Sunday, September 1, 2013

Literary Mystery

aka J. K. Rowling
Bookstore shelves are overflowing with mysteries – it’s a popular genre not only because of the element of suspense but because most mysteries, and these include espionage thrillers, are plot driven, not a whole lot of descriptive prose or literary technique, thus easy to read and often just plain fun. The proverbial page-turner. I was always a fan of English mysteries like Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie and the great Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and although not well known, W. Somerset Maugham wrote terrific espionage tales, and of course I devoured Nancy Drew as a girl.
In the last twenty years, the selection of mysteries has exploded, thus sometimes difficult to find just the right one, and I tend to favor more literary works – not a snob exactly, just protective of my reading time. Although often disturbing, I admired the “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy,” and I am a fan of Henning Menkell and Elizabeth George, so once I discovered, as we all did recently, that a first mystery novel was in fact the work of JK Rowling, my curiosity was piqued. The critics were right: it’s a very good murder mystery with fully formed and diverse characters and an ending that mostly works, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading her often elegant prose and detailed descriptions of people and place. I also liked the protagonist: Cormoran Strike, a wounded veteran, the bastard child of a celebrity, a man with heart who struggles with his own demons, but not to the detriment of the mystery at hand. Another great touch was the introduction of the fledgling assistant-detective, Robyn, a temp who has always wanted to be a private investigator, and Rowling has successfully set up Strike and Robyn as a continuing tale, so watch for #2 of “The Cuckoo’s Calling” [by Robert Galbraith]. 
I will say that Rowling's inherent optimism operates in these pages, as it did in Harry Potter despite the progressively bleak story lines, so unlike her Swedish counterparts, she will never wear you down and make you want to crawl under the covers and weep for humanity. 
            Just before I read JKR, I read a novel entitled “Don’t I Know You” by Karen Shepard, published some years ago but only recently risen to the top of my pile. Not a traditional whodunnit, rather a literary work with a mystery at its core. The story unfolds via three different characters who all have something to do with the death of one woman. This is solid, often riveting psychological drama that delves deeply into parenting and romantic relationships, and the dark side of mental illness. The book takes place in 1976, well before Internet, emails or cell phones, at a time when communications were more often elusive or contradictory. While I lingered with JRK, enjoying the steady methodical connection of the dots, this novel is a page-turner, you simply have to know who did what to whom and why.
One other mystery crossed my desk recently: a self-published whodunnit that takes place in Laguna Beach. I confess that I did not finish reading “South on Pacific Coast Highway” by Gary Paul Corcoran because I found the language a bit too clich├ęd, the ghosts of too many gumshoes hovering on every page, but the setting and some of the people will feel extremely familiar to the SoCal reader and it seems a good yarn. Corcoran, who lives in LA now, lived down here for many years, so he knows of what he writes and he writes with ease, so if you are looking for a grittier mystery with a familiar locale, the Kindle edition is available at Amazon for just $3.99 and I’m sure Laguna Beach Books, if they don’t have it, can get it.

Stay posted on all things reading and writing here, on my blog at, and on Twitter: @OCBookBlogger.

Friday, August 23, 2013

New Words

Joan Silber
Recommendations on writers and books enter my radar often and while recorded dutifully in my phone book notes, often go undiscovered for years a trigger, oh yes, I've been wanting to read her. Such is the case for Joan Silber, a writer of great renown, mentored by the great Grace Paley at Sara Lawrence, where Silber teaches, and whose stories I occasionally stumble upon in the New Yorker, and always admire, but had yet to read her novels. She just published a new collection of stories and that reminded me that she is a must read in writers' circles, so I embarked at last on the canon of Joan Silber and have found myself shaking my head in awe as I read, marveling at her insightful commentaries and profound understanding of human nature. Her first novel, Household Words, was published in 1976 to great acclaim, and re-issued in 2005 by Norton, thankfully, and although certainly dated, no less smart, an interesting portrait of a not terribly interesting woman, a not especially likable woman, passive-aggressive and resistant to change, narcissistic and, not surprisingly, lonely and dissatisfied. An ungrateful woman, but not a hateful woman. She sees her life as simply unlucky, perhaps so, and her two daughters struggle with a love-hate relationship with their difficult mother, though they stand their ground more often than not, and frankly, by the end, I was more interested in knowing what happened to them after the ending. Her negligence in many ways allowed them to forge independent futures although with an awful lot of turmoil. Lots of setting detail in this novel, evocative of a woman mired in the trees, no sense of the forest at all, and perhaps emblematic of that period. She was born just after WW I and the story opens when she is pregnant with her first born, in 1940. Despite her high dislikability quotient, we root for her, we want her to see and know what we see, and understand her far better than she understands herself, thanks to this smart smart writer. And no easy contrived tying up of loose ends here, perhaps a moment of clarity, but too little too late. Since I have too many piles of short story collections calling to me, I next read another Silber novel, The Size of the World, and report back.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Death of Greeting Cards

My younger daughter's birthday today. Such fun to shop for just the right gift but a total frustration to find a good card.

I don't like sappy greeting cards with poetry that sounds like country music. Hyper-sentimental cards offer sad pseudo-Zen platitudes emblematic of a television culture.

I prefer humor, words and images that will make her smile, but oh my - is it no wonder that this too has become an online business? Most of the cards, particularly those at a CVS or similar, where most cards are sold, are just plain awful.

