Author, Author: Josephine Tey–Occupying the Hinterland

by M. K. Waller

On his twenty-first birthday, Simon Ashby will become a rich man. He’ll inherit both his mother’s fortune and Latchetts, the estate left by his parents on their accidental death eight years ago. In the interim, his aunt Bee has, by skillful management, built Latchetts into a profitable farm and riding stable.

The other Ashby children—Simon’s sisters, nineteen-year-old Eleanor and nine-year-old twins Jane and Ruth—look forward to his  becoming master of Latchetts. Bee’s pleasure is marred only by the memory of Patrick, Simon’s twin, who shortly after their parents’ death disappeared, a presumed suicide.

Six weeks before Simon’s birthday, however, a stranger calling himself Brat Farrar appears and claims to be the long-lost Patrick. He looks like Simon, remembers everything Patrick should, has a reasonable explanation for his long absence, and—a striking distinction—knows and loves horses. Initially skeptical, Bee is yet open to the possibility of Brat’s being her missing nephew. The Ashbys might have a second reason to celebrate.

Except for Simon—because Patrick is the older twin. If Bee accepts Brat as an Ashby,  Simon will be displaced. Brat will inherit everything.

So far, author Josephine Tey has laid a conventional foundation for the mystery Brat Farrar.

But in the third chapter, Tey departs from the pattern by exposing critical information: Before the Ashbys have even heard of Brat Farrar, the reader knows Brat is an imposter, come “home” solely to take possession of Latchetts. The Ashby’s prodigal son is a fraud.

We readers, instead of wondering about Brat’s identity, focus on the Ashbys as they walk, unsuspecting, into a web of deceit. And, although we know  what they don’t, we walk right into it with them.

P. D. James liked mysteries, she said, because of their ordered structure—”in the end, the villain is caught and justice is done.” But here’s the rub: we don’t want Brat caught or justice done. We like him. We not only understand him, we cheer him on. We hope he achieves his goal. We don’t approve of criminal behavior, of course, but we want him to have Latchetts and the horses he loves.

Mystery writers often present their characters with moral dilemmas; here, Tey hands one to readers. She serves us up an exceedingly good read and makes us uncomfortable the whole time we’re reading.

“Impersonation,” says mystery writer Robert Barnard, “has been at the heart of many detective stories, but it has seldom carried the emotional charge of Brat Farrar, and our sympathies are never in a mere puzzle so skilfully and so surprisingly manipulated.”

He points to this as a mark of Tey’s “essence,” her “brilliant storytelling: her varied, loving characterization; above all, her control of reader sympathies.” In Brat Farrar, Tey definitely has control.

And the storytelling is brilliant. Tey, says Barnard, “often reveals a sort of impatience with the rules and conventions of the whodunit.” Three of her mysteries—Brat Farrar, The Daughter of Time, and The Franchise Affair— occupy “that hinterland—often uneasy, but not in her hands—between the crime novel and the ‘novel proper.'”

The Daughter of Time, named in 1990 one of The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time, is a history lesson wrapped in a detective story. At the suggestion of actress friend Marta Hallard, Scotland Yard Inspector Alan Grant, hospitalized with a broken leg, passes the time by researching the life of Richard III of England. Studying material brought to him by several other friends and colleagues, he concludes that Richard was a good man, not a murderer, and that the image of the evil hunchback made famous by Shakespeare was merely Tudor propaganda. Colin Dexter’s The Wench Is Dead, an Inspector Morse mystery published in 1989, is an homage to Daughter.

My favorite of Tey’s books, The Franchise Affair, doesn’t feature a murder at all. The third in the Inspector Alan Grant series, it concerns a charge of kidnapping leveled against the Sharpes, a middle-aged woman and her elderly mother, newcomers whom the residents of the nearby village consider eccentric. A teenage war orphan accuses them of luring her to their house, demanding she do domestic work, and when she refuses, imprisoning her in an attic. The women claim they’ve never seen the girl. Robert Blair, the solicitor who responds to Marian Sharpe’s call for assistance—and who’s never handled a criminal case—finds them trustworthy and personable, and Inspector Grant dismisses the girl’s story as a fabrication. Within days, however, Grant is back with an arrest warrant, and as evidence against the Sharpes mounts, villagers believe the worst. Characters are so well drawn it’s easy to believe they have lives beyond the page; the plot is tight and suspenseful. Tey proves beyond doubt that murder isn’t necessary for a first-class mystery.

(The artist responsible for the cover pictured above either disagrees with my last assertion or failed to read the book—the body on the cover has no relation to anything inside.)

Tey, whose real name was Elizabeth MacIntosh, was a native of Scotland. Little is known about her personal life. “She lives,” writes Barnard, “by her works alone.” She wrote a number of historical plays under the pseudonym Gordon Daviot. She wrote only eight mysteries—six in the Inspector Grant series and two stand-alones—between 1929 and her untimely death in 1952, the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. But the quality of those novels establishes her as one of the great writers of British crime fiction, in the same league as Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Marjorie Allingham, and Dorothy L. Sayers.

I give the last word to Robert Barnard, who goes a step further in his praise:

“If Ngaio Marsh or Christie had died as young as Tey, we would have a good idea of what they could have gone on writing. We can guess that Tey would have written several more whodunits, but what she would have written is beyond our guesswork. That in itself is her best tribute.”

***

A complete list of Josephine Tey’s mysteries is found at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josephine_Tey.

***

Sources:

Robert Barnard’s fine introduction to the works of Josephine Tey, published by Simon and Schuster.

Barbara C. Sealock, “Queen of Crime: No Mystery in the Charm of P.D. James.” Chicago Tribune, March 31, 1985.

