31 January 2014

Working Through Writer's Block

by R.T. Lawton

Sooner or later, the dreaded Writer's Block comes to most authors. Sometimes it's because the well has run dry for any number of possible reasons and sometimes it's merely a case of laziness, making excuses or having received a depressing rejection. I won't bother to say which one I'm most afflicted with. However, there are times when I can work through this block to creativity by writing to an outside prompt and letting the mind run free without judgmental repercussions. Knowing full well that these prompt writings are probably never meant to see print.

So, if you don't mind a little silliness, I'll share a resulting sample of said writer's block therapy. This one comes from my Harley riding background and is slightly edited for better readability on your part. The protagonist, named after the slang term for an illegal drinking establishment, is loosely based on a guy I knew, but I honestly don't think he would recognize himself if he read this.

TO A MUSE

Having been severely encouraged by his new old lady Patricia to acquire a modicum of culture and perhaps broaden his literary interests at the same time, Blind Pig decided to write his memoirs. He perceived himself as the proper expert for this endeavor, seeing as how he was the only one who understood himself.

With apparent delight, Patricia was heard to exclaim, "Oh Pig, darling. I'm so impressed. It's simply wonderful that you are going to write your autobiography."

The Pig had been so caught up in drafting his pending memoirs that he hadn't even considered the words auto and biography. Ambling off to the kitchen for a beer, he contemplated these two words and decided they wouldn't do at all. In the first place, Pig refused to ride in one of them metal cages called an auto, that was for civilians in the straight life. And in the second place, he figured all them auto biographies must have been written by race car drivers, which obviously left him out. Therefore, being a motorcycle enthusiast, he decided to refer to his memoirs as a motor-cy-ography.

Thus having rendered that momentous decision, he proceeded to gather up his writing materials. Lacking the immediate possession of either computer or an old fashioned typewriter, Pig decided to write in longhand. He promptly located the stub of a carpenter pencil and a dried-up ball point pen bearing the logo of his local bail bond agent. Finding no clean paper to write on, Pig commenced to cut up old brown paper grocery bags that he'd forgotten to throw in the trash years ago. As he labored, Pig thought he had now acquired an insight into the demise of the modern writer, seeing as how most grocery stores had gone from paper to plastic, thus depriving the writer of a convenient source of cheap paper material.

All set to begin with carpenter pencil in hand, the Pig suddenly found himself plagued by Writer's Block, which pleased him immensely because he now knew he was on the road to becoming a real writer, otherwise he wouldn't be blocked. In order to break through this barrier, Pig thought about what other writers talked about at times like these and knew what he had to do. Turning to the Z's in the Yellow Pages, he punched in a phone number and waited for someone to answer.

"Hello. This is the zoo. How may I help you?"
"Do you have one of those Bullwinkle things?"
"Excuse me, sir."
"You know, one of those big brown, grass-eating things from the north woods?"
"Oh, you mean a moose?"
"Yeah, can I borrow one for a while?"
"I'm sorry, sir. We only loan our animals out to other zoos, not private individuals."
"Just for a couple of weeks. I'll take good care of him."
The line went dead.

Incensed at his first rejection as an author, Pig retired to the bedroom and commenced rooting through his closet. In quick order, he extracted his black ninja, steal-at-night clothes, several lengths of rope, his night vision goggles and two pair of old sweat socks. As the sun went down, he loaded all his gear into an old pickup he borrowed from an unsuspecting neighbor. He also threw in a case of Jamaican Red Stripe beer, ten peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and three Moon Pies in case he got hungry during the coming escapade.

Early the next morning, Pig returned to the house where his new old lady Patricia was waiting on the front porch. In the back of the pickup, he had one dazed, bound, gagged and blindfolded moose. With an apparent perception of the problem, Patricia then proceeded to explain to Blind Pig the difference between the large, antlered, herbivore he had kidnapped from the zoo, i.e. a moose, as opposed to the spiritual inspiration for a writer, i.e. a muse.

Undaunted by this minor mistake, Pig asked if he could keep the moose in the backyard for a few days anyway.

The moose, still gagged by the old sweat socks, had nothing to say about the matter.

And there you have it. Turned out I could write something after all. And yes, Blind Pig, over the years, did go on to have several therapeutic adventures which will also not see print. Well, other than the one above.

You're welcome.

Ride easy 'til we meet again.

30 January 2014

Review: Voyage of Strangers by Elizabeth Zelvin

by Janice Law

It’s always nice to see writers try something new and different and out of their comfort zone. Elizabeth Zelvin, our Sleuthsayers colleague, has taken a big step away from her very New York detective Bruce Kohler and his friends in therapy and in recovery to tackle the lethal adventures and messy politics of Columbus’s New World voyages.

Most of us learned about Columbus from the famous rhyme and the annual school holiday. The rest of the curriculum on the Conquistadores focused on the clashes with the Aztecs and Mayans and on the destruction of the Inca Empire. But exploitation, pillage and genocide hit the New World earlier, with what became the disastrous landing of the famous flotilla on the Caribbean islands.

So devastating was the meeting between Europeans and the native Taino and Caribe, that very little of their culture now survives. Ironically, a voyage that set out to find the East Indies for trading purposes degenerated into a scramble for gold, and when that proved thin on the ground, for slaves.

Zelvin’s Voyage of Strangers finds a way into this now obscure episode via a character who is a stranger to both the Spanish crew and the natives they encounter. Diego, a teenaged sailor in the Admiral's fleet, has a big secret: he is an unconverted Jew and as such vulnerable to arrest and death at the hands of the Inquisition.

Zelvin says that Diego “came knocking on the inside of my head in the middle of the night, demanding that I tell his story.” The young sailor showed up originally for Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine stories, but he hung around until she gave him a novel of his own. Voyage of Strangers begins with him covertly saying his prayers up in the crow’s nest of the Santa Maria, then returns him to the scarcely less dangerous Spain of Ferdinand and Isabella, where the Moors have recently been defeated and enslaved, and the Jews, the next target, forced to flee, convert or perish at the stake.

Diego is protected by Admiral Columbus, a friend of his father’s, and he hopes to make money in the New World, thus recouping his family’s lost fortune. For the moment, he puts aside some nagging worries about the treatment of Taino friends and focuses on getting his younger sister, Rachel, safely out of Seville and off to their parents living in exile in Florence.

This proves easier said than done. Diego is a paragon of an older brother, but Rachel, though charming in every way, is a handful. She’s sure that she can pass as Christian, having spent some time hiding in a convent; what’s worse is that she’s also sure she can pass as a boy, and she fully intends to accompany Diego on the Admiral’s next voyage.

