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Telecommuter Talk

Ramblings of someone who was a telecommuting editor, then wasn't, and still has grand delusions of being a writer.

Updated: 2018-03-05T17:38:43.621-05:00


New Blog


I've started a new blog, blogging under my real name and everything. You can visit me at Emily's Brain Works. Not sure yet if I want to say goodbye completely to good old Telecommuter Talk, but it seems it was time for me to move on. The new blog won't be all that different, and I hope you'll visit me there.

Thanks to all those of you who have stuck by me here all these years. It's been a great adventure.

Annoying People


Okay, so maybe a minister's wife shouldn't be focusing her attention on people who annoy her. I mean, I know I'm supposed to be loving and forgiving and all. Most of the time, I try to focus on the positive, to see the good, and to let go of the negative, reining in all the desire I have to complain about everybody and everything. I mean, I've read all the articles about how damaging and exhausting all that negative energy is. Still, it doesn't stop me from observing annoying people. And, you know, the digital age and social media have made it easier than ever for annoying people to be more annoying than ever. So, here's the list of some of the people I find most annoying.1. The Arguers. You know these people. If it's windy outside, and you comment on it, the first thing they say is, "No it isn't." And they just won't let it go, even as trash cans, lawn furniture, and small dogs go swirling by. Every time you post a Facebook update, you wait for them to come back with some long refutation (usually in an email) that leaves you thinking, "You have time for that?" You wait for the day when you post a photo of yourself, and they come back with a comment telling you that it can't possibly be you.2. The Puppy Dogs. For some reason, these people desperately, desperately want you to like them. You haven't seen them in years, and you thought you made it pretty clear that you really didn't like them. Maybe never saying a word to them and never inviting them to do anything just wasn't clear enough, though. Now that they are social media experts, they ask you to sign up for every pal, chirp, tack, chain, ivy (you name it, they're on it), and they just keep haranguing you with requests until you finally give in. You don't like them any better online than you did in real life, but you feel a little sorry for them, so you don't "unpal", "unchirp", etc. Probably they're just using you to pump up their stats, but then, that's kind of pathetic, too.3. The Gadget Addicts. These people never put their phones or tablets away and respond to every single text (which by the way, has some absolutely obnoxious "ring tone"), every tweet, every FB update, every email (if they're still bothering with those) when they're at the checkout register/at a restaurant with their family/sitting in a meeting with you/at a party/at a live performance, etc. Am I the only one who sometimes wants to grab a telephone and throw it across the room? Some people have jobs that are so important (presidents and prime ministers, doctors, intervention therapists, ministers, e.g.) so I will sometimes overlook this obnoxious behavior, but, really, I know there aren't that many presidents and prime ministers, doctors, intervention therapists, and ministers in the world. Also, probably even a president could wait till s/he's through a checkout line before responding to a text. Notice I don't even mention people and their gadgets while driving. There's another word for them, and it's worse than "annoying".4. The Narcissists. These people have new "profile pictures" featuring their latest favorite "selfie"s every time you log on to their favorite social media sites. I mean, I know I have a tendency to change my profile picture every 5-10 years or so, which probably is annoying, too, but still. Really, you look exactly the same as you did an hour ago. Get over yourself already; nobody else is nearly as fascinated as you are. Speaking of profile pictures, please don't put up a profile picture of a child, unless that child was you at some point in your life, because those are fun to see. Pictures of you with your child? Those are great fun to see, too, but pictures of nothing but your child? If I haven't seen you in twenty years, I want to see pictures of you, not some child I've never met. Besides, there's nothing more annoying, at my age, than trying to figure out who this person is who wants to friend you, hoping to see a photo that resembles someone you might remember knowing, and seeing a picture of an unrecognizable 5-year-old.5. The Bandwagon Jum[...]

Fifty is Nifty #1


When I turned 50 in February, I decided I was going to write 50 letters to 50 living authors whose works I love. I was also going to write 50 short stories. Recently, I decided I would add to those two goals with a third: trying 50 new things. Bob has listened to all this and made comments like,"That all sounds like way too much. I'm exhausted just thinking about it."Well, maybe it would be if I'd given myself some sort of deadline, but I haven't. I'm just plodding along writing my letters and stories at a pace that works for me (sometimes that means I write 3 letters in one week and then go 3 weeks without writing any, or one short story in a day and then another one that takes two weeks to finish). By far, the hardest of these three plans of mine has been the trying 50 new things.Let me explain this concept to you. This isn't some sort of "bucket list" of great adventures like bungee jumping over the Grand Canyon, or things I've been longing to do forever and am going to make sure I finally do. No, it's more of a paying attention when I've decided to do something new and different that I've never done. For instance, going to a yoga class at that studio I often pass in Lancaster City would count (haven't done that yet but still might).The reason it's been so hard is that I'm someone who is constantly doing new and different things. I didn't realize this until I started paying attention. 50 seems like way too few. I'm beginning to think I should've decided on 150 or maybe even 1500. I was too vague when I came up with this idea. "New thing" is very hard to define. For instance, Bob and I recently went into Philadelphia to the University of Pennsylvania Hospital to visit a member of our congregation who'd had major heart surgery. I'd never been, and maybe that should count. Then again, it's not exactly a "new thing" for me to visit a member of our congregation in the hospital; it's just that I'd never been to that particular hospital. Afterwards, we went to The Philadelphia Museum of Art (that's an experience that's almost yawn-worthy. We go there all the time), but we decided to eat dinner at the restaurant at the museum, where we'd never eaten, and which is only open for dinner on Friday nights. That counts as doing something new, I thought, but then I realized, no, it doesn't. Bob and I are always trying new restaurants. In fact, we rarely go out to eat without trying some place new, especially if we're in Philadelphia.I'm still working on defining "new thing" but have decided this blog is a good place to record some of the new things I'm trying, so now we get to the heart of this post. I'm doing something brand new for the next six months that involves books. It's an idea I've gotten from book blogging challenges that I've often thought about doing but have never done, which is to read only from my own overcrowded book shelves. This means, with the exception of books I have to get for book discussion groups, I'm not going to buy any new books to read or check out any books from the library. On May 31st, I bought my last two books (The Adrian Mole Diaries, because I was so sad to hear that Sue Townsend had died, and a pre-order of Tana French's newest, because, well it's Tana French, and it's a signed first edition). The last book I put on reserve at the library before June 1 actually came in the other day, so I did check something out post June 1, but that's it now until November 30.Well, technically, it's not it. I'm a librarian. There's no way I'm going to let our circulation numbers suffer just because I'm determined to try something new. Thus, I'm planning on checking out copies of the books I'm reading from my own shelves, if we happen to have them in the library system.So far, with nearly two whole weeks under my belt, this "new thing" is going swimmingly. The hyperventilating has stopped, and I'm happy to report that I never suffered from the DTs, which just goes to show one can find the willpower, somewhere, to stop spending all her money on books. I'[...]

Trigger Warnings


So, I didn't know about trigger warnings until I read this article by Rebecca Mead in the recent issue of The New Yorker. According to Mead, an article in the NY Times described trigger warnings as...preëmptive alerts, issued by a professor or an institution at the request of students, indicating that material presented in class might be sufficiently graphic to spark symptoms of post-traumatic-stress disorder.I was torn, as I read the article, which does delve into the recent shooting at UC-Santa Barbara. Everyone knows, given the numbers of attacks on college and university campuses that have made the news over the past ten years that classrooms can no longer be considered safe spaces. In fact, nowhere in America, it seems, is anyone safe these days. People might be tempted to say, "Well, you're safe at home", but, no, homes are often the most dangerous places for those who share their homes with violent people, especially violent people who have guns. Also, as a woman who has a rather vivid imagination and has probably read a few too many mysteries and thrillers, as well as watched a few too many episodes of things like Criminal Minds, I can tell you that I often don't feel safe in my own home, especially when I'm alone at night.I started the article, thinking "well, maybe trigger warnings are a good idea." I mean, I have friends who've been sexually abused or sexually assaulted to whom I've said, "Don't read Stieg Larsson." The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a book I very nearly put down and never picked back up, so upsetting was that first brutal rape scene, although I ended up loving the book by the end. Interestingly, though, I have a friend who was sexually abused by her father who devoured all three of the books and didn't seem nearly as traumatized by all the sexual abuse as I was. Which just goes to show, you really can't tell what is and isn't going to be a ptsd trigger.Realizing how arbitrary and unpredictable ptsd triggers are, I blinked and went from thinking maybe trigger warnings are a good idea to thinking, "How much more are we going to baby students?" If the reality of their lives is that some NRA-supported psycho with an AK-47 could burst into their classroom at any minute, or that they could get stabbed while walking from their dorms to their classes, or that they might have a roommate they think they know who is secretly plotting to bomb a marathon, isn't literature the best place to explore sudden, unexpected violence? Do we really need to shield them from fiction? By definition, literature is a safe place, because we all know that what's happening either isn't real or that it happened somewhere else to someone else. It doesn't need to be made safer for those who are 18 and over. The horrible things that happen to us in life rarely ever come with warnings. When an adult picks up a book or goes to a movie, he or she should know without having to be warned that it might contain something upsetting. Almost anything truly worth reading or watching and studying does.I went to college having barely watched anything more violent than The Three Musketeers. I'm very sensitive and empathetic and couldn't even watch episodes of The Three Stooges when I was young. I didn't find all the pain they inflicted on each other to be the least bit funny or appealing. My first year in college, I took a course called Cinema as an Art Form. The first movie we saw was A Clockwork Orange, and I'm not exaggerating when I say that I felt physically ill during most of the film, so violent and upsetting was it. The second movie was Mad Max. It made A Clockwork Orange look like a brilliantly choreographed ballet in comparison, so raw was all its violence. Again, I was physically sick. Do I wish these movies had come with warnings? I can honestly say, "no". Now, I know that's just me, and I'm not someone who'd ever been raped or beat up or shot at before I saw those films, but I do think that watching them was par[...]

