Showing posts with label Edgar Allan Poe. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Edgar Allan Poe. Show all posts

05 July 2018

The Wrong Books


by Eve Fisher

I have a DVD set of the 1972 BBC production of War and Peace starring Anthony Hopkins as Pierre, and I asked my husband if he'd like to watch it sometime.  He declined: "I'm not up for Tolstoy."  And what he meant by "Tolstoy" was War and Peace.  He'd tried to read it, decades ago, and stalled out pretty quickly, which I think happens to a lot of people.  A lot of people complain about its length, and at over 1,200 pages, it's long enough to complain about.  But then, Outlander is half that length, and then you've still got 7 more hefty books to go in that series.

But I think that reading War and Peace is a classic example of the wrong book.  I think one of the reasons why people avoid "great literature" is that
(1) they're told that it's great,
(2) there's this illusion that great = dull / hard to understand / heavy (ie., depressing), and
(3) they're started off with the wrong book.


L.N.Tolstoy Prokudin-Gorsky.jpgSo, with Tolstoy, start with Anna Karenina, and make sure it's the old Constance Garnett translation:  Anna, about to go into the major midlife crisis in literature, her cheerfully cheating brother Stepan, her pompous irritating husband Karenin, her soon to be lover Vronsky (a/k/a the man who isn't worth it), future soccer mom Kitty, bewildered Levin (only a few jokes away from being played by Seth Rogen), Countess Lydia (think Texas cheerleader mom), and other classic characters all presented with wit, verve,  heartbreak, and amazing insight. As the British poet and critic Matthew Arnold said, "A novel by Tolstoy is not a work of art but a piece of life."


George Eliot.  Forget Silas Marner, (ESPECIALLY in schools).  Start the kids off with Adam Bede, with its amazing portrait of Hetty Sorrel, whose beauty is "like that of kittens, or very small downy ducks making gentle rippling noises with their soft bills, or babies just beginning to toddle and to engage in conscious mischief—a beauty with which you can never be angry."
No one knows, no one can believe, that such an obviously childlike, innocent young thing like Hetty could be an egoist of the highest caliber.  And from that comes all the rest.
(NOTE:  My major problem with every production of Adam Bede is that the actresses cast as Hetty have been, so far, always sophisticated 20-somethings so that you can't get the essentially transgressive tragedy of Hetty:  it's the fact that she looks like a child that turns her seducer on.) 
Or Dostoevsky.  Don't start with Crime and Punishment.  Unless you're a huge Cormac McCarthy fan.

Start with The Brother's Karamazov, which is about one of the most dysfunctional families on the planet.  The Karamazovs are led by Fyodor, an absolute horror as a man and a father, whose constant womanizing and drunkenness never stand in the way of trying to ruin his sons' lives.  Dmitri's a sensualist, Ivan's an atheist, Alyosha's a novice monk, and Smerdyakov is illegitimate.  One of them kills Fyodor, and while we all say good riddance, the question is who and why and how...  Incredible writing, and even the saints are human.

Speaking of who killed Fyodor, what about mysteries?

Which Sherlock Holmes story should you try to start someone off with?  First off, a heresy:  I think the novels are inferior to the short stories.  The Hound of the Baskervilles, frankly, has too much padding for me, and as for A Study in Scarlet...

Me, I'd start someone off with The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which contains "A Scandal In Bohemia", "The Speckled Band," "The Copper Beeches," and "The Red Headed League", among others.  The collection ranges from hilarious to deadly serious, and are what hooked me as a child.  After you read that collection, chances are you'll read all the rest.  I did.

Which Agatha Christie?  Personally, my favorite is Nemesis, which always seemed to have less mechanical plot (although the plot is very good) and more atmosphere.
"Miss Marple remembered saying to her nephew, who was standing her this Shakespearean treat, "You know, Raymond, my dear, if I were ever producing this splendid play I would make the three witches quite different. I would have them three ordinary, normal old women. Old Scottish women. They wouldn't dance or caper. They would look at each other rather slyly and you would feel a sort of menace just behind the ordinariness of them."  - Nemesis
And then Miss Marple looks around to the three Bradbury-Scott girls...

Dashiell Hammett:  The Maltese Falcon, of course, but Red Harvest is fast and furious.
Ellis Peters:  An Excellent Mystery (my favorite of the Cadfael Chronicles)
E. X. Ferrars:  Frog in the Throat 
Josephine Tey:  The Daughter of Time, with a special shout-out to Miss Pym Disposes
Rex Stout:  Death of a Doxy  
Dennis Lehane:  Mystic River 
Liza Cody:  Rift  

Oh, and if you want to try some poetry, try Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book - written in 1868-69, about a real-life Italian murder trial of 1698. Count Guido Franceschini, impoverished nobleman, despite professing his innocence, has been found guilty of the murders of his young wife Pompilia and her parents. They were all stabbed; he's admitted he suspected Pompilia of having an affair with a young cleric, Giuseppe Caponsacchi.  Each canto is a monologue from the point of view of a different character, including Count Guido and Pompilia on her death bed.  Multiple viewpoints, multiple voices, multiple excuses:  What's the truth?  Read it and decide for yourself.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning

Speaking of the Brownings, here's a story for you.  Elizabeth Barrett, of course, was a well known poet in Victorian times, perhaps the best known poetess.  Her father - a Jamaican plantation owner who'd made his money off slaves and sugar - raised his family in England.  He was a family dictator, micro-managing his children's lives, and disinheriting each and every one of them as they married.  Elizabeth and Robert's courtship had to be done mostly by letter and only occasional meetings, because Edward Barrett would never have approved it.  In fact, when the 40 year old Elizabeth married Robert Browning in 1846, she literally had to escape while Daddy was out.  It worked, and they were married and moved to Italy.  

There have been some theories about Mr. Barrett's possessiveness:
(1) There was African blood (from Jamaican slaves) in the family tree, and Mr. Barrett didn't want it perpetuated.
"For the love of God,
Montressor!"
"Yes, for the love of God."
(2) He was simply a control freak, who wanted to keep his children under his control forever, and almost succeeded entirely.  He certainly seemed determined to keep Elizabeth confined as an invalid for her entire life.  
(3) The Barretts of Wimpole Street flat-out said that he wanted Elizabeth, and perhaps her sister, to be more ( ahem ) than a daughter to him...