The novel really is in two parts, the Spanish segment, involved with the preparations for the second and much larger expedition to the New World, the dangers of the Inquisition, and the difficulties of traveling safely with a lively girl of thirteen, and the sea voyage and the delights and terrors of the islands.

The island segment is more gripping and unusual. Zelvin, who has visited in the Caribbean and knows tropical climates well after a time in Côte d’Ivoire as a Peace Corps volunteer, does a good job of imagining the lush island with its spectacular hills and waterfalls, abundant food and generally easy living. Alas, the beauty of the island is soon tarnished by the demands of European military architecture and an obsessive pursuit of gold that eventually corrupts even Diego’s admired Admiral Columbus. For a time, however, the brother and sister enjoy the freedom of the forest and the friendship of the Taino, whose generous and easy going culture will prove no match for rapacious guests operating in a completely different economic system.

Voyage of Strangers is very good on the tragic clash of cultures that ensues. Diego, particularly, is almost preternaturally understanding and broad-minded, although his own experience as a hunted minority does give him an insight into the plight of the Taino.

The story of the young people and their adventures acts somewhat to ameliorate what is otherwise an unrelievedly grim account of the conquest of the Caribbean. Diego and Rachel and their Taino friend Hutia are good company. The island, at least initially, is an adventure playground, and the novel, as well as its quite modern characters, is both suitable and historically enlightening for teen as well as adult readers.

29 January 2014

Wishing you the best

by Robert Lopresti

Move aside, Oscar!  Fie on thee, Edgar!  Make room for the real awards. For the fifth year I am listing the best detective short stories of the year as determined by yours truly.

FIfteen stories made the list this time, one fewer than last year.  I am astonished to report that there was a three-way tie between Hitchcock, Queen, and The Strand, with four stories each.  The other three came from anthologies from three different publishers.  

Three of the stories are historical.  Three are humorous.  One is a first story.  By main character we have:

Detective 6
Criminal 5
Victim 1
Other 3

And here are the lucky winners.  They can pick up their gift bags in the green room.

"I Am Not Fluffy," by Liza Cody, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, December 2013.

I worked as a hostess and greeter at a bar-restaurant six nights a week for five years while Harvey qualified to be a tax lawyer.  And for two nights a week Harvey was going round to Alicia's flat to bounce her bones.  "You were never there," he complained.  "What was I supposed to do all by myself every night?"

What indeed.  Insult to injury: Alicia was an old friend of hers.  And now that Harvey is making a bundle he wants a no-fault divorce and a big white wedding to his new love.

Our narrator goes for textbook passive-aggressive tactics: refusing to sign the divorce papers.   And she begins writing her polite protests against the world around her in chalk on the sidewalk, signing them Fluffy.

Is this a story about a nervous breakdown?  A split personality?  Or is our heroine learning to not be Fluffy anymore, to be a person who can take care of herself?

"The Sequel," by Jeffrey Deaver, in The Strand Magazine, November-February 2012-2013.


Frederick Lowell is an elderly literary agent and one day he gets a letter that hints that one of his deceased clients wrote a sequel to his classic novel.  Lowell travels around the country in pursuit of it and - well, a lot of things happen.  In fact, it almost feels like Deaver made a list of every way this story could work out and then rang  the changes, covering every possibility.

In the first half of the story he gives us a classic quest structure but when that ends we get a mystery, one with several red herring solutions, clever reversals and unexpected twists.

"Margo and the Silver Cane," by Terence Faherty, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, January/February  2013.

My fellow SleuthSayer, Terence Faherty, is the only author making a second appearance on my list this year.   

In the days before Pearl Harbor Margo Banning is an ambitious career woman, working as associate producer on a Sunday radio show.  One of the stars is Philip St,  Pierre, a self-proclaimed "radio detective."  And in this week's show he announces that next week he will be revealing the identity of a top German spy.  What follows is a lot of fun and amusingly written.  Take this conversation regarding one of the other performers on the radio show.

"You are not a radio detective?"
"That question takes us into the realm of philosophy.  Or do I mean psychology?  Are we who we decide to be or who the world tells us to be?  For example, I work with a woman who has forced her will upon the world.  She's become a former Broadway star despite the inconvenience of never having been a current one."
"Mamie Gallagher," Edelweiss said a little wistfully.  "She has a very attractive voice.  I imagine her blonde."
"So does she."


"Restraint" by Alison Gaylin, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, March/April 2013.

When the woman who killed Kevin Murphy's daughter walked into Cumberland Farms to pay for her gas, the first thing Kevin noticed about her was the way she crumpled her money.

Got your attention?  I thought it would.  And the ending is no slouch either.  But in between you will slowly learn about what happened to Murphy's daughter -- none of the obvious things that might pop into your head  -- and about the revenge Murphy plans.  Again, that is a long way from obvious.  It is not bloody or particularly violent, but it will shock you.


"The Confidante," by Diana Dixon Healy, in Best New England Crime Stories 2014: Stone Cold, edited by Mark Ammons, Katherine Fast, Barbara Ross, and Leslie Wheeler, Level Best Books, 2013.


Peggy is a mousy young woman who works for a presidential campaign. She is flattered when the more vibrant worker Kim takes an interest in her.  They start meeting regularly and Kim begins to tell her secrets, secrets that could change political history...

Some lovely twists in this one.

"The Murderer At The Cabin," by Robert Holt, in All Hallow's Evil, edited by Sarah E. Glenn, Mystery and Horror, LLC.


 Lexington is a very bad fella.   He's a serial killer with a complicated system of picking his victims and a suitably insane motive.  As the story starts he is looking for a new person to focus his attention on.  And he finds one in a cabin in the woods where a dozen wealthy people are holding a meeting.  So he takes his hatchet and prepares to single out his first victim.

And here's the twist.  The people in the cabin have paid big money for a high-grade murder theatre experience, complete with elaborate props and make-up.  So when Lexington starts his work they think it's part of the show.  But Lexington doesn't know about the mystery theatre aspect and he is as baffled by his victims as they are by him...


"A People Person," by Michael Koryta, in The Strand Magazine, November-February
2012-2013.

Koryta has given us a lovely little character study about Thor, who has been the hit man for two decades for Belov, who is the head of organized crime in Cleveland.  These two have been through tough times on two continents and, in a business that doesn't  support long-lasting relationships, they seem inseparable.

 The English word for the way Thor felt about killing was "desensitized," but he did not know that it was a proper fit.  Maybe he was overly sensitized.  Maybe he understood it more than most.  Maybe the poeple who had not killed or could not imagine being killed were the desensitized breed.

What could come between Thor and his boss?  Could there, to his own amazement, be a line he could not cross?