In Which I Become Boring and Blog About Dieting


Since moving to Lancaster County, PA 6 years ago, a place that doesn't exactly specialize in exotic eating adventures, but that does specialize in some of the best breads and desserts I've ever eaten, I've gained 15 pounds. I don't look horrible at this weight, but it isn't a weight that makes me happy, and it means I can no longer wear some of my favorite clothes, so I'd like to get rid of it. Back when I was 35, losing weight wasn't a big deal. I'd get back into an exercise routine (usually lack of a regular exercise routine was the reason I'd gained), keep track of what I ate, and soon I'd be where I wanted to be. Not so much anymore. In fact, not at all anymore.It seems now my only choices are to exercise tons more or to eat tons less. Since I already exercise for 20-60 minutes 5-6 times a week, and, sorry, I'm just really not going to do anymore than that, the only real option for me is to eat less. For about a year now, I've been checking out different diet books and plans and doing things like trying to keep up with tracking my food and fitness at I'll lose a few pounds, get all excited, and then, well, you know, we have out-of-town guests, and I have to introduce them to the wonders of Amish sticky buns. Or someone invites me over for dinner and offers me two desserts, after I've already eaten an overflowing plateful of food, and, heaven forbid, I be rude and refuse. In fact, to be really polite, I'd better try both desserts or my poor host might think I don't like his or her offerings. Then there's that plate of brownies or cupcakes someone leaves in the kitchen at work. Whatever it is, all my willpower soon goes out the window.The thing about me, though, is that I'm someone who knows she only eats for three reasons. Reason number one is that someone else suggests it's time to eat, and I agree. This used to happen a lot when I worked in an office all day. At 11:00, someone would decide it was time to go to lunch, and even though I wasn't the least bit hungry, I'd agree and go along. Reason number two is that food presents itself. I'm really not someone who ever goes around thinking, "I'd like a doughnut. I'd better go get a doughnut." But if I walk into a bank, and they have doughnuts sitting out for their customers, well, I'll eat one. The third reason is that I'm actually hungry. This often sneaks up on me. I'll be busy writing a short story for hours, when suddenly, I'll notice my stomach is growling. I'll look at my watch and realize, oh, it's 2:00 p.m., and I haven't eaten anything since 8:00 a.m.In other words, I'm an impulsive eater, and I don't tend to be an emotional eater. I don't eat when I'm bored (which I rarely ever am anyway) or when I'm depressed. In fact, when I'm depressed, I'm one of those people who's less likely to eat. Ideally food would never present itself without my seeking it out; no one else would ever decide that 6:30 p.m. is a good time for dinner when I just went to Costco at 4:00 and ate every single sample offered; and I'd only ever eat when hungry. Life, alas, is never ideal.Something else I know about myself is that I'm highly suggestible. It's why I often avoid reading  reviews of books by my favorite authors and movies with my favorite actors until I've read or seen them. It's why I'm a borderline hypochondriac. It's why reading an issue of O magazine sometimes means I find myself thinking, "Hmm. Maybe Bob and I should sell everything and go build schools in South America."  O is full of ideas when it comes to dieting (as well as delicious-looking recipes meant to sabotage any diet, I've not failed to notice), so it was O that introduced me to the idea of the 5:2 Diet.I read an article written by a woman who'd decided to try this intermittent fast diet, initially thinking, "Oh, I could never do that." I've fasted on occasion and know it's something I don't much like doing, because rather than being one of those people who [...]

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran


Gran, Sara. Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011.

This was October's Connecticut mystery book club read. What an appropriate title for October (although I actually read it back in September).

I've never been to New Orleans, but I've always wanted to go. It's one of those American cities that mesmerizes me because it seems much older than it can possibly be, a city that must be at least 500 years old and teeming with all kinds of good and bad spirits, the two sides constantly struggling for control. Sara Gran's first Claire DeWitt mystery didn't disabuse me of this notion.

Gran's New Orleans is seedy, romantic, gothic, mysterious, evil, spooky, passionate... She's done a wonderful job of painting the city in a way that brings countless numbers of adjectives to mind, many of which are polar opposites. Having never been there, I'd say she's also done a wonderful job of capturing the city in all its complexity. And something about her brought Caitlin Kiernan to mind, even though the two authors are not of the same genre.

You'll get no unbiased review here. I loved the book from the minute I started reading it. Claire DeWitt is an interesting sleuth who, with the exception, maybe, of "the cozy", draws on all types of fictional detectives, rolling them into one to produce someone truly unique. Much to my surprise, I also found her truly believable, which she probably wouldn't have been in the hands of a less talented writer. She's part hard-boiled Phillip Marlowe (although with the 21st-century twist of turning more to drugs than to booze to numb all the horrors her chosen career forces her to face), part whacky Stephanie Plum and her ironic sense of humor, part Charlie Parker and his insight into the supernatural, and there's a little Hercule Poirot, since her mentor from the grave is a French mastermind. She's even a bit like Mary Russell, although she never apprenticed with the Great Detective himself the way Mary did with Sherlock Holmes. Claire, instead, apprenticed with another apprentice, who is also now dead and lives only in Claire's memory, dreams, and hallucinations.

Claire, who grew up in New York (Brooklyn, to be exact) is a former resident of New Orleans but is living in California when she's called back to the city that is swarming with her ghosts, to help find out what happened to a lawyer who disappeared in the aftermath of Katrina. With the help of some of those ghosts of hers, her own wit and ingenuity, not to mention consultations with the I Ching and the occasional hallucinogen, she manages to figure out that this "nice guy", just like this "nice city", might have had a seedier side. Along the way, she meets some interesting new people and reconnects with some old. I, for one, was quite surprised to discover whodunit and why.

Happily, there's a new Claire DeWitt novel. I'm quite content to add this series to my growing pile of mystery series I read.

50 Scariest Books I'VE Read


Thanks to Susan, I discovered this. The scariest thing about the latter is that, despite being a lifelong fan of horror and the supernatural, I've only read 17 books on the list of 50 (well, and part of 2, both of which spooked me so much, I had to put them down and never picked them back up again). Even scarier is that I'd never even heard of some of them. Maybe I haven't been reading that many scary books after all; maybe I can't really claim to be a fan; maybe I'm a mere piker when it comes to the spooky. No coward, I, I decided to face this fear head on, think of all the scary books I've ever read, and see if I could even come up with 50 to name as the scariest.Happily, I discovered I'm no piker. I came up with tons of scary books and had to try to figure out how to narrow the list down to a mere 50. The first thing to do was to take a cue from the originator and include only one book by any given author. That made it a tad bit easier, but still, this was no easy task. I finally found myself boiling it down to books I remembered keeping me up at night; or those propelling me go downstairs to be with others, if the other members of the household were downstairs and I was upstairs alone (or vice versa); or encouraging me not to look out windows; or inspiring me to lock myself into rooms where I felt (sort of) safe. That meant including some titles that aren't necessarily horror classics, or that don't even fall into the horror genre, but just that, for whatever reason, scared the bejeezus out of me when I read them. I'm sure some of them wouldn't scare me in the least if I were to reread them. Others, however, I've read multiple times and can depend on to do the job when I'm in a masochistic sort of mood and actually want to feel the need to lock myself in the bedroom and dive under the covers.I share with you my list (in alphabetical order by title), which does overlap with the "50 Scariest Ever" list. In compiling it, I've thought about how (like everything else about reading) subjective "scary" is. Vampires have terrified me all my life. Zombies? Not so much (except for the movie Carnival of Souls. Why, I don't know). I'd love to know which of these books others have read and found scary and which they haven't.(I'm way too lazy to go find cover images for all 50 books, so, in keeping with a good supernatural tale, you'll just have to conjure up your own images.)1. 1984 by George Orwell. Yes, the world he painted can only be described as horrific.2. The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson. Okay, now we know that it may all have been a hoax, but I didn't know that when I read it in my early teens. To this day I don't take too well to gatherings of 3 or more flies on windowsills.3. Best Ghost Stories of J. S. Le Fanu by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. A longtime fan of Uncle Silas, which didn't scare me at all, I made the mistake of reading this when Bob was away, and I was all alone. Lots of things went "bump in the night" in my house that night.4. Best Stories of Algernon Blackwood by Algernon Blackwood. All the stories are good, but on really, really windy nights, or when I'm racing against time to get off a hiking trail at dusk, it's "The Wendigo" that always comes to my mind and sends shivers up my spine.5. Blood Games by Jerry Bledsoe. Dungeons and Dragons game players and murder in my home state of North Carolina? Nothing scary about that, right?6. The Bog by Michael Talbot. If books were classified the way movies are, this one would be a B movie. Completely predictable and stupid and about something that shouldn't have scared me at all, and yet, when a friend urged me to read it back when it came out, it spooked me to death.7. Broken Harbor by Tana French. All of French's novels have had a spooky element to them, but this one was the one that got to me the most.8. Burn, Witch, Burn! by A. Merritt. Ridiculous to think [...]

