Friday, May 30, 2008

Forgotten Books

Have you heard about Patti Abbott's Friday Forgotten Books project? Death Was the Other Woman author Linda L. Richards has tagged me to write up this week's "Forgotten Book," and I'm thrilled to participate. In brief, Patti started this project stating: I'm worried great books of the recent past are sliding out of print and out of our consciousness. Not the first-tier classics we all can name, but the books that come next. And authors and bloggers have been diligent about digging up some wonderful reads. (For some of them, check out Patti's blog.)

For my turn, I'm picking Hilary Mantel's A Place of Greater Safety, a book I find myself re-reading regularly. It's historical fiction, but like all Mantel's work, defiantly unsentimental. Instead, as it follows the fathers of the French Revolution Camille Desmoulins, Jacques Danton, and Maximilien Robbespierre and their colleagues from their bourgeois upbringing through to their end, in the Terror of their own creating, it celebrates the blood lust in all of us, as enthusiasm begets cruelty and passion consumes itself. Along the way, it also gives very plausible reasons for things turning out as they do, in the great dance with Mme Guillotine, shifting in view point between the characters and a cool historical ominpotence, noting in little historical asides: Under the bridges, by dim and precarious fires, the destitute wait for death. A loaf of bread is fourteen sous, for the New Year. I love it.

As you can probably tell, Mantel is a writer of extremes. She tends toward either short, dark novels, like Fludd and The Giant O'Brien, or oversize ones like this and the recent, and also very lovely, Beyond Black. The emotions and themes in all her books, even the tiny ones, are intense, set off by writing so dry it verges on cryptic, a quality I noticed recently in a very short essay she'd authored for Granta on finding an icon in a Jiddah souk. I now look for her everywhere. In between novels, she shows up regularly in the pages of the New York Review of Books and other journals. But A Place of Greater Safety is the one I come back to. I was given this book by my husband, who received a review copy and brought it home to me because of its size (748 pp.) He knows I'm a fast reader and figured this would last me a while. It has.

(I've chosen to show this 1998 edition, which is the one I have, rather than the 2006 paperback because of its cover. Same book, but this cool paperback features a detail of a portrait of Desmoulins by Bole.)

And for next week, I tag Caroline Leavitt.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Smiley Muffin signs off

Oh, "Cat News," we hardly knew ye! So much for the Feline Institute of Agreeing With Me All The Time. (Click here to see the three extant episodes. Well worth your time.)

Everybody now: I'm furry! I'm pissed off! And I want you all to kiss my pouch!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

See How We Are

I seem to be in reunion mode Or maybe it's recycling. Last night, Jon and I went to see X again. I was tired and ready to skip it. But Jon said, "come on," and I'm so glad he did. I love that band, and they were on: Billy Zoom has gotten a little creepy, but he's still a punkabilly hero. John Doe, Exene. DJ Bonebrake in a Germs T-Shirt pounding the crap out of "Nausea." "The World's A Mess (It's In My Kiss)," "Johnny Hit-and-Run Pauline," a beautifully done "See How We Are" with just John Doe and Exene and an acoustic guitar. Perfect, and as timely as always.

It was better before before we voted for whats his name
this was supposed to be the new world...

But I can't see this band and not think of all the times past when their arch, searching music served as a soundtrack to my life, if not something more. Do we all do this? Is this just because I'm a fan, a former critic and sometime musician? Am I those things because for too long I lacked the language to express the emotions this music tapped into?

In this house that I call home
beautiful walls are closing in...

It's hard not to remember first hearing this band freshman year, finally away from home, in the company of my friend Mike (who will be coming to our reunion with his wonderful wife and children). How liberating this music was – X, the Clash, the Dead Kennedys – giving form to all the inchoate rage, grief, and confusion of those years.

she gets confused flying over the dateline
cause the days change to night, change in an instant...

To remember my junior year roommate who scrawled the lyrics to "We're Desperate" all over our refrigerator one night. She had her own issues, but in retrospect, I probably pushed her too far, confusing family issues (dead brother/family denial) with personal ones (a failed romance that laid me low).

No one is united
and all things are untied...

