Friday, June 30, 2006


From Jacqueline

Bear with me while I linger on this subject again, because for me today and tomorrow are days to reflect upon. Ninety years ago today, Jack Winspear, 27, was “somewhere in France,” marching along a hastily prepared road on his way to the Somme Valley. Having enlisted for service in 1914, he had already seen most of his mates killed at Ypres and at Ploegsteert Wood – “Wipers” and “Plugstreet Wood” as the soldiers called them. Most of his battalion had been decimated at Ypres, so he had been placed on stretcher-bearer duty before being assigned to a new division, only for there to be the same outcome. And so it went on.

On June 30th, 1916, marching with the column that snaked along for miles and miles, he would likely have passed the extra-large trenches dug out in readiness for mass burials following what was expected to be the decisive battle in a war that had already claimed far too many lives. And Jack would also have seen the new casualty clearing stations being set up, and hospital trains at the ready. The land around was scarred after almost two years of incessant fighting, and I expect that Jack just wanted to be home as he stood with his comrades and listened to the Divisional Commander give a rousing speech, telling the lads that they should be proud to be doing their bit, now that the “big show” was about to start.

My grandfather came home from the war, put away his medals and barely spoke of what he had seen and done, shunning any questions by leaving the room. But my father managed to weasel a few quickly-recounted memories from him. Those stories were branded into me young by a curiosity that matched my father’s when he was a boy. Grandad told my father about waiting his turn to step onto the ladder that led from the trench and onto the battlefield. With a ration of rum still warm on his breath, along with his mates he was waiting for the whistle, the signal to go “over the top’ before running towards the enemy with bayonets fixed. How he was supposed to run, I don’t know, because he would have had a pack on his back weighing at least 68lbs. But run he did, and on that day, in the early hours of the Battle of the Somme, it was straight into hell. Within minutes he was hit, the shell knocking him up into the air and onto the bodies of fallen comrades. With the screams of dying men around him, after hours and hours of waiting for the stretcher-bearers to come, he eventually listed into uncconsciousness and woke up days later in a military hospital.

The Battle of the Somme, which began on July 1st, 1916, will be discussed and debated by military minds, historians and social scientists for decades to come, not least because of its continuing relevance. Winston Churchill said that with the Great War came humankind’s realization that it could obliterate itself completely. This was never more true than at the Battle of the Somme. A short excerpt on the flyleaf of a new book about the battle by the distinguished historian, Martin Gilbert, speaks volumes: “In just 138 days of fighting, an average of more than 2,000 men per day were killed, 310,000 in all. The Allied forces lost nearly 150,000 men. And not one of the Allied objectives of the first day was reached.”

But stats are stats and soon any connection with the suffering of another human being is replaced by a number, whether it’s the dead in Somalia, the dying in Darfur or Gaza or Iraq, New Orleans. Jack suffered crippling wounds to his legs, and was shell-shocked and gassed in various battles of the First World War. I was aware of his disabilities from childhood, and I’ve written stories about how his wounds inspired my curiosity about that war. But there’s one story I have never told, mainly for fear of it being misunderstood, and my dear grandfather being considered in a poor light, without compassion. And I loved that kind, gentle man too much for that to happen. But I will tell it now, and probably never again.

I was born in rural Kent, England, to parents who “escaped” post-WW2 London after they were married in 1949, and then who, for various reasons, decided to return when I was a toddler. That return didn’t last long, because after ten months of living with my grandparents, they couldn’t wait to get back to Kent. I think my unhappiness had a lot to do with it, because I was a country kid already used to fields and farmland. In London, while my parents were at work all day, I was left in the care of my grandparents. Grandad was only about 69, but years of pain and a compromised respiratory system made him seem much older. I was a high energy child used to an endless playground, so I know I must have been unbearable in London, because I can remember the velocity with which I would race to the park, past bombsites and still-broken buildings, when my mother came home from work.

After we’d had lunch one day, my grandparents and me, I asked to leave the table to play with my toys. What happened next is as clear in my mind’s eye as if it happened yesterday. I had a rag doll with a red jumpsuit and a plastic face. She had big eyes, rosy cheeks and cherubic lips, and she went everywhere with me. I began running around the table, waving my doll, squealing as I played, fizzy with pent up energy like a bottle of soda ready to pop. I remember looking up at my grandfather and seeing him become agitated, his body shaking and his eyes wide and watering. He seemed to be looking past me. Then he grabbed a knife from the table, snatched the doll from my hands and stabbed her in the forehead, twisting the blade before pulling it out. A guttural cry came from his throat as he threw the doll along the hallway and began to weep.

My grandmother made a fuss of finding a dressing for my doll’s forehead, and pronounced her “all better.” When satisfied that I was settled, she went to her husband, who was paralyzed by what had come to pass. I remember the feeling that enveloped me, even then – it was a sense of his despair.

I bore no lasting wound, in the way that child psychologists might suggest, though as I grew older I wanted to know more about the events and memories that shaped such despair, and what terrors from his soldiering days had been triggered anew by a child’s unleashed energy. I reached adulthood with everything I understood about the broad and deep human cost of conflict weighing heavy on my heart. In Grandad’s war hundreds of thousands of families in Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, South Africa, France, Belgium, Germany, India, Nepal – the list goes on – were impacted by that one battle. Jack Winspear marched to the Somme Valley 90 years ago, little knowing how his experiences might affect the family that was yet to be, and never in the world dreaming that a grand-daughter named for him would write about it one day.

I have on my desk the base of a shell found in a field close to Serre in the Somme Valley. It would have been filled with shrapnel ready to kill and maim upon impact. Today it is polished to a shine, and now holds my pens.

If you are further interested in the subject of this blog, here are some links for you:

London’s famous Imperial War Museum has launched its first online exhibition on The Somme:

Historian Andrew Robertshaw explains why The Battle of The Somme is of such interest today:

You can read my essay on my pilgrimage to the battlefields of the Great War, as the First World War is known:

And though my shelves are filled with books about the war, here are two of “highly recommendeds” on The Battle of The Somme, both written by historians whose main interest is the human cost, and human experience of war:

Somme by Lyn MacDonald (pub: Michael Joseph)
The Somme by Martin Gilbert (pub: Henry Holt)

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Mondo Juju Mojo

By Cornelia

There are a great many reasons for which I worship the internet, such as being able to look things up on

The fine folks at Bartleby provide free access to searchable versions of everything from The American Heritage® Dictionary (fourth edition) to The Oxford Shakespeare, Gray's Anatomy, Roget's Thesauri, and the full seventy-volume anthology of Harvard Classics and Shelf of Fiction titles.

Want to check out the "human ovum examined fresh in the liquor folliculi"? Bartleby can happily zing you to a 1918 illustration from Gray's Anatomy, in which "The zona pellucida is seen as a thick clear girdle surrounded by the cells of the corona radiata. [...and] the egg itself shows a central granular deutoplasmic area and a peripheral clear layer, and encloses the germinal vesicle, in which is seen the germinal spot."

Or maybe you're trying to remember who first quipped, "The two most beautiful words in the English language are 'check enclosed,'" in which case Bartleby will confirm that it was indeed Dorothy Parker.

I'm also utterly addicted to my daily emails from The Writer's Almanac, now that I'm not driving my kids to school when Garrison Keillor reads out their lit-trivia plat du jour on NPR each morning. Today's missile informed me that June 28th is not only the birthday of Peter Paul Rubens, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Eric Ambler, and Mark Helprin, but the 102nd anniversary of the "day in 1914 that the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were shot and killed by a Bosnian revolutionary, an event that led to the start of World War I."

Thanks to the Almanac, I now know that:

Early in the morning, on this day in 1914, Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, boarded a touring car that would carry them to Sarajevo's city hall. What they didn't know was that six Bosnian Serbs, members of an organization called the Black Hand, were planning an assassination attempt.