Wikipedia

***

M. K. Waller’s short stories appear in Austin Mystery Writers‘ crime fiction anthologies, MURDER ON WHEELS and LONE STAR LAWLESS. She blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly.

Book Review: Phyllis Whitney’s The Ebony Swan

 

by Francine Paino

I was inspired to read The Ebony Swan after reading Kay Hudson’s, Remembering Phyllis A. Whitney, a master of the mystery genre.

I’d forgotten how much I’d enjoyed her stories, years ago, and I hadn’t read all of her works, which added up to an impressive 77; the last three or four when she was in her nineties—Wow! What an inspiration to us all.  Her numerous works included 39 Adult mysteries; 4 On Writing; 20 in Juvenile Fiction, and 14 YA.

Whitney was not only a prolific writer but also a force for advancing women’s recognition in the mystery genre. In the late 1980’s she wrote an open letter to Mystery Writers of America, admonishing them for their refusal to take women in the genre seriously. She pointed out that in their forty-one-year existence only seven women had been awarded the Edgar for best novel. Yes. It was time to become reacquainted with Phyllis Whitney.

I chose one of her last works, The Ebony Swan, a story that encompasses a subject dear to my heart: ballet.

With a light touch, Whitney draws the reader into the worlds she creates. In the Ebony Swan, it is the lush backdrop of the Virginia Tidewater, where we meet Alexandrina (Alex) Montoro, now in her seventies, once a world-renowned ballerina. Alex was married to the late distinguished author, Juan Gabriel Montoro; they had one child, Dolores.  

The mystery: Why was Alex’s daughter dead? Twenty-five years earlier, Dolores died when she fell down a flight of steps, and Alex’s granddaughter, Susan, witnessed the tragedy at a very young age.  Ruled an accident, Alex feared the unknown truth and remained silent.

Did Susan, in a fit of childish rage, push her mother? Juan Gabriel, still alive at the time, was found unconscious on the hall floor above where Dolores’s body lay. Was he somehow responsible, or was there someone else in the house that day?

After Dolores’s death, the unspoken turmoil and competing passions in the Montoro family exploded. Susan’s father took her away from Virginia and forbade her to have any contact with her maternal grandmother, but after his passing, Susan found herself at a crossroads and decided to return to Virginia.

Despite her grandmother’s joy to be reunited with her only grandchild, Susan is not welcomed by all.  On the surface, her reception is friendly, but there is an undercurrent of fear and resentment. Could a return to the scene of her mother’s death jog Susan’s memory, and what will she remember? Who is friend and who is foe, she wonders, while getting to know Alex?   

A hint of romance adds another dimension, but anger, jealousy betrayal and danger drive the story as the impact of one deed crosses two generations.  

 Some say Whitney’s books start too slow for today’s reading public because she spends time and words immersing us in location, atmosphere, and historical data, making them relevant to her character’s lives and the story; for me, it was a breath of fresh air. Phyllis Whitney’s gift for spinning a yarn with gossamer threads that weave together in beautifully crafted storytelling is still compelling.   

***

Francine Paino, aka F. Della Notta, is a native New Yorker and a Texas transplant.  She loves learning about her new State and enjoys melding the cultures and characteristics of two cities: New York and Austin.

In 2018, writing as F. Della Notte, she created the Housekeeper Mystery Series in the tradition of the clergy amateur sleuths, with a 21st-century twist. The housekeeper isn’t a sidekick; she is the sleuthing equal of the priest. The second book in the Housekeeper Mystery Series, CATWALK DEAD, will be released in 2019.

Read more about Francine at her website.

Confessions of a Closet Re-Reader: Le Carré and his Characters

by Helen Currie Foster

In her 2001 collection Rereadings, Anne Fadiman challenged writers to revisit books they read before they were twenty-five, and still re-read. Contributor Arthur Krystal (his favorite re-read is a boxing book, Witwer’s The Leather Pushers), quotes George Orwell: “The books one read in childhood, and perhaps most all bad and good bad books, create in one’s mind a sort of false map of the world, a series of fabulous countries into which one can retreat at odd moments.”

Oh yes, “odd moments,” like when the world is too much with us. Then I repair to the shelves and drag off not only my pre-twenty-five faves (Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers, Jane Austen, Kim) but also later loves: Patrick O’Brian, tattered volumes by Dorothy Dunnett, mysteries by Rowling/Galbraith, Marsh, Hillerman—and, especially, John Le Carré. Over and over I return to the travails, humiliations, and perilous triumph of his character George Smiley. Sometimes re-reading feels guilty—shouldn’t I be reading Important New Novels, not the Le Carré spy novel genre?—but it’s  guilty pleasure, like getting on a train clutching a Hershey-bar-with-almonds I don’t have to share.

“John Le Carre” by Krimidoedal licensed under CC BY-3.0

One Rereadings contributor vindicated my re-reading of Le Carré. The terrific Pico Iyer addressed D. H. Lawrence’s The Virgin and the Gypsy, which he discovered “within the tightly guarded confines of a fifteenth-century English boarding school.” Iyer says, “[Lawrence] had something in common with all the great English writers who railed against English narrowness  and skepticism (Graham Greene and Somerset Maugham, John Berger and John le Carré)….”

Yes! An English writer calling Le Carré a “great English writer”! Rereading is justified!

For instance, consider Le Carré’s genius for character depiction. Let’s look at just two of his repeating characters, George Smiley and Peter Guillam, and their relationship, in three books: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974); Smiley’s People (1980); and his recent A Legacy of Spies (2017). Le Carré builds Smiley in part through others’ eyes:

From the outset of this meeting, Smiley had assumed for the main a Buddha-like inscrutability… He sat leaning back with his short legs bent, head forward, and plump hands linked across his generous stomach. His hooded eyes had closed behind the thick lenses. His only fidget was to polish his glasses on the silk lining of his tie, and when he did this his eyes had a soaked, naked look that was embarrassing to those who caught him at it. (Tinker)

A police superintendent describes the complexity behind Smiley’s face, in Smiley’s People:

Not one face at all actually, the Superintendent reflected….More your whole range of faces. More your patchwork of different ages, people, and endeavours. Even—thought the Superintendent—of different faiths.

