About Victoria

Born in Detroit. Lived in Ohio, Pennsylvania, D.C., and Princeton, New Jersey. Degrees in Journalism (U. of Michigan) and Public Health (U. of Pittsburgh). Alumna of U. of Michigan and U. of Pittsburgh. Favorite authors: Neal Stephenson, Frederick Forsyth, Alan Furst, Charles Dickens–they all know how to tell a good story! Best book read so far in 2012: Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies. Favorite TV: The Wire; Treme.

Big Thanks for Small Blessings

Turkeys

photo: Paul VanDerWerf, creative commons license

“Family and friends” people say when asked what they are most thankful for. I agree, though as a run-up to Thanksgiving I’ve been thinking about the small things that warm my heart. Here are five:

  • Our local farmer’s market, considered the best in New Jersey (which is, after all, “The Garden State”) has added immeasurably to our family’s quality of life
  • The color blue—not just any shade, the blue of mysotis and morning glories. This will come as a surprise to everyone who knows my favorite color is green.
  • The fish and frogs who call my pond home. Not the snakes.
  • The folks who’ve come up with new taglines for the news media “Democracy Dies in Darkness” (Washington Post); “Stand with the Facts” (NPR).
  • The Oxford comma and other grammar rules and conventions that help bring order to the words I put on the page.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Creative Writing Rules: An Oxymoron?

Handwriting, boredom

photo: David Hall, creative commons license

A friend of mine (two friends, in fact) complained to me about a “mystery writing” class they were taking. It turned out to be a critique group of inexperienced writers and no formal instruction. Then, coincidentally, I met the course instructor of heard his rationale for this approach. He believes there aren’t rules for writing and that creative people violate the supposed “rules” all the time.

This puts him on the same page as Somerset Maugham who famously said, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

That viewpoint, of course, negates the huge number of useful guidelines that authors and editors—sometimes out of frustration or even desperation—have compiled. While established authors may have internalized them, they are especially useful for writers starting out. The most useful to me currently is Donald Maass’s The Emotional Craft of Fiction, packed with rich examples.

In the blog Criminal Minds last month, mystery/crime writers talked about the usefulness (or not) of online sites offering writing advice. Author Paul D Marks wrote, “The thing with all advice is to take it with a grain of salt,” which would seem to support the class instructor’s point of view, except that Marks follows it up with “First, learn the rules—you need to know them before you can break them.” In other words, budding writers have to start somewhere, and that’s what the instructor’s students seemed to be missing.

The very number of sources for writing advice can be a problem in itself. New writers need some means for separating the wheat from the chaff, the good advice from the irrelevant, the workable idea from the dead end. They need to be able to separate writing advice (structure, characterization, motivation) from editing advice (redundancies, overwriting, flaccid verbs). In their first draft, they need the former. In all the subsequent drafts, they need both. (Here I’ll share a list of powerful editing tips from Repo Kempt. If only I could get its full benefits by tearing it into tiny pieces and eating it.)

Ultimately, the panel of bloggers seemed to agree, the first key to good writing is lots of reading—reading in the genre the author wants to write in, seeing what works and what doesn’t. If they are reading some of the better advice columns and books along the way, they’ll be a bit more critical (in a good way) when they read. If a particular plot or characterization or passage of dialog really works, or falls flat as roadkill, they can take a moment to figure out why then look for a place in their own writing to use that insight or avoid that same carnage.

Novelist and creative writing professor Colum McCann wrote a fine essay of encouragement for aspiring novelists earlier this year, drawing from his recent book. He acknowledges the instructor’s “rules are there to be broken” mantra yet provides enough orientation to the craft that a would-be writer is not snow-blinded by the blank page.

A Fresh Crop of Movies Based on 2017 Books

Los Angeles, Hollywood

photo: James Gubera, creative commons license

I wish a bang-up movie would be made from James Joyce’s Ulysses, so I could watch it and no longer feel guilty I’ve never read this nearly 700-page classic. OK, I’m a heretic.

