Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Birthdays and Books

My family members got lots of books this holiday season. My son has a December birthday and so do I, so we got birthday books and Christmas books and now we just have to find the time to read them. :)

Among the loot I got today were The Piano Teacher and A Beautiful Blue Death--can't wait to dig into those. And I still have my Christmas gift of U is for Undertow, which I started last night: classic Kinsey Millhone with a great beginning. There are plenty of unanswered questions, and it's clear that Kinsey will have to extract those answers one by one. Ah, the start of a good mystery is almost more satisfying than the ending.

What better gift than a book? Except perhaps the retro velour sweatsuit my husband bought for me. Very comfy for reading the above-mentioned novels.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Fair Maiden is a Great Read

Before I read A Fair Maiden, I'd never read anything by Joyce Carol Oates. I suppose this was based on a prejudice against what I considered "literary" writing that I didn't necessary want to read in my free time. (Which speaks ill of me, I know). I saw her work, book after book, for years, and never picked it up, despite the blurbs and accolades, despite the mention of the book awards on the back cover.

When I opened her new book, A Fair Maiden, I was forced to admit the folly of my prejudice. Oates had me hooked from the first word. This book is a blend of a Gothic romance and a mythical fairy tale, with a touch of horror and with unrelenting suspense.

It begins when Katya Spivak, a working class girl from New Jersey, takes a job as a nanny for a wealthy young couple in Bayhead Harbor, an affluent area on the Jersey Shore. Katya is not Jane Eyre, and yet there are traces of Jane in Katya's insecurity, her longing for independence from her often cruel family, her yearning to be loved by someone. Katya is sixteen, so it is a shock when, in the first sentence, Oates reveals that she will develop a relationship with the wealthy Marcus Kidder, who is 68 years old.

Publisher's Weekly jeered at this book, calling it 'derivative.' and claiming it was one of Oates' lesser works. Since it's the first book I've read by Oates, I didn't feel burdened by any comparisons, except to the myths and gothic tales to which Oates vaguely alludes with her fairy-tale tone.

My curiosity was piqued by the notion of the old man and the young girl. They both have flaws: he is proud and rich and desirous of beauty at any cost. She is poor and jealous and potentially grasping. So who, in this story, will use whom? That was my driving question as I plowed through A Fair Maiden, even toting it to the doctor's office with me so that I could read in the waiting room.

The book certainly didn't go where I thought it would, but it was fascinating, nonetheless. For me, the premise was buttressed by Oates' graceful writing and oddly inverted diction that bespoke of fantasy.

A good read is launched by a promising beginning. And Joyce Carol Oates? You had me at creepy old man. :)

Monday, December 28, 2009

Far Distant Voices

"These are not books, lumps of lifeless paper, but minds alive on the shelves. From each of them goes out its own voice . . . and just as the touch of a button on our set will fill the room with music, so by taking down one of these volumes and opening it, one can call into range the voice of a person far distant in time and space, and hear them speaking to us, mind to mind, heart to heart."

--Gilbert Highet

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Christmas Space

Ah, the holidays. The first time since summer that I've had a smidgen of extra time. Sure, there's still work to do, but there will be reading time, as well. So tomorrow I'm taking U is for Undertow to my doctor's appointment.

And later in the week, when I've finished that one, I'll read a few of my son's stories in his James Herriott companion. (Such lovely writing in there!)

And then I might still have time (between grading papers, of course) to take a peek at the new Max Allan Collins book, written with the late Mickey Spillane.

So much to read, and a bit more time than usual. This is good. They are truly happy holidays. :)

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Why, It's Christmas Day!

"A merry Christmas, Bob!" said Scrooge, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. "A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you, for many a year! I'll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob! Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit!"

Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did NOT die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him."

--From "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens

Photo: my Christmas tree!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Thomas, Cats and Winter

"It was on the afternoon of the Christmas Eve, and I was in Mrs. Prothero's garden, waiting for cats, with her son Jim. It was snowing. It was always snowing at Christmas. December, in my memory, is white as Lapland, though there were no reindeers. But there were cats. Patient, cold and callous, our hands wrapped in socks, we waited to snowball the cats. Sleek and long as jaguars and horrible-whiskered, spitting and snarling, they would slink and sidle over the white back-garden walls, and the lynx-eyed hunters, Jim and I, fur-capped and moccasined trappers from Hudson Bay, off Mumbles Road, would hurl our deadly snowballs at the green of their eyes. The wise cats never appeared. . . ."

