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.

A Walk on the Moon

© T Charles Erickson Photography tcharleserickson.photoshelter.com

George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey, is presenting the new musical, A Walk on the Moon, May 6 through May 21, based on the 1999 movie. The story takes place in the Catskills, summer of 1969. Neil Armstrong is set to take his iconic moonwalk, the Woodstock music festival is imminent, Civil Rights and anti-war demonstrations roil the nation’s streets, and second-wave feminism is on the rise. It’s a time of ferment, a time of questioning, a time when the old ways, the old ideas seemed disposable.

In the opening scene, Pearl Kantrowitz (a role superbly performed by the powerhouse Jackie Burns), her husband Marty (played by Jonah Platt), their teenage daughter Alison (Carly Gendell), young son, and Marty’s mother Lillian (Jill Abramovitz) arrive at their annual vacation destination, Dr. Fogler’s Bungalows.

The family spends every summer there with the same quartet of couples and the same routine. During the week, the women relax, cook the meals, and watch the kids, while the men return to the city to work. While the routine is comfortable, Pearl has glimmerings that life is passing her by.

Into these lazy, predictable days enters someone completely different, Walker Jerome (John Arthur Greene). He’s the Blouse Man, and the attraction between him and Pearl is immediate. You know she’s in trouble. Perhaps you can predict where her personal journey will take her, but plenty of drama and honest emotion awaits.

The musical is stuffed with song, and Pearl reveals her mixed guilt and desire through the heart-rending “Ground Beneath My Feet.” While I appreciated the live seven-piece orchestra and the clever and melodic songs, they tended toward the belt-it-out style, which might have worked even better interspersed with additional quieter numbers. Marty’s singing to his daughter, “We Made You” is a lovely example.

Even though the show’s run time is two and a half hours, there’s never a lag. The excellent cast of fourteen assures something is always going on, from the four couples’ fun dancing, to the energetic mahjongg games, to the teenagers testing their wings. The skillful use of projections establishes the verdant camp, the mesmerizing night sky, the psychedelia of Woodstock, and the blackness of a really black adolescent mood. Actual news footage of the moon landing provides an indelible sense of the moment.

A Walk on the Moon is on stage at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center. Tickets available here or by calling 732-246-7717. Check the website for current information on NBPAC’s covid requirements.

Look It Up!

Colleagues who heard University College of London professor Dennis Duncan was writing a book about indexes regarded him skeptically, saying, “Isn’t that a bit . . . niche?” He described the experience in a recent American Ancestors Webinar.

His cleverly titled Index, a History of the, turns out to be livelier than those people may have anticipated. Its significance was underscored when it appeared on the front cover of the New York Times Review of Books last February. What’s more, the history of the index is still developing. When we do a Google search, for example, we are not searching the entire Web, we are searching Google’s index of the Web. The possibility that such an index could be manipulated to provide or obscure certain results has thrust indexing into the political arena.

Having an index was such a good idea, Duncan says, that monks invented it simultaneously in two different places, around the start of the 13th century. One of them (Hugh of St. Cher, pictured; the glasses are an anachronism) was based in Paris, and the other (Robert Grosseteste—“big head”) was in Oxford.

St. Cher wanted to index the Bible by recording the occurrences of every word in it. Starting with “a  a  a  a,” which appears four times, the list was alphabetical and was created to facilitate preaching. As long as monks used their Bibles to read and meditate, an index wasn’t necessary, but once they started preaching they needed to navigate the Bible more efficiently. This type of index was like using Control-F, Duncan says.

Grosseteste, by contrast, created an index much more like the ones we’re familiar with. It was a subject index. But he went far afield with the concept, including in his index all the books he’d read. It was a parchment Google.

For the next approximately 150 years, every copy of every book was still hand-lettered (manu-script, manus being Latin for hand). And the copy was not necessarily the same size as the original. As a result, the page numbers and index were copy-specific; what’s on page 50 in the original may be on page 70 in the copy, if the pages are smaller. Once printing was invented, copies were duplicates, page numbers were consistent, and scholars referring to specific content could be sure they were “all on the same page.”

From the beginning, naysayers criticized people for being “index-readers,” rather than working their way through an entire text. This questioning of colleagues’ scholarly rigor reminds me of today’s critics of Wikipedia users and headline-scanners (guilty).

Several well-known battles between intellectuals broke out in indexes. “Brown, Jeremiah, his dullness, 24, 40-45, 213” and the like. A more recent tweak in an index resulted after Norman Mailer refused to let William F. Buckley quote from his letters in Buckley’s book, The Unmaking of the Mayor. When the book came out, Buckley sent Mailer a copy and in the index, next to Mailer’s name, he wrote “Hi!,” knowing that would be the first thing Mailer would look for and calling him out on it.

