Monday, July 31, 2006

Home Again, Home Again!

This weekend, it finally, really, truly happened: we’re back in our house!

There is still much work to be done on the house, piles of boxes and suitcases to be unpacked, and lots of stuff to be organized and put away. But last night we went to sleep in our own (new) beds. When I awoke this morning, for an instant I actually didn’t know where I was.

Our big black cat, Huckleberry, recognized the house and neighborhood from the car. He was so excited; he immediately loped up the stairs, checking out one room after the other. Hey, what happened to the carpet up here? Why does all the wooden furniture downstairs smell like linseed oil and shellac? Where’d these sofas and chairs come from? And who shrank my tower?

Thomasina and Press were, predictably, more cautious, emerging slowly from their carriers, slinking around behind furniture, and smelling, smelling, smelling. But no one forgot where the feeding station was. And by this morning, all three cats were happily ensconced in their favorite sleeping perches. All’s right in their world.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Authors in Leather

(image from Wiki Commons)

What is it with writers wearing black leather jackets in their author photos?

I first noticed this phenomenon last August. I needed to have a new author photo taken and—never one to reinvent the wheel—I pulled a bunch of books off the shelves and looked at recent author photos for ideas. Hmmm. Black leather jacket. Black leather jacket. Oh, look; she’s wearing a black leather jacket. Male authors wear them, too, but middle-aged romance writers seem particularly attracted to them. I guess they figure a black leather jacket makes them look young, sexy, edgy, successful. Nice image. When did it become a cliché?

I’m writing about this because my copy of RWR arrived in the mail today. I flipped it over, and there was a full-page ad for a NYT bestelling author’s new book, complete with a photo of the NYT bestselling author wearing…you guessed it, a black leather jacket. It was good for a laugh.

Please don’t hate me if you’re an author and you wore a black leather jacket for your author photo shoot. But when I finally get around to having my new author photo taken, I think I’ll wear something else. Something different, like maybe a tweed jacket.

No, wait; Dan Brown beat me to it.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Stopping to Smell the Roses

I spent the morning weeding my garden. My poor garden has suffered terribly over the past eleven months. Its gardener has been MIA. Or maybe I mean AWOL? Anyway, I decided the house reconstruction could wait; I simply couldn’t stand looking at my garden in that state any longer. It started raining after I’d been outside for about an hour, but I kept working. It wasn’t raining THAT hard, and at this time of year, a light rain is better than a hot sun.

This was not a chore for me. I actually enjoy gardening. It’s in my blood. My 89-year-old mother still loves working in her garden, as did her mother before her, and her mother before her. My children tease me about my garden, but I only smile. You see, when I was their age, my mother and her garden amused me, too.

I recently found a photograph of my father’s grandmother: a little old lady surrounded by a riot of roses and tomato plants. On the back, my grandmother had written, “Mama in her garden.”

So it came to me from both sides.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Burying Katrina's Dead

I read in the paper this morning that the New Orleans city cemeteries are still not digging graves or lowering coffins into graves; any families wishing to bury loved ones need to take care of those little details themselves.

The article brought back painful memories of the death of my Aunt Clair last fall. Aunt Clair was 94, but she was still in good shape before the storm. She evacuated to Shreveport with my cousin Robert and his family three days before the storm, then spent about a month after Katrina living in a motel room with my Uncle Jiggs, his wife Lillian, Lillian’s sister, four cats and two dogs. It sounds hellish, but I understand she took it well, enjoyed the animals, and loved going out to eat every night. What she didn’t take well was the daily news reports of what was happening to the city she loved. When Lillian drove home in early October, she had to take Aunt Clair straight to the emergency room of the only hospital then functioning in the city. She was dying.

I remember sitting next to her hospital bed one day when a member of the staff stopped by to chat and apologize for the orange blanket on my aunt's bed. It seems their regular laundry service had been knocked out by the storm, so they were forced to get their blankets from FEMA. I looked at my dying aunt lying under that orange FEMA blanket, and thought, I didn’t need to know this!

Amongst all the other problems, worries, and sorrows we were dealing with in those days was the concern of what we would do with Aunt Clair when she died. At first, the cemetery where she had her plot was underwater. But even when the water went down, the cemetery was still closed (what the flood did to the area cemeteries was nasty). Aunt Clair held on for more weeks than any one expected her to, but not long enough. When she died, the family had to bury her in a country cemetery in a parish up the river.

So it was quite a shock for me to realize that people are still having to deal with this. Families are hiring their own laborers to dig the graves, with the pallbearers lowering the coffins themselves. And because the state only requires coffins to be buried 14 inches deep, that’s the depth they’re digging to.