From "A Child's Christmas in Wales"
by Dylan Thomas

Saturday, December 19, 2009

What I'm Reading

I'm immersed in a delicious Italian mystery called Suspicion, by Laura Grimaldi (Il Sospetto, translated by Robin Pickering-Iazzi).

Grimaldi's tale has a taste of the Gothic, focused as it is on an older widow who lives with her adult son and comes to suspect that he is "The Monster," a serial killer who has been terrorizing her town and surrounding Italian towns for years.

I enjoy foreign mysteries for their sense of place--a little trip away for me each time I open the cover. Grimaldi's style is spare, but she manages to convey the beauty of the Italian countryside and the scent of the lemon trees that the main character brings in for the colder months.

Each little detail adds to the growing suspense. This has been bedtime reading, but I'll have to finish it tonight because I can't wait any longer for a resolution.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Saddest Movie I've Ever Seen

Last night I watched the Japanese film Nobody Knows (2004), in which an irresponsible Japanese mother with four children by four different fathers settles her children in a new apartment, then leaves them alone for longer and longer periods of time, until she finally leaves permanently.

The eldest child, Akira, who is only twelve years old, is left to fend for himself and for his three younger siblings. When the money runs out, Akira must find other ways to support his little family. He will not go to social services, because he fears being separated from his siblings. Their mother has never allowed them to go to school, and so they live a life on the outskirts in the middle of Tokyo, unwitnessed and unaided.

There are poignant details in this movie--little details that emphasize the beautiful love the siblings have for one another, the primal bond of family, and the amazing adaptability of children. Beautifully filmed, beautifully acted. But the final scenes had me crying harder than I thought I would ever cry at a movie, and today I cannot forget the experience.

Saddest of all is the fact that this movie was based on a real story, and that the true story was apparently much worse than the one which made me cry last night.

This movie is wonderful, if you can bear your own tears.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Savoring the Bad

"“I like these cold, gray winter days. Days like these let you savor a bad mood."

--Bill Watterson (creator of Calvin and Hobbes)

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Noreen Ayres on the Power of Faulkner, the Discretion of Cops, and the 'Little Fictions' Within Poetry

Noreen Ayres (N.J. Ayres) has written mystery novels, short stories, screenplays, and poetry. Her latest publication is the short story "Rust," which appears in Otto Penzler's 2009 The Best American Mystery Stories, edited by Jeffery Deaver.

Booklist says that you write “hard-hitting crime fiction that's vivid, graphic, and visceral.” How did you begin to explore the craft of writing?

I didn't come from a family that read books. But they read the "funny papers," as we called them, and we did have a few magazines. I don't know when I thought I might be able to write something entertaining or why I took a creative writing class in community college, but the first story I wrote was of a murder, and the last one I wrote in that class was too, and it was published in the college journal and read to other classes, I was told, after I graduated.

The first book I read as a teenager was Pearl Buck's My Several Worlds, and at 18, while I lay in my hospital bed after having a baby, I somehow came to read Somerset Maugham, and I remember wondering how he could possibly know all the things he knew, and I wanted to be like him, knowing the names of things like trees and plants and defining humans as he did. But I didn't write stories again for many years, having only time for poems, which I soon believed to be little fictions even as they might reflect real experiences.

The police ride-along you describe on your website gave you “a deeper understanding and respect for the complexities of the difficult and dangerous job of law enforcement.” What surprised you most about your real-life cop experience?

The discretion officers have. As one told me, he enjoys the fact that he has a certain independence, no boss breathing down his neck in the usual way, and that every day is different. I was also surprised that he didn't call for backup before he stopped two rough-looking men after midnight who were driving a pickup truck. A check of the pickup's tags told him the owner had warrants out for him. There was a boarded up building on one side of us and an empty park on the other, no life anywhere else. The officer had the men step out of the vehicle with their tattooed arms raised, and while I was concentrating on the scene, my car door opened! A female officer with a gun trained ahead asked me to work the spotlight while she kept the men covered. I was also surprised that the officer later let me come with him while interviewing a stabbing victim, so that the witnesses were talking to me as though I was a cop too.