Where Story Ideas Come From: Picking a Time Period

Sherlock Holmes, detective

Knowing how much research I have to do to write a story in the near-present, the thought of writing historical fiction overwhelms me. Ditto, science fiction set in the future. I can’t imagine how much cross-disciplinary science a provocative author like Neal Stephenson knows, in order to construct a plausible future to frame his compelling plots. My head spins.

Writing in the current time also has challenges, of course. When cell phones first became ubiquitous, some authors tried to ignore this massive social change and offered plots that could easily have been resolved and tragedies averted with a quick phone call. We seem to be beyond that problem. A few authors get around it by setting their stories in the past—even the way past—which accomplishes many things, one of which is making it harder and slower for characters to travel from one place to another and to communicate.  

My novel Architect of Courage, coming out June 4 (pre-order link here), is set in the summer of 2011. The ten-year anniversary of 9/11 was approaching, and my plot is tied to it. In real life, the authorities are on high alert when any significant anniversary is looming that might incite anti-government or anti-American actions: Ruby Ridge, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the Branch Davidian siege in Waco, Texas, are examples. The biggest of all: 9/11. This made it plausible for the Joint Terrorism Task Force members in the novel to be hypersensitive about the possibility of a terrorist infiltrating the architectural firm at the center of the story.

Even though I cannot imagine tackling a whole historical novel, I have written three short stories that are Sherlock Holmes pastiches. These weren’t the result of any special knowledge I have about the period (except as a reader of Conan Doyle), but in response to the publishers’ solicitations. We know a lot about the late 1800s and the Victorian era, thanks to television and the movies. As a result, establishing a common understanding with readers is quite doable.

For one of these stories, the research was actually rather simple (fun too). It’s set in 1884, around the time Queen Victoria’s adult son Leopold, who had hemophilia, died from the effects of that condition. I have several biographies of the Queen on my bookshelf, and was able to find out how much people of the era knew about the heritability of the disease. Potentially damaging rumors abounded as cases appeared among her descendants. These were useful in the plot.

It was also easy to find old newspaper accounts of Leopold’s funeral, which provided vivid detail. I had Dr. John Watson attend the ceremony, and some of these details appear as his observations. Even the 1880s were not free of the fear of terrorism, due to mounting pressure for Irish Home Rule—another plot point. Again, the precise time chosen presented specific story opportunities

But going back further in time? I’ll leave that to the excellent authors of historical fiction.

Talking Funny

Language Lounge is a monthly column for word-lovers, and writers seem automatic members of that tribe.  I access the column through Visual Thesaurus, which is a graphical thesaurus that creates a network of word similarities, rather than a list, and helps in finding that word that’s ever-so-slightly out of reach.

The columnist, Orin Hargraves, this month talks about discourse markers (a new one on me), which help writers create and readers follow the flow of a narrative. As he describes them, “they’re linguistic signposts to indicate the direction they are taking or to clue up their audience about how something should be taken.” Perhaps the most obvious example is a negative one. How many times in the truncated communication environment of social media has one of your comments been completely misconstrued? Jokes and sarcasm, especially, are easily misunderstood. At least my jokes are. Why I insert a {ha!} at the end.

Examples of discourse markers he provides include “of course,” which indicate the writer (or speaker) knows the audience probably already understands the next bit. Of course you do. Writers (or speakers) can signal that what’s coming is an opinion with a discourse marker like “In my mind,” or “I think.” I knew someone who liberally used phrases like “To be honest,” or “Candidly.” It took me a while to catch onto the fact that whatever followed was likely an untruth. So, in a perverse way, his usage was actually quite helpful. Similarly, “With all due respect” usually signals an impending insult.

In particular, Hargreaves focused on the word “funny,” as in “Funny you should say that,” or “funnily enough,” when what follows is unlikely to be funny (ha-ha) at all. Nor is it “odd” or “peculiar,” which funny, by extension, sometimes means. What this discourse marker seems to signal is, “I’m about to say something that doesn’t exactly follow what you just said, but is somehow related to it.” Like this:

Joe: “I really hate broccoli.”

Jane: “Funny you should mention it. I feel the same about peas.” Nothing to do with broccoli at all, but related to the larger category, cringy foods.