I don’t want to think about what’s going to happen if we get another hurricane.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Remembering that the Glass Is Half-Full

I’ve been unpacking boxes as part of our push to move back into the house. We still have about a week’s worth of things to do before we dare turn the cats loose in here, but preparations for the Big Event are well underway.

No one who knows me would ever characterize me as a “the glass is half-full” type of person. And yet I’ve been feeling rather euphoric these days. Each box I open is like what the Aussies call a Lucky Dip. I never know what I’ll find: things I’d forgotten I had, things I thought I’d lost are emerging. So much was thrown in boxes and bins, helter-skelter, when Rita was coming that it’s a blur. I was tucking some of my grandmother’s tablecloths into my newly restored buffet today, and I found myself crying (something I seem to do easily these days) because I felt so lucky. I know many people who lost everything. Yes, I lost much, and much of what I have left will forever bear Katrina’s telltale marks. Yet each day brings me dozens of small moments of joy as I realize anew how much I still have.

My glass is more than half full.

What I'm reading... CABINET OF CURIOSITIES, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. I've only just begun, but so far it's holding my interest.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

My Beard

I currently have a partial—that is, a synopsis and several chapters—submitted to over half a dozen editors in New York. This particular partial is for a political/spy thriller. It has gone out under a deliberately WASPY-sounding male pseudonym. Why? Because according to the current wisdom, the big New York editors won’t take a thriller seriously if it’s written by a female. As for a former romance writer? Forget it.

Given my long-standing feminist principles, you might think I’d find that offensive, and to a certain extent I do. But only up to a point. No one likes to be prejudged, whether it’s because of the color of their skin, their religion, or their sex, and I certainly bristle when people make assumptions about my writing based on the fact I used to write romances. Yet I myself won’t pick up a thriller written by a woman unless I know for a fact she’s competent. The reason? I’ve been lured into buying too many stinkers produced by former romance writers who have taken to writing thrillers in the last few years. And so my thriller proposal has gone out with a male pseudonym.

Actually, while I’ve always loved political/spy thrillers, I never felt competent enough to write one. This current book is being written in collaboration with my husband, who knows the spy business pretty well, having spent 21 years in it. He understands all the things I knew I didn’t—and I don’t mean just obvious things such as weapons specs and how an operation is run. A novel is always a balancing act between reality and make-believe, and he has helped to make sure this book balances out well.

So how is the proposal doing? We got our first rejection yesterday. The editor said, “It’s well done, with interesting characters, timely themes, and expert pacing, but as much as I enjoyed it, in the end I felt it was a bit commercial for us and I just don’t think we’re the best house to publish it successfully. I know another editor will snap it up, though, so I’ll step aside with best wishes.”

A disappointment, obviously, although it definitely qualifies as the best rejection letter I’ve ever received. So now I’m holding my breath, waiting to hear from the others.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

On Image and Honesty

I heard something the other day that started me thinking about authors, blogs, author promotion, and readers. Seems a writer of vampire chicklit has alienated some of her readers by a remark made on her blog. Her remark—a disparaging comment about readers who frequent used bookstores—has apparently inspired legions of her readers to swear they’ll never read another of her books. Which is rather amusing in a way, since if they’re buying her books in used bookstores, she’s unlikely to notice their boycott.

But the incident illustrates something that’s been niggling at me for a while now. There is a growing trend, particularly among writers of cozies and romances, to reach out to readers at a personal level. The internet didn’t start this; I can remember Dear Reader letters on the backs of romances published twenty years ago. But the internet, with its interactive websites and blogs, has certainly given the trend a huge push. Publishers and writers have been quick to notice that a number of readers like to feel as if they “know” writers. Personal appearances, weblogs, newsletters, etc, all cultivate that feeling of familiarity, almost a virtual friendship. And when these readers feel a writer is their friend, they treat her like a friend: not only will they rush out to buy her next book, but they’ll forgive her for things they’d normally complain about, whether it’s dull characters, clunky prose, or predictable plots.

So what’s wrong with this? The problem, as I see it, is that it’s all too often a mirage, as fake and dishonest as a 1950’s Hollywood star being forced by his handlers into a loveless marriage to disguise the fact that he’s gay. In their newsletters, writers are always nauseatingly perky and upbeat; in their blogs, authors are warned to be careful to steer away from anything that might possibly alienate any reader. It seems many readers will forgive a befriended writer for writing a bad book, but not for holding a political opinion they find inflammatory.

I’m frequently characterized by my family as naïve and idealistic, and I guess that tendency is showing here. What does it matter if the image a writer is projecting is false, as long as it sells books?

It matters.

What I’m listening to… I’ve finally finished THE LABYRINTH. Sixteen CD’s! Wanting something both shorter and lighter, I’ve started Lillian Jackson Braun’s THE CAT WHO MOVED A MOUNTAIN. It’s fun. And short.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

On the Cusp

(Above: Huck on his tower in better days.)

