Friday, August 31, 2012

Erich von Stroheim's Greed

Next Sunday at 6 a.m. Turner Classic Movies will show Erich von Stroheim’s self-proclaimed masterpiece Greed again. When it was first released in 1924, studio editors hacked the film down to two hours over von Stroheim’s objections, draining it of all meaning and artistic significance, according to von Stroheim and his supporters and admirers. Film preservationist Rick Schmidlin put it back to the four hours von Stroheim wanted, panning and zooming studio stills and using the Maestro’s notes. Now it can be seen in full. Well, maybe not in full. The original was nine hours long.

It’s based on Frank Norris’s novel, McTeague, published in 1899 and widely admired as a brilliant work of progressive literature. In it Norris peddles his usual message, startling to readers in 1899, that poverty is degrading, and that the character of poor people is not improved by lack of money.

The actors in von Stroheim’s film are superb. Zasu Pitts plays the female lead the way Lillian Gish might have, as a delicate flower. The shots are flawless, naturally; von Stroheim directed the picture, after all. The pacing of the action is riveting and compelling, even at four hours long, thanks to the editing work of restorer Rick Schmidlin. Even the hand-coloring of the gold doesn’t seem tacky. But the intertitles are jarring in a strange way.

Or, more accurately, in two strange ways. First comes the dialog. It was taken straight out of Norris’s book, and so is rendered in 1899 slang and queer spellings, and sometimes in a simulated German accent that’s mildly offensive to the politically correct modern eye. In talking pictures, dialog taken from books is spoken by actors. A good actor can put over almost anything. But up in front of your nose written out in black and white, it’s, well, jarring to have the heroine call her mother “Mommer,” or to have Mommer say things like,”What efer will you do mit all dose money, eh, Trina?” Still, that’s what it says in the book, so…

The other jarring thing is that von Stroheim was frequently unable to resist the impulse to put Norris’s flights of literary eloquence up on the screen as intertitles. For example, here’s how Norris describes the dawn coming up over Death Valley:

“The whole east, clean of clouds, flamed opalescent from horizon to zenith, crimson at the base, where the earth blackened against it; at the top fading from pink to pale yellow, to green, to light blue, to the turquoise iridescence of the desert sky. The long, thin shadows of the early hours drew backward like receding serpents, then suddenly the sun looked over the shoulder of the world, and it was day.”

It’s a visual image, right? A visual image. Here’s what the intertitle said:

Then suddenly the sun looked over the shoulder of the world, and it was day.

This was followed by a nice shot of a shoulder-shaped hill rising out of the desert at dawn, and the sun coming up from behind it, gleaming into the lens of the camera. A nice image. But with a nice image, you don’t need the intertitle. The fancy intertitle says, “Look how literary I’m being. This is Art, folks, not mere entertainment.”

A piddling criticism of, yes, a great movie, which I’m not sorry I watched, even for four precious hours. It made me think, though, about books and movies. With the passing years the movie industry has taken a number of approaches to making movies out of books, ranging from buying the title and writing a completely unrelated script (for instance, Sex and the Single Girl) to hewing as closely as possible to the plot of the book in order to placate the book’s faithful fans (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone).

What are your views on this? Should von Stroheim have spent nine hours (and millions of studio dollars) putting a faithful copy of McTeague up on the screen, or should he have tried instead to render the spirit of the novel in the language of cinema?

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

No Head for Headlines

I am on deadline to get the manuscript for my next book back to my editor; I have to be quick this week. So here I reproduce for you headlines I have collected in a file over the years. They will give you something to laugh about as summer draws to a close:

“British Left Waffles on Falklands”

“Alaska Salmon Recall Expanding”

“Idaho Group Organizes to Service Widows”

“Fuel for City Buses Passes through Two Middlemen”

“Here’s How to Lick Doberman’s Leg Sores”

“UConn to Study Taste and Smell Disorders”

“President Wins on Budget, but More Lies Ahead”

And the best one for Murder mystery writers:

“Stiff Opposition Expected to Casketless Funeral Plan”

Annamaria Alfieri

Monday, August 27, 2012

Declaring my Independence

Donna Huston Murray, author of (among many other delightful things) the soon-to-be released medical thriller CURED, is guest-posting today.

Going independent – lots of authors are doing it, and now I have, too.

It was not an easy decision, complicated by the lucky fact that my track record – seven cozy mysteries put out by a major NY publisher – still garnered interest from agents and editors. But since my series character is pretty much a smarter, braver me, when my contracts were fulfilled, I welcomed the chance to live in somebody else’s head for a while. Shunning the “Write what you know” advice teachers hand out with your first yellow pencil, I chose the less-heard and infinitely trickier “Write what you fear” route. I wanted a heroic woman this time, and to my mind nobody is more heroic than a person who has endured cancer. Let’s make her a cop before she got sick so she has skills, even if she doesn’t expect to need them again. Now remove her resources one by one for no apparent reason, and the plot for CURED is in motion. I just didn’t figure on Lauren Beck’s second major life challenge taking up so much of mine. Yet we both toughed it out, and I’m happy to report that CURED is finally finished.

