Saturday, January 30, 2016

What Make a Good Read in Fiction?

Where I write books and book reviews. 
Books I love to read.
Today I was writing a book review (that you can read next door at my other blog, Victorian Scribbles) and it got me to thinking about what makes a good read in fiction. I read lots of books, and I review books in various genres, but the ones that stick in my mind seem to share certain characteristics, no matter what their genre.

1. Some kind of a problem to be solved. Yes, "the story problem" that creates the story arc for the protagonist, etc. The plot. Still, reading it that way, it seems so . . . pedantic. For me, "plot" or "story problem" boil down to some kind of a puzzle or challenge that needs to be worked out--one that engages the reader as well as the protagonist. You really want to know how it will end. One of the appeals of a good mystery is that you find yourself hot on the trail, trying to solve it along with the protagonist.

2. Interesting characters that can make me suspend disbelief enough to go along for the ride. For me, they don't have to be the p.o.v. character. Watson, purported teller of Sherlock Holmes tales, is the perfect filter to make me suspend belief regarding Sherlock Holmes's astounding mental and physical prowess, because Watson is believable, and he believes in his friend. Nick, in The Great Gatsby, pulls the reader into his awe of Gatsby so that a reader is invested in the outcome for this tragic figure. In The Lightning Queen, a YA novel about gypsies and Mexican-indians, the author, Laura Resau, makes us care about the dignity of both groups and their traditions, while pulling us into their world of fate and magic and healing through the eyes of two endearing characters.

3. A reader learns something they didn't know, even though it's fiction. This is true in all of the above. But let me add Cara Black's Aimee LeDuc adult mystery series, where every new mystery is a free trip to Paris, and Kate Morton's novel, The Secret Keeper, where a reader travels back and forth in time to unravel a dying woman's story behind the mesmerizing event witnessed years ago by her daughter--a secret going back to World War II. Right now I'm reading a gripping middle grade novel by Julie T. Lamana, Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere, that takes a reader into the terrifying lead-up to Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Many of us read about Katrina in 2005 when the storm hit New Orleans, but this book makes you live through it.

4. Emotional involvement. I love a book that plays on my emotions, and all of the above books do that. A special emotional aspect I enjoy, though, is humor--witty humor, not slapstick. For me, one of the simple pleasures in reading is to find myself chuckling, or even laughing out loud. The Sherlock Holmes mystery I reviewed next door--Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Ruby Elephants--was one such book, but library shelves and bookstores abound with good, humorous fiction, and for those of you who write, I would advise you to find a way to inject a little humor in your story. It's almost irresistible to re-read a truly funny book.

How about you? What do you find the most important elements in a good read? Can you tell me the titles of some good reads you think I (and others) might enjoy?

Friday, January 1, 2016

Revisiting Nancy Drew


Yesterday after lunch, my husband and I took a little trip to 57th Street Antique Row, a cluster of shops in town that sell antiques and/or second hand things. (The latter is what draws us, as we can't afford genuine antiques and would feel like we had to walk on eggs if we had them in our home.) We like old things and the histories they suggest, My husband loves old cameras and I love old books, so we are always on the prowl for those. Yesterday I struck it rich: One of our favorite shops on Antique Row is The Picket Fence, and that's where I came upon a whole set of Nancy Drew mysteries for $5.00 each. Not only that, the store was having a 30%-off sale, so I emerged happily with four books that came to a total of just under $14.00.

These are the original Nancy Drew series, too, the ones I read when eleven, the ones published between 1930 and 1959. You can see in the example above the old blue cloth cover with a silhouette of Nancy and her Sherlockian microscope. It's true what they say in the publishing industry: kids "read up". I checked every adventure I could find from the public library when I was eleven. I wanted to be Nancy Drew--enterprising, clever, fearless, able to handle whatever difficulties emerged from the crises that had a way of finding her. No matter that she took trips to faraway cities with her friends and drove a car--obviously not only a teenager, but in the high teens at that--she inspired me to start my own detective club and search for mysteries everywhere.

Being eleven in the fifties, and white, I was also oblivious to the racism embedded in many of the stories. In the sixties, revisions of the old mysteries and writers of new adventures started to address the racism and have continued to do so ever since. This was a much needed change for a series so popular. Popular literature not only reflects culture; it influences culture as well, giving attitudes the "okay" at a subliminal level where they seep into a reader's unconscious and take up residence. So I applaud the decision.

Sadly, though, in the series since 1959, Nancy's character has been watered down, a change that makes no sense to me. While subbing in a friend's classroom a few years ago, I picked out a fairly current Nancy Drew mystery from the classroom library and thumbed through it over lunch. This was not the Nancy Drew I remembered--spunky, adventurous, fearless, ready to take on what mystery she encountered. Instead I found a sort of "Oh, no!" Nancy, just short of a hand-wringer in the face of trouble. In an era of heightened awareness of social issues, including women's issues, what went wrong when so much was going right?

