I wrote down everything I read and began writing my own first novel...

This blog aimed to contrast what I was reading in in 1975-79 with the same month, week and day, 30 years later in 2005-2009. I'm leaving the blog up in archive mode, blogging in real time on Live Journal--and still writing novels.

Lynne Murray's Live Journal and Bride of the Dead Blog

Saturday, May 28, 2005

From Nixon to hungry ghosts

May 25-28, 1975 I read:

Nixon's Psychiatric Profile, Eli S. Cheson, M.D.
This was an interesting book. History buffs and Watergate buffs might still find it interesting.

May 25-28, 2005 I read:

Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, by Lafcadio Hearn
These are short ghost stories from ancient Japan, translated in the late 1800s and early 1900s (Hearn died in 1904).

The Nixon book above was much scarier than Hearn's book. The stories in Kwaidan, even when describing stark terror, factor in some cause and effect along with the wistful beauty and eerieness. Hearn can also be charming and funny, as when he talks about the mosquitoes that torment him in Tokyo, which are said to be the souls of hungry ghosts.

With a view to self-protection I have been reading Dr. Howard's book, "Mosquitoes." I am persecuted by mosquitoes. There are several species in my neighborhood; but only one of them is a serious torment,-- a tiny needly thing, all silver-speckled and silver-streaked. The puncture of it is sharp as an electric burn; and the mere hum of it has a lancinating quality of tone which foretells the quality of the pain about to come,-- much in the same way that a particular smell suggests a particular taste. … And I have discovered that it comes from the Buddhist cemetery,-- a very old cemetery,-- in the rear of my garden.

The remedy suggested is pouring kerosene on the surface of stagnant water where the mosquitoes breed -- but every grave in the cemetery had cups to offer water and flowers to the dead. He ponders this--

To free the city from mosquitoes it would be necessary to demolish the ancient graveyards;-- and that would signify the ruin of the Buddhist temples attached to them;-- and that would mean the disparition of so many charming gardens, with their lotus-ponds and Sanscrit-lettered monuments and humpy bridges and holy groves and weirdly-smiling Buddhas! So the extermination of the Culex fasciatus would involve the destruction of the poetry of the ancestral cult-- surely too great a price to pay!...

Besides, I should like, when my time comes, to be laid away in some Buddhist graveyard of the ancient kind. . . . That old cemetery behind my garden would be a suitable place. Everything there is beautiful with a beauty of exceeding and startling queerness; each tree and stone has been shaped by some old, old ideal which no longer exists in any living brain; even the shadows are not of this time and sun, but of a world forgotten, that never knew steam or electricity or magnetism or -- kerosene oil! Also in the boom of the big bell there is a quaintness of tone which wakens feelings, so strangely far-away from all the nineteenth-century part of me, that the faint blind stirrings of them make me afraid,-- deliciously afraid. Never do I hear that billowing peal but I become aware of a striving and a fluttering in the abyssal part of my ghost,-- a sensation as of memories struggling to reach the light beyond the obscurations of a million million deaths and births. I hope to remain within hearing of that bell... And, considering the possibility of being doomed to the state of a Jiki-ketsu-gaki [hungry ghost]. I want to have my chance of being reborn in some bamboo flower-cup, or mizutame, whence I might issue softly, singing my thin and pungent song, to bite some people that I know.

I think Nixon could probably relate to the "bite some people that I know" part, but I doubt if he ever reached the serenity Hearn seems to have achieved.

There's a great (though kinda long) Kenneth Rexroth article about him
I love the quote from a letter Hearn wrote in 1893: “The great point is to touch with simple words.”

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Magical beings behaving badly

May 23-24, 1975 no books listed. I think I remember why, but I'm not saying. Not, alas, that I was having as good a time as the characters in Hamilton's books (see below).

May 23-24, 2005 I read:

A Stroke of Midnight, Laurell K. Hamilton

I'll start by saying that I always put aside everything else to read a Laurell K. Hamilton book, so the criticism I'm just about to make is from the point of view of one who adores her work.

