Monday, September 13, 2021

Sunburn by Laura Lippman

Laura Lippman is one of my favorite writers, so much so that I have to remind myself not to give away too much, so no spoilers here. 

Sunburn by Laura Lippman William Morrow, 2018 

In Belleville, Delaware, in 1995, a man and a woman meet in a bar. Both are just passing through, but each one for different reasons decides to stay. Polly gets a part-time job in the Heigh Ho bar, and Adam signs on as a chef who turns out to be creative enough to draw customers from beyond the small town. They are soon enmeshed in each other's life. 

But both are lying about who they are and why they are in that small town in the first place. Gradually their histories--or parts of them--are revealed, and at each stage one or the other faces the challenge of accepting this unexpected truth about the other. As the passions deepen, the seesaw increases. 

Told from multiple points of view, the story moves through Polly, Adam, Adam's secret employer, and Polly's abandoned husband. Each character is focused on one goal, and through that focused determination Lippman explores their character, the twists in a life that have brought them to this point. Polly, who at first seems the worst of the lot for abandoning her husband and three-year-old child, grows on every page into a complicated woman whose goal isn't fully realized until the final chapters. Her husband, Greg, also turns into someone he probably didn't expect to become. 

The writing is graceful, the pace steadily increasing, and the twists and revelations very satisfying. Highly recommended.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Here's the Thing about Stuff

Back in the late 1980s, when Reagan left the White House and it was evident he was in decline, a journalist reported that others had noted the mental failing much earlier because the president began using the word stuff, dropping it in more often rather than developing the rest of the sentence. Instead of being precise and clear, he used the word as a shortcut, making his sentences sound informal rather than incomplete. This, apparently, is a sign of declining mental skills, and an early sign of dementia.

Well, that got my attention. With a grandmother who died with Alzheimer's, and later a mother in the early stages before she died, I took note of the signs I could look for in my own speech. When the use of the word stuff and others like it turned out to be one of them, I hopped on that bandwagon and have been riding it ever since. I have long been uncomfortable with the sloppy use of the word thing, and avoid it whenever possible, so now I had two words that made me cringe when I heard them skidding into place in a sentence.

Changes in contemporary American vocabulary are obvious to anyone who reads an old newspaper from the 1950s or earlier. I'm not convinced this is a sign of the shrinking of our language skills, but it is certainly an indication of their changing. Our writing and speech are much simpler, more casual, blunter in many cases, more often laced with slang. Linguists may argue about the size of the English vocabulary--half a million words or fewer than two hundred thousand if most of the inflections are skimmed off--but in daily transactions our chosen words are few. The ever-present stuff and thing may be a sign of change and nothing more.

A professor in graduate school, in the 1970s, remarked a few times on the tiny vocabulary of a particular Slavic language. I haven't been able to track it down, but I did come across a language thought to have the fewest vocabulary items. Toki Pona is a language created by Sonja Lang, and has 123 words. It takes usually about thirty hours to learn and the speaker must rely heavily on creating metaphors to get his or her point across. I can't say it appeals to me. Even though language grows through metaphor and borrowing  from other languages (one of the reasons English vocab is so large and rich), I think I'd be frustrated at not having more words to play with, especially technical terms. This particular language strikes me as replete with versions of stuff and thing.

A writer who captures a character's linguistic oddities--speech patterns and rhythms, vocabulary and inflection--wins my eternal admiration. This doesn't mean the author demonstrates a vast vocabulary; only that she captures the peculiarities of an individual in words. The first time I read George Higgins I felt like I was in the room with his characters and at any moment they'd be menacing me as though I were in the story.

The news about Reagan may have startled me out of a complacency I didn't know I had. But in the end it made me a more conscientious writer, alert to moments of laziness in thinking and writing that can be corrected and thus perhaps improve the work in ways not imagined. Whatever challenges me to be more alert is good, regardless of the original motivation.

Friday, June 11, 2021

The Writer Wasting Time

There was a time in my life, not so long ago, when I could say that I never wasted time. I couldn't because I simply had so much to do. I worked full time, produced a semiannual literary journal with a colleague and later an anthology of crime fiction with two other colleagues, ran a monthly writers' group, critiqued friends' mss, and oversaw my mother's health care during a critical time. And I wrote.