Wow. What an experience!

You have a Master’s degree in English. Do you have a favorite writer or era of literature?

I feel like a newcomer to writers' work all the time, still learning, still in awe. In grad school I came upon William Faulkner and fell in love. I painted a picture of him and wrote to his biographer and photographer, the latter of whom sent me a photo he had not used out of several he took for Life Magazine, and then I made a collage of the two plus the letter and framed it and hung it on a wall. So Faulkner was my favorite for a long time, and now I would say I like the writers who are a bit bleak, who tell stories of men and women who struggle with conscience as they make their way in a hard world.

If I come upon a bit of the poetic as I read them, so that I see things in fresh ways, then I am happier still. Daniel Woodrell, James Lee Burke, Thomas Cook, Rick Bass are a few of today's writers I like; I know I'm forgetting names. I also know I am missing out on great entertainment these days because I don't read as much as I used to, don't go to conferences where I am exposed to new writers and inspired to read their works. Preferences for types of fiction are just that, though: humorous work is not lesser work, "cozies" are as valued as noir fiction, objectively. Who knows why we lean toward what we do?

Good point. You’ve “toured prisons, jails, crime labs and morgues” to aid the authenticity of your writing. Why did you choose the mystery genre, specifically the grittier side of mystery?

I hope the first of my answer won't disappoint you. There was no passionate urge to create. I wanted to get away from commuting on the freeway at six a.m. to a job in Southern California's aerospace industry. I was lucky enough to find a writers' group in the mid -80s whose members were published in all the genres. Their excellence humbled me, for, with my–ahem!–Master's degree, I thought only "literary" stories were worth reading. I listened and learned. As to why the grittier side, I suppose it's because my own upbringing showed me people on the lower end of the socio-economic scale, and so their worlds seemed truer to me.

The sleuth in your mystery series, Smokey Brandon, is “an ex-cop and an ex-Las Vegas Stripper.” How did you happen to conceive the idea of Smokey?

My mother, father, and a brother lived outside Las Vegas at the time, so I suppose my occasional trips to see them set off the idea. I know that we can be more than one persona in our lives; that we are this, as defined by a job, and that as defined by another. I've always found it curious that when you have met someone when you were, say, an insurance clerk, you can become a wealthy and erudite art collector someday and still be perceived of as "that insurance clerk." Smokey was smart; she was just disadvantaged, and so she took what she could get at the time.

A really great point--we're just prone to labeling, I think. You have a trilogy of Smokey Brandon books. Will there be more?

I'm afraid not. In truth, I never thought I could write a second book my agent suggested I contract for. To even finish one seemed impossible. Now that I have, though, I see it's doable, but I missed the opportunity to make the Smokey character into a "franchise," and there are reasons for that, but the bottom line is that the story of stripper/cop is an old one now, and so I must move on. Quite frankly, the publishing business has tightened its belt to a degree that startles everyone. New voices are needed. New angles, new stories, new characters.

Your latest piece, a short story called “Rust,” appears in The Best American Mystery Stories for 2009, edited by Jeffery Deaver. I’ve read the story, and it’s terrific. What gave you the idea for the trooper narrator and for the plot involving his knowledge of his superior’s affair?

That story surprises me, because it was "invited into" a second "Best of..." anthology as well, and I am very grateful to know it has its effect. Geographical places often get me started. Pennsylvania is a big state, with much for me to learn about it. I loved the local names of Indian heritage and of Biblical origin, the latter reflecting the religious orders of Quakers and Brethren and the Amish. So I knew I wanted to set a story in Bethlehem and Nazareth, first thing. Then, I tried to think of some moral quandary I had myself endured, and it was (I am ashamed to say) that during a stressful time of my life I followed someone. Spied on someone because of a suspicion. And I could not stop doing it though I loathed what I was doing. That's the heart of it, Julia, and I am not proud!

But that is a great source of fiction--the mistakes we ourselves have made.

Sparkle Hayter was quoted as saying that you are “pretty cool, for a petite blond bombshell,” and added that you know how to shoot a gun. This is high praise from the talented Hayter! How does she know you can use a firearm, though?