He’s so physically unimposing as to be nearly comical, yet his intellect and ferocious tenacity come across to other characters. We come to understand why he inspires fear in his adversaries and devotion in those, like Peter Guillam, whom he has mentored.

In other words, I can pick up my Hershey bar with confidence that—again—Smiley will triumph…for the Circus…at least for a time. I have the same confidence as Guillam that Smiley will ultimately succeed…for this battle. So, another bite of Hershey bar.

And I, like Guillam, have confidence that while others are still scrambling to see the big picture, Smiley will ultimately hold all the threads in his hand. But—again like Guillam—I cannot see all the threads, until the end, if then.

Le Carré uses physical description to support Smiley’s reliance on Peter Guillam for sometimes perilous tasks. We see the younger Guillam in Tinker:

Guillam drove languidly but fast. Smiley wondered how old Guillam was and guessed forty, but in that light he could have been an undergraduate sculling on the river, he moved the gear lever with a long flowing movement as if he were passing it through water.

Le Carré shows us Guillam in action when at Smiley’s request Guillam sneaks into the Circus to steal records. Despite appalling potential consequences, under the very eyes of Smiley’s adversaries, Guillam pulls off a bald-faced daylight theft:

Move. Once you stop, you never start again: there is a special stage-fright that can make you dry up and walk away, that burns your fingers when you touch the goods and turns your stomach to water. Move…. His shirt was clinging to his ribs. What’s happened to me? Christ, I’m over the hill. He turned forward and back, forward again, twice, three times, then closed the cupboard on the lot. He waited, listened, took a last worried look at the dust, then stepped boldly across the corridor, back to the safety of the men’s room.

Then, when we meet him later in Smiley’s People, Guillam’s still fast-moving and independent (the Porsche has a role in the plot):

Guillam, it may be added, was an athlete, half French, but more English on account of it; he was slender, and near enough handsome—but though he fought it every inch of the way, he was also close on fifty, which is the watershed that few careers of ageing fieldmen survive. He also owned a brand-new German Porsche car, which he had acquired, somewhat shamefacedly, at diplomatic rates, and parked, to the Ambassador’s strident disapproval, in the Embassy car-park.

Guillam worked for Smiley on and off for years. By the uncomfortably present time of A Legacy of Spies, both are retired and have not seen each other in nearly a decade. Did Guillam ever see the big picture? He asks himself that question as first-person narrator of A Legacy of Spies, where we see everything through his eyes. British interrogators haul him out of retirement in France and back to London, where they confiscate his British passport (he’s hidden another elsewhere). They repeatedly demand, “Where’s George? When did you last see George? Or talk to him?” Guillam hasn’t, and won’t, until the last five pages of Legacy. The plot involves laying blame on Guillam for decades-old failures at the Circus, and Guillam has to rely on decades-old tradecraft skills to escape, plus, appropriately, some new skills, like resorting to his hearing aids (“deaf aids”) to buy time in his interrogation:

[‘Bunny’ Butterfield] “Let me ask you just one question ahead of the rest of the field. May I?” —squeeze of the eyes. “Operation Windfall. How was it mounted, who drove it, where did it go so wrong, and what was your part in it?”

Does an easing of the soul take place when you realize your worst expectations have been fulfilled? Not in my case.

“Windfall, Bunny, did you say?”

“Windfall”—louder, in case he hasn’t reached my deaf aids.

Keep it slow. Remember you’re of an age. Memory not your strong point these days. Take your time.

But when it appears his captors won’t let him go, Guillam is off and running

When the truth catches up with you, don’t be a hero, run. But I took care to walk, slowly, into Dolphin Square and up to the safe flat I knew I would never sleep in again. Draw curtains, sigh resignedly for the television set, close bedroom door. Extract French passport from dead letter box behind fire precautions notice. There is a calming ritual to escape. Don clean set of clothes. Shove razor in raincoat pocket, leave the rest in place. Make my way down to grill room, order light meal, settle to my boring book like a man reconciled to a solitary evening. Chat up Hungarian waitress in case she has reporting responsibility.…Saunter into courtyard….Prepare to join exodus to Embankment, never to return.

No spoilers about Guillam’s final reunion with George Smiley.  A Legacy of Spies feels even more complex than earlier plots, given Guillam’s flashbacks and immersion in old records, and more immediate with his first-person narration. Of course, British cold war spylore is still a trip to another country, though not necessarily as Orwell says a “false map of the world.” Indeed, Guillam puzzles over whether the Circus itself had a false map of the world, whether even George Smiley had a false map of the world, or whether he himself—with his unquestioning patriotism—had one, and Smiley might have known it was false but did not tell him, for all the best reasons.  

For re-reading? Where’s that Hershey bar?

***

 

 

Helen Currie Foster

Helen Currie Foster is author of the Alice MacDonald Greer mystery novels, the most recent of which is GHOST NEXT DOOR. For more information about Helen and her books, see her website.

 

 

Writing in an Atmosphere of Intimidation

Most writers, like all artists who create work for public consumption, have to overcome their own inner critics to create a finished work. The voices of doubt are strong and loud in their heads. Will anyone read it? Will anyone like it? Will people hate it? In the past, that inner voice of self-doubt was the main voice an author had to overcome.

revolution-30590_1280
art from Pixabay

But today, writers face an additional level of fear and doubt between themselves and their goal of reaching publication. They face an online atmosphere of intimidation. They face a world in which a work may be torn apart by a Twitter mob or Facebook mob before it’s even published.

