Category Archives: books

What Good Is Fiction?

Nonfiction has purpose. It informs, educates, and illuminates. What does fiction do? Nothing but provide escape.

And what’s wrong with that? Nothing, as far as I can see. If there’s any time when people need escape, it’s now. I don’t have to detail the current political, social, and news situations to know that’s true. At times like these, who doesn’t want to escape to a desert island or another planet?

Actually, escapism has never been a bad thing. There are always things in life that need escaping from. At least there have been in my life. Misunderstanding, bullying, depression, loneliness – fiction helped me escape from these, from Green Eggs and Ham to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to A Wrinkle in Time to The Lord of the Rings.

Nor do you need high-brow fiction to provide escapism, though that is there as well. I’ve found escape in Dorothy Gilman’s Mrs. Pollifax books, a cozy mystery/adventure series with included travelogues. In fact, mystery books still provide an escape for me. And science fiction and fantasy, perhaps the ultimate escapist literature, still fill many spots on my to-be-read list, as well as my to-be-reread list. (The fact that I am friends with several sf writers is also a factor.)

I’ve had my innings with classic literature, it’s true, particularly in college, when I was an English major – though one of my favorite courses was children’s literature (aka kiddie lit). If you look at my e-reader, you’ll find Shakespeare and Cervantes along with Grafton, Heinlein, Dumas, and others.

Fiction, like nonfiction, can inform, educate, and illuminate as well – spark thought and inspire to action.

Take Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. In that book, it’s poetry (another “useless” pursuit) that helps the protagonist understand the value of literature and the futility of trying to suppress it. It’s still extremely relevant, considering all the book bannings lately. Or take Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, as appallingly relevant as the day it was first written. Or The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell, which has the first contact with an alien civilization being made by Jesuits. If that’s not thought-provoking, I don’t know what is.

There’s also historical fiction, which, while not always totally accurate (we have nonfiction biographies and autobiographies for that), speculates about the inner workings of famous people’s psyches and posits reasons for how they lived. Melanie Benjamin’s The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb and The Aviator’s Wife, about Anne Morrow Lindbergh, are two examples.

Then there is fiction about fiction and books that provide escape for the mind that cannot be found anywhere else. The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, is one such. John Irving’s The World According to Garp is another famous example. With books like these, one can delve into the mind of the creative person who provides escape for others.

Of course, nonfiction can be escapist as well. Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars provides an entertaining history of the space program, but also NASA’s current exploration of the possibilities of, well, going to Mars. Now that’s escapism – but not fiction. Histories can whisk us away to another time and place with explorers who climbed Mount Everest or charted the Amazon. Ernest Shackleton’s diaries can take me right out of a sweltering day and make me feel the freezing air and hear the buffeting wind of Antarctica.

I will admit that there’s a lot of nonfiction on my e-reader – including true crime, science, biographies, adventure travel, language, and mental health. But it’s fiction I return to again and again. I recently read a beloved novel that I hadn’t read in at least 40 years, and I still remembered not only the plot but also lines of dialogue. And I’ve tried my hand at writing fiction too, which provided mental escape of a different sort.

So, what good is fiction? Even if it’s only escapism, it’s extremely valuable and not to be sneered at. At its best, fiction can make one’s interior world more vibrant, more fascinating, and more meaningful; and the world around us more wondrous, more exciting, and more entertaining. That’s enough of a recommendation for me.

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Whose Daughter? Whose Wife?

Emily St. John Mandel noticed back in 2012 that there were many, many books with titles that related to someone’s daughter. “No trend that I’ve ever noticed has seemed quite so pervasive as the daughter phenomenon,” she said. “Seriously, once you start noticing them, they’re everywhere. A recent issue of Shelf Awareness had ads for both The Sausage Maker’s Daughters and The Witch’s Daughter. I’m Facebook friends with the authors of The Hummingbird’s DaughterThe Baker’s DaughterThe Calligrapher’s Daughter, and The Murderer’s Daughters, and those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head.” She actually made a spreadsheet of the number of daughter books and came up with over 530. “I don’t mean to suggest that 530 represents the total number of these books,” she added. “Five hundred and thirty was just the arbitrary point where I decided to stop counting, because the project was starting to take too much time. I was only on page 88 of 200 pages of search results.”