As for lesser works, this same time-saving compulsion makes me glad Paula Hawkins’s new book, Into the Water, is among the 2017 novels being prepped for the tv or the movies. Having seen the film of her so-so debut, The Girl on the Train, I don’t want to spend more than two hours on the new story, if that.

Shayna Murphy in the BookBub Blog has compiled a list of 22 recent books en route to screens large and small. No surprise that Stephen King’s 700+ page Sleeping Beauties, written with his younger son Owen, is on the list, despite tepid reviews. Ditto James Patterson and David Ellis’s Black Book, whose protagonists and plot Kirkus Reviews deemed “more memorable than Patterson’s managed in quite a while.”

I’m delighted that Reese Witherspoon’s production company snapped up Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere for television. Like her remarkable earlier mystery, Everything I Never Told You, it’s about family secrets under the deceptively placid surface of suburbia. I’m also excited about plans for a movie of Artemis—another futuristic tale by Andy Weir, whose book The Martian translated so effectively to film in 2015—and George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, set in our Civil War past, which won this year’s Man Booker Prize. I hope Hollywood doesn’t make a hash of them.

Some critics considered Don Winslow’s disappointing book The Force to have been a victim of early interest in making a movie out of it. The characters turned to cardboard and the complexity of his much better The Cartel went out the window. In his story, Manhattan reveals itself to be top-to-bottom corrupt, unbelievably so. And, yes, that movie is coming 3/1/19. Maybe playwright David Mamet can save it.

Two fine literary authors are in the movie mix: Alice McDermott for The Ninth Hour and Jennifer Egan for Manhattan Beach. About this book, Alexandra Schwartz writes that, to Egan, 9/11 felt “like the end of something—the United States’ sense of itself as king of the world” and the new book, set in Brooklyn in the 1930s and 40s, was a backwards look to “what was the beginning of that something.” My book group loved Fredrik Backman’s A Man called Ove, which I didn’t have a chance to read (or see on film), and now a television series is planned for his book, Beartown.

All in all, some tantalizing screen-time coming up.

*****Beneath the Mountain

Bletterbach, mountain, the Dolomites, gorge

The Bletterbach – photo: Esther Westerveld

By Luca D’Andrea, translated by Howard Curtis – When a debut thriller appears that sold to thirty countries within a month, became a bestseller in the author’s home country of Italy and in Germany, and was greeted with breathless praise like “can be compared (with no fear of hyperbole) to Stephen King and Jo Nesbø,” you know you’re in for quite a ride.

D’Andrea delivers. Beneath the Mountain is set in the northern Italian province of South Tyrol, in the village of Siebenhoch, whose Italian residents speak German. Siebenhoch is near the end of the eight-kilometer Bletterbach gorge in the jagged Dolomite mountains. Hikers are warned they enter the steep terrain “at their own risk,” because of rockfalls, mudslides, freezing water, and flash floods. The geological characteristics and history of the gorge are essential to D’Andrea’s story, anchoring it to a reality that could not have existed anywhere else.

Thirty years before the novel begins, three experienced hikers—Kurt, Evi, and Marcus—trekked deep into the gorge and were set upon first by an unusually powerful storm, then by one or more unknown assailants who hacked their bodies into pieces. By the time a four-man rescue team arrived, any forensic evidence was washed away or lost in the mud.

The deaths of these three young people reverberated through the community, affecting, disastrously, not only the men who found them but also their families. One time or another suspicion has fallen on a disappeared paleontologist with some bizarre theories that Evi thoroughly discredited, on a wealthy developer who built a visitor center on land her analyses had shown was unstable, on various members of the insular community, even on the rescuers themselves.