Here's what I would like to see happen: Keep cleaning up the racism and bring back the spunky Nancy Drew, the girl detective who inspired young girls for decades to believe they were smart enough to handle life.

How about you? Did you have a favorite mystery series when you were growing up? If not a mystery series, did you have a favorite series that had you waiting for the next adventure and the next?

Friday, December 18, 2015

Joyeux Noel, A True Christmas Message


German soldiers of the 134th Saxon Regiment pose with men of the Royal
Warwickshire Regiment in 'No Man's Land' on the Western Front in
December 2014. Photo is in the Public Domain. You can read the
article HERE

I am returning for a third time to an earlier post about a film that still moves me deeply: Joyeux Noel, the 2005 film that was nominated for both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Film. This has become my favorite Christmas movie, and I watch it each year.

The individual stories highlighted in the film were fictitious, but the over all story is based on a true happening on a Christmas Eve in 1914, in the theater of war: Scottish, French, and German troops agreed to a cease fire, and put down their weapons to celebrate Christmas Eve. Bonds were formed. The next day, troops  even warned each other of planned shellings and offered refuge in each other's trenches when the shellings occurred.

Last year, the  Sacramento Bee published an article about this phenomenon, a phenomenon that occurred in several places across Belgium and across the Western Front. One such place was Flanders Field, (the site of John McCrae’s famous poem later, comparing the blood of slain British warriors to red poppies.) 

On Christmas Eve, German soldiers began playing music familiar to both German and British soldiers. Soon an informal truce was struck. Troops visited each other, gave each other food and small gifts. Some played games. For a little while, Peace broke out. Afterwards, as in the movie, army generals made sure it would not happen again. In the following war years, at Christmastime, generals stepped up the fighting to ensure no one would even think of a truce.

For all three military groups, the only thing that saved troops from being tried for treason was the fact that 200 or so in each case would have to be tried. Instead, all the participants were transferred to other fronts to make sure such an event wouldn't happen again.

Joyeux Noel is a remarkable film--a reminder that we are human first, and that the human impulse is toward peace. It is the political impulse that moves nations to war.

So here it is, the New Year ion its way, the Christmas message hovering still. We still live in a troubled world, wondering how to meet the challenges.

Best wishes for a time of true peace, when people can be united again in their common humanity.

What is your favorite Christmas movie?


Thursday, December 3, 2015

Return to Pacific Grove

Pacific Grove in the afternoon.
I've been meaning to post ever since we got back from Spain, but life and work intruded -- in a happy way. I'm working on a new story, to be included in an anthology coming out next year.
Though I've kept my nose to the grindstone, it's made my blogging lackadaisical. Then Thanksgiving came -- a wonderful communal gathering with my beloved god family -- and after that we went to Pacific Grove for the weekend. Pacific Grove, Monterrey, and Carmel have long had a shared place in our hearts. We come back when we can, like homing pigeons, to walk the beaches and visit the art galleries in Carmel.

We spent both mornings in Pacific Grove, driving, then walking along the sea wall, enjoying the slate-blue of the distant waters, the foamy white ruffles of incoming waves, the soft hush-sh-sh of waves rippling and splashing on rocks, the muffled roar of larger waves, and the kwee-dkwee-kwee of the seagulls that soared and swooped from rocks to shore and back again.

A distant boat on the endless waters.

A lone seagull, taking it all in.

Rocks that jut up like sculptures.

And a rock littered with roosting gulls.
That was the ocean view.






On land, the ice plant that makes a fuchsia-colored carpet across the sand in spring was bereft of flowers, but it glistened in green and red tones like stained glass.

A path of beauty.

Fall colors like stained glass

Someone staring out to sea.













For years I've wanted to visit the Monarch Grove Sanctuary in Pacific Grove, an "overwintering" spot for monarch butterflies, November through February each year, free for viewing. This time we did. Look closely. Nature has truly devised a great safety system for these delicate creatures;
At first we thought they were only dried
Hundreds of butterflies with folded wings, looking like
so many dried leaves in their wonderful camouflage.
leaves hanging from trees--and not
pretty leaves, at that. And then a little
kid pointed them out to us! "They're
in camouflage," he said. (Smart kid!)
We looked again, and were amazed.
Hundreds upon hundreds of folded
wings. Camouflage indeed!

One butterfly opened its wings









Both afternoons, we drove into Carmel to enjoy the many art galleries. We have certain galleries we particularly like: One is Classic Art Gallery. One is the Carmel Art Association, a collaborative gallery that features work by local artists and puts out a lovely small catalogue each year that is like a book of art gems. You can visit them HERE. We also like Jones & Terwilliger Galleries.  But actually there are so many good galleries, an amble through them is like an amble through several fine art museums.

Because Rajan is into black and white photography, we stopped by two photography galleries we've always enjoyed.