Ferdinand's car wasn't even half way to city hall when one of the assassins threw a grenade. The chauffeur sped up, and the bomb bounced off the side of the car, wounding twenty people in the cars behind. Ferdinand made it to City Hall unscathed, and he was greeted there as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened. The mayor began making a welcome speech, and Ferdinand interrupted him, pointing out that he'd just nearly been killed.

Instead of offering to protect the archduke with an army escort, the general in charge of security suggested they return to the train station along the straightest, widest road in the city, so that they could travel rapidly. Unfortunately, no one told the chauffeur about the change in plans. So Ferdinand and his wife got back into the car, and the chauffeur proceeded down the route that had been published in the paper that morning. Once he realized his mistake, the chauffer stopped and tried to back out of a narrow street.

The chauffeur just happened to have stopped the car a few feet away from one of the assassins, a nineteen-year-old named Gavrilo Princip, with a .38 Browning pistol in his pocket. Standing just a few feet away from the royal car, he fired only two shots, but that was enough to kill both the Austrian archduke and his wife.

I am also, as you can probably tell from my blog posts herein, a sucker for Google Images, via which one can instantly access pix of everything from, well, Dorothy Parker to royal assassinations in 1914 Sarajevo.

But high-speed Net access has its timesuck pitfalls, too. Not least, for me, all those sparkly and wondrous divination sites I seem to consult a good bajillion times a day.

There's, offering fortunetelling avec Tarot cards (your choice of layouts, using decks ranging from Rider-Waite to William Blake to The Voodoo Tarot of New Orleans)

A quick one-card read with the latter just now gave me:

The card represents the critical factor for the issue at hand. Oshun (Seven of Discs) : A pause to check on the progress of your labors. Making difficult financial decisions. Exercising patience and perseverance. Evaluating the status of your work and your options for the future.

I'm not so much into the Runes or I Ching readings on Facade, but I'm all about the "Floaty Pen Oracle" when I've got a yes-or-no question (e.g. "Does my second book suck?", "Will everyone laugh and point when/if it ever sees the light of day?" &c).

But no, I can't stop with just Facade, I've got to check the shape of things to come on other sites, too... Like Nancy Garen's Rider-Waite deck tarot consultations (one-card or seven-day forecast), Christian Day's Salem Tarot Salem Tarot (free three-card reading), or my very favorite, the Hollywood Tarot.

Which not only gives you a choice of Card of the Day, The Trilogy, and ten-card Hollywood Cross readings, but also the wit and wisdom of Lady Esmene or Madame Esmeralda, such as "Think: who would Madonna do in this situation?"

Each card in this virtual deck features a film personage relating to the fortune it portends, such as Whoopi Goldberg as the High Priestess:

"The High Priestess exemplifies wisdom. She is also known as "The Papess", after Pope Joan; other traditions have known this archetype as Sophia, Goddess of Wisdom."

Garbo as the Hermit"

"The Hermit knows that every individual needs solitude from time to time in order to reflect on the various mysteries of life. The Hermit realizes that the noise of other lives can distract from hearing one's own song."

And Frances Farmer as Five of Pentacles ("Hardship"):

"Most of us experience moments of hardship in our lives. Some of us have lives that are mostly hardship.

Frances Farmer is a Level 2 archetype of Hardship. Luminously beautiful, her fierce independence was not understood in the Hollywood of the 40's. Convinced that her unwillingness to cooperate proved her madness, her advisors had her committed. She experienced the most brutal of psychiatric experimentation and physical mistreatment. She was finally released, but spent the rest of her life in hardship."

This is the perfect deck to consult if you're wondering whether or not to option your new novel to Pee Wee Herman, or if your protagonist should be played by Robin Williams or Elizabeth Taylor.

I'm now off to Yosemite, to meet up with Intrepid Spouse and some inlaws... but first, I've gotta go see what all these sites have to say about how the drive will go...

If I could just STOP with the divination jones, I might actually get my packing done.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Dissing "The Searchers"; Praising the Union; Coveting Titles...and Animal Husbandry

By Paul Levine

NEW ON DVD: The 50th anniversary edition of The Searchers, John Ford’s scenery-rich but cornball western. I’ve never understood why the movie was named to the American Film Institute’s Top 100 list. So I was glad to see Robert Duvall’s comments in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times. Duvall, who has appeared in six films on the Top 100 list, says he struggled to get through The Searchers, “finding it too stagy and Ford’s frontier men unrealistically ‘up, up, up’ and with a superimposed energy, not their own.’”

In other words, Ford’s direction of the actors was just lousy. Spencer Tracy once said that the trick was “not to let them catch you acting.” If so, The Searchers fails miserably. And it’s no excuse that the movie is 50 years old. The Maltese Falcon is 65 years old and holds up well. Sorry, but pretty shots of Monument Valley (ludicrously standing in for Texas) and cinematic symbolism (John Wayne, the outsider, standing yep, outside the door frame) aren’t sufficient to make a great movie.

MEDICAL QUIZ UPDATE: Last week, I asked readers to guess my hospital bill at Cedars-Sinai for a 26-hour visit. First prize: a new knee. No, wait. I got the knee. The first person who came within 15% of the actual bill would get a signed book. But no one who posted here or sent e-mail to me directly came close. Most guesses were too low; some were too high.

The correct answer: $57,886, not including the surgeon or anesthesiologist. (Like some motels on Ventura Boulevard, the operating room charges by the hour: $11,424 for the first hour, $9676 for each additional fifteen minutes. Clean sheets are free).

Now, before you start chipping in, I have excellent insurance thanks to battles fought before my time by unionized screenwriters. I’m a member of the Writers Guild of America, and my share of that bill is $950.


The Only Good Lawyer by Jeremiah Healy

Legal Tender by Lisa Scottoline

Hot Damn by James W. Hall

BEST HEADLINE OF THE WEEK: "For His Next Trick, My Husband Will Put the Seat Down." It's in Sunday's"Modern Love" column in The New York Times, where Amy Sutherland writes that she learned how to deal with her husband by working with wild animals. [My wife Renee asks, what's so surprising about that?] Ms. Sutherland writes: "The central lesson I learned from exotic animal trainers is that I should reward behavior I like and ignore behavior I don't. After all, you don't get a sea lion to balance a ball on the end of its nose by nagging. The same goes for the American husband."

LEGAL BLOGS: No...not, as opposed to illegal blogs. I'm talking about blogs that comment on the courts, law firms, and the general dissaray of the so-called justice system. As a recovering lawyer, I'm addicted to these musings. You'll find a good selection at One of them, the lively May It Please the Court, by Newport Beach lawyer J. Craig Williams, was just named "best individual weblog" by the Los Angeles Press Club.

And that's the news from Lake Hollywood and Sea World...Paul Levine

Monday, June 26, 2006

Gone Missing

By Patricia Smiley

Lately things have gone missing.

Like digital photos…

Last Tuesday I spoke at the Rancho Park-Palms Library with Harley Jane Kozak. We shared a lot of laughs with a great group of mystery fans using a blend of information sharing and dog-and-pony show. The fabulous Maggie and Susan represented the library and our beloved Bobby from The Mystery Bookstore sold books.

I brought along my camera to capture the event for posterity. Tragically, the pictures went missing. Disappeared inside the computer, never to be found again.

On Saturday I realized that the nineties were missing, too…

The deadline for my third book is looming large. In the weeks before I turn in a manuscript I become obsessive, so for the past few weeks I’ve been writing like a mad woman, polishing, revising, and tweaking my prose.

I often write late at night at which time the gerbil on the wheel in my brain refuses to stop running even when my body says enough already. When this happens, I can’t sleep and random thoughts pop into my head. Brilliant thoughts. Useless thoughts. Funny thoughts. I always think I’ll remember the brilliant ones but I seldom do, so I’ve trained myself to write everything down on a tablet that I keep beside my bed. I have to admit that when I read my notes the next day, a large percentage of them lean toward useless, but occasionally one surprises me.