The question then became, “What’s next?” There didn’t used to be a choice. Today there is, and that alone is huge.

I waffled for weeks until I came across this: “As far as I can tell,” said John T. Reed right there on my monitor, “the authors who still go with publishers and distributors lack self-esteem – big time.” Well, well! Evidently going independent would prove that I am not the wimp I thought I was. For the first time ever, authors with a pioneer’s work ethic, creativity (already a given), and what isn’t too huge of a cash investment, can be the architects of their own success. A cactus like me can survive on news like that for years. But was it best for my big opus?

When I first got a contract, I had no choice but to trust my publisher to market my work up to its full potential. I assumed that my success would be of some importance to the company. What I didn’t realize was that publishers choose who will succeed based on the financial investment they made up front. Business 101. Dollars indicate their expectations. Compared to what major publisher can do for their chosen authors, my promotional efforts didn’t even warrant a pat on the head. That’s just the way it was. But times, they are a-changing…

Still, why chance independence? For one thing, I don’t relish waiting more than a year for CURED to see daylight. October, 2012, is my goal. But mainly because nobody else can possibly care about my work as much as I do. Business 102. Passion goes a long way.

And guess what. Being independent feels fantastic. Yes, I’m responsible for everything – quality control, covers, the ISBN, publicity, formatting, securing reviews, etc., etc., etc., but it’s not only empowering, it’s fun. Am I making mistakes – yes, lots. But already my ineptitude has put me together with some amazingly generous people, the sort of souls I almost forgot exist. Not only can they help me – they seem eager to do it. I find this beyond astonishing.

Will it all work? I’m thinking yes. After all, David only had to beat Goliath once!

Donna Huston Murray

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Our Weirdest Jobs!

When mystery-world creators delve into their past, astounding things wriggle up from the gardens of memory! I invited some of our crime colleagues to share their adventures.

Feel free to add your own in the comments section.

LARRY LIGHT: One summer in college, I worked in a chewing gum factory. My job was to manually lift cowpie-like hunks of semi-solid gum from a cart and put it into a hopper. Then it was split into long lines of gum so others manually cut it into plugs of the stuff for wrapping. I stank of sugar the entire summer. This was not a blessed state!

ALAFAIR BURKE: Between being a law professor, writing a book a year (ish), and hopefully being a dog walker again soon enough, I probably didn't need another job, but I went and found one anyway. One Saturday in June I spent a day as Guest Gelato Scooper for Mario Batali's Gelotto cart! Why would I want to scoop gelato, you ask? I frequently write at New York's Otto Pizzeria. I even have scenes from the Ellie Hatcher novels set there, starring Dennis the ( real ) bar manager. With the NEVER TELL book tour about to start, I knew I'd be away from New York for much of the summer and homesick. Spending a day in Washington Square Park, making people happy with gelato, seemed like a nice city memory!

KATE GALLISON: In high school I was baby-sitting for two kids when Grandma emerged from her bedroom and demanded that I lace up her corset.

JAMES SCOTT BELL: Being in charge of the fake food as a stagehand in a New York theater production of a Shaw play. It was my first paying theatrical gig since arriving in the city to become an actor. Even though I was backstage, I felt like had my foot in the door. The play had a big dinner scene, and after the curtain came down it was my job to rearrange all the fake food for the next night's performance. I felt a little like that guy who cleans up after the elephants at the circus. When asked why he didn't quit, he said, "What? And give up show business?"

J.T. ELLISON: My most unusual job was as a vet tech. You don't want to know what goes on behind the scenes at the vet! I lasted three days!

SHEILA YORK: When I was a sophomore in high school I was hired, along with some other girls, to pretend to be mannequins in a store window. We modelled fall fashions in August in Tennessee in a west-facing window without moving, with only one fan blowing on us from the narrow door into the store. (It could explain why I am to this day very unenthusiastic about shopping!)

CHRIS GRABENSTEIN: My first job ever! Selling sponges door to door. We were supposed to say that a portion of the proceeds went to help mentally handicapped children. The guy with the speech impediment was the top seller! I quit after two days!

KAYE BARLEY: After a divorce in my 20's, I was working as a secretary in Downtown Atlanta and not making much money. I decided I needed a part time job. A brand new Hilton Hotel had recently opened – quite the place! Nikolai's Roof, The Casablanca Lounge, designer shops – all quite upscale! With an international flair. I marched in, filled out a job application and was hired to work as a hostess in the Cafe de la Paix. My uniform looked like something out of the original Heidi movie – plaid pinafore, ruffled petticoat under a very short skirt. (and this was a French restaurant – what was with the plaid? Horrible!) One evening, when the gal who was supposed to take care of the "take out" window didn't show, I was put in her place. I want to tell you – the things some guys traveling on business have the nerve to say to a young twenty-something-year-old waitress are beyond the pale! I'm going to blame it on the drinks in the Casablanca Lounge! I didn't last through the evening! I have no idea who continued selling pastries through that take out window that evening, but it wasn't me! Not only was it very weird, it was very short!

