Monday, March 30, 2009

The Joy of Re-Reading Books

Last summer I hit paydirt, the way Jed Clampett did when he found the bubblin' crude. (I'm all about literary allusions). My treasure was not oil, of course, but books. The local library hosts a yearly sale: paperbacks are 50 cents and hardbacks are a dollar. Before I had children, I used to go there with my husband and a shopping cart, and we'd spend fifty dollars and come home with a hundred books. Now I have children, or as I call them, money sponges, and my budget isn't as high, but I managed to come home with a whole pile of paperbacks and my sons filled their own backpacks with treasures.

What's better than a big ol' box full of mysteries? It doesn't matter to me if they're tattered, or if someone made inscrutable notations in the margins. If they're intact, I love them.

As I was tossing books into my bag, I grabbed several that I'd already read. Sometimes these are the best of all. New books can be great and exciting, but there's always the chance I won't like one, or that the ending will disappoint me. But the ones I've read and loved? There are many reasons why they are the most perfect.

First, if it's been a number of years since I've read a book, I'll remember the title but often not the plot, and that means I can enjoy reading it all over again, not entirely sure of what's going to happen next.

Second, I love to stock up on my favorites so that I can give them to friends and still not lose the books from my personal stash.

Third, for the truly great books, it doesn't matter if I remember the entire mystery, killer and all. I still savor the journey, the dialogue, the wit, the structure. So I go to meet the story the way I would an old friend, perhaps for lunch or something. I remember everything I love about this friend; I wonder why it's been so long since this friend and I have gotten together; and I realize, wistfully, that it might be years before this friend and I meet again. But when we do meet again . . .

It's the same joy. Only re-reading brings this brand of happiness. I have a shelf of favorites in my headboard and if I feel bored, or sad, or lacking in inspiration, I can take them out and stroke their (sometimes tattered) covers, and then fall into the depths of that first wonderful paragraph, that first wonderful page, and feel myself taken back in time, to the day I first fell in love with this book.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Snow Bids Farewell

Chicago got one last visit from the cold and blustery today; I was lucky enough to get only about an inch and a half of the white stuff, but some of the Chicago suburbs got as many as six inches. Just when you think you've said goodbye to winter . . . .

Still, it's never really a surprise when the snow visits in early spring and covers the flowers that were bold enough to peek out of the earth. The weather people say that our season total exceeds 50 inches of snow, but that last year it exceeded 60, so I guess my "this is the worst winter" attitude is based on illusion.

Spring can take its time, that's fine with me, as long as we don't go from 50 degrees to 80 degrees and skip the mild days altogether.

On another note, I'm blogging at PDD today with my all-time favorite suspense/adventure movies.

photo link here.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Bedtime Reading That Keeps Me Awake

My current reading on the bedside table is Jill McGown's PLOTS AND ERRORS. I'm slowly re-reading all of McGown's work as my own special tribute to her memory. The wonderful thing is that it's been long enough since I read them that I've forgotten Whodunnit, and therefore it's a pleasure to try to work it out all over again. I'm hoping to finish Plots and Errors this weekend--McGown has me stumped so far, partly because she inundates the reader with so many delicious details that it's hard to decide which are the important ones.

Waiting in the bedtime wings is Chester Campbell's THE SUREST POISON, which I got today. The cover is gorgeous, and the title references Emerson, who called time "the surest poison," as Chester pointed out on this blog a few posts ago

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Farewell to the Great Dan Seals

One of my all-time favorite singers died yesterday at the age of 61. Dan Seals was considered a "crossover artist" when he moved from pop music to country in the 1980s. He was formerly in the band called "England Dan and John Ford Coley," who sang the famous seventies anthem "I'd Really Love to See You Tonight."

But Seals grew up in Texas and had sung country music all his life, so the country scene was nothing new for him, and he had eleven number-one hits in the 80s and 90s, with four more of his songs reaching the top ten.

My husband and I had the thrill of going to one of his concerts in the 80s and even meeting him briefly afterward. He was tall, handsome, and gentle, and he spoke even during his concert about how important spirituality was in his life.

Seals died of cancer in his daughter's home, where he was under hospice care. I like to picture him as he is depicted in the final image of this video, where God has created "trails to lead old cowboys home again."

Farewell, Dan.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

New Grammar or Lazy Scholarship?

