prisoner in our attic while he talks on his beloved cell phone.

Sooner or later, one has to emerge from the depths of theory--any theory--and face the realities of life which require different skills altogether. In my case, that means making a batch of cookies for a school event. :)

How's your Saturday?

(image from

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

MacDonald on Money

I'm a Ross MacDonald fan, as I've mentioned before. I've reviewed his work here, too--most recently THE BLUE HAMMER. He is great not only because his mysteries were well-plotted, but because they had a social conscience. Today I'll just share some great lines from his work, focusing on one of his favorite themes: money.

"You can't blame money for what it does to people. The evil is in the people, and the money is the peg they hang it on. They go wild for money when they've lost their other values."


"Sex and money: the forked root of evil."


"Money costs too much."


(Source: Jane Horning, THE MYSTERY LOVERS BOOK OF QUOTATIONS, Mysterious Press,1988).

Monday, February 16, 2009

Stevenson and The Key to Happiness

The great Robert Louis Stevenson compiled this list of things that were (to him) the key to happiness. It's ironic to me that RLS, ill for much of his life and often suffering, wrote so many things that were positive, including one of my favorites, A Child's Garden of Verses.

How To Be Happy

By Robert Louis Stevenson

1. Make up your mind to be happy. Learn to find pleasure in simple things.

2. Make the best of your circumstances. No one has everything, and everyone has something of sorrow intermingled with gladness of life. The trick is to make the laughter outweigh the tears.

3. Don't take yourself too seriously. Don't think that somehow you should be protected from misfortune that befalls other people.

4. You can't please everybody. Don't let criticism worry you.

5. Don't let your neighbor set your standards. Be yourself.

6. Do the things you enjoy doing, but stay out of debt.

7. Never borrow trouble. Imaginary things are harder to bear than real ones.

8. Since hate poisons the soul, do not cherish jealousy, enmity, grudges. Avoid people who make you unhappy.

9. Have many interests. If you can't travel, read about new places.

10. Don't hold postmortems. Don't spend your time brooding over sorrow or mistakes. Don't be one who never gets over things.

11. Do what you can for those less fortunate than yourself.

12. Keep busy at something. A busy person never has time to be unhappy.

(cited from True Wealth, ed. Gary Morris).

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Books and Letters

Right now I'm reading a great mystery by Bryan Gruley called STARVATION LAKE. More to come on this topic, as Mr. Gruley has graciously consented to an interview in the near future.

On Poe's Deadly Daughters Monday I'm discussing the latest list of things on the verge of extinction, one of which is the hand-written letter. So sad, and yet so inevitable with the advent of all the lovely computer toys these days.

Still, I long for the thrill that a hand-written letter in my mailbox once brought me. They are as rare as unicorns these days, aren't they? Soon they will be mythical, as well.

Friday, February 13, 2009

An Act of Love

All winter long my son (who is normally distant) has helped me to pull my boots on. This emphasizes A)my old ladiness and B)his sweetness.


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Lincoln, Darwin and History

Tuesday marks the date that, in 1809, two giants of history were born: Abraham Lincoln, arguably the most heroic president America has known, and Charles Darwin, whose theories changed people's perceptions and opened doors of scientific thought.

Like Darwin, Lincoln was controversial. I suppose one can't attain greatness without angering huge portions of the population. Lincoln wrote,

"If I were to try to read, much less answer, all the attacks made on me, this shop might as well be closed for any other business. I do the very best I know how - the very best I can; and I mean to keep doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, what's said against me won't amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference."

In defense of his Origin of Species, which was deemed by many to be anti-God, Darwin wrote, "It is just as noble a conception of the Deity to believe that He created a few original forms capable of self-development into other and needful forms, as to believe that He required a fresh act of creation to supply the voids caused by the action of His laws."

In their eloquence they were able to defend what they believed was true, and therefore just. Gloria Fiero wrote of Darwin, "Darwin's conclusions toppled human beings from their elevated place in the hierarchy of living creatures. If the cosmology of Copernicus and Galileo had displaced earth from the center of the solar system, Darwin's theory robbed human beings of their preeminence on that planet."

Similarly, Lincoln made decisions that shaped and changed the United States, and while his birth determined American destiny, his death left a nation bereft, as Walt Whitman poetically attested, asking

"O how shall I warble myself for the dead one there I loved?
And how shall I deck my soul for the large sweet soul that has gone?
And what shall my perfume be for the grave of him I love?"

How interesting that fate ushered these men into the world on the same day of the same year.

(Whitman quote from "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed")

This post was first printed last year on February 12th, by me.