CAMILLE MINICHINO: One of my first (signings) was at a local market. The manager, whom I knew, had always wanted to open a bookstore! Stuck with a deli/market, she was determined to at least host a book party, and it was very successful. She had coffee from a small shop next door, made cookies, stencilled guns on a bedsheet the color of my book cover and used it to cover the meat cases!

ANNETTE MEYERS: In the late 50's I was teaching high school English in New Jersey and living in the city. I had a boyfriend who worked for a car rental agency, ferrying cars out to La Guardia for the rental booth there and picking up others and driving them back into the city. Sometimes they were short of help, and they'd call on me and I filled in. I didn't know Queens and I was used to driving a VW. I just followed one of the workers out to the airport the first time in a big car, and then went back and forth all that summer. I stopped seeing the guy by the end of the summer!!

SUNNY FRAZIER: As a confidential secretary with an undercover narcotics unit. They stuck me out in a double-wide trailer in a nectarine orchard with 10 alpha males! No real supervision as we were so far away from headquarters. Every day was full of hijinks and I had to sometimes treat the men like they were kindergarteners. They were proud of me and used to say, "Only one member on the team is a military vet and college graduate — and that's our secretary!" I spent eleven years with them, the longest any woman has ever lasted! It gave me lots of great material for my Christy Bristol Astrology mystery novels. I don't ever have to come up with plots — I lived them!

Gabe Kaplan
DENNIS PALUMBO: Trying to break into show business as a writer, way back in my early 20's. While I was writing spec TV scripts, I earned extra money selling jokes to stand-up comics. I would hang around the Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard, pitching jokes to stand-ups after the acts were finished. Tough gig, let me tell you! One time I was trying to sell some one-liners to an older Vegas comic, and he asked me to meet him in his gym's steam room. So there I was, surrounded by old guys in towels, all sweating our brains out, and I'm trying to read jokes to him from a sheet of paper. Meanwhile, the steam is making the ink run on the paper… Next time, I'm on the road with Gabe Kaplan, at that time the star of Welcome Back, Kotter, and I'm writing jokes for his act. Our deal was, I got paid for every joke that got a laugh. So, we're in the New York City Playboy Club lounge, at 4 A.M. and he's just done a set, which included some of my new jokes. So we sit in the back, arguing about each joke in terms of whether it got a laugh or a chuckle. If it got a laugh, he paid me. If a chuckle, no. Our debate lasted half an hour, ending with us canvassing the few patrons sober enough to speak coherently, asking if they thought a particular joke was funny! Soon afterwards, I was employed as a writer, then screenwriter, and didn't have to peddle jokes to comics anymore. Now long retired from show biz, I'm a licensed psychotherapist, and mystery author! Still, I have fond memories of that early time!!!

DOUG LYLE: If ever I had any doubts about going to college, and I never did, those would have evaporated on a very hot July day in Huntsville, Alabama. I had a summer job at a lumber yard, a good way to make some money and get in shape for the next football season. Loading dry wall all day will do that.But on this day, a very strong black guy I worked with called Mr. Golden and I were dispatched in a flat bed truck to unload roofing tiles from a box car over at the rail yards. Forty pallets on those old asphalt tiles. No problem! We had a fork lift on the truck and it was a simple matter of lifting the pallets, removing them from the box car, and settling them in the long bed of the truck. Piece of cake! Not so fast… The box car had a sliding door that ran on metal rails at its top and bottom. The bottom rail prevented the fork lift from entering the car - it was slung too low. So we had to do it by hand. Each pallet had ten squares, each square three bundles, and each bundle weighed 67 pounds! So we had 1200 bundles to off load. Did I mention it was July? The outside temperature was 95, the humidity the same, and inside the box car it was 140 if it was anything! We took turns being in the car. Lifting a bundle and tossing it out the door, where the other guy would catch it and stack it on an empty pallet. Took us five hours! No food, no water, we were way out on the far reaches of the rail yard. Took two days to recover from this little adventure. Never again!!!!

LOIS WINSTON: My weirdest job wasn't at all weird back in the day, but by today's standards??? If I said I once had a job spec'ing type, I doubt many people now would know what I was talking about. Typesetters have gone the way of the dinosaurs. Everything from magazine ads to book text to the words on a bag of Cheetos is done in no time with a few computer keystrokes. However, back before computers, figuring out how big to make the font to fit within a text block was tedious work that involved (shudder) math. And being a totally right-brained person, math and I didn't exactly get along. Make an error, and it cost in both dollars and time, not a good thing when each job was on a tight budget and an even tighter deadline. Great for inducing panic attacks, though getting fired was a huge relief!