Well, I took over her mission and recorded still more daughters that were the subject of books. One of the best known is The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Amy Tan. Among the others I found were the President’s, General’s, Senator’s, Governor’s, Admiral’s, Colonel’s, Judge’s, and Sheriff’s. And the Bishop’s, Apostate’s, and Vicar’s. Not to mention the Alchemist’s, Apothecary’s, Taxi Driver’s, Merchant’s, Outlaw’s, and Killer’s. There were even ones that recognized that sometimes women had daughters as well: the Harlot’s, the Mistress’s, and the Book Woman’s daughters all came up on the search.

But the phenomenon doesn’t stop there. I also found a plethora of books devoted to various people’s wives. The most recent and popular was The Time-Traveler’s Wife, but there are plenty of others. Some I found particularly interesting: Zookeeper’s and Tiger’s (two separate books), Nazi Officer’s, Traitor’s, Lightning God’s, Liar’s, Shape-Changer’s, Dopeman’s, Conqueror’s, and Dark Overlord’s. Lobotomist’s (I think I need to read that one) and Anatomist’s and Knife Thrower’s. Lots of occupational ones – Shoemaker’s, Pilot’s (and Aviator’s), Headmaster’s, Optician’s, Woodcutter’s, Centurion’s, Mapmaker’s (a fascinating book that I’ve actually read), Tea Planter’s, Clockmaker’s, Chocolate Maker’s, Restaurant Critic’s, Runaway Pastor’s (no, that’s one, not two), Penmaker’s, and Banker’s wives were all featured. And some that are just puzzling: Salaryman’s, Janitor’s, Centaur’s wife.

That’s where I stopped recording them. I’m not a big fan of spreadsheets.

The reason I bring all this up (there actually is a reason) is that I’m always annoyed (not to say pissed off) when there’s a campaign that defines a woman in terms of her relationship with someone else: Breast cancer could happen to your wife or your mother. Being attacked on the street at night could happen to your daughter, your fiance, your niece. Abortion, stalking, mental and other illnesses – all could happen to a person related to you.

It’s not that you shouldn’t be aware of how these tragedies and distressing situations can affect those around you – loved ones, relatives, neighbors. And it’s not like there aren’t a few similar things that could be said about husbands, fathers, uncles, brothers, or male friends (killed in war or suffering from prostate cancer, usually).

What gets to me is that the afflictions are said to be visited on women in relation to someone else. Isn’t it bad enough when a woman is raped or gets cervical cancer strictly as herself? Why do we have to define her as someone’s something in order for her to deserve our attention?

Even the sisters and the daughters are encouraged to think, “It could be my mother or grandmother. It could be my best friend.” I guess “It could happen to any woman” isn’t specific enough. There has to be an emotional connection to make them worth caring about.

But there are plenty of women without family or community connections who are subject to diseases and disasters – the homeless woman, the one who has always lived on her own, the widow with no children. Why can’t we care about, have sympathy for, and work toward the health and happiness of them too?

Or are they only worthwhile and interesting when they’re daughters or wives?

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Ghostwriter Gigs

For the past several years, I have been working for a transcription service, typing up shareholders’ and lenders’ info sessions, conferences, and other sorts of gatherings to discuss primarily business issues.

With the slowing of the COVID pandemic and other factors, however, transcription assignments have been thin on the ground, or at least in the inbox.

Fortunately, I have discovered ghostwriting. Actually, I was applying to be an editor, not a ghostwriter. But I screwed up on the qualifying test. I’m a good editor, but I wasn’t used to their way of editing. When I was an editor in magazine publishing, I worked for a small company. We didn’t have lots of editors, subeditors, associate editors, assistant editors, acquisitions editors, line editors, content editors, proofreaders, or much of a budget for freelance writers. A simple editor had to do virtually all of it. And I was a simple editor.