Then there was the guitarist in my band, roommate in a summer sublet, who tried to open his wrists the night before X played the Channel. He was confused, a former football player with his first crush on a man. I never made the show, crashing finally after a sleepless night of intervention.

Every other week we need a new address
landlord, landlord, landlord cleaning up the mess...

And then the happier memories: Re-meeting Jon, who had been a casual acquaintance, at one of the first X reunion shows. Playing "Los Angeles" for one of his close friends, a classical music critic (I don't think it took). And in years since, going to see the band just about every time they come through town.

I am the hungry wolf
and run endlessly with my mate...

X is now celebrating 31 years as a band (not counting for those years in between). Jon and I celebrate our 10th anniversary next week. I don't need the music in the same way anymore, but it sure was great to hear.

Sugarlight, we're addicts. Why do you think we're here?
Yeah, maybe.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Blast from the past

If our lives are our stories, do we write the narrative?

I've been thinking about this as I prepare for – and dread – a big college reunion. What was I thinking I would do, back then? Who would I be? I know I wanted to write. But I didn't think, back in the day, that there was a job I could try for that would really let me do that. I could be a journalist, which wasn't exactly what I wanted. Or I could work in publishing, although a summer internship with a very sweet university press had left me bored to tears. I ended up deciding on a career in magazine journalism and, well, look at me now.

I'm happy. I really am. Much happier than I'd have predicted back in the day. But in many ways, I'm also less successful. I work at home, in my sweats, and I earn my living by my pen. (Okay, by my iMac.) But I do a lot of writing for hire that is less than fun and certainly less than glamorous, and 25 years after graduating from a big, old prestigious school, I still worry about the bills.

In the run up to the reunion, I've touched base with some old friends and found that they tend to feel the same way. There's one former running buddy who can't believe she's working part-time as the "low woman on the totem pole." There's another who admitted to feeling embarrassed because she gave up on the sciences (after getting a doctorate and doing serious post-doc work!) to become a lawyer. We've all ended up in different places, along different paths, than we expected.

I was thinking about this while I was driving to my gym (even though it is now too late to lose 20 lbs by the reunion). I was also listening to my favorite guilty pleasure, an all-hits radio station. And then this came on:

You get up every morning
From your alarm clock's warning
Take the 8:15 into the city
There's a whistle up above
And people pushin', people shovin'
And the girls who try to look pretty
And if your train's on time
You can get to work by nine
And start your slaving job to get your pay
If you ever get annoyed
Look at me I'm self-employed
I love to work at nothing all day
And I'll be...
Taking care of business every day
Taking care of business every way
I've been taking care of business, it's all mine
Taking care of business and working overtime

So that's my story, and I'm sticking with it!
Happy reunion, old friends. I look forward to seeing you all.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

"Cries and Whiskers" nominated

Wow! Got home from the party at Kate's to find out Cries and Whiskers has been nominated for the David G. Sasher, Sr., award for best mystery of 2007. The "Davids," as they're known, were established by Deadly Ink, a mystery conference held at the end of June in Parsippany, NJ. I won't be there, but here's hoping! At any rate, it's very nice to be nominated.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Happy anniversary, Kate!

Today, we celebrate the 25th anniversary of Kate's Mystery Books. Owned and operated by Kate Mattes, one of the first directors of Sisters in Crime and the recent winner of a Raven from the Mystery Writers of America, this tiny shop has been instrumental in launching a thousand careers. Others at the party tonight (6:30-8:30 if you're in the neighborhood) will tell the more famous tales. This is mine.

I've told this story a dozen times or more, and it's all true. Kate Mattes got me started writing mysteries.

You see, I used to write serious nonfiction. I was a journalist who wrote books. Which meant I wrote serious, researched books on serious, heavy topics. But what I read for fun, obsessively and happily, were mysteries. Which meant that I got to know Kate Mattes, because her store, Kate's Mystery Books here in Cambridge, is sort of ground zero for mystery lovers – a place where authors sign, writers meet, and the recommendations are always good.

So when my last, maybe not so heavy book came out, I ended up talking to Kate about it. That book, The Feline Mystique, came out in 2002. That December, as Kate was planning her usual holiday bash, she said I should come sign at the party. I said, "But Kate, Feline Mystique is not a mystery."