BTW: Edgar Allan Poe greatly admired Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poetry. Poe reviewed her work in the January 1845 issue of the Broadway Journal, saying that "her poetic inspiration is the highest — we can conceive of nothing more august. Her sense of Art is pure in itself." In return, she praised The Raven, and Poe dedicated his 1845 collection The Raven and Other Poems to her, referring to her as "the noblest of her sex". 

I think that Edgar Allan Poe would have cheerfully made Mr. Barrett the object of my favorite Poe story, The Cask of Amontillado.  Who knows?  Maybe he did.  

Read the classics - it will take you to places you never thought you'd go.  Just make sure to start off with the right book.  

26 January 2018

Throwing Raspberries


by O'Neil De Noux

In 1940, the last year of F. Scott Fitzgerald's life, only seven copies of THE GREAT GATSBY were sold.



Edgar Allan Poe sold THE RAVEN for $20.

I have 36 books in print and many times my monthly sales are low. That happens. I haven't learned the tricks of selling online, but I'm still young. Writing well is more important to me than selling well, I suppose.

HOWEVER -
The next person who says I must be rich because I'm a writer with all those books in print will get a raspberry from me. Not the tongue-vibrating raspberry. I'm going to the grocery to buy raspberries to throw at people. Especially relatives who see me arrive at a family gathering in my 2004 Saturn SUV.

My writer friends know what I mean. We don't do it for money. We write because we were put on this earth to be writers. And don't think it's the quality of writing that makes those big-name writers sell more books than most of us. It's good marketing and readers too lazy to try someone new. Kudos to those writers who sell lots of books.

FOR YEARS I've been asking friends and relatives, acquaintances, people on the street, people on social networks to buy books as Christmas presents, birthday presents. Don't even go to a store. Just go online and order and it's delivered to your house. Books are ease to wrap. Books make people THINK and FEEL something, maybe even drag them away from depression into another world for a short while. If it's a good book, it'll remain with the reader. May even make them laugh or cry.

Remember IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE - when you hear a bell ringing an angel got his/her wings?

Each time you buy a book, you're helping support someone who has struggled with our limited means of communicating to weave a tapestry of ideas and sensation and scenes that can be unforgettable.

I recommend books I've read all the time to acquaintances, friends, passersby, family. I buy books as presents.

Funny note about family. All of my books are dedicated to someone, often family members who I dutifully give a copy of the book to, family members who politely ask me at the next family gathering how my writing is going. I ask them if they liked the book I dedicated to them and they find lint to brush off their shoulder or a hem to straighten or a belt to pull up or they have to go to the bathroom.

Time to go to the grocery for raspberries.

Just as I put this posting together, my high school English teacher from ARCHBISHOP RUMMEL HIGH SCHOOL in Metairie, LA is so proud of me dedicating my latest book to him, he sent a notice to the school. Check it out.

Some people do appreciate a dedication.



www.ONeilDeNoux.com

04 January 2018

Cultivating Hysteria with Pleasure and Terror


by Eve Fisher

A couple of weeks ago, right before Christmas, I read "A Passion for Paris:  Romanticism and Romance in the City of Light" by David Downie, and learned a great deal about Parisian geography, architecture, and the Romantics.  I already knew most of the who was sleeping with whoms - as an historian, I've kept up with all kinds of gossip across the ages - but what fascinated me was the literary exchanges.

               "I have cultivated my hysteria with pleasure and terror." - Charles Baudelaire

For example, Charles Baudelaire (considered by many to be the modern French poet, and the French poet of modernity) was obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe. 

Charles Baudelaire in 1848,
portrait by Courbet
"In...1847, I came upon a few fragments of Edgar Allan Poe, and felt a strange sort of shock...[.] I discovered, believe me if you will, poems and stories that I had already thought of, but of which I had only a vague, confused and disorganised idea, and which Poe had managed to pull together and perfect...."  (Source

And Baudelaire promptly dropped (almost) everything, and spent his most productive years (1856-1865) translating Poe’s works into French.  Now he wasn't the first to do translate Poe, but he was the one who made Poe's work sing in French.  (Baudelaire's Translations at Gutenberg Press for free.)  And his translations became the standard throughout Europe.

First note:  Despite his obsession with Poe, when Baudelaire named his poetry collection Les Fleurs du Mal -- Flowers of Evil in English -- it was in homage of Nathaniel Hawthorne's highly appropriate Rappaccini's Daughter.  (Link here to read on-line)

Second note:  In Memoirs of a Drudge, James Thurber reminisces about working at the Riviera edition of the Chicago Tribune in Southern France.  (And why didn't my guidance counselor ever tell me about this job?)  Anyway, there were regular printers' strikes, and after one of them, the whole press room, half-tanked, got on a train for Cannes.  Promptly another argument broke out, this time over which was better, the original or the French translation of Poe's The Raven?  And would a real raven be more likely to say, "Jamais plus" or "Nevermore"?  "He returned with the claim the claim that our fellow-passenger to a man were passionately on the side of Jamais plus."  Betcha the translation was Baudelaire's...

"Remarks are not literature" - Gertrude Stein

Another interesting connection was between Gertrude Stein and Gustave Flaubert.  Apparently, Stein set out to translate Flaubert's Three Tales into English to improve her French, but it turned into her own Three Lives, which is certainly nothing like Flaubert's subtle, supple prose.  (I have tried to read her work, but found everything other than The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas to be breathtakingly, redundantly boring...) 

On the other hand, praises be to Gertrude Stein, whose gatherings in the Rue de Fleurus brought together almost every artist and writer of the early 1900s, launching friendships, love affairs, movements, feuds, innumerable rumors, and most of what we consider modern art.

"Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work." 
             - Gustave Flaubert

G. LEROUX.jpgSpeaking about original violence, meet Gaston Leroux (1868-1927), the author of  original Phantom of the Opera.  Maybe you haven't read the book, but I'm sure you've seen one of the 14 film versions and 4 stage versions...  (I remember seeing Lon Chaney Sr.'s version when I was a child - nightmare city!)  BTW - Some parts of Phantom are based on reality:  the "Paris Opera House" is based on the real Opera Garnier in Paris, which has underground tunnels and an underground lake. (To visit to the Opera Garnier, go Here.)  A chandelier did fall and kill someone.  There are a couple of stories about the Phantom himself:   one is that it's the ghost of a man whose skeleton was used (I don't know why or how) in a 1841 production at the Paris Opera of Der Freisch├╝tz.  The other is the sad story of Erik, one of the architects of the Opera Granier (who may or not have been disfigured - depends on the legend), but who ended up living underneath the Opera Garnier in his own apartment, with his own passages that led to his own "Box Number 5". 

