What I’m reading . . .

Holiday Books by Favorite Authors to Gift (or not)

                                                                                                 

All three of these authors are great genre, mystery writers and of course, during the holidays publishers pay big to have them produce a yearly offering of suspense for their waiting readers. I’m one of those readers and was happy to buy their latest tales of intrigue this Christmas season. Sadly though, I only thoroughly read and enjoyed one of them. The other two books I either skimmed through portions of, or in the case of one, I completely stopped reading it somewhere in the middle. How could such solid writers go so wrong?

First let’s talk about The Witch Elm. I fully confess that I’m a Tana French groupie. I’ve read every one of her books. In The Witch Elm French introduces us to Toby, a man with a family and a past. Toby comes home from a night of drinking and is mugged in his apartment for unclear reasons. His wounds are slow to heal so he decides to go live with his Uncle Hugo who’s dying of cancer. Then a human skull is found in the trunk of an old elm tree on Uncle Hugo’s property, the Ivy House. The authorities are called and the suspense builds—except it doesn’t really. And that’s a problem.

French, as usual, is viscerally descriptive in The Witch Elm, dressing down a scene or a character like no other: “ . . . stark and runic as black twigs on snow . . .long, buttery streaks of light on dark wood . . . A girl in a floppy red velvet hat . . . Eastern European accent, wrists bending like a dancer’s.” Sometimes with authors like French it’s just a joy to read the way they put words together. But at 528 pages those words need to go somewhere. They have to do something—something big. This was my first French book to put aside without finishing it. I hope it’s my last.

The Reckoning by John Grisham has a fascinating premise. It’s the 1940’s in Clanton, Mississippi when Pete Banning, cotton farmer and war hero, decides he has to kill someone. There’s no way around it. He makes sure his institutionalized wife and his two grown children are well taken of as he fully expects to either die in the electric chair or be sent to prison for life. At first we don’t know who he’ll kill, and when we find out it’s the popular, local Methodist minister that Pete murders, we don’t know why.

We don’t know why Pete decided to kill the minister until the last few chapters. Which is okay. As a reader, I’m willing to enjoy Grisham’s breezy prose and skillful story telling as long as he sticks to one tale. But apparently in an attempt to fully explore the character of Banning and his motives, Grisham digresses mightily from his main story line. For almost a third of the book we find ourselves in the Philippine islands with Banning suffering through the infamous Bataan Death March. I like military history some, but not placed in the middle of a southern Gothic mystery with only a thin thread linking the two. So, I began to skim read. At least I finished the book and found the ending interesting. Why didn’t Grisham use some of his Philippine pages to flesh out his ending more? It would have been such a better read.

I did finish Michael Connelly’s latest book, Dark Sacred Night. Connelly is another wildly popular author of police procedurals, of which I’ve read nearly every one. What usually hooks me on Connelly’s writing is how methodical he is, detailing the crime, the suspects, the scene, and the investigation as performed by his crusty protagonist, Harry Bosch. In this latest novel, Bosch, along with a new Connelly detective, part-time surfer girl Renee Ballard, are attempting to find the murderer in a cold, unsolved case involving a young prostitute who was killed several years ago. Complicating the investigation is that Bosch houses the murder victim’s mother, a drug addict, in order to help her stay clean. Both Bosch and Ballard operate near the fringe of appropriate conduct for police professionals. It’s a slow boiling mystery, but I eventually found myself turning pages faster and faster to see how it all ends. That’s the sign of an enjoyable read.

What I’m writing . . .

The Cost of Messin’ with Texas

My left eye’s twitching because I’m looking at the bright screen of my cell phone too much. Massaging that eyelid with my thumb helps a little, but then the fluttering returns. I just can’t stop checking my iphone. Its election week and I’ve been tracking the news like a baby tracks its mommy. Some mother—the news cycle. President Trump calls it a “mother f—!” Election news has hooked me like Diet Coke, and all I have to show for my interest, besides emotional instability, is dry, jittery eyes.

This morning I woke to the sad news that Beto O’Rourke lost his senate race to Ted Cruz in Texas. I rapidly scrolled down my iphone screen.  Too bad. He’s such a nice-looking, Robert Kennedy kind of guy. And so much youth and charisma. Like most Americans though, I don’t know much about his politics. When the bumper sticker said: “Don’t Mess With Texas,” I happily obliged. I’ve got my hands full messin’ with Idaho.