Saturday night the gerbil was working overtime. Brilliant, useless, funny thoughts were all swirling together in the vortex inside my head. Quite suddenly one muscled its way out of the pack and screamed, “Remember the 1990s?”

Huh? Actually, I didn’t. Prior decades were there, the early school years, high school, college, graduate school, the torrid love affairs of my twenties, the crappy jobs, turning twenty-six and feeling that the best part of life had passed me by. Events from 2000 on were pretty clear. But my 90s database was empty. I mean, nothing. Zip. Nada. A whole decade. Gone missing without a trace. I felt like Jason Bourne waking up one morning and finding that huge chunks of his past had disappeared.

Then I began to wonder. Does anybody remember the 90s? If you do, please clue me in. What happened and was I there?

Friday, June 23, 2006

The Making of a Girl

I'm writing this at 4:30am. I'm up at this silly hour because I have to go to the airport. My cousin Fritha is leaving today. Of course, I haven't slept a wink all night, so it's a bit like being on a book tour - barely sleeping for fear of missing the next flight.

I should be good at goodbyes, what with visitors that come through, the rush to the airport, the "come again soon" and "wasn't it fun?" But I always want to hang on to Fritha a bit longer.

Fritha is actually my cousin Stephanie's daughter. Her mom died when Frith was all but twenty. Part of me hates to write about family in such a public place, but I'm ready for the road and she's only just got out of the shower, so I've a bit of time on my hands, and I have a blog to write, and this is all that's on my mind.

Growing up, I was in awe of Stephanie. She was tall, with waist-length rich dark hair, a lovely sense of humor, and not only was she a great swimmer (I look like a beached walrus just trying to get out of a pool), but she could speak just about any language just as soon as she heard people in conversation. After two weeks in a country, most people can get a cup of coffee, find their way to the post office, the consulate, the bar, a good restaurant, but Steph could have whole conversations within a day or so. She told me that when she was a kid, she thought that everyone was like that, then she began to realize that being able to "hear" other languages was a gift. She was almost a year older than me, and I thought she was wonderful.

There's one day that will remain with me forever. I was sixteen at the time, so Stephanie was about seventeen. She came to visit with her parents, and of course, we girls scurried to my room, to sit around on the bed and talk about books and poetry and the sheer pain of life. My mother said we both had a touch of the Sarah Bernhardts. Today we would have been drama queens. We began talking about "life" - and of course, we knew all about life, being sixteen, seventeen, going on fifty, when Stephanie walked to the window, looked out for a moment, then turned to me. "I think I shall have a baby," she said, "I think it will be the making of me." I didn't say a word. I wasn't that grown up.

Stephanie was twenty and at university when she became pregnant with Fritha, the child she named after the girl in her favorite book, The Snow Goose, by Paul Gallico. The birth of a daughter and single-parenthood did not stop Steph from gaining an honors degree in linguistics and graduating with her class, and thereafter from studying for a master's degree while working full time - she went into teaching so she'd have the school holidays with her daughter. And even though money was tight, she bought a house, and they had vacations, though Steph often said that Fritha would probably grow up to hate the very thought of youth hostels, because that was the cheap way she introduced her child to the world.

Fritha was ten when her mother was first diagnosed with cancer. The prognosis was never good, but we all knew that Stephanie was determined not to leave her child. There was excitement when it seemed she was in remission, worry when the news wasn't so good. We come from a large extended family - my Mom was one of ten kids, so I have cousins aplenty - and it seemed that everyone had heard of a new treatment that would help Stephanie. As the cancer metastasized throughout her body, so she fought it. And she began to write a journal for Fritha, with entries that went from reflections on her childhood, to "tips on bank accounts" or "dealing with car problems." I knew that things were bad when Steph took to calling me in the wee small hours, With the time difference between the UK and California, I was someone awake who could talk at those times when she was in so much pain she couldn't sleep.

Fritha took a gap year between high school and university, mainly to be with her Mom, then two months after she left home to begin her studies, Stephanie passed away. It was the week before Christmas, and she had just finished wrapping her daughter's presents.

So, this beautiful now thirty-year old young woman has been staying with me for the past week. She is independent, well-traveled, wishes she had inherited her mom's gift with languages and her hair; she has that wicked sense of humor and a gorgeous smile. She owns her own home and has a good group of friends. But she misses her mom terribly. It's the ache that will never go away.

Stephanie said something else that meant a lot to me, and probably changed the way I looked at my own future. It was years ago, when the only interpretation for self-help was "pull yourself up by your bootstraps." I was telling Steph how much I wanted to be a writer. She looked at me in that way she had, then said, very matter of fact, "Well, you've just got to call yourself one, haven't you? You've got to say, 'I am a writer.' In fact, when anyone asks me about my cousin Jacqueline, I'll say, 'Oh, the writer. My cousin Jacqueline, the writer.'"

Perhaps she was the making of me.

PS: This is late being posted because I didn't have time to complete the task before I left the house. Don't you hate airport goodbyes?

Thursday, June 22, 2006

I Hate Colons

From James

I have this thing about colons. I don't use them. No, not that colon. I'm talking about the ones that stop sentences, rhythm, pacing, flow dead in their tracks. I prefer a nice run-on sentence to one with a ":" in the middle of it. If commas are speed bumps, colons are moats. And yes, I read (and even enjoyed) "Eats, Shoots, and Leaves."

I'm on this topic for a couple of reasons. One, I just had my first colonoscopy this week. I'm not kidding. Now I am talking about THAT colon. A college friend of mine died of colon cancer at age 47, so my wife has been hounding me to get one. The good news is that I'm good for another five years. This is key, because I don't think I could drink another glass of that prep solution any sooner than that.

But I digress. Back to the other colon.

I've been through many copy edits, but I just finished one (my fourth in the last year) on a script called "When Darkness Falls," which will be out in January 07. The copyeditor did a fabulous job overall--much better than most. In case you aren't aware, copyediting is one of those services that has been "oursourced" -- not exactly to India, a la "The World is Flat," but far enough to ensure that the quality will vary tremendously, depending on the freelance copyeditor de jour that the publisher hooks you up with. That's why my acknowledgments contain numerous thank yous to readers who have spotted errors in my books over the years and volunteered to be copyeditors. God bless these folks.

But again I digress. This latest copyedit was unusual because not once, but twice, the copyeditor decided to end a paragraph with a colon. Mind you, I have probably used two or three colons in 11 novels. In dailogue, they make the speaker seem too self important. In narrative, they simply cut the pace--which is sort of important in a thriller, don't you think? Anyway, imagine my surprise when I come to the end of a paragraph and find a colon. This was not a typo. The copyeditor insists that it is grammatically correct.

There was a time (before I had three young children home for summer) that I would have rushed off to some reference source and actually checked to see if a paragraph could end with a colon. I didn't. I simply struck it and inserted a good ol' reliable period. Maybe it's just me, but can you think of any circumstance in which a paragraph should end with a colon:

I can't.

James Grippando

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Blog-Postos Refritos

By Cornelia


So, since I'm deadlining my butt off and at a loss for words (other than the ones that will get me on toward that helicopter-explosion epilogue) I'm taking the liberty of posting some old thoughts about a few of the books that have meant the most to me over the years.


Ahem. Where was I? Oh yes... what follows are reviews of three books (okay, two books and a multi-volume set thing) that I've mused about in the past quite a bit.

And Alice... Remember Alice? This is a Song About Alice...

A whole lot more spunk than Pippi Longstocking.

Pippi didn't OD

Okay, so this isn't the coziest, most charming book in the history of the world. In fact, Go Ask Alice would more truly be classified as a Young Adult work, and a lot of people would think that's a stretch, too. Purportedly the diary of a fifteen-year-old girl who died of a drug overdose in the late Sixties, Go Ask Alice is possibly my very favorite childhood read.