In the last few years, several YA novels (Blood Heir, A Place for Wolves, The Black Witch, and The Continent to name a few) have been delayed or pulled from the publishing process before their publication date because of online criticism. Someone found what he or she considered to be a flaw in the advance reader copies of the works and cried out loudly enough to enrage mobs of people echoing the criticisms.

In one case, someone was offended by a character’s racist ideology. The character was designed by the author to be racist and to grow to recognize their own racism as the story progresses. That was a point the author was trying to make. In another case, an Asian author, who wasn’t raised in the United States, wrote a fantasy story drawing from her own perspective and background which touched on the history of indentured servitude and human trafficking in Asia. She was charged with being insensitive to U. S. racial history and U. S. cultural context.

The authors were vilified online, attacked personally and professionally, until they or their publisher felt driven to pull their books from the publication schedule. Their stories were prevented or delayed from reaching an audience by mobs who hadn’t even read the books.

demonstration-2137449_1280
art from Pixabay

Authors’ voices of self-doubt are already strong. Throw a harassing mob on top of that inner critic, and many authors, especially debut authors, will fold under the weight of the criticism. Because of the fear of online mobs harassing, attacking, and vilifying them, some authors are censoring their work as they write it. They are looking for ways to avoid offending anyone. These authors decide to err on the side of caution. They think, “Perhaps if I avoid this subject altogether, I can avoid offending someone. Perhaps if I don’t mention (fill in the blank), no one will attack me.” And, so begins the self-stifling of free expression out of fear of mob rule. Differing points of view vanish. Stories go untold out of fear. Difficult subjects are avoided completely rather than discussed.

Still other writers deal with the issue by asking someone else to review their work, looking for potentially offensive material. They hire “sensitivity readers” in hopes of catching any potential problems before publication. They hope that one person’s opinion of what’s acceptable will work for everyone, an idea that is doomed to failure. Authors can’t control what different readers see in their words because every reader’s inner vision, life experiences, and point of view will be different. What one reader sees in a story, another may not see at all.

protesting-3411685_960_720
art from Pixabay

It’s not merely harsh reviews these authors fear. They fear being trolled. They fear their phone ringing with obscene calls and incessant threatening texts, their web pages and Facebook pages being overwhelmed with threatening comments. They fear receiving death threats. They fear nonstop harassment of their families. When mobs consider offending someone akin to physically harming them, authors who write about difficult subjects risk sparking nonstop attacks with every work they release.

We are living in a Fahrenheit 451 world, a world in which the crime of accidentally offending someone can cause a book to be pulled from publication before it ever reaches a single vendor. We live in a world in which the crime of offending someone is punishable by online lynching. We need these attacks to stop. We need all voices to be heard and debated, not silenced before they ever reach publication by people who deem themselves to be “woker-than-thou.”

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N. M. Cedeño writes short stories and novels that are typically set in Texas. Her stories vary from traditional mystery, to science fiction, to paranormal mystery in genre. Most recently, she has been writing the Bad Vibes Removal Services Series which includes short stories, the novel The Walls Can Talk (2017) and its sequel coming in fall 2019. Learn more at www.nmcedeno.com or amazon.com/author/nmcedeno

Three Days at Wrigley Field

 


by K. P. Gresham

 

Hey! Hey! Holy Mackerel! The Cubs are on the field!

Baseball’s back, and I’m celebrating with a return to one of my favorite subjects—The Chicago Cubs. Yes, I am a huge Cubbies fan, so much so, I wrote a book about it, THREE DAYS AT WRIGLEY FIELD.

Why? Easy. Chicago Cub blood runs in my veins. And I come by it honestly. Blame my father, Ed Gabel.

Born on Chicago’s northside in 1920, Dad was a lifelong Cubs fan. In his lifetime he never saw his team win the World Series. Oh, they went a few times, but no World Championship. That never stopped him from rooting for the Cubs. I swear his DNA had Cubbie blue genes in it, and I inherited those beautiful blue chromosomes. I was a Cub fan from conception.

Wrigley Field was only six years old when my dad was born, so you could say the two grew up together. I remember he talked about how, during the depression, Mr. Wrigley let the neighborhood kids come in and sweep down the stands after games. Their payment was a free ticket to the next day’s game. Dad did a lot of sweeping back then.

When he was seventeen (i.e. 1937) Wrigley Field underwent a few renovations, enlarged for more seating, and put up the huge, iconic, hand-operated centerfield scoreboard. (Which is still in use!) And Bill Veeck (who started out with the Cubs) planted the bittersweet ivy along the outfield wall.

Yep, my dad loved the Cubs, and he passed that passion on to me. Sometimes a curse, but mostly a blessing. Hey, it’s taught me that success has many faces, and that it’s a cardinal sin to be a fair-weather fan. (And yes, that’s a direct dig at that team from St. Louis).

I wrote THREE DAYS AT WRIGLEY FIELD before the Cubs won the 2016 World Series. My favorite review from Publishers Weekly Booklife Prize called it “a love letter to baseball and powerful page turner.” A love letter to baseball. Yes, that’s exactly what it is.

Then came 2016, and my Cubbies won the World Series. As I watched play resume after that nineteen minute rain delay in the ninth inning, I thought of my father. Although he was long gone, I felt I was watching the unbelievable come true—but not just for me, for my dad as well.

To capture that soul-filling love in a book is humbling and exhilarating. I invite you to experience that love with me. Give THREE DAYS AT WRIGLEY FIELD a read.