THELMA STRAW: Ever wonder what nuns wear under those voluminous robes? For sure, not Victoria's Secret! One fall, while enrolled in one of the colleges in Oxford, England, I ran out of money to pay my room and board at the hostel run by the Anglican nuns there. They graciously offered me a trade - doing their laundry for lodging. In an open shed in the middle of their huge cabbage garden, daily I stirred over an open fire a huge cauldron filled with a weird assortment of bloomers, female tops, long black cotton stockings and some sort of Elizabethan petticoats (from a Mother Goose fairy tale) in a steamy brew of the nuns' homemade soap. Not Ivory! I then hung them on a line over the rows of cabbages, often wondering if I got the garments really clean! The icing on the cake was that at mealtime the ladies served their boarders cabbage — thrice per diem! Cabbage mush, cabbage cereal, cabbage bread, cabbage pudding! Nowadays I rarely meet a cabbage dish I'll eat!

P.S. Please share with us your own weird or odd experiences in our comment section!

Thelma Straw

Friday, August 24, 2012

Late Night, Groggy Morning

Normally I retire at ten o'clock, so as to be able to rise at six or so with a smile on my face and a song in my heart. Not so last night, when the season finales for Burn Notice (spy thriller) and Suits (legal thriller) were showing one after the other on the USA Network.

When people whine that there is nothing on TV, I am usually among the first to agree. But there's something about Burn Notice – Sharon Gless playing the mother, maybe. We aging mothers of feckless sons have no trouble identifying with her, even to the point of personal style. Gaudy earrings! Yes! That's the ticket. And huge explosions. What's not to like about a huge explosion? And wild plot twists. The end of the season finale leaves our heroes way up the creek, as always. It will be months before the next episode gives them the chance to start paddling.

As for Suits, their season finale is a similar thrill ride, in a corporate way, with the bad guys behaving worse than ever and the good guys pushed to the wall. Louis descends deeper and deeper into weaselhood. Harvey loses his cool. Mike gets in trouble with women. Again, it will be January before he has a chance to get out.

So when I fell into bed at eleven, I was far too restless from all that drama to sleep. Instead I picked up my IPad and read Cured, Donna Huston Murray's new medical thriller. (Look for it in October. Donna emailed me a review copy.) Her tough cancer survivor protagonist struggled against such dreadful ordeals at the hands of the bad guys that I was quite unable to put it down. Anyway, watch for it. October! You'll be able to see it long before the next episodes of Burn Notice and Suits.

Kate Gallison

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Greco-Roman, My Foot

You may think that I am going to take some kind of exception to the Olympic Games event they call Greco-Roman Wrestling.  But no, I am going to write about feet.  A chancy subject to be sure.

In his gorgeous film Out of Africa, Sidney Pollack has Denys Fitch Hatton remark, "Did you know that in all of literature, there is no poem celebrating the foot.  There's lips, there's eyes, hands, face, hair, breasts, legs, arms, even the knee, but not one verse for the poor old foot."

Karen Blixen responds with a couplet: "Along he came and he did put, upon my farm his lovely foot."  If the subject is good enough for Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, its plenty good enough for me.

Neither is this about a fetish.  Celebrated as the foot is the annals of abnormal psychology, I am not going there either.  This is about members of my family ridiculing, not my whole foot, but my little toes.  My pinkie toes are not straight, the way perfect little toes are supposed to be. They twist a bit, as if they are trying to kiss the next toe over.  My husband and daughter used to point and laugh at them.

Then one day, in the Capitoline Museum in Rome, I discovered the truth about my little toes.  They are a badge of my Greco-Roman heritage.  The gallery of ancient sculpture in that magnificent treasure trove features many statutes on high pedestals.  As I walked through the exhibition, in awe of the beauty of the ancient works of art, perhaps because the feet we're at my eye level, I suddenly noticed that the Greek feet before me looked just like mine.  I went up and down the gallery.  ALL the statuesRoman and Greekhad little toes exactly like mine.

This is sensible genetically, since my ancestors on my fathers side were from Siracusa in Sicily, formerly the Greek city state of Syracuse.  My mother came out of the gene pool between Rome and Naples.  Strange how, though I knew about my heritage, finding this little piece of physical evidence strengthened the bond I already had with my forebears, way back into history.  In a way, I was them.

The blood of ancients from some part of this world flows in all our veins.  We need to remember that.  Maybe it will help us not to take the present too seriously.

Annamaria Alfieri

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Feelin' Good!

Good ole collard greens.
Eats em in the mornin,
Eats em in the night.
Eats em all day -
Makes me feel jes right!