I count it as a children's book because that was, in fact, what I was when I first encountered it. I raced through it when I was about eight years old, and would have to say that I've reread it an average of once a year since. That would make 29 readings [35, now], all told, and even if as I've heard in the last couple of years it was actually written by some editor in New York, it remains an amazing historical document.

Within the pages of this slender volume you'll find relatively frank (if obviously fictional to me at age 37 [or 43, as the case may be]) discussions of rape, heroin addiction, prostitution, runaways, speed, acid, mental hospitals, suicide, group sex, panhandling, homelessness, venereal disease, homosexuality, infidelity, and a plethora of other subjects in the same vein.

One line in particular that has stuck with me through the years is of a young boy saying to his mother "Mama, Daddy can't come now. He's humping Carla." That would, of course, be the part where Alice and her friend Chris are living in the commune in Haight-Ashbury, but I digress.

This is a moving and thought-provoking look into the mind of a young girl who is gleeful to lose three pounds and angst-ridden when she eats french fries, and, in a perfect period touch, who confides her plans for a yearbook autograph party:

I'm going to wear my new white pants suit, and I have to go now and wash my hair and put it up. It's really getting long, long, long, but if I put it up on orange juice cans I can make it have just the right amount of body and a nice large curl on the bottom. I hope we have enough cans--we've got to! We've simply got to!

Much later in the book, of course, you'll get passages like the following, written when "Alice" was supposedly in a mental hospital:

I can't close my eyes because the worms are still crawling on me. They are eating me. They are crawling in my nose and gnawing in my mouth and oh God... I've got to get you back in your case because the maggots are crawling off my bleeding writhing hands into your pages. I will lock you in. You will be safe.

I read on-line this afternoon that the book quite recently had been withdrawn from an eighth-grade class in Rhode Island who had read half of it and were mid-discussion, because the school principal, who'd never read it, caught wind of the subject matter. Obviously, it has lost none of its provocative flavor or shock value.

And yet, despite all its sensationalism, this was an important book for me. When I was eight years old, the cool grownups all got stoned, only narcs wore ties, and Republicans were the people who drove down the freeway in their Cadillacs throwing just-emptied bourbon bottles out the window while they told jokes about poor people.

The soundtrack of my home life was a lot of Hendrix and Neil Young and Joan Baez and Janis Joplin fronting for Big Brother and the Holding Company,

with Puccini in the mornings when Mom wrote letters. In second grade, my favorite t-shirt was one Dad allowed me to pick out, when I was back East on a summer custody visit. This portrayed an R. Crumb sketch of a baby chick climbing wide-eyed out of a broken egg and was captioned, "Just Like Being Born Stoned." It looked excellent with my sky blue tie-dyed jeans and my suede moccasin boots that laced up the side and had fringe at the knee.

My teacher, Mrs. Boys, taught us Russian folksongs, so we'd "know what to sing when the Revolution comes." We planted willow trees on the river bank to prevent erosion, learned to write haiku and play the recorder, made tapes of our dreams, and were given blue glass marbles for Earth Day.

She was quite pleased with my first essay, on the injustice of jailing Angela Davis and the hypocrisy of the Christmas carpet bombing in Vietnam. I remember the act of writing it, carving out the words in dull pencil in my execrable handwriting, because it was the first time I used paper that was taller than it was wide--not the horizontal pulp stuff with the big empty space at the top for a picture and the four or five inch-high ruled lines at the bottom--but real honest-to-God binder paper.

That was the year that I made the mistake of saying to my stepfather Michael that I found Bewitched a compelling sitcom because even though they didn't get stoned and stuff, they were still cool because they had witchcraft and so they had, like, a secret that made them hip. I received an extended lecture over that dinner, beginning with the phrase, "Cornelia, some of my best friends don't get stoned."

It was that sense of a double life that hooked me on Alice, as hers was the only piece of writing available to me that understood it, delved into it, and, if it did not fully illuminate the schism, at least trumpeted its existence in no uncertain terms.

This was someone who would have gotten the joke of my grandparents in Oyster Bay buying me a pair of Bass Weejuns with tassels, to go with my newly-purchased kilt, for "school clothes." Or of my asking my other grandfather, the CIA admiral then on the board of Air America, what he thought of the Pentagon Papers over a luncheon of jellied consomme followed by peas and lamb chops.

He did not choose to comment on my choice of topic, but I ate in the kitchen with the cook for the remainder of the visit.

God knows there weren't a lot of kids my age who could have enjoyed musing with me about it all. For the rest of my classmates, singing a rousing verse of

Marijuana, Marijuana
Scienti-ists make it
Tea-ea-ea-chers take it
Why can't we? Why can't we?

was pretty much the acme of political consciousness.

"Goddamned stupid people," Alice would say, "I'd like to shove life down all their throats and then maybe they'd understand what it's all about."

And that's what I read her for, because you weren't going to get that clarity from Caddie Woodlawn or Ramona-the-Pest or even, God help her, Anne Frank--though I knew and loved them all.

Of course she was flawed, my Alice. She died, first off, and was stupid enough to mess around with too much acid, not to mention heroin. And then she could utter such patent idiocy as the following, about the guy for whom she's dealing at the high school and junior high:

Richie is so good, good, good to me and sex with him is like lightning and rainbows and springtime.... He's going into medicine, and I have to help him any way I can. It's going to be a long hard pull but we'll make it.... I think I won't go on to college. Dad will just curl up and die, but it's more important to me to work and help Rich. As soon as I'm out of high school I'll get a full time job and we'll settle down....

Even at eight I knew better than that, but of course Alice didn't grow up in a community of single mothers and boyfriends and stepdads and the child support checks that never came. I could have sat her down with my mom and some pals for a cup of coffee and knocked that lunacy right out of her head in about fifteen minutes, but poor Alice had "straight" parents, so she didn't know better and I had to cut her some slack.

Still today, she's the big sister I never had, though she was probably the pastiche of a snarky Williams guy at Prentice-Hall in real life, patched together from a few issues of Seventeen and some chick he sat next to at a Jefferson Airplane concert. I don't care. Alice is family--even if she doesn't live here anymore.


A Black Belt in Noir: Jim Thompson's Now and On Earth



I once had the pleasure of working for the author and editor Geoffrey O'Brien.

O'Brien's writings, including a seminal article on Jim Thompson which appeared in The Village Voice and his brilliant book Hardboiled America: Lurid Years of the Paperbacks and the Masters of Noir,

have a great deal to do with the resurgence of interest in Thompson, now widely considered the Grand Master of the pulp crime genre--the man with a black belt in noir.

I had been introduced to Thompson's work by my husband in the early days of our courtship. He was astonished I hadn't read such sublime books as The Killer Inside Me and Pop. 1280. Next to William Blake, Thompson is the author my Intrepid Spouse most reveres, and he immediately handed me his copy of The Criminal, saying "this guy is 'The Dimestore Dostoevsky'... you gotta check him out...."

It was some years and many Thompson books later that I was working as Geoffrey's assistant at The Reader's Catalog in New York. One day, as we were waiting for the elevator together and chatting about books, I mentioned Thompson. Geoffrey got that wonderful gleam in his eye which always accompanied his discovery that someone shared with him a literary passion, and he immediately began singing the praises of his favorites among Thompson's titles. When I interjected the "Dimestore Dostoevsky" phrase, though, he looked pleasantly shocked.

"Hey!" he said, "I wrote that!" and he began to tell me how his obsession with Thompson and the genre had grown to the point where he had very seriously considered writing the man's biography, which had not yet been done.

By this point, the elevator had arrived, and we were well on our way to lunch at the Broadway Diner. Over our tuna clubs, Geoffrey related to me how fascinating he found Thompson's life and work, especially such things as the fact that he'd written travelogues on the state of Oklahoma under the auspices of the Federal Writer's Project during the Depression. Ultimately, though, as he did more research, Geoffrey decided that a Thompson biography was not a project he wanted to take on.

"The more I found out about him, the less I could imagine spending two years or so concentrating on this guy's life," he said. "It was all so damn dark and depressing that I really couldn't take it. Just one tragedy after another... it was exhausting."

That night, I picked up our old copy of The Criminal, to find that the edition's afterword was written by Geoffrey, and titled, of course, "Jim Thompson, Dimestore Dostoevsky."

After reading Thompson's first novel, Now and on Earth, I returned to that essay of Geoffrey's, and find that I am all the more moved by his observations on Thompson's oevre.

"Jim Thompson," he begins,

breaks most of the rules of crime fiction, or indeed any kind of genre fiction. When we pick up a thriller--whether by Dorothy Sayers or Dashiell Hammett or Ian Fleming--we rely on an understated contract between writer and reader. We will enter a world parallel to our own but sealed off from it, and there undergo a vicarious experience which will terminate neatly in the last paragraph, sending us back through the revolving door of fiction as intact as we came in.

In Thompson's world, Geoffrey points out, you can't find that door.

By identifying with him--and Thompson's special gift is for making you do just that--you inherit his curse: a psychic hell which goes around and around without ever arriving anywhere.

And in none of Thompson's books is this more true than his first. Now and on Earth doesn't even give you the escape hatch of a kidnapping or a murder for psychic distance. You won't find, herein, a single jaded grifter or sullied oilman, swell-looking babe or twisted sheriff.

This is just some guy's life: the inexorable and excruciating petty hell of the everyday, the long dark dry heaves of the soul. As Anthony Quinn said so memorably in Zorba the Greek, "wife, house, children--everything--the full catastrophe."

Reading this book is like walking ten miles in shoes that not only don't fit, but are filled with wet sand. Oh yeah, and you're on your way to get a root canal.

Read the first line and you're immediately sucked into the head of Jim Dillon, depressed overworked tubercular alcoholic obsessive-compulsive aircraft factory worker and Okie, in Southern California's wartime boom economy.

For the next several hundred pages, through the endless travails of his pointless job and the agony that is his overcrowded family life, you join him in vomiting blood, drinking too much, not writing enough, vomiting coffee, washing your hands several dozen times a day, and agonizing over finding the money to pay for a sister's abortion, a daughter's doctor, a father's old age home, and dinner for the twelve jovial Portuguese tuna fishermen who suddenly show up on your doorstep, and to whom you owe a meal.

By the end of the book, nothing much has happened, but you're spat out on the edge of some distant shore, gasping and twitching like a poisoned fish. Naked Lunch is Dejeuner sur L'Herbe by comparison,

and Crime and Punishment a Disney musical.

Every moment is such agony for Dillon, you know it wouldn't matter whether he was describing a walk to the liquor store or what it felt like to be hit by a car:

Three months after Mack was born a doctor acquaintance of mine performed a vasectomy on me. It was around Christmas, and the only payment he exacted was ten fingers out of a quart of rye; in advance, yes. I think he must have served an apprenticeship at cutting out baseball covers, because I was going around in a sling for weeks afterward. But what I started to say was--to strike a parallel with my job--it drove me nuts without actually hurting at all. I was so shot full of local that he could have trimmed out my appendix without hurting me. But that snipping and slicing finally got me so bad that I raised up and whanged hell out of him, and he had to sit on my chest to finish.

Okay, so a vasectomy isn't anything to look forward to, but here's Dillon's take on seeing his beautiful wife naked in their tiny room:

I had seen her that way five thousand times, and now I saw her again. Saw her for the first time. And I felt the insane unaccountable hunger for her that I always had. Always, and always will.

And then I was in heaven and in hell at the same time. There was a time when I could drown myself in this ecstasy, and blot out what was to follow. But now the epigamic urgings travel beyond their periphery, kneading painfully around my heart and lungs and brain. A cloud surrounds me, a black mist, and I am smothered. And the horrors that are to come crowd close, observing, and I feel lewd and ashamed.

There is no beauty in it. It is ugly, despicable. For days I will be tortured, haunted, feeble, inarticulate.

Thompson sees everything through not rose-colored but faeces-smeared glasses, and the more you learn about him--from his pimping and coke-running as a thirteen-year-old bellboy to his first alcoholic breakdown and DTs at the tender age of 18--the more you're there on the ground with him, clenching your body against the next kidney punch. Such pain shouldn't happen. Thompson makes sure you know in your belly that it does, everywhere and all the time.

This is a man who once wrote 12 novels, including some of his best, in an 18-month period--or was that 18 in a year? Doesn't matter--it was undoubtedly gut-wrenching either way. This because of course Thompson himself was a depressed overworked tubercular alcoholic obsessive-compulsive sometime aircraft factory worker and full-time Okie, from the moment of his birth above a jail in Anadarko, Oklahoma, in 1906 to the moment he succeeded in starving himself to death in Los Angeles in 1977.

He just stopped eating, to save his family from medical bills. He'd been rendered mute by a series of strokes from which he never quite recovered, blind by cataracts, and was too painfully arthritic to hold a pen. That, of course, is not to mention the bleeding ulcers. At the time of his death, in an eerily Thompsonian touch, not a one of his books was in print in the United States.

Thompson once said "I was going to catch hell whatever I did. I might as well try to enjoy myself." Somehow, I doubt he succeeded in the enjoyment part, but there's no question at all about the hell.


Jeeves Goes Global

Just plain wacky


I was probably a P.G. Wodehouse fanatic in utero--I can't remember when I didn't thrill to the call of the Woosters, and grin goofily over such passages as "In a world of beautiful things, it seems a pity that one has got to talk about Mr. Frisby's gastric juices, but it is the duty of the historian to see life steadily and see it whole," or "'O Christ!' exclaimed the profane Vicar, spattering an Orphrey with ill-considered ink."

The world of the Wodehouseophile, however, has depths of fanaticism seldom realized in even the most bizarre of Star Trek conventions, and has led to the publication of what is by far the strangest and most eccentric series of books I have ever tried to read.

Let me explain that my acquaintance with publishing oddities is both deep and wide. I own, for instance, Sean Connery's copy of The History of the Russian Revolution to Brest-Litovsk, by one L. Trotsky (Socialist Labor Press, Glasgow, first published 1919--and Connery lent it to my first stepfather's second wife). I am a proud collector of idiotic Sixties paperbacks, including A Child's Garden of Grass,

Go Ask Alice,

and Living on the Earth.

This last, a pre-Y2K DIY hippie handbook, by Alicia Bay Laurel, features hand-written instructions in brown ink on beige paper for everything from making your own kayaks, soap, Mexican peasant blouses, root cellar, and rat poison to how-tos on butchering deer, tuning an autoharp, baking bread in a coffee can, and home cremation ("make a pyre of wood, lay the body on top, pour on kerosene and lots of incense. Burning bodies don't smell so good).

Our mantelpiece even proudly sports seven volumes of the hideously jingoistic Boy Allies series, a sort of Hardy Boys of the Great War ("East and west, the German lines held, while in the Balkans the enemy was even now advancing against the heroic little Serbian Army, which, before many days, was to be forced to relinquish its country to the iron heel of the invader...").

None of these, however, is fit to lick the wildly eccentric boots of the multi-volume collection of the P.G. Wodehouse short story "The Great Sermon Handicap," if you ask me. But how, you may well wonder, does one publish a single short story (and certainly not one of Wodehouse's best) in multiple volumes? Simple. You foist it upon the world in several dozen languages, not least among them Esperanto, long Pidgen, Afrikaans, Schwyzerdeutsch, and Icelandic.