She responded, "Believe it or not, Clea, there's a big crossover between women who love cats and mystery readers." (Those of you know Kate's store, by the way, will know that in addition to books, the first floor is packed with black cat memorabilia.)

And so I did. I happily joined the ranks of Linda Barnes and Robert Parker, Kate Flora and Dana Cameron, BarbaraNeely, and more than a dozen others in signing and greeting and laughing and eating. And drinking. There was drinking. And so, at the end of the evening, when Kate turned to me and said, "Clea, you should write a mystery," it seemed like the most natural thing in the world.

I started the next day. Happy anniversary, Kate.

(Pictured: Kate and her Raven at the 2008 Edgar Awards.)

Friday, May 9, 2008

The readers brigade

I'm beginning to get comments back from my first line of defense: the friends and colleagues who read my first draft. They're an invaluable help, catch all the things I haven't, and might not, before I send the ms. off to my editor.

So far I've heard the following:

Shouldn't the killer show a little temper early on?
What month is it anyway, would the lilacs really be blooming?
Is Theda a bit "breath obsessed," first Musetta's, then Bill's?
If he proposes, shouldn't she at least respond?
And, yes, dear friends, it seems I am incapable of correctly spelling "weird"!

Naomi, Lisa, Jon, Chris, Vicki, Brett, Karen – thank you all!

Monday, May 5, 2008

Where do our characters spring from?

All cats are not created equal. While Cyrus was a quiet cat, the dignified, strong and silent type, Musetta is a little loudmouth. In fact, since we were just away for a week, she's been quite chatty. Some would say demanding. And last night, I realized something. More than the barristas at the local 1369 and Peet's coffeehouses, Musetta is the model for my spunky punk rocker Violet. ("Thank God she can't dye her hair purple," says my husband.) After all, my heroine, Theda, is often prompted into action by those early morning calls... sound familiar?

Speaking of cats; this is just too weird. The following, however, makes sense.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Where's my beignet?

Wow, it's hard to get back to work. Just enjoyed a week of music, food, dancing, and, yes, mud, at and around the 39th annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Fest. (Yes, it continues this weekend. You can tune in at WWOZ, the great local public station. (I'm listening now.) Check out this slide show.

Despite a baggage handler ramming (and thus disabling) our plane, we got to the Crescent City in time to enjoy dinner at Herbsaint, one of our two favorite Donald Link restaurants (I think he started this one with Susan Spicer). Duck confit w/ dirty rice and an amazing appetizer of spaghetti with house-cured guanciale and a fried, poached egg, along with a kickass burgundy eased the stress of traveling. (The pre-dinner Haitian daiquiri helped, too.)

Friday, the weather was Fest perfect and Jon and I started out in our traditional way, with Mardi Gras indians at the Heritage stage. Semolian Warriors led to the Real Untouchables Brass Band and then into the marvelous Creole Wild West Mardi Gras Indians. Creole Wild West is one of the oldest "gangs," and to my mind, Big Chief Walter Cook looks sort of like Jon. I'll see if I can dig up a picture. Didn't see Tom Morgan - the WWOZ disc jockey who has been our source for all things Indian - at first, which was worrisome (he has had his share of Katrina woes). But he showed and told us he was busy gathering material for the WWOZ Jazz Fest Blog.

After that, wandered a bit - caught some Robert Plant and Alison Kraus, which was fun. (I usually avoid the big stages, but I've loved Kraus since she was a fiddle-playing whiz kid. And Robert Plant, come on!) They did "The Battle of Evermore" as down lonesome country blues. Heard some gospel, some trad jazz in the Economy Hall tent. Ate softshells and gumbo...