Monday, February 09, 2009

The Little Blog Traveler

I am quite the little blog traveler this week. First I'll be waxing philosophical on the notion of best friendery at Kaye Barley's blog. I share my thoughts on the teeth whitening craze at PDD. Then Tuesday I'll share the parable of the lazy lover at the Inkspot. Do stop in and learn from my Valentine's travails.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Thomas H. Cook on The Whims of Fate, The Artistic Imagination, and The Saddest Places on Earth

Tom, thank you for taking the time to answer some questions for my blog.

Your new book is called The Fate of Katherine Carr. There seem to be references in the book to the notion of Fate, in the ancient Greek sense. Is mythology an influence in your writing?

Mythology has always been an influence because the figures of myth are so fully representational of various aspects of human life. They are the great generalities, and in that sense they are very efficient in conveying large themes. One only needs to reference Sisyphus, for example, and the question of futility is rendered completely. Using mythological themes and figures also allows the author to demonstrate that he/she is fully aware of the smallness of his/her current contribution in comparison to the greatness of our literary inheritance.

The story revolves around a man’s unspeakable loss: that of his eight-year-old son, murdered years before. Your previous book, Red Leaves, involved the disappearance of an eight-year-old girl. Is the recurring theme of child abduction one to which you want to draw attention, or is it more that this sort of desperate conflict makes for a compelling plot?

I think the loss of a child is one of the most profound experiences of human life. I can think of nothing that could propel an individual or a family into a more heightened state of crisis. For that reason, it creates an intense emotional atmosphere for the characters, one that allows them to move through clouds of grief and recrimination to a self-awareness that would not have been possible for them before the loss.

Your main character, George, is a travel writer, and you yourself are a well-traveled person. So I will ask my perennial blog question: what’s the most beautiful place in the world?

I think the most beautiful place I have ever seen is the valley that sweeps out from the terraces of Assisi for the simple reason that it appeared so dreamy and unreal. There are valleys in Ireland that have the same sense of being the product of fantasy, rather than an actual landscape. But stark places can be beautiful, too, and I love the red desert of Central Australia and the truly frightening aspect of Ayer’s Rock. Currently I am doing a travel book about the saddest places on earth for my British publisher, and these travels have led me to appreciate the “beauty” of prisons, castle ruins, battlefields and cemeteries.

That sounds absolutely wonderful--and what a great idea.

You hold master’s degrees in both history and philosophy. Do you find yourself drawing on the extensive writings of historians and philosophers when you write mysteries?

I draw on that part of my education quite a bit. In MASTER OF THE DELTA I even have a character who has been writing a biography of Lincoln for twenty years. I really enjoy historical research, and had I not taken up writing novels, I’d have tried to write the sort of histories that David McCullough writes. I had already passed my PhD oral examination at Columbia when I wrote my first novel, and so I was well on my way to becoming a historian when I gave it up.

One of the most moving lines in your book, to me, was “there is nothing more heartbreaking than the sound of other people’s children when you have lost your own.” This captures the tone of George’s narration throughout the novel. Is it painful to try to get inside of a character who has suffered so deeply? Is this a necessity for writing a good mystery?

Frankly, I think one of the problems with the current state of mystery writing is that there is not enough focus on characterization of this sort. As a reader, I don’t really care “who dun it” if I don’t care to whom it was done. The problem with writing about the suffering of your characters as movingly as you can, however, is that many readers find that sort of mystery depressing, and therefore prefer simple puzzle mysteries or action thrillers in which characterization takes a back seat to cleverness of plot and breakneck narrative momentum. For that reason I think some mystery writers have to seek an audience that extends beyond the genre and into the mainstream, a tightrope trip down the light fantastic that is by no means easy, and which is usually not very successful.

But like your book about the beauty in sad places, there can be a greal deal of beauty in a person's sadness--often because of the love or loss that creates it. I think you've been quite successful at conveying this with Katherine Carr.

One of the characters in Katherine Carr has progeria, the premature aging disease. The relationship between Alice, the girl afflicted with this disease, and the narrator, George, is a very moving part of the book. Did you have to research the disease, or had you been familiar with it? Was Alice meant to be another example of the whims of Fate?

I had no experience with progeria and so I had to research the disease before writing about Alice. When I began the book, there was no Alice. But George needed to be working on another profile as he investigated the fate of Katherine Carr, and Alice simply forced herself into the book. She is certainly an example of the iron-grip of fate, the play of accident in life, and of life’s essential injustice. I did not want to make her a saintly figure, however, but rather, a girl who is primarily propelled by an innate intelligence that allows her to see things both analytically and intuitively, a combination that, in a single human being, creates a very fruitful partnership between the powers of concentration and those of imagination.

You won an Edgar award in 1996 and have been nominated for several more. Does winning prestigious awards make writing the next novel more daunting? Or are you able to forget your reputation while you craft a mystery?

Edgar wins and nominations really don’t have anything to do with writing. One likes to hope that they are the fruit of good writing, but beyond that, I don’t see that they have any influence.

Your works have been translated into fifteen languages. Do you have a favorite cover? Did any of your titles become mangled in translation?