I spent half an hour perusing the so-called humorous birthday cards. My simple sampling technique can be questioned, but I suspect the results are fair:

  • At least half have something to do with getting drunk or bellying up to the bar on your birthday. And for those who have dealt with alcoholism, this is so not funny.
  • Another ten percent have something to do with farts. I kid you not. 
  • Another quarter or more have to do with sex, most often gigantic boobs or stripper-like men with Popeye biceps. 
  • The balance, the few left to choose from, have to do with the nightmare of aging and some of these are funny, if you are 70!
I don't send a lot of cards. I hate to waste paper. I'm quick to issue a celebratory email and place a call to those closest to me, so I am rarely confronted with this pathetic selection and was frankly a bit shocked at the demise of the card-culture. To be fair to Hallmark, many of these cards were produced by competitors. And they have the audacity to charge $4 or $5 per card. There was a section of cards for 99 cents and they said nothing, which was almost better by comparison, but so utterly boring, why would anyone buy?

Ok, I rarely use my blog to bitch, but, seriously...? Are we really an alcohol, body smell and body parts obsessed that this is all we have to say when we want to have fun? Oh my.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

In the car today, running errands, [my least favorite pastime] the radio plays the Beatles. A 50th anniversary retrospective. I remember their arrival to the US. I ditched school to wait all day at Forest Hills Stadium to buy tickets for their concert, ended up sitting nearly in the last row, but just below a speaker, which saved the music from the screaming crowd.

I was hooked from the first. A Paul girl, as Anna Quinlan would say, although later I became a John girl. A sure sign of personal evolution I thought at the time, and about the same time that I began to more fully appreciate the Rolling Stones.

Twice I linger in the car to listen. One cannot walk away from Blackbird, or even from the strange and wonderful Rocky Raccoon. Errands can wait.

I remember well that we were all captured at first by their kinetic energy, their adorable looks, those pin-ties and black suits, the shaggy hair, but it was the music that kept us to the end. My mother asked me what I saw in those skinny boys from Britain, but she got it, she had an ear for melody. I heard her humming their tunes now and then while cooking.

My mother and I traveled to Europe the summer I was sixteen - a dream for  her that my father was determined to fulfill before she died. London was the first stop. I tracked down the Beatles tailor, whom I had read about somewhere, and had a lovely chat with the son. I felt closer to them forever after, although their music was everywhere, for all of us. 1964. The little girl from the Bronx and her immigrant mother traveling on the iconic $5 a day journey, Beatles music the soundtrack.

So it should be no wonder that every time I hear them, the nostalgia is overwhelming. But today it is more than that. It is the music, simply the music. We forget sometimes how damn good it was. The poignant melodies and eccentric lyrics. The string orchestra in the background that their producer introduced to rock music. The simple starts, the movement to crescendo, the mesmerizing choruses. Unforgettable. Touching, still. Makes me want to cry, and makes me smile. As few can do.

On arrival home, I sit in the garage a few moments, close my eyes, and sing along to Eleanor Rigby. Still wow.

I will dig out all the albums today and listen, one by one, and feel my heart swell with the memory and the joy of that sound. A perfect Sunday afternoon [now that chores are done.]

Friday, February 8, 2013

Aging Part I

Photo lifted from
When I was 50, a precocious boy, son of a friend, pronounced me an old woman. His explanation: simple mathematics. If life expectancy was 72 [which it was at that time] then youth was 0 - 24, middle age 25 - 48, and old age, 49+. Hard to argue with that thinking.

Now, approaching [six months away] my 65th birthday, he might imagine me ancient.

Psychologists tell us that at every age we feel we are younger than we are. With one exception: new parents, whose sleep deprivation and stress make them feel older than they are. I remember that well. Fortunately, it passes, as most things do.

These days, at heart, I feel 40. Certainly no more than the 50 year-old accused of near-senility. This may relate to the current life expectancy of 81 for women, or perhaps to my fortunately good health, and the almost constant presence of the California sun. Perhaps it has something to do with having daughters who enliven my life with their journeys, so that I draw on their energy. Perhaps because I still listen to rock & roll and dance 2 or 3 mornings a week with Jazzercise to loud country and techno music that gets my heart pumping. Perhaps because I still study Spanish, almost daily, challenging my brain. Perhaps because an increasingly Zen view of life keeps me present, without much looking back and only occasionally peeking ahead, because at this age, too much focus on the future can be dreary.

I'd like to believe Shakespeare that the best is yet to come, and there is much to look forward to, but the reality is that much of the best has passed, and that's okay. There are many pleasures to age, not the least of which is a sense of solidarity with one-self.

Each year, at the start of the year, I take a good look at my budget to ensure that I can partake of my passions without compromising my financial future, and this exercise also keeps me young at heart, because I imagine a vista of 25 or 30 years ahead, maybe more, although 90 seems like more than enough living to me, and in so doing, see almost as much adult life ahead as past. Because, in truth, I didn't really grow up until I was in my thirties. Perhaps that's why I still feel so young.

Still, whatever the reasoning, come summer I will be officially a senior, to just about everyone but Social Security, and I look forward to the rewards of that status. I just heard I can take classes at 24-Hour Fitness for free - that alone will keep me young - and there are many financial discounts to enjoy. My now fully silver hair looks good, my energy level is great, the pleasure I find in friendship and travel, arts and literature, never greater.

Some time soon I think I might have a grandchild and that, I know, is a game changer. Definitely a reward, and a joy I look forward to.

I do not deny age. I only wish to continue to appreciate the benefits and avoid, as long as possible, the ravages. Like the surf, there is an ebb and flow to our lives, and, with each season, a bit of sand is washed away, but the beach always looks good at sunset.