So when I was faced with a sample text to edit, I did it the way I always had – I attacked all the problems I saw during my first editing pass, then went back to attack the rest of the problems – things I’d missed or that only became apparent on a second or third reading. Problems of flow, continuity, grammar, style, punctuation, and other arcane pieces of an editor’s craft were addressed in a somewhat random fashion.

What the company wanted, however, was a series of separate editorial steps – first (for some reason) spelling and punctuation, then moving upward through a series of other steps done in a certain order until all the editing was complete. I did my usual slash-and-burn editing, which didn’t at all mesh with their procedure. I was turned down.

But I noticed that the company also employed ghostwriters. “I’m a writer,” I said to myself. “I’ve written many an article that I didn’t develop myself on topics that I didn’t select. Why can’t I do that with a book?” This time I passed the trial assignment and became an actual ghostwriter. Then I went through the various processes associated with the position, such as selecting a pen name, creating a profile, choosing which niches I could write in, and so forth.

I expected to have to request orders and wait to be accepted, but almost immediately I received a request from a prospective customer. The book requested was on pets, which I know something about, but specifically on dogs, which I know little about. Some discussion ensued, but I was granted the assignment – 27,000 words, due in three weeks (the usual deadline given for a book of about 30,000 words). That works out to about 1,500 words a day, a number I could easily meet.

Then I got another assignment, a self-help book. The time period overlapped somewhat with the deadline for the pet book, but I took the assignment regardless. After all, 3,000 words a day would be a stretch, but since the overlap was only a week, I thought I could handle it.

While I was finishing up the first book and working on the second book, I sent out more requests for invitations to work on other books, thinking that it might take me a while to line up another assignment. That’s how I acquired my third assignment, which overlapped with the second one, with revisions on the first assignment thrown in. The third assignment was a self-help/business book on a subject I had written something about before in a blog. After some back-and-forth with the customer to make sure we meshed, I signed on for the assignment and the customer signed on for me.

I am finding the job rewarding, though not necessarily financially. The money isn’t great, only a few hundred dollars per book, but more than I ever made at transcription, even when the taps were open and the assignments flowing daily.

I’m writing nonfiction just now, but I think I’ll try taking the test for fiction ghostwriters too, just to give myself more options. I don’t have as much experience with writing fiction as I do with writing nonfiction, but I do have some. And I figure that being able to write both will make my services more marketable and keep the assignments coming in.

Will it be frustrating to see someone else’s name on a book that I actually authored? And not even my pen name at that? Other writers will know what I mean when I say that as long as they spell my name right on the check, I won’t mind. (Not that anyone pays by check anymore. So just so long as they deposit it to the right PayPal account, I’ll be satisfied.)

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Starstuff

Carl Sagan has been damned as a popularizer of science. Carl Sagan has been praised as a popularizer of science. Since the first time he put on his corduroy jacket and turtleneck to introduce the masses to the wonders of the universe in his ground-breaking TV series Cosmos, he has been many things to many people (and associated with the phrase “billyuns and billyuns”).

So. Is being a science popularizer a good thing or a bad thing? It’s a bad thing if you expect a scientist to remain in the lab and conduct research, without wasting her or his time appearing on Johnny Carson. It’s a good thing if you think science needs to be popular for society to survive.

That Sagan appeared on Carson’s show was not a fluke. Rather than being the epitome of an obsessive researcher, Sagan was an enthusiast and a promoter of science who could, at the same time, entertain as well as he explained.

Sagan was in the news a lot, too. He was the one that insisted that astronauts who had been to the moon be quarantined for a period to make sure they had brought back no alien germs. He was the one who demolished the theories of Immanuel Velikovsky, famous for his book In Search of Ancient Aliens, which purported that alien civilizations have visited Earth and left their mark on ancient astronomy, archaeology, and biblical studies. (Every year when he was teaching astronomy at Cornell University, Sagan devoted one whole lecture to debunking Velikovsky.)