Hargraves says people use a great many “funny” signals:

  • “that’s funny,” preceding an observation the speaker finds remarkable or unusual. (“That’s funny, I could swear I left my keys on the counter.”)
  • “funny enough” introducing a slight or suspicious coincidence (“The body was in the alley and, funny enough, in the exact place the psychic said it would be.”)
  • “funny how” about things not funny at all (“Ain’t it funny how time slips away.”)
  • “it’s funny to” introducing something unexpected (“It’s funny to picture them searching for that missing gun, while I had it all along.”)

When a character’s conversation is taking an unexpected turn, you can keep readers (and hearers) on track if you send a funny signal.

Weekend Movie Pics

The Outfit

Any film with Mark Rylance in the lead will be a hit with me. This film, directed by Graham Moore, who wrote with script with Johnathan McClain, doesn’t disappoint (trailer).

Leonard (Rylance) insists on being called a cutter—the man who cuts the fabric for bespoke men’s suits—not a tailor, and trained on London’s Savile Row. But it’s the early 1950s and now he’s in Chicago, where most of his clients are involved in organized crime. Mable (Zoey Deutch) is his assistant, and most of the time the two of them are alone in his shop.

A succession of shady characters use a dropbox in Leonard’s workroom to stash payments and other messages, but he stays out of their business. As he says Mable, “If we only allowed angels to be customers, soon we’d have no customers at all.” When she starts dating the not-too-bright son of a mob boss in the midst of a deadly gang war, trouble invades the cutter’s quiet workroom, and Mable and Leonard may not escape. Clever and entertaining.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 85%; audiences: 92%.

The Rose Maker

This French comedy-drama, directed by Pierre Pinaud and written by him with Fadette Drouard and Philippe Le Guay, originated in 2020, but is now appearing in US theaters, with subtitles (trailer).

Eve (Catherine Frot) inherited a rose-growing business from her father and breeds beautiful new varieties. Despite her success, bankruptcy is imminent. She and her assistant Vera (Olivia Cote) need help, and where does Vera find people they can afford? Three people on work-release program from a local prison. They have no horticultural experience, but at least they come cheap. It’s a classic “against all odds” plot, but satisfying.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 94%; audiences: 92%.

Mothering Sunday

A super cast (Colin Firth, Olivia Coleman, Josh O’Connor) in a slight film (trailer) set in 1924, about three upper-class British families, two of whom lost sons in World War I. Firth’s character has retreated into bland platitudes, while Coleman, as his wife, is seething with unquenchable rage. The only son left to any of them (O’Connor) has a brief liaison with a maid (Odessa Young), and much of the story is from her perspective then and later, after she becomes a successful writer. It’s dripping with sadness, but the constant use of jump cuts in time and scene seem designed to mask the thinness of the story as translated to film. Directed by Eva Husson and written by Alice Birch, based on a novel by Graham Swift.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 77%; audiences: 60%.

The Quarter Storm

Veronica G. Henry’s The Quarter Storm introduces a stubborn young Haitian-American woman, Mambo Reina Dumond, working as a vodou practitioner in New Orleans. This is not a genre of book I’d usually read, but I definitely enjoyed it. A certain amount of suspension of disbelief is necessary with any book involving the supernatural, but Reina was so believable, it wasn’t a difficult stretch to just go with it.

As you might imagine, Reina’s social circle is not the usual. Her best friend owns a bar/restaurant, and he is trying without great success to teach her to cook. When she needs help finding someone, she calls on a young woman who has no fixed address. And her ex-boyfriend (hard to say how ex he really is) is a New Orleans police detective who has no patience for vodou practices and traditions.

Trouble begins when a young man is murdered in what appears to be a ritual way in the apartment above a French Quarter vodou shop. The shop owner is arrested. Reina, whose vodou practice is geared toward helping, not hurting people, nevertheless thinks it’s ridiculous to believe a practitioner would jeopardize her business by committing such a vicious crime on her own premises. She sets out to prove the woman innocent.

The city’s wealthiest and most successful practitioner of their branch of vodou refuses to help. He, her father, and everyone else is warning her off the case, but Reina keeps on digging. Such a blot on the reputation of her style of vodou is intolerable.

Reading this book, I really felt as if I’d spent some time in an exotic place, much like my experience with the other two New Orleans books lately reviewed here, which explore totally different sides of this iconic city,.

Order The Quarter Storm here from Amazon
Or here from an independent bookseller.

Where Story Ideas Come From: Why Courage?

I didn’t set out to write a book about courage. In fact I was probably on a second or third draft, pestering myself with questions like, “what am I really trying to say?” “why might readers find this book not just entertaining but meaningful?” “do I find it meaningful and why?” i’m not a writer who can dash off several books a year; I have to think about them a while. And thinking about these questions, I finally realized I was missing an easy opportunity to express what it is about, without having to pen a preachy narration.