We used to sing this at the simple log cabin of the African American cook of the local Girl Scout camp near Suffok, Virginia. The staff would congregate for a party there on the days between camp sessions.

We sang, danced, laughed, told jokes - learned a lot of good country wisdom. Fun, food and fellowship with Real People that're few and far between on this ole planet!

I'm basically a country hick at heart.

Sure, I've done the Regency Hotel power breakfast and had my extra dry martinis at Bemelman's Bar.

I can talk Caribbean resorts, European hotels and high falutin' couture with the best of them.

But what I really love is the good earth, fish, birds, animals and a slow pace with sun, gentle rain, and the regular, trusted patterns of the planet, stars, sun and moon.

You find peace and feel-goodness in unexpected ways.

Simple radio talk by truck drivers in the middle of the night, as they plow alone across prairies and mountain roads.

Chatter of night security guards, keeping America safe.

I remember my own hours of night driving, up the steep mountain from Chattanooga to Sewanee, fog so thick you couldn't see the yellow line in front of your headights.

Suns setting behind western mountains.

Wiggling your toes with the friendly fishes at Grand Cayman.

Counting the points of the two Dippers on Lake Prince, Virginia.

Sitting on a bench over the East River, counting the stream of vessels of every color and origin.

Getting splashed on the majestic giant rocks at Newport, out on the Ocean Drive.

Dancing on waves at Prout's Neck, Maine.

Tell us what is in YOUR memory bank that makes you feel good!!!!!

Thelma J. Straw

Friday, August 17, 2012

A Suitable Job for a Writer

The manly male writers of the late nineteen-fifties all seemed to have similar c.v.'s – longshoreman, short-order cook, and I forget the third thing, cab driver maybe or piano player in a bawdy house – so that it became obligatory to say you had done these things if you wanted to be taken seriously as a writer. (Also you had to drink to excess, but that's a rant for another day.)

What is a good job for a fledgeling writer? To my way of thinking, anything you can do to keep from having to write home for money. Ideally the job should not be so arduous or time-consuming as to leave you no energy or time to hone your craft. Also ideally, your day job should offer a certain amount of life experience. Anything where you interact with the public is good. If you keep your eyes and ears open you can learn a lot about human nature on the job. I used to enjoy retail sales, though it doesn't pay very well.

During the go-go eighties I wrote user manuals for a software house, and that paid quite well. I mastered the art of gracefully gender-neutral prose. My instructions were clear and unambiguous. Nobody read them; nobody ever reads the manual. But the hours were regular and the money was good.

A job where you write for a living has its advantages and disadvantages. As a naval officer, Robert Heinlein learned to write clearly and say what he meant the first time. Newsman Jimmy Breslin was disgusted by the prose style of those of his fellow Irishmen who became lawyers. The law, he felt, was a bad day job for a writer. Newspaper reporters learn to write fast, write clearly, and write whether they feel inspired to or not, and they are constantly exposed to Life as it is Lived, but openings in that field are becoming scarce.

You might set forth under the impression that you will make money right away by writing what you want to write, be it flaming romances or literary fiction. Occasionally, this sort of thing happens. People also hit it big in the lottery, or so I hear. Good luck. But keep your day job.

Kate Gallison

* Short Order Cook - Kevin Feary

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

My Most Unusual Job Was Magic

Twice in the past couple of months interviewers have asked me what was my most unusual job.  I wondered about this. Was it a coincidence?  Is a person's most unusual job supposed to have something to do with what kind of writer she is?

I know that people like Jack London and John Steinbeck did unusual thingslike work in a cannery or run a fish hatchery.  Would these interviewers think more of me if I had had such a job?  After I gave them my sincere answer I wondered if I had made a big mistake.  Biographers of famous writers often brag about how their subjects had worked at all sorts of non-writerly occupations.  

Perhaps those interviewers would have been more impressed if I had told them about the summer I spent calculating the square footage of oddly-shaped parcels of real estate or the time I worked as a receptionist at the Manhattan Shirt factory.  Perhaps, since people who write about literary lives seem to groove on the messier working-class jobs, my best literary bet would have been the summer I sweated it out manufacturing plastic ice cream containers.   Being a genuine working-class person, I was always very happy to hear that slaving in a factory was a way of building up one's fiction-writing chops.  But I didn't do it for that purpose.  I was working my way through college, and those jobs paid best of all the choices I had.
Anyway, it's too late to change my answer now.  The first interviewer surprised me with the question, so I blurted out the story that follows.  He seemed to like it.  He certainly smiled and nodded a great deal.  When the second interviewer asked the same question, spurred on my tales warm reception from the first guy, I told the same story again.  Here it is:

My most unusual job was as a Magician's Assistant.  The magician went to the same church as my family.  The spring I turned sixteen, he came to our house one Saturday afternoon and found me weeding my grandmother's garden.  He wanted to talk to my mother about a job for me for the coming summer. I figured it would be as a babysitter.  I had quite an impressive local reputation in that field.  But no.  He was impressed with my tiny stature.  I am 5 2 and 102 pounds in the photos you see here.  (Please no cracks about my current weight status!) Magicians assistants have to be able to fit into very small spaces.  He didnt want me to take care of his kids.  He wanted to saw me in half.