          Phantom.jpg

Phantom alone should have ensured M. Leroux's fame, but he wrote more than that.  His 1907 super best-seller The Mystery of the Yellow Room has the singular honor of having spurred Agatha Christie to write mysteries.  She and her sister Madge were talking about various detective novels they liked, and The Mystery of the Yellow Room came up, which they both loved.  Christie said she'd like to write a detective novel herself, and Madge said “Well, I bet you couldn’t.” “From that moment I was fired by the determination that I would write a detective story.” 
  • (A number of Leroux's works are available for free on Gutenberg here, some in French, some in English translation.)  
While I'm at it, a few more interesting bits about Agatha Christie:

Did you know that she was a surfer?  She and her first husband, Archibald Christie, went on a trip from South Africa to Hawaii in 1922, and along the way they learned how to surf.  It's speculated that they were the first English surfers to surf standing up.  Now if I could only find a picture of THAT.  

Studio publicity Gene Tierney.jpg
Did you know that The Mirror Cracked is based not just on Tennyson's The Lady of Shalott but on the actress Gene Tierney?  In 1942, she was volunteering at the Hollywood Canteen when a fan sneaked out of a rubella quarantine to meet her. Tierney was pregnant, and yes, she got rubella, and the result was that her daughter, Daria, was born deaf, partially blind, and severely mentally disabled. It broke her heart, and the child had to be institutionalized.  A couple of years later, Tierney was approached by the fan at a garden party who proudly told her what she'd done: "Everyone told me I shouldn't go," the starstruck woman told Tierney years later at a tennis match, not realizing what she was responsible for, "but I just had to go.  You were my favorite."  (Biography)  

Did you know that Agatha Christie qualified as a "dispenser" (a/k/a pharmacist) in 1917?  That's certainly one way to learn all you want to know about poisons...

Supposedly, she ‘saw’ Hercule Poirot twice in her life, once lunching in the Savoy and once on a boat in the Canary Islands.  And Miss Marple was based on her maternal grandmother who, just like Miss Marple, "always expected the worst of everyone and everything, and were, with almost frightening accuracy, usually proved right."  

Speaking of "seeing" a detective, how about "seeing" an author?  Look at the three portraits below. 


McKee Dagurreotype of Edgar Allan Poe  


These are all (supposedly) Edgar Allan Poe.  You tell me how Edgar Allan Poe's physical appearance went from the first daguerreotype (the McGee portrait, 1843 or earlier) to the middle portrait (an 1845 painting by Samuel Stillman Osgood) to the final, most famous, one (the "Ultima Thule" daguerreotype) taken in 1848.

And go a step further:  check out the various Poe portraits at the Edgar Allan Poe Organization website.  Frankly, most of them - except the last - look nothing like the image I've always had of Poe.  Who was this shape-shifter, anyway?  Was that why he was found delirious, in great distress, and in clothes that didn't belong to him?  Was there a possession of some kind?  I don't know.

“I was never really insane except upon occasions when my heart was touched.” ― 
Edgar Allan Poe

But he was always a master of cultivating terror with hysteria and pleasure...





















30 January 2017

Oops! That Worn't Work




by Jan Grape
Mary Maloney is a devoted wife and housekeeper. One day her husband, the police chief, announces that he wants a divorce because he has met another woman. Mary is quite angry and kills him with a blow from a frozen leg of lamb. She calls the police and provides am alibi for herself with the story that she'd been out to the store when the murder took place. The investigating officer, Lieutenant Noonan is further frustrated when he cannot find the murder weapon. Knowing of the long and hard hours spent looking into the case, Mary invites Noonan and the other investigators for a bite to eat. They dig into Mary's leg of lamb and Noonan, still thinking about the missing murder weapon, says, "For all we know, it might be right under our very noses."
— Plot summary of LAMB TO THE SLAUGHTER, Alfred Hitchcock TV, Season 3 Episode 28. Apl. 58, written by Ronald Dahl (story) Ronald Dahl (teleplay).
What then of Edgar Allan Poe's 1843 story of THE TELL-TELL HEART. The narrator is trying to convince us he is not mad, because he so cleverly treats the old man with such caring and delights. Although that blue eye with the film over it is still looking at him. He plans for a whole seven days. Going so stealthily at mid-night every night to the old man's room and looking in on him. Until finally the great plan comes together and as he quietly opens the door the blue eye looks a him. and after not moving for over an hour begins to hear the beating of the old man's heart.  That only adds to his fury,  he jumps on the old man, the old man screams. He pulls the man to the floor and kills him. The heart is silent.

Then he carefully cuts the corpse up and deposits it under the floor boards of the bedroom chamber. Can anyone who is mad clean up everything and it only took until 4 am. Just as he gets to his own bedroom, there is a loud knocking at the door, A neighbor had reported hearing a dreadful scream.
Three policemen come in. He explains he was the one who screamed waking from a nightmare. He tells then the old man has gone to the country. He takes them all over the house ending in the old man's bed chamber to show them all the old man's precious things are still there. He invites the police to sit and he puts his own chair right over the spot where the dismembered body is located. They sit and talk but after a time he begins to hear a ringing in his ears and then hears the heart beat. It gets louder and louder. he talks more animated and the police keep talking and act as if they don't heat the heart.

Finally he jumps up, rips up the boards and tells the police. "Here, here. I did it and here's the beating of his hideous heart."

Could we ever be as calm and collected  as Mary Maloney? To murder her husband with a leg of lamb then cook and serve it to the policemen who have been investigating?

Or are we as mad and strange as the man committing murder then when he has gotten away with it, slide into total and complete madness because he still hears the heartbeat of the man he killed?

Probably not. But we can write character's who are calm and collected and get totally away with murder. Or a character like the mad man in Poe's story.