Well, it’s finally happening: we’ve started moving suitcases and boxes from my mother’s house back to our house. No, the house isn’t “finished” yet; I suspect we’ll be lucky if it’s “finished” by Christmas. But it’s almost to the point we can move back in and sleep and eat here. After so long, it seems hard to believe.

Yesterday the FedEx guy even delivered Huckleberry’s new tower (Huckleberry is our King Cat, and he dearly loved his old climbing tower). Unfortunately, this new tower is only about four feet tall, whereas the old one was five feet. Will he notice after so long, we wonder? Will all the cats be glad to be home, or will this move be just another trauma the poor little dears will have to learn to cope with? After Katrina, the cats were so traumatized we racked up $750 in vet bills. Obviously, humans aren’t the only ones who get sick from stress.

What I’m reading… UNEARTHING ATLANTIS: AN ARCHAEOLOGICAL ODYSSEY, by Charles Pellegrino. A surprisingly gripping account of the excavations at Akrotiri.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

On Stuff

My attitude toward possessions has changed since Katrina. I know my Stuff is still more precious to me than it should be; mementos from my past still bring me the warmth of remembrance, relics of great antiquity still fill me with awe and a sense of my own mortality, objects of beauty still lift my heart and inspire my soul.

Yet I find I no longer lust after possessions in the way I once did. I am content with what I have left and feel no need to add more (beyond the mundane basics—such as sofas, mattresses and frying pans—required for a reasonably comfortable life). I suppose Katrina brought home to me what had before been only an abstract awareness: that while possessions can bring joy, they are also an encumbrance: an encumbrance that weighs us down and can stifle the joy of life with a fear of loss.

What I’m reading… THE CODEX, by Douglas Preston. A fun book with a clever premise and a memorable collection of well-drawn characters written by a master of prose and story construction. Or maybe it just seems wonderful in comparison to its predecessor?

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The Problem with Anarchy

I’m not a person who loves cops. Don’t get me wrong: one of my favorite cousins spent 30 years on the New Orleans police force, and a friend of mine was a cop for many years. So I know some cops are good, compassionate people. Unfortunately, other cops are not. Power can bring out the worst in people, and some cops are insufferable assholes on power trips with the ethical standards of a mob hit man. Which is a bad combination with a badge and a gun.

Why, you might ask, is she writing about cops? Because I’m tired of the lack of cops on our streets. Just as power brings out the worst in some cops, I have come to realize that a lack of cops brings out the worst in some drivers. And they seem to be degenerating as the months go by. Blatantly running red lights and stop signs. Going 20-30 miles over the speed limit in residential neighborhoods. Tailgating. Yes, some of these drivers are lost in a post-Katrina, stress-induced fog. But most are just louts.

It would be nice to think that people can police themselves. Nice to think that even when no one’s watching, people still do the right thing. Some do. Some don’t. Hand a bunch of GIs guns and turn them loose in Iraq, and some will rape and murder and steal when no one is watching. Turn a bunch of New Orleans drivers loose on the streets with no cops, and they start killing people, too—with their cars. Which I suppose is why anarchism is attractive as a political theory, but deadly in practice.

End of rant.

What I’m reading… BUDDHA, by Karen Armstrong. I enjoyed her book on Islam so much, I decided to give this one a try. It’s even better.

Friday, July 07, 2006

The Bottom Shelf Phobia

Books: delight of my life, bane of my existence. I’ve spent the past week sorting my books, organizing them into subject groupings, and trying to get them to fit logically on my new shelves. I promised myself I’d weed through my books as I emptied the boxes, and I have. I must have set aside at least…oh, half a dozen volumes to give away.

I lost so many books in the flood you’d think I’d be having an easy time of it. Except that I’ve also bought a lot of books in the past ten months. And I find I can’t seem to bring myself to put anything on the bottom shelves. I look at those shelves and remember the books that used to go there, books I’ll never be able to replace. That’s part of it. But I suspect there’s another part of it, a subconscious belief that anything I put on those shelves will be in danger. I know it’s silly; next time—if there is a next time—we could get enough water to submerge my entire library. Nothing in this house is really safe. And yet the bottom shelves still stand there, empty.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Progress, with a Painful Twist

(Above: with my cousins in 1980)

This year, my cousin Robert and his wife hosted the family’s Fourth of July picnic at their new home on the outskirts of Ticfaw, a small town about an hour to the northwest of New Orleans. Robert, his Aunt Rosie, and Robert’s father, my Uncle Bob, all used to live on one block in Old Metairie. When that part of the city was finally drained and reopened last fall, I drove by their houses. Then I covered my face with my hands and wept.