Sagan’s astronomy class was swamped with auditors (particularly on Velikovsky day). To be officially registered for Sagan’s Astronomy 102 class, you had to sit through Astronomy 101, a deadly boring class taught by a deadly boring professor. (I had the great good fortune of taking Sagan’s class, and met him at department parties.) His teaching was compelling and his tests were far from regurgitating dry facts.

Sagan’s particular field barely existed: astrobiology. Since life has never been discovered on other planets, there wasn’t much to say about it, though he could, and did, do experiments on what circumstances and elements needed to be present for life to arise out of the “primordial soup.”

He memorably said, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.” He was also famous for “Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge” and “The fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.”

Carl Sagan is now present on Facebook, despite the fact that he’s been dead for some years. Most of the quotes attributed to him are on the subjects of today’s culture of stupidity (though he didn’t live long enough to see how thoroughly correct he was), the lack of science education in the US (or at least rigorous science education), the dumbing-down of popular culture, and the need for both scientists and people like him to make science accessible.

Many of the Facebook quotations are influenced by the book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, which was required reading in his astronomy class, though it had nothing to say about astronomy. Instead, it was a work that denounced what came to be known as pseudoscience, such as belief in ghosts and witchcraft.

Losing Sagan was a profound blow both to science and to making science available and understandable to the masses. Others have attempted to carry on his work as popularizers of science, notably Neil deGrasse Tyson (who had a part in the “Is Pluto a planet?” debate) and Bill Nye (The Science Guy). Tyson has even starred in a reboot of Cosmos, though nothing can rival the fascination of the original series.

Neither one, helpful as they may be to the science-ignorant, has stepped into Sagan’s loafers as a teacher, a public figure, a prescient philosopher of science, an inspiration. I miss the heck out of him.

Learning Things

This is a poster I have in my study. Lately, I have begun thinking that what it really should say is “That’s what I do. I read books and I learn things.” To put it simply, I wouldn’t know things if I didn’t learn things. And now I think the learning is perhaps more important than the knowing.

I had a course in grad school that was called Research and Bibliography. (We called it R&B.) We did the usual things you do as an English major – write papers about assorted literary figures, mostly. (I once did a paper on William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens. I referred to it as my “Willie and Wally” paper. But I digress.)

The final exam, however, was not an essay test or another sort of normal academic exercise. It was, in essence, a scavenger hunt in the university library. Each of the seven or so students had her or his own personal set of questions and had to find the answers. The trick was, you had to know where to find the answers, not so much what the actual answers were. Each set of questions could be answered using the same reference books (this was before computers were available to anyone except the librarians), and students were allowed to point each other to the correct ones.

For example, a question might be “When John Milton used the word pandemonium, how long had it been part of the English language?” (Trick question: Milton invented the word. It means, literally, “all the devils.”) The answer could be found in a reference book called the OED, or Oxford English Dictionary. Another student would have a different question that also required using the OED. And you could say, “you’ll find that in the OED.”

In that case, the test was not at all about knowing the answers to the questions, but knowing – or learning – where to find them (something that we should have learned from writing our papers and bibliographies).

There are different types of learning. My husband learns mostly by visual means, absorbing information through television documentaries, for example. Some children learn their letters and numbers best by drawing them in a sand tray or fingerpainting them. For a while, these multiple styles of learning – visual, auditory, kinesthetic, etc. – were a major influence on education, and teachers were encouraged to use a different style if a child wasn’t learning through the one that was normally used to teach. (They may still be. I haven’t done textbooks in years.)

So. I read books and I know things – but only because I learn them. I was reading a book about mountaineering, for example, and came across the word salopettes. I could tell from the context that it was an item of clothing, but I just had to learn which one. A quick Google and I learned that salopettes are to the French (and mountain climbers) what bibbed overalls are over here (only, presumably, down-filled instead of denim). It’s a completely useless thing to know – I can’t imagine it being useful even on Jeopardy. But it was fun to learn.

Of course, I’m not putting down reading or knowing. For me, reading is what comes before learning, and knowing is what comes after. And, for me at least, both are pleasurable occupations.

I wrote about learning a while back, and this is what I said about it:

I count a day when I don’t learn something new as a day wasted. I love it when I’m able to start a Facebook post with TIL (Today I learned) or “I was today years old when I learned that….” Learning is all around you. You just have to reach out and grab it!