Saturday started fine. More Indians (the Black Seminoles) and Bourbon Street survivor Carol Fran (old enough to have Ben Sandmel playing drums), and the kickass Mahogany Brass Band working a groove and telling us, "That's just love raining down." The incomparable Eddie Bo was in fine form, singing and dancing and making us boogie to such indescribable loose funk as "Check Your Bucket" even as the rain got heavier.
Ducked into the grandstand to avoid what we thought would be the heaviest part of the downpour, ended up chatting with Chief Darryl Montana, who was explaining some of his Indian suits (that's him on the left), which were on display. (He's Big Chief "Tootie" Montana's son: check this out.) But the rain continued to fall, so we ditched some of our plans (Warren Storm, NewBirth Brass Band) and sheltered at the blues tent for the Ponderosa Stomp Revue. Lasted until we got to hear Archie Bell "Do the Tighten Up," and dashed for the buses, soaked to the bone.
(Eddie Bo photo/Chris Ryan)

Sunday brought more rain, but fewer footware options. I went for the flipflops as the path of least resistance, but you know what? New Orleans mud is STICKY. Nearly lost a flipflop several times. Nearly got stuck myself and had a moment of wondering just how embarrasing it would be to have to ask a stranger to help me and my boudin get back to the paved path. (That's not a double entendre, I really had ventured into a particularly muddy spot to get a link of boudin.) But hey, we were wet already, right? So we got to hear the trad but grooving Paulin Brothers Brass Band, the Golden Star Hunters (yup, more Indians), some local gospel from Jo "Cool" Davis (with Joe Krown on organ, that man was everywhere), Jambalaya Cajun Band, and Shamarr Allen (a rising star trumpeter who had popped up in a dozen sets earlier). One BIG regret – on a whim, we'd gone to check out the Throw Back Jamm and it was, as I'd hoped, a revue of some of the great originators of New Orleans' "Bounce" style hip hop (think hiphop with that Caribbean syncopation). Wow, we were dancing! But then the skies opened up for real and we took shelter. When the downpour lessened, we caught some Pete Fountain (looking a little shakey but slim and happy on his Fest return after open heart surgery), Hot 8 Brass Band, Al Green, Beausoleil...

Well, that was it for the Fest for us. But Monday night brought us uptown to Tip's, to Instruments a Comin', one of the Tipitina's Foundation's benefits. Little Feat, Radiators, Ivan Neville's Dumpstaphunk, and a smoking set by the incomparable Rebirth Brass Band. (Have I used "incomparable" yet in this blog? Let me just say that any band that can have me bouncing up and down and screaming "REBIRTH GOT FIYA!" in the wee hours of the morning, long after I'd thought I'd hit the wall, is pretty good.) You can hear clips here.

Tuesday, the wierd, wild, and woolly Ponderosa Stomp, a now annual showcase of R&B, rock, rockabilly, and blues antiques, one-hit wonders, and other oddities. Yeah, the revue sucked us in for more. Hey, did anyone else know Mary Weiss of the Shangri-Las was performing again? Granted, her voice isn't what it used to be, but yes, she did sing "Leader of the Pack." Honestly, though, I thought Barbara Lynn and Betty Harris kind of showed her up, with showmanship making up for some of the notes lost over the years.

Oh, what else? Jon Cleary at the Louisiana Music Factory turning "Tipitina's" into a Caribbean jam. Finding a 1924 edition of two John Galsworthy short stories at the wonderful Beckham's Bookstore. Marcia sitting in with Irma Thomas. Dinner at Cochon, Donald Link's more country-style outlet (house-made boucherie sampler!). Did cruise through the Lower 9th again. It's shameful. Except for a few houses built by church groups, there's nothing. Just empty space going back to nature. Living in one of those six or eight houses must be like living on the prairie in the 1800s. Nothing from the government. Nothing. On a happier note, the Habitat for Humanity Musicians' Village that Jon and I volunteered on is now a real neighborhood! Lots of houses, at least one new street. Gardens. Bikes on the porches. Wind chimes. And, yeah, the rest of the Upper Ninth Ward seems to be on its way. Every third house still looks empty, the rescue markings still spray-painted on the front. But others are coming back - construction everywhere. Again, all private charities, churches, and personal initiative. Nothing from the government.

Not to end on a sad note, we did sneak in a brunch at the Court of Two Sisters before we took off. And, yes, took a muffaletta on the plane for a late dinner back home.

PS. The trade paperback of Cries and Whiskers came out. Sweet!

Ankle deep mud notwithstanding...

Just back from Jazz Fest. More in a bit, but first, "The World That Made New Orleans," Ned Sublette's wonderful new book.