Monday, March 20, 2017

Review: White Trash, The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg

I don't usually post reviews on my blog, but this is an important book, so I'm making an exception.

I would give this book a ten if the ratings went that high.

In 300+ pages with extensive notes, the author explores the history of the lowest rung of the people of America and the USA, the vagrants and criminals sent by the early British investors to work in the New World, thus solving the problem of the undesirables spoiling London and the need for cheap labor in the New World. By exporting their least desirable population, called "waste" and other names, however, the early investors set in motion an economic and political situation that has grown and changed over the centuries but continues to bedevil this country.

This is the story of the harsh reality behind the soaring and uplifting rhetoric of the Founding Fathers, and the failed attempts to address the growing numbers of "waste" or "rubbish" or "trash" in the US population. The men of means, who could afford to buy land and exploit the laborers, disliked this segment of the population but could never figure out what to do with it. Some seemed to think that by opening up the west the landless would move and "disappear," but of course they didn't. The plantation system in the South exacerbated the plight of the farmer/laborer, and its collapse after the Civil War created another version of that culture that crippled both poor whites and blacks. Few politicians looked at those living on the margins and understood that they too were Americans, and had earned a place at the table.

The author offers insightful discussions on the development of the lower economic class, and the form class conflict has taken in different eras while politicians spoke movingly of equality and opportunity and upward mobility. Published in mid 2016, the author discusses the 2008 campaign but little beyond that. Her purpose is to bring the reader to a more accurate perception of the lowest class in America and the treatment its members have been subjected to by those on the rungs above. She explores how this class has appeared in the world of entertainment in recent years, and how others have tried to grapple with a social group that offends their sensibilities and perception of the United States. She ends with a deeper discussion of the myths that are crippling us and an understanding of how our own country operates. Her examination of the impeachment of President Clinton and the report by Kenneth Starr is a telling unfolding of the role class has played at the highest levels.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017


Surveys soliciting the opinions of strangers used to be a rare phenomenon. In the thirty years, my parents lived in the home where my brothers and I grew up, the household received one telephone survey, which I took because I was the one who answered the telephone. No one asked if I lived there (I was only visiting). The caller asked about political issues.

As soon as I began buying books on the Internet I had to get used to the surveys that followed. Did the book arrive on time? Did I approve of the packaging? Was the product what I expected? Was the service polite and helpful? The first time had the expected air of novelty.

Once I got waylaid in a shopping mall by a woman who wanted me to look at a “short” film and give my opinion. After about ten minutes I told her I didn’t have time for this. Her reply was not “polite and helpful.” I’ve steered clear of anyone with a clipboard ever since.

Surveys over the telephone are harder to avoid unless you have Caller ID. These calls are ubiquitous during an election year, but have begun showing up year-round for all sorts of things, not just candidates. Since most are robo calls, I can easily hang up. But some are from people hired to get at least one answer out of me. When I refused to be drawn after being told I had won a free trip to Las Vegas, the young woman asked, “You don’t want a free trip?” No, I don’t. “Have you ever been to Las Vegas?” Yes, I have. I hung up.

A live person from my bank calls me every time I conduct a transaction there. After the first three calls I pointed out to the man asking the questions that I had been using this bank for over twenty years, and no one had ever asked my opinion on anything. Only now, with the appearance of men behind the counter and in the front offices, was I getting questions. No one ever asked me anything when all the people in the offices were women. The next few transactions were completed survey-free, but, alas, the calls have started up again.

As soon as I visit my doctor, a survey shows up on email. I ignore it, and another one shows up. And then the robo calls begin. I’ve made it clear that I’m not happy with my doctor’s office, so I shouldn’t be surprised with the attention. Now the letters have begun, offering me a new way to access care. If they can’t get my opinion, they’ll give me theirs.

You would think I would be pleased to have a bank or a medical office or anyone else interested in my opinion on how to improve services. After all, we all like having a say in the important issues of our time. But I don’t think that’s the intent of the surveys, and I have yet to see any change from anything I suggested.

These surveys are the result of short-term thinking. Let the consumer feel she has a channel for voicing her likes and dislikes, and she’ll trust us more. She’ll remain a customer. She’ll be less likely to leave because of a minor unsatisfying encounter. That intent may be sincere, but it is still cynical and definitely blind to long-term effect. After a while, the little resentments build, and one day the CEO looks at the weekly report and wonders why he and his minions can’t reverse a year-long trend of departing customers. He can’t find anything specific to go after and change, but the trend continues.

