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“They were a very nasty couple.”

“…They were a very nasty couple. Bad type. Superstitious, like most crooks. She was the worst of the two, in my opinion. Tried to fix the job so’s it’d look as if the servants had done it. Do you recollect that, sir?”
“Yes,” said Alleyn slowly, “yes.”
“Mind,” said the constable warming a little, “I reckon if he hadn’t lost his nerve they’d have got away with it. No finger-printing in those days, you see. And you know how it’d be, sir. You don’t expect people of their class to commit murder.”
“No.”
“No, you don’t. And with the weapons lying there beside these grooms or whatever they were, and so on, well the first thing anybody would have said was: ‘Here’s our birds.’ Not that there seemed to be anything like what you’d call an inquiry.’
“Not precisely,” said Alleyn.
“No, sir. No,” continued the constable, turning his back to the wind, “if Macbeth hadn’t got jumpy and mucked things up I reckon they’d have got away with it. They seemed to be well-liked people in the district. Some kind of royalty. Aristocratic like. Well, nobody suspects people of that class. That’s my point.”

My favorite take on Macbeth from Ngaio Marsh’s A Surfeit of Lampreys.

Although there is much to be said for the Reduced Shakespeare version, too.

Not to mention the Sassy Gay Friend. “A hobby or an orgasm, stat.”

“Did you read ‘Macbeth’?”
“I had to read it,” she said, “There wasn’t a scrap of anything else to read in the whole room.”
“Did you like it?” I asked.
“No, I did not,” she said, decisively. “In the first place, I don’t think for a moment that Macbeth did it.”
–The Macbeth Murder Mystery, James Thurber

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“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

My friend Kerri forced me to get Stephen King’s On Writing. I almost never read books about writing any more because it’s just too much like work, and besides, after Strunk and White, what more needs to be said?. I was in no hurry to read it, but after a year and a half guilt finally moved it off the to-read pile.

Started it. Enjoyed his life story. Liked Bill Bryson‘s better.

He reveres The Elements of Style, okay, he’s showing me something.

He thinks adverbs are the mark of a lazy writer, me, too.

His life story went fast, and now I’m bogged down in the how to write part. Too much like work. I’m going to stick to it at least until the scene where he’s laying on the side of the road thinking, “OMG, I’ve been run over by one of my characters,” which of course I’ve heard about, as who hasn’t.

Two days later:

Okay, time to stop whining. This is a good book. It is in fact (oh, he’d smack my hand for that phrase) three good books, or novellas, if such a term may be used to describe non-fiction. The first is his life story, the second is a primer on the craft of writing, and the third is the account of his close encounter of the van-crazy-guy-and-Rottweiler kind. The first is entertaining as hell, the third is entertaining and scary as hell, and the middle section, the section on craft is honest, practical and hard-nosed as hell. And also entertaining.

I like everything he said about craft because I agree with all of it. “The best form of dialogue attribution is said.” “You should avoid the passive tense.” “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Simple, direct, absolute, I’d go farther than King and say that these are rules that should be tattooed backwards on the foreheads of all beginning authors so they see them every time they look in the mirror.

What I really like here is that he takes craft so seriously, because he loves it. He is in love with writing, with storytelling, with the written word, in love even with the way it looks on the page. He cares that we do the best job we can. “I don’t believe a story or a novel should be allowed outside the door of your study or writing room unless you feel confident that it’s reasonably reader-friendly.

What he said. Thanks, Kerri.

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“I confess I am enjoying the sight of you within my walls without bandages.”

The Sleeping Partner (Sarah Tolerance, #3)The Sleeping Partner by Madeleine E. Robins

Of the first two Sarah Tolerance novels I wrote on this site

Miss Sarah Tolerance elopes with her brother’s fencing instructor from Regency England to the continent, and when he dies returns home. Cast off by her family, she determines to make her way in the world without falling into prostitution, the usual fallback of the Fallen Woman, and instead sets herself up as an Agent of Inquiry. Setting, plot and especially character are all excellent in Point of Honor and Petty Treason by Madeleine E. Robins. Trust me, you will believe a woman can be a PI in England in 1810.

The Sleeping Partner, the third in the series, may be the best yet. Take the first paragraph.

No one who had seen Miss Sarah Brereton as a child would have taken her for a heroine. She was a well-behaved girl, affectionate and active, given to rolling hoops and running races with the gardener’s children. Her upbringing was neither intellectual or revolutionary, being designed to make her what she was destined to be: the well-bred wife of a gentleman of means. That she had failed to achieve this goal was not the fault of her family but derived from some flaw in her character: at sixteen, Miss Brereton had fallen in love with her brother’s fencing master and eloped, ruining forever her chances at respectability and marriage. Seeking to contain the damage, Sir William Brereton disowned his daughter and forbade to have her name mentioned. With the girl as good as dead, the honor of the Breretons was restored to a near-unsullied state. The family went on much as before.