The good news on Mr. O’Rourke is that now he’s free to consider a presidential bid. I saw that on my Politico news feed. I had to pause in my reading when my nervous eye became so agitated I thought of stabbing it with a pencil. Instead, I stood up, stretched, and walked over to the window to watch a murder of crows circling in the air. Google said to give eyes a rest by looking away from digital screens every twenty minutes or so. Google also suggested blinking your eyes ten times—all of which I did. This attention to my errant eye helped enough that I felt completely justified in sitting back down in my chair and checking my Washington Post news feed on my phone.

OMG. In a matter of just a few minutes my world was collapsing again. The royal RGB, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was hospitalized. The supreme Supreme. Were her wounds mortal, I wondered? I needed more info so I swept my index finger across the screen of my phone to get the scoop from NBC news. A source claimed RGB had broken ribs from a fall. I’m so sorry, and at 85-years-old she’s certainly allowed to take a spill—but Ruth Bader! Please heal! Rest and wrap yourself. Start praying like I am for your ribs to mend (closing my eyes feels so refreshing).

Sometime during my prayer it occurred to me that Ruth Bader’s health was not the only one being jeopardized. I really needed to take a break from digital news feeds. There were dishes to wash and leaves to sweep, all manner of physical activity to be done. The world would not stop if I quit monitoring it. And, I needed to charge my iphone anyways.

With a lot of determination, I walked over to the charger sitting on my desk and plugged my phone in. Looking up out the window, I saw the crows had quit circling and finally settled in some trees. My eyes were already feeling more relaxed. Then I wandered over to the couch, hit the remote, and settled in for some televised news. Maybe RGB had miraculously recovered.

What I’m writing . . .

images frozenHow Will We Stay Warm this Winter?

How will we stay warm this winter? Two hundred years ago that was a real concern, even a hundred years ago. Most of us are not like Elsa, the Disney character in the movie Frozen, who famously sang, “The cold never bothered me anyway.”

Before central heating, families had large oil stoves in the center of their home. Or, there might be wood stoves in the living room and coal furnaces in the basement. Beds were warmed like Grandma Doris did, with a thick, heated Sears and Roebuck catalog tucked at the foot between the sheets. All of our methods for staying warm in the past emitted lots of carbon and almost all, regrettably, still do. But in this age of climate change and climate peril, there are alternatives and I’ve been thinking a lot about finding a way to go toward the greener side of a white winter.

Maybe we could use the naturally occurring, geothermal groundwater in our desert valley to heat our home this winter? Several artesian wells dot the valley, and at least one family in the past had geothermal water piped into their house to help heat it. When my brother and sister-in-law moved here and rented an old house on the other end of the valley, they piped in geothermal water. I remember they used to bath in a claw-foot tub sitting out in the open on the back porch. Loey explained the way they took a bath was to first fill the tub up with artesian well water to heat the tub itself, and then drain it and refill it again to bath in. That was their recipe for a low-carbon, low-cost, hot bath.

No doubt water is a good insulator and has a higher capacity than air, to absorb heat. Remember radiators? You can still sometimes find them in old buildings. Last month I stayed in a tiny room in an historic hotel in Quebec that had a radiator under the window. But, I first discovered how well water absorbs and transfers heat when I was a student living with a family in eastern France during a particularly brutal winter.

My French family didn’t heat their bedrooms, so I often found myself studying and reading my textbooks, huddled under the bed clothes, wearing my coat, ear muffs, and mittens. Then I had this brilliant idea. I could warm up by taking a bath. In order to do this, every evening I had to walk across the hallway to the bathroom, in plain view of my French family. They were always sitting in the living room watching TV. I remember them tracking me with their eyes as I made my nightly trek across the hall to the bath.

One night I heard Freddie the father say, “Que fait-elle?” (What is she doing?)

Simone, the mother, replied, “Je ne sais pas? Les Americains sont fanatique pour prendre au bains.” (I don’t know. Americans are fanatical about taking baths.)