However, in real life, just keep your imagination running when you're committing a murder on your laptop. And tell your muse to take a break your are going to cook dinner. You have everything assembled in the crock pot but the final step and notice you need a little more water. You turn the water on and nothing happens. How can that be? You were just using water about five minutes ago.

And your muse says, "How will you clean up all that blood from the kitchen floor if you don't have any water?" And there is quite a lot of blood when you shot your ex-husband who broke into your house, planning to do you bodily harm.

You look up the phone number in the local directory for City Hall to send a crew out to check out what is wrong, but you accidentally dial the police department because the print in the phone book is so small you had placed your finger on the wrong similar number.

"Oops, I dialed the wrong number, Lieutenant. I have a mess on my kitchen floor and suddenly I don't have any water."

05 January 2017

Gifted


by Eve Fisher

Necklines plunged further, needing a chemisette to be worn underneath. Sleeves widened at the elbow, while bodices ended at the natural waistline. Skirts widened and were further emphasised by the addition of flounces.
Victorian Ladies, a/k/a Wikipedia
I trust that everyone had a Merry Christmas,  Happy Hanukkah, Silly Little Solstice, a Happy New Year, survived the holidays (this is harder for some than others - come to an Al-Anon meeting over the holidays some time and I'll show you), and were/are/will be gifted with good things.  We had a lovely time, thank you.

Other than the fact that our furnace went bad on Boxing Day, and we had a couple of days of Victorian temperatures in the house (50s and 60s) while waiting for parts to arrive. (BTW, now I understand completely why Victorians wore 37 pounds of clothing.  It wasn't all about modesty.)  We were lucky.  Considering it was 14 degrees outside, with a windchill of minus 5, when this happened, we were VERY lucky. Our plumber showed up by 8 AM, and our furnace, thank God! is fixed!!!  Huzzah!!!!

I did almost no writing over the holidays - too much going on for concentrated work, and when I did sit down at the old computer (or even the old pad and paper), I managed to distract myself really well. But I did get a lot of reading done.  I always get a lot of reading done.  I have a gift for reading.

I am very fortunate.  I started early.  My mother taught me to read when I was three years old.  (She always said she did it because she got sick of reading the same story to me every night before bedtime, and I believe her.)  One of my earliest memories is sitting on the floor of the old living room in Alexandria, VA, with an array of word flash cards that my mother made out of plain index cards.  I specifically remember putting the word "couch" on the couch.  I don't know how long it took me to actually learn to read, but I know that by the time I was four, I was reading [simple] fairy tales on my own.  I can't tell you how magical, how full, how rich, how unforgettable it is to read fairy tales at the right age, all by yourself.

Someone once said, they liked books rather than TV, because books had better pictures.  When you start reading young enough, they do.  Then and now.  I can still remember the worlds that those fairy tales created in my mind - so real that I shivered, walking down a snowy lane.  I could smell the mud under the bridge where the troll lived.  The glass mountain with the glass castle on top of it, and the road running around the bottom.  And it only increased over time.  I know the exact gesture that Anna Karenina made as she turned to see Vronsky at the ball; have heard the Constance de Beverley's shriek of despair, walled up in Lindesfarne; have seen the drunken Fortunato bouncing down the stone walls of the tunnel to the wine vault; have shivered slightly as drops of cool water fell upon the sunbather. For me, reading is a multisensory experience.

And I get drunk on words.  Let's put it this way:  when I read John Donne's poetry, I fell in love with a dead man, and cursed my fate that I never, ever, ever got to meet the man who wrote such burning words...  And I've had the same experience with others:  Shakespeare, Tennyson, Chaucer, Cavafy, Gunter Grass, Dylan Thomas, T. S. Eliot, Laurie Lee, Rostand, Emily Bronte, Dickinson, I fall hard and deep and willing into words.

My office.  And this isn't the only wall covered with books.
When something gives you this much pleasure, you get good at it.  For over fifty years I've read every day, obsessively, compulsively, constantly. When I was a child, I knew that reading was the best thing in life, and there were too many books and too little time.  So I taught myself to read faster - not speed reading, I don't skip (although thanks to graduate school, I do know how to gut a book) - but I can read every word at an accelerated pace.  (My husband says I devour books.)  And I remember what I read. My mind has its own card catalog, dutifully supplying (still) plot and main characters (sometimes minor ones, too), as well as dialog and best scenes from a whole roomful of books.  And I think about a book, while I'm reading and afterwards.  I analyze it.  I synthesize it with other readings.  I'm damn good at reading.  It's probably the thing I'm best at.
BTW, this was one reason I really enjoyed graduate school, because (in history at least) you spend most of your time reading books - a minimum of 1 per class per week - and then writing an analysis to present to the class, as well as reading everyone else's analysis and arguing away about it.  I was in my element at last.  
Scenes from a Marriage DVD cover.jpgAnyway, constant reading as a child inevitably led to wonder about writing my own.  The real breakthrough into writing came when I realized that the Laura Ingalls Wilder who wrote the "Little House" books was the same as the Laura Ingalls character in the "Little House" books.  Wow!  Real people actually wrote these! So I started writing.  I wrote very bad poetry on home-made cards for my family, and I wrote short-shorts (now called flash fiction).  I tried writing novels, but as a child I thought that you had to start at the beginning and go straight through until the end, without any changes or editing, and it never occurred to me that people plotted things out.  So I was 24 before I wrote my first novel (a sci-fi/fantasy that has been sitting on my shelf - for very good reasons - for years).  

Before that, I went through a folk-singer / rock star stage and wrote songs.  I wrote my first short story in years because someone bet me I couldn't do it (I won that bet), and then many more short stories that were mostly dull.  Until I had a magic breakthrough about writing dialog watching - I kid you not - Bergman's "Scenes From A Marriage".  I stayed up all night (I was so much younger then) writing dialog which for the first time sounded like dialog and realized...  well, I went off writing plays for a few years.  Came back to writing short stories.  Along with articles, essays, and blog posts.

And here I am.  Good to see all of you, damn glad to be here.