This is the fourth in the Hamilton's Meredith Gentry faerie series, set in the aftermath of a war between humans and magical beings. The Faerie royal families are pursued as celebrities when they venture out of their protective compounds. The heroine of this series is Faerie princess, Meredith Gentry.

One friend who has also been reading this Hamilton series until recently, decided to stop after the over-the-top sadomasochistic and gory finale of the third Gentry book, Seduced by Moonlight.

I have to say that I'm now correcting this blog after realizing thatg I had mentally merged the second book, A Caress of Twilight with the third. It's easy to do that, because in the second book nothing much happens except all the characters hang out in LA and have sex. Not much story. Another friend and Hamilton aficionada was alienated by the last three Anita Blake books, Narcissus in Chains, Cerulean Sins, and Incubus Dreams. Those have featured less plot and more sex scenes with more S&M. Worse yet is the soap opera about the resident boy toys, and a lot of angst about how no one understands vampire executioner Anita Blake's newly liberated lifestyle.

Both of Hamilton's series skate on the edge of soft porn and fall over into it a lot. Maybe I have the definition wrong, but isn't soft porn when the genitalia are not named in either Anglo-Saxon four-letter words or their Latin equivalents? Everything is euphemism--and I have the most anarchistic desire to substitute silly slang for the solemn euphemism as in:

I could feel the hard length of Mr. Happy, and it brought answering quiver from my Tweetie Bird.
(Not a quote from anything, though there's page after page of stuff like that in Hamilton these days.)

Faerie princess, Merry's bodyguards (all gorgeous, magically glowing, beefcake types) have been ordered by her aunt, the evil queen, to compete to impregnate her and thereby become king.

Meanwhile, in Hamilton's first series, poor Anita Blake, formerly kick-ass raiser of the dead and vampire executioner, has recently suffered a curse. No, not that curse, although she's always had a leaning toward PMS. This curse is called "the ardeur"--also inflicted on the heroine by an older, evil queen. Again with the evil queen, hmm… The ardeur rises up every few hours and forces Anita to have sex immediately with whoever is handy.

Ya sorta want her to take public transportation, just to see what---never mind.

For her own protection, Anita must surround herself, just as Merry Gentry does, with a harem of men who have the bodies of strippers and the souls of teddy bears. In each series this is presented not as an indulgence on the part of the heroine, but as an externally-enforced demand (by those evil queens!), essential to everyone's survival. "It is a far, far better thing I do, than I have ever done…" oh, wait, that's A Tale of Two Cities, and the hero was taking another man's place on the guillotine, not a heroine picking which hot stud(s) get to go to the orgy room.

I liked the early Anita Blake books where the plot and character took up 80% of the book and the seduction only 20%. I keep wondering what the early Anita would think if she could meet the complaining, self-righteous, orgy-organizing den mother of the later books.

The Merry Gentry Faerie series started at a higher sex-scene-to-plot ratio than the early Anita Blake vampire hunter series. My guess would be that A Kiss of Shadows had maybe 60% erotica, 40% plot and characters. Hamilton introduced the Faerie folk as uninhibitedly sexual at every opportunity, and full of deadly political plots that make the Borgia court look like a kiddy summer camp. A Stroke of Midnight is probably more like 80% erotica and 20% story. There is a double homicide early in the book with a not-totally-wrapped-up conclusion.

I have all these issues, and yet I read all these books. Some of them more than once. Go figure. True, I won't be RE-reading some of the later books with more soap opera, S&M-tinged violent sex and less plot.

Maybe read I'll A Stroke of Midnight again. Probably.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Friends in very high places?

May 20-21, 1975 no books listed. Perhaps still recovering from the Sot Weed Factor.

May 20-21, 2005 I read:

Report on Communion, The Facts Behind the Most Controversial True Story of Our Time, Ed Conroy

Sigh. I didn't finish this book. It was kind of a detour after re-reading Communion and it had way too much speculative debate about things with no hope of any real answers.

I'm not sorry I read at least some of this book however, given my obsession about book promotion. Conroy describes how Communion began to sell the minute it was shipped to bookstores in 1987--with no pre-publicity and no pre-publication reviews. The publisher did not take orders, they just sent to stores their own estimate the quantity of copies they thought would sell. That's highly unusual.