That’s still my philosophy.

My Next Tattoo

I know I’m not the tattoo “type,” being neither a biker nor a chef, but I already have two tattoos and am now considering a third.

My first two tattoos were mental health tattoos. The one I’m getting in the photo is a semicolon. (Okay, I’m also a punctuation freak. The semicolon is my favorite.) It stands for the point in a sentence where a writer could have put a period and ended it there. If there’s a semicolon there instead, the sentence continues. As a metaphor, it means “My story isn’t over” and as a mental health symbol, it represents suicide awareness and prevention.

My second tattoo was a colon followed by half a parentheses followed by another colon, like this :):

In emoji terms, this would be happy face/frowny face. In a mental health context, it stands for bipolar disorder, which I have. (Bipolar used to be called manic depression, and it’s a lot more than wide mood swings.)

Determined to try something a little different – and more colorful – this time, I began contemplating options that would be meaningful, at least to me.

Compass rose. A compass rose is the little design at the bottom of a map that orients you to north, south, east, and west. For me, it symbolizes travel, which is a thing I love to do and have done often, both domestically and abroad, with my mother or my husband or by myself.

I also thought of having a compass rose with a yellow rose, perhaps in the center, in honor of my mother. She loved to travel too, and the yellow rose was her favorite flower. But that might be a lot to cram into a small tattoo. (I want something subtle, not showy.) Maybe I can get a yellow rose separately later.

Books. Reading, as all my friends know, is a passion of mine, one I’ve been indulging since I was four years old. I’ve read under the covers when I was a kid, in the hallway between classes when I was a teen, and practically anywhere and anytime now. (I have three e-readers so I can recharge them and still have at least one to read from. But I digress. I’m not getting a Nook tattoo.)

I’ve been wavering between an open book, maybe with a pen, to signify writing books; an open book laid flat; or a small stack of books. I think the stack of books offers an opportunity for some color, so I’ve been leaning towards that.

Orion. The constellation Orion is my favorite. (Is it weird to have a favorite constellation as well as a favorite mark of punctuation?) I love when it appears every autumn, with its belt and sword of stars, and the big red star Betelgeuse at the left shoulder and the bright blue-white Rigel at the right knee, creating a hunter figure from Greek mythology. (Most people pronounce Betelgeuse as “Beetlejuice,” but I’ve heard other pronunciations as well. Isn’t this educational?)

Astronomy is and has long been one of my special interests. I belonged to an astronomy club in high school. I subscribed to Sky and Telescope magazine for a while. I watched Carl Sagan’s TV show Cosmos avidly, then took his astronomy class in college.

Rather than have the stars as black dots connected by lines or superimposed over the figure of a hunter, I would like the tattoo to have a watercolor background, like a nebula.

I’ve been toying with these ideas for some time, but have been feeling motivated to get on with it recently (perhaps because I’ve been binge-watching Ink Master.) This week I got in touch with one of the artists at Monkey Bones Tattoos, a local studio. Mike, who did the punctuation tattoos, wasn’t available, so I selected another tattooist named Viktoria.

She and I then emailed back and forth about ideas and schedules. The earliest opening she had was in August. (Evidently there is pent-up demand for tattoos, owing to the shop being closed during the pandemic.) I sent her pictures of tattoos that looked something like what I wanted. We discussed the merits of each, as well as how my vision might differ from the “reference” I sent.

So, now it’s official. In August I’m getting a tattoo of a stack of books on one of my wrists. I’ve even put down a deposit for the appointment, so I can’t change my mind. When it’s done, I’ll post a picture of it. But I’m still not becoming a biker or a chef.

Scheduling Rejection

I’m a writer and right now I have a book manuscript floating around the Internet, looking for an agent. Which means, of course, that I’m collecting a lot of rejection slips (emails, really).

A lot of books and articles and blog posts purport to teach you how to deal with rejection, usually by telling you about famous authors whose novels were rejected any number of times before they were accepted. This doesn’t cheer me up or comfort me any, as all I can say is, “Well, I have way more rejections than J.D. Salinger ever did.” It’s a competition I don’t care to win.