Guest Post: Stephen King and His Movies


Today is Stephen King's 66th birthday, and this week I will have in my hands our library's copy of Doctor Sleep, the long-awaited sequel to The Shining. I've been reading Stephen King for over 30 years, and I'm looking forward to this new book, out just in time for Halloween reading. So, when Brandon Engel asked if he could write a guest post here comparing two of King's books to the movie versions, I agreed, not only because I love Stephen King, but also because I'd like to support a fellow blogger who is making a living through writing blog posts. Brandon's post follows with some of my own thoughts and comments included in italics.This September, author Stephen King will be celebrating both the release of his new book Dr. Sleep (a long-awaited sequel to The Shining) and his 66th birthday. Over the course of his career, King has authored over 50 novels, several of which have been used as the basis for feature length films -- with some adaptations adhering to King’s stories more closely than others.Let’s take a look at two dramatically different examples…The ShiningOne film which still gets some Stephen King fans riled up is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining-- which Stephen King himself was incredibly vocal about disliking upon its release in 1980. In more abstract terms, the film differs from the book in that the film places greater emphasis on the instability of the Jack Torrance character, portrayed in the film by Jack Nicholson. King’s stated intention was to portray the character in a more sympathetic light and to show his declining mental health as being more symptomatic of the corrosive influence of the spiritual entities who inhabit the Overlook Hotel. King’s chief criticism was that the Kubrick treatment made the film more about a domestic disturbance, and downplayed the supernatural elements of the story.EB: I'm disappointed to discover that King disliked the movie version, although his reasons make sense. I love Stanley Kubrick, and The Shining is one of my all-time favorite horror movies, one of the few that I still find terrifying, even though I've seen it many times. It's not as good as the book, of course, but as far as movies go, it's hard to beat.There are several other key differences between the book and the film though. In the book, there are large topiary animals who come to life. Kubrick’s version does away with the topiary animals, substituting them with a hedge maze. EB: And I always wondered why he chose to do that. It seems like it would've been a great special effect in a movie. Those moving hedges were one of the things that scared me most when I read the book, circa age 15.In the book, Jack Torrance dies when the boiler room explodes. In the film, he freezes to death in the hedge maze. In the book, Jack Torrance doesn’t actually kill anyone. In the film, he kills the Dick Halloran character (played by Scatman Crothers.)EB: One of the things that always impressed me about the movie was how scary it was despite the fact that so few characters died, especially since it came out during the height of the slasher movie craze. It was a great lesson for me, who was just beginning to discover horror movies other than what was available on late-night TV: people don't necessarily have to die (or be turned vampires) in order for a movie to be really scary). The key difference here, though, is that so much of King’s work is permeated by his ambiguous spiritual beliefs, which usually seem to have some foundation in the Christian narrative, whereas a defining characteristic of most of Kubrick’s work is his biting cynicism and religious skepticism. EB: Which is probably why I love both of them, because I have to admit I'm a bit of a voyeur when it comes to others' views about religion and spirituality.CarrieCarrie was historically significant as it was King’s first published no[...]

Now and Then by Robert B. Parker


Parker, Robert B. Now and Then. New York: Berkley Books, 2007.It's funny, the last CT mystery book club book was one in which a dead body doesn't make an appearance until page 60 or so. In this one, we have no dead bodies until page 70 or so. But the two books couldn't be more different. The Earl Derr Biggers, as I noted in that blog post, was a genteel read. If I hadn't known everything I was reading was leading up to some sort of mystery, I never would've guessed. Here, we hit the ground running, just waiting for at least one, if not multiple, murders.I've been meaning to read Parker for years and am glad I now have. This wouldn't have been my choice for first of his to read, being the anal-retentive sort of reader who likes to start at the beginning of a series, but now I've had a taste of him and realize it doesn't really matter whether or not I read the Spenser books in order (that's true for most mystery series, but there are some for which it really does make more of a difference, like Jacqueline Winspear). Probably one of the reasons I've been reluctant to get started with this series is that Parker was so prolific, and I've feared it would take me forever to read through all the books. Silly worry. Now that I've read one, I'm aware that even a slow reader like me could probably plow through all 30+ novels without taking the better part of a year to do so, unless the others are very different from this one.Much of this novel, which begins when a man hires Spenser to find out whether or not his wife is having an affair, is told through dialogue. That could be problematic in the hands of an unskilled writer, but it isn't here. The dialogue is good, and Parker doesn't waste your time letting you eavesdrop on a conversation in which one character explains something to another that should be perfectly clear (you've heard me rant against that elsewhere  -- see #7 -- here at Telecommuter Talk). No, Parker's characters talk to each other with the understanding that they don't need to fill each other in on background information. In other words, they talk to each other the way we talk to each other in real life. Parker's genius is that he manages to do so while also providing enough clues for the reader who may not know any of the back story to get up to speed. I like that. He's a good one to study for anyone interested in writing and improving dialogue (like me).Anyway, as you might guess, this tale turns into one that's about much more than a wife having an affair. We've got FBI agents here and anti-government organizations and stolen identities. But I won't spoil it for those of you who haven't read it. I'll just assure you that if you're looking for a real page-turner (yes, I stayed up way too late one night because I just couldn't put it down), you won't be disappointed.Spenser's an interesting character, and I was drawn into his relationship with Susan, a psychiatrist who also happens to be his long-term girlfriend and who plays a key role in the book. I'm gathering she's played a key role in others, as well. Although I enjoy P.I.s like Philip Marlowe who can't walk down the street without having multiple women throw themselves at him, I like coming across those who are involved in monogamous relationships like Spenser is. It adds a depth to their characters that makes them a little more human. Women apparently throw themselves at Spenser, too, but when he shows restraint, it's because he knows he's got something that means more to him than a one (or two or three) night stand, unlike a Marlowe, who does so for any number of other reasons (like the woman is just too pathetic). Spenser and Susan have obviously had their problems, but they're mature in their relationship.Finally, I loved the setting. For some reason, I've read quite a few books lately that take place in and around Boston. I hav[...]

The House Without a Key by Earl Derr Biggers


Biggers, Earl Derr. The House without a Key. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 2008.(This book was originally published in 1925.) If your thing is thrillers that jump right into a murder before you’ve even figured out who the main characters of a book happen to be then The House without a Key isn’t for you. You won’t find any dead bodies until you’re about 1/4 of the way into the book. I do happen to like those types of thrillers – in the right place and at the right time – but I absolutely loved this, the first of Earl Derr Biggers’s Charlie Chan mysteries.To be honest, when this book was chosen for the Connecticut mystery book club, I had no idea what to expect. I’ve never seen a Charlie Chan movie. I hate to say it, but my only real knowledge of this particular detective comes from the nods given by Saturday morning cartoon animators in the 1970s. I can’t even tell you which cartoons (Hong Kong Phooey, certainly, but he wasn’t very Charlie Channish. Bugs Bunny? Scooby Doo? The Flintstones?) sometimes featured Chinese detectives based on the character. Repeated exposure to cartoon images of the detective did help the young me figure out that Charlie Chan was a movie character, but, you know, those were old movies, like, from my father’s time, when it only cost 10 cents to go see something in black and white.If this first book is any indication, I’m surprised that Earl Derr Biggers isn’t the household name among readers that an Agatha Christie or a Raymond Chandler is. Maybe that’s what happens when Hollywood truly gets hold of a character but not the author who created the character. I mean no one talks about Hercule Poirot movies or Philip Marlowe movies. The authors of the characters are the names people know. I’m quite sure that if I asked your average reader, “Have you ever read any Earl Derr Biggers?” the answer would be, “Who?” He really deserves more than that.I loved the slow start to this book that lured me in and made me forget I was reading a “murder mystery”, so much so that I was a bit shocked when I finally encountered The Body. We’re given details that bring both the setting (Hawai’i) and the characters to life. Biggers definitely knew about patrician families and the “black sheep” of such families. He paints a dream-worthy portrait of Hawai’i, a place whose trade winds can mesmerize even the most Patrician members of a New England patrician family, causing them to lose all sense of themselves (maybe even to forget proper grammar). I could just taste the pineapple and smell the leis made with fresh flowers.Books like these are the ones that make me hate the notion of “genre fiction” and everything it implies to most critics. Then again, I have to admit that I’m a bit elitist in my own way when it comes to genre fiction. Tell me you love to read 21st-century romances, or mysteries, or (popular where I live, the relative newcomer) inspirational fiction, and I’m highly likely to judge you as a rather superficial reader. But tell me that you love the romances or mysteries or inspirational fiction (most of Louisa May Alcott, for instance) that have proven the test of time, and I’ll judge you as a “real reader”. There are pages in this book that you could’ve handed to me before I read it, asked me who I thought the author was, and I might have responded, “Henry James?” Or someone of his era and disposition. So, yes, there is a murder, and we eventually get caught up in all the things I love about a good murder mystery: whodunit? why? which clues mean something?, etc., etc., but there’s also an undeniable focus on class distinctions, racial distinctions, family dynamics, and gender issues, all set against the backdrop of these exotic islands. So exotic are they, in fact[...]