Were there friends in very high places?

An anecdote in Report on Communion does seem to suggest that something odd might have been happening. One editor, a former national magazine reporter, was in a bookstore near the displays of Communion when he saw:

…a couple that was very short. … And they were all wrapped up. Long scarves, wool hats that you pull down, and they picked up a copy of the book and they started thumbing through it…. And it was obvious that they were speed-reading, too. And they would say, "Oh, he's got this wrong, he's got that wrong." And they were sort of giggling.

He reports going over, identifying himself as working for the publisher and asking what they thought was wrong with the book.

I think it was the woman who looked up. She was wearing those big sort of sunglasses that the girls keep up in their hair. And they really sort of hide the face. But by God behind those dark glasses there was a goddamn big pair of eyes. And I mean to say it was a big pair of eyes. And they were shaped sort of like almonds. (Report on Communion, Conroy, pgs. 18-19)

He got no reply beyond a wave of hostility so intense that he was forced to retreat. The editor didn't mention whether the extremely short couple actually bought the book. But they might be a whole new niche market. It would be hard to pin them down as a target for advertising, though.

I kept envisioning a market research company arranging a focus group--

"Okay we've asked you here to this crop circle at midnight in a remote field to get your opinions. Hey, you with the tractor beam, put down that cow. We can offer sodas and snacks but we're renting this space and we don't have a budget for cattle mutilations. That's right come over here. Now we'll be recording your opinions on video… No, sit down there. Not so close. Get back. Put down that probe! Aiiiiiii!!!!!"

When the researcher regains consciousness in the field the next morning, all the tapes from the night before will be blank.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Honeymoon with and without footnotes

May 19, 1975, I finished reading:

The Sotweed Factor, John Barth (I noted that I read it slowly - I think this was my second attempt at it. I did finish, but it was not all that much fun.)

Online I found a rare interview with John Barth done in 2001. The way he describes his--shall I say genre?--makes it clear why I had so much trouble reading him (incidentally I had read Giles, Goat Boy earlier and I recollect that it moved a bit faster than the Sot Weed Factor.)

Postmodernism is tying your necktie while simultaneously explaining the step-by-step procedure of necktie-tying and chatting about the history of male neckwear - and managing a perfect full windsor anyhow.

Um, so he's basically lecturing while storytelling. Sigh. . . A little of that goes a looooong way. One reason the academic world has never beckoned to me as a day job is that I have a very low tolerance for pontificating. I'd never have survived grad school.

When I contrast the Barth approach with the Shirley Jackson (below) I'm reminded of John Barrymore's description of footnotes as "having to run downstairs to answer the doorbell when you're on your honeymoon." Jackson doesn't explain and doesn't need to.

May 18-19, 2005 I once again read:

The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson

This was elegantly written and echoing. It didn't scare me. I vaguely remember that it frightened me when I first read it, but I wonder if I'm confusing it with the Robert Wise 1963 movie The Haunting, with Julie Harris, which definitely scared the hell out of me. One thing I noticed on this reading was how inevitable and almost welcome the violent ending was.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Unidentified bestselling authors, flying saucers, scaring readers

May 13-16, 1975 I read:
The Eiger Sanction, Trevanian

Trevanian is the pseudonym for an author who, as one website puts it, "managed to successfully sell 5 million books without making a single promotional appearance." Or even divulging his real name. Back in 1975, reading mainly books from the public library, I didn't know such a thing as publicity for books existed. Whoever Trevanian was, he excelled as a storyteller, and that was all I wanted to know then. We now know who Trevanian is--Wikipedia has information about him at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trevanian

May 13-16, 2005 I read:
Communion, Whitley Strieber

Because I'm writing a ghost story, I picked this book up again to see if I could discover why it was one of the two or three books I've read in my life that scared me most. A friend recommended it in the mid-1980's and said, "Just don't read it when you're alone."