"Not A Penny More," by Jon Land, in The Strand Magazine, February-May 2013.

Walter Schnitzel is a loser and a loner.  He is a middle-aged accountant, watching younger men get promoted over his head.

But his life makes a sudden lurch when he takes an old clunker of a used Buick for a week-long test drive.  All of a sudden Walter gets lucky - in more senses than one.  His whole self-image changes as well.

So, is the car magic?  Is it all coincidence?  And, oh yeah, why is this story in a magazine full of crime stories?

"The Queen of Yongju-gol," by Martin  Limón, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine,
November 2013.


Martin's fiction is always  set in South Korea.  In this tale  the hero is Roh Yonk-bok, one of the wealthiest men in the country.

But he didn't start out that way.  He was able to get an education only through  money sent back home from his big sister who was working as a bar girl in Yongju-gol, a community that served American G.I.'s, where Koreans were forbidden as customers.  One day his sister disappeared and now, years later, Roh is determined to find out what happened to her.

It is a dark tale, full of betrayal and hard-learned cynicism.

"Canyou trust these people, sir?"
Roh turned to look at his bodyguard.  He was a faithful man -- in fact chosen for that quality -- and competent at his job, but he had little imagination.
"They want money, don't they?" Roh replied.
"Yes, sir."
"Then I have trust.  Not for them but for their greed."

"Othello Revised," by Denise Middlebrooks, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, December 2013.

This is Middlebrooks' first story, a promising start.

The narrator has just written a mystery novel and his wife recommends he takes it to a professional editor.  The editor turns out to be an interesting person, a real estate agent who reinvented herself in the recession, and she has some fascinating suggestions about the book.  Or what she thinks is the book.

And there we have to stop.  Go read the story.  You deserve a treat.




"Dress Blues," by Chris Muessig, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, October 2013.


Sergeant Nolan, a Marine sergeant, finds himself facing multiple crises.  His wife has left him.  He has to decide whether to re-enlist for another six-year hitch.  And his boss goes off on extended duty, leaving him as the only Corps member to look after a private who has been arrested for murder.  Worse, that private is a Black man and this story takes place in a time and place where that can be a dangerous place to be -- especially if you are accused of killing a white man.

A fascinating tale, and one that told me a lot I didn't know about its time period.

"Footprints in Water," by Twist Phelan, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July 2013.


Henri Karubje is a detective in the NYPD and he is called out to help investigate the missing daughter of  a Congolese family.  The relationships between the people, and with their medicine man, neighbors, and priest, are complicated to say the least.

Tangling the matter further is that Karubje is not their as investigator, but as translator.  The lead detective is a newly promoted woman he has worked with when she was on patrol.  The cliche here would be to have them in territorial conflict but Phelan chooses instead to have the new detective looking for more help while Karubje insists on making/letting her run the show. 

Karubje is haunted by his childhood in the genocidal conflict of Rwanda and he makes good use of his memories of that horror to sort out the motives and inconsistencies of the characters.

"A Game Played," by Jonathan Rabb, in The Strand Magazine, June-September 2013.



George Philby is a member of Britain's diplomatic core, stationed in Washington.  He is a quiet, self-effacing man, and his great burden is his name.  Kim Philby was the most famous British traitor in a century, so he is somewhat in the position of a man named Benedict Arnold joining the U.S. Army.  "It made them all think too much, a sudden hesitation in the voice."

And in D.C. it leads to an odd friendship with Jack Crane, an American oil man.  Crane brings Philby out of his shell a bit and the relationship leads to -- well, that would be telling.  But one question this story asks is: Does your name determine your destiny?

I liked this low-key tale better the day after I read it.  Then I read it a second time and liked it more.


"The Samsa File," by Jim Weikart, in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, September 2013.

Havel, a police detective in present-day Prague is assigned to investigate the apparent murder by poisoning of a young man named Gregor Samsa.  Except - surprise! - Gregor had somehow transformed into a giant cockroach.

This is sort of reverse steampunk, transforming a Victorian plot -- Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis, of course -- into the modern era, and a modern genre, the police procedural.  Weikart even offers something that Kafka had no interest in, an explanation for Samsa's transformation. 

"The Hotel des Mutilées," by Jim Williams, in Knife Edge Anthology, Marble City Publishing, 2013.

It's Paris between the wars and our narrator says he is a guy who fixes situations, no details given.  In a bar he meets an American named Scotty, who says he is a writer.  Scotty asks him to talk about the most fascinating person he ever met.  So the fixer talks about a guy he met in World War I.

This is one of the stories where the joy comes in figuring out what's going on.  For me, the enlightment came in three distinct bursts, about three different characters.

28 January 2014

Flannery O'Connor on Writing

by Terence Faherty



Flannery O'Connor
Some time back I wrote a post inspired by a haunting quote from Flannery O'Conner, the great southern novelist and short story writer.  Here's that quote.

"The writer can chose what he writes about, but he cannot chose what he is able to bring to life."

In the course of researching that article, I ran into a few other things Flannery had to say about writing and about mystery.  What follows amounts to a guest column, typed (and commented upon) by me but "ghost written" by Ms. O'Connor.

"Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay.  I'm always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality.  It is a plunge into reality and it is very shocking to the system." (Amen.)

"The writer should never be ashamed of staring.  There is nothing that does not require his attention."

"Art never responds to the wish to make it more democratic; it is not for everybody; it is only for those willing to undertake the effort to understand it."

"Manners are of such great consequence to the novelist that any kind will do."  (Ouch.)

"People without hope not only don't write novels, but what is more to the point, they don't read them."

"I write because I don't know what I think until I read what I say."  (Nancy Pelosi may have lifted this.)

"Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and it you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn't try to write fiction.  It's not grand enough for you."

"Not writing is a good deal worse than writing."

"Mystery isn't something that is gradually evaporating.  It grows along with knowledge."  (My amateur sleuth, Owen Keane, is now nodding his head.)

"Remember that you don't write a story because you have an idea but because you have a character."

"There is a certain embarrassment about being a storyteller in these times when stories are considered not quite as satisfying as statements and statements not quite as satisfying as statistics; but in the long run, a people is known, not by its statements or its statistics, but by the stories it tells."

"I am a writer because writing is the best thing I do."


   

27 January 2014

A Day In The Life Of...

Jan Grape
by Jan Grape

Some people think the life of a writer is all glitz and glamour. It is.  For perhaps 1% of writers. I remember speaking to a middle school class several years ago and they all wanted to know if I lived in a big mansion. I had to tell the truth and say "no." I have a nice house probably just like yours.