The Agony and the Ecstasy


Why, yes, here I am. Has anyone even noticed that I’ve been MIA? Probably not. Before I get started on this long-overdue post, I wanted to let those of you who don’t already know and who might be interested in my more contemplative side that I’ve got a new blog this year over here. I can't promise that I’m any better about writing there, though, than I am about writing here. I can promise that books play a major role, as they always do, no matter which side of me you’re encountering. Now, I thought maybe some of you might be interested in a glimpse at a week in the life of a writer who is hard at work on the second draft of a novel. She’s been working on this second draft for well over a year, had been sure it would be done by now. This, she has discovered, is what happens when one writes the first draft constantly saying to herself, “Just get it down, get it down. You can look that up, work that out, fix that, etc., etc. when you get to the second draft.” (Okay, maybe this didn’t all happen in one week, but it’s sort of an “average” week and very easily could happen all in one week.)DAY ONEWriter has just been informed by a high school swimmer that the high school swim season is in the fall. Writer could just pretend to ignore this fact, calling on “poetic license,” and could let her teenage character live in an area where swimming is a spring sport. After all, the book takes place in a town that doesn’t exist. Why couldn’t it have an imaginary swim season? But writer is anal retentive and always wants basic facts to be accurate. This necessitates a complete reorganization of the book, because a major episode in the book revolves around this teenager who is on the high school swim team. “Thank God for computers that allow one to cut and paste. This shouldn’t be too difficult to do…Oh, wait a minute, if this section is moved here, and this section is moved there, then I’m going to have to change that whole boat section, since most people don’t go boating in Massachusetts in the middle of January. Oh, that’s perfect, the fight between [character A and character B] works much better now that it’s been moved. Oh, but wait a minute. Oh shit, [Character A] can’t be pissed at [Character B] for [Action C] when [Action C] hasn’t even happened yet. Damn! How am I going to fix that? Will it help to move Action C to Chapter 3? No, not unless I get rid of [Character C] in Chapter 3. But I don’t want to get rid of Character C in Chapter 3. That’s one of the best parts of Chapter 3. She deserves to stay. Hmmm…maybe if I cut this section, move that to Chapter 6, and add a bit here about why Character A and Character B won’t see eye to eye? There. Oh, hell, Chapter 3 is now 78 pages long, and Chapter 5 is only 3. Oh, and the vernal equinox has taken place in early August.” (It’s worse than one of those old-fashioned, uncreative, math “word problems” isn’t it?)At which point, writer goes and pours herself another cup of coffee and decides to check Facebook and email and respond to neglected friends and family members.DAY TWONo matter how difficult it is, writer is determined to sit at the computer, working on the second draft of the novel for at least two hours (the minimum she has allowed herself to put into it every day).“Okay, I’ve got this figured out now. Just need to add a scene to Chapter 4 that will help Chapter 5 make sense.”Writer opens her saved working outline of the book to see where this new scene might make sense in Chapter 4. The outline mysteriously stops after Chapter 3. The book has many more than 3 chapters.“Huh?! What’s happened to my outline? I can’t work without my outline! Don’t tell me I accidentally cut a huge chunk of my outline and saved it that way.”Writer [...]

Do I Need Shoe Shopper's Anonymous?


Okay, forget all your preconceived notions of dowdy, matronly librarians. I happen to work in a library with six paid staff members, and only one of us is someone who just wears whatever is comfortable (casual pants and a casual top most of the time. To tell you the truth, I adore her, but I don’t pay that much attention to what she wears, so I can’t really describe it). The others? Oh my God! They make me feel like I need to start attending fashion shows. Each has her own style from Bohemian to funky to classic tweed, and they all pull it off beautifully.I was beginning to feel a bit intimidated surrounded by all these glamour librarians (Ms. Musings and Zoe’s Mom, where are you when a gal needs a trip into Philly with personal shoppers?). Then, one of my colleagues came to the rescue. She’d been checking out books on fashion that we have in our countywide library system, and some of them looked quite good. I immediately began putting my own reserves on them and checked out a few that we actually had on our own shelves (she pooh-poohed these because they were all at least 7 years old – way too old for the truly chic).My books all came in, and I began to read them. My two favorites were Wear This, Toss That by Amy E. Goodman (although I didn't always agree with her), and The Lucky Shopping Manual by Kim France and Andrea Linett (my colleague was wrong about being out of date when it comes to this book published in 2003. It has timeless, practical advice). I like these two because they’re heavily illustrated and have all kinds of great hints and tips. Also, neither one insists you define your “body type” and dress accordingly. Did I ever tell you about having my “colors" done back in the 1980s when that was all the rage? The woman who did it, ultimately couldn’t figure out if I was a “spring” or a “summer". Guess what. I have the same problem with body type. I guess I really did break some mold somewhere.The Lucky Manual is terrific, because for each article of clothing, it provides a page of specific illustrations. I (who have never been very up on fashion terminology) could look at its dress page and know exactly what a “shift” is. I also like it, because for each article of clothing, it has a section that tells you how to build your closet for that item. It starts off, “You’re totally covered if you have…” letting you know which basic pieces you need and also what to add if, for instance, you’re “a gal who loves dresses.”I’m busy thinking, “This is terrific!” It means I can shop my closet, streamline, get rid of what I don’t need, and buy those items that will keep me totally covered. Shopping with specific items in mind, as long as I can find them (and basics should be pretty easy to find) is far more appealing to me than aimlessly shopping, unless, of course, I’m shopping for shoes.Which leads me to the shoe section. And this is when I realize that maybe I have a bit of a problem. Maybe I need to attend a shoe shoppers support group. I mean, up until I’d reached this section, I’d found the book to be so practical. “Okay, I need 2 good white tees, 2 good black ones, 4 tanks, 1 striped tee, and 1 henley (whatever that is) or polo. That I can do.” Then I began browsing the shoe section. Let’s just say, my blood pressure was on the rise.Okay, first of all, it opens with this page that pictures a gorgeous array of shoes to illustrate what a platform or a clog or a flat or an ankle boot is (funnily enough, I have no problem with shoe terminology). I will forgive this section for not portraying a single sneaker or such classic footwear as topsiders or espadrilles. I mean, if we’re going to be told, basically, that we should never be caught dead in clunky athletic[...]

My 25 Favorite Reads of 2012


(This is a long overdue post, but maybe people are looking for some new titles to help them with any reading challenges they may have signed on to do in 2013 -- people still do that, right? -- and will discover some here.) I keep detailed statistics of the books I read every year, because I’m geeky like that. For several years, I wrote blog posts that noted how many books I’d read total and then broke them up into categories like “books by male authors” or “books by American authors” or “books written in the 19th century”. I’ve found that it’s gotten a bit depressing to do that, though, because every year I begin with all these grand plans to, say, read very few books from the 21stcentury, since I’m so disappointed by so many of them, and then I wind up reading 63 books written in the 21st century. Or I decide I’m going to read more short story collections, and I read none. Or I’m going to read more books translated into English from other languages this year, and then I read 6 (and do two Stieg Larssons really count?).Rather than looking too closely at all the numbers and reminding myself that, basically, I’m still just a book slut who should stop pretending that meaningful relationships are all she wants, I’m going to do something different this go-round. I’m going to boast that I finished reading 95 books in 2012, decided not to finish 4, and was nearly through 2 others when 2013 arrived on the scene. This means I read a whopping 49,500+ pages. Wow! That sounds pretty impressive.These are the 25 that I thought were the best (arranged alphabetically by title). This doesn’t mean they were necessarily the sorts of books that wind up on “greatest books” lists, but they are the ones that resonated with me, that made me laugh or cry or think, or that made me abandon almost everything else in life until I’d gotten through them. I’d love to know what others thought of any of the books on this list, so please feel free to share your opinions.1. 1984 by George OrwellI expected to drag myself through a ho-hum classic. Instead, I was riveted and terrified and talked about it ad nauseam to anyone who would listen. If anyone isn't tired of listening, I wrote about it on my library blog here.2. 11/22/63 by Stephen KingThe Stephen King book for people who don’t think they like Stephen King. But I already like Stephen King, and this one tackled one of my favorite subjects – time travel – with such an interesting premise, one that was quite believable despite being quite absurd. Oh, and we had a little (doomed) romance, too. I loved it.3. About Time by Simona Sparaco“Wow!” That’s the one-word review I wanted to write about this book when I wrote this instead.4. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman AlexieI absolutely, truly did not want to read this one for my book-and-a-movie discussion group. I was absolutely; truly wrong not to think I was going to love this funny and sad little book about surviving and how we choose different identities in order to do so. (We followed it up with Smoke Signals, a movie I saw when it came out, but which was even better than I remember after having read this book.)5. Broken Harbor by Tana FrenchOkay, so when is the next Tana French book due to be published? As far as I’m concerned, she can do no wrong.6. Burn, Witch, Burn! by A. MerrittThis book had every horror ingredient to make Emily happy: questions of science versus black magic; creepy dolls; a heavy reliance on ancient myth and folklore; the role of psychology in fear; and plenty of ambivalence about what was really happening. Set it in New York City, and really, what could be better? (NOTE: at 2:30 a.m. – I’m sure tho[...]