He did.  And he put me into a box, shoved swords into it from every angle, and when he opened it, he had made me disappear.  He also turned me into the mind reader in the show because I was the only one of three of us who could memorize the meanings of the various clues he called from the audience.

It was a fun job, except for the part where I was forced  to stand statuesquely in a strapless evening gown with my arms extended while he pulled a score of pigeons (he called them doves!) from his hat and his sleeves.  He put the birds on my bare arms, ten on each.  I can still feel their creepy little feet on my skin.

We rehearsed on Saturdays.  We did our dress rehearsal for the neighbors at the parish hall that following May, and when summer came, we repaired to a theater in Asbury Park every Thursday afternoon.  There we did three shows a day on weekends.  He paid me $1 an hour for rehearsals and my time on stage, and provided my room and board.  When we could, my fellow assistant and I went to beach and read books.

Many years later, I saw a Woody Allen movie about a magician who put a woman in a sword box.  In the film, the background music was In a Persian Market.  That was exactly the music my magician played when I went into the sword box.  Even today, whenever I hear it, I think of sitting there with my folded legs under the false floor and my torso and head behind the mirrors, waiting for the audience to stop oohing and ahhing, and for him to open the top so I could leap to freedom.

Annamaria Alfieri

Monday, August 13, 2012

Robin is on Hiatus

Robin Hathaway is on hiatus this week. Look for her post next Monday.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Bronson Parker — Journalist Turns to Crime Fiction

Recently, our fellow crime writer Robin Hathaway asked us to tell what books we read this summer. I'd like to share a writer new to me, Bronson L. Parker, a Tennessee native, now a resident of Hampton, Virginia.

Parker credits the late Bill Tapply for guiding him from years as a journalist to his new world of fiction.

I've missed Bill Tapply – but found a treasure in Parker's delightful novel, The Providence of Death.

A former award-winning jounalist, "Bo" Parker has that same warmth, charmingly simple depth, that Tapply's Brady Coyne filled our heads with for so many years. Excellent prose, couched in unassuming style.

I hope we'll have now many years of Joe McKibben, Parker's ex-detective, who grows upon the reader instantly, like the comforting sounds of Chesapeake Bay waves lapping against a sun-warmed sand.

The Providence of Death is set in an area personally dear to me, Hampton, Virginia, and the surrounding countryside in the Chesapeake Bay world, as well as the small village of Duck on North Carolina's Outer Banks.

Parker has that wonderful gift Bill Tapply had - he draws you into his local world of small towns and neighborhoods. You feel you've always known the people in his pages.

Sections of this novel touched a special depth in me. My father lived for many years, then died, at the V.A. Hospital in Hampton.

My mother spent over a half century in her house on the beach on Chesapeake Bay. Parker's following description could have been a chapter right out of that life!

"I … looked across Hampton Roads, the world's largest natural harbor, home to the world's largest naval installation. I watched a container ship in the main channel glide past the sterns of warships docked at the navy shipyard… an aircraft carrier traveling in on the channel from the Chesapeake Bay came into view…"

To you fellow devotees of William G. Tapply, if I did a blind reading of Bronson's book, I'd think I was reading one of Bill's books! Mid-Atlantic, not New England, ocean and bay, not mountain streams, Chesapeake Bay land, not Martha's Vineyard, but that same satisfying environment, interesting characters and marriage of humans, land and water.

When I finished one of Bill Tapply's books, I always felt " All's right with the world."

Bo Parker gives me that same good feeling!

P.S. I found this book by surfing in the crime writers blogosphere and look forward to the next two books of this gifted writer!

Thelma Straw

Please give us your comments - we love hearing from you!!!

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Detritus of Age

Last week I lost my sweet little camera, as you will recall, and as a result spiraled into a full-blown mental health panic. (Finishing the first draft of the work-in-progress probably helped a bit there.) Before I finally found it, since it is so small, I was forced to delve into every cardboard box, plastic storage container, and drawer in the house where we have lived for the last thirty years.

As I rummaged in those drawers I was reminded of the days when I was a child visiting my maternal grandparents. My grandfather was a civil engineer with hobbies and government responsibilities (not that different from my husband's), and as a result the collect-all drawers in his house also held the detritus of technologies past. Fountain pens whose rubber bladders were too old and cracked to hold ink any more. Yellowing forms for use by defunct government agencies. Bright sticks of red sealing wax. Rotted rubber bands that stuck together. Glue made from horsehide, long dried up. And dried up bottles of ink.