When I saw Robert and Darlene last Christmas, they were still in a state of shock, still living in a rented house, still angry and struggling with the insanity of bureaucracy that is paralyzing the area. Now they have been happily settled in their new house for three months. The setting is beyond lovely, and the house is both new and large (it needs to be large; at the moment Robert has his homeless daughter, a homeless son and daughter-in-law, and his Aunt Rosie still living with him). Today, they talk calmly about how all three Old Metairie houses have been “plowed under.” Robert has gone on a diet, lost 50 pounds, and looks better than he has in years. Yes, Virginia, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

At Christmas, family talk was of how many inches—or feet—of water we each had in our houses. We talked about the many, bizarre manifestations of mold, about the heartbreak of water sodden family photos, a beloved aunt’s china that smashed when the furniture holding it disintegrated. On Tuesday, we talked about how hard it is to get a plumber, about the hours wasted trying to track down the simplest of building materials. Progress.

And yet… And yet, missing from the gathering were those like my cousin Jimmy, who has moved to North Carolina. Another cousin, Chris, drove in from his new home in Mississippi. And of the nine brothers and sisters who once formed the linchpin of these family reunions, there were now only four: two brothers, two sisters.

Slowly, we are rebuilding our lives. But different lives. And too many of the loved ones who once formed a part of those lives are gone.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

When Skies Turn Dark

I don’t like storms anymore. There was a time I found the crash of thunder, the pounding of heavy rain, the rush of a wild wind exhilarating. No longer.

We had a thunderstorm today. Nothing serious, and God knows we needed the rain. Yet I still felt my anxiety level rising, found it difficult to settle down to work.

I’d been through hurricanes before Katrina and Rita. One memorable fall after I bought my house here, we had two storms hit in a week. My yard had grade problems I hadn’t gotten around to fixing, and as I watched the water build up against the wall outside my office window, I realized I needed to do something. So I pulled on my gumboots, grabbed a shovel, and went outside to dig a ditch and drain the water away from the house. Danielle was yelling, “Mama! You’re crazy!  It's 1:00 in the morning. In the middle of a hurricane!" But it needed to be done, and it was only a Category One hurricane, after all.

I’m not sure which of our two recent hurricanes, Katrina or Rita, was responsible for this shift in my reaction to storms. Katrina was the more devastating storm, but as I listened to Rita lash Sam’s Baton Rouge apartment, I knew my home was going into that second hurricane with half its roof gone. Would the blue tarps Steve had nailed down hold? Would Rita destroy what Katrina had left?

Of course, that drama had a happy ending: Steve’s tarps kept the house safe (although I did walk out of the apartment at the end of the storm to find my VW sitting in the middle of a veritable lake of floodwaters). But an unexpected legacy of those two dark, anxiety-ridden events is this, this twist of irrational fear when the skies turn ugly and thunder rumbles.

Will I ever get over it? Perhaps, in time, the anxiety will lessen. But I don’t think I’ll ever enjoy storms again.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Bending Reality to the Breaking Point

I’ve been limping my way through you-know-who's ANGELS AND DEMONS, and it’s led me to give more thought to a point I touched upon here the other day: authors who twist or ignore facts for the convenience of their plots, or simply fail to invest the time to check their facts before they sit down to write.

Now, I don’t have a problem with bending reality a bit; we are talking fiction here. And everyone, no matter how careful, makes mistakes; God knows I’ve done it myself. But I quickly lose interest in a book—and respect for an author—when someone who’s supposed to be writing a suspense, romance, thriller, or mystery acts like he’s writing science fiction and can just make stuff up as he goes along. Big, important stuff.

Thus we have thrillers in which Saddam Hussein—a dedicated secularist—is hobnobbing with Islamic fundamentalists, medieval romances where the heroine acts and talks like a Valley Girl, and mysteries where a hurricane is about to hit New Orleans during Mardi Gras. In my current read, for example, our author would have us believe that the world is watching, breathless, as the Catholic church prepares to elect a new pope, yet the BBC has only sent one journalist—and a newly-hired one at that. Is Dan Brown that naive, or does he simply assume most of his readers are? Better yet, consider the central premise of the plot: a bunch of loonies are about to blow up the middle of Rome, yet four incredibly inexperienced people—one a priest, one a scientist, another a Harvard scholar—take it upon themselves not to tell anyone? A plot device, obviously; calling in the Italian army and every expert from across Europe would have left our heroine and hero with precious little to do. Yet the situation is so silly, and so obviously not what would happen, that I would expect most people to groan and throw the book across the room. From looking at the book’s sales record, however, that obviously isn’t happening. And don’t get me started on all the historical mistakes in the Da Vinci Code.

So am I unusual in finding my pleasure destroyed by this kind of gross inaccuracy?