Now, American screenwriter Jeremiah Salinger, his wife Annelise, and their five-year-old daughter Clara have relocated to Siebenhoch. The fresh location inspires a new television series about the work of Dolomite Mountain Rescue. As its name implies, the rescue service comes to the aid of stranded tourists, injured hikers, and others in distress among the precipitous peaks. Jeremiah is party to a disastrous helicopter crash that kills four rescuers and a tourist, but his physical injuries are nothing compared to a serious case of PTSD, compounded by guilt and fear, that impairs his judgment. The booze doesn’t help. To distract himself, he starts investigating the 1985 Bletterbach murders, a deeper, more dangerous rabbit hole than the one he’s already in.

D’Andrea frequently introduces new information through the device of a community member offering to tell Jeremiah a story, which is a powerful enticement for the reader as well. Especially engaging is Jeremiah’s relationship with daughter Clara. Their word game—she loves to spell—is a theme throughout, which becomes ironic when, despite his obvious devotion to her, he puts his off-the-books investigation before even her.

Weekend Movie Picks: LBJ & Battle of the Sexes

Spanning the short period 1960 to 1973, these two movies are based on real events—political, in the largest sense, and human, with their subjects’ vulnerabilities and strengths on view on a very public stage.

LBJ

LBJ - HarrelsonWoody Harrelson as LBJ? Actually, the Texas actor does a fine job in this eponymous movie written by Joey Hartstone and directed by Rob Reiner (trailer). When it comes to the history depicted, this film gets it more right than most, partly because Reiner took the time to read and absorb the Robert Caro and Doris Kearns Goodwin histories.

In 1960, LBJ is a genius in the Senate, though he’s profane, even vulgar, the opposite of the Kennedy clan. Johnson won’t say whether he plans to run for president in 1960 because, his aides suggest, “he’s afraid he’ll lose.” Lady Bird (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) overhears and corrects them: “He’s afraid people won’t love him.”

When Jack Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) surprisingly asks the Texan to become his vice president, Johnson accepts. You think it may be as much to tweak Bobby Kennedy (Michael Stahl-David), who obviously loathes him, as anything else. One of the most uncomfortable scenes occurs when he corners Bobby in a door alcove and says, “Bobby, why don’t you like me?”

Johnson never expects this office will be a sure path to the presidency, especially not after a mere thousand days. Seeing how the public loves Jack, and the outpouring of grief after the assassination, he apparently decides the best way to make people love him is to pursue Kennedy’s policy relentlessly. And, thankfully, he did.

That decision brought us new Civil Rights laws, the War on Poverty, Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start—and, tragically, the full-on Vietnam War. (The War just received the full Ken Burns treatment and isn’t touched on much here.) He achieves those programs by continuing his masterful managing of the Senate, personalized here by Texas Senator Ralph Yarborough (Bill Pullman) and Georgia Senator Richard Russell (Richard Jenkins).

Though the critics are cool to it, for the accurate history and some fine performances, it’s nevertheless worth seeing.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 52%; audiences 64%.

Battle of the Sexes

Battle of the SexesThis film is much lighter fare, though it certainly has moments of intensity (trailer). Written by Simon Beaufoy and directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, it shows the lead-up to the famous 1973 tennis match between world number one women’s tennis player Billie Jean King (played by Emma Stone) and former men’s champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). You even get a bit of Howard Cosell, though filmmaking magic.

In 1970, women tennis players received far less (about a tenth, I think) prize money than the men, because, as the head of the lawn tennis association explained (Bill Pullman again), women’s tennis is just less interesting. King led a walkout, and the women left the association to form a new league. With Virginia Slims cigarettes as a sponsor, they had their own competitive tour (ironically, none of them smoked), managed by highly entertaining Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) who does.

In that context, Riggs—a hustler and clown, playing tennis costumed as Little Bo Peep, complete with sheep, wearing swim fins, and the like—said he could easily beat the best woman player. “I love women,” he says, “in the kitchen and in the bedroom,” an attitude, unfortunately, newly topical. King takes up the challenge. While she trains, he cavorts.

Home life isn’t simple for either of them. Riggs’s wife has left him, tired of his gambling, and King, though married, has her first lesbian relationship. At the time, public knowledge of that might have destroyed her career.

Emma Stone does a fine job—likeable and focused—and Carell is a believably driven character, teetering on tragedy as comics convey so well.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 84%; audiences 76%.

A Mysterious Affair & the Ur-Story

chalk outline, body

(image: pixabay, creative commons license)

Last Saturday the Princeton Arts Council hosted an afternoon conference featuring an impressive gang of mystery and crime writers who ply their trade between New York and Philadelphia. A first of its kind, in my memory at least, it drew around a hundred writers and readers and fans.

Panels talked about writing stories set in a region—does it matter whether you’ve actually been there? Or, when is Google Earth not enough?—and stories where the author can’t have been there, because they’re set in a different historical time—how much research do you really need? Even stories set in the future, in the case of some thrillers—is research even important? Don’t you just make it up?

Audience members asked the burning question: how do people react when the find out you write about murder? And, while this prompted some humorous replies, in fact, most people are fascinated. They often say they would like to write a mystery themselves, though few end up doing it. Panelists encouraged them to. As to how they manage writing, other jobs, families, and so on, panelist Jeff Cohen (who writes as E.J. Copperman) had the best reply: “If you can swing it, it helps to have a wife with a full-time job.”

Guest of Honor S. J. Rozan, a mystery writer with 15 novels, more than 60 short stories, and  multiple awards on her c.v., gave the keynote. She talked about how genre writers—crime (including mystery and thrillers), romance, Westerns, science fiction, and she’d include coming-of-age—are still disparaged as “not literature,” yet remain wildly popular.

Why is that? She said genre writing can be distinguished by having an ur-story, a fundamental story line. Readers (and moviegoers) expect and take comfort in those ur-stories and in their very predictability, and writers violate the established genre conventions at their peril. The ur-story in the romance genre is “love conquers all”; in science fiction, it’s “what it is to be human.” Mysteries and thrillers, despite their uncountable variations, have ur-stories too, she maintains. In mystery, it’s “here’s why this happened”—attractive in a world where so much seems inexplicable—and in thrillers, it’s “is there time?” This last manifests itself in the frequently encountered literal “ticking clock” that thriller protagonists are trying to beat.

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell maintained there is a single ur-story underlying all fiction, ancient to 21c. This has led to the “hero’s journey” school of story construction, in which a protagonist is marched through a call to adventure, begins a quest, overcomes trials, brings home the goods, and so on. That fundamental storyline can be detected in Rozan’s more descriptive genre-specific ur-stories. Whatever it is, however it’s aggregated or subdivided, we love hearing and seeing the ur-story over and over in books, on stage, and in the movies.

The event, sponsored by Princeton’s Cloak & Dagger bookstore, was co-hosted by the local chapters of two organizations I belong to: Mystery Writers of America, and Sisters in Crime.

****And So It Began (Delaney Book 1)

Child_beauty_pageant

photo: Lloyd Gallman, creative commons license

By Owen Mullen – Brave of a resident of Scotland and the Greek Islands to write a police procedural set in one of America’s most iconic cities, one with a strong and unique culture, history, and personality. Still, he’s chosen New Orleans for the first in his series featuring protagonist Vincent Delaney—former NOPD detective, now a private investigator.

For the most part the character of the Big Easy comes through in the details Mullen chooses to provide, though the deep trauma of Hurricane Katrina receives only a single mention. There’s maybe too little attention to food and the weather, some nice references to music (Delaney plays in a band), and directly related to the story, a reopening of the old wounds of NOPD corruption that have helped poison race relations in the city.

Delaney has three—make that four—issues on his hands. First is a background hazard in the form of Julian Boutte, a mentally deranged African American man whose brother Delaney killed a decade back when he was still an NOPD detective. Boutte has escaped from prison, and there’s no question that he plans to kill Delaney.

A group of African American small business people from the North Le Moyne area are having to pay protection money they can ill afford and seek Delaney’s help.