That seemed like an easy precaution back then. I made sure my husband was home when I read it. But that didn't help, because the author in this supposedly true UFO abduction account was spirited out of bed without disturbing his sleeping family. Worse yet, when you get right down to it, we're always alone in the most existential state, aren't we?

This book scared me so much I didn't want a copy around the house for years. Just seeing the cover art disturbed me. But when I read it again over the last few days, it didn't even summon up a shiver. I'm still going to go back over the structure to see how he got me back then. (There's special technique for doing that--I won't go into that now.)

What happened to dilute the impact?

I think that the success of Communion and similar books, followed by the wave after wave of books, TV shows, and movies on UFO abductions robbed it of some of its impact. Once you've seen The X-Files and Men In Black, Communion seems awfully talky and argumentative. I was inclined to skip the parts where Strieber goes on and on about, "Maybe the real explanation is A, or it could be B, on the other hand it might be C, let's not rule out D, & etc., & etc."

I think that's another thing fear has in common with humor--once you've heard the joke or seen the monster, it has less impact, even to the point of not making you laugh or scream the next time.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

From Fear of Flying to Drawing Blood

May 9-12, 1975 I read:

Fear of Flying, Erica Jong

This was, if you'll excuse the pun, a seminal work for me. Funny, sexy, engaging, occasionally self-reflective, a good story. A major bestseller and just a fun read. It captivated me so much that I tried to imitate it in my own novel writing for about five years.

One of the things Jong did in her book that it's taken me 30 years to realize, is to draw in male readers by playing to their fantasies. Her heroine, Isadora Wing's quest for a "zipless fuck" definitely got some men's motors going, and it didn't hurt that Jong was a shapely blonde who knew how to wear suede boots and makeup. I have actually seen some of her later work used by leering bosses as a kind of aide de harassment (is there a French word for "harassment"? Never mind.)

As in: "Here read this--you women really want no strings, anonymous sex don't you?"

Um, no, it was equal pay for equal work that we wanted.

Try as I might, my own humorous inclination went in a totally different direction than Jong's graphic, confessional sex scenes. I don't share her admiration for, or desire to emulate Henry Miller. It just wasn't natural to me.
However, I do keep my early manuscript in the closet in case I ever want to remember who I slept with in the '60s.

Fast forward to May 7-12, 2005, I read:

Drawing Blood, Poppy Z. Brite

The haunted house aspect of this story interested me. I've never read Brite before and I heard she was "very, very, very, very dark." But what I found instead was a bohemian love story with supernatural overtones. The lovers are gay men, very wounded souls, and the female character helping them is hopelessly in love with one of them--who is supposedly bisexual, but frankly most of his affairs appear to be with men. I thought I might call this Women Who Love Gay Men Too Much, but it appears this is a sub-genre of its own called, in its Japanese manga form yaoi.

The Wikipedia goes on about it at some length at

Complicated creatures men and women. Complicated business sex and storytelling. What I found most interesting in thinking of my own journey from reading Fear of Flying to reading Drawing Blood, is that one of the gay lovers in the latter book, after years of promiscuous, unprotected sex, demonstrates his dawning maturity and responsibility by determining to get an HIV test. A modern Isadora Wing would have to consider that.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Motherhood: humor, sadness, artistry, magic & grace

May 6-7, 1975 no books listed.

May 7, 2005 finished reading:

Life Among the Savages, Shirley Jackson

Reading this book brought up a raft of memories. Particularly reading it around Mother's Day--which falls on my own mother's birthday this year.

First of all--let me get this out of the way. Shirley Jackson is arguably a better writer than my favorite domestic goddess essayist, Betty MacDonald who wrote: The Egg and I, The Plague and I, Onions in the Stew, Anybody Can Do Anything, and um, a bunch of children's books concerning the adventures of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. But I don't find Jackson so funny, and I think I'm picking up echoes of the great sadness under her elegant prose (she died at 49).

MacDonald was more of a comic genius. (She created the unforgettable Ma and Pa Kettle, based on farming neighbors in Washington state.)