Another watery idea I’ve had to heat our home this winter is installing solar panels to charge a water-heat pump. However, Google tells me air-heat pumps are more efficient. My husband and I’ve also talked about generally increasing our home’s heat efficiency by sealing off the second floor of our house with a door. There’s a lot we can do to stay warm without using our carbon-spewing, diesel furnace. But all these changes take an investment of time—and money. Everything costs, one way or another. We either pay upfront—or we all pay in the future, when fossil fuels have our climate in a choke-hold. Then my biggest worry won’t be staying warm in the winter, but cool in a blazing, hot summer.

What I’m reading . . .

Where the Crawdads Sing (novel)
By Delia Owens

A young girl grows up alone in the coastal marshlands of North Carolina, having been abandoned by her family. She can neither read nor write so the sea gulls, shore birds, and swamp creatures become her friends. In order to survive, she learns how to fish and to hunt on the shoreline for mussels, which she sells to the local bait and tackle store. In her desperate loneliness she meets and befriends two boys, Tate, the son of a local shrimper, and Chase, the popular and handsome townie. Then, someone is killed and the local sheriff launches an investigation.

This first novel by Delia Owens is both a soulful romance and intriguing murder mystery. Owens creates a wonderful character in Kya, the swamp girl. Though I love a good romance, I found myself more fascinated by Owen’s convincing description of Kya’s survival, once her drunken and abusive father finally left, in the Carolinian swamps at the age of seven. Ever since reading The Boxcar Children and The Secret Garden (when I wasn’t much older than seven) I’ve enjoyed stories of children discovering and building places for themselves in wilderness areas. Owens obviously knows the North Carolina coastline and the animals that live there.  Her prose is rich and descriptive.

This is definitely a book club pick, a novel with both merit and high entertainment value.

What I’m watching . . .

The Haunting of Hill House (Netflix TV series/Shirley Jackson book)

When I was about sixteen years old, I read Shirley Jackson’s book The Haunting of Hill House. Jackson first published her haunted house story in 1953 and then ten years later in 1963, the book was made into a black and white movie starring Julie Harris. Now Netflix has come out with a brand new TV series of The Haunting of Hill House (just in time for Halloween) and I have to say, the screen writers did a remarkable job. The Netflix series is refreshingly, not a slasher/gore, horror movie enslaved to haunted house conventions.  It even has a satisfying, if not happy ending, something increasingly unique to the genre.  But more about the new Netflix series later.  First, I’d like to talk a little about the book.

As a young woman, though I liked to read, I’d never read a scary book before The Haunting of Hill House.  In those days not many popular authors wrote horror, especially a story of a bizarre haunted house with serious co-dependent issues. The Haunting of Hill House made such an impression on me at such an impressionable age, I’ve attributed the occasional haunted house dreams I’ve had all my life to reading this book when I was a girl. I can still quote some of the lines Jackson wrote to describe Hill House. She said the house was “insane” and “whoever walked there, walked alone.”

Prior to The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson’s greatest claim to fame was her 1948 short story, The Lottery. Some may be familiar with this shocking tale because it’s been repeatedly anthologized in high school English textbooks. Still, I think The Haunting of Hill House is Jackson’s signature work. Stephen King, our preeminent teller of scary tales, has paid tribute many times to Shirley Jackson and The Haunting of Hill House.

Before the Netflix series, there were at least two film versions of The Haunting of Hill House, one of those being the atmospheric and frightening 1960’s movie. The Netflix production though, has managed to not only capture the essence of Jackson’s story, but successfully elaborate and enrich it. The original book is about a small group of people led by a psychic researcher, who come to Hill House to investigate rumors that it’s haunted.  In the Netflix version, the group exploring the house is a young family. They’ve bought Hill House to renovate and resell it.

Though the acting is wonderful in the new Netflix series what’s really memorable is the way the filmmakers use flashbacks and time sequence to build the mystery surrounding the house. They juxtapose the older, present-day family members currently struggling with trauma from their Hill House experience, with their much younger selves at the time they lived in Hill House. The opening scene begins in the past with the young father loading his children in the family station wagon in the middle of the night.  He’s desperately trying to leave Hill House before any more family members die.

There’s been lots of haunted house tales since Jackson’s book, but what makes her story and the Netflix series so distinct is how the character of the house is portrayed.  It is both a benign reflection of its inhabitants, and something fearfully predatory.  What does Hill House want and why? Behind both Jackson’s story and the Netflix offering, lies the chilling answer.