The (more or less) modern equivalent of this collection is the junk in our hold-all drawers. My grandfather's were so much more romantic and interesting. Now I just look at this stuff and say to myself, Where does this plug go? What happened to the computer that used to be able to read these floppy disks? What do these rubber feet belong to? Where did the last thirty years go?

What's in your drawers? Does it please you or appall you? Or shouldn't I bring it up at all?

Kate Gallison

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Attacked by Real Estate

For more than a couple of decades, we enjoyed the incredible luxury of a house in the country.  The one we owned is a beautiful place on a historic road in Garrison, New York, in the majestic Hudson Valley.  We loved it well.  I planted a garden.  And we put in an authentic Italian terracotta wood burning oven.  We threw parties. It was the scene of enormously loving and joyful family gatherings.  We all fell completely in love with the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, which performs under a gorgeous tent on a lawn with the most magnificent view of the river.

But in recent years, I've known that the responsibility for our second home was becoming more than could be borne.  We would have to sell.

Reluctance delayed the decision: the emotional wrench of parting, the terrible disappointment to the family, the price we could ask during a real estate debacle, the enormous difficulty of emptying the attic, where we had been running the Patricia and David Free Mini-Storage for twenty-seven years.  Postponement was the easy option.

But the house began to take an active role in forcing my hand.  Rising real estate taxes were bad enough.  Then, the well pump broke.  Jimmy Erikson came to replace it and discovered that the water treatment system was failing too.  Then the over-flow tank for the furnace started to leak.  The house seemed to be firmly pushing my resolve.  The demise of the washer/dryer and an invasion of mice, populations ballooning after the mild winter, did the trick.  I bit the bullet just after New Years.  I told a neighbor that I was about to sell.  He had a friend who might be interested.  The prospect showed up, liked the place a lot, but took her time deciding.  Late in February, she began dating a local billionaire (I kid you not!).  So much for that easy sale.

Then, another neighbors best friend came to see the house with his family.  They fell in love.  OKAY!  This was going to be easy, after all.  Except, of course, for the accumulated junk in the attic, the underground oil tank, and the asbestos they discovered in the basement.  (Who knew?)  I dealt with all of that.  (Six words to describe an enormity.)

We closed.  The delightful and thoroughly simpatico new owners made a generous offer.  They would not be in residence during the beginning of August.  In fact, they would never be there in August.  If I liked, I could return for a couple of weeks each year to take in the glories of the Shakespeare Festival and even fire up the pizza oven once more for old times sake.

Three of us arrived there last Saturday, looked around at the newly-painted walls and made for the pool.  After a refreshing swim, while we were chatting on the patio, one the tinier denizens of 699 Old Albany Post Road decided to make the divorce final.  A bee stung mea first in my life.  The stinger it left behind proved it had been a suicide attack.  I now have a place on my body about the size of a salad plate that is puffy and looks like a gigantic blister, in the center of which is a circle about the size of a teacup saucer, that glows with the deep, vivid magentas and purples of a Namibian sunset.  It burns like fire.  I have used up half a tube of cortisone cream and numerous doses of Benadryl.  I am on antibiotics.

If I tell you I am going back there next August, PLEASE handcuff me to a radiator in my New York apartment and dont feed me until I come to my senses.

Annamaria Alfieri

Monday, August 6, 2012

My First Library

It was really just a room in our school. It had big windows on two sides and shelves on the other two. The shelves were low so people less than 4 feet could reach them easily. It was called “The Little Library" to differentiate it from the big library where all the older kids went. In the middle of the room were three round tables with small chairs tucked around them. This is where we sat to read our books. You could go in there anytime you had free time, before school, if you came early, after school if your mother was late picking you up. Or, after lunch, during recess, etc. It was a hideout, a shelter, a sanctuary.

One day I was in the library during lunch. I had found a wonderful book. It had a battered orange cover and the illustrations were all in black and white silhouettes. It was called The Railway Children. Suddenly the door opened and Miss Harper, my Third Grade teacher, looked in.

“There you are!” We were looking all over for you.” She came over to see what I was reading and her expression softened. “Oh, that was one of my favorite books,” she said. And she showed me how to sign the book out so I could take it home with me.

All the way home I kept wondering: Why would Miss Harper have wanted to read a children’s book?

Robin Hathaway

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Price of Peaches... or... Quid Pro Quo...

(This blog is dedicated to Verlyn Klinkenborg, distinguished member of the New York Times editorial board, a Princeton Ph.D., who lives on his farm in upstate New York and writes literary meditations on rural farm life.)

Here I sit, relaxed, gazing at amber waves of grain under spacious skies…

Just kidding! I've been spending too much time with Nelson DeMille's John Corey and have picked up his bad habits!!

I'm actually chained to my non-functioning A.C. in sweltering Manhotten... while Con Ed plays games with our electricity!