A Coffin for Dimitrios by Eric Ambler


Ambler, Eric. A Coffin for Dimitrios. New York: Vintage Books, 2001.(This book was originally published in 1939.)"Yet another one of those forgotten mystery writers of the early 20th century. Ambler is caustic in a way I like, and there was a very good surprise at the end. It's a great vacation read, and I'll probably read more of his at some point."That's what my brief review of this book on Goodreads says, which I wrote after I read it back in July of 2011. I was thrilled when it was chosen as this month's book for the Connecticut mystery book group, because (even though this is the only book of his I've read thus far), I think it's high time the world rediscovered Eric Ambler, who was recommended to me by a friend who never steers me wrong. If you look him up, which I did last time I read him, you'll find he's described as a writer of "spy novels." I suppose I need to read more by him, because I wouldn't describe this book as anything other than an ordinary old mystery, even more so because our "hero" isn't a spy. Yes, we encounter espionage, but our protagonist Latimer is a former professor turned full-time mystery writer. To get an idea of Ambler's wry sense of humor, you hit it on the second page of the first chapter in this description of Latimer:A Bloody Shovel was an immediate success. It was followed by 'I,' said the Fly and Murder's Arms. From the great army of university professors who write detective stories in their spare time, Latimer soon emerged as one of the shamefaced few who could make money at the sport. (p. 10)I was hooked the moment I read not only that line about the army of university professors, but also those book titles. The book titles become even funnier when Latimer (who has settled in Turkey when we're first introduced to him) meets the Turkish Colonel Haki, whose common language with Latimer is French, and has to spend "some time trying to explain in French the meaning of 'to call a spade a bloody shovel.'" (p. 15)But let's get back to the notion of a "spy novel." This is the second book I've read for the CT mystery club whose author is generally known as a writer of that genre. Maybe I need to redefine that genre for myself, because I expect it to be technical and (despite all the "page-turning" claims) boring, which I noted when we read John Le Carré. Neither this nor Call for the Dead could be described as technical or boring. I will say that if I'd just read a description of the two books side by side, and had been told to pick one, I would have chosen this one for the fact that it was written before the Cold War, a topic I find tiresome. Funny, though, I did find similarities between the two books, and not just because they both involved spies. It had more to do with the matter-of-fact writing style of the two authors, although based on these two books, I'd say Le Carré was the more sentimental of the two. Le Carré has more of a sense of longing for the good old days and wanting everything to be right and in its place, whereas Ambler seems to be laughing at human desire for such things (sorry. These are just feelings I have, and I can't really back them up with any examples or clues as to why I have them. Maybe someone else in the group, having read the two books I have, can identify why I might feel this way?). The other author Ambler brought to mind, strangely enough, was Somerset Maugham. There's this wonderful old-fashioned style of writing that's gone completely out of vogue these days, probably because editors and publishers don't think anyone has the attention span to tolerate it, in which a story's narrator likes to give his or her opinion, an opinion which is usually philosophical in nature and often involves quoting o[...]

12 - 14 - 12


It's been a month since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, a very tough month for me (which is why a New Year's resolution to revive this blog was put on hold for a couple of weeks). If I still have any readers left who were with me when I began this blog, you know that I moved from Connecticut to Pennsylvania five years ago. What you may not know is that I moved from the village of Sandy Hook in Newtown, CT. I wrote on my Facebook page, but it's worth repeating, that I'm saddened that I will never again have this conversation:"So, where did you live in Connecticut?""Newtown. You've probably never heard of it. Do you know Connecticut at all? It's between Danbury and Waterbury."It's funny how life works. I hadn't been back to Sandy Hook for some time, but in early November, while in CT for Rebecca's baby shower, I had gone to Sandy Hook with Zoe's Mom (just after Hurricane Sandy had devastated other parts of Connecticut I know and love. 2012 was not a good year for the name "Sandy"), so I could meet the new tenants who are renting Bob's and my house and to take a "walk through" with them. Our old tenants -- former neighbors with 3 young boys -- had moved into a house not far away, but I hadn't seen them this go-round. My November visit reminded me of the early days of Bob's and my marriage (we moved there together the year we got married and lived there for 12 years), of questions about whether or not we should have children, of the neighbors we knew and loved, of the friends we made at Valley Presbyterian Church in nearby Brookfield (many of whom lived in Newtown, like we did. New England doesn't have many Presbyterian churches, and it was the only one in the area). Sandy Hook was a lovely little place to begin married life.We've been away long enough that most of the kids we know are too old to have been in attendance at Sandy Hook Elementary on Dec. 14th, but we did know of six children (including our former tenants -- Bob and I used to babysit the oldest boy -- and Zoe's Mom's niece and nephew). We spent an agonizing two days waiting to hear whether or not they were all okay. Understandably, getting back to messages sent/left by Bob and Emily was not high on parents' priority lists at that time. We got final word when the list of victims was released late Saturday afternoon. Nobody we know personally was listed among the victims.That is not to say we know anyone who hasn't been affected. It's a small community, one in which it's impossible to raise children and not to have known at least one, if not all, of the victims. We even heard from one friend who is a school nurse in the city of Bridgeport at a middle school. Her school was suffering that day because Sandy Hook's principal, who was identified early on, was married to one of their teachers. Our friend described how hard it was for her colleagues that day, suffering as they were, to try to hold it together for the students, all of whom were getting all kinds of misinformation via cell phones. Because Bob and I lived in Newtown for over a decade, I also happen to know young men and women  (I still think of them as "kids" even though they're in their early twenties now) who went to school with Adam Lanza and his older brother Ryan. How sad for one young friend in particular when early reports identified Ryan as the gunman.So, it's been a month, and I'm still grieving. I'm not as glued to the news about it as I was 3 and 4 weeks ago, but I still find myself crying at odd times. I expect to grieve for quite some time, especially when I think of all the kids I've known personally who spent their first few years of school at Sandy Hook Elementary. The last time I was at the s[...]

(The Many More than) Five Book Meme


The Queen o' Memes really ought to relinquish her crown at this point, but, every so often, she polishes it a bit and decides to pick up on someone else's meme. Maybe, one of these days, she'll even create one of her own. In the meantime, she saw this one both at Litlove's and Ms. Musing's. And, well, you know, the Queen can't resist a book meme.1. BOOK I'M READINGSince I am almost always reading more than one book at a time, this one really ought to be "Books I'm reading." I thought about narrowing it down to one title, but that wouldn't be any fun, would it? So, here you go:a. The Abbot's Ghost by Louisa May Alcott"Christmas just won't be Christmas without any Louisa May Alcott." Or so I think whenever December rolls around. For some reason, every Christmas vacation when I was a kid, I seemed to read at least one book by Louisa May Alcott. The Abbot's Ghost is supposedly one of those "sensational mysteries/thrillers" she wrote to earn her keep before hitting it big with the likes of Little Woman and Little Men. It can also be classified as a "Christmas read" since this little edition of it bears the subtitle "A Christmas Tale." So far (at nearly the halfway mark), I have yet to fathom how it could be a mystery, why it's called a Christmas tale, nor why there's been no abbot and no ghost. Maybe these mysteries will be solved by the time I finish it. Anyway, as always with Alcott, I've met some interesting (if somewhat stereotyped) characters.b. The Ghost and the Dead Deb by Alice KimberlyI know it's supposedly the Christmas season, so why am I reading all these books about ghosts? Well, you know me and ghosts. As far as I'm concerned, we could just celebrate Halloween every month and forget all the other holidays (sshhh, don't tell The Minister I said that). The Ghost and the Dead Deb is the second in a series that merges the "cozy" genre with the "hard-boiled" genre by including a bookstore-owning, accidental sleuth and a dead PI whose ghost happens to be stuck in her bookstore.  Such mindless fluff is the sort of thing that ought to be found in every Christmas stocking, along with the chocolate-marshmallow Santas.c. The Path to Power by Robert CaroSuch mindful iron is not the sort of thing that ought to stretch a Christmas stocking, but I've been reading The Path to Power since well before December, and I'll probaby be reading this mammoth book about Lyndon Johnson for the rest of my life, which means I won't have time to read all the others Robert Caro published afterwards (4 in all, each hovering around 800 or so pages long). In fact, I've been considering writing blog posts about this as I read through it -- about 10-20 pages at a time -- but have yet to do so, which means I probably won't. Suffice it to say (for now, unless I get motivated to write more) that it's a fascinating history, extremely well-written, and a wonderful look at a piece of American politics (maybe even a wonderful look at 20th-century American politics in general).d. Domestic Manners of the Americans by Mrs. TrollopeA couple of years ago, one of my English cousins was staying with my parents and reading their copy of Domestic Manners of the Americans, which I never knew they had. My cousin was raving about how good it was, and my parents couldn't believe I'd never read it, so, this year, when they were moving and getting rid of tons of books, my mother gave it (a lovely, illustrated copy published in 1901 that is, sadly, beginning to fall apart) to me. OMG, what fun it is! Mrs. Trollope (yes, the mother of THAT Trollope) came to America in the late 1820s and spent something like 3 years here. This is [...]