Jackson and MacDonald both address what someone has called "the visceral shock of motherhood" and the disillusionment of the drudgery of family life from a woman's point of view. I lent out my copy of The Egg and I, so I can't quote you the passage where McDonald describes the shock of her swift descent from bride to wife. She made it funny, but you could see why her first marriage ended in divorce as she detailed her transition between being a sought-after bride to living with a husband who considered her a "bad sport" or inept because she didn't share his knack for and joy in the drudgery of farm life. I remember reading it at 12 or so, and thinking, hmmm . . . men, marriage, maybe there's something there that the romantic stories don't mention.

When I think of my own mother, lately I've not been remembering the sadness of her later life, dying at 56--but thinking back to 1963, the summer when I was 14.

My mother drove me about an hour into Los Angeles to the Shrine Auditorium to see The Royal Ballet with Rudolph Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn in Giselle. This was not her idea, but I asked, and she loved music so she was glad to go. Neither of us had ever been to a ballet before, or to the Shrine Auditorium. We had seats just a few rows from the stage on the left. Those may not be good seats for seeing the whole spectacle of a stage full of dancers, but they were so incredibly close that I could see small details.

The dancers didn't look like they were floating from that vantage point. The seats sloped back up toward the rear of the theater from where we sat, but the stage was above us. We could hear the dancers hit the stage with tremendous thumps. The memory I took away was of Rudolph Nureyev rocketing toward the us as if he would fly off into the audience. Then landing gorgeously, perfectly, near the edge of the stage to stand, panting and pouring sweat. Amazing. Thrilling. Nureyev, about 25 and exotically beautiful more than handsome, seemed to wear more make-up than anybody--very bold when you saw it from a few yards away. He was so charismatic that you couldn't take your eyes off him. I am sure I remember it through a fog of 14-year-old hormones, so that even though Margot Fonteyn was perfection in every detail, it was more like "Um, she was great too."

We went back to the Shrine several times that summer (I remember seeing Swan Lake, Le Corsair, and Marguerite and Armand). I must be one of the few people who tune in to awards shows to renew my acquaintance with the Shrine Auditorium.

My mother totally "got" how much I enjoyed it. Good Midwestern Methodist that she was, the very things that intrigued me probably dismayed her--men in make up and whoa! major muscles in white tights, for example.

But not long after we saw Swan Lake, she woke me up one morning by playing a recording of Act II of the Tchaikovsky score. I played that again the other day and remembered what an amazing, magical experience it was to wake up hearing it. I don't know anyone else who would have thought of such a thing.

Strangely, one of the last times I spoke to my mother face-to-face she mentioned that she had run into a woman in the store whose mother had died, and who asked her, "When do you get over it?" She said, "My own mother has been dead for 25 years and you never get over it." On some deep level, she knew, and she told me what I needed to know.

Now I'm 56, 25 years later. I don't smoke or drink. The same poisons that got Shirley Jackson also got my mother. I do what I can to elude them. I'm not a mother myself, which would have made her sad. But she wouldn't have been able to live to see grandchildren, and there was not even close to enough time before she died to untangle that karmic knot of sadness. Still working on it.

You never get over it. But you do go on. And oddly, when I see my mother in myself, nowadays it doesn't bother me the way it once would have.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Celebrity Bio Prozac & Shirley Jackson's long dark night of the '50s

May 1-5, 1975 I read:

Judy Garland, Anne Edwards

This book was brand new then. A year later in 1976, a much better Garland bio came out--Rainbow: The stormy life of Judy Garland, by Christopher Finch (I actually bought that one, and I couldn't afford to buy too many books back then.)

Celebrity biographies are soothing for me. I don't know why. But my guess is that even though I was going through a rough patch, nothing was so bad as what Judy Garland went through--and she mostly kept on tap-dancing.

But it's not just books on Judy Garland. I still remember in the 1980s, when my own life was in turmoil, I frequently went to my bookcase and whipped out a paperback biography of Rita Hayworth to read a few calming chapters.

Another thing about celebrity bios that fascinates me is the "looking behind the illusion" aspect. I always like to do that.