But back to my bucolic VK mode… today I paid $3 bucks for 5 measly peaches! And one was already rotten by the time I got it home!

I sat on the kitchen floor and recalled another time of peaches in my life… from a plantation near Augusta, Georgia.

I was visiting the Episcopalian St. Helena sisters in Augusta and promised to help them raise funds. The next night, at dinner with the family of one of my Sewanee students, at their enormous peach plantation near Augusta, the student's father offered to donate" some" of their produce to the good sisters, being a good Episcopalian that he was.

The next day a truck pulled up at the convent with tons - yes, tons - of Georgia's finest! All hands sprang on deck. You never saw so many peaches in your life!!!

The good ladies fed every hungry mouth for miles around from that bounteous truck load. As well as filled every can and jar and pan they could find!

If I'd weighed all that fruit at my local NYC market they'd have cost, I'm sure, tons of dollars! But nothing like 5 for three $$$.

The next day I had an appointment with the manager of a big, fine department store in town. Before I met with the big guy I did some shopping on my own – a lovely evening gown, a pink raincoat and a pair of heels.

Then I went to my meeting. After several minutes of pleasant conversation he handed me a sealed envelope.

"My contribution to the dear sisters," he said, ever the charming southern gentleman.

When I gave the envelope proudly to the head nun, I imagined vast sums. After all, it was bigtime philanthropy! It was the finest store in town!

She showed me the check. It was the EXACT amount I'd spent that day at the man's store!

You want to talk about the meaning of Quid Pro Quo?????

T. J. Straw

Friday, August 3, 2012

Losing It

You will recall how a few weeks ago I declared my intention to go crazy in the service of Art, in order to better understand my protagonist's usual frame of mind. It worked pretty well, as methods go. The first draft of Monkeystorm (current working title) is just about finished. Carina has managed to elevate her craziness to the level of a superpower.

The problem with mental exercises of this sort is that they tend to distract a writer from important details of her own life. There are things I haven't been attending to. There are things, in fact, that I have out and out lost this summer. My mind may be one of them, or not, but I certainly can't find, for example, the new camera. I know we brought it back from Mississippi because I downloaded pictures.

Or my summer clothes from last year. A divine bathing suit I bought in the Florida Keys. Two pair of white jeans that fit me. That suit with the bright-colored flowers that everybody likes. Gone.

Most likely I packed the clothes away last fall and forgot where. But I've looked all over, to no avail. I tell you what. If you see some woman about my size wearing a skirted suit with big gaudy flowers and using a little black Canon digital camera to take pictures, and she isn't me, drop me an email. There may be a reward. Or my mind. If you run into my mind (I know, I know, it's too weak to get very far) hang onto it and give me a call. I'll be most grateful.

Kate Gallison

Update, Saturday morning… I found the camera just now, you'll be happy to know. In searching the house for it, however, I uncovered many levels of chaos. Next Friday I hope to be able to report that my office is clean, my clothes are in order, and five bags of trash have been put on the curb.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Learning to love Jazz from Joe Williams

Over this past weekend, I had the chance to present Invisible Country at the wonderful, independent bookstore, Canio's in Sag Harbor.  While there, I noticed, on the wall of my friends' house, a picture of my host Paul with Joe Williams.  We talked about how Paul knew Joe, and Paul said Joe was "the best." Paul used to arrange weekend jazz concerts in New York, so he really knew Joe.  I agreed with his assessment, but my connection with the great jazz singer from afar, just another face in the crowd.

I have no recollection of how my first love in jazz came about.  We were working class teenagers going to Catholic high school next to the Paterson, NJ jail, in a school building condemned by the fire department in a moribund city that is still in its death throes more than fifty years later.  Somehow, some way, we decided it would be cool to go to New York City, less than twenty miles away, to a club called Birdland on Broadway to hear the Count Basie band with Joe Williams.  I was sixteen the first time we went.  Whatever took us there, we returned every time Joe and the Count came back, for three years running.  Perhaps the whole thing began because the boys a year ahead of me in school got drivers licenses and wanted someplace to drive.  Maybe the New Jersey eighteen year olds among us wanted to get over the New York State line where they could legally drink alcohol.  Whatever took me there, I fell in love with the music and especially with Joes voice.

The Kid from Red Bank, Count Basie, played splendidly to be sure.  (On one visit, I sat where I could see his fingers, chubby they were, dancing on the keys. That was decades ago, but I still see them now.)  Great Stuff, but it was Joe's singing that knocked me out.  It still does. In all those years, not a fortnight has gone by that I havent listened to my favorite, Im Beginning to See the Light.

YouTubes of Joe are sparse and to my way of thinking do not capture him at his best, but I share a couple here.

 Here he is with the GREAT George shearing:

Many, many of Joes recordings are widely available.  Check out a few.  I think I have most of them and know they will be keeping me company for the rest of my life.

Annamaria Alfieri