Must Writers be Musicians?
Everyone loves music, don’t they? Most people claim they do. But ask any musician what proportion of people in an audience are actually listening and appreciating the music, and you get a different answer. A couple of weeks ago, while I was in Minneapolis attending the Associated Writers Conference, I found myself in a jazz bar downtown, completely surrounded by writers (most of them still had their conference nametags on), and guess how many were applauding the musicians’ solos? One. Me. And this wasn’t a third-rate provincial band, but an excellent one,
The Journey is the Destination: The Journals of Dan Eldon. Death by the will of the people. I didn’t want to write about this death, but can’t seem to put it aside. It’s been almost twelve years since Dan Eldon’s death on July 12, 1993. I first learned about it from the book of his journals which I picked up on the sale table at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
Dan didn’t die in DC. He was stoned to death in Somalia, a young white man in the wrong place at a most difficult moment.
4/20/15 REVIEW OF JENNIFER YACOVISSI’S UP THE HILL TO HOME
I have eclectic reading tastes. Up the Hill to Home differs from North Dixie Highway, which I reviewed here in February, as much as baking bread in your middle-class home with the help of all your young children differs from finishing a fifth of cheap whiskey alone in the backseat of the car you’re currently living in. No book is for everyone. Up the Hill to Home is for unhurried readers, ones who savor gentler, kinder domesticity and who don’t need a fast plot but can settle in for a long, relaxing saga with gems sprinkled here and there and with a conclusion that leaves you sad and happy at once.
4/17/2015 – What Makes a Liar?
I attend monthly meetings of the local chapter, Mystery Writers of America. The conversation is stimulating and the speaker usually offers technical expertise I can use in my mystery novels. This month’s meeting was no exception. Guest speaker was Stan Burke, a retired FBI special agent and an expert in statement analysis. He is now president of Precision Intelligence Consulting, which specializes in training its clients in innovative investigative techniques.
Is the supposed victim lying? Did he really see a gun or is he making that up? Was he really kidnapped on Friday afternoon
4/13/15 GILLIAN FLYNN TIMES THREE
Gone Girl was all the rage in 2013 and into 2014, especially with the announcement of taking the book to film. Everyone I knew that had read the novel seemed to grumble about the ending. None of them seemed to like it. In fact they were outraged, as though they’d been cheated. I’m sure they would have asked for their money back if they could. Begrudgingly (probably due to my jealousy of Flynn’s flaming success) I decided that I would just have to read the darn thing myself, but first, my journey to Gone Girl would have to begin with Sharp Objects.
4/10/2015—BOOK REVIEW: LILA BY MARILYNNE ROBINSON
Lila is a novel about nothing and about everything. The plot is simple: an abused, neglected child is stolen by a woman and raised with a band of migrant workers until the woman disappears, and the child, now a young adult, is left to take care of herself. She spends time in a brothel in St. Louis and then one day wanders into Gilead, Iowa, where she meets John Ames, an older preacher whose wife and child died years ago.
The young woman (Lila) and John are drawn to each other by forces that maybe aren’t love, but are just as powerful. They marry, and then, almost by accident, they have a son together. That’s it.
4/7/2015 GETTING A GOOD START: WHY A NOVEL’S FIRST CHAPTER IS CRUCIAL
So you’re browsing the bargain table at your favorite bookstore, the latest recommendations from Amazon, or maybe perusing your local library’s “new fiction” shelf. A cover appeals to you, you read the blurb on the back, and you open it to taste the first sentences. Within seconds, you make a decision: To read or not to read. The book goes back on the shelf or you decide to take it home with you. It’s a kind of one-way speed dating where first impressions mean everything.
4/04/2015 – ENDINGS: MUSINGS ON STATION ELEVEN
As I pulled into the last paragraph of Emily St. John Mandel’s post-apocalyptic novel Station Eleven, I flipped to the last page to confirm I was nearing the end, trying to concentrate on every word and how it felt to read it because everything was about to change. I often play this game when nearing the end of an engrossing novel, superimposing my awareness of the impending close over the experience of still being in the story, doing whatever I can to prolong the moment and appreciate the incompletion. I know that yet another world is about to end for me, and I want to savor every remaining moment before I am shut out forever.
4/1/2015 – The Kindness Connection
The Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation sent out its first newsletter recently. Most of you probably haven’t heard of MM, a plasma cell cancer, because it’s not high profile, but it’s a nasty beast. Until recently, average life expectancy was two years. You can understand why I cried all night when my husband was diagnosed with the disease.
PREVIEW OF OUR APRIL 1 GUEST BLOGGER NANCY LYNN JARVIS – Mystery author Nancy Lynn Jarvis finally acknowledged she’s having too much fun writing to ever sell another house and let her license lapse in May, 2013, after her twenty-fifth anniversary in real estate. After earning a BA in behavioral science from San Jose State University, she worked in the advertising department of the San Jose Mercury News. A move to Santa Cruz meant a new job as a librarian and later a stint as the business manager for Shakespeare Santa Cruz at UCSC. She invites you to take a peek into the real estate world through the stories that form the backdrop of her Regan McHenry Real Estate mysteries.