My focus was on crime fiction, novels in two series with a few short stories based on the main character in one, Anita Ray. I wrote both stories and novels during the brief interlude between arriving home from work and dinner, after taking snatches of time during lunch or while walking to a meeting or waiting on hold to think through what I wanted to write in the next scene or passage when I got home. When I could I attended writers' conferences and participated in a few volunteer projects. And then I retired.

I have long felt that writers' block is an indulgence. I may not feel like writing, but once I sit down and begin, the words come. No matter how bad the writing might seem at the moment I know I can always return later and rework it. The point for me is to keep going. Once I retired I didn't feel the same pressure, but I also didn't stop writing. While working I had to use every minute I could find but now I could begin earlier in the day, whenever I wanted, and take more time working through what I was trying to say. I might still sit down unready to write, as it were, but I still wrote no matter what. I wasn't at my desk to play solitaire. Nothing changed in retirement, just my attitude to time now that I had more of it. I let myself daydream more, stare out the window more, talk to the dog more.

Did having more time make a difference? Did I write more? Did I write better? Did I think more deeply? The only question I'm sure about is the latitude retirement gave me to try new things--new characters, new settings, new problems. And then last year I began thinking differently about how to construct a story, and that produced a very different novel from my usual fare. 

Last summer I set aside the reliable and much enjoyed cozy/traditional format and pulled up one character and got her into trouble in the first line and kept her there. The story is obviously suspense and not a cozy. I learned a lot about a different style of writing but in the end I also learned about me. I see the world in a certain way, and even in a suspense novel with danger in every room, threats at every corner, the main character is going to have a certain world view and certain beliefs that might be shaken but won't be destroyed.

Writing suspense meant going deeper into certain characters but it also meant uncovering the roots of principles, the drive leading to the goals that can be misdirected, and inchoate beliefs that can underlie a life and be twisted before being recovered in a truer form. I spent a lot more time thinking about these issues before I began writing--weeks, even months.

Being willing to take the time to explore these discoveries in fiction might not have happened in earlier years when writing another cozy seemed the obvious choice, the easier path. I might have ended up wasting a lot of time--months if not years--in producing another series that was okay but not much more. But in the end I finished with a novel that is different from my usual work and a level above it. And now comes the test. My agent has it and now I wait. Once again, the issue is time. Waiting time. 

And also thinking time, thinking about the next character who will be in trouble in the first line and stay there until a few paragraphs from the end. Time is set only as we choose to set it.

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Out and About in the Neighborhood

Various forms of social media now bedevil just about every writer I know. We have to decide what to participate in from among the many options, how to participate, and find the discipline to maintain the effort. All this is in the service of promoting ourselves and our books. It sounds ludicrous and it is. So, how do I, for one, go about it?

About a year ago I signed up for Instagram. It was obvious at the outset that most writers were using the site to post about their books—lots of covers and writer selfies. I have occasionally posted the cover of a book or a magazine containing one of my stories, but that pales pretty fast, at least for me. I enjoy posting pix of stacks of books I’m reading, or a photo of strangers deep in a book at a local park, but I’ve learned Instagram has more to offer. 

With the pandemic worsening, I wanted to enjoy what I could do and not think always about promotion. I used my walk to entertain myself, and I’m very glad I did.

At the beginning of the pandemic people in my neighborhood were learning to hunker down, avoid the playground, and find ways to entertain themselves and their children. First, a group of over three dozen families settled on decorating front doors for spring and Easter. I photographed a number of them, and posted those. 

Next came the teddy bears and other stuffed animals propped up in windows for children to spot on their walks or bike rides. Not exactly a treasure hunt but close enough. I had a good time finding those, including some life-sized bears settled on porches and rows of stuffed animals filling windows. 

Gardens bloomed and animal statues popped up under the azaleas and by the tulips. I’ve never been one for garden creatures but I’ve come to enjoy the hunt to find them in other people’s gardens, and I have pulled out an old sprinkler in the form of a tin frog to use in mine.