No wonder Sarah changed her name, and no wonder what she changed it to. Editors give authors hell over backstory in series novels, and they’re right to do so because first timers to the series need to know what’s going on. That first paragraph is an exemplar of craft, placing the main character precisely in her place and time, and fun to read besides. Impossible not to turn the page, where not very much farther on in the narrative Sarah uses her sword to spank a bully with a club. Heroine, it turns out, was exactly the right word.

By now Sarah is well-established as an Agent of Inquiry, and is approached at her club, Tarsio’s, by a potential client.

…Corton appeared beside her and murmured that a lady was inquiring for her.

“What sort of lady?” She would see her visitor regardless, but often found the porter’s impressions useful.

“A real lady, miss. A bit anxious about the eyes.”

A real lady in a state of anxiety bode well for business and thus for Miss Tolerance’s pocket-book. She directed Corton to bring the visitor up.

The anxious lady’s sister is missing and she hires Sarah to find her, and Sarah is plunged in to a maelstrom of betrayal, theft, treason and murder that threatens her physically and emotionally, and which drags her willy-nilly back into her family, that same family which booted her out so unceremoniously so many years before. In the course of events we meet old friends

Joshua Glebb’s head, bald, with a long fringe of yellowed hair circling the back, shone in the dusty light from the far window. His entire being appeared to be in the process of succumbing slowly to gravity; his mouth turned down, and his chin, shoulders and gut all looked to be making a slow progress downward until they would puddle around his boot-sole. Until that should happen, Mr. Glebb resembled a fussy and dyspeptic head clerk, respectably dressed and sour of expression. His mouth attained–not a smile, but an absence of frown–when he looked up at Miss Tolerance, and his shrewd eyes lit.

and make new ones, like the missing girl’s governess, Miss Nottingale.

“…That morning, in fact, she was reading a political essay Mr. John Thorpe had given her.” She paused. “Lord Lyne did not like it.”

“What was the essay?”

“A Vindication of the Rights of Women, by Mrs. Godwin.”

“And she was reading this at breakfast?” That seemed to Miss Tolerance enough to put anyone off their meal.

Oh yes, we’ll meet Mrs. Godwin, aka Mary Wollstonecraft, later. Sir Walter Mandif, magistrate, returns, too

“I confess I am enjoying the sight of you within my walls without bandages.”

Highly recommended, all three of them, and my fingers are crossed for more.

Click here to read all my Goodreads reviews.

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Cooking, writes Barnes, is the transformation of uncertainty (the recipe) into certainty (the dish) via fuss.

The Pedant in the KitchenThe Pedant in the Kitchen by Julian Barnes

A collection of essays on the art and obsession of cooking well for one’s friends. On his kitchen beginnings:

…as with sex, politics, and religion, so with cooking; by the time I began finding out about it for myself, it was too late to ask my parents. They had failed to instruct me, and I would punish them by not asking now. I was in my mid-twenties and reading for the bar; some of the food I concocted at that time was criminal. Top of my range was bacon chop, peas and potatoes…The key factors governing my ‘cooking’ at this time were poverty, lack of skill, and gastronomic conservatism.

On discovering cookery books:

…I was drawn to Tomates a la Creme, which Pomiane learned from his Polish mother, and which, according. E.D., ‘taste[s] so startlingly unline any other dish of cooked tomatoes that any restaurateur who put it on his menu would, in all probability, soon find it listed in the guide books as a regional specialy.’ You take six tomatoes, halve them, melt a lump of butter, put the tomatoes in a frying pan cut side down, prick their rounded sides, turn again (to let the juices run out), turn back up at once, add 3 fl oz double cream, mix, let it all bubble, serve.

I didn’t much trust this: the quantity of butter was imprecise, the strength of the gas unspecified. Further, it was mid-February, so the best tomatoes I could find were pale orange, frost-hard, and pretty juice-free inside. I fanatically observed the approximations of Pomiane’s recipe, while chucking in a little salt, pepper, and sugar in the tiny hope of not disgracing the kitchen…and the result was unbelievably good — the method had somehow extracted richness from half a dozen fruits which looked as if they had long ago mislaid their essence.

So then it was off to www.abebooks.com for a copy of Cooking with Pomiane…

On the use of cookery books:

Let me ask you this: would you use a lawyer who said ‘Oh, I glance at a few statutes, but only to get ideas’?

Speaking for myself, no, I would not. I feel better now about having to look at the recipe for my rustic loaf every time I make it.

The Pedant in the Kitchen is not concerned with whether cooking is a science or an art; he will settle for it being a craft, like woodwork or home welding.

Okay. On lessons learned:

…that the relationship between professional and domestic cook has similarities to a sexual encounter. One party is normally more experienced that the other; and either party should have the right at any moment, to say, ‘No, I’m not going to do that.’

I ain’t never deboning no chickens neither. On the inconstant nature of recipes:

You never step into the same stream twice, and a cook never steps into the same recipe twice. The cook, the ingredients, the recipe, and the resulting dish are never exactly the same. It’s not exactly post-modernism, and it might be heavy-handed to invoke Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, but you know what I mean.

I do.

There is something equally enjoyable on every page. Cooking, writes Barnes, is the transformation of uncertainty (the recipe) into certainty (the dish) via fuss. The aforesaid fuss leading to the assigning of one to five hangman’s nooses to a meal going south in the kitchen while his hungry guests are whooping it up in the living room. Highly recommended.

All my Goodreads reviews here.

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The cowboying way of life

Monte WalshMonte Walsh by Jack Schaefer

I simply disappeared between the covers of this book. Hilarious, heart-breaking and oh so real, this isn’t just a story about a cowboy and the cowboying way of life, it’s about a strict code and living up to it especially when it ain’t easy, it’s about the settling of the American West, and it’s about the progress of civilization and what gets left behind.

People like Monte exist anywhere there is a frontier, they are the loners who go out ahead of the rest of us, and when they’re done, there is no place left for them. If you don’t cry at the end of this book, you aren’t human.

There is also a pretty good film adaptation starring Tom Selleck.

View all my reviews

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Memorial Day Reads

Paul Fussell died in 2012. Many obituaries have been written, all worth reading (The Guardian’s here and the New York Times’ here).

I tend to read by subject. I’ll travel to France, say, and when I get home I’m reading Lunch in Paris, The Greater Journey and My Life in France. I get home from Turkey and suddenly I’ve got books about Turkey backing up on the Kindle app on my iPhone, Ataturk, Birds Without Wings, The Oracle of Stamboul, A Fez of the Heart.

So when I heard the news about Paul Fussell, I was transported instantly back to that year that I was reading about World War II. Cornelius Ryan’s The Longest Day, A Bridge Too Far, and The Last Battle led me to Bill Mauldin’s The Brass Ring, everything by Ernie Pyle and Stilwell and the American Experience in China. (Reading really is the true perpetual motion machine.)

So today, I’m remembering Paul Fussell, who wrote about a different kind of war. The Guardian said it best:

The US writer Paul Fussell’s 1975 book The Great War and Modern Memory was, according to the British military historian John Keegan, revolutionary. Fussell, in what he called “an elegaic commentary”, shaped a picture of the horrors of the first world war, and the cold stupidity of its leaders, made more trenchant by his own experiences in the second world war. He also used the writings of Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon and others to show how the romanticising of the war and its heroes provided the creative spark for modernism, and the sensibility of disillusion and distrust of authority that characterised the so-called “lost generation”.

(And of course after reading The Great War and Modern Memory I had to look up Rupert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon, who led me to Wilfred Owen and Randall Jarrell. You want to talk about the glory of war? Go read Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball-Turret Gunner” first.)

I’m a huge Barbara Tuchman fan, but I read Fussell before I read Tuchman, and Fussell colored my view of World War I so strongly that Tuchman’s WWI books are my least favorites.

I remember particularly Fussell’s Thank God for the Atom Bomb. The title essay is the grunt’s eye view of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The title comes from a line from another book by another author, Goodbye, Darkness by William Manchester, another grunt’s eye view of the war in the Pacific.

Sacrifice takes on a different meaning for you, when you’re the sacrifice.

In a 1997 interview in The Atlantic , Fussell said

I had an abusive letter just yesterday that objected very much to my “lack of patriotism” and my willingness to traduce the United States. I don’t think I do that at all. I like the United States so much that I wish it would grow up.

Me, too.

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Flying Is Basic Transportation to Alaskans

In Inside the Sky, Langewiesche (son of the author of Stick and Rudder) explores the art and craft of flight in first person from the left seat, the view, aviation history, banking, accidents, weather, the FAA, and the tower. “Flying at its best is a way of thinking,” he writes. “Because of that, once having left the earth’s surface, people never again quite return to it.”