***

K. P. Gresham is author of the Matt Hayden mysteries.

 

Crawling Under the Porch

M. K. Waller

 

 

  • by M. K. Waller

Last week, Fran Paino described how family obligations can keep a writer from writing. My post describes an experience that happened several years ago. It’s similar to Fran’s–and at the same time, very different. 

*

In her book The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron  introduces the  Artist’s Date–a weekly solo “adventure to feed the soul and allow for continued creativity.” In other words, artists–including writers–need to play. At a writers’ retreat in Alpine, Texas, author Karleen Koen led students through a whole week of play. Returning home, I vowed to incorporate the Artist’s Date into my writing life.

It wouldn’t be difficult. Central Texas affords plenty of places to play: Longhorn Cavern State Park at Burnet, lavender fieldsin the Hill Country,  the Elizabet Ney Museum, the Umlauf Sculpture Garden, and the Japanese Garden at Zilker Park, in Austin are only a few.

But having just had a week-long Artist’s Date, I chose to start with a Writing Date instead.

“Lady Macbeth,” the Elizabet Ney Museum, by Ingrid Fisch, is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0. Via Wikipedia.

Here’s how it went:

I woke at a reasonable hour and dressed to leave for my coffee shop/office.

Downstairs, doling out cat food, I realized I’d seen no cats. That was troubling. William usually slept late, but Ernest was an early riser. He often climbed onto my pillow and swatted my face, making me an early riser, too.

So I called, ran upstairs, searched, called some more. William, draped across his pagoda, opened his eyes and blinked but offered no help.

I ran downstairs, called, searched, dropped to my knees and peered under furniture. I ran back upstairs. Etc.

Finally dropping in the right place, I found Ernest under the bed, sitting in that compact way cats have, with all his feet nearly tucked in. His eyes were not warm and welcoming. When I tried to pull him out, he wriggled loose and ran into the hall and thence into the guest room and under that bed–a sure sign of a sick cat.

He reminded me of a get-well card I once sent to a great-aunt. On the front was a drawing of an orange tabby with a bored, Morris-like expression on his face, and the words, “Feeling poorly? Do as I do.” Inside it said, “Crawl under the porch.”

Ernest didn’t have a porch so he crawled under the next best thing.

I put batteries in the flashlight and girded my loins. Negotiating the guest room is not for the faint of heart. The bed is built low to the ground, and there’s stuff in there.

Again on my hands and knees, and practically standing on my head, I located Ernest lying in a corner near the wall. I stretched out on the carpet, reached as far as possible, and scratched his ears. He didn’t protest, but the look in his big green eyes said I’d better not make any sudden moves.

I didn’t.

Ernest is mostly muscle. Talons tip his twenty toes. He has a mouthful of teeth.

Barry Goldwater. PD. Via Wikipedia.

Like Barry Goldwater, he believes extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.

I believe in keeping my all blood on the inside of my skin.

But I also believe extremism in the pursuit of getting sick children to the doctor is a necessary evil.

And I had a pretty good idea of what had occurred.

Ernest suffers from what might be termed a sluggish constitution, aggravated by his habit of swallowing objects that aren’t food, like bits of string, thread, ribbon. We don’t leave it lying around, but he finds it anyway. The vet says cats are drawn to elongated things. Something about mouse tails, I guess.

The first time he hid under the bed, two years before, I had to authorize X-rays, ultrasound, and a simple procedure he really, really didn’t like. We refer to it as the $400 enema. Swallowing string can cause serious problems for a cat. So I had to get him some help before a minor problem became major.

I found his jingly collar, the one he refused to wear, lay down again, and jingled at him. He gnawed on the collar and purred. Then he flopped over onto his back so I could rub his belly.

After a couple of minutes the dust bunnies keeping Ernest company attacked. I began sneeze. Ernest doesn’t care for sneezing–it scares him–so I went back downstairs and sneezed till my throat was raw. Then I coughed. And coughed. And coughed. I couldn’t find cough drops or unexpired cough medicine, so I poured out the dregs of some extremely aged Jim Beam (my mother had bought it to baptize her Christmas applesauce cakes thirty years before), and added the only sweetener we had, David’s hummingbird sugar.

While I was resting, sipping medicine from a spoon, Ernest waltzed down the stairs. He sashayed past me and headed to the kitchen. I heard crunching. Then he sashayed back.

Sneak that I am, I lured him into my lap, applied a full nelson, stuffed him into the waiting crate, lugged him to the car, and hauled him to the vet. He protested. When two big dogs in the waiting room charged up to his crate to pant hello, he shut up.

First stop was the scale: seventeen pounds. No surprise. My back muscles were already crying for the massage therapist.

Then the vet poked and prodded and determined Ernest had indeed ingested something he shouldn’t have, probably something the shape of a mouse tail.

I had three choices: take him home, give him meds, and watch him for twenty-four hours; leave him there for meds and the procedure he really, really didn’t like and pick him up at five p.m.; or be referred elsewhere for X-rays, because our vet’s office was in process of being moved down the street and his X-ray machine was in pieces.

He said choice #1 would have been fine for his cat, but I chose #2. If I left Ernest there, I knew he would come home unclogged. If I took him home, he would run under the bed and I’d never see him again. I hated to leave him, but it was, after all, his fault.

Anyway, at five p.m., David and I retrieved Ernest and a tube of Laxatone for maintenance. Ernest recovered and, after a time, forgave me. Everything returned to normal, till the next time he ate thread.

And that is the story of what I did the day I didn’t write.

I’m still trying to decide if it qualifies as an Artist’s Date.

***

Note–and this is how I understood the veterinarian’s explanation, not to be taken as medical advice: Some foreign objects will biodegrade in a cat’s GI tract. String, thread, ribbon, and things of that type, even if they’re biodegradable, sometimes catch in the back of a cat’s mouth when he swallows. As food travels through the GI tract, the thread straightens out and becomes taut and can cut the cat’s intestines, necessitating surgery (if the problem is diagnosed in time). Laxatives can worsen the condition. A visit to a veterinarian is desirable.

