Thursday, May 28, 2015

William Zinsser (1922-2015)

I just learned today that one of my heroes is dead. William Zinsser, author of my writing bible, On Writing Well, passed away at his home in New York City on May 12. He was 92. 

I can only hope he died with pen in hand.

Mr. Zinsser worked as a journalist, then a teacher at Yale,  a freelance writer, again as a teacher, and finally, when he could no longer see due to glaucoma, he helped students and others by listening to their writing and offering guidance.

He wrote many books on a variety of subjects including baseball (Spring Training), historic American sites (American Places), jazz (Mitchell & Ruff), and American songwriters and their songs (Easy to Remember). All were written in the clear, uncluttered, personal style that his classic book on writing espoused.

I own two editions (second and third) of On Writing Well (I wrote about it here). I tracked down a hardcover copy of Spring Training many seasons ago. I also own Writing to Learn, a guide to using writing as a way to immerse oneself in an area of knowledge. The latest addition to my Zinsser bookshelf is The Writer Who Stayed, a collection of weekly essays he wrote for The American Scholar magazine (which I wrote about here).

Writing With a Word Processor is a humorous and helpful look at his trials and tribulations in learning to graduate from pen and paper to machine. It helped me understand my first word processor...oh, so many years ago.

I met him once. It was in 1997. The  30th anniversary edition of On Writing Well had just been published. He came to speak at the library and I took my well-used third edition of the book for him to autograph.

I remember thanking him, as he signed my copy, for the guidance and inspiration his books had given me. I gave him my business card. (For what reason I have no idea. I guess I just hoped he might remember me.) The morning after his appearance, I suddenly wondered if he had a ride to the airport. I phoned the hotel, but he had already checked out. I wish I had thought of that sooner. Wouldn't that have been a story to tell! 

Farewell, Mr. Zinsser. Thank you for your enthusiasm for writing and your generosity in passing on your knowledge of the craft. If I have ever managed to write one coherent, concise sentence, I owe it to you.

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Golden Age Classic Mysteries

Lurid Cover!

Here is a report on the first two classes of the History of Mystery course I am taking at the library. The free, six-week course is taught by a woman with a great sense of humor and a wealth of knowledge and many reading lists. We love reading lists.

The first 90-minute session began with a brief summing up of the beginning of the mystery genre with Edgar Alan Poe's stories featuring Detective Dupin (1841), Dicken's Bleak House featuring Inspector Bucket (1852), and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's inimitable Sherlock Holmes (1887). The instructor then gave an overview of the five types of mysteries we will be studying and a few authors in each category. 

The Golden Age: Christie, Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Allingham
Hardboiled Detectives/Police Procedurals: Spillane, Chandler, Paretsky, Rankin
Cozy: Dorothy Cannell, Carolyn Hart, Diane Mott Davidson
Katherine Hall Page
Dark and Dangerous: Elizabeth George, Val McDermid, Tana French, Patricia Cornwell
More Than Just Mysteries: Ruth Rendell, Amanda Cross, Martha Grimes, Louise Penny

She admitted that she was introduced to detective fiction as a teenager when she found a box of mysteries in her grandmother's attic 'with lurid covers'. You know the ones she means. She eventually discovered Agatha Christie, read all of those she could get her hands on, and because she decided that Ms. Christie was the best, she didn't read another mystery for thirty years!

She is making up for lost time. 

For last night's session we were to read Ms. Christie's And Then There Were None (which I read in 2012 and wrote about here). It was such a puzzler that even though I thought I remembered how the author worked it out, I wasn't really quite sure as I was rereading the tale. I was as surprised at the ending as those reading it for the first time.

The mysteries of the Golden Age were mostly written by British authors in the 1920s and '30s. They were rule-bound, classic whodunnits that center on the investigation and solution of the crime.

The structure is pretty much the same. There is the introduction of the detective; the commission of the crime and presentation of clues; the investigation including interviews with witnesses, theories of possible solutions, and further obfuscations; the announcement that a solution has been found; the presentation of the solution; and a short denouement.