But my favorite of all my discoveries during this time are the flamingos. A woman several streets away has nine plastic flamingos which she presents in various poses—dining out, dancing around a maypole, going on vacation, sitting around a campfire. She puts time and effort into these tableaux, and I love them. We have never met but occasionally if she’s there when I walk past, I tell her how much I enjoy her work.

I have spent years walking around India with a camera, looking for interesting shots and unusual perspectives, but the flamingos have taken a special hold on me. And I’m not the only one. In staid, reserved New England, no one would expect bright pink plastic lawn toys to become popular, but they’re popping up now throughout my little city. I’ve come across three other “families” of the birds but no one else has animated them in scenes as creatively as the first neighbor. The original nine are still the standouts.

Why does this matter? The last year didn’t seem a problem for me and my husband. We’re both retired and engaged in our long loved creative work, he with photography, and me with writing. But the limitations on our activities have forced us, just like millions of others, to stay close to home and that means noticing more of what is happening around us. Unexpectedly I learned a little bit more about myself this past year. I have liked my neighborhood since we first bought our home in the late 1970s for practical reasons—location. I can walk to the library, restaurants, the train, and friends. But now it means a lot to me for other reasons—for how people live and interact, how much creativity goes into their ordinary lives that we don’t always notice, and how closely neighbors who don’t know each other well will reach out to collaborate and cooperate during unusual times. In previous years, being wrapped up in my job and my fictional worlds, creating stories and meeting deadlines, has meant paying less attention to the worlds around me, those of my neighbors. Walk two to five miles every day along the same streets, past the same houses, and you are guaranteed to see and learn more. And what you pick out from among the thousands of images that pass in front of your eyes will tell you even more about who you are and how you see the world. But it will also teach you a lot about the people around you. Some are more creative than others, and some are far more houseproud than others. 

Community, humor, joy, generosity come to the fore in this collection of streets and homes. And I intend to keep looking for how it is expressed long after the pandemic has receded.

Saturday, May 8, 2021

Reading around the World (6)

Quiet in Her Bones, by Nalini Singh
Berkley 2021

Set in modern New Zealand, this mystery depicts the multicultural world of the contemporary rich. I hadn't meant to read a mystery for this country, but when I picked this up to read as a mystery I found its depiction of the modern New Zealander vivid and interesting. The author drops in cultural details about the country that move the story occasionally beyond the mystery.

Aarav Rai remembers his mother as beautiful, glamorous, devoted, if sometimes outlandish. But what sticks in his mind most is the memory ten years ago of a scream and then his mother’s car driving away into the rainy night, never to be seen again. Now twenty-six years old and a best-selling writer, Aarav returns home to recuperate from a car accident, home to the cul-de-sac he left years ago. Half a million dollars went missing from his father’s safe that night, and Ishaan Rai is convinced his wife stole it and ran off with her lover. But life goes on in the exclusive cul-de-sac until the police arrive ten years later to inform Mr. Rai that they have located his wife’s Jaguar deep in the bush, concealed within the fast-growing forest. The car holds the body of a woman but no money. When Aarav learns that his mother was in the passenger seat, everything changes. He is determined to find out who was driving that night.

Throughout his investigation of his mother’s last night and the private lives of their neighbors in the cul-de-sac, Aarav recalls his mother, Nina, in all her extravagant ways, her wild fights with her husband, her ever generous and loving relationship with her son, her loyal friendships, and her secret transgressions. Aarav is a determined investigator, struggling to recall those days despite his migraines and erratic memory. One day he is the unreliable narrator of his own life, and the next he is a hard thinking avenging angel. Through it all he seems to live on Coca Cola and candy, and the occasional decent meal provided by his sweet stepmother, one of the few characters whose fa├žade doesn’t crumble under the glare of reality.

The son is well positioned to watch the goings-on in the homes around him, as men or women sneak out of one house and into another, hopefully concealed by the night while others indulge their secret, sometimes illicit passions.

The solution to the crime resolves all the questions, but it feels less satisfying than it should considering the number of less central questions that are resolved and leave the reader with a greater sense of completion. Nevertheless, this is a rewarding page turner.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Reading Around the World (5)

This is my fifth post about my project to read a novel by a woman from every country. This week it's Morocco. I'm learning a lot about how non-English and non-European writers conceive of the novel form and purpose. The language of composition undoubtedly plays a role.