It's inevitable that text messaging will affect the way that students write in class. I've seen significant deterioration of writing skills in the past three or four years, and one particular grammatical detail has especially paid the price: the possessive apostrophe.

Oh, sweet little apostrophe that demonstrates what belongs to them, why have they forsaken you? Why must they write that Huck Finns father is an alcoholic and Hester Prynnes letter is a terrible burden? Don't they realize that might look plural, and therefore might create confusion?

I begin my campaign today: SAVE THE POSSESSIVE APOSTROPHE!!! It has only brought clarity to our lives and allowed us to claim things as our own. Help our young people to know its importance.

Art link here.

Paying the Sisterhood

Kaye Barley of Meanderings and Muses was kind enough to nominate my blog for the Sisterhood Award (she also nominated my co-blog, Poe's Deadly-Daughters). How nice to be acknowledged in this way!

Part of the deal of getting the Sisterhood award is to pay the award forward to other blogs that I enjoy reading. In Kaye's words, "This is an award from bloggers, to bloggers, in recognition of a blog spot which shows great attitude and/or gratitude."

First I must acknowledge the fine writing of Eric Mayer (who co-writes with Mary Reed) on his Byzantine Blog. His posts are always enjoyable and impeccably written. Martin Edwards' blog is a great way to keep in touch with the British crime writing that I love. Lesa Holstene's blog is a must-read for the well-read individual; Lesa keeps me up to date about new releases and the books she loves on Lesa's Book Critiques. And as a Chicago-area person, I have to mention the wonderful Chicago crime writers' blog called The Outfit. The stellar group who posts here includes Barbara D'Amato, Sean Chercover, Michael Allen Dymmoch, Kevin Guilfoyle, Libby Hellmann, Sara Paretsky, and Markus Sakey.

The Rap Sheet is another staple in the mystery lover's blog library (or whatever a group of blogs is called). J. Kingston Pierce is the editor of this all-things-mystery online magazine. I love Cindy Fey's blog; she's not a mystery writer, but a writer she is, and her posts about family and life are often amusing and sometimes heartwrenching.

There are so many others I could write here--if you look at my blog links, you will see some of the other blogs that I read and love.

Thanks again to Kaye for her sisterhood, and I hope you enjoy peeking at these blogs.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Mystery of Negotiation

As our 1998 car slowly disintegrates, we're starting to realize that we need a new one. But, like everyone in the U.S., we have very limited funds and a zero threshold for salesperson trickery. We want a reliable family vehicle for a really reasonable, affordable price.

So how does one go about finding that ideal car? Would I be just as likely to meet the Wizard of Oz, or is there a smart way to buy a car these days?

I ask the wisdom of any and all blog readers who happen past this post. Right now, finding the right car seems like the most unsolvable mystery.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Old Nonsense: Dismiss The Stress

I recently recommended Thoreau's WALDEN to my son, who had to read nonfiction for his English class. In doing so I happened upon some other work of American Transcendentalists, and it came at a perfect time. The last two weeks have been particularly stressful, mainly in the fact that my tasks were unrelenting: always a new chore to check off the list, a new place to go, a new contractual obligation to fulfill. Even Friday not was not a time of relaxation, because I had promised to teach a class early Saturday morning.

I was pleased, then, to see this quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson, king of the Transcendentalists, written on the blackboard of a fellow English teacher:

"Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities have crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it with too high a spirit to be encumbered with old nonsense."

How freeing these words are! How refreshing to be able to dismiss the day's mistakes or problems as "old nonsense" and move on, re-energized.

There are so many mantras to choose from; in the unrelenting present, I think that being able to rise above my concerns is just the ticket. I choose Ralph Waldo for the time being, since I can't head to the woods just now (sorry, Thoreau).

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Horace On Writing

Even in the Classical World, where people went by only one name, there was debate about writing and publishing. Horace recommended waiting nine years before deciding whether to publish a manuscript.

"Let it be kept until the ninth year, the manuscript put away at home; you may destroy whatever you haven't published; once out, what you've said can't be stopped."


Sunday, March 15, 2009

Einstein and Mystery

Few people were as profound about the ultimate mysteries as was Albert Einstein. Here's a sampling of his thoughts:

"People like you and I, though mortal of course like everyone else, do not grow old no matter how long we live...[We] never cease to stand like curious children before the great mystery into which we were born."

--Albert Einstein (in a letter to Otto Juliusburger)

"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious."