Meanwhile, Constant Reader (thanks, Dorothy Parker!) keeps on reading.  And re-reading.  Speaking of re-reading, I don't see why people don't do more of it.  I mean, if you like going to a certain place for lunch, dinner, picnics, weekends, or vacations, why not keep reading stories / books that do the trick?  If it's a real knock-out, I'll read it a lot more than twice.  By now I've practically memorized the "Little House" books, "Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass", "David Copperfield", "The Left Hand of Darkness", "Death of a Doxy", "The Thin Man", "Pavilion of Women", "The Mask of Apollo", "In This House of Brede", "The Small House at Allington", "Cider With Rosie", "Nemesis", "Death Comes for the Archbishop", "The Round Dozen", and a whole lot more, not to mention a few yards of poetry. Because I want to go to the places those books and stories and poems take me, again and again and again...  Or I'm just in the mood for that voice, like being in the mood for John Coltrane or Leonard Cohen or Apocalyptica, for beef with broccoli or spanakopita or lentil soup.

So, this Christmas, I reread some Dickens, Miss Read's "Christmas Stories", "Hans Brinker & the Silver Skates", and Dylan Thomas' "A Child's Christmas in Wales".  BTW, I have "A Child's Christmas in Wales" in the collection "Quite Early One Morning", available here, which includes "How To Be A Poet", the most hilarious send-up of the writing life I have ever read.  Excerpt:
"The Provincial Rush, or the Up-Rimbaud-and-At-Em approach.  This is not wholeheartedly to be recommended as certain qualifications are essential...  this poet must possess a thirst and constitution like that of a salt-eating pony, a hippo's hide, boundless energy, prodigious conceit, no scruples, and - most important of all, this can never be overestimated - a home to go back to in the provinces whenever he breaks down."  [Sound advice for us all...]
Reading, writing, good food, good company, good conversation...  life doesn't get much better than this.  I've found my calling, which makes me a very gifted person indeed.

Happy New Year!







13 August 2016

Happy Birthday, Hitch!


by B.K. Stevens

On August 13, 1899, Alfred Hitchcock was born in London. True, 117 is not generally regarded as a milestone birthday, but if I wait around until one of Hitchcock's true milestone birthdays falls on a date when I'm slated to write a SleuthSayers post--well, I'm not clever enough to figure out when that might happen, but I'm pretty sure I won't still be around when it does. So I'd better celebrate his 117th. I welcome any chance to celebrate Alfred Hitchcock. I admire his movies, I have fond memories of his television programs, and I'm a loyal, grateful Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine author. When the topic for this post first occurred to me, I checked on how many of my stories have made it into the magazine. Thirty-nine. Thirty-nine steps, thirty-nine stories--it felt like a sign. I had to write a post about Hitch.

But although I'm a Hitchcock fan, I'm by no means a Hitchcock expert. I don't have any insights weighty enough to develop into a unified post. So I dipped into a couple of books, looking for any thoughts or scraps of information that might be of interest. I re-watched several favorite Hitchcock movies, watched a few of the less famous ones for the first time. And I got a little help from my friends.

Alfred and Edgar

(or, why short story writers love movies) 

In a 1950 interview for the New York Times Magazine, Hitchcock explains why he sees "the chase" (which he defines broadly) as "the final expression of the motion picture medium." For one thing, as a visual medium, film is ideally suited for showing cars "careening around corners after each other." Perhaps even more important, "the basic film shape is continuous." "Once a movie starts," Hitchcock says, "it goes right on. You don't stop it for scene changes, or to go out and have a cigarette."

That reminded me of a comment Edgar Allan Poe makes in an 1842 review of Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales, when he argues that works short enough to be read in one sitting can have a more unified, more powerful effect than longer works. A poem short enough to be read in one hour, or a prose tale short enough to be read in no more than two, can have an "unblemished, because undisturbed" impact: "The soul of the reader is at the writer's control.  There are no external or extrinsic influences resulting from weariness or interruption." If a work is so long that the reader has to put it down before finishing it, though, "worldly interests" intervene to "modify, annul, or counteract, in a greater or less degree, the impressions of the book." Maybe that's one reason that short story writers (or at least the ones who hang around this blog) seem to have such an affinity for movies: The movies we watch, like the stories we write, can be enjoyed without interruption and therefore, if Hitchcock and Poe are right, with an undiminished impact.

Some of Hitchcock's most memorable movies--Rear Window, The Birds--are based on short stories, and I think they do benefit from the sort of concentrated focus Poe describes. But I wouldn't want to argue that Hitchcock movies based on plays or novels are less focused, not if writers and director have done a good job of adapting them to their new medium.

Just the other night, I re-watched one of my all-time favorite Hitchcock movies, 1954's Dial M for Murder, and enjoyed it just as much as I always have. With these thoughts in mind, though, I noticed that Dial M for Murder has an intermission (perhaps partly because it's based on a play, and plays traditionally have intermissions). Lots of movies used to have intermissions, too, but I can't remember the last time I went to a new movie that does. I doubt that's because movies have gotten shorter--plenty still last two hours or more--or because theaters are now less eager to have a second chance to sell popcorn and soft drinks. Maybe it's because movie makers have become more and more convinced that, as Hitchcock puts it, "the basic film shape is continuous." Maybe they've decided an intermission breaks the mood, interrupts the suspense, and dilutes the movie's effect. But I'm just guessing. If anyone has inside information about why movie intermissions are less popular than they used to be, I'd be glad to hear it. (I should mention a relevant SleuthSayers post here, Leigh Lundin's 2015 "Long Shots," which looks at Hitchcock's use of the continuous tracking shot in Rope.)

Columbo's Uncle? 

Speaking of Dial M for Murder, when my husband and I were watching the final scenes, he commented that Chief Inspector Hubbard reminded him of Columbo--the determined police detective who gets a strong hunch about who the murderer is and won't give up until he confirms it. Like Columbo, Hubbard pretends to be sympathetic and self-effacing while setting up a clever trap to catch an arrogant, socially superior villain. And he wears a raincoat (which makes more sense in London than it does in Los Angeles). The thing that really caught my husband's attention, though, was that at one point Hubbard says, "Just one other thing" as he questions the person he rightly suspects to be guilty. That made the similarities too striking to ignore. True, Hubbard is more elegant and fastidious than Columbo. It's hard to imagine Columbo whipping out a tiny comb to smooth his mustache. (For that matter, it's hard to imagine Columbo with a mustache.) But did this supporting character from a 1954 Hitchcock movie inspire one of America's most beloved television detectives?