You said that right, about Sparkle being talented. If I could write like that I wouldn't write what I do! She knows about the guns because I and my then-husband took her shooting with us when I lived in Texas. She's shot a military rifle herself, as I recall, a rapid-fire weapon, like an AK-47. I may not have scared her on the firing range, but I'm sure I about gave her a heart attack driving in a Houston rainstorm like none other, with windshield wipers that would not go fast enough and that sometimes stuck for seconds at a time. She probably swore to never venture out from New York City again, and I'm surprised she still has mention of me on her website.

I read that in an interview with her, actually.

You’ve written all sorts of things—novels, short stories, teleplays, poetry. Is there one particular form that is more difficult than the others?

Interesting question! You've no doubt heard that Faulkner said he wrote novels because he couldn't write short stories and wrote short stories because he couldn't write poems. I understand that, and the poem is a hard thing to get right, but I'd say the novel is toughest for me, with screenplays second. Screenplays should probably be recognized as the hardest, because they are never entirely yours and that can break your heart. Also, the form must, MUST, have a focused structure. But novels are toughest for me because there is so much to bring together sensibly, and it all takes so-o-o long!

On your website you are posing with a dog. Would you call yourself a dog lover?

Aw-w, I'm touched that you'd ask. I can never have a dog again. My heart is much too fragile. Dogs are too much like humans. I do, however, with my significant other, now rescue homeless cats and get them neutered and vaccinated, and then, in alignment with a national practice called TNR, for Trap-Neuter-Return, release them back into their environment or adopt them out if they are kittens. This animal advocacy has cut deeply into my writing time. I must choose between, soon.

What are you writing now?

I am compiling two collections of short stories and then must seek an agent for them. Tough duty. The agent part, I mean. I also would like to get another book of poems out, just to be done with them, and I have a completed novel for which I must also find an agent, a mystery featuring an African American private eye. I am most eager to start on a Depression-era novel concerning a young boy's search for his sisters, who were farmed out to a Catholic church just to put them somewhere after a divorce.

What are you reading?

Ah, you devil, you. Well, here goes. Two mystery story collections (I truly love short stories). A book of best essays, 2008. Books, Larry McMurtry's memoir of his experiences as a bookstore owner. And a library book on oil painting. Busted!

I think it's great that you are an artist both in words and on canvas. On your site is a link to Books on Tape. Do you enjoy listening to books? Do you have a favorite narrator?

I used to listen, you bet. That's when I lived in cities where the commute was long to a place of work or simply to do errands, as in Texas. I don't listen now because my trips are short. I loved the work that actress Judith Ivey did for Books on Tape, and Lawrence Block's own reading of his work, and John LeCarre's.

The holidays are here; have you ever set one of your books or stories during Christmastime?

No, but I love a challenge. Maybe someday....

Thanks so much for sharing, Noreen! I look forward to reading more of your work.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

A New "What Book Are You?"

I once posted a fun book quiz on this site, and the makers notified me that a new and updated book quiz was available. I took it, and found that I am JANE EYRE.

You're Jane Eyre!

by Charlotte Bronte

Epic in scope and vision, you like looking at your own complete
history. That said, your complete history is pretty much crazy. You seem to be
followed by suitors, craziness, fires, and incredible turns of both good and bad
fortune. Through it all, you persevere while maintaining adherence to your own somewhat middle-ground moral code. While you have confidence that everything will
work out in the end, you sometimes wonder if it's worth it along the way. Oh sweet sweet Jane.

Take the Book Quiz II
at the Blue Pyramid.

Want to take the quiz yourself? Go here!

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The German Christmas Market

At Inkspot today I posted this picture and a reminiscence of a German Christmas.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Welcome, December

Victor Hugo once wrote, "Winter is on my head, but eternal spring is in my heart." Today it was easy to embrace that philosophy, because the sun shone brightly on the brown bark of the newly barren trees, and the weather hovered around fifty degrees.

On the horizon, however, lies the specter of cold. Tomorrow the temperatures are supposed to plunge, and by Friday Chicagoland may see its first snows.

So welcome, frigid weather. I'm working on that eternal spring.