***

Images
Field of lavender by David Bartus via Morguefile
Mouse by sibya via Pixabay
Ernest by owner

***

M. K. Waller blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly. Visit her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/kathy.waller68/

The Writing Life – For the Sandwich Generation

 

by Fran Paino

I’m a morning writer, and it’s morning. Filled with energy, and inspiration, I grab the notes I’d scribbled on the post-it when ideas woke me during the night. Sharpen those pencils and dust off the keyboard. Coffee’s brewing, toast pops up. Ready, set, go.

Not   So   Fast—

The phone rings. “Mom. Emergency. The sitter is sick. Can you take the baby for a few hours?” I, the devoted grandmother, agree to help. When the baby naps, I’ll write.

The phone rings again. The nonagenarian is desperate to get to the supermarket.

Welcome to life in the sandwich generation.

Here I am a piece of Swiss cheese firmly pressed between two slices of hearty Italian bread. On one side is my nonagenarian mother, a feisty old lady, who doesn’t look or act her age. She is in great physical shape other than the fact that she can’t hear very well, can’t smell very well, and claims not to be able to walk very well. As for the walking, just give her a shopping cart in the supermarket and try to keep up with her. I’ve lost several pounds chasing her up and down the aisles.

On the other side are my grandchildren, normal little people going through the different stages of emotional, physical and intellectual growth. They provide the expected tests for the adult nervous system: conflict, espionage, and subterfuge. Put any one of them together with the nonagenarian who wishes to be a revered elder and a naughty child at the same time, and it’s like herding cats.

And so, I pick up the 24-month-old and then the 95-year-old, and off to the supermarket we go!

The young one sits in the basket in front of me, and the old one is behind me zipping around with her cart and getting into as much mischief as possible, picking up candies and treats she knows the 24-month-old is not allowed to eat.

The child’s radar, of course, locks onto the junk food. She tries to elongate her little arm to reach over me and receive the treat from her great-grandmother.

The powers of observation in both the toddler and the nonagenarian are impeccable; their timing the envy of any dance team. If I turned to a shelf on my left, the nonagenarian reaches over my right shoulder to give the toddler some forbidden sweet. Once that sweet is in the 24-month-old’s chubby little fist, I must employ all my powers of persuasion to get it away. After I succeed, I turn to scold the nonagenarian but she’s disappeared. I find myself talking to thin air.

This continues up and down each aisle as the elder rises to the challenges of flexible movement and rapid deployment, accumulating as many different snacks as possible and passing them to her beloved great-grandchild before I can stop her.

The woman who cannot walk so well is able to dodge, feint and sidestep with incredible speed. She appears and disappears at key times while I actually try to gather items on the list.

At last, I make it to the check-out line where the naughty old child hands a candy bar to the determined young child. “Here, sweetie, take this,” but my antennae are up and my intercept quick.

I snatch the bar away before the little one captures it in her vice-like grip. Both the old and the young cry out in dismay. Finally, I have no choice but to appropriately discipline both, which nearly creates a riot at the register. It is my good fortune that no do-gooders are there to insist that I be reprimanded for reprimanding those in my charge.

Bags packed, groceries paid for, I swiftly maneuver the nonagenarian and the toddler to the car and get them safely strapped into their seats, after which I load the shopping.

I drop the nonagenarian at home with her purchases. And now there is one. This is manageable.

As soon as I reach the safety of my home, I promptly put the toddler down for a nap. Ahh. Blessed relief. It’s quiet at last, and time to write. I smile and close my eyes for a moment of peace to gather my thoughts.

The next time I open them, a little voice is calling, “Nonna.”

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The original version of this, “Supermarket Nightmare,” appeared in the March 2015 edition of Funny Times.

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Read more about Fran Paino at her website.

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Images via Pixabay:
Sandwich by mp1746
Kittens by Jan-Mallander
Candy bars by Alexas_Fotos
Interruption by geralt

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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It Begins with One Step – A Book Review of WILD by Cheryl Strayed

 

 

by Renee Kimball

Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves…”

― Cheryl Strayed, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

“Cheryl Strayed” by Moxie68 under CC BY-SA 4.0

Bravery. Courage. Confronting yourself, owning your failings and exposing your sins to the world, no excuses given and none allowed. Unearth black secrets, stand tall, forgive yourself, and find the strength to go forward. All of these are within the hard inner nugget of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. This is the book for all womenboth young and old; it is a talisman tale that will make a profound difference in how you see your life’s purpose. It is a punch in the gut, a kick in the rear, a message to confront your raw self and face what you see. It is not for the faint of heart.

Wild on its own is a remarkable achievement, but it is much more than a story; it is a lesson plan for life. Overcoming self-doubt, the past, the present, lack of talent, self-worth and a host of other things are laid bare in language that flows and connects. It forces the reader to think deeply, to look at their own life, to examine their flaws in the mirror, be honest with their actions, and then to find a way to self-forgiveness and to push onward to something better.

What drives a person to literally walk their unhappiness and self-hatred away? Loss, grief, disappointment, adultery, addiction, and guilt are only a fewmany more are in the mix for Cheryl Strayed.

She began her journey of 1100 miles alonethe Mojave Desert lay on Strayed’s right and the driest desert of California on the left. It was summerthe hottest time of the year. On her back stood her “Monster,” a pack towering above her upright body and weighing almost half her body weight. To position the pack on her back, she was forced to lie down and wiggle her body into straps, then maneuver herself into a sitting position while struggling to stand. Sometimes she was lucky and could lean against a rock to hoist her self up, but not always. Then, she began to walkall day, until she was physically forced to stop.