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes


Hughes, Dorothy B. In a Lonely Place. New York: Feminist Press, 2003. (This book was originally published in 1947.)Oh, where to begin with this month's choice for the CT mystery book club? Maybe I should start by saying that I'm going to address two things. The first will be the book itself. The second will be the Afterward to this edition, written by Lisa Maria Hogeland of the University of Cincinnati. And a warning: SPOILERS. I hate spoilers, but I really can't avoid them with this book.First, the book. Some of you may remember how I waxed poetic o'er Dorothy B. Hughes's The Expendable Man, so I was excited to read another book by her that I probably wouldn't have gotten around to until ... well ... ever (truth be told). I don't watch many movies, so I'd never seen the movie version of this book and had no idea what to expect. I'm glad about that, since the movie, apparently, differs significantly from the book and would have reinforced the preconceptions I had when I began to read (because, of course, merely not knowing what to expect didn't mean that I had no expectations).The biggest expectation I had was that there would be some sudden surprise, a plot twist that I didn't see coming. That's what Hughes gave us in The Expendable Man (read almost anything that discusses that book -- including the Afterward to this one -- and you will, unfortunately, be informed of that surprise from the get-go. I, however, refuse to spill the beans. The whole brilliance of the novel is not knowing until Hughes is ready to tell you. Thank you, Persephone, for keeping it out of your ad copy). That means, despite being told from the beginning that Dix Steele was a murderer, I didn't believe it. (I guess if you've seen the movie, you'd approach this book with the same expectation, because he isn't in the movie version.) I kept waiting for the moment when All Would Be Revealed: he was a private eye, one step behind a killer but one step ahead of the police detectives, or he really was writing a novel, and again, was one step ahead of the police detectives in a way that would help them solve the crime. That's the sort of book I expected Hughes to write. If you read it with that expectation, you'll realize there's nothing concrete (at least nothing that I spotted) pointing to him as the murderer, nothing one can't "explain away" while waiting for the Big Twist to reveal itself. In hindsight, I suppose Hughes did that on purpose, wanting the reader to be unsure about whether or not this was a killer, since it's so rare to tell a murder mystery from the killer's point of view the way she did.Well, I'm the fool. What is it I've heard over and over again from all wise fictional detectives? Even Brub Nicolai, Dix's former army buddy turned police detective, knew that the simplest solution is almost always the correct one. I was busy creating all kinds of alternative realities for Dix when his reality was right there in front of me, while he was confessing to me, even. He was seeking female victims, raping and strangling them, and he had a serial killer's ego, "Let's make this more exciting by socializing with the police detective assigned to my case. Will he ever catch All-So-Clever-Me?" What's interesting to me here is that Hughes, writing before the term "serial killer" had come into being, had the profile down pat (I know this, of course, because I've watched my share of episodes of Criminal Minds and have read my share of Thomas Harris books). Dix taunted the police. He was sure he was covering all his bases, and he was even more sure no one would ever catch him.I'm twice the fool for having paid attent[...]

About Time by Simona Sparaco


Sparaco, Simona. Howard Curtis, tr. About Time. London: Pushkin Press, 2011.One of the wonderful things about blogging is that, every so often, some terrific independent publisher stumbles across your nearly dead blog, decides that you write reasonably well about books, and offers to send you a book to review so that you can breathe some life back into the blog. Such is the case with Pushkin Press, and, man, what a way to breathe life back into this blog! Pushkin Press is a terrific publisher that is putting international material into the hands of the likes of me. This is the second book they've sent me, and all I can say is, "I am certainly one lucky gal!"I'm tempted to write a one word review of this book: "Wow!" But I won't because I'm too enthusiastic about it, and when I'm enthusiastic about something, I'm not a woman of few words.Let me start by saying that I closed the book, turned to Bob, who was reading some minor work that couldn't possibly compare  and said just that, "Wow!" I then went on to say that this book is a masterpiece, the sort of book that rarely gets published today (at least, not by The Big Six publishers). I loved it for being one of those books that I can't believe is only 183 pages long. By the time I'd finished it -- which didn't take long, so riveting it was -- I was convinced I'd read some chunkster. The book is so much: parable, romance, father-son domestic tale, dark fantasy, odd sci-fi time travel, comedy, tragedy. Really. I'm not kidding.I don't blame you if you're thinking, "All that can't possibly work in such a short book." I'd be thinking the same thing if I hadn't read it, but I have, so instead I'm thinking, "My God, how did Sparaco manage to pull all that off without my wanting to throw the book across the room in disgust, upset that I've wasted time with an author who was trying too hard to do too much while being terribly clever?" The only answer to that question is that Sparaco is a genius. I want to eat dinner with her -- actually, no I don't. I'd be too intimidated.So, what's the book about? It's about Svevo Romano, the kind of man I hate. Maybe he's too much of a stereotype, but that's okay (after all, male writers have been stereotyping female characters for centuries. Why shouldn't female writers retaliate with a little stereotyping of their own?). He's Mr. On Top of His Game at Big Corporation. He uses and abuses women, women who are much younger than he is. Booze and cocaine are a way of life for him but not so much so that they interfere with his ability to work. He's got tons of money, which is why he lives in a fabulous, meticulously decorated apartment that has a glorious view of Rome.Romano is a house of cards. Blow on him, and he'd scatter, but no one seems to know that. In case my description doesn't do enough to help you picture a cocky, middle-aged egoist, listen to how he talks to Father Time (with whom this whole book is a one-sided conversation):And what about the expression on my face when I sit down at the table to negotiate? That gleam in my eye is pure competitiveness, our daily bread. My rapid way of speaking, my thoughts constantly pursuing new strategies, and at the end of the meeting the mobile phone that starts ringing again bringing more appointments I can't be late for. Distances have been wiped out, dear Father Time, and You can't do anything about it. Technology allows us to do everything in an instant, we're always ready to receive information from anywhere in the world. (p. 26)Luckily, good old Father Time doesn't take too kindly to such talk. He's the one who takes a deep breath an[...]

Hard Time by Sara Paretsky


Paretsky, Sara. Hard Time. New York: Delacorte, 1999.This was this month's CT. mystery book club read.Way back in the 1980s, long before Janet Evanovich and her lookalikes came along with their slapstick, accidental detectives, I was aware of 3 authors who were busy creating their prototypes. These authors were taking unsolved murders out of the hands of Miss-Marple-types, who had solved many a mystery while sipping tea by the fire, and putting them into the hands of women who were tough and daring in the ways many of the men who had gone before them were tough and daring. These women were even slightly dangerous. The difference between them and their little sisters like Evanovich's Stephanie Plum is that they were -- although wryly funny when appropriate in a way we recognize if we've read the likes of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald -- far more serious. And romance was there, but it was secondary in their lives.Each of these "heroines" (if that's the right word for them. I'd like to get rid of the gender definition and just call them "heros") lives in a city that was as much a character in the book as any of the human characters. These cities laugh, cry, get kicked in the gut, and bounce back with a vengeance. I love cities that do that in the fiction I read.The three authors to whom I am referring are Sue Grafton (another we read for the CT mystery book club), Linda Barnes, and Sara Paretsky. Their female investigators are, respectively, Kinsey Millhone, Carlotta Carlyle, and V. I. Warshawski. Their cities are Santa Barbara (yes, we know it's Santa Barbara, even though it appears incognito), Boston, and Chicago. Of these three, if you'd asked me back in 1990 which to read, I would have said, "Linda Barnes." For some reason (maybe because of Boston?) I was most into Barnes. (You have to understand what I mean by that. With the exception of reading through Agatha Christie when I was a teen, until I became a member of the CT mystery book discussion group, I wasn't a big reader of mysteries. I read Barne's first two books, got hooked, and waited as each of the next three came out to read them. Then, I stopped.) I'd read a couple of Grafton's books and stopped. And I hadn't read any Paretsky.Why hadn't I read Paretsky? I can't answer that question. Everyone who knew me and had read her was busy recommending her to me, and I kept meaning to read her. Well, I've been meaning to read her for (can it really be?) about 25 years now. I want to thank the folks in CT for kicking me in the butt and getting me, finally, to read her.I come to this sort of book not expecting great writing, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that Peretsky actually writes quite well. No, it's not poetry. I didn't find myself wanting to quote her, but it's seamless. The writing didn't distract in such a way, either because it was so riddled with grammatical errors or so obviously an attempt at blending genre fiction with literary fiction, that it kept me from focusing on the story. And story is what I do expect from this sort of book.Does Peretsky deliver story? Absolutely! I was afraid, at first, that she wouldn't. The book begins at a media event, a party at a bar (I think it's a restaurant bar, but it was hard to tell), that was quite confusing. In fact, I read the first 5 or so pages twice and kept referring back to them to try to get people straight. Paretsky gave us quite a lot of crucial information in that opening scene, but I found it hard to concentrate in that atmosphere.(In writing this, I'm realizing that maybe she's a better writer than I thought[...]