The undercurrent of frustration has to flow somewhere. I’m not a fortune-teller. I don’t know where we’re headed with all this. But we are moving, not standing still, and some of us will be very surprised at where we end up.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Women and Their Days, March 8

I celebrated International Women’s Day and A Day Without a Woman, today, March 8, by doing something unexpectedly relevant. The Essex County Needlecraft Guild meets monthly and invites speakers on needlecraft.

CelesteJaney is a well-known quilter whose work is owned by several museums. Today she talked about the code that has been discovered in quilts made by slaves, and used to guide those fleeing slavery for the North. Different patterns in different colors had different meanings for those looking for the trail north. The Underground Railroad, it seems, was a network of stops, like the squares in a quilt, guiding men and women safely out of the South. The quilts could be hung over a porch railing to signal the important message, such as “Don’t stop here,” or “Get food and provisions here,” or “The slave catchers are chasing you,” or “You’re coming to a crossing.” Quilts could also prepare the traveler for the helper he or she was going to meet along the way soon, and where to wait for that person.

CelesteJaney’s own work is stunningly elaborate, combining genealogy, printed squares with historical information, yarn trees and loose fabric leaves, and more. She has recreated some of the squares used in slave quilts as well as making elaborate scenes in applique.

One of the most striking displays were two pieces of mud fiber cloth from Mali.

For those who might think this way to spend International Women’s Day and A Day Without a Woman seems a bit regressive, consider that the dozens of women in attendance and others who do a lot of handwork are also professionals in a number of areas—science, psychology, education, medicine, and business, as well as the arts. 

But I for one believe there is something important about making something useful or beautiful by hand. We need more work that we are willing to hold up and say, Look, I made this. Here, you take and use it. We need to make things we can be proud of, whatever they are and in whatever area.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Anita Ray's Future

I’ve posted before about the end of the Five Star Mystery Line, but it seems there’s more to say. When something comes to an end, I tend to say, “Okay, I’m done with that,” and move on. I often think I’ll have trouble letting go, but in the end I don’t. It’s something in my DNA. And yet I do have trouble thinking I’ll never write or publish another novel featuring Anita Ray. But that’s not the lingering question.

When I began writing the Anita Ray stories, I created a character who emerged in part in relation to her scatty Auntie Meena and the other denizens of Hotel Delite. The stories were about the world of this hotel as well as the main characters. Anita and her Auntie remained static in the sense that they didn’t really age. In each book, Anita might be a month older, or even younger. It didn’t matter. The only concrete comment about her age was that she was closer to thirty than twenty and she was still unmarried. Unmarried! At her age. A scandal. And a gnawing shame for Auntie Meena. That was the premise at the beginning. But now?
With the prospect of working on a series set adrift from any official publisher, I seem to find specific aspects of the set-up also drifting. I could continue the series by heading in a different direction. Anita could marry and move into the hillside. I fell in love with Munnar and tea plantations on an earlier visit, and I can easily imagine Anita living there. Or, she could return to the United States to visit her parents. (This is the opportunity that least appeals to me, but I mention it to be complete.) Or perhaps she opens a gallery in Trivandrum and lives there, away from Hotel Delite. But I’d miss Auntie Meena and Ravi and Moonu and all the others.

I’m thinking about this now because today I had lunch with four other women and we talked aboutIndia and our travels. One woman had lived in Brazil, Indonesia, Pakistan, parts of Africa, as well as the US. One grew up in Northern India. The lunch was special for another reason. One cooked an amazingly delicious lunch of Indian dishes, another brought copies of CDs of her son’s music (he plays the sitar), the hostess shared her home and a couple of books, another brought a book on knitting and a dessert of fresh fruit, and I brought the four Anita Ray books to give away.

I love writing the Anita Ray books, and I love exploring ideas for them even more. As I type this I can feel possible scenarios developing. I enjoy having her four novels out there in the world, and a few more short stories scheduled to appear soon. For now that will have to be enough. But I know I’ll figure out something and Anita Ray will continue to have adventures and solve crimes.