This wacky venture was the brainchild of James P. Heineman, one-man Wodehouse-fest and New York publisher. Heineman called me one day in New York years ago, to congratulate me on having included a recently re-released Wodehouse paperback in the quarterly bulletin of a book catalog I was then editing. He invited me to lunch at the Russian Tea Room, and brought along samples of his Wodehousian list, prominently featuring "The Great Sermon Handicap."

Heineman also publishes What's in Wodehouse, a compendium of word games, quizzes, and quotations culled from everything "Plum" ever penned, and Lord Emsworth's Pig, which attempts to reproduce the porciculture handbook of the Empress's owner. Yes, these are both weird enough in and of themselves to merit my ancient lunch partner's introduction to some of the bright young things down at Bellevue, kind and generous though he was, but it is "Great Sermon" which takes the fruitcake.

As I savored my red-caviar omelet, I perused the introduction to these works, in which Heineman writes:

Wodehouse is able to leap lightly over the social, economic, and political prejudices of his readers and to paint, wonderfully, the same picture for disparate people. Had he been a composer, his greatest gift might have been for variations on single themes. In book after book and short story after short story he uses the same venues, plots and cast of characters. Classical and popular music are rich with a fluidity of variations and improvisations on set themes. Reading Wodehouse is something like following a jam session of Beethoven's Diabelli Variations.

Whatever. I think the guy's just completely whacked. Still, these books continue to fascinate me, and many an evening I've pulled one or more down from the shelf just to savor the oddity of seeing the same phrase rendered in so many tongues. For instance:

"Jeeves," I said, wiping the brow and gasping like a stranded goldfish, "it's beastly hot."

becomes in French:

--Jeeves, dis-je, en m'epongeant le front et haletant comme un poisson rouge hors de son bocal, il fait affreusement chaud.

to Chaucer:

'Jevis,' I cryde, as I wipede my forhede and gapede lyk to a fissh that hath yleyn to longe in the shoppe, 'swich hete is verraily comen out of helle!'

in Yiddish:

"Dzhivs" zog ikh, zikh oysvishnik dem shtern un dekhnkdik, vi a goldfish af der yaboshe, "s'iz shreklech heys."


"Jeeves," mi diris frotante la vrovohn kaj oscedante kiel orfiso sur lat sablo, "estas terure varme."

and, of course, Pidgin:

"Jeeves" Mi toktok na klinim tuhat wantaim olsem hap pis wara i wasim na silip long nambis istap. "Ples i hat narakain tru ia."

Outside the pages of the Heineman series, it is true, Wodehouse has appeared in 19 languages, including 32 titles in Finnish, 70 in Swedish, 41 in German, and 54 in Spanish (including 11 in 1944 alone), plus one title each in Hindi, Japanese, Ukrainian, and Esperanto. And if you have read everything else there is on the subjects of Bertie Wooster and his gentleman's gentleman, or Aunt Agatha's cook, or Lord Emsworth's pig--the Empress of Blandings--you might want to give "The Great Sermon Handicap" a whirl.

As Heineman himself writes of his fellow Wodehousians,

Those favored people who have been bitten by the Wodehouse bug soon become incorrigible and incurable Wodehouse enthusiasts. If anyone so lacking in wisdom and sensitivity were to seek and publicly find a remedy to this addiction, he would, without doubt, be cashiered from the human race, and taken to await his fate before the Beak at the Bosher Street police station.

Heineman is correct, when he says that you can get a sense of the variety of languages represented here, by sheer contrast, and thus grasp some of the nuances of culture they convey.

To this end, he quotes Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, who supposedly claimed that he spoke "French to my ministers, Italian to my lovers, Spanish to God, and to my horse I speak German." Mainly, though, this is a collection to be dipped into warily, on those long winter evenings when you want to contemplate the profound weirdness of the human condition.

Ultimately, however, if Heineman did not exist, Wodehouse would have been forced to invent him. And I love the man for wanting to reprint my Connery-Trotsky book, though I'm pretty sure he didn't get the joke.


From Our News Desk, This Just in...


WHITE HOUSE UPSWING: So, President Bush (slogan: "Mission Accomplished...Whoops!") is gaining in the polls because his chief political adviser escaped indictment, and our troops killed someone who had nothing to do with 9-11.

PUDGEBALL KARL: Speaking of Karl Rove, doesn't the guy look like the pudgy kid always chosen last for the baseball team in sixth grade? And you read it here first...if you re-arrange the letters of his full name, Karl Christian Rove, you could spell: "Rival or Canker Shit."

GUNS & BUTTER: The Wall Street Journal, hardly a liberal mouthpiece, reports that the number of children in America living in homes "with limited access to food because of financial difficulties" rose from 33.2 million in 2000 to 38.3 million in 2004. Why doesn't the White House Press Corps (slogan: "Did Anyone See Our Spine?") ask Messrs. Bush & Rove about this? And why can't the Journal just say "children who go to bed hungry?"

HIGH JOURNALISM:Did you see Matt Lauer's interview with Britney ("I'm really a good mother") Spears. I'd say she resembles a waitress at a Stuckey's just outside Valdosta, Georgia, but that would be an insult to waitresses everywhere.

COFFE KLATCH:Headline last week: "Caffeine Helps Liver Against Booze." At last, proof that Irish coffee is good for you.

MEDICAL UPDATE: Last week, I spent 26 hours at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, for knee replacement surgery. The hospital bill just arrived. I will give an autographed book to the first person who can come within 15% of the total amount of the bill, which does not include the fee for the surgeon or anesthesiologist. Co-bloggers ineligible for first prize, but I will provide you with a wicked anagram of your name if you come close to the actual bill. Hint: it's a lot. Also ineligible, the nurturing Renee (pictured here), who keeps the cupboard stocked with tequila and my knee swathed in ice.

I'm now told that you no longer have to register or pledge your 401-K to post to this blog. You can do so anonymously. Best of luck. I'd say "break a leg," but I just don't like the sound of it.

BOOK NEWS:Kudos to fellow blogger Jacqueline Winspear, whose Pardonable Lies was just nominated for a Macavity award for best historical mystery of 2005. And, hold the applause, Solomon vs. Lord, the first of my new series, was nominated for best mystery novel. Winners to be announced at Bouchercon in September.

The Macavity is named for the "mystery cat" of T.S. Eliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats." The award is voted on by members of Mystery Readers International. For a complete list of 2006 nominees, check out the Mystery Readers website.

No, that's not Macavity pictured. That's Taxi, the kitten my wife Renee found under a taxicab. She (Taxi, not Renee) lacks the abilities ascribed below to Macavity.

Macavity's a Mystery Cat: he's called the Hidden Paw--
For he's the master criminal who can defy the Law.
He's the bafflement of Scotland Yard, the Flying Squad's despair:
For when they reach the scene of crime--Macavity's not there!

From Macavity: the Mystery Cat, by T.S. Eliot

Paul Levine

Monday, June 19, 2006

Tears for Uncle Julius

by Patty

Saturday evening I finished reading Jacqueline’s MAISIE DOBBS, which means that I have now read novels by each of my blog-mates. Their collective talent humbles me.

Jackie’s book is set in England during the period before and after World War I. While reading it I cried several times, for Maisie but also for my great uncle Julius who was killed in action in the Argonne on October 9, 1918 one month and two days before the Armistice.

Julius was a corporal in the 364th infantry, 91st division. He had been in France for only four months when he died. Colin V. Dyment described Julius’s death in a letter to his mother.

"In the Argonne men of the 91st not infrequently turned to a comrade close by, only to find him gone west, killed so quickly that he had neither moved nor uttered a sound."

Julius was buried in France next to several of his friends. In his pocket they found a letter to his mother that he had written in pencil two days earlier. It was removed from his clothing before he was buried and anchored on top of the grave with a rock.

