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

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Books dimly remembered and thankless tasks that are more fun than fun.

My younger self did a lot more reading in this stretch of the year than I have this year, although I seem to have been a little fuzzy about exactly what! I had a library-filtered view of books then, and assumed that everything ever printed was always available. I would have been scandalized at how easily books slip out of print and away.

It's also just as well that I didn't know how long this process would be, until I was well and thoroughly involved in the perverse pleasure of prose--which is not what you expect when you start, but worth the journey. As Noel Coward put it, "Work is more fun than fun." Although in all honesty, it doesn't start out that way!

January 24 to January 29, 1976 I read:

Three on the Tower
I have no idea what this book was or who wrote it.

A Professional Storywriter's Handbook, Edwin A. Peeples
My note reads that the author of this book was, in my opinion an MCP ("male chauvinist pig"), which didn't really give us a whole lot more information.

Every Crime in the Book: An Anthology of Mystery Stories (anthology, Mystery Writers of America) Ed. R.L. Fish
Shoot, I know more than amazon.com about this one! They didn't have the editor or the MWA connection.

One Fearful Yellow Eye, John D. MacDonald

Breakdown (Crackdown, Breakthrough? Something like that, Dick Francis' latest)
What can I say? He does have some interchangeable titles, and I usually write them down carefully so I can read them all rather than reading the same one over by accident! Research shows this was probably Francis' Knockdown, March 1, 1975!

You're never too old to die, Arthur D Goldstein
Another book that I don't remember, though it sounds like a mystery.

January 24 to 29, 2006 no books read.

This past week or so I've been submerged in editing a manuscript, which is its own kind of obsession. Marge Piercy put it well in her poem,

For the young who want to

Work is what you have done
after the play is produced
and the audience claps.
Before that friends keep asking
when you are planning to go
out and get a job.
Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.
For the young who want to, by Marge Piercy from THE MOON IS ALWAYS FEMALE
Alfred A. Knopf, New York

Saturday, January 21, 2006

The devil you know, the Daniel Webster you may have forgotten

Sometimes things you read remind you of other things that you liked a whole lot better. Other times, they are excellent in and of themselves.

From January 18 to 22, 1976 I read:

The Nun In the Closet, D. Gilman
(My note was: childish, by a writer of children's stories.)

Amazon One, Mary F. Beal
(I didn't get far on this one. My note was that it was amusing but not enough to read and I didn't like the style.)

Ghost Writer, Diana Carter

The Devil and Webster Daniels, Terrence Lore Smith
I remember that this was a take off on the title of theh classic Steven Vincent Benet story The Devil and Daniel Webster, which is still worth a re-read or three. Looking up the Smith book, I found it was a Doubleday Mystery publication from the 70s, that's about what I remember about it as well!

The original Devil and Daniel Webster, however, lingers in my memory as one of the most brilliant stories I've read. The 1941 movie with Walter Huston as "Mr. Scratch" was also excellent! Looking the title up reminded me that Benet's hero was modeled after the real Daniel Webster, a politician and orator in the early 1800s. Those were the days when a U.S. Senator could be so legendary that he naturally fit the bill as a hero of fiction. The fictional Daniel Webster certainly did a service above and beyond elective office for his constituent, Jabez Stone, in getting him out of a deal with the Devil.

In my opinion, this is one of the few Faustian stories where the character fighting the devil is as interesting as the devil himself—and wins! The pleasure is in how he wins, and all the various arguments Daniel Webster and the Devil throw back and forth. E.g., Webster argues that Americans can't be conscripted to serve a foreign prince. The Devil argues that he qualifies for citizenship on the grounds that he was around when the Indians were cheated out of their land and the first ships carrying slaves landed in America. Webster is forced to admit the Devil's got grounds for claiming citizenship. But Webster has a few other arguments up his sleeve to prove that his fellow New Hampshire citizen does not deserve to be damned for his unwise bargain.