To find the Anita Ray mysteries, go here.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Diversity among My Classmates

February is the time of year for invitations to college reunions. As I open and consider the invitations I’m reminded of the students during my elementary, high school and college years, and I realize now we were a diverse lot. You wouldn’t have known it then, but I can see it now. I grew up in a small town on the New England coast, where diversity rarely meant more than one’s religion (and all Judeo-Christian groups). And yet my former classmates and I took a number of very different paths.

Among those I went to school with (both high school and college), most have lived successful and mostly uneventful lives, raising families, building careers, and enjoying the pleasures of adulthood. As expected, most have married, a few divorced, and some remained single. A few made brief detours into drug addiction, but survived and recovered. 

Others went deep into the life of the 1960s—marching in the streets or trekking in Nepal. I went to live in India, and ended up writing about it in the Anita Ray novels. Several others were able to come out and live more authentic lives. Yes, they were gay, and though some of us suspected as much we never thought to comment on it. None of this is surprising.

But my peers also include at least one suicide, which still grieves me; at least two lost to Vietnam; at least one living with a crippling disease; one who narrowly avoided prison for attempted arson; one guilty of involuntary manslaughter; and one who was murdered, the crime still unsolved. Those are the life markers I never anticipated. Who expects to open the newspaper one morning and read about the violent death of a graduate student, and then recognize her name? And she was the most brilliant student in my class.

These men and women were part of my early life, and their faces are still sharp and clear to me. As we went our separate ways after graduation, most of us were enthusiastic and optimistic about the future. We expected only the best. But over the subsequent decades our quirks came to take over our lives—the appetite for risk; the impulsivity that aborted projects before they could bear fruit; the doggedness that propelled the mediocre student onto the top rung at work; the unswerving determination to explore that led to something special in a life; and the surefootedness of the one who knew at the outset what he or she wanted to do.

Sometimes I think where we end up in life is the result of chance, and then I decide it’s DNA, or perhaps it all depends on hard work, or perhaps we’re the produce of a series of helpers who see something in us that we miss. But in the end, as I look back on those whose lives I’ve followed, I see once again that there are no easy answers. Those who knew early on what they wanted to do and stayed with it are as much dependent on chance as those who came back alive from Vietnam only to die years later from an infected wound.

My former classmates are the kind of people who populate my and other writers' traditional mysteries—the men and women born to opportunity and advantages who lose their way and end up taking extraordinary risks, or those who watch their lives fall apart after missing a train or signing up for the wrong evening class. They watch as the consequences clog their paths to a better life. When they look back on what they have done, or what has happened to them, they too must wonder how it all came to be. Some things even a mystery novel can’t answer.

To read about a New England town or a village in India, go here

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

After Writing "The End"

On Sunday, just two days ago, I sent off to my agent the final revision of the first book in a new series. This mystery has undergone two major revisions, and now feels as sharp as a diamond (and I hope as sparkly wonderful). I know the book is finished because I’ve cleaned my desk, which has left me feeling adrift. Every morning when I sit down to work, my desk is cluttered and welcoming.

Today, after putting away my notes and printing out the final copy, which is now boxed and sitting on a shelf, my desk looks tidy—and very empty. The clean surface seems unnatural to me, so I’ll get to work on the next title in the series, which I have already sketched out in a draft. I also have an idea for another short story featuring Anita Ray, and I’ve begun putting together a collection of her stories. And then there’s my blog, which I neglect too often.

While I was working on the last revision I collected several images that sparked story ideas. Two young people, probably students from a nearby college, strolled by, each with a distinctive gait. The young man on the right lifts himself on the balls of his feet and dips down as he places his heel. His knees seem to get a double workout. The young woman on the left takes longer but also smoother strides. He’s wearing sneakers and she’s wearing black shoes.

The other recurring image is of a new shop. Beverly was a working-class town for most of its history, with a huge complex called, simply, The Shoe, a tool and die manufacturer. The Shoe is long gone, but the complex now houses numerous white-collar companies—medical, high tech, service-related, and more. It’s a city within a city. And its denizens have brought a new kind of shopper to the city, people who are willing to pay $15 for a bar of sandalwood soap and hemp towels. While I sat at a coffee shop on the opposite side of the street I calculated just how many bars of soap the new owner would have to sell to make the rent.

I have a few more images to work with, such as the man who tracks family reunions on FB and shows up to chat with strangers (and non-relations). I don’t know how any of these images will be used, but they tell me that a new story is growing.

To view my other finished (and published) works, go to: