Friday, November 28, 2014

Dear Santa -- 1st of 4

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Dear Santa,

    I saw you yesterday in the Thanksgiving Day parade. You looked right at me. I was between 14th and 15th Streets. In front of the Silver Spoon. You have such kind eyes.
   You probably think I’m too old to be writing to Santa. Maybe I am. But 53 isn’t so very old.
Anyway, my husband Marvin died three years ago today. Ironic isn’t it, today being Black Friday.
Rodney’s moved back in. He’s my son. Thirty-two years old. His wife served him with papers Monday. Pretty cold hearted to do that Thanksgiving Week, don’t you think? Still, it is nice to have the boy home again. He made the turkey. The whole dinner, actually – green bean casserole, dressing, stuffed celery. And three pies. Apple, pumpkin, and pecan. Marvin always liked pumpkin. My favorite is strawberry-rhubarb, but never mind.
   I thought Jennifer was a nice young woman. She just didn’t appreciate Rodney’s financial ventures. Adventures, more like. Not long after they married, he went in with a friend raising ostriches. You know, the birds. Turns out the people already in the business were selling breeding stock and dreams of wealth. They convinced people that there would be a market for the meat and hides. It never developed and Rodney got stuck with the birds. Those birds will eat anything. One of them knocked my sunglasses off and swallowed them before I could pick them up. I covered the vet bill since it was sort of my fault.
   I’m glad the zoo agreed to take them. Abandoning them in the national forest just doesn’t seem right.
   Then he bought gold when it was at its height. And there was that land in New Mexico. The photos were beautiful. Mountain scenery. But no access and no water. I’m not sure what he intended to do with it.
   But the boy’s always worked. It’s not like he spent her money on any of these, shall we say, investments. I think she objected to the way he works, too. He can’t seem to stay with a job very long. He was at that investments counselling place the longest. Good money, but his heart just wasn’t in it.
   I don’t think the girl was pleased with him raising rabbits either. He brought the rabbits with him – two does and their litters. I’m not sure how many babies there are, but their eyes are open and they’ve got hair. Or is it fur? They are so cute.
   I know my Home Owners’ Association probably has some rule against keeping rabbits, but he’s got them downstairs so nobody will ever know. I’m glad Marvin finished the basement.
   We do have some good news. My daughter Becca is expecting. A little girl, due in a couple of weeks give or take. You know how that goes. Anyway, hopefully by Christmas. That’ll make four for her.
   It's just as well that Rodney and Jennifer don’t have any children. Under the circumstances.
   You may think I’m crazy, but I’m going to mail this. I’m not really expecting any response. I would have written to Marvin, but that seemed wrong somehow, him being dead and all. I just needed someone to talk to.

Very truly yours,


For Dee's next letter to Santa click here Dear Santa No. 2

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Ophelia Cut -- a review

The Ophelia Cut is number 14 in John Lescroart’s series of murder mysteries featuring attorney Dismas Hardy, homicide detective Abe Glitsky, bartender Moses McGuire, and their various and sundry families, friends, partners, underlings, and bosses. Not to mention each book’s featured villain and multiple side-bar bad guys.
To prepare to write this review I read some other reviews. And that reminds me NEVER read a review by anyone with the word “critic” in their title.
Huffington Post’s Jackie K. Cooper, identified as a film critic spends a good deal of his review saying how much Lescroart’s readers look forward to his next novel, especially the Dismas Hardy ones. Then he pans it. Saying the first four-fifths of the book are great but the ending is “something completely unsuspected. Unfortunately it is also completely unsatisfactory.” Insert your favorite expletive here.
The ending is unexpected. (I would not have chosen to use the word ‘unsuspected.’ Perhaps it was Mr. Cooper’s auto-correct acting out.) And though I would not say it is "satisfactory," it is the right ending.
What I love about Lescroart’s novels is the continuing lives of his characters. I started his books with the first of his Dismas Hardy stories, Dead Irish, published in 1989. I didn’t read it then because I’d not heard of John Lescroart until a retired police detective recommended I read him. That was almost three years ago while I was writing my own novel Murder on Ceres (available at
In Dead Irish we first meet Hardy, a has-been, tending bar for his Vietnam War buddy Moses McGuire, and drinking in San Francisco. Hardy had lost his baby boy, his wife, and his career as a lawyer. The book introduces us to Hardy’s best friend from when he was a member of San Francisco’s finest before getting his law degree. Abe Glitsky is the half-Black half-Jewish cop, big enough and serious enough to intimidate the scariest bad guy. And there’s Lou the Greek’s, a dive across from the Hall of Justice open from six a.m. to two a.m. serving alcohol and food to the legal community from cops to judges, clients to social workers, and everybody over, around, and in between. If I ever get to San Fran I want to visit City Lights Bookstore and Lou the Greek’s.
In The Ophelia Cut Hardy is described as “sixty years old.” This makes me happy. He’s almost as old as I am. We both remember the late sixties and early seventies.
It’s some thirty years since the Dead Irish story, twelve books follow these characters’ ongoing lives. I feel like I’ve known them a long time. There are marriages, births, deaths. Each book is complete in itself, beginning and ending a case, but the characters go on.
In The Ophelia Cut, Moses McGuire’s daughter is brutalized by a man who ends up dead and Mose is arrested. But did he do it? The dead man was a truly bad man with any number of associates who would be happy to have him dead. No matter. It falls to Hardy to defend Mose in court.
And we come to the ending that the film critic didn’t like. Let me just say I cried. Not at the shocking part. At that part I was shocked. It was later that I wept.
I am not in the habit of crying over murder mysteries. A visit to the Oklahoma City National Memorial, yes. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, yes. The movie Old Yeller, yes.
But murder mysteries? I don’t remember ever doing it before. Generally speaking the characters and stories are too distant from me as a reader. I do not know them intimately.
Harry Bosch’s daughter grew up, but Harry doesn’t change. I never knew Miss Marple as a young woman. Even Commissario Brunetti does not change, although in Donna Leon’s novels justice is sometimes ill served (which I find appalling but that possibility is real enough to keep me reading her next one.) These characters are not real people to me. Dismas Hardy and the people around him are.

The Ophelia Cut is John Lescroart’s best so far. My only regret is that I can read Lescroart’s books faster than he can write them and there is only one more, The Keeper – so far. 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

One Side of The Phone Call -- Flash Fiction -- An homage to Bob Newhart

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  Hi, Dad. I just wanted to call and let you know we’re all okay.
  Falstaff? Yes, yes. He’s fine. He misses you.
  Yes, he does look a lot like a bear. That’s kinda why I called. We had a bear on the deck.
  No, no. A real bear. I guess it smelled the hot dogs.
  No, I got Falstaff into the house. He was pretty excited, but he scared the bear when he broke through the sliding glass door.
  Oh yeah. It left. So. How’s the weather there?
  Oh, yes. It is Hawaii. I know. Warm in the day and rain every afternoon. Yeah. We had rain here, too. A good thing. Helped put out the fire.
  Oh, you know. When the bear got scared he knocked over the grill.
  Called them. Sure did. They got here pretty quick.
  Yeah. The deck’s gone, but they saved most of the house.
  Fluffy? Yeah. They got her out. She was hiding in the cabinet under the sink.
  No, no. The kitchen’s okay.
  Yeah. We’re pretty much camping in the front bedroom.
  The fish? No, they couldn’t get them out. But they’re okay. That corner of the living room is okay, but your big screen . . . . Well, it’s gone.
  No, no. You stay there. Enjoy the rest of your vacation. We’re fine. The police said they’d drive by. Keep out looters.
  No. We can’t really lock the house, but Falstaff and I will be here. And Fluffy. Ha ha. Not that she’s much help defending the castle.
  Yeah. You probably can get a flight out today. You’ll need to take a shuttle from the airport. I can’t come get you.
  Well, you know . . . . The car . . . . 
  Yeah, both of them.
  See you soon.

  Yeah, I love you, too.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Death Comes to Pemberley and Unnatural Causes -- Conjoined Reviews

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  Kudos to the BBC production of “Death Comes to Pemberley” adapted by Juliette Towhidi from P.D. James’s novel of the same name. Which was an homage to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.  
I watched the first of the two episodes of the television production, then read Ms. James’s novel before the second episode aired. As it turns out, I much preferred the TV production to the book.
  I don’t think anyone has ever heard me say that before. Well, there was Gone with the Wind. The movie was reissued and I saw it while I was in high school. Then I read the book. My teenaged and early adult self liked the movie better than Ms. Mitchell’s novel. Why? Because watching the movie I could believe that Scarlet was merely a victim of her times, doing what she had to to keep Tara going. And, of course, there was Rhett Butler/Clark Gable. And I wanted to believe he would come back. In the book, it was pretty obvious that Scarlet did what she wanted to to get what she wanted when she wanted it. And I thought she deserved to lose him. So, still being a romantic, I liked the movie version better.
  My mature self prefers the novel because I understand that what she did was amoral, but effective. She made sure that both she and Tara survived. And I admire her determination. She would come out on top, no matter what.
  But that’s not what I come here to talk about. This is about Jane Austen’s characters through the mind of P.D. James remolded by the BBC.
  The TV production follows James’s plot very closely with a few changes of who does what when and where. It makes wonderful use of Lizzie’s parents and sister Lydia, bringing humor to what could easily have been a dreary drama. Mrs. Bennet is the shallow, status-seeking, hypochondriacal woman we remember from Austen. And Lydia is her mother’s daughter (Bless her heart.) – a shamelessly self-centered drama queen. And dear Mr. Bennet is a sensible, tolerant man who hides in the library.
  Lizzie and Darcy are devoted to each other within the limits of their natures. Conflict. Conflict. And there’s even a sex scene which neither Ms. Austen nor Ms. James ever wrote for these characters.
  If the novel had not been written by the P.D. James, it would never have been picked up by any of the major publishers. Written from the point of view of an omniscient narrator who has no part in the story, it breaks the primary rule of current writing fashion by telling us rather than showing us.
  A good 85% of it is expository writing – another no-no in modern fiction. However, this I actually liked. It told me about the times. The modes of travel, dress, class distinctions, architecture, and manners. All things for me to think about.
  The novel hardly played the Bennets at all. And the romance between Darcy and Elizabeth is maudlin at best. Darcy is portrayed as having lost not only his arrogance but his independence because he is so overcome with love of Lizzie. Give me a break! A man like that could not hold the interest of Elizabeth Bennet – the Elizabeth Benet we all know and love from Ms. Austen would not love a besotted Darcy even for all the wealth and status which Ms. James keeps reminding us of.
  I’ve enjoyed James's stories on Masterpiece Mysteries all these years. Were they rewritten to make them exciting and suspenseful? I’d never read James before and I wondered how she could have received all the awards and recognition she has if Pemberley is an example.
  So I read Unnatural Causes, her third book. I like traditional murder mysteries. And I liked this one. Published in 1967, it precedes Death Comes to Pemberley published in 2011. In Unnatural Causes all the characters had motive, opportunity, and access to the means of murder. The climax is exciting and satisfying. In the tradition of her countrywoman Agatha Christy, Ms. James summarizes the plot and dastardly deed in the dénouement.
  In one scene James describes Adam Dalgliesh, her Scotland Yard detective, opening his bedroom window during the beginning of a storm coming in from the sea:
          “The wind rushed into the room swirling the bed cover into folds,
           sweeping the papers from his desk and rustling the pages of his
           bedside Jane Austen like a giant hand.”
Just so, she connected her genre to Ms. Austen forty-four years prior to publishing Pemberley.
  She marked Dalgliesh, as a writer of poetry as well as an Austen aficionado. She even includes an example of his poetry. (Creditable, but it would never make it on a slam stage.) I do not know whether she gave him those attributes as an inside joke or to give him some distinctive characteristic like the fastidious Poirot or the fiddle-playing opium user Holmes. Whichever, it works for me.
  I will read more of her mysteries but no more of her Austen. And I will continue to watch PBS's Masterpiece Mystery!