Merging Hats?


For nearly twenty years now, I have worn two hats. Although at first glance, they might seem very different, they do both happen to be a shade of green (my favorite color), and so they may not be so different after all. My guess is that if I describe them, you, my readers, won't be able to figure out which is my librarian hat (worn throughout my days as a library assistant and student working towards her M.L.S., as well as while a library volunteer and now as a part-time librarian). My other one is my editor hat (worn all those years when I was working either as an acquisitions editor or a managing editor or an executive editor). One is a pretty, feminine, wide-brimmed hat that is fun and interesting. The other is extremely stylish (must be changed constantly to keep up with the times) and a bit serious, but sometimes I stick a little flower or a cool button on it to show it has a softer, more fun side, too. I know which one I think is which, but I'll let you decide for yourselves which you think is which.Anyway, having assumed they were both very different and would look ridiculous, one piled on top of the other, I've always worn them separately, never together. But, yesterday, I discovered that designers have been toying with a new style of hat, one that might incorporate both, and I have to tell you that I can't be more excited, because, let me tell you, this hat is gorgeous. If you're one of those who has been moaning about the Decline and Fall of the Publishing Empire, worried that we are all going to be left with nothing but the ruins of literature (yes, Fifty Shades of Grey and 500 knock-offs do spring to my mind), while the gorgeous temples that make us sigh in awe and wonder become things of the past, you just might be excited, too.I lucked out on getting an advance peek at this new fashion in hats. Our library director happens to be on vacation this week, and she asked me if I could take her place and go to our Capital Region Workshop for Library Leadership. I was, quite frankly, flattered that she'd asked me, and I typically jump at the chance to attend such events, so, of course, I said "yes." And it was at this workshop that I got to hear Jamie LaRue speak. Jamie LaRue is the Library Director of the Douglas County Library System in Colorado (I'm now dying to visit his library), and he is an exceptional public speaker, but, what's really important is that he is doing amazing things when it comes to providing content for his library, the best of which is fighting publishers and distributors who have been making it more and more expensive for libraries to get copies of eBooks. You can get an idea of how libraries are being screwed by reading the blog post he wrote for American Libraries "50 Shades of Red".If you can't be bothered to read LaRue's article, in a nutshell, thanks to the publishers and distributors, while you-all are paying $10.00 or so to buy your eBooks, libraries are paying upwards of $45.00 for each eBook title they buy. In my county-wide library system, we're about to announce our One Book, One Community book for 2012, but we have no eBook versions available to loan to our public (except what's on the Kindles we loan out), because an eBook version would cost us $86.00, and we just can't afford to spend $86.00 on one title like that (Pennsylvania is notorious for being a state that consistently ranks somewhere near the bottom when it comes to providing money for libraries). Most of our eBooks are distributed by the company that has the monopoly right now on such distribution, a company [...]

No Longer Taking My Eyes for Granted


So, imagine: what could be the worse thing that could happen to someone who lives to read and write? Well, yes, someone could outlaw the written word or something (wouldn't put that past some of our legislators, many of whom I'm quite sure are illiterate), but think physical impairment here. Yes, you guessed it: going blind. Put a fear of blindness into the hands of someone who is, not hysterically so (I don't rush to the doctor with every ache and pain convinced I'm dying -- contrary to what my husband will tell you), but is decidedly a bit of a hypochondriac (I've been known to wonder if that odd ache in my arm that won't go away is bone cancer -- never out loud to my husband, mind you), and see what happens when she begins to realize she can barely see clearly, and her glasses prescription isn't even a year old yet.You guessed it. That's what happened to me. Actually, what happened is I began to get this weird pain in my left eye that made me feel like I often had a bit of dust or something stuck behind my eyelid that I couldn't get rid of. Soon, I began to realize that my vision was getting blurrier and blurrier. That was last summer. I went to my primary care physician, and he decided it was allergies and prescribed some allergy drops for me to use. They seemed to help, but I still noticed that sometimes my vision wasn't quite right. By the time I went to my eye doctor last fall, I'd found that I could see fine as long as I wore my contact lenses, but that my glasses were becoming useless. I figured it was just time to admit that I needed bifocals (oh, excuse me, I mean, progressive lenses). I got those, and lo and behold! I could see again. For about 8 months.Fast forward to the end of June. Now, even my contact lenses weren't helping much. I'd get in the car to drive and would be afraid I was going to cause an accident, because I'd blink and would be unable to see even the speed limit signs clearly. Vision came and went, and I could never depend on my eyes. Using eye drops seemed to help a bit, but it never lasted. The pain in my left eye was back, worse than ever, but when I covered my right eye to see if the left was the culprit for my worsening vision, it didn't seem to be. In fact, it seemed that my right eye was the one that was really going blind. Finally, after a terrible trip to the grocery store in which I seemed to lose all vision in my right eye, convincing me I must be having a stroke, or that I certainly had a tumor the size of a grapefruit behind my eye or at least a detached retina or something, I decided to consult with my eye doctor.She didn't sound nearly as panicked as I was, didn't insist I get to the hospital immediately. Instead, she listened to my symptoms and said it was most likely something to do with my cornea, something causing extreme dryness. She set up an appointment with me later in the week, and when she'd done examining me, she told me she suspected it could be a few different things (none of which meant permanent blindness), but that I most likely had Thygeson's. It's an extremely rare disease that causes lumps to form on the cornea. Despite the fact that my left eye was the one that always hurt, she discovered that my right eye was actually far worse. She prescribed steroid drops, some other eye drops to use between the steroid drops, and some gunk to put in my eyes at night before I go to sleep. She then told me to quit wearing my contacts and any makeup (in fact, she told me to throw all my makeup away, just in case there was something in i[...]

Two for the Price of One: CT Mystery Book Club


 I never posted on the last book for the CT book discussion group, so I am going to include my thoughts on it here, but first, my thoughts on the book being discussed this go-round.Persson, Leif G. W.  Norlen, Paul, tr. Between Summer's Longing and Winter's End. New York: Pantheon, 2010. (This book was originally published in Sweden in 2002.)This is a first: a CT mystery book club discussion book that I didn't finish and that I don't intend to finish. I read nearly 100 pages (97 to be exact) and just decided I didn't want to bother anymore.It isn't that I hated it. It isn't even that I wasn't interested. It's just, I guess, that I wasn't quite interested enough. I mean, I sort of wanted to find out what the connection was between an apparent suicide of an American living in a student dorm in Stockholm and the 1986 murder of Sweden's prime minister (and I knew there was a connection because the jacket copy told me so), but not really, especially if it meant slogging my way through 450 more pages (and, ultimately, two more books, since this is the first in a trilogy) while keeping company with a cast of characters who, so far, had proven themselves not to be very likable while not being fascinating enough that whether or not they were likable didn't matter.Given what I just said, you may be surprised by what I have to say next, which is that, due to the (unexpected and, to some degree -- at least, the way all publishing phenoms are -- inexplicable) success of Stieg Larsson in this country, publishers have all jumped on the Swedish mystery bandwagon, suddenly presenting us with hot, "new" Swedish authors whom our Nordic brothers and sisters have been reading almost as long as our British brothers and sisters have been reading Agatha Christie. (Okay, please excuse my exaggeration. Still. Persson isn't some new author. He's been around for a while, writing for well over 30 years.) Persson is, naturally, compared to Larsson on the cover copy (more impressive, to me, is that he's also compared to Ingmar Bergman  -- probably a slight exaggeration. I mean, Bergman's characters are fascinating). Of Larsson's books, I've only read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and (when I wasn't recoiling in shock from its most brutal and sadistic scenes), I liked it quite a lot. But from what I've now read of the two authors, I'd say Persson is a better writer. Persson, in this book, has set a stage and has gotten inside his characters' heads a little better than I remember Larsson doing. Yes, Larsson wrote psychological thrillers, but his emphasis seemed to be more on the thriller. Persson pays more attention to the psychological, and in doing so, writes more carefully, which, in this instance, means better writing.Even so, I don't want to continue with it. Why not? I think it may have to do with a problem I have with sexism in 21st-century pop culture. I can read a book written in 1940 riddled with sexism, and, although it disturbs me, I just put it into its time and place (and I marvel when I read a book written in 1940 that attempts to attack sexism). Lately, though, I've begun to theorize that some 21st-century writers are choosing to write about other eras that allow them to live out sexist fantasies (Mad Men and its creator and head writer Matthew Weiner -- and yes, I've watched and like the show, although I've only watched episodes from the first two seasons -- spring to mind) while writing today.I found some very offensive sexist passages in t[...]