January 18 to 21, 2006

Red Leaves, Thomas H. Cook
An incredibly well-written, gripping book. I stand in awe (except that I was sitting because I literally could not put it down). The darkness and eloquence remind me of Dennis Lehane's Mystic River. Cook's work is more stripped down and elemental than Lehane, and also focuses more tightly on psychological layers. Cook's narrator reluctantly digs into the secrets in his family as he tries to protect his son, who is the primary suspect in the kidnapping of a child. The brilliantly crafted puzzle counter-balances the dark, tragic aspects of the story. It's very rare that a book holds my attention so insistently--all the way down to a cathartic redemption and a twist ending that I did not see coming.

I don't know if I could ever write anything that dark, but I would aspire to write so well.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

From The Stacks

There's a Japanese tradition (which I picked up by some kind of Buddhist osmosis) of cleaning things up for New Year's, start fresh etc. I missed getting this done by the Western New Year--maybe the Lunar New Year...or somewhere before the spring equinox... As a book fiend, that means cleaning off my bookshelves, returning borrowed books and generally getting ready for the next crop of things to read.

January 12 to 17, 1976, I read:

The Scarlet Ruse, John D. MacDonald

The Hungry Ghosts, J. C. Oates
I have no memory of this book and didn't realize till I looked it up that "J.C." was Joyce Carol Oates. Now I have to go find it and look at it again!

January 12 to 17, 2006

This was a contrary week for me, cleaning out shelves of books I've put off reading.

Charlotte's Web, E. B. White
I never even heard of this when I was growing up, and it appears to be too late for me to read it with the requisite innocence! The first illustration shows a farmer with an axe, heading out to the barn to kill the hero, a newborn pig, the runt of the litter and therefore expendable. The second illustration shows the farmer's son, brother of little girl who intervens to save the pig and raise it. The brother carries both a rifle and a knife for reasons never really explained in the text. What is this a Quentin Tarentino film? I think I read a true crime article about this family.

Okay, okay. I realize that this is a much-loved story, and once again I'm being iconoclastic without hardly trying. But this small book made me very anxious. Not the spiders, Charlotte the spider is a nurturing sort of arachnid. I guess actual children would take the happy ending at face value. But I was uncertain about the Wilbur the pig's continued survival, seeing as how it was based on the farmer's whim, which could be easily changed.

Somebody Else's Music, Jane Haddam
I enjoyed reading Haddam's lighter novels, written as Oriana Papazoglou in the '80s, (Sweet, Savage Death, etc.), featuring romance writer and reluctant sleuth Patience Campbell McKenna.

I ran into trouble with this book, the first I've encountered (I believe there are 18) in the Gregor Demarkian series. Without going into detail, I had to stop halfway through the book because of the repeated and persistent body hatred aimed at fat characters—e.g., assuming that they were fat because of stupidity or insanity and inciting the reader to share the author's disgust at their bodies. Life is too short for me to spend my time in such a toxic environment.

This may sound like a backhanded compliment, but if Haddam were not such a skilled storyteller, I would not have lasted halfway through this 472 page book. I had to stop, because one way I protect my own emotional balance is to avoid spending much time with body-negative writings.

Heading back to the shelves...

If I were to have a country home with the requisite cute name on a sign outside (hard to imagine, but bear with me) it would be called The Stacks.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Romantic comedy outside the box

January 8 to 11, 1975

Good Samaritans and Other Stories, John O'Hara
A Shroud for A Nightingale, P.D. James
Ellery Queen, A Mystery Anthology (Opus 281)

January 8 to 11, 2006

Conversations with the Fat Girl, Liza Palmer

This is an interesting variant on a new subgenre that I guess we could call "big beautiful chick lit" or to translate that into English—romantic comedies with plus-sized heroines. I totally applaud this development and judging from the online comments, many women have been looking for these books and seek them out and recommend them to others

The fact is that the "heroine = slim" is the overwhelming equation in romantic (and romantic comic) fiction—oh, hell, fiction of any kind! It reminds me of a sequence in one of my favorite comic novels—which I'm delighted to see back in print--The Boyfriend School by Sarah Bird. http://www.randomhouse.com/BB/read/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780345460097
The heroine, a reporter for an alternative newspaper who is tryng to write a romance, decides to make her heroine a big, strapping gal, "who never met an enchilada she didn't like." When an editor gets hold of the manuscript she changes it--now the heroine feels she is too skinny because "she forgets to eat." Same thing, right? Um, no.