“I made it the mantra of those days; when I paused before yet another series of switchbacks or skidded down knee-jarring slopes, when patches of flesh peeled off my feet along with my socks, when I lay alone and lonely in my tent at night I asked, often out loud: Who is tougher than me? The answer was always the same, and even when I knew absolutely there was no way on this earth that it was true, I said it anyway: No one.”

Strayed’s trek was not a Victorian stroll in a garden; it was brutal. She fell, faced a bear and snakes and real thirst. There was always an uncertaintyon the edge of not knowing what could or would come around the bend.

She was exposed literally and figuratively. Her body racked with pain from her ill-fitting hiking boots, and her back from the constant press of the metal frame resting unceasingly on her back and shoulders. From the slipping and sliding of her feet inside her  boots she lost all but two toenails, pulling them off herself when them became too loose.

“Ritter Range” by Steve Dunleavy from Lake Tahoe, NV, United States is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Despite physical discomfort, she wrestled with unrelenting inner demons, a self-inflicted purge stretching on within with every new day.

She always had a choice of course: she could turn around, she could quit at the next stop available and go back homebut she persevered for three long months. The memory of her abusive childhood, her father a brutal drunk; a mother trying to mend the dysfunction under extreme financial hardships and then, the sudden loss of her mother; the destruction of her remaining family; the dissolution of her marriage, a result of indiscriminate and compulsive sexual encounters with strangers; her short escapes with heroin, and her loss of self-respect: Strayed’s thoughts percolated in a black and toxic sludge behind her eyesunrelenting punishment with no place to hide. Her saving gracethoughts of her mother’s steadfast patience and lovenow, out of reach forever. 

Fear begets fear. power begets power. I willed myself to beget power. And it wasn’t long before I actually wasn’t afraid.”

Cheryl Strayed is a hero of a new breed, a woman who is totally alone confronting issues of her life on her terms to full self-healing. Strayed’s issues, sadly, are familiar to women everywherethe overcoming of monumental loss of self and the dawning comprehension that you can face whatever is thrown at you and survive.

Strayed is an excellent writer. She knew she wanted to be a writer at six years of age. Despite the monumental difficulties of her life, Strayed succeeded beyond her expectations and it is a testament to her strength. Strayed is a warrior. All women can learn from her honesty.

Sometimes we come around to things the long way, despite our stops and starts, and surprise even ourselveswe survive. You will never regret reading Strayed’s storyyou may even glimpse a small part of yourself in the pages.

Read it, believe it, and live a long and full life; you can be a warrior too.

“Pacific Crest Trail,” Public Domain

I had diverged, digressed, wandered, and become wild. I didn’t embrace the word as my new name because it defined negative aspects of my circumstances or life, but because even in my darkest days—those very days in which I was naming myself—I saw the power of the darkness. Saw that, in fact, I had strayed and that I was a stray and that from the wild places my straying had brought me, I knew things I couldn’t have known before.”

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Related 

Strayed, Cheryl. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. New York.: Vintage Books, 2013.

Sachs, Amy. 20 Cheryl Strayed Quotes To Inspire You When You’re Feeling Lost.

Arreola, Cristina. 11 Cheryl Strayed Quotes from “Wild” That Will Inspire Your Own Live-Changing Journey.

CHERYL STRAYED: Best-Selling Author and Co-Host of Dear Sugar Radio

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Renee Kimball loves books and reads widely. She has a master’s degree in Criminal Justice and is involved in rescuing, fostering, and finding forever homes for homeless dogs. She’s working on a novel set in the southwestern United States.

Sometimes You Need A Break—

Helen Currie Foster

 

 

Posted by Helen Currie Foster

 

—from news, winter, deadlines, calamities. Two books did the trick for me this February, one old, one new: Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered (2018) and Nevil Shute’s Trustee from the Toolroom (1960).

First, Kingsolver, so inventive, alternates chapters between two protagonists in two centuries, one woman (contemporary), one man (1870 or so, during Grant’s administration). They occupy the same unsound house built in Vineland, New Jersey, a utopian venture built by the charismatic Captain Landis.

We first meet Willa, an unemployed writer whose magazine has evaporated; her PhD husband Iano has lost tenure and his pension when his last college cratered and now is lucky to have snagged a one-year contract as an adjunct at an unenviable college in now impoverished Vineland. They live in a falling-down house, trying to support Iano’s abrasive dying father, their “successful” Harvard MBA Zeke who’s saddled with over $100,000 in student debt while working gratis at a Boston startup, and Tig, their dreadlocked iconoclastic daughter, just returned from Cuba, where (she says) everyone is poor but has good healthcare and knows they must keep ancient cars repaired. Willa’s family is “unsheltered” in many ways: despite all their struggle to fulfill the American dream they grew up with—that hard academic work would lead to financial security—they face uncertain income, family struggles, and a collapsing 155 year old house. Tig preaches a different doctrine, battering her parents with the news that their American dream no longer exists. In chapter one Willa learns that the house which keeps them together, on which she must pay the mortgage, is too unsound to repair, and that her son Zeke’s partner has just committed suicide, leaving him with a weeks-old infant.

Segue to chapter two, where we meet our male protagonist Thatcher Greenwood, an idealistic young Harvard-trained botanist. Thatcher has just learned that the Vineland house where his young wife insists she must live, with her little sister and her ferocious aunt, was improperly constructed, is structurally unsound, and requires unexpected repairs which Thatcher cannot afford but is expected to undertake. As the new science teacher at the Vineland high school where he proposes to teach the thrilling theory of evolution, Thatcher encounters implacable hostility from the principal and from Vineland’s all-dominating and deeply corrupt founder, Captain Landis.

As disasters mount for Willa’s family she desperately searches for evidence that her house merits a grant for historic preservation funds.