"The future is an unknown, but a somewhat predictable unknown. To look to the future we must first look back upon the past. That is where the seeds of the future were planted. I never think of the future. It comes soon enough."

Art link here.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Writing, Magic and Power

Thought for the Day:

"To learn the act of writing is to obtain magical powers. They are a secret. No one can give them to you. You must work at them yourself."

--Natalie Goldberg

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Computer, What Should I Read?

That behemoth, Amazon, sent me an e-mail today saying "Amazon thinks you would enjoy reading The Ivy Tree by Mary Stewart." Oh Amazon computer, you know me so well. While I resent the coldness of your robotic recommendation, I cannot help but agree. I love this book, and its luscious new cover puts my crumbling old hardbacks to shame.

But this extends my conversation about Asimo the Android (see below). Remember when our FRIENDS recommended books to us? Someday when I'm having my lonely dinner with Asimo and avoiding all human contact with the occasional e-mail or Twitter or whatever other electronic wall I put between myself and the world, will I miss the days of interaction with real people? After all, I'm sort of an agoraphobe anyway. Will all of the computers who make it easier to be alone encourage me to seal myself up, Poe-like, forever?

You might say "Hey, calm down. It's just an Amazon recommendation." Which is true. But coming so soon on the heels of my visit to the world of androids, I'm feeling it to be a harbinger of my future isolation. Anyone else feel that way?

Monday, March 09, 2009

Meet The Androids

If Ian Fleming or Isaac Asimov were alive today, I think they'd be fans of this website. It updates the world on all things robotic, including the latest in humanoid androids. (Click on "World's Greatest Android Projects")

My favorite is the New Asimo, who looks a bit like Neil Armstrong walking on the moon--except that on the website he is having breakfast with his--what's the term? Owner? Host? Fleshly companion?

Honda's new android can walk, run, hold your hand, even bring you drinks on a tray. He/She weighs about 119 pounds.

I wonder if the future will bring the sort of social isolation that will make us want to hold hands with our robots. And yet, despite my misgivings about what effect robots will have on the future (I Robot, anyone?), I must admit that if there were ever an affordable robot that would clean my house, I would wait in line overnight to get it. And someday when I'm suffering from empty nest syndrome, maybe Asimo and I can get in shape together.

But the World's Greatest Android Projects looks like a Science Fiction dream come true. And now that it's true, what will it mean?

Sunday, March 08, 2009

The Good Garbage of Mickey Spillane

“I have no fans. You know what I got? Customers. And customers are your friends.”

“ My work may be garbage, but it's good garbage.”

Mickey Spillane

Today is the date on which Mickey Spillane was born in 1918. (He died in 2006).

Spillane was always a controversial figure in the mystery world because critics tended to hate his work. But as Spillane himself pointed out, his "garbage" sold well: Wikipedia says that he can boast of "seven titles among the ten best-selling American books of the 20th century."

Spillane was said to have a feud with Hemingway, who had publicly criticized his writing; however, when asked by an interviewer if he had read Hemingway's review, Spillane said, "Hemingway who?" This earned him a huge laugh from the audience and the permanent dislike of Hemingway.

The debate of books as products versus books as art still goes on today, often within an individual author. There's no doubt that authors would like to earn fine reviews for their work; there's also no doubt that authors would like to make money as much as the next person would. There's a certain wild appeal, therefore, in Spillane's claim that he had plenty of "customers" even if his books were considered trash.

Not everyone disliked Spillane, of course, which was why he had all those customers. His books were raw, different, new, in a time when the world was still recovering from war and was ready for heroes who were a bit larger than life, a bit more violent and a bit sexier than heroes had been before. Mike Hammer was as much of an icon as was Mickey Spillane, and in fact Spillane played his own character in the film Ring of Fear. (No, wait--my friend John Dandola has corrected me. He says Spillane played Spillane in that movie, and "He played Mike Hammer in the equally dreadful The Girl Hunters." :) Thanks, John).

There's no doubt that Spillane influenced the modern world: its literature, its film, even its perception of heroes. And of course he remains an icon in the world of the hard-boiled mystery.

(This blog was first posted in 2007).

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Spring and Memory

In The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway begins his narrative in the spring, a season that has him feeling as though everything of moment is just over the horizon; a season which makes him feel both nostalgic and hopeful for the future, and gives him "that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer."