In the opening pages of my new book, Architect of Courage, Manhattan architect Archer Landis discovers his lover has been murdered. He’s afraid of the fallout if he’s caught in her apartment, and without considering the implications, he delays calling the police. Instead, he hastily returns to the business dinner he’d left not long before, determined to make the call from there. Alas, circumstances prevent it. What had he been thinking?

The dinner is to celebrate the important award one of his best friends is receiving and now he has to sit through it. The friend, Phil Prinz, takes this speaking opportunity to talk about courage. Now, we’ve all been to dinners where the speaker rambles on about some high-flown topic, and we’ve occasionally been pleasantly surprised to hear some nuggets worth remembering. Phil chose a worthy topic, but he’s no orator.

Still he breaks the topic down in an elegant way, describing four kinds of courage (briefly in the novel): physical courage, you know what that is; mental courage, when people dare to think in new ways; emotional courage, when they put their feelings on the line; and moral courage, when they do the right thing simply because it’s right. Landis doesn’t spend a lot of time then or later reflecting on Phil’s remarks—he’s too upset about what happened earlier in the evening. But I hope I’ve planted a seed for readers so they recognize that, despite his early failure, Landis displays all of four types of courage before the story ends. But if all you’re looking for is a lively adventure, there’s that too.

Available from Amazon on preorder!

How a Book Is Made

Readers and writers alike may enjoy this interactive New York Times feature from a few months back, ICYMI, which shows step-by-step how a book is made. Elizabeth Harris and photographer Thomas Prior followed the progress of Marlon James’s book Moon Witch, Spider King, from its beginning as a Word document somewhere in the cloud to a finished hardcover book you can hold in your hand.

The first step (after Marlon finishes his cloud magic) is producing the brilliantly colored jacket, which is run on a six-color press, 8,000 sheets of paper in a batch. Next, the aptly-named press that prints the actual book pages. It weighs 200,000 pounds, and the rolls of specialty paper books require weigh 800 pounds each—no supply chain paper shortages here!

It’s probably a good idea that authors are nowhere near these presses. Watching the flying ribbon of paper is almost scary, as is wondering whether the pages will arrive at the bindery in the right order. (Eeek! The gathering machine! Trimming! Gluing!) It’s amazing how rarely these pieces of the process do mess up. As many books as I’ve read, handled, skimmed, etc., I’ve seen out-of-order pages or bad trimming once in a very blue moon.

The cardboard covers (call one a “case,” and you’ll pass for a printing insider) then go on. The striking jacket wrappers are folded onto the books. Boxes of finished books are wrapped, sealed, labeled, and ready to ship. Fini! This is a lot more than I knew about producing a book when I was 10, and my mom found me pecking on my sturdy Underwood. “Writing is so hard!” I complained. “It’s almost impossible to make the right side of the lines come out even!”

An Inside Look at Commercial Airline Flights

This week, we had a behind-the-scenes look at a fictional flight from Newark Airport to Dallas-Ft. Worth. Robert Zyriek, a former Air Force fighter pilot, now an experienced commercial pilot with more than 20,000 hours of flying time, made the presentation. I’d describe the process as an inevitably frustrating exercise in precise planning amidst a sea of unpredictable circumstances.

Flight 001 was scheduled to leave Newark at 7:30 am Eastern Time and arrive at DFW around 10:45 Central. Leaving, of course meant “doors closed, no latecomers allowed,” and arriving meant “doors open for deplaning,” not when the wheels touch the ground.

That’s a hard-and-fast rule. An excruciating TSA line in San Francisco prompted a couple of guys to prevail on me to let them go ahead, because they were about to miss their flight to Chicago. I of course said “sure,” and as a result, arrived at the gate for my Newark-bound flight just as the door closed. “But the plane is sitting right there.” “Yes, it is, and the door’s closed.” I’d run afoul of the stringent rules of the Federal Aviation Administration, which cover every aspect of your flight, as Zyriek explained.

Planning for a particular flight begins hours before you’re even headed to the airport. For our 7:30 departure, the dispatcher starts around 2 a.m., working up an overview of the flight, condition of the plane, the anticipated weight of the passengers and their luggage, and, most important, the amount of fuel needed.

As the dispatcher does the calculations, the captain, first officer, and flight attendants are still sleeping. The FAA even prescribes when they need to leave their hotel to begin being “on duty.” For a 7:30 a.m. flight, that’s probably about 6:15. We’ve all been on flights where a late inbound flight made the scheduled crew late for our outbound flight. If the combination of the delayed flight and the planned outbound flight will exceed their allowed hours on duty, there must be a new crew altogether.