Rules of the Golden Age mystery include:
**The Victim must not be famous or elicit much sympathy from the reader.
**The reader cannot be too emotionally invested in The Criminal.
**The Detective must use scientific powers of observation, reasoning, psychological analysis, and be somewhat detached. 

The emphasis is on a clear assignment of guilt and restoration of order. The mysteries revolve around the idea that evil is not part of the established social order, but a disruption of it by an individual. The evil is not in the world, but in the 'least likely person.'

They are structured and grounded in the environment which is why sometimes these mysteries would include a map (the island), or house plan (the country house), or cast of characters (so very helpful in keeping the players straight). 

For the reader, there is always the certainty that there will be a solution. It is assured that by the end of the book, we will know who the evil person is. There will be no vague endings. The good are saved and the bad are punished. There is an affirmation of the rightness of the established social order of which the reader is a part. Our world is OK.

I have never really analyzed my fondness for the Golden Age Classics. But, first, I relish a good puzzle and know that even if I don't solve the mystery, the author will. The murder usually happens 'off-stage' and there is very little blood involved. Also, I love that time period and the civilized behavior of everyone (murder aside). There is always time for tea or cocktails in the drawing room even though bodies are lying dead in the bedrooms upstairs. And finally, Good does triumph over Evil.

The instructor is providing reading lists for each category of mystery and I have created a History of Mystery page and will add to it as the class goes on. Check back.

Next week, Hardboiled Detectives and I, the Jury by Mickey Spillane.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Murder Mystery History at the library

Image result for mystery books clipart
Tonight begins a six-week course at my public library entitled Murder Mystery History: An Examination of the Whodunnit Genre. It is free (we love free) and is offered as part of the library's short-course program. There have been other courses on architecture, the origins of modern science, and classical music. 

Really, my library is quite brilliant to think of this. (OK, I know a library can't think, but you know what I mean.)

I have signed up and look forward to this overview of murder mystery fiction (and am hoping for an extensive reading list) taught by the provost of the community and technical college here. According to the LFPL website, the instructor has multiple degrees in English and I hope at least one degree in Mystery. 

More to follow after I see what this 'body in the library' has to reveal. 

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

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I admit that I am as enthralled with the idea behind Amy Krouse Rosenthal's book as I am with the book itself.

Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life is her memoir, of sorts, presented in the form of an encyclopedia...A-Z. So we have entries such as Answering Machines; Anxious, things that make me; Monopoly (like me, she hates the game); the relief of a Rainy Day; memories of a Red Gingham Tablecloth; and Writing Tools - hand, typewriter, computer - and what influence they may have on a writer's style.  

There are plenty of entries detailing some of her quirks that I can identify with:

**She fantasizes about getting rid of everything in her closet except for an outfit or two.

**She not only eats when she is hungry, but also if she is worried that she will be hungry. For instance, if she determines she will be in the middle of watching a film at dinnertime, she grabs a sandwich before she goes to the theater, even though she is not yet hungry, to eliminate any future hunger discomfort.

**She returns again and again to the photo/bio of the author on the flap of a book she is enjoying.

I have done all those things. 

The entries are almost all short which appeals to my diminishing attention span. I swear, I found myself laughing out loud at an entry, nodding my head in agreement at another, and getting misty-eyed at the next one.

It seems I am always on the quest for a way to record my life, 
(see this post) and looking at it in the form of an encyclopedia certainly has its appeal.

Perhaps my first entry could be:

Encyclopedia - A word I learned to spell from a little ditty that was sung on Mickey Mouse Club. Jiminy Cricket taught us to chirp EN CY C LO PEDIA. To this day, I have to sing the letters to myself whenever I write or type the word.

And although Ms. Rosenthal didn't make an entry for Z, I would have to write:

Zero tolerance - for barking dogs, cigarette smoke, heat and humidity, rude service people, radio and television commercials, and magazine advertisements.   