Conversations with the Fat Girl is interesting, as I point out in my "state of the F-word" essay on my web page http://www.maadwomen.com/lynnemurray/essays/fword.html
the word "fat" in the title often is an attention-getter and frequently indicates that the theme will NOT concern fat. Paradoxically, the word "fat" is so negatively loaded, that books with big beautiful heroines often avoid the three-letter F-word to keep from alienating readers.

Conversations with the Fat Girl is an exception in that the title uses the F-word and the heroine and her best friend are both struggling with self-esteem and body issues. Conversations looks at the friendship of two fat girls who supported each other emotionally in youth and adolescence. What happens when one of them gets gastric bypass surgery, moves away and tries to live as if she never was tainted by having been fat?

I could quibble with many things in this book, but the main one that saddens me is a simple error that could have been corrected if anyone had looked at a map. The author sets a pivotal scene with the characters walking on the Golden Gate Bridge and has her characters drive to San Francisco from the University of California at Berkeley all the time to do this. You really can't get directly from Berkeley to the Golden Gate Bridge. From Berkeley to San Francisco you take the Bay Bridge. You also can't walk across the Bay Bridge—gotta drive, or maybe take a bus or BART. Not that you can't get to the GGB from Berkeley, but you've got to drive across some other bridge first (either the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, approaching the GGB from Marin, or crossing the Bay Bridge and approaching the GGB from San Francisco.)

This is not really a little-known fact, and it's easily checked via map, mapquest.com anything like that. Readers who know this geographic fact will say, "What?!!" and be stopped dead in their tracks and thrown out of the story for a moment--it's like putting the Hollywood sign in the Swiss Alps.

When my first novel came out in 1988, a triple-Virgo copy editor looked at every word. She even got out a map and questioned several of my characters' routes from point A to point B. My favorite was when she asked why my characters didn't take the direct route--walking straight through Sutro Park and crossing the Great Highway to get from Sutro Heights to the Cliff House. Um, a little matter of a 5-story drop off the cliff where Sutro Park overlooks the Great Highway. But shoot, she looked at the map. For Liza Palmer's book nobody did.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

From Watergate loose ends to Discworld fun

January 1, 1976 to January 7, 1976

Dress Her in Indigo, John D. MacDonald
Pale Gray for Guilt, John D. MacDonald

"Mo" – A Woman's View of Watergate, Mo Dean ("Oy!" was my comment at the time)

When Mark Felt was revealed earlier this year as the legendary informant "Deep Throat" of Watergate, whose identity has caused such speculation over the decades, Kathleen Parker in a June 3, 2005 column for Townhall.com put it charmingly--

Admit it: Didn't you really hope it was Mo Dean?

Those of us who watched the televised Watergate hearings during the spring and summer of 1973 were mesmerized by Mo Dean, wife of John Dean, who served as President Nixon's counsel. She was beautiful, elegant and classy. The quintessential ice queen, she walked into the hearings with her blond hair swept into a neat bun and sat stoically as her husband implicated the president of the United States in the Watergate break-in.

Women admired her, men desired her. Even the name, Mo Dean, was a moniker made in Hollywood.

I can't say what her motivation might have been, but fantasies don't require a factual accounting.

January 1, 2006 to January 7, 2006

Going Postal, Terry Pratchett

O rare Terry Pratchett! He is one of those authors whose books I frequently have to replace because I have pressed them on an unsuspecting friend. That's also how I learned that not everyone likes him. Some who don't like light-hearted fantasy or British humor haven't enjoyed him--and I would like those copies back, please! Just kidding, I've already replaced them. So far about half of the people I've thus surprised have come to share my Pratchett addiction. Besides, I like his books more than enough to compensate for those who don't! Every one I have read so far (which is every one I can find) is fun and funny, devastatingly insightful, and oddly comforting—possibly the rush of endorphins from laughing out loud.

Going Postal is the tale of a swindler forced under penalty of death to take over the nearly dead post office in the city of Ankh-Morpork. For me, reading it banished any lingering fog of holiday doldrums and gave me an excuse to quote Vladimir Nabokov: "Laughter is the best pesticide."