It’s in implementing the flight plan that the captain contributes to the airline’s bottom line. Pilots can’t control the number of seats sold, but they have some control over the amount of fuel used. The plan covers the route, anticipated weather, whether an alternative landing airport is needed because of weather uncertainties, and the amount of fuel required. The FAA also requires a fuel reserve for 45 extra minutes of flying time, extra fuel for the backup landing airport and for anticipated on-ground delays, and so on. On a short flight, these extra fuel allotments may exceed the amount of fuel needed to reach the original destination.

When the crew arrives at the airport, each member has a job to do. The gate agent hands off the the dispatcher’s plan to the captain, tracks the number of passengers and any special requirements, like wheelchairs, whether there will be animals on board, and the like. The Captain is the nexus of information, and the First Officer (whom Zyriek called “the doer”) turns on the power, programs the navigation computer, and walks around the outside of the plane looking for problems. The flight attendants check their safety equipment, attempt to adjust the cabin temperature, make sure the seats and overhead compartments are working, and take on board food and beverages.

The first changes to our carefully worked out flight plan occur when the first officer’s walkaround reveals ice on the wings. While dispatch planned extra fuel for this, the captain is told the DFW weather forecast is tanking and may require landing at the backup airport (Tulsa), which requires additional fuel. This creates a delay, while fuel is added (time for the wings to ice up again), and dispatch creates a new timing, and a new fuel load calculation. This is why your mom has been waiting at the airport for two hours already by the time you arrive.

In flight, the Captain is anticipating the next moves and monitoring some sensors, but most of the monitoring duties fall to the First Officer. Generally, they take turns “flying” the plane and working the radio. While they might use autopilot during some portion of the flight, Zyriek maintains that autopilot is only as good  as the information it’s given. That’s up to the crew. Over Kentucky the plane encounters a patch of turbulence. Ordinarily, the captain would increase the altitude to avoid it, but the added fuel make the plane too heavy to do that.

During our flight, the cockpit receives reports of worsening conditions at DFW, and Tulsa looks to be in our future, but at almost the last possible moment, the weather moves out, and we land around noon. Whew!

Cover Story

Like a clever jigsaw puzzle, Susan Rigetti’s new novel, Cover Story, about a world-class con artist gives you a lot of pieces. It takes a while for them to start fitting together, allowing the picture to emerge, and it doesn’t snap completely into focus until the end.

The story is told mainly through the diary entries of New York University drop-out Lora Ricci as she embarks on one of her life goals—becoming the editor of an important fashion magazine. Her other goal is to be a famous writer, and she plans to work hard at both. She’s taking the first step, having secured a summer internship at the fashionista watering-hole, Elle. Lora’s diary entries are written in the sort of breathless, pep-talky style totally appropriate to who she is, enthusiastic but inexperienced.

The book leads off not with the diary, but with a short memorandum to the file from Agent Jenée Parker in the FBI’s New York field office. It was written in response to a tip from an editor at Elle suggesting that one of the magazine’s employees isn’t who she claims to be. Cat Wolff makes an instant impression on everyone, especially Lora.

Why does someone with Cat’s connections and sophistication—even criminal tendencies—need to cultivate an unsophisticated, if well-meaning, young woman like Lora? There’s no question that Cat has some scheme in mind in which Lora will get the short end of the stick, but what is it? And how badly will she be hurt?

You’re also privy to Cat’s multiple exchanges with credit card companies, banks where she’s seeking loans, and venture capitalists she’s trying to entice to fund a fashion project. Most immediately pesky are the hand-written notes from the Plaza’s front desk—at first nicely, then firmly— requesting payment of her massive bill. You worry that Lora may somehow be stuck with that bill. Cat may look as serene as a duck floating on a pond, but all the while, her feet are paddling furiously out of sight, as the FBI closes in.

It’s certainly something of a relief when Lora finally starts waking up and realizes Cat may not be quite what Lora thinks she is. And that she may not have Lora’s best interests at heart.

This is a quick read and highly entertaining, and I suspect the scope of Cat’s scam will take your breath away. It sure did mine!

California-based author Susan (Fowler) Rigetti was the technology op-ed editor at The New York Times, and worked as a software engineer in Silicon Valley—good background for Cat, who boldly harnesses the deceptive potential of the Internet. She came to whistleblower fame (Person of the Year for TIME and the Financial Times; numerous magazine covers) writing about her experience as a Uber software engineer. The unaddressed sexual harassment, along with management’s chaos-inducing sexism and political oneupsmanship became notorious, leading to serious reexamination of tech industry culture and practices.