The third problem, and the one that takes up most of the book’s plot deals with a bizarre phenomenon of American life, the child beauty/talent pageant. Across the southern states, children who participate in these pageants are being murdered. One of the victims is a five-year-old boy, killed only minutes after winning with a memorable Charlie Chaplin imitation—inspiration for the paperback’s striking cover (below).

The FBI leads the investigation, but there are some 5000 such pageants in the US every year, and they cannot begin to cover them all, so bring in local help. Delaney’s niece is a pageant participant, which gives him an ideal opportunity to meet organizers, participants, obsessed parents, and, possibly, a killer.

While the culprit in Mullen’s tale is more obvious early on than the elusive true-life murderer of JonBenet Ramsey, still at large after twenty-one years, the child beauty pageant world is ripe for exploration. Mullen does a nice job highlighting the different motivations of several sets of parents and their young daughters.

If all these work challenges weren’t sufficient, Delaney has woman troubles, though he has a mostly good relationship with his sister and brother-in-law, as well as several friends still on the force. Mullen describes the interaction between Delaney and his family and friends warmly, and they feel real.

There are more books in the Delaney series to come, and especially if you like the New Orleans setting (I miss Treme!), they may just put the chickory in your coffee.

Shakespeare in Love

Perhaps you remember remember the charming 1998 movie, Shakespeare in Love, starring Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow. Lee Hall—best known for Billy Elliott—has transformed Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s screenplay into a theatrical version, on stage at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey through November 12. STNJ’s artistic director Bonnie J. Monte directed this lively production, which she describes as “a perfectly ebullient homage to Shakespeare, to life, to love, to the art of theatre, to the centuries of players who inhabit our stages, and to the process of creating art . . . a delight from beginning to end.”

Will Shakespeare (played by Jon Barker) is having trouble finding the right words for a sonnet, and is helped by his friend, fellow playwright, and competitor Kit Marlowe (Anthony Marble). Will encounters the enchanting young Viola de Lesseps (Whitney Maris Brown) and Marlowe again feeds him the words he needs to entrance her.

Viola, on the cusp of marriage, is smitten with the stage and, disguised as a man, tries out for Shakespeare’s new barely-begun play, and is tapped for the part of Romeo. With Viola as his muse, the Bard’s writing takes off. It being forbidden for women to appear on stage at the time, the lovers are in risky territory, not least because Viola’s fiancé (Marcus Dean Fuller) believes Something is Up.

The perils of casting, the comedic antics of rehearsals, the wiles of Viola’s nurse (Erika Rolfsrud), and the parallels between the evolving play and obstacles to the lovers keep the action moving in about a dozen directions at once. A fine—and large—supporting cast, especially noting Ames Adamson, Edmond Genest, Garrett Lawson, and David Andrew Macdonald, plays about forty roles! Spot, (Boston Terrier Dublin Delancy McFinnigan) makes his bone-afide theatrical debut, well trained by Seamus Mulcahy (playing John Webster). (Mulcahy has produced a DVD of dogs performing Shakespeare. A niche product in so many ways.)

Jon Barker and Whitney Maris Brown generate considerable heat in their lovely scenes together. Barker is a frequent STNJ cast member and has a gift for achieving perfect body language and gestures in any role, including this one.

Mention should be made of the energetic and entertaining way the cast pitches in with the set dressing for the numerous scene changes. Brian Clinnin’s deceptively simple-looking scenic design lends itself to transformations from lowly tavern to royal theater box to boat on the Thames.

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit http://www.shakespearenj.org. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!

*****The Never-Open Desert Diner

Utah Highway

photo: Bhanu Tadinada, creative commons license

By James Anderson – This debut novel is masterfully travels a remote strip of high desert highway to all the important destinations of the human heart. Recommended by the fine folks at Scottsdale’s Poisoned Pen bookshop, it checks a lot of genre boxes. It isn’t typical crime fiction, though there are crimes in it. It has a nice dose of both mystery and romance. It’s inescapably a Western, as it takes place in a desolate section of Utah. The one genre it doesn’t draw from is science fiction, though strange things certainly do happen out there in the back of beyond.