Instead, I have decided to schedule my rejections, so that they come in a little more slowly and I can handle them, psychologically. To me, at least, getting a few rejections at a time is better than getting hundreds all at once. That would truly drive me into depression and immobility.

Actually, no one gets hundreds of rejections. Most agents have a policy of “no response means no.” This means that many of my query letters, writing samples, and submissions are lost in limbo – not a yes, not a no, just nothing. (Yes, I know the Catholic Church has given up on Limbo as a Thing. That doesn’t make my metaphor any less appropriate. But I digress.)

So, here’s my schedule: Every day I send out queries – but only three. That’s just the basics, though. Every time a get a rejection email, I cross that agency off my master list of queries sent, and I send an extra query that day. And add it to the master list, of course. The master list also contains the date the query was sent and the name of the specific agent it was addressed to, as well as the agency.

When I say “cross that agency off,” I mean it literally – I don’t delete it from the list. (Strikethrough is a function I use often in Word.) The info remains encoded in ones and in zeros. It’s just that I can’t remember the names of all the places I’ve queried. So whenever I find another potential agent, I use “Find” to see if I have sent to them, been rejected by them, or whatever. (I know there are apps like Query Tracker and just any old database that would do this for me, but I stubbornly stick to my low-tech version.)

I also use the list to keep track of any additional notes: “Closed to queries until March 1st.  Try again then.” Or “Re-query in eight weeks.” (That one’s a rarity.)

I must admit that I am running low on agents to query. I don’t think I’ve contacted every available agent in the US, but I’m having a hard time finding lists of agents who are willing to consider mysteries or lists that contain a number of agents to whom I haven’t already submitted.

I have received one semi-positive response – one agent wanted to see a copy of the whole manuscript. And another rejection email – one that I considered a good one – said that I could try them again when I had another project. Although if they didn’t want the first one, I don’t know why they’d want the sequel, which is what I’m now writing.

Maybe I should take on a different project altogether. I don’t really love the genres, but maybe a cozy mystery (if only I could think up a suitable career for the “detective” to have and a, well, cozy setting). Or a romance, though I wouldn’t be able to use my own experience to base it on. I haven’t had a “meet cute” since I met my husband, mumblemumble years ago, introduced by mutual friends at a folk festival.

Actually, what I’m working on is a sequel to the mystery novel I’ve been sending around. My theory is that publishing companies like series more than they like stand-alone novels. Or maybe I should resurrect my early attempt at a mystery novel in which I killed off my rotten-ex-boyfriend-who-almost-ruined-my-life. If that doesn’t make me feel better, I’ll kill him off again in the sequel.

 

 

Mysteries I Love and Hate

Cozy mysteries are a thing, and I do not like them. As all my friends know, I am a mystery lover – I’ve even written one, which is now making the rounds of agents.

But cozy mysteries have gone too far. These are the kinds of mysteries that take place in bed and breakfasts or bookstores, that have chefs or weather forecasters as their sleuths, and exhibit little to no blood, despite the crimes. They are called cozies, I suppose because you can cuddle up with a cup of tea and read them, safe in the knowledge that nothing really bad will happen.

And the titles! Most of them are puns – usually lame – based on whatever setting they have. I just can’t bring myself to read something called Chilled to the Cone (bakeshop), Premeditated Mortar (fixer-upper), Absence of Alice (garage sales), or The Malt in Our Stars (literary pub). The “detectives” are never real police officers, obviously. And most often the (supposed) humor and (artificial) quaintness fall flat.

I must admit to reading several cozy series many years ago. These were usually ones that had a setting I was interested in or characters that were well-rounded and well-drawn, or contained cats (sometimes as the sleuth). Susan Wittig Albert did a series based on an herbalist. Diane Mott Davidson did a cooking series, complete with recipes that I never tried. There was a series, the Amanda Pepper mysteries, that was set in a Philadelphia prep school, and the Kate Fansler series, set in the English Department of a college.