Year of the Elephant: A Moroccan Woman’s Journey toward Independence, and Other Stories, by Leila Abouzeid


Translation from the Arabic by Barbara Parmenter

Introduction by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea

University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas, 1989


In the tightly constructed novel of the title, Zahra returns to her home village after a sudden divorce. This is 1950s Morocco just after Independence. Her husband informs her she will receive whatever the law allows, which is one hundred days of support. After the years of fighting shoulder to shoulder with her husband and others for independence from France, the woman is stunned and angry, feeling betrayed and lost. Childless, she can return to live with a sibling but chooses instead to live in the room of the family estate she inherited from her father. The various rooms inherited by relatives have turned the old estate into an apartment building, but at least she has a place to live. A holy man in the local mosque listens and advises her as she recalls her years in the resistance, her many visits home bedecked in jewels and fine clothing, and her plans for a new life once the colonial power was driven from the land. She is unprepared for life as a divorced woman—no money, no skills, no family connections that she wants to submit to. A few friends attempt to aid her but there is little they can do and she wants her own life of dignity and position. She navigates this new world, assessing the changes in her old collaborators as well as her husband, but in the end she makes peace with the new nation of Morocco and her new self, and grows well beyond the woman her husband divorced.


Also included are eight short stories that are glimpses of life in Morocco as it struggles to transform itself from a traditional culture ruled as a French colony into a modern nation on the world stage. In most cases they read more like scenarios than fully developed stories but the view of a traditional culture clashing with the modern world is clear.


This is the first novel by a Moroccan woman written in Arabic and translated into English. As such it marks two important trends—the growing use of Arabic instead of French or English in literature and the rise of educated women in public and literary life. Although some reviewers have enjoyed the writing style, I didn’t find it admirable. The novella moves along well, and the ending is both ironic and hopeful.



Friday, April 9, 2021

An Exercise in Character Description

One of the first pieces of advice I received when I began writing mysteries, in the 1980s, was this: Every story should have something real in it. Not everything can be invented; the story will begin to feel ungrounded, thin. The real element can be in the setting, characterization, dialogue, or plot development.

In writing classes I illustrated this general rule with a simple writing exercise focusing on character development: describe three people, one whom you know, one whom you have seen around where you live but don’t know personally, and one who is entirely your invention.


Every student reacts to this exercise differently.  At first I thought students would approach the three characters in the order in which they were presented, and some did, but not all and not even most. I expected they would devote an equal amount of time and thought to each one, but again they did not. Some spent paragraphs on one and only a line or so on the others. Again, I expected most would fall into the pattern of a basic description, but I was wrong. Some gave a basic description of each person, almost like an abbreviated biography, and some gave the same information in a bullet list. Others wrote a scene with snatches of dialogue, and still others described the person in question engaged in an activity. For some this exercise was clearly the beginning of a short story. But in the end almost every student responded to one of the three characters most strongly and most creatively.


The second character I asked them to describe—the one whom you have seen around the town or city where you live but don’t know personally—brought out the most original and compelling characterizations. After listening to the students describe their process, I wasn’t surprised at the results.


The first person, one whom you know, brought along a lot of limitations, and the writers felt restricted—and some felt uncomfortable—in describing someone they knew well. The last one sounded tempting, and for several it was, but the character felt less than real, sometimes fanciful and often dull. The middle one—one whom you’ve seen but don’t know personally—gave them a starting point. The mere fact that this was a person who had caught their attention suggested their imagination was already engaged, and the descriptions became vivid, going far beyond the person they had seen at a distance. By not knowing the individual personally no one was constrained by specific characteristics. The half-knowing seemed to stimulate the imagination, and the descriptions took off from the basic reality of the person seen from afar.


The second person had enough grounding in reality to give the character, no matter how fancifully or outrageously described, a certain persuasiveness because he or she was in fact real. Even when we’re making something up in its entirety we add that telling detail we glimpsed while sitting opposite someone on the subway or a manner of speech we overheard at a party. We look for something that caught our attention and use it to catch the reader’s.