I have no idea. I wasted a couple of delightful hours Googling about and found many intriguing hints but no definite link (an inside joke for Columbo fans). The information I did find wasn't completely consistent--one site says one thing, another says something slightly different--but apparently the Columbo character first showed up in a 1960 short story written by Richard Levinson and William Link and published in--where else?--Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. The character next appeared on the television program Chevy Mystery Show, in a 1960 episode called "Enough Rope." Levinson and Link later reworked that into a stage play called Prescription: Murder, which eventually became the pilot for the Columbo series. The titles recall Hitchcock titles, and the plot and form of Prescription: Murder bear significant similarities to the plot and form of Dial M for Murder. A suave, nearly emotionless husband schemes to get rid of his wife and get his hands on her money; he underestimates the police detective assigned to the case; the audience knows from the outset that the husband is guilty. Maybe all that is coincidence. Or maybe not. Here's something that's almost certainly coincidence, but I find it charming: John Williams, who played Chief Inspector Hubbard both on stage and in the Hitchcock movie, is featured in the 1972 Columbo episode "Dagger of the Mind," playing murder victim Sir Roger Haversham.

Alfred and Edgar, Part 2

(or, not taking suspense too seriously)

In a 1960 article called "Why I Am Afraid of the Dark," Hitchcock comments on ways in which he and Poe are similar, and also on ways in which they're different. Hitchcock was sixteen, he says, when he read a biography of Poe "at random" and was moved by the sadness of his life: "I felt an immense pity for him because, in spite of his talent, he had always been unhappy." Later, when Hitchcock was working in an office, he'd hurry back to his room to read a cheap edition of Poe's stories. "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" got him thoroughly scared, he says, and he thoroughly enjoyed it.

The experience led him to an important discovery: "Fear, you see, is a feeling that people like to feel when they are certain of being in safety." A "gruesome story" can be terrifying, but "as one finds oneself in a familiar surrounding, and when one realizes that it's only imagination which is responsible for the fear, one is invaded by an extraordinary happiness." Hitchcock compares the sensation to the relief we feel when we're very thirsty and then take a drink. It's an interesting idea. When we scream through the shower scene in Psycho, is it the fear itself we enjoy? Or do we enjoy the relief we feel when we stop screaming, look around, and realize we're still in a dark but safe theater (or, these days, when we realize we're still in our well-lit family rooms, with our cats dozing in our laps)?

Hitchcock acknowledges a kinship with Poe. "We are both," he says, "prisoners of a genre: suspense." Further, "I can't help but compare what I try to put in my films with what Poe puts in his stories: a perfectly unbelievable story recounted to readers with such a hallucinatory logic that one has the impression that this same story can happen to you tomorrow." Even so, he says, 
I don't think that there exists a real resemblance between Edgar Allan Poe and myself. Poe is a poete maudit and I am a commercial filmmaker. He liked to make people shiver. Me too. But he didn't really have a sense of humor. And for me, "suspense" doesn't have any value if it's not balanced by humor.
You probably already know what poete maudit means. Despite five years of high-school and college French, I had to look it up. According to the Merriam Webster website, a poete maudit is an "accursed poet," a "writer dogged by misfortune and lack of recognition."

I find these comments fascinating. I don't know enough about either Hitchcock or Poe to speak with any authority--I don't know how honest Hitchcock is being, or how accurate his views of Poe may be--but he seems to present himself as a happy, successful artist who has won the sort of recognition that eluded Poe. He creates terrifying movies but stands at a distance from them, well balanced enough to realize the stories he tells are "perfectly unbelievable." Does Hitchcock imply that Poe lacked such balance, that the nightmares he created reflect his own experience of life? Perhaps. At any rate, Hitchcock presents himself as someone who makes scary movies because he enjoys making people "shiver," not because he shares the sorts of torments he depicts. So no matter how horrifying the visions on the screen become, he can see the humor in the situation.

Many would challenge the idea that Hitchcock was happy and well balanced. His sense of humor seems hard to deny. In a 1963 Redbook interview, Hitchcock comments, "In producing the movies that I do, I find it would be impossible without a sense of humor." And in the New York Times Magazine interview mentioned earlier, he says comic relief can be effective even during a chase, as long as the humor isn't too broad and doesn't make the hero look foolish. We probably all have favorite examples of comic relief in Hitchcock movies, of moments when we laugh out loud even while cringing in fear. For example, there's the climax of Strangers on a Train. (If you haven't seen the movie, please skip the rest of this paragraph, and the next paragraph, too. Then please go see the movie.) Hitchcock cuts from one frightening image to another as hero and villain grapple, as people on the carousel scream, as an old man crawls slowly toward the off switch, in danger of being crushed at any moment. It's terrifying.

But it's funny, too. The old man looks like a comic figure, not a tragic one--he's chewing on something as he inches forward, and at one point he pauses to wipe his nose. And amid all the screaming, scrambling people on the carousel, one little boy sits up straight on his horse, smiling broadly, clearly having the time of his life. Maybe he's unaware of the danger. Or maybe he's enjoying it.

That brings us to "The Enjoyment of Fear," an article Hitchcock published in Good Housekeeping in 1949. (Remember when women's magazines used to include some articles with real substance?) It echoes some ideas I've already mentioned, but I can't resist the temptation to quote a passage that, I think, gives us an additional insight into Hitchcock's technique, and into the nature of literary suspense. He says again that viewers can enjoy the fear of watching a frightening movie because they know they're safe--they're not on that madly careening carousel in Strangers on a Train. Then he takes things one step further:
But the audience must also be aware that the characters in the picture, with whom they strongly identify themselves, are not to pay the price of fear. This awareness must be entirely subconscious; the spectator must know the spy ring will never succeed in pitching Madeleine Carroll off London Bridge, and the spectator must be induced to forget what he knows. If he didn't know, he would be genuinely worried; if he didn't forget, he would be bored.
Over the years, I've gotten addicted to several television dramas that kill off secondary characters at a sometimes alarming rate. Whatever dangers they may face, we know Tony Soprano, Jack Bauer, and Carrie Mathison will survive more or less intact, at least until they reach the final show of the final season. Even then, if there's any chance of a follow-up movie or a reunion show, we know the protagonist is safe. But we also know their friends, co-workers, and lovers are fair game at any moment. That's one way to keep the audience in suspense. Hitchcock describes a more delicate approach: Deep down, we know the protagonist is safe, but the suspense reaches such a height that we forget. That sounds almost impossible, but I think it happens. Think of a moment when a Hitchcock protagonist seems to be in mortal danger. Don't we forget, just for a moment, that Hitchcock wouldn't really kill Jimmy Stewart?