Nick's description, for me, is one of the most authentic things about that book, and it is reinforced for me every spring: the moment I smell that damp earth and plants start to nose through the gray snow in my back garden, I understand again just what Nick meant. Spring taps something in the DNA and resurrects the belief in resurrection.

Every writer and poet has contemplated the power of spring at one point or another. One of my favorite pieces was written by a man I discussed just days ago--Robert Louis Stevenson. He wrote "Spring Carol" and "Spring Song," but the loveliest ode to spring, I think is this one:

Flower God, God of the Spring

by Robert Louis Stevenson

"Flower god, god of the spring, beautiful, bountiful,
Cold-dyed shield in the sky, lover of versicles,
Here I wander in April
Cold, grey-headed; and still to my
Heart, Spring comes with a bound, Spring the deliverer,
Spring, song-leader in woods, chorally resonant;
Spring, flower-planter in meadows,
Child-conductor in willowy
Fields deep dotted with bloom, daisies and crocuses:
Here that child from his heart drinks of eternity:
O child, happy are children!
She still smiles on their innocence,
She, dear mother in God, fostering violets,
Fills earth full of her scents, voices and violins:
Thus one cunning in music
Wakes old chords in the memory:
Thus fair earth in the Spring leads her performances.
One more touch of the bow, smell of the virginal
Green - one more, and my bosom
Feels new life with an ecstasy."

It's those "chords in the memory" that Friday's mild weather has awakened, although they've stopped vibrating with the weekend's cold rain. Still, I can feel spring coming at the end of the tunnel, and bubbles of euphoria are rising to the surface.

It's the reason people take spring breaks or earn titles like "spring fool." Spring triggers both a biological and a psychological response, and even looking at a spring flower makes something loosen inside me.

What happy things are you planning to celebrate spring?

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

I Choose The Star

My mantra for this week is from "Take Something Like A Star" by Robert Frost:

"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."

Yeah. I'm getting some perspective on the star right now.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Writer Bryan Gruley Talks About Small Towns, Hockey Nicknames, and Emotional Tension

Bryan Gruley is the Chicago Bureau Chief of The Wall Street Journal. His debut mystery, Starvation Lake, is available in bookstores now.Bryan, your new book, Starvation Lake , is set in Michigan , which is where you grew up. Is Starvation Lake based on a real place?

There is a Starvation Lake near my parents' cottage in northern lower Michigan. I stole the name, made the lake a lot bigger, and put a town on it. The physical and emotional geography of my novel's setting borrows from that beautiful part of the country, as well as the many small towns I've written about as a journalist.

The mystery immerses the reader in the world of small-town hockey, and the descriptions of hockey practices, hockey games, are some of the most exciting scenes in the book. Do you play hockey?

I've been playing hockey since I learned on backyard rinks in Detroit as a boy. Now I skate two or three times a week at Johnny's Ice House in Chicago 's West Loop. I'm not a very good player, but I play hard and try to keep learning. My pals would probably say I'm not the best student in class.

Your main character, Gus Carpenter, is a man with a past; he returns to that past as the editor of The Pilot, a newspaper in the small town where he grew up. In places this book reminded me of a Ross MacDonald novel because the first-person narrator (and mystery solver) must unravel grim details from events that happened long ago—a MacDonald staple. Is he one of your influences, or is this a coincidence?

It must be a coincidence because I have, foolishly no doubt, not gotten around to reading a Ross MacDonald novel. I thought it was important to give Gus a back story, partly so readers could understand what matters to him. So I tell the somewhat loopy story of his first scoop regarding Perfect-O-Screw (how I loved coming up with that name!). But of course a lot of what's going on in Starvation Lake is Gus's unearthing of things that happened years before, and that requires going back. Whether I went back too much or not enough is for the reader to decide (in my favor, I hope).

You yourself are a journalist. What did you envision first: that your narrator would be a journalist, or that the story would be about hockey? Or did it all come together at once?

The story was inspired by a conversation I had with my agent at the time, the amazing Suzanne Gluck. Knowing I played hockey, she said, "Why don't you write me a story about those middle-aged guys who play hockey in the middle of the night?" I immediately had an idea, though revealing it here would spoil the story for those who haven't read the book. I didn't know Gus would be a journalist. Though that reminds me: I was having lunch with two of my WSJ colleagues and told them I was writing novel. One of them said, "Please tell me it isn't about a hockey-playing journalist." He was joking, sort of.