One that I used to read devotedly, but finally gave up on in disgust, was Lillian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who mysteries starring retired newspaperman Jim Qwilleran and his two cats, Koko and Yum Yum. (I also like Mikado references.) The first three came out in the 60s, but there was an extensive hiatus until 1987, when the series reappeared and continued yearly until 2008, with The Cat Who Had 60 Whiskers. I gave up in 1991, with The Cat Who Moved a Mountain, a dreary, supposedly amusing book set in the Potato Mountains, concerning a conflict between two clans known as the Spuds and the Taters. It was just too cozy for words.

Some writers are able to switch gears and write both cozies and grittier novels. Linda Barnes, for example, started with the Michael Spraggue mysteries set backstage at a theater but switched to the much more robust Carlotta Carlisle series when, as she said, Spraggue ran out of friends and relatives to be killed off. Carlisle, a former police officer, drives a cab in her off-hours but encounters plenty of hardened criminals and deaths. These I read whenever Barnes writes a new one.

The other cozy mysteries I read are the Mrs. Pollifax series by Dorothy Gilman. They are typical in that when you read them you know that nothing terrible will happen to any of the main or even subordinate characters (who are colorful, if unbelievable). The thing that attracts me about the Mrs. Pollifax books, other than the goofy premise that she is a grandmother who works for the CIA, is the extensive travelogues of wherever her handler sends her: Mexico, Albania, Turkey, China, Zambia, Hong Kong, etc. I find her novels soothing rather than irritating, the sort of thing I read when I’m stuck in bed with a really nasty flu.

Cozy mysteries no doubt have their place in the pantheon of mystery novels. They’re certainly popular, at least. But for the most part, I’ll take Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone or Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski over Reel Murder any day. I want believable plots; well-drawn, interesting characters; crimes that make you care what happens; and real danger. Give me early Robert Parker (before he started phoning them in) or John Sandford or Laura Lippman or even the original Nero Wolfe series, for when I want vintage mystery fiction.

Of course, I read other kinds of fiction (Gregory Maguire and Handmaid’s Tale come to mind), but mystery novels hold a special place in my to-be-read list. Let’s not mess up the genre with The Good, the Bad, and the Lemon Tart.

 

1,000 Books

It goes everywhere with me. It carries over 1,000 of my books. It hands me the one I want at a moment’s notice. It keeps track of what page I’m on without a sticky note. It defines words I don’t know and tells me how to pronounce unfamiliar words. It allows me to sort my books onto different shelves for convenience’s sake and easily find books that I own or that are available in the bookstore. It’s my most faithful companion (aside from my husband) and the best tool that I own.

It’s my ereader, in my case a Nook from Barnes & Noble, though I’m sure Amazon’s Kindle and other devices do much the same things. I’ve gone through several iterations of the Nook device over the years and downloaded the Nook reading app to my iPad. When one gets low on juice, I simply switch to another while it’s recharging.

(Of course, I will need a way to convert all those ebooks to Kindle when the time comes and Barnes & Noble either collapses or stops supporting their own devices. I have a Kindle reading app on one of the readers because there was a book I dearly loved, Rift by Liza Cody, which B&N didn’t offer. But I digress.)

I usually keep two books going at once – one fiction and one nonfiction – and switch back and forth when a chapter or essay ends, or really, whenever the mood strikes me. I have a TBR stack as long as my arm, literally, but it will never collapse on me and kill me. I take my reading addiction wherever I go, never having to resort to reading the labels on ketchup bottles to satisfy my jones.

The iPad with the Nook reading app may be my favorite of all my ereaders, because it allows me to switch to other apps, check my email, messages, and Facebook timeline easily. And it has a snazzy purple case. My second favorite is my Nook tablet, which allows me to do many of the same things and also has a nifty keyboard should I ever want to answer messages, though to tell the truth, I seldom use it. I got that feature so I could blog on the go, but the WordPress app seems unable to accommodate me. The tablet has a spiffy black cover with a magnet to hold it open or closed, and a hinge so I can set it upright should I ever decide to use the keyboard. My third ereader is a basic Nook that fits in my purse.