A fellow doughboy found the letter sometime later, stained by mud and rain. There was no address just a reference to Yakima, Washington, Julius’s hometown. The soldier carried the letter with him for eight months until he returned to the United States and was able to send it to my great grandmother. Julius’s last letter is still in our family's grab bag of relics from the past. When I finished Maisie Dobbs, I reread the letter and found Julius’s words personal and universal and poignant beyond words. The letter ends with this:

"Tell everybody hello for me and to write to me, even if I don’t write. I don’t get much time. I’ll have lots to tell when I get home. I have been through just about all of it once and I have a pretty good idea what it is now…Mother, it is getting dark and we are about to move to another place, so I’ll have to close. Don’t worry about me. I am sure the Lord is with me and that He will stay by me to the end. If it be His will that I stay here, I know that we will meet again in a better land where there is no war."

Dear Uncle Julius,

I hope you found that land where there is no war and please know that even eighty-eight years after your death, your family still remembers you with tears of grief.


Friday, June 16, 2006

California Dreamin'

from Jacqueline

I’m creeping around the house this morning so as not to awaken the latest houseguest, my cousin, Fritha, who flew in from London yesterday. Destination California hasn’t been so hot this year, so Chez Jacqueline has been low on bookings. For all of us who live in places that people will spend a small fortune to travel to on vacation, you’ll know what I mean. This place is like a veritable B&B at times. And even though I’m very single-minded (“We can’t go to Universal Studios/the beach/Santa Barbara until I’ve finished this chapter/article/essay.”), being a tour-guide for my chosen land is a mantle I slip on easily. I’m the archetypal “My party this way” docent.

Of course, the best laid plans tend to go awry in spectacular fashion. My parents first visited in 1992, so I rented a very nice car for the occasion. Now, my mother is the worst, and I mean THE WORST – backseat driver you will ever come across, only she has to sit in the front of the car because she’s even more annoying if she sits in the back. I was once only five minutes out of SFO, having just picked them up, and I was forced to point out that the ‘plane was still on the ground, and that tickets for a return journey could be purchased with no problem whatsoever if she didn’t put a sock in it. My old car at the time – a very shaky semi-automatic VW Bug of some vintage – would have made her faint (which might have been a good thing), hence the rental. Lovely car, but the complete engine failure after only a few seconds warning left us at the side of the 101 for several hours while we waited for a replacement vehicle.

My dearest friend, Anne-Marie, who I have known since we were both ten years old, came over from the UK in early April. What with raising three kids, a husband who spent much of his time overseas, and a demanding new career, it was the first time she’d visited me in America. I had pointed out that our rainy season might still have a bit of wind in its sails, but we should be lucky. Needless to say, it was just tipping down when I struggled through traffic to pick her up from LAX. There were floods on the 101, and you daren’t even think of PCH (usually a winner with the tourists), as houses were slipping into the ocean. We had barely left the airport when she turned to me and said (in her slight Catherine Zeta-Jones Welsh lilt), “It’s like the bloody Brecon Beacons in winter, Jack.” Which was, of course, a perfect moment to shelve the plan to play Beach Boys CD’s while driving alongside the Pacific, and instead belt out, “It Never Rains In California, It Pours.”

There are the wonderful moments associated with being tour guide, especially as it reminds me why I live here, and why it’s the place of my choosing. I laughed out loud while driving across the Golden Gate Bridge with Charlotte, my 17-year-old God-daughter (and Anne-Marie’s daughter). I had just picked her up from the airport, and here she was squealing– and you know how teenagers can squeal – as she wound down the window and yelled out, “Good Morning Cal-eee-forn-eee-aaa!” before snapping photo after photo of the bridge and the Bay. I wanted to write a story about Charlie’s visit, about the joy of seeing her not only discover a place she’d heard so much about, but about me discovering who she was as a young woman, because I hadn’t seen her since she was eleven. And she discovered something about herself here, a confidence, perhaps, because the following year she went off on her own to Australia and Indonesia for six months.

When Anne-Marie visited, I took her on the same journey along PCH that Charlie and I had taken five years earlier, only in the opposite direction, south to north. By the time we reached San Francisco, my old pal was dying to make a dream come true. “Can we go really fast up and down those hills, like they do in the films, you know, like a car chase?” This is what happens to women after fifty. As I turned into California Street from Montgomery, Anne-Marie yelled out, “Ahhhhhh, look at THAT! Come on, let’s GO!”

Call me a dream-maker. I could’ve got a ticket, but I didn’t.

The memory I’ll cherish most from that visit, was the time we spent at Treebones, at the southern end of Big Sur. It’s an “eco-resort" where you stay in yurts. That first night was a howler, a huge storm that rumbled in off the Pacific and threatened to render us yurtless. But a beam of bright sunshine pierced through the skylight in the morning and the birds were in full voice as we clambered out onto our deck. The Pacific looked like cut glass, and the air was warm. I turned to Anne-Marie. “Welcome to California, My friend.” And we both wept at the beauty of it all, and the fact that we’d been friends for more years than we care to admit.

So, I’m off to put the kettle on now. I’ll make a cup of tea for Fritha and take it to her room, then I’ll open the curtains so that she can lay back and look out at the mountains. And I’ll do my docent thing.

“Welcome to California. It's a lovely day.”

Thursday, June 15, 2006

It's Thursday. I think.

from James
Just got back from Prague yesterday. Woke this morning to realize it wasn't really morning, it was still Wednesday night. The alarm was ringing. I had gone to bed at 6:15 p.m. Wednesday for a little catnap, because I'd been up since 10:30 the previous night drinking in Czech pubs, watching world cup soccer, and generally trying to compute what time it was in Miami if it was 4:30 in the morning in Prague. I'd set the alarm at 7:15 p.m. Wednesday, figuring I'd get up, stay awake till nidnight, go to bed and then wake Thursday morning totally refreshed and in tuen with Miami time. Good plan, I suppose. But I obviously need a louder alarm.

Prague is an amazing city. I had never been before, and I am part Czech, which proved to be a bit of an embarrasment, because the Czech name in my family translates to "little goat." I'm sorry, but I do not want to be known as the little goat. They smell bad, are not particularly friendly, and eat garbage. I have never met a goat I liked, and I suppose there is a reason we have scapegoats and not scapesheep, scapecows, or scapechickens.

Our Prague hotel was a place called Aria, which is in the Little Quarter of Prague near the Charles Bridge. We walked across the Charles Bridge so many times in the 4 days we were there that we eventually called it Chuck's Bridge. Aria is a fabulous hotel, on a par with the Four Seasons, and we had a room that overlooked the gardens by Prague's famous palace. We also ate dinner twice on rooftop with breathtaking views of St. Nicolas Cathedral, the Palace, and all the other things you see on Prague post cards. I mention this because an odd thing happened at our last dinner.

We had the best table in the restaurant. My wife and I had been guests in the hotel for 4 nights spending far more than we could afford on a suite. After we had eaten our appetizers but before our main course was served, a party of four comes up. The ringleader is a quirky looking woman with a strange hat. I heard her speaking (German, I think) to our waiter, and I had a feeling that she wanted our table. It was a table for 4, and my wife and I were a party of 2. There were 2 other tables for 4 availble, but obviously there is only one "best" table in the house. The waiter sheepishly (not goatishly) comes over to us and tells us that the woman had made a reservation and specifically requested this table. He asked us to move. I asked him if the party of 4 were guests in the hotel, and he either did not understand me or pretended not to understand. I told him that we were guests in the hotel, that this was our last night in Prague--but again, he either didn't understand or pretended not to. I looked at my wife, and she looked at me. The other three people in the woman's party couldn't even look at us, but the woman was clearly not going to back down.
So . . . what do you think we did?

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Rhymes with “Duck”

By Cornelia

unny enough, here I am, down to the wire on completing my second book.

It is coming in large chunks, which I only hope are not written in Klingon. Or Portuguese. Either of which feel like a huge possibility.

I know whodunnit.

I know what happens at the end.

I know that there will be a helicopter blowing up, because my friend Sweeper Dave likes books in which helicopters blow up, so I promised him I would work one in.