May 1-5, 2005 I read:

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson

I was curious to look at Shirley Jackson again because she wrote both humor and scary stuff. For me, this book was startlingly slow moving and . . . what can I say? Irritating. The first thing I ran into when looking for Shirley Jackson bios on the web was a woman who said that Jackson's vision of being an outsider in an insular world helped her in adolescence. I have to respect that, but this book did not mesh well with my particular neuroses.

It's not a long book! Less than 200 pages. But I hung in for the first 65 pages by sheer force of will--and I kept irreverently thinking of ways the author could have edited them down to move faster--I do that when reading Dickens too! My main problem here was being stuck inside of the head of a narrator who seemed to me both insane and infantile. The fact that she was facing a hostile village that is a whisker away from shifting into lynch mob mode didn't make me like her better, or--for me at least--make the book move faster. It did pick up after p. 65.

Now I'm reading Jackson's humorous housewife/mom book, Life Among the Savages. One wonders to what degree she was talking about "savages" as cheerful code for her rambunctious kids and to what degree that might refer to her uneasy relationship with the small college town where they lived--particularly after reading some of the Jackson biographical material. There is a very strong 1950s mentality of feeling trapped and repressed by a hostile, small-minded, potentially violent group.

I also thought how different the arsenic poisonings were in We Have Always Lived in the Castle, compared to the vibrant, gleeful, "mercifully" murderous sisters in Arsenic and Old Lace.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Beauty Tips - a Thousand Years Ago Today!

No books were listed in my orange notebook for the last days of April 1975, but I may be able to report what a friend was most likely reading--which I am now reading!

Around 1975 a friend, who was studying Japanese, described what fashionable women of the Japanese royal court circa about 999 looked like. This was so bizarre that it stuck in my mind, and the minute I read the Ivan Morris passage below, I realized she just might have read it back then!

April 27-30, 2005 I read:

The World of the Shining Prince, Court Life in Ancient Japan, Ivan Morris

The hero Genji was the "shining prince" in question. You can see some Geisha-like qualities on the "beauty tips from the tenth century" passage:

The hair of the Heian beauty was straight, glossy, and immensely long. It was parted in the middle and fell freely over the shoulders in great black cascades; ideally, when a woman stood up, it reached the ground. . . .

* * *

White skin was also a sign of beauty. . . . Since nature could not always be relied upon. . . generous amounts of powder were used to produce the fitting degree of pallor. Over this chalky base married women usually applied a little rouge to their cheeks; and they also painted their lips to give the proper rosebud effect.

Heian women . . . . plucked their eyebrows and then carefully painted in a curious blot-like set, either in the same place or about an inch above. They also went to the greatest trouble to blacken their teeth with a type of dye usually made by soaking iron and powdered gallnut in vinegar or tea.

* * *

We see her then--the well-born Heian lady--with her vast integument of clothing and her voluminous black hair, with her tiny stature and exiguous features, with her pallid face and darkened teeth. A bizarre, amorphous figure she must have been, as she moved slowly in her twilight world of curtains, screens and thick silk hangings.
The World of the Shining Prince, Ivan Morris (p. 203-05)

Another fascinating thing is that during this 100 year period, Morris says, "almost every noteworthy author who wrote in Japanese was a woman."

Why? Because men were all writing important documents in Chinese characters--the language of prestige, similar to that of Latin during the middle ages in the West. Women were free to write in ". . . the native Japanese, the language that was actually spoken, in a direct, simple fashion. . ." (Morris, p. 200)

Morris's book paints an intriguing picture of the setting for Lady Murasaki's Tales of Genji. I've been drawn to read Genji. But it's such a long book--1216 pages! I do hear it has some good ghost stories!

I may first be waylaid first by The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon--a less daunting 419 pages. It's written in the same time period, the authors probably knew each other. Plus, there's a translation by Morris, whom I've come to like--and there are rumors of wit in it. Hmmm, let's see, cool ghost stories versus anything with humor in it. With me, humor usually wins, although it's rare wit that can still be funny 1,000 years later--I'll keep you posted.

By the way, there's a lovely website with some insights into Tales of Genji and the Heian era at
Including music, illustrations, etc.