And then, of course, there's the shower scene in Psycho. (If you haven't seen Psycho--but everybody's seen Psycho.) Doesn't that violate the trust between director and audience, the trust that allows us to enjoy being scared? Maybe--maybe that's why many would say Psycho crosses the line between suspense and horror. But I think Hitchcock tries to make sure we don't "strongly identify" with Janet Leigh's character. After all, she's a thief. And the first time we see her, she's in bed with a lover--that might not alienate many viewers today, but I bet it alienated plenty in 1960. Also, before we have time to get deeply attached to her, she's gone. Her violent death shocks us, but I'm not sure it saddens us all that much. If Cary Grant plummeted to the base of Mount Rushmore, I think we'd be more upset.

Last Thoughts

As I said, when I started work on this post, I decided to get a little help from my friends. A birthday tribute should include some sort of biographical perspective, but I didn't feel up to doing the necessary research myself. So I turned to a promising young scholar, Shlomo Mordechai Gershone (a.k.a. my ten-year-old grandson, Moty). He contributed these insights:
I read Who Was Alfred Hitchcock? and learned a lot. Alfred Hitchcock was a very interesting person. He was big, loud, and funny, but also wrote things that were full of suspense and mystery. He told stories about being locked in a jail cell at the age of five. He would say that five minutes felt like five years to the young Hitch. That suspense was expressed in his movies, his television shows, and the stories in his magazine, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. (Where have I heard that before?) He spent his whole life talking and writing about mystery, but passed away peacefully in his sleep. (Anticlimax)
An ability to say a great deal in a short space, a sense of humor, a critical perspective--maybe I'm slightly biased, but I think this young man has a future as a writer.

Also, I thought it would be fun to do a quick survey of my Facebook friends (mostly mystery readers and writers), asking them to name their favorite Hitchcock movies. Obviously, there's nothing scientific about this survey, but perhaps it points to at least some of the Hitchcock movies that are standing the test of time.

Rear Window topped the survey with nine votes. Shawn Reilly Simmons saw it when she was quite young and still remembers "jumping out of my seat at the suspense." (Many other people put Rear Window second or third on their lists, but I decided to count only the first movie each person mentioned.) Vertigo came in second with five votes. Art Taylor admires it for many reasons, "but really what may fascinate me most is the fact that so much of it is told purely through images." Rob Lopresti is also enthusiastic, saying the movie has a "ridiculous plot that I believe completely when I am watching." (That reminded me of Hitchcock's statement that he tells "perfectly unbelievable" stories with such strong "hallucinatory logic" that viewers think "this same story can happen to [them] tomorrow." I think Hitch would love Rob's comment.) Three movies tied for third place, with four votes each--Rebecca, North by Northwest, The Birds. (Diane Vallere, the next president of Sisters in Crime, made Rear Window her top choice but loves The Birds so much she once created a Halloween costume inspired by it.) Several other movies scored one or two votes--Strangers on a Train, Dial M for Murder, The Trouble with Harry, Foreign Correspondent. So even in this tiny sample, there's plenty of disagreement. In my opinion, that points to the vitality and breadth of Hitchcock's achievement: He created many masterpieces that, decades after his death, still have passionate advocates.

Finally, I'll add a couple of personal notes. As I said, thirty-nine of my stories have been fortunate enough to appear in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. One of them, "A Joy Forever," is a Macavity finalist this year. If you'll be voting on the Macavity awards, and even if you won't, perhaps you'd like to read the story. You can find it on my website, at http://www.bkstevensmysteries.com/book/a-joy-forever/.

And two nights ago, when I took a break from working on this post and checked my e-mail, I learned that AHMM has accepted a fortieth story, "Death under Construction." I've been watching my e-mail for some time, hoping for this news. Thank goodness the suspense has ended.

(I won't be able to respond to comments on Saturday, 
but I'll respond to every comment on Sunday. I promise.)

24 March 2014

That Bobble-Head


by Fran Rizer


Aeden, now fourteen
Recently Aeden, my fourteen-year-old grandson, discovered Edgar Allan Poe.  When I picked him up from school, he immediately began telling me about this "cool" story he'd read about a man who walled up his nemesis. 

When I asked, "The Cask of Amontillado?" he informed me that I'd pronounced "Amontillado" incorrectly as it was "an Italian word with the the 'l' sound silent." (Leigh, does the fourteen-year-old in your life right now just love to "correct" you?)

I informed him, "Edgar Allan Poe grew up in the South– Richmond, Virginia– and probably pronounced the 'l' just as I did."  Then I recommended that he read "The Tell-Tale Heart," and teased him he could pronounce those "l"s however he liked. Since the story is long out of copyright, it was possible to pull up the entire text on the computer.  We went from there to BaM, where I bought him the almost 2,000-page Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe.  I drew stars by the titles of stories and poems I think best.  An avid reader when he was young (self-taught at age three), Aeden has been into other hobbies for the past couple of years.  I'm pleased to say he's back to reading for pleasure and has asked, "Who else of those old people wrote such good stuff?



Virginia Clemm Poe
Poe's first wife was only 13 and he was
27, but the marriage was happy until her'
death from tuberculosis.
Aeden is not the first young person I've known who became interested in literature because of Edgar Allan Poe. Years ago, I taught a fifth-grader who had no interest in much of anything.  Not yet twelve-years-old, he was with a gang and in school only because Youthful Offenders required him to be there.  One morning he met me with a tattered copy of an old book.  After explaining that he'd found it while helping clean out his recently deceased grandmother's house, he said, "I want you to read this poem."
It was "The Raven."  Then he asked, "Do you have any more poems by this man?"  He later asked me if it were true that Poe married his thirteen-year-old cousin, which he did.

I won't bore you with a long report on Poe, his life, and his works.
If you want to know more than you do, check out the life section of the Poe Museum webpage.  https:www.poemuseum.org/life.php

Remembered for his lyrical poems and short stories, he also wrote numerous critiques and newspaper articles as well as one novel. MWA uses bobble-heads of Poe are most likely because he is credited with inventing the modern detective story, but he also was an innovator of the science fiction tale.  What might he have done if he'd lived past forty?