Today, I thought I might tell you how my day went before I started this blog. It's a lot like many of my days.  I got up between 10:30 and 11. I know that's late for most people but it works best for me. I spent many, many years when I HAD to be at work by 7:00am or 8:00 am. I swore that if I ever had the chance I'd sleep until I woke up and then get up. I've been doing that a few years. For years after my husband and I retired and began traveling in our RV we often got up at 6 or 7 in the morning to get on the road early and get to our next location shortly after noon. After he passed away, I had several health problems and it was just nice to be lazy and sleep until I felt like getting up.

I knew I needed to write an article for SleuthSayers so I told my brain to start working on a subject. First it was time to prime the pump so I checked my email and FB to see if I'd missed anything important. Nothing too earth shattering.

Next I turned on the TV and listened to Melissa for a time then realized I'd recorded the Pro-Bowling Tournament of Champions. I tuned the bowling in and that took up a good hour and a half. I was rooting for Wes Malott from near Austin, Texas as he battled it out with Jason Belmonte.  Jason is from Australia and bowls two-handed and is the new Player of the Year. Now Jason is the winner of the TOC. But he's a good guy so didn't mind my guy losing. Sure Wes didn't feel that way.
My first thought was to write a few book reviews on several books I've read recently. First is The Original Crime by Joseph Pittman. I've know Joe since he was an editor years ago. A beautiful woman is found dead after a horrific storm in a small town in upstate New York. The woman is naked except for a pink scarf around her neck. Eckert's Landing police chief turned ghostly white as he looked closer to the body which had RIP scratched into her forehead. The book is a mixture of mystery with the touch of a thriller, maybe a nod to horror. A page-turner for sure.

Suddenly, I had a strong desire to wash my hair.  Okay, it was bugging me, it's gotten too long and sometimes a couple of strands fall into my eyes and bug me. Once clean it stays back in place much easier. While the hair was drying I played a couple of hands of FreeCell. If you don't know, it's a computer solitaire game.

I reread what I'd written earlier, about the books I'd been reading. Sounds like this might work. Next up was Bone Pit  by Bette Golden Lamb and J.J. Lamb. Speaking of page-turners, this book is definitely one. A pair of nurses, Gina Mazzio and Harry Lucke accept an assignment to work at an Alzheimer's rehab hospital outside of Virginia City, Nevada. What happens there as Gina and Harry begin to discover strange shenanigans makes me hope I never have that disease nor have to go to a place like this. I really enjoy medical mysteries as I was a diagnostic radiological and radiation therapy technologist for thirty years and feel right at home in this setting. Bette and J.J. have created authentic characters, a thoroughly scary mystery and I hope the Gina Mazzio and Harry Lucke series continue for a long time.

Time to turn on the Grammy Awards and I didn't take long to decide most of this music is not in my wheelhouse. I changed over to the Pro-Bowl Football game. I do love football and am sorry the season is over, except for the Big Game next Sunday. But we do have the Olympics to look forward to after that. However, I am worried about safety for everyone. What's stupid, the Olympics are supposed to be worry free and to NOT bring terror or politics into the arena.

I didn't feel like cooking so nuked a frozen dinner. Must admit frozen food is a whole lot better than years ago when you had rubber chicken and powdered mashed potatoes.

Back to the books. I also just recently finished reading my writing partner, Fran Rizer's latest Callie Parrish book, The Corpse in the Cupboard. If you want a good lesson in characterization then I'd advise you to read Fran. Funny, unique, realistic people that just walk off the pages of the book and into your heart. These honestly are people I'd recognize anywhere and be glad to sit down and visit with them. She captures the South Carolina setting so well that I feel that I've actually been there before. A touch of mystery and a touch of romance makes this a winner for sure.

Now for a change of pace I'm reading a Dennis Lehane book, titled Live By Night. You are always surprised by Lehane, check out, Gone Baby Gone, Mystic River and Shutter Island. This one is set in 1926 Boston prohibition era with speakeasies, corrupt cops and bad guys all around. I'm about halfway through this one and no telling how it will play out.

This was mainly my day, trying to come up with something to write about. Most of my writing days are full of glamour and glitz like this.

26 January 2014

Attacks on Punctuation

by Louis Willis

After reading Leigh’s post on the comma, I remembered reading two articles about the changing way the period is being used, and an article on the uselessness of the apostrophe. I decided to write my first article on the attacks on punctuation.

THE PERIOD (FULL STOP)
Certainly no one could have anything against the period,could they? At least if you’re an old fogey like me, you’d think the period, the most effective punctuation mark, would always find a place even in today’s world of texting and tweeting. Who would the most useful punctuation mark offend? In the world of cybertalking, the challenge comes from texters, those who talk with their fingers and thumbs on their smartphones and smarttablets.
From the article “The Rise and Fall of the Lowly Period” by Kevin Drum, on the Mother Jones site, I learned that texters stopped using the period because it is so small on smartphone keyboards. In texting, to end a sentence you just stop, kind of like in speech. Ending a sentence with a period is either confusing or offensive.
From the second and longer article “The Period Is Pissed” by Ben Crair writing in the New Republic, I learned that “In most written language, the period is a neutral way to mark a pause or complete a thought; but digital communications are turning it into something more aggressive.” Crair also notes, “On text and instant messages, punctuation marks have largely been replaced by the line break.” 
I haven’t learned to talk with my fingers and thumbs and I’m reluctant to give up on the lowly period because that little pissed off rascal might just find a way to fight back. I wouldn’t survive in the world of texting because I’d confuse and hurt people’s feelings with my habit of ending sentences with a period.

APOSTROPHE
“Apostrophes show possession (except for personal pronouns), mark omissions in contractions, and form certain plurals” (Harbrace College Handbook, 13th edition).
The fight to eliminate the apostrophe has been going on for a long time and it naturally continues into the 21st century. On the web site “Kill The Apostrophe” the unnamed author wants to eliminate the apostrophe because “The fact is that apostrophes are redundant and consume considerable time and resource and wed be better off without em.” It is also wasteful, a tool of snobbery, time consuming, impedes communication and understanding, and is a distraction “for reasonable and intelligent people.” The author doesn’t want to pass a law but wants to effect “some change down on the ground.” He wants us to wage war against the apostrophe.
John McWhorter, an American linguist and political commenter according to Wikipedia, strikes back at those who want to kill the apostrophe in his essay “The Foolish, Malicious War on Apostrophe’s” on the New Republic web site. He admits that “More than a few understand that apostrophes serve no function and could be eliminated from writing with ill effect.” However, “The only reason the apostrophe will always be with us… is not clarity but the mere fact that writing without it looks funny to us.”
Im the kind of person who wants to protect the language from the language police and I hope youre too. I’d like to agree with McWhorter that “the apostrophe will be with us forever.” But texting and tweeting give me no hope. Even The Apostrophe Protection Society, which reminds “all writers of English text, whether on notices or in documents of any type, of the correct usage of the apostrophe should you wish to put right mistakes you may have inadvertently made,” may not be able to protect it.
I wonder how in 50 years talking with fingers and thumbs will change written language. Will the period become a weapon of aggression? Will the apostrophe finally disappear? Will punctuation disappear?
Maybe the apostrophe has no practical use, but we should keep it but I’ve no idea why. Which side of the apostrophe fence are you on?
Finally, while surfing the web looking for more articles on punctuation, I stumbled on an interesting tidbit of information: September 24 of each year is “National Punctuation Day.”