On banking, he illustrates an integral movement of flight by using analogies anyone can understand

The bank is a condition of tilted wings, and the turn is the change in the direction which results. The connection between the two is inexorable: The airplane must bank to turn, and when it is banked it must turn…The miraculous part of the maneuver is that the turn has an important balancing effect on the bank that causes it. The same effect, in cruder form, steadies cars on banked roadways, and bobsleds on the vertical walls of icy tracks. The difference in airplanes is that as the bank angle increases, the turn also quickens and by doing so automatically delivers a balance that is perfect. Bicycles react similarly: When they start to topple, they turn and thereby keep themselves up. Airplanes are even steadier. They operate in three-dimensional space and do not rely on tires to keep from sliding to the side They will never capsize no matter how steeply they are banked.

On aviation history

The first detailed account of the Wrights’ success appeared not in the New York Times or the Scientific American, but in Gleanings in Bee Culture, a little magazine for beekeepers published in Medina, Ohio.

I immediately cut-and-pasted that into an email to Laurie King, saying “Perhaps Holmes subscribes?”

On the crash of a Boeing 747 one night in Bombay

I refuse to turn away from the thought that the airplane’s lights illuminated the ocean’s surface at the last instant that the surface appeared to surge at the airplane from somewhere above, and that the flight engineer flinched as the water exploded through the cockpit. It does not help to be polite about these details. The tangible consequence of any serious failure in flight can be just such an unstoppable insider’s view.

I think all good pilots are unflinching realists.

Langiwiesche the pilot tests his skills by flying through storms. On purpose.

The secret of good storm flying is to stay low, in slow and vulnerable airplanes, and to resist the pursuit of performance. By the standards of practical transportation, therefore, it is an artificial problem. Mother weather lies within the first 20,000 feet of the ground, where gravity compresses the atmospheric mass into a dense soup, and above which the airlines for economic reasons as well as safety and comfort must climb and cruise. Engineers have designed away the storms, leaving professional pilots to fret about the kind of unimportant turbulence that startles their most anxious passengers.

That is the allure of storm flying. There is no graduation from the experience, only an end to each flight. The techniques we practice involve a certain calmness under pressure.

Good for Langewiesche (and Sullenberger, who spent his off-time flying gliders). I’m happy at 39,000 feet, myself, at least in the big planes where I don’t know the pilots.

He gives us a vest-pocket history of meteorology

Pity the forecasters. Of all the sciences, theirs is the most public. Here is a short version of its evolution. Emergence from the sea came first, followed by speech, followed by talk about the weather. Then came sacrificial rites, followed by the idea that peasants might pay a tithe to priests to keep the sky in order. Aristotle…wrote Meteorologica, the first unified weather theory, around 340 BC. Two thousand years later Rene Descartes doubted his methods and applied new rigor to the ignoring of God…Credit Galileo with the thermometer, his student Torricelli with the barometer, and French intellectuals in general with the discovery that atmospheric pressure rises and falls with weather and altitude. Acknowledge various Europeans for their wind and humidity instruments, for their discoveries in physics, then jump to the mid-1800s, to places like Ohio, where the telegraph suddenly allowed news about the weather to travel faster than the weather itself.

National governments now set up weather services to collect observations and issue forecasts. At last a modern relationship could develop between the weather wizards and the public they served. It was a terrible shock…

I am reminded of Doris Kearns Godwin’s Team of Rivals, where Lincoln has hired all the men who ran against him for office, all of whom are doing their level best to stick it to him in one way or another. He would have been well justified in blasting the hair back on any or all of them, but the only man in his administration he looses his temper with is…the Army meteorologist.

In chapter 6, “Slam and Jam,” he writes about air traffic controllers, and is alarming and reassuring by turns

On a mechanical level, the most pressing issue that controllers face is a surge in air traffic without a commensurate expansion of runway availability.”

but then concludes

The resulting complications are measure in wasted fuel, money, and time — but not in lives lost or even in levels of danger.

Reassuring. Inside the Sky ends with a chapter on the 1996 Valujet crash in Florida, a calm examination of the cascading series of errors that cause it. The law of unintended consequences rules.

In conclusion, Langewiesche writes

Flight’s greatest gift is to let us look around, and when we do we discover that the world is larger than we have been told and that our wings have helped to make it so.

I’m an Alaskan, born and bred. I like to say I was on a plane before I was in a car, which is an exaggeration but not by much. Flying is basic transportation to Alaskans. I was raised in Seldovia, a tiny village on the south shore of Kachemak Bay. There is no road.

This forced familiarity with flight can lead non-pilots to regard small planes as nothing more than taxies. This book shows us otherwise.


Alert readers will recognize Langewiesche’s name from the acknowledgements page of Blindfold Game. His The Outlaw Sea greatly informed the plot of my novel.