I can read Spanish well enough to know that a couple of my Spanish translations have been really good. I don’t read any of the other languages into which my novels have been translated. I have really liked some of the British covers, as well as the Danish and the Japanese. I am often struck by the very different idea of the novel that different covers present, and with that, the sheer variety of artistic imagination.

Because of your history and philosophy expertise, I must ask this question: have you ever wished you could meet a historical figure (or figures)? If so, who?

I would like to have been the third guy on that walk Melville took with Hawthorne, though if they were like most writers, they probably only talked about advances, printings, and the dismal state of the publishing business.

Seriously, in terms of historical figures, I think it would be interesting to speak with some of the world’s great scientists. I would love to explore that kind of creative thinking and discovery.

You were born in Fort Payne, Alabama, which bills itself in its literature as “The Official Sock Capital of the World.” Did you ever have a part in the sock-making industry?

No, I never worked in the sock mills. When I was a boy, I worked as a stock clerk and floor-sweeper and window washer for a dry goods store. Sadly, the sock mills have mostly closed in Fort Payne, the latest and most disastrous closing only a few weeks ago, with a huge layoff of workers. I was told that all the factory equipment was disassembled and moved to China, which is a grim commentary, in my view, on what is happening in our country.

You have also written true crime novels. (Early Graves and Blood Echoes). Do you find these difficult to write and research? Are they more disturbing to write than the story of a fictional crime?

I find non-fiction of any kind much easier than writing novels. You are, of course, restricted to the facts, but at the same time you are freed from the very different rigors of the imagination. I don’t find one more disturbing than the other, though it is always more haunting to revisit a real crime, where people actually suffered. I also find crime scene photos truly haunting.

What are your favorite leisure activities?

I like to read, listen to music and go to the theater. I rarely go to movies because people talk and text-message continually, and I find this very distracting. I rely on Netflix for movies now, and by that means, I can actually focus on what I’m seeing. I am also an amateur cook, and I enjoy whipping up meals.

You are just finishing a new book. Do you go straight from one book to another, or do you allow yourself small vacations from writing?

I go straight from one to the other. I sent the next book (THE LAST TALK WITH LOLA FAYE) in to my editor this morning, and I will start the new novel – no title yet – later this afternoon. I have already been thinking about it for weeks..

That is impressive! Speaking of vacations, do you have a favorite retreat?

My wife and I have a house on Cape Cod, where we spend most of our time, and which is my favorite retreat. We also have an apartment in New York City, however, and I like going there, too. I traveled to Fiji and Hong Kong last year, as well as several other places, but like most people, I’ve taken quite a hit in terms of savings, and so I don’t expect to be traveling nearly as much this year. I will got to Hiroshima, however, for the “saddest places’ book.

Tom, thank you so much for your thoughtful and thought-provoking answers, and for writing such a great book. I look forward to reading Lola Faye!

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Tylenol Murders Revisited

According to a breaking news story, the 1982 Tylenol Murder case, known throughout Chicagoland as one of our earliest brushes with terrorism, has now been re-opened.

I blogged about the Tylenol murders here and discussed the fact that, although James W. Lewis had been a key suspect, no one had ever been arrested for the murders.

Well, it's James W. Lewis they are once again investigating. I watched interviews today with families of the victims who died back in 1982 (there were seven in all) and the grief is obviously as fresh today as it was 27 years ago. Let's hope they can bring some closure to this terrible case.

Knowledge Quest

In my long and tortured quest for an advanced degree in English, I am taking yet another night class, this one called "Current Issues in Writing." I haven't even gotten my textbook yet (curse ye, Amazon!), so I'm not sure exactly what form the class will take, but I do know that I will once again venture into the frozen wasteland and drive for nearly an hour in search of the knowledge that will bring me closer to the goal: a master's degree. I am assured that when I earn that, everyone will call me Master. :)

There is something paradoxical about going to evening classes. On the one hand, I dread them all week because they throw off my normal schedule and force me to get off of my behind (and away from my leisure activities) and they last for three butt-numbing hours at a time.

On the other hand, what I learn there is always, always fascinating, and I come home energized.

I won't even begin to philosophize about the crazy expense of higher learning and the inherent injustices in that system, but I will say that somehow, somehow, I've managed to get almost to the finish line and that I look forward to working, next year, on my final thesis.

I started this mission in 2005, so it's been a long haul. But it has made me appreciate the value of the quest and the nobility of the personal journey.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Mighty Words by Thomas Hobbes

"The condition of man . . . is a condition of war of everyone against everyone."

"I am about to take my last voyage, a great leap in the dark."

"Words are wise men's counters, they do but reckon by them; but they are the money of fools."

Monday, February 02, 2009

Fiction and Truth

"The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense."

--Tom Clancy

(photo: Julia Buckley 2007)