Period. Full stop.

25 January 2014

My Favorite Reads of 2013


by Elizabeth Zelvin

I read twenty books I loved last year and started close to 150 that I didn't finish, not to mention a number of books, some the latest in series by well-known authors, that failed to engage my interest more than marginally: I slogged through those over periods up to two weeks of bedtime reading, since they reliably made me drowsy.

Here are the twenty books that were winners for me. Note that my tastes are as idiosyncratic as those of any reader. They run to intelligent writing, strong voice, endearing characters, clever dialogue, and plausible relationships. Given those elements, I'm looking for a plot that keeps moving, though not necessarily at breakneck pace.

In alphabetical order:

Maggie Barbieri, Once Upon A Lie, 2013
A beautifully worked out unreliable narrator mystery with a likable protagonist. If this is the first in a series, I'll definitely read the next one, and I plan to go back and try the author's earlier work.

PM Carlson, Rehearsal for Murder, 1988
PM Carlson, Murder Unrenovated, 1988
PM Carlson, Murder is Pathological, 1986
I know Pat Carlson from Sisters in Crime, but I hadn't read her Maggie Ryan novels until Jim Huang, a small press publisher and bookseller as well as a Mister Sister, started re-issuing them in e-editions. They typify the character-driven traditional mystery that's so hard to get published nowadays, with the added twist--unusual but not unique--of not making Maggie herself a point of view character.

Jane Casey, The Last Girl, 2013
Jane Casey, The Burning, 2012
Jane Casey, The Reckoning, 2012
I read the latest first and liked it enough to go back to the beginning of the series. Maeve Corrigan is an Irish detective constable in London. Nice balance between police procedural and character arc, reminiscent of Deborah Crombie's Kincaid/Gemma James series. Some might compare her to Elizabeth George, but George's latest was one of those books that took me forever to finish because it kept putting me to sleep, on top of irritating me with its many implausabilities; I think it's time for me to give up on George.

Anne Cleeland, Murder in Thrall, 2013
Another Irish detective constable heroine at Scotland Yard, another British lord turned copper like George's Lynley, a satisfying police procedural--and the most unusual love story I've come across in ages. The author takes a big risk and pulls it off beautifully. The sequel is due this summer, and I'm looking forward to it.

Deborah Crombie, The Sound of Broken Glass, 2013
A long-running series of character-driven police procedurals that's still getting better and better. You may be getting the impression that I'm a fan of police procedurals, but in fact, what I care about is the authenticity and appeal of the characters and their relationships.

Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling), The Cuckoo’s Calling, 2013
I didn't read this, in fact, didn't hear about it, till the news that Galbraith was JK Rowling broke, but I adored it and can't wait for the sequel. A tremendously appealing private eye and sidekick and a solid mystery. Rowling more than makes up for the absence of endearing characters in her first post-Harry Potter novel, The Casual Vacancy. I think she's amply proved her point about the publishing industry in the 21st century (sales not pegged to merit) and her own talent (shining through).

Michael Gruber, The Return, 2013
I've read everything by this brilliant and too often overlooked thriller writer. He's got it all: storytelling, writing, and characterization. This one whips together an old secret from the Vietnam war, a protagonist with terminal cancer, and a couple of Mexican drug cartels. I found it a little more lightweight and breezy than his last, the acclaimed The Good Son, and Publisher's Weekly and Booklist weren't kind to it, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Laurie R. King, Touchstone, 2008
I reread this suspense novel set in 1926 Britain on the brink of a general strike in anticipation of the 2013 sequel and found it just as brilliant and absorbing as I did the first time. Disappointingly, I didn't like the sequel. I found protagonist Harris Stuyvesant much less sympathetic on his second outing, which illuminated for me why I don't share the general nostalgia for and fascination with the expatriate artists' and writers' Paris in the 1920s: it's a boys' club. A few rich lesbians had a lot of fun, but straight women's main function was to sleep with the boys. This feminist says, "Yuck."

William Kent Krueger, Tamarack County, 2013
Not my usual kind of read, but the medium-boiled Cork O'Connor series, set in northern Minnesota with a fine sense of place and great sensitivity to Native American issues along with solid plotting, has kept me reading forward and going back to earlier books. I didn't like Krueger's other 2013 book, a literary sort of crime-fiction standalone that others raved about, nearly as well. Kent Krueger himself is one of the nicest people in the mystery community.

Jenny Milchman, Cover of Snow, 2013
An unusually suspenseful debut with a slam-bang opening and a superbly well realized cold-weather setting in upstate New York.

Naomi Novik, Blood of Tyrants, 2013
A superb series in the speculative fiction/alternative history genres: the Napoleonic era with dragons. The dragon Temeraire himself is high on my list of lovable protagonists. This one is the eighth and next to last in the series. Peter Jackson has optioned the books for the movies, and he'd do a great job.

Sara Paretsky, Critical Mass, 2013
Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski's special brand of brainy and tough in the sixteenth in this terrific series that smashed through the gender barrier in private eye fiction.

Linda Lee Peterson, The Devil’s Interval, 2013
Linda Lee Peterson, Edited to Death, 2005
I fell in love with the voice in the second of these traditional mysteries featuring journalist/editor Maggie Fiori and had to go back and read the first one. The wisecracking dialogue and vein of real feeling underneath the fun reminded me of my own Bruce Kohler series. I got the impression the author must be my kind of woman.

Julia Spencer-Fleming, Through the Evil Days, 2013
This traditional mystery series featuring clergywoman/combat vet Rev. Clare Fergusson and police chief Russ Van Alstyne is deservedly a multiple award winner. The author once again offers a masterful blend of suspense, love story, and social issues as she sends her protagonists on a life-threatening honeymoon.

Elizabeth Zelvin, Voyage of Strangers, 2013
Yes, this one is mine: my historical novel about what really happened when Columbus discovered America, from the outsider perspective of a young marrano sailor. Sequel to an Agatha-nominated story that first appeared in EQMM. I did read it more than once in 2013, and I do love the characters and the story.