As some of you know, I love jokes and cartoons.  I can't move forward without sharing these with you:
From what I've read, Poe received his fair share of
rejections except when he edited the publication. 
Sadly, Poe probably felt like this much of the time as
he had financial problems his entire adult llife.


















Poe isn't my real topic for today. I'm sharing my goals in writing.

Recently, I've been running in circles so far as what I want to write. I'm still tweaking my horror novel; I'm half through a thriller; and I'm sixty pages into a new cozy series.  For the first time in about twenty years, I wrote a poem last week.  I've been doing some soul-searching, and I don't know what the heck I want to do.  No, I have no illusions that any of my writings will ever become as well-known or as lasting as Poe's. 

But--I've determined what my writing goal is.  I'd like to write something that would have that kind of impact on a reader.  It doesn't have to sell for a lot of money nor be remembered over a hundred years. I'd just like to have a reader want to read more after reading one of my efforts.

Perhaps I already have that with Callie's repeat readers, but I need to do something new and worthwhile, not necessarily children's literature, but good enough to inspire a young person to read more.

What's your writing goal?

Until we meet again, take care of… you.

27 February 2014

Tales Around the Fireside


by Eve Fisher

I am a short story writer.  Yes, I've written two novels, one (The Best is Yet to Be) as part of the Guideposts mystery series, "Mystery and the Minister's Wife", the other a sci-fi/fantasy piece that is still sitting in my closet.  I've written plays.  I used to write songs for myself and, later, a Southern rock-and-roll band called "Fantasy's Hand." (Those were fun days...)  But what I really feel most comfortable with is short stories.

I think a lot of this comes from my childhood.  I was an only child, and my parents were 40 when they adopted me; everyone around me was (it seemed) at least 40 years older than me, and back then children were expected to keep their mouths shut and just be there while the adults talked, talked, talked.  Luckily for me, most of them were storytellers.  A story, told in the night, to make you sigh or smile or shiver...  still pretty much the ideal.
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John Collier

And I like reading short stories.  I don't understand why so few magazines carry short stories anymore.  Why there are so few short-story magazines.  (Especially considering that attention spans seem to be growing shorter and shorter all the time, but that's another rant.)  I love them.  And some of the finest writing anywhere has been done in that format.  Here are my picks for some of the greatest short story writers:

John Collier.  "Fancies and Goodnights" contains some of his best work.  (It won the Edgar Award in 1962.)  Read "Bottle Party" to find out what really happens with a genie in the bottle.  "The Chaser" - on how tastes change over time.  "If Youth Knew What Age Could"... One of my favorites, "The Lady on the Grey."  And on and on.  Many of his stories were adapted for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Tales of the Unexpected.  He also wrote screenplays (including "Sylvia Scarlett", [uncredited] "The African Queen", and "I am A Camera"), and a couple of novels of which my favorite is the mordant, devilish, unforgettable "His Monkey Wife."

File:Ray Bradbury (1975) -cropped-.jpgRay Bradbury.  There are not enough words in the English language to praise his amazing output of short stories.  From "The Fruit in the Bottom of the Bowl" to "I Sing the Body Electric," "April Witch" to "The Veldt", "A Sound of Thunder" to the heartbreaking "There Will Come Soft Rains", "Dark They Were and Golden Eyed", the whole body of "The Martian Chronicles", and on and on, I gobbled each and every one of his stories I could get my hands on. His work inspired me, amazed me, touched me...  couldn't get enough of it. And he was primarily a short-story writer:  aside from "Fahrenheit 451", his other novels didn't really gel for me.  ("The Martian Chronicles" is a collection of short stories, with a narration in between.)  He showed what could be done in the medium of short fiction.  And, of course, he was a regular writer for "Twilight Zone" and other TV shows...

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Somerset Maugham.  One of the few who could write both great novels, and great short stories.  "The Letter" - made into film twice, most notably with Bette Davis as the cool and collected murderess.  "The Lotus Eater" - when Paradise runs out...  "Red" - what really happens when you look up your old childhood sweetheart...  "The Luncheon" - never ask questions you can't take the answer to...  The hilarious "Three Fat Women of Antibes", "The Vessel of Wrath", "The Verger"...  and, of course, the "Ashenden" series which practically began secret agent stories.  (Alfred Hitchcock combined "The Hairless Mexican" and "The Traitor" into the 1936 movie "Secret Agent" with John Gielgud and Peter Lorre.) Seriously, his short stories are like popcorn at the movies - once I start reading them (I have a four-volume set), I can't quit until I've worked my way through...  way too many.
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Poe

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Lovecraft
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Jackson
H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, and Shirley Jackson.  And how do you want to be scared today, my precious?  My sweets?  By many-tentacled horrors from beyond space, or by crumbling ruins of decay and death, or the quiet malevolence of a quiet house or neighborhood? By the breathing darkness or that strange emptiness?  By the sudden creak or that high whistle in the depths?  Any of these will leave you wondering what's really going on next door, when you'll be able to turn the lights off again, and what is that sound in the closet or over head or under the floor...

File:Conan doyle.jpgArthur Conan Doyle.  Let us never forget that 90% of the Memoirs of Dr. John H. Watson about his inimitable companion, Sherlock Holmes, are short stories. We all have our favorites.  (Sadly, the relentless reinterpretations of Holmes and Adler have reduced my pleasure in "A Scandal in Bohemia".)  Among mine are "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches", "The Speckled Band", "The Greek Interpreter", "The Devil's Foot", and "The Norwood Builder".  I have spent many a rainy afternoon curled up in a couch with a hot cup of tea and my father's one-volume "Complete Works", reading, reading, reading, time travelling to Victorian/Edwardian London, as Sherlock Holmes - the world's only private consulting detective - solves case after case after case...  Ah...  Excuse me, I have some reading to do...

NOTE:  These are, of course, only a few of the many tremendous short-story writers I've read.  Flannery O'Connor, Guy de Maupassant, Rudyard Kipling, Roald Dahl, Daphne du Maurier ("The Birds", yes - but never forget "The Little Photographer"), Nikolai Gogol  and Anton Chekhov, Ursula LeGuin and Isaac Asimov, and so many of my esteemed colleagues...  I really do have some reading to do!