(You may not think it sounds reasonable to blow up a helicopter in a book about a boarding school for disturbed kids in the bucolic Berkshires of western Massachusetts. Trust me, however, when I say that my working title, The Crazy School, is warranted when it comes to this place.)

But here is the one thing a number of people have asked me not to do in the second book:


The first person to comment on the swearing in book numero uno was Joan Fontaine, whom my mother met in a hardware store in Carmel, California, because Miss Fontaine has a taste for Belgian shoes—said shoes being the premier footwear fetish of my family.

Mom thought Miss Fontaine might be amused by my book, as Belgian shoes are in it. Miss Fontaine read an ARC of A Field of Darkness, but did not comment on the whole shoe thing. She basically said she thought the language in the book was appalling, which caused her not to enjoy the experience of reading it.

The flap copy on the hardcover starts out with the first three sentences of the book itself, which read as follows:

There are people who can be happy anywhere. I am not one of them.

When the house on the next street went up in flames for the second night in a row, I wondered again what the hell I was doing in Syracuse.

Only they took out the word “hell,” in the flap copy.

When I got to read over the flap copy, I put the word “hell” back in.

nlikely as this may sound, my very kind editor emailed to say that they couldn’t say “hell” in the flap copy, in case anyone who read the flap copy, in, say, a bookstore, would be offended.

Considering that one of the main characters is named “Ice [insert word- that-rhymes- with-‘runt’- but-does-not-start- with-the- letter-‘R’ here],” I wondered what would happen if people offended by the word “hell” ended up actually reading the book.

Here is what happens. They write reviews on Amazon which say things like:

“The foul language, which I think is supposed to be smart, sassy, and funny, is grossly overdone and gets in the way.”

Which is a sentiment that has been repeated on DorothyL. Repeatedly.

And I'm perfectly okay with that.


However I would like to state here, for the record, that the foul language in my first book is not supposed to be smart, sassy, or funny. It is just supposed to be foul.

And I would also like to state, for the record, that I respect the right of anyone not to swear.

Some of my best friends don’t swear. And I still even kind of like them, although admittedly they tend to be way less fun at parties than my friends who do swear, unless you get them really, really drunk.

I also fully understand that there are a lot of people in the world who dislike and eschew the use of profanity… people who say things like “shucky darn” when a Mack truck runs over their foot, or they get riddled with bullets, or find themselves being chased through the Amazon River Basin by a bunch of pissed-off Mensheviks who happen to be waving glittering machetes, or whatever.

I respect the hell out of those “shucky-darn” people, but to quote the second sentence of my first novel, “I am not one of them.”

I’m sorry, I love swearing. L-O-V-E. I-T. And I love hearing other people swear.

I think it’s funny. I think it adds spice to life. I think that sometimes, “shucky darn” just doesn’t express the sentiment that is yearning to escape from our heart of hearts, in the form of spoken language.

I love the part on the Woodstock Album where Country Joe MacDonald of Country Joe and the Fish yells “Gimme an F…” and the ginormous crowd yells “F!” and then Country Joe keeps going until he makes them all yell “K!” with equally resounding fervor. I am forty-three years old, and that still makes me laugh my butt off, although I’ve heard it several hundred times.

Perhaps this indicates a deep and abiding lack of mental balance on my part, but, hey, as I once said on DorothyL, chacun a son gutter.

As such, when my mom recently asked me whether I would tone down the swearing in my second novel, I laughed and said "[word-that- rhymes-with- “duck”-but-does-not-begin- with- the-letter-“D”] no.”

Especially since one of the central things about the book is that the school’s founder has prohibited everyone on campus from saying [word-that-rhymes-with-“duck”-but-does-not-begin-with-the-letter-“D”], ever. And requires that anyone who ignores this prohibition has to donate a dollar to the local Rape Crisis Fund, as he feels that [word-that-rhymes-with-“duck” -but-does-not-begin- with-the-letter-“D”] is inherently linked to violence against women.

oincidentally, this is based on an actual rule at an actual boarding school for disturbed kids in the bucolic Berkshires, in western Massachusetts.

An actual boarding school where I once worked, actually.

The students and teachers and administrators at that school were often required to donate dollars to that fund, though they were allowed to use any other swear word—in class and out, while jostling one another at the salad bar, say, or answering a question about Yalta in American history class—in fact, they could even say [word-that- rhymes-with- ‘runt’-but-does- not-start- with-the-letter-“R”], which just seems really, really stupid to me, but the founder-of-the-school guy was big on arbitrary prohibitions, which he considered “therapeutic.”

So, anyway, as a result, we couldn’t get ENOUGH of saying [word-that-rhymes-with-“duck”-but-does-not-begin-with-the-letter-“D”], in all possible combinations, declensions, and conjugations; as noun, verb, adjective, proper name, dangling participle, split infinitive, and even adverb—which takes some doing, the adverb thing—and, as such, it shows up rather often in the manuscript. It is on the first page. It was today applied to Freud and Jung and Werner Erhard (and his little dog too).

It will be uttered when the helicopter blows up, and it will probably be the last word at the very end, if I work it right.

It will probably not, however, appear in the flap copy.

So, if you are a person of the “shucky-darn” persuasion, let this be a warning to you… indeed a caveat, yea verily.

But if you are, on the other hand, a person who enjoys a good expletive, undeleted, this might be a book right up your alley. And all I can say, if so, is...

...gimme a

Lee, Lee, Arlo and Me...

From Paul–

Women Love Violence– Last Saturday’s Wall Street Journal pasted Lee Child’s handsome mug on page one under the headline: “Odd Twist for Hero of Popular Thrillers: Women Like Him, Too.”

The Journal wondered why Lee’s super-violent Jack Reacher novels (The Hard Way) have drawn millions of women readers.

“Booksellers believe Mr. Child may have tapped into the same audience that has devoured romance novels over the past 20 years, a genre that in recent years has increasingly included more violence and suspense,” the Journal wrote.

Yep. Plus I’d say that women admire men of action who strive for justice, even the rough-and-tumble vigilante justice of ex-Army Major Reacher. I admire Lee’s action scenes. My protagonist, Steve Solomon, usually doesn’t hit a guy with anything other than a subpoena.

I’ll be seeing Lee at “Thrillerfest” July 1 in Phoenix. (City motto: It’s so hot, you'll plotz). Fans, writers, and critics are coming together for panels, talks, and margaritas. Space still available; check it out at the International Thriller Writers website.

I’ve dusted off my law degree because I’ll be defending Jack Reacher (played by Lee) in a mock murder trial. Ex-assistant U.S. Attorney Michele Martinez (Finishing School) will prosecute; M. Diane Vogt (Marital Privilege) will preside; James O. Born (Escape Clause), a real life cop, will be the state’s star witness...until I cross examine him. The jury will consist of book critics. Who better to sentence a guy to death, right? We’ll be using the scenario from Lee’s book Persuader for our factual setting.

The Deadwood Blues– The savvy Lee Goldberg
knows more about television dramas than anyone I’ve ever met. As a veteran novelist, he also has great advice for aspiring writers. Such as...NEVER pay to have a book published. But I’m not sure I agree with Lee's popular Blog yesterday, with its high praise for the season premiere of “Deadwood.” I think the show sags when Ian McShane is off-screen, and I’m not sure I care for the kinder, gentler owner of the “Gem.” It’s a show driven by the villain, or at least it was, and I liked it that way.

Arlo Guthrie is exactly my age, but his photo in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times makes him look about 89. Now, I’m feeling old. Maybe because of Guthrie. Maybe because of my knee surgery last week at Cedars-Sinai in L.A. Great hospital (motto: “Sinatra died here”), and the food’s not bad (try the potato latkes with sour cream). Great surgeon (Dr. Brad Penenberg). And there’s an excellent bakery (Breadbar) across the street.

By Paul