Anyway, I adored this book. And as I sometimes do, I fell in love with Amy (which is why I now feel obliged to call her by her first name).  She would make a wonderful best friend! I found out more about her via a couple of her Ted Talks and her short films on YouTube. 

She loves a bit of wordplay, watches out for synchronicity everywhere, and wants to save the world by Beckoning the Lovely. 

She also has created a journal just for us - An Encyclopedia of Me: My Life from A to Z - so we can write our own record of an ordinary life.

Amy - woman to thank.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Independent Bookstore Day and a Horse Race

Image result for independent bookstore day

This being Derby Week, Louisville is abuzz with parades, riverboat races, hot air balloon glows, and many, many beer delivery trucks.

The spotlight is on the city for this Saturday's 141st Run for the Roses. I tend to avoid the hoopla but am glad for the visitors who come from all over to watch the 'greatest two minutes in sports'. 

Instead of sipping mint juleps at Churchill Downs, I will be celebrating Independent Bookstore Day on May 2. Apparently independent bookstores have made a comeback - not believing the doomsday forecasts of their futures from a few years ago. This year's celebration is an expansion of last year's California program and, according to The Washington Post, four hundred stores across the nation will be celebrating their independent selves with programs and giveaways. 

Here in Louisville, there are two fiercely independent bookstores within a mile of each other. Carmichael's Bookstore has three locations - they just recently opened a children's bookstore - and has been around since 1978. According to its website, the stores will be giving away and selling literary stuff available only on Saturday: letterpress bookmarks, tea towels featuring bookish quotes, and an intriguing Literary Map of the Seas.

Judy Fout, owner of A Reader's Corner, told me her store will be celebrating both Derby Day and Independent Bookstore Day with 25 percent off all books and a drawing for a $25 gift certificate. The store sells mostly used books but also keeps a selection of new books on hand and can special order anything. It has been around since 1997.

So while horse racing fans are placing bets on horses, I will be browsing bookshelves. 

If you have no other plans for Saturday - it's OK to let the grass grow another day - head out to your nearest independent bookstore and thank them for hanging in there.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

In Which I Muse on Commas

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I attended a luncheon today and the business women at my table were questioning me about being a writer. Do I tape or write my interview notes by hand? (By hand in a composition notebook using a mechanical pencil.) Do I have all my questions written up before hand? (I will have a list of questions to start with but know that the interview could go just about anywhere so I like to leave space for surprises.) Do I favor the Oxford comma? (Of course. I am old school.)

In case you don't know, the Oxford comma is the comma placed before the and in a series of three or more terms. You can see that I use it in the title of Belle, Book, and CandleOddly enough, one publication I write for uses the Oxford comma and another doesn't. 

I admitted to the women that even after all these years I sometimes get confused on correct comma usage and therefore I keep a spray bottle of commas on my desk. When I have finished a story, I just squirt some of the cute little marks into the text in case I missed any.

This is why I was glad to pick up a new book from the library, Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris. Ms. Norris is a writer and a copy editor for The New Yorker and is known for her columns on grammar and punctuation. This is her first book and I can hardly wait to read it. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., the publisher, writes this on its website about Ms. Norris and the book:

Down-to-earth and always open-minded, she draws on examples from Charles Dickens, Emily Dickinson, Henry James, and the Lord's Prayer as well as from The Honeymooners, The Simpsons, David Foster Wallace, and Gillian Flynn.

(Notice the use of the Oxford comma.)

The reader is also promised a tour of a pencil-sharpener museum. How can you beat that? 

I will give a full report soon.

My bedtime reading is based on my recent Close Encounter with Alexander McCall Smith and I am re-investigating his No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series. The library has in its ebook collection all fifteen tales of Mma Ramotswe's adventures as Botswana's only female detective. It is a pleasure to once again read AMS's loving descriptions of Africa and watch how he develops the characters. I enjoy the little mysteries and their solutions. Mma Ramotswe almost always opts for the kindest way of helping her clients even when the news is bad. I am now in the middle of book three, Morality for Beautiful Girls

I do believe that Mr. McCall Smith favors the Oxford comma. Just in case you were wondering.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

In Which I Meet Alexander McCall Smith

I adore a man in a kilt and when that man happens to be Alexander McCall Smith, well, then I swoon.