I would put this unforgettable 2015 book on my short list of “must-reads.” Reviewer Patrick Anderson in The Washington Post calls it “outstanding in every regard—writing, plot, dialogue, suspense, humor, a vivid sense of place.” Agreed, whole-heartedly.

Ben Jones owns a business as a short-haul truck driver whose route takes him back and forth along a hundred-mile stretch of Utah highway 117, between Price and the fictional former coal-mining town of Rockmuse. (For purposes of the novel, Anderson has relocated this highway about 40 miles east of its IRL location.) He makes deliveries for FedEx, UPS, and other companies to the scattered residents along the route, and, if they put out a red handkerchief by the road, he stops to get their orders for goods to be delivered from town.

Anderson sets up the isolation and the harsh conditions so effectively that Ben’s description of his clients—“Such folks were a special breed”— is almost superfluous. You anticipate meeting some real characters hidden away out there, and you do. Chief among them is Walt Butterfield, owner-operator of The Well-Known Desert Diner, though locals have amended that to the more accurate “Never-Open Desert Diner.” Walt is an angry geezer who restores old motorcycles. He lost his wife years earlier after an episode with some violent customers, and the extent to which he hasn’t recovered becomes apparent only over time. Each time any of Anderson’s characters wander into a scene, something interesting happens.

Ben happens upon a barely started housing development across the road from the diner, hidden by a rise, and containing only one house. Inhabited. The woman who lives there plays a cello with no strings, except, it transpires, those of Ben’s heart. About their initial prickly contacts, Ben gives one of his typically colorful and insightful comments: “I knew from experience that if you’re about to do something you probably shouldn’t do, the best advice you can give yourself is not to think about it too long. It ruins the surprise when the worst happens.” Soon odd events begin, and the strong plot unfolds like the road in front of Ben, going toward a place not particularly desirable, but barreling toward an ending.

Ben is a likeable and perceptive narrator, with especially acute radar for bullshit. Yet he looks upon the troubled and eccentric people he encounters with a nonjudgmental, compassionate eye. He respects their desire to be left alone. All of them are struggling, him included. When the world starts to open up for him, is it real or just another desert mirage?

This is the kind of story that really couldn’t take place anywhere but in such a remote location. The isolation engenders insights as well as eccentricity. It has those quality of literary genre work that inspire closing the book for a moment for reflection and a head-nod. The lyrical language in talking about such a dusty and forlorn place elevates the story and makes it unforgettable: “The highway ahead lolled in sunlight. It was mine and it made me happy. It didn’t bother me that it was mine because no one else wanted it.”

Legends of the Undead are . . . Undead

Cemetery, gravestones

photo: John W. Schulze, creative commons license

In Chicago recently, we took a nine-year-old to a theatrical version of Dracula (playing at the Mercury Theater through November 5). “Weren’t you scared?” several audience members asked him after the show, as he was the show’s youngest audience member by many decades. “No.” This was said with deadpan aplomb. And possibly an eye-roll.

Perhaps some of the edge was off Bram Stoker’s classic because of all the much more horrifying real-life shenanigans filling the daily news, or perhaps it was because this production veered occasionally—and entertainingly—close to camp. While it wasn’t terrifying, it had good acting and nice touches. Notably, the production credits include acknowledgment of the show’s “violence and blood/gore designer.” Which gives an inkling.

When the Stoker’s tale first appeared 120 years ago, The Manchester Guardian dismissed it with almost the same nonchalance as our young theater companion. “Most of the delightful old superstitions of the past have an unhappy way of appearing limp and sickly in the glare of the later day,” the reviewer said. “Man is no longer in dread of the monstrous and the unnatural, and . . . the effect is more often grotesque than terrible.” Tell that to Ann Rice and Stephenie Meyer and the legions of other authors who continue to resurrect “the ancient legends of the were-wolf and the vampire”!