24 January 2014

MLK and Navajo Voting

by Dixon Hill

The great Martin Luther King Jr.

 Monday we celebrated Martin Luther King Day—even here in the great state of Arizona, which was a bit late on the uptake.

The great Tony Hillerman
 Additionally:  Over the years, I’ve tremendously enjoyed Tony Hillerman’s series of mystery novels set against the backdrop of the Diné people and their Navajo Nation, as well as its surrounding states. Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee need no explanation here, certainly. And I’m sure you are as impressed by Hillerman’s knowledge of Navajo (Diné) lore and custom as I.

 Thus, at the close of this work week, which kicked off with the celebration of Martin Luther King Day, I think it appropriate to mention—here on Sleuth Sayers—the impact I recently learned Martin Luther King’s work had on the lives of Navajos, and other Native Americans, in my own state of Arizona.

 I was surprised to learn, this week, something I’m ashamed I didn’t already know. And, it’s something I don’t recall having read about in Hillerman’s work (though he may actually touch on it, because, as frequent readers know, my memory can be a bit faulty at times).

 Prior to this week, however, I’m embarrassed to tell you, I didn’t know that Navajos were not permitted to vote in state or federal elections, in Arizona, until 1948. In fact, NO American Indians living on reservations in Arizona were able to vote until then.

 It might be pointed out, incidentally, that this was years after many Navajos and other tribal members had fought for our country in both world wars. Even more unsettling, Navajos did not generally turn out to vote (or even register) in large numbers, until after the 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed.

And, with good reason! 

To understand why, we need to take a quick tour through the history of Native American citizenship.

 Much of the problem stems from the fact that “Indian Reservations” were established in a manner that made them, legally speaking, sovereign nations within the borders of the United States. This is how the phrase “Congress shall have the power to regulate Commerce with foreign nations, among the several states, and with the Indian tribes,” found its way into the constitution.

 For this reason, until 1924, Native Americans living on reservations were not recognized as United States citizens. Prior to this time, American Indians were denied citizenship (including the right to vote) unless the tribe they were part of arranged a special treaty or agreement with the federal government, or they underwent a process of individual naturalization, which required renouncing tribal citizenship, severing tribal ties, and demonstrating that the person in question had assimilated into what one might call “Euro-American” culture.

 After Native Americans served in World War I, however, popular opinion led the U.S. Congress to pass the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. Though this act technically granted U.S. citizenship to American Indians living on reservations, several states still managed to refuse them the vote. Poll taxes and literacy tests were just a few of the ways states accomplished this.

 In Arizona, however, a different method was applied. Shortly after the Indian Citizenship Act was passed, the Arizona Supreme Court, in the case of Porter v. Hall, upheld a state-wide prohibition against Native American voting, stating that American Indians living on reservations were wards of the federal government, making them “persons under guardianship.” Since “persons under guardianship” could not vote, it was a slam-dunk; Navajos and other American Indians living on reservations in Arizona were denied the ballot.

 This embargo would remain in effect until the Arizona Supreme Court overturned the Porter v. Hall decision, in 1948. At which point, the state imposed a literacy test to deter American Indians (among other minorities) from going to the polls.

And, things stayed this way until 1965. 

Though the Voting Rights Act (VRA)—which Martin Luther King was so instrumental in helping to bring to fruition in August of 1965—may certainly be felt to have deep roots in Selma, Alabama, the law also applied to important areas of Arizona that had large numbers of Navajo voters.

 At the time the VRA was passed, only those American Indians who could (1) read the United States Constitution in English and (2) write their names, were eligible to vote in Arizona polling places.

 The VRA, however, included Section 5: a temporary prohibition of literacy tests in certain jurisdictions. Consequently, Navajo, Coconino and Apache Counties, in Arizona became covered by Section 5 of the VRA, and literacy tests were suspended.
If you compare the map of Arizona counties, above, with the map of the Navajo Nation, below, you should get a good idea of how the reservation lands overlap the counties in question.

 But not for long, because the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia soon held that Arizona’s literacy test had not been discriminatorily applied against American Indians in the last five years.

 This ruling would stand until the VRA’s Section 5 was amended in 1970 to include a nationwide ban on literacy tests. And, Apache, Navajo and Coconino Counties—along with five other Arizona counties—once again became covered under Section 5 of the VRA, throwing out the use of literacy tests.


Yet, more struggles were to come.

 In 1972, in Apache County, the first reservation Navajo ran for public office in a non-reservation governmental body in Arizona. Apache County’s population was predominately Navajo at the time. And, when Tom Shirley ran for the District 3 seat on the Apache County Board of Supervisors, he decisively defeated his white opponent—only to find himself blocked from taking office.

 Officials argued that Navajos weren’t really U.S. citizens (that sovereign nation thing again) and thus could not hold office. The court battle dragged on until the Arizona Supreme Court ruled, in September of 1973, that American Indians living on reservations were fully qualified to hold public office. Thus, the first Navajo member of the 3-person Apache County Board of Supervisors finally took office nine months after his term was supposed to have begun.

 Though Shirley did not run for re-election in 1976, he was instrumental in fighting an attempt to gerrymander the county’s districts—a plan clearly designed to limit future Navajo representation on the Board of Supervisors. A federal court finally stepped in, citing the VRA, and Shirley’s fight was won. Consequently, the results of the 1976 election saw two of the thee Supervisor seats filled by Navajos.


 In 1974, federal observers monitoring the election in Apache County, for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, noticed a lack of polling places and a greater need for ballot translation. According to the report, these problems resulted in long lines that made people wait hours to cast their ballots, some waiting until after midnight.

 Congress amended the VRA to address these issues in 1975.

 The problems, however, continue. Patty Ferguson-Bohnee, director of the Indian Legal Clinic at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, was quoted in a recent Arizona Republic article as saying: “It’s not history. There’s still a mentality that Indians need to stay on the reservation.”

 She added that the Arizona Speaker of the House, in 2003, asked the state attorney general if Navajos could legally serve on state commissions. “It’s just a very odd, backward way of thinking,” she said.

 Perhaps the Speaker had never heard of the Arizona Supreme Court decision dealing with Tom Shirley. I’m embarrassed to say I hadn’t either, until this past week—though, as a guy who’s part Choctaw and Chickasaw, I’ve also never thought American Indians “need to stay on the reservation.”

I’ll see you in two weeks!
— Dixon

23 January 2014

That "Eureka" Moment

by Brian Thornton

That "Eureka" moment. Some people are familiar with it. Others crave it and yet don't know what it's called. Or they know about the notion of a "Eureka" moment without truly understanding what it is or how it works.