I assume he is now disappointed. :)

Gus leaves Starvation Lake and takes a job at a big paper, “carrying with me the vain and preposterous goal of winning a Pulitzer Prize.” Do you think that every journalist harbors this secret desire? Or perhaps not-so-secret? Or is the Pulitzer not something that people think of as they do their research and write their stories?

Most daily newspaper reporters and their editors would love to win a Pulitzer. From my experience, the actual talking about it and aiming for it is a lot more prevalent at the national newspapers--like mine--than at the metro dailies. For Gus, it was a way for him to prove to his town that he wasn't a loser. Of course it didn't work out that way.

Your plot has many, many layers which provide delicious suspense. Did you outline the novel beforehand, or did you, to an extent, allow it to tell itself to you?

I certainly didn't outline the whole thing, though I outlined ahead a little bit. Mostly I trusted my instincts and the characters I was creating. I remember writing a scene between Gus and the sheriff's ex-wife, Barbara Lampley. I went into this thinking it was basically connecting tissue and would last a page or so. But Barbara took over. I fell in love with her. That scene changed the rest of the book in profound ways.

I like Barbara, too!

You write suspense very well, even in scenes that happen in seemingly innocuous places, like a kitchen or a locker room or a living room. Do you find it difficult to create this mood, or do you become a bit lost in the scenes that you are writing?

I'm not sure it's so much mood as plotting--a game of keep-away with the reader that deprives them of the one or two facts they think they need even as another relevant clue or two is staring them in the face. Of course placing characters in danger creates tension, but I find emotional tension more interesting--and much more difficult to render.

You also tap into the dark mystery of the Michigan woods. I’m guessing you’ve spent a lot of time there.

Maybe not the woods so much as the lake. I started going "up north," as Detroiters call it, when I was eight or nine. Then my parents bought a cottage on Big Twin Lake when I was thirteen. I've been going there ever since, and loving it, no matter the season.

Is Starvation Lake your first novel?

Yes. I have a three-book deal with Touchstone/Simon & Schuster to write more about Gus and the town. I'm wrapping up the second book now.

What made you choose the mystery genre?

I didn't really. I set out to write a good tale. My publisher told me it was a mystery. I do think, however, that most novels are mysteries of some sort. The author poses a question and answers it. Here's Holden Caulfield and he's in an insane asylum. How did he get there?

Interesting. What do you like to read?

Fiction of all stripes, short, long, whatever. Unfortunately, because of my day job as a journalist, I have to spend a lot of time reading things I might not choose to read, were it entirely up to me. So I don’t get to read as much fiction as I’d like. I do a lot of falling asleep over novels at night, through no fault of the writer’s.

All of your characters have nicknames—Soupy, Tiger, Trap, Carpie. When you played hockey, did you have a nickname?

My hockey pals call me Grules and, on occasion, less charitable names.

Okay, I won't ask. :)

One potential theme of this novel is that no one should keep secrets, but another might be that small town culture, like any culture, tends to perpetuate itself. Were you aiming to write a book in which there were all sorts of crimes, large and small, intentional and unintentional?

I really just set out to write a good story. I had one “crime” in mind at the outset. But as the plot moved along, and new characters started showing up, the crimes, large and small, proliferated, thanks in large measure to human nature.

Your ad material identifies you as an amateur musician. What instrument do you play? Do you have a band?

Rank amateur would be a more apt description. I play rudimentary guitar and sing. I tend to sound better when I and especially my listeners have had plenty to drink.

You already answered this, but will Starvation Lake have a sequel?

I’m working on it now. And then there’ll be another—and maybe more, God and Simon & Schuster willing. We have not seen the last of Gus Carpenter.

How can readers find out more about Bryan Gruley and his brand new mystery?

They can check out and The first website has lots of information about the book, reviews, tour, and me. The second—the brainchild of my brilliant young web designers Sunya Hintz, Justin Muggleton and Todd Kneedy of Chicago—will take you into the fictional Starvation Lake with sights, sounds, and excerpts read by the author. Email me at I never ignore a reader.

Bryan , thanks so much for the fantastic read. I know it will stay with me for quite a while, as all good books do. Good luck with promoting Starvation Lake!

Monday, March 02, 2009

Shifting Loyalties

I'm posting at Poe's Deadly Daughters today, as well as at Inkspot. But I'll be back tomorrow with a great interview of debut mystery author Bryan Gruley, whose style has been compared with Dennis Lehane's. See you then!