3/26/15 IN PRAISE OF WOMEN OF GENIUS After my last essay, “On Talent and Genius”, whose examples of genius were mostly or—ahem—entirely male, one of my readers archly asked if I might be biased, even subconsciously. Of course one can affirm confidently that one is not biased consciously, but the charge of subconscious bias is unanswerable. The only way I could disprove it is by taking a psychological test. (And even then…) However, I do have a couple of responses to the accusation: first, my examples were male not because I believe that no women of genius could have been exercising those arts, but that in fact few did, until quite recently, because of societal pressures.
Lee Summerall’s writing is casual, irreverent, personal, rambling, and chock-a-block with imagery that tastes of lemon and red
wine. Lee’s travel dispatches arrive erratically from exotic worlds—China, Tunisia, Rome, Namibia, Morocco. Most recently she reported on a close encounter with an elephant much too interested in her three-ton safari vehicle. It brought to life my own adventures in Krueger in 2013, but I don’t think you had to be there to enjoy the writing, so I convinced Lee to let me share her dispatch with Late Last Night Books followers.
She writes: South Africa’s Kruger National Park is about the same size as Pinellas County, Florida. While Pinellas County has about a million residents, Kruger has about a million animals: all the usual suspects including the Big Five, every kind of antelope, all the cats (or so they say), and over two hundred varieties of bird.
“Nowadays, you eye the young and remember…[h]ow it was to have smooth skin and a supple body, to be able to bend and squat and lift and run for a bus and skip down the stairs. To have this long unknowable future, in which lurked heaven knows what, and it is the mystery that is so alluring. Your own future is also unknowable, except that you can make a few shrewd guesses, and it is not particularly alluring.”
Penelope Lively is among a handful of authors who started writing when I started reading and have now progressed to writing characters at the long end of life, where I find myself.
3/17/2015 – Crime and Punishment
I learn so much from attending meetings of the local chapter of Sisters in Crime, an association of writers and fans of mystery fiction. This month’s meeting was no exception. Guest speaker was playwright Betty May. As a volunteer with I-WISH, a group of women prisoners at the Maryland Correctional Institution for women, she encouraged them to write about their lives, and then compiled their essays, poems, memoirs, and prayers into a chronological format which became a play called Faces.
Too young, too stupid, too ignorant, these women say and so they made bad choices and bad friends. Now they’re serving life sentences in a maximum security prison. They describe unspeakable things that
3/13/15 Book Review, Come Sit with Me, by George Spain
As the title, along with its subtitle, Come Sit with Me…and listen to the stories I want you to hear… suggests, this is a book for casual reading. Author George Spain’s voice echoes through the words as if a favorite uncle is telling tales of what once was and can never be again, stories you know to be true, some you know to be exaggerations, and some that you know came from the far reaches of his mind.
3/10/2015—THE POWER OF THE CHARACTERS WE HATE
Amy Dunne is one of the most despicable and yet well-known fictional characters today. Gone Girl, the novel that introduced Amy to the world, sold more than 2,000,000 print and digital copies in its first year of publication. Since its release in October 2014, the film version of the novel has grossed around $370,000,000 worldwide. People want to know about Amy—not because they like her but because they can’t stop watching her.
Like most unlikeable characters, Amy can’t help creating conflict, which is the heart of any good story. Unlikeable characters hook their readers because they cause their own consequences. Circumstances aren’t thrust on them. Whether their actions are immoral, illegal, insensitive, or just cruel, they are responsible for the problems they generate, and an active character is always more compelling than an inactive one.
3/7/2015 — BOOK REVIEW: MIRIAM TOWES’ ALL MY PUNY SORROWS
Miriam Toews has managed to do the seemingly impossible: Write a novel about depression and suicide that is funny, loving, witty, heartbreaking, clever, and insightful, all while contributing to the public debate over an individual’s right to die with dignity. Toews has long been a best-selling, award-winning author in her native Canada, but readers south of the border have been slow to discover her. All My Puny Sorrows, her sixth and arguably best novel, should change that.
3/04/2015 – REIMAGINING THE MOMENT
I’ve just finished reading two novels that re-envision a few days out of history, one about a famous battle, the other an obscure murder. Both novels include meticulously researched historical details, stretched here and there to fit the arc of a story and perhaps highlight a deeper truth, but still leaving readers with a fresh sense of worlds long vanished. More than that, though, both novels reminded me of the infinite richness in the smallness, shortest of moments, something all writers should remember.
TIME ON A TIGHTROPE
Imagine you are high above the crowd, walking a tightrope.
Fans are on the edges of their seats as you put one foot before the other, holding their collective breaths and waiting to see what happens next as you slowly cross the span without a net. You know what you have to do to keep them entranced is a breathtaking combination of focus and balance. One misstep, lean a little too far one way or the other—and SPLAAAT. And the big finish has to be more thrilling than the last; you want them to leave the big top panting and coming back for more.