And swoon I did last Thursday night when Mr. McCall Smith appeared at the library on the first stop of his book tour for Emma, a modern retelling of the Jane Austen classic. In his version, Emma Woodhouse is an interior designer who has returned home to her village of Highbury. What goes on from there I won't be able to tell you until I read my Autographed Copy.

Mr. McCall Smith has created such wonderful characters. I am a fan especially of his No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency books (there are fifteen so far and another one due out in October). He also writes of Isabel Dalhousie, the 5-year-old Bertie and other residents of 44 Scotland Street, and has written stand alone novels as well.

In Which I Crash the Party

I arrived at the library an hour before AMS was scheduled to speak so as to get a front row seat (which I did). I had just settled in when a woman who works at the library and knows I am a fan told me of a private tea-and-crumpets reception that was being held in his honor in the lower level conference room. I decided the only thing to do was to crash the party. I determined I could flash my well-used library card and gain admittance.

I needn't have worried. I thought perhaps there would be a room full of people all standing around holding teacups. I was wrong. There were maybe thirty people in attendance most of them sitting at the long conference table. I swanned in just like I belonged there and immediately spotted AMS. After all, it is rather difficult to miss a man wearing a kilt. He was standing to one side surrounded by a few women. I walked up to the group and in a few seconds he turned to acknowledge me and I introduced myself as a writer from a local woman's lifestyle magazine (which I am) and told him how we were thrilled with his strong, independent female characters (which we are). 

After that I never left his side. 

People would come over to speak with him. I would take pictures for them and then AMS and I would have a few minutes of private conversation before another couple of people came over to meet him. More photos. I think they all thought perhaps I was his handler or aide-de-camp.

At one point I found myself holding his reading glasses, his glass of Diet Coke, and the book he was clutching while someone took a group picture.

I admit that I gushingly told him that I never in my life thought I would have the chance to meet him and how thankful I was that he came to Louisville. He was perfectly gracious.

Not a single person questioned my presence. It just goes to prove that if you act as if you belong somewhere, well, then you do.

In Which Mr. McCall Smith Speaks

His presentation to the audience of well over 300 people was as delightful as expected. He was so comfortable on stage and told story after story about his characters and his writing adventures and his creation of The Really Terrible Orchestra in Edinburgh. 

He ended with a particularly hilarious story about a botched car rental reservation at the Pisa airport and how that resulted in his rental of a bulldozer and his slow drive to Sienna. Along the way, he said, because he was traveling at such a slow rate of speed he really got to enjoy the scenery. And if there was a hill or fence that he didn't like the looks of, well he was driving just the vehicle to eliminate it. 

We were all laughing so hard and he got tickled too and laughed along with us. His eyes just sparkled.

After his presentation, he took questions from the audience. I asked if he remembered learning to read and what books were on his family's shelves when he was growing up. He paused. He hadn't been asked that one before, he said. He recalled a book called Ginger's Adventures that was his favorite. It was the story of a farm boy, Tommy, and his dog, Ginger. Ginger somehow ends up as a girl's pet living unhappily in London with ribbons in his hair but eventually makes it back to the farm where he and Tommy get to roll in the mud and do what boys and dogs do.

An aside: I looked up the book and sure enough, it was published by Ladybird Books in England in 1940 and was illustrated by A.J. McGregor and the story written in verse by W. Perring. I don't see that it is available here in the United States but Amazon UK does have copies for sale.

I was second in line to get his autograph in my newly purchased copy of Emma. By then I felt as if we were old friends. I also brought with me my hardcover copy of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency which he kindly autographed as well. 

It was a wonderful, unforgettable evening. Eventually the video of his presentation will show up on the library's website. I will embed the link when it does so that you all can enjoy his appearance as well.