A quick search (thanks a bunch, Pegasus Project!) gives us the following: "'Eureka' comes from the Ancient Greek word εὕρηκα heúrēka, meaning "I have found (it)", which is the first person singular perfect indicative active of the verb heuriskō "I find".

And of course there is the famous story of how it entered the public consciousness, how the Greek
Archimedes, I feel your pain, big guy....
"natural philosopher" and mathematician Archimedes was wrestling with a problem, sitting in his bath mulling it, and had that flash of inspiration where the blinders were removed from his eyes, he "saw" the problem and the answer all in one brilliant moment of what many would call "divine inspiration". And so he hopped out of his bath and ran down the streets of his native city of Syracuse, naked, shouting (you guessed it: "EUREKA!").

I had one of those this morning.

And it was everything I thought it could be.

Now, I believe those folks who preach that success in writing, as with many creative endeavors, is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Hard work trumps flights of fancy, and pays off damned near every time.

A good friend of mine from both high school and grad school was one of those "inspiration" guys. This guy is a certified genius. I think of the ancient Roman definition of "genius" (hey, they invented the word, after all), how it was supposedly a household spirit that would occasionally whisper in your ear, and I swear that my friend must have inherited Einstein's household spirit. He's that brilliant. I could sit with him and listen to him reel off creative idea after creative idea after creative idea. He had more Eureka moments in one sitting than I've had during my entire life.

And he's never done a damned thing with it. Not. One. Thing.

I know a number of people on the other end of the spectrum- hard workers who have fashioned incredibly successful writing careers for themselves- grinders who put in the time, do the work, meet that deadline. And I am happy for each and every one of them.

I look back on my own career and really do see myself as a member of the latter category. I like to think of myself as hard-working when it comes to my writing, even diligent. I'm one of those grinders. I am proud of the hard work I've done.

And yet I have had those "Eureka" moments.

Not many of them. And certainly never enough to suit me. But each time I had one I was really, deeply, profoundly stuck. Then in a flash I get the sudden inspiration popping up in my head seemingly out of nowhere, and presto! I've got it1 Eureka! And the world changes.

But none of these moments has been more welcome than the one I had this morning, driving to work. Out of nowhere I had the solution to the problem that had me stuck in neutral on this project for months!

EUREKA!

And what caused it? Was I able to precipitate it? I think what brought about this happy event was a confluence of factors:

1. The long illness from which I've suffered since early Autumn has (finally) begun to wane. Being sick? Hell of a distraction!

2. I went back through the work-in-progress to help me get the story straight in my head.

3. I went back and re-read every story fragment, outline, plot idea written on a cocktail napkin in my possession.

One, all or some esoteric combination of these factors somehow helped unlock the door to my internal inspiration, and at 7:57 AM PST this morning (Yes, I actually checked the time when it happened, I was SO THRILLED), I had it:

EUREKA!

And aside from the solution to my long-standing plotting problem, my Eureka moment has helped drive home to me the reality that, while inspiration might well be just "one percent" of the creative process, it's a pretty damned important, well-nigh irreplaceable, one percent of that process.

Because without it, we're all just really hard workers.

So how about the rest of you? Got a particular Eureka moment you'd like to share?

22 January 2014

The 4th Wall

by David Edgerley Gates

I wrote a story awhile back called "The Devil to Pay" and, at the end, Tommy is visiting his grandmother, who's living in a nursing home.

It's a beautiful fall day, crisp and clear, with just enough breeze off the river that she needs a lap robe. He's pushing her around the grounds in her wheelchair. The gravel on the path crunches underfoot. He's telling her a story, full of gangsters and gunrunners. She doesn't really follow it. Too complicated, too many foreign names, too many people she doesn't know.

The point, of course, is that he's telling her the story you've just read. There's a term for his, and I believe it's called metafiction– correct me if I'm wrong– meaning a narrative that's self-referential, where you play with convention, and the story comments on its own structure or dynamic. This, in turn, got me thinking about breaking the Fourth Wall.

Hamlet begins his story by addressing the audience, "O, that this too too solid flesh would melt…" Richard III does the same, "Now is the winter of our discontent…" Macbeth, after he first meets the witches: "If chance will have me king…" In each case, they don't step out of character, in fact, the reverse, but they step out of the play, to invite us into their confidences, and make us complicit in what follows. The soliloquy is a dramatic device going back to the earliest theater, but Shakespeare and the other Elizabethan playwrights, like Marlowe, use it in a very specific way, to enter a character's thoughts.

The equivalent these days would be first-person narration, where whoever's telling the story let's you know what's going on in their head, or admits they don't in fact know what's going on. MAGNUM P.I. often used voice-over, and one common phrase Magnum was fond of, as he went off on some errand you knew could only lead to trouble, was "I know what you're thinking, but–" This is actually a variation on a Victorian literary trope, had-he-but-known. Nor were the Victorians at all
embarrassed by addressing you directly: "And now, Dear Reader, we must leave this scene, and return to…" whatever it is. Dickens does it all the time. So does Trollope. The effect is to make you a party to the machinery, or joinery, and remind that this is all invention. It removes you from the fiction, so to speak, that the story is accidental.

We follow certain conventions, and I think rightly, because we assume a bargain between the writer and the reader, and you basically have to play fair. It doesn't mean you can't have an unreliable narator, or be deceptive, or simply mischievous, but the reader understands you're in collusion with each other. He or she surrenders to the illusion in hopes of being entertained, or invigorated, puzzled, or shocked, or surprised, even transported. When do you break the rules? In effect, only when you have the reader's permission. If you step out from behind the curtain, you have to do it in good faith. "I know what you're thinking, but---" In other words, the reader is your accomplice.

The trick, really, if I can put it that way, lies in not losing the reader's confidence. When you do close-up card magic, for example, the distinction is between the "effect," the agreed-upon narrative, what the audience sees, and the "sleight," meaning the method you use to pull it off. This is known in magic circles as misdirection, but the audience is asking to be fooled.

This is part of the bargain, that you enter into a world of masks, and the writer can let the mask slip, if you have what amounts to informed consent. You're dealing from a marked deck. The reader accepts this, if the narrative is convincing, and the sleight of hand reinforces it. What your reader won't forgive is the loss of trust. You've invited them in, after all, and they've made the choice to be included, to inhabit the fiction, the understanding that you'll give good weight. You promise, across the footlights, to make mad the guilty, and appall the free, unpack your heart with words. They'll take you up on it.