As Thatcher faces rejection by his principal, which may cost him his job, he meets his mysterious next-door neighbor, Mary Treat, a self-trained botanist and empirical scientist. At their first encounter she’s engrossed in an experiment: timing a Venus flytrap as it slowly ingests the tip of her own finger. Thatcher is enthralled.

For Willa and Thatcher, the house is unsound. Supposedly utopian Vineland, corrupt and ignorant. Thatcher’s marriage, built on sand. Willa’s family, disintegrating into poverty. The imagined good life for which Willa and Iano worked, for which Thatcher studied? Unattainable.

And yet these vivid and believable characters persist. As Tig pushes Willa toward a new way to live outside an outdated dream, as Mary Treat inspires Thatcher to recapture his life amid redwoods and deserts, the two protagonists push into new territory—unsheltered by the old, looking for the new.

Kingsolver’s hugely contemporary novel satisfies deeply. Her strong science background, never pedantic, conveys the heady excitement of young botanists struggling against those refusing to accept empirical science (a social split we still face), while her creation of a family caught in the collapse of traditional American social ladders, trying to survive in the perilous gig economy, resonates with today’s headlines. Kingsolver erects signposts pointing at least one route to hope: the courage to relinquish old shibboleths that no longer support, but strangle, creative growth. Attention must be paid: survival requires strenuous creativity. Darwin rewritten?

Unsheltered offered me one break. Trustee from the Toolroom, Nevil Shute’s 24th and last novel (1960), provided another. Trustee, one of the top fiction bestsellers of 1960, introduces Keith Stewart, a pale, pudgy, mild-mannered Glaswegian, who lives with his shop-clerk wife Katie in the undistinguished London suburb called West Ealing (Shute’s birthplace). In his basement toolroom Keith makes actual working models—little steam engines, tiny clocks, pocket-sized turbines that run on a dropper-ful of gasoline. He publishes instructions for these models in the “Miniature Mechanic,” a magazine popular with amateur engineers worldwide. Keith’s considerable fan mail (including anxious questions about how to wind an armature) puts him in touch with admirers worldwide. He makes little money but loves his work.

He and his wife have no children. His sister brings her ten-year old Janice to stay with Keith and Katie while the sister and her navy officer husband sail their boat across the world, intending to land in Vancouver and start a business. They, and their boat, disappear. Keith learns he is Janice’s trustee. He learns Janice’s sole potential asset is a bag of diamonds possibly stashed on the boat. Keith has never left England, and cannot afford airfare to Vancouver. Nevertheless, he sets out to fulfill his duties as trustee, learning to stand watch on a sailboat in the mid-Pacific, to set a course, to—well, no spoilers. The tale becomes an irresistible seafaring yarn. Yes, it feels dated, taking us back to post-WWII Britain, still poor and austere, and the brash contrast of post-war entrepreneurial America.

Shute himself worked as an aircraft engineer in the thirties, first with de Havilland and then Vickers (his biography is titled Sliderule). He then moved to Australia. Like Kingsolver’s characters, Shute himself sought a new world with new lessons. But his Keith Stewart takes a different tack; he can’t abandon ship, because, after all, he’s a trustee. You too might like watching how Keith Stewart serves.

This Monday morning I’m back from the Pacific, back in the now-infamous Austin traffic, back staring at thousands of cars stopped dead on Bee Cave Road. Maybe I need to think about lessons from Tig and Keith Stewart. About…new ways to live?

***

Helen Currie Foster is the author of the Alice Greer MacDonald mystery series.

Thank You, Lady Gaga

 

K.P. Gresham

 

 

by K.P. Gresham

 

I recently had the incredible honor of attending Lady Gaga’s Las Vegas Jazz Show. I say honor, because this woman is so talented. Not just at singing, or dancing or playing the piano.

This lady can write.

I write fiction. I like to say I kill people for a living. This incredible woman writes the language of the soul.

I was struck by one song in particular. I am in the final stages of putting out my next book, MURDER ON THE THIRD TRY.  The questions I ask myself are overwhelming, and all have a common theme: Is this book any good? I know this something most writers struggle with. Actually, Robert De Niro said it best. “The mind of a writer can be a truly terrifying thing. Isolated, neurotic, caffeine-addled, crippled by procrastination and consumed by feelings of panic, self-loathing and soul-crushing inadequacy. And that’s on a good day.” That pretty much sums up my inner dialogue as I walked into Lady Gaga’s show.

Then she performed “Born This Way.”

From the time I learned to read and write, I knew I wanted to be an author. I wanted to create worlds that people could escape to, tell stories that would make people laugh. I wanted my creations to go down on paper and be shared with my friends and family. I knew in my heart I was born to be a writer.

One of the lyrics in “Born This Way” says, “In the religion of the insecure I must be myself, respect my youth.” This spoke to me on so many levels, but especially made me remember that I’ve known all my life that writing is what I born to do.

As Lady Gaga sings, “I’m beautiful in my way ‘cause God makes no mistakes. I’m on the right track, baby, I was born this way…I was born to survive…I was born to be brave…Don’t hide yourself in regret…There ain’t no other way.”

Writers, we are who we are. All the creativity and self-doubt. All the procrastination and all-nighters.  All the work at honing our skills and all the stuff we haven’t learned yet. Our lives would be a lot better if we could come to terms with ourselves as Lady Gaga has written it so beautifully. Be brave. Accept this is what we do and don’t look back or give in to doubts. We’re on the right track.

Wow. Thank you, Lady Gaga for talking to my soul that night. I’ll try to keep your words in my heart. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead, I’ll keep writing.

After all, I was born this way.

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Books by K.P. Gresham

Learn more about K.P. at www.kpgresham.com.