My husband insisted I get him an ereader too, though he hardly ever uses it. He got one that fits in his back pocket and is linked to my account so he can read any of my thousand books as well. I make sure to buy ones that he enjoys, like Slaughterhouse-Five, A Canticle for Leibowitz, and Fanny Hill, and I introduce him to new ones, like Let’s Pretend This Never Happened.

My one complaint about my ereader is that it does not do pictures well. Once I had a subscription to Barnes & Noble’s version of  National Geographic. The photographs that appeared there were less than impressive. You expect impressive photos from National Geographic. Even the pictures in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children did not reproduce well. And the hand-written letters – I basically had to skip them, even though they contributed a lot to the plot.

Still, I am willing to overlook those flaws. As I get older and my eyes get worse (doc says I’m in line to develop cataracts), I’m going to need my ereader, where I can bump up the point sizes, more than ever. And purses large enough to contain them. Maybe I should carry a needlepoint tote like all the craft ladies I know – containing no yarn. Just 1000 books.

 

A Room of My Own

So, we bought a house, a couple of decades ago. It had three bedrooms, which seems a lot, since there’s only my husband and myself. We seldom had overnight guests, and when we did there was a pull-out sofa bed.

What did we do with the two extra rooms? Media center? Exercise room? Yoga studio?

No. One became my study. I needed a place to write my stories, articles, blogs, books, and draft my novel. Someplace where I wouldn’t be disturbed (or could be as disturbed as I like).

Then, of course, so my husband shouldn’t be left out, the other spare room became a study, too. It wasn’t a “man cave,” since neither one of us believes in those things. But it was a place where he could store his curios and fossils, watch TV or do research on the computer, hang his favorite artworks, house his books and DVDs, and just generally kick back.

Then along came the tornado that destroyed our house. It gave me the opportunity to start all over with my study, make it into my refuge as well as my writing space, and decorate it from the ground up – literally.

I’ve included a few pictures of my study for illustration purposes. It’s not really as orange as it looks in the photos, more the clay-like color of used bricks. The carpet is a deep tan. The ceiling, blinds, and windowsills are white. The furniture is a collection of different colored woods, including both new and used pieces. Several of them have electrical outlets and USB ports to accommodate my collection of electronic spaghetti.

Here’s a few highlights of my study:

  • a desk and desk chair, of course, facing a window
  • a bookcase, of course
  • a Mac desktop computer
  • a two-drawer wooden file cabinet that serves as a printer stand
  • my Cornell diploma and an EdPress award
  • a comfy chair in a color called spice, just a shade or two deeper than the walls
  • several pieces of art, including a piece of calligraphy by Dr. Masaaki Hatsumi and a drawing by Debbie Ohi with a quote from Neil Gaiman
  • a Venice carnival-style cat mask
  • a TV and a stand for it, which will also hold my Mr. Coffee machine
  • a cat tree by the window (the window sills are also wide enough for them)
  • assorted plush animals, knick-knacks, and such travel souvenirs as survived the tornado
  • a lamp and a tissue box made to look like old books
  • a concrete armadillo, which serves as my doorstop

I don’t have as many books as I used to, which I know to some is a sacrilege, but now I have them on my e-readers. I still have print copies of The Annotated Alice, The Annotated Gilbert & Sullivan, and several signed mystery and science fiction novels. My CD collection is likewise gone, replaced by iTunes on my computer and my iPod. I have a few DVDs that are special to me, which will reside in my TV stand, along with more plush animals and knick-knacks.

My study is far from finished. I still don’t know how to disguise or hide the powerstrips. Some of the artwork needed restoring, and much of it still needs hanging. My bookshelf is new (to me) and needs to be filled. Somewhere in the basement, I have a decorative wall-hanging brass shelf that I haven’t quite figured out where to put.

At any rate, it’s still a work in progress, but rapidly taking shape. It’s warm and cozy, relatively quiet (after the neighbors get their houses built, I mean). And it feels good to have, as Virginia Woolf said, “a room of one’s own.”