21 January 2014

Elegy

by Dale C. Andrews

                                            She stands in the cold water, facing
                                            south toward an invisible island. 
                                            In the Sunday morning quiet 
                                            the redwing blackbirds 
                                            shuffle nervously in a thicket 
                                            behind the beach. The loon 
                                            makes no sound at all in its 
                                            purposeful passage. 

                                            For sixty years and more 
                                            she has tested the waters 
                                            this way. Soon she will 
                                            take the plunge. Intrepid swimmer. 
                                            For her there is never 
                                            backing out. Never. She will dive 
                                            into the salt waves and there will be 
                                            friendliness and fellowship and 
                                            sisterhood, and a spot of
                                            solitude. 

                                            Her landlocked husband, a creature of air 
                                            and dirt, leans against a boulder 
                                            and watches her. His silence 
                                            goes with her, and with the loon. 
                                            He guards towel, glasses, sandals, 
                                            His heart flutters in the thicket. 
                                            He rests quietly at the margin 
                                            of the liquid world, waiting. 
                                            When she rises, rebaptized, 
                                            from the sea, she will find 
                                            a harbor here. 

                                                                    James Lowell McPherson 
                                                                    "She Stands in the Cold Water"

       Last month I posted an article that largely praised the wonders of computerized research and our ability today to secure virtually any bit of information by merely clicking the correct keys on the nearest available laptop. At the time I wrote that post I intended to also address the flip side of the equation -- the things that we lose as we spiral down into that all-knowing ethernet vortex. But I have this problem (likely already evident) -- once I get started I can have a tendency to “write long.” The previous article sort of outgrew itself, leaving no practical room for a second chapter.  Also I came to realize that the rest of what I had to say was not only about losing the more personal side of the research process, but about losing people themselves.

       As noted in that previous article, ready access to the troves of information now available on the internet comes at a cost -- studies indicate a trend toward the reduction, and at times near disappearance, of short term and long term memory. As we come to rely on information assembled and cataloged on the internet more and more, our need to store facts in memory decreases, as does our ability to do so. What we potentially lose when this happens is the personal clothing that facts otherwise wear; the human side of the dry answer. 

       Dr. Kathryn Walbert, a professor at North Carolina University, has set the stage for the problem we face: 
Historians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries can rely on extensive correspondence and regular diary entries for information about life in the past. But in today’s world, telephone, email, and web-based communication have largely replaced those valuable written records. Without oral history, much of the personal history of the late-twentieth and twenty-first centuries would be lost to future historians.
       Now we risk losing even that if personal memories, anecdotes and remembrances, upon which oral histories are based, are no longer being retained by our galloping brains, which have concluded this congeries of entangled memories and recollections need no longer be stored. 

       And what do we risk losing, here? How better to illustrate than with an anecdote. 

Jim and Phyllis
on the deck of the Mandalay
     Twenty-eight years ago my wife and I were on a Windjammer cruise -- 14 days, Antigua to Grenada, all under sail on a lovely ship that held 74 lucky passengers. The first night, at dinner, I glanced over at the couple sitting next to us and did a double take. They were in their sixties (to our 30s). He had shoulder length hair tied in a ponytail and sported a full beard; she had waist length hair. Both were dressed in tie-dye. Wow, I thought.  Relics of the '60s!  These are folks I need to meet.  

       That encounter, on the tall ship Mandalay, was the beginning to a 25 year friendship with two of the most interesting people we ever knew. 

       I referenced Jim McPherson and his wife Phyllis King in that previous article, specifically in reference to Jim's amazing facility with words.  Both Phyllis and Jim were poets, each an observer of all things past and present, and each a raconteur of the many adventures and lessons they had experienced in their varied lives. Over the years we spent many more vacations with Phyllis and Jim. And when they came down to Washington D.C. from their New York City apartment on Riverside Drive for visits we would spend memorable evenings in our backyard, or in our living room, drinking scotch and regaling each other with stories and observations. 

       One of the things I did not mention in that previous post was that Phyllis worked for twenty-five years at the telephone reference desk at the New York City library. I do not know how that desk is now run, but in the day -- in her day -- anyone could call in with a question and be assured that, for the number of minutes allotted each call by the library rules, the caller would have the undivided attention of a library employee who was both knowledgeable and willing to help them find the information that they sought. 

       All of this does tie back to our theme here. And here we go.

       In 1989 a short article by the well-known author and photographer Stanley P. Friedman appeared in The New York Times, The article was also published in the December 1990 edition of Reader's Digest, from which I quote. 
       I needed to do some research for an article I was writing, so I called New York City’s library information service. A woman whose mellifluous voice I’ve recognized for years came on. Her willingness to help has been boundless. “What do you want?” she asked.
       “I don’t think you’d have it. It’s sheet music. I need lyrics.”
       “Which?”
       “It’s a ‘40s song: ‘Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year.’”
       “Oh, yes. That’s from a Deanna Durbin movie.”
       Pause. And then, would you believe it, she started singing it to me. Mind you, sing, not recite. The lyrics tripped along swiftly.
       They took me back to the London that I was writing about. September 1944. V-2s in blossom.... We met in the Strand Palace Hotel bar. We were both lonely and 19. We went to see Christmas Holiday with Deanna Durbin. She sang “Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year.”
       End of flashback. Back to the Singing Librarian. At song’s end I said: “That was beautiful. You broke my heart. But you’ll have to say the words slowly so I can write them down.”
       She did, I wrote, then I asked, “What’s your name?”
       “We’re not allowed to give that information.”
       “That’s okay,” I said. “I know you.”
        So do I.  No rules here:  That was Phyllis King. 

       Google will give you the lyrics to that Deanna Durbin song, but there is so much more that it will not be able to do. Life has a poetry to it that is beyond Google’s keen.  And that is what we risk losing.

Thomas Point Lighthouse
       Phyllis died in 2007. Jim brought her ashes, encased in a brightly colored origami wrapper of corrugated paper, down to Washington, D.C., and with him we struck out on our 1982 Carver, motoring up the Chesapeake Bay to Thomas Point Light. As Amazing Grace played over our speakers we set the origami boat afloat in the Bay. It bobbed a few times, testing the water, and then pointed down, just as Phyllis always did, and dove for the depths. 

       One year later Jim died. His ashes are spread on the shore, looking out toward the waters of Thomas Point Light. There with the boulders. Watching. 

                                                When I am gone
                                                I will not haunt 
                                                with sad face 
                                                and mournful cries. 
                                                I will follow you like a child’s balloon 
                                                bobbing at your shoulder, 
                                                bumping your face 
                                                with my red or pink 
                                                or blue surface, 
                                                touching you, 
                                                saying I am there.

                                                              Phyllis King 
                                                              "Early Morning Balloon Poem"
                                                              November 10, 2005