A Controversial Post


I realized, when I was working on my last post, that I don't have any controversial posts here at Telecommuter Talk that stick out in my mind. Courtney has recently made the decision to be a little more brave at The Public, The Private, and Everything In Between, and I've decided to copy support her by doing the same. Be prepared. When I decide to be controversial, I, apparently, decide to go all the way. By the same token, when I decide to be controversial, it isn't because I necessarily think I'm right or that I have all the answers. What I really want to do is to open up a dialogue, to get others' thoughts, to find out where I might have errors in my thinking, and I certainly don't want to take my cue from television these days, whose sole goal seems to be to divide people and to get them to spew vitriol at each other. I'm in this world to learn and to grow and to (I hope) become a better person, and that means I need to listen to those who might think differently than I do and to be willing to change my mind, if necessary, or just to agree to disagree if their arguments don't convince me.So, here is my controversial argument at its most basic: Americans are having too many children. It's the taboo environmental issue that no one wants to address, because, let's face it: who wants to tell people they shouldn't have (anymore) children? And yet, overpopulation is one of the most devastating environmental hazards. This planet may seem huge, but it definitely has its limits, one of which is that it can only hold so many creatures, and it can especially only hold so many of those creatures responsible for doing the most damage to it (i.e. human beings). The most obvious solution to this problem (and the one I'd most like to embrace)? Nobody should have more than one or two children. Those who want to have more than two should adopt.I have to admit that I've not always felt this way. First of all, I'm the third of four children. Someone could easily say to me, "If your parents had stopped at two, you wouldn't have been born." Of course, I'm not someone who is busy changing the world, so if I had never been born, I'm sure it wouldn't have been a real tragedy, and I'd have no idea, having never existed, so I can't say I'd regret never having been born. Still, I'm pretty glad I've gotten to experience this life I've had, which I wouldn't have done if my parents had only had two children.Back when I was in my mid-twenties, I had a roommate who only had one sister. She told me that her parents had firmly believed in the "replace ourselves" theory of having children: one child for each parent (very forward-thinking of them. She's my age. We were born before the first Earth Day, back when this subject was even more taboo than it is today). My roommate told me she would follow suit, and at the time, I remember thinking, "Only two kids?" In fact, when I first met Bob, I had pretty much the same reaction to his telling me that he has one brother, and that's it. "Only one sibling? Wasn't that lonely growing up? How did you play games like 'Clue' that require three or more players?"I've learned a lot since those days, though. I've become much more concerned about environmental issues. I've attended environmental summits. I'm aware of how, as with almost everything else in the world, those who are poor are actually affected more severely by environmental hazards than those who aren't, and so I'm even more concerned than ever about the environ[...]

7 x 7 Link Award Meme


My goodness. Litlove tagged me for this one way back in April. I'm certainly falling down on my job as The Queen o' Memes when it takes me this long to respond to a tag. Anyway, this is the "7 x 7 Link Award" meme. It could also be called the "Trip Down Memory Lane" meme, or the "Get People to Read Blog Posts of Mine They Might Never Have Read" meme. These are the rules:1: Tell everyone something about yourself that nobody else knows.2: Link to a post you think fits the following categories: The Most Beautiful Piece, Most Helpful Piece, Most Popular Piece, Most Controversial Piece, Most Surprisingly Successful Piece, Most Underrated Piece, Most Pride-worthy Piece.3: Pass this on to 7 fellow bloggers.1. Haven't I already done this so many times in the past six years that there can't possibly be anything about me that nobody else knows at this point? Let me think really hard. Nope, I just really can't think of anything that nobody knows about me. Here's something that a lot of people don't know about me, though: I read magazines cover-to-cover like books, never skipping any articles (although some I skim rather than read real carefully).2. The Most Beautiful Piece: During the first year I was blogging, someone started the fantastic "I Am From" meme, which triggered some of the most beautiful writing out in the blogosphere at the time. Litlove chose her version of this for her most beautiful piece, and I'm following suit with my own version. Most Helpful Piece: Has there been anything I've written that has been all that helpful? I suppose if you've been called for Federal Jury Duty in Philadelphia, you might consider some of the information in this post helpful. Does anyone else remember my writing anything that was particularly helpful? If so, please share. I'd love to know.Most Popular Piece: I find it hilarious that my most popular piece (and it has held this position basically since the day I wrote it) is a post that evolved from another meme. Anyone who is at all familiar with this blog has heard me say time and again that I am movie illiterate. Nonetheless, my take on the "100 Modern Classic Movies" meme gets more attention than anything else I've written here.Most Controversial Piece: I haven't a clue. No matter what I write, no one ever seems to vehemently disagree with me. Maybe I need to start writing about more controversial topics. Here's one that I thought might be controversial, but it wasn't at all. In fact, it led to a number of us bloggers inventing the short-lived blog "What She Said." Again, anyone else ever remember my writing about anything that got any hackles up?Most Surprisingly Successful Piece: I had no idea how many book sluts there were in the world until I wrote this post.Most Underrated Piece: This one. I loved the book, and I love the way I used my photos from Maine in the post. Then again, maybe it's just because the whole thing reminds me of Maine.Most Pride-Worthy Piece: I'm still amazed that I managed to pull off this "imitation as sincerest form of flattery" post. 3. I'm not going to choose 7. If you're reading this and haven't already done it, consider yourself tagged by me (and let me know when you've done it. I want to read your answers and reminisce with you!).[...]

For My Female Readers (And Brave Male Readers) Only


(Any male readers I might have, you are forewarned. This post is all about things men typically don't want to discuss.)I'm 48 years old, and I had my last period in July 2010. That's nearly 2 years ago. Once a woman hasn't had her period for one year, she is considered to be menopausal. I've been busy thinking, "Man, was I lucky" when it comes to what I've always considered to be one of the worst parts of being a woman, because I didn't get my first period until I was 13 1/2 (I hear some poor kids are getting it as early as age 10 these days), and I wasn't even 50 when it ended.  Sorry. I know there are those who celebrate that special time of the month, and more power to you. I wish I could have been one of those lucky ones who felt exhilarated and creative once a month, but no. That wasn't my fate, and when you are someone who frequently suffered from PMS-induced depression and migraines to be followed by debilitating cramps that made her wish she had a morphine drip by her bed, well, you might understand why I consider myself lucky to be rid of such a nuisance, terribly lucky to have found herself on the lower end of the age-range for the onset of menopause.The funny thing is I expected, based on all the information that surrounds menopause in our society, that it was going to be something awful -- the worst PMS I ever experienced threefold. I had visions of suddenly becoming suicidal over the fact that I could no longer bear children and had never had a child, or of losing all interest in sex, or of doing something crazy like leaving Bob and selling everything I own to go live in a commune. I thought I'd be cranking up the air conditioning even in the dead of winter, suffering from constant hot flashes that left me miserable. I thought I'd be so tired I'd sleep 15 hours a day or that my insomnia would be worse than ever, and I'd only sleep 3. I will admit that some of this has happened to some degree or other, but, really, I will take menopause over PMS and periods any day. In fact. my worst symptoms have been hot flashes and achy joints, which, once I read the terrific book What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Menopause by John R. Lee and Virginia Hopkins and discovered natural progesterone (not to be confused with any sort of progesterone prescription) have all but disappeared.My own experience with menopause has led me to question why this period in a woman's life has gotten such a bad reputation. I can only surmise that it's jealousy on the part of the men who rule a patriarchal society. I mean, what could any man want more than to reach an age at which he can have all the sex he wants without ever having to worry about 2 a.m. feedings at the age of 67, say, or paying child support at age 82? Forget Freud's so misguided theories of penis envy (only a man could think up the idea that women wished they had penises. What women have always envied are the rights and privileges men have over women in almost all societies. We couldn't give a damn about having penises of our own. I'm sure I'm not the only woman in the world who much prefers having her sexual organs hidden, thank you), I'm convinced men suffer from menopause envy. Because of that, the male scientists and doctors who ruled those professions for so long (and who still do, really, although women continue to make great strides when it comes to breaking into these fields), have convinced women that menopause [...]