Friday, November 7, 2014

Writing Real Characters

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  Your whole life is gathering material for a really good story. And that story should be filled with realistic characters and events and settings. Yes! Even Fantasy.
  After all, your readers have to be able to connect with characters in fantasy, too. That character may be a big hairy guy with an ammo belt slung across his chest. And maybe he doesn’t speak, just grunts and growls and roars. But I can tell you, that Wookie reminds me of someone’s brother or father or a guy I went out with once.
  For me, dialogue describes my character more than the color of their hair or how tall they are. Unless, of course, the color of their hair plays a significant role in my story. For instance in Murder on Ceres Rafe has red hair and green eyes. They are important to the story. If you haven’t read it yet, check it out.
  Where do I get the dialogue? It’s in the air, all around us, all the time. Even when we sleep, we dream dialogue. All we have to do is listen.
  My grandmother, being ever so conscientious about not taking the Lord’s name in vain, would occasionally exclaim, “Lawsy, lawsy.” As opposed to Lordy, Lordy. My grandfather, however, was not so religiously scrupulous. He was a good and kind man, but it was not unusual for him to emphasize a statement by preceding it with “eye-God.” Phonetically – he was saying “by God” not referring to God’s eye. If I use either of these exclamations in my story, you’ll recognize the character whether or not I describe them physically.
  I love to eat out. Don’t get to do it often, but when I do, I listen. I gather material. At a café in Santa Maria, California, on my way down Highway 101, I got to eavesdrop on a group of local farmers having coffee. Their conversation was not unlike the farmers having coffee in Guthrie, Oklahoma. Will it rain? Taxes are too high. A neighbor has done something that’s negatively affecting their creek, their fence-line, or their line of sight. The accent is different. Idioms are different. Even the rhythms are different. These things may be too esoteric to give a reader the information they need to locate the speaker geographically, but the farmer’s concerns are the same, and the reader will recognize them no matter the idioms or accent or rhythms. They are real characters.
  There was a man who came into the office where I used to work. He would say “She went to town. So she did.” Or, “it rained so hard, it was a toad-strangler. So it was.” He invariably ended whatever statement he made with “So he/she/it did/was/verb-of-choice.” Another distinctive voice.
  If you use a particular speech pattern consistently for a particular character, the reader will recognize that character whenever they speak, so they will.
  And not just words, repetitive noises can be identifying. Post-nasal drip sufferers and their sniffing and snorting. Smokers and their throat clearing. People who eat too much fiber and their – well, you know. Pencil tappers and toe tappers, paper shufflers and rattlers. People who pant and puff and suck their teeth. Eye-rollers, shruggers, nodders. Yes, sometimes we do need to listen with our eyes to catch all the wonderful sounds and actions to use in and around our dialogue.

  So my advice to character builders everywhere (and I don’t mean sports coaches) is to listen, appreciate, and use all the dialogue – verbal and nonverbal – that comes your way. Now, go to a local café and have a cup of coffee and a piece of pie for me. And eavesdrop.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Tom Maggliozzi -- I'm sorry to lose you

If you have 5 and a half minutes, listen to this. If you don't have 5 and a half minutes, make them and listen anyway. 
from YouTube

 In January of 1997 I was listening to Car Talk on NPR and driving West on I-44 in Oklahoma City, coming up to the Lincoln Avenue exit when Tom and Ray Maggliaozzi got the above telephone call.
  LIVE! That's right John Grunsfeld was talking to them as I was listening. I was hearing a conversation between two men in Boston, Massachusettes, and a man in space as it happened.
  Okay, no big deal today. And the broadcast from Boston wasn't too big a deal then. But from the Space Shuttle on its way to MIR. That was a big deal.
   Forty years earlier, the Russians put Sputnik into low earth orbit. I was in the fourth grade, too young to worry about the security of the United States. But the fact that that very small, man made satellite was up there fired my imagination. I spent a lot of my spare time drawing space stations and imagining what living in space would be like. Imagining. Imagining.
  And then people started actually going into space. Alan Shephard was the first American and, of course, I knew he would be the first because he was a Navy man and my daddy was in the Navy. And I thought that by the time I was old enough to do it myself, living in space would be a reality. I thought there would be regular folks living in space. I still believe that's the future for humanity. I don't know if I'll live long enough to see that, but I'll never forget that "regular sounding" phone call to the Tappet Brothers.
  Thank you Tom. And Ray. You made me laugh out loud. You made me sit in the car after I'd gotten where I wanted to go just so I could listen to the rest of your show. And you made me listen to Country and Western music. Who knew they even had C&W way up there in Boston? I'll miss you, Tommy. My thoughts are with Ray and your family and all your NPR fans.
  And I promise I won't drive like your brother.