One is the Weston Gallery. They are featuring a color show in one section at present, but they specialize in the art of some of my husband's favorite black and white photographers: Ansel Adams (his hero), Edward and Brett Weston, Yousuf Karsh, Michael Kenna, Imogen Cunningham . . . . You can click on the name of the gallery above, and, once there, click on the artists and see wonderful samples of their work. The other is Photography West Gallery, featuring some of the same artists, all working in black and white film (my husband's first love) rather than digital.

Both afternoons we stopped by a charming restaurant/bar called Grasings on  6th and Mission, and had a glass of crisp Chardonnay. The place had a soft, warm atmosphere and a friendly staff, and it made for a nice pause in the day.
Hubby's ear in lower left corner. :-)

A nice pause in the day.
 My birthday was Monday, but since we would be driving back to Sacramento that day, we celebrated Sunday evening at a little French restaurant in Pacific Grove. (Or maybe it's Monterrey: those areas run into each other, and I'm never quite sure. )

                                              It's called Fifi's Bistro Cafe , a reasonably priced, charming restaurant with a cosy atmosphere. Fifi was there that evening, as it was the restaurant's 30th anniversary. She's French, of course, and she looked casually chic, as the French somehow always manage to do -- black dress, red scarf, hair tumbled back in a clip. We are not dessert eaters, but when she found out we were celebrating my birthday, she insisted on bring an order of flan for us to share, and she brought a beautiful red rose to the table, scattering the petals over the white tablecloth. How French!

I have a lot of questions in this post: Have you ever seen the monarch butterflies wintering over in some location? (I understand there are quite a few; not just Pacific Grove.) Do you have a special affinity for the ocean? Do you enjoy black and white photography? What is your favorite art form?



     



Friday, October 23, 2015

Autumn Journey - Part One


Soundara.
The journey really started the last two weeks of August, when we went to India to visit our relatives for two weeks. We stayed with our 88-year-old widowed sister-in-law, Soundara, in the section of Chennai called Virukambakkam, where we usually stay. It was a long overdue visit. My husband and I visited in 2012, and then he went again in 2013, a year after her husband's death.

I have always admired Soundara. She is truly a sister. She is tinier than I am, and while we were there insisted on cooking great meals. She cannot not be busy, and she is interested in so many things. You can see the sweetness of her personality in this picture.

Murari
Our grandnephew, Murari, picked us up at the airport, at 4:30 a.m., and we stepped outside into an amazing heat. In seconds I was glistening with moisture from the humidity. I didn't take as many pictures on this trip as I meant to, and this one, at the left, was taken when we visited Murari's  parents' home a few days later. It took us about an hour to get to the house. After we showered and unpacked, she had coffee waiting for us. There is nothing like good, strong, Indian coffee.
Vasu & his pretty wife, Srimithi.
Notice her beautiful smile.
Later, Vasu (My husband's sister's                     eldest son) and his wife, Srimathi, visited
the house (at right), and still later, Murari's father, Ravi, stopped by, as well.
Distances are very far in Chennai, and the traffic is unbelievably thick. Each time we've gone back, it seems the traffic has doubled from the time before, so it is always a breath-taking ride, and a long one, to get from one place to another.

We visited Rajan's doctor brother (Parthasarathy) and his wife, Vasantha, who live with their son and their son's family. Even though he is retired, he keeps up with current medicine, and we often turn to him for his medical opinion. On the trip this particular day, I was so enamored of the garden in his son's home, that I failed to take a lot of family pictures! Here are three family photos I remembered to take this time:
Hari, Parthasarathy's  &
Vasantha's son.

Sudha, Parthasarathy's &
Vasantha's daughter, visiting us
at her brother's home.

Anusha, Sudha's youngest daughter.
Her older daughter lives in the US.



But here are three from the 2012 visit, showing the whole family:
Parthasarathy, 2012.

Me, Soundara, & Vasantha, 2012

Hari & his wife, Vidhya, their sons
Aditya and Anirud, 2012.
Also, some pictures of the flower garden on this trip, that will show you how beautiful it is. there is a long passage way of flowers outside the ground floor, and then a roof garden with many potted flowers and plants.









This house is near the ocean and gets a nice breeze, so it is a nice oasis of coolness and beauty, so refreshing in the humid heat of Chennai.

On another day, we visited Rajan's brother, Narayanan, in two of his son's homes.

The first was in the home of Ravi and his wife, Nirmala. They are the parents of Murari, who picked us up at the airport. (Murari will be getting married this coming Monday, and we are so sorry that we are going to miss the wedding. We'll be disembarking from our plane home at about the time the wedding is beginning.)
Nirmala, our beautiful niece.

Ravi, her husband.

Murari and his grandfather,
Narayanan.





After that, we visited the home of one of Narayanan's other grandsons, Arjun and his wife Smrithi, along with Arjun's parents, Vasanth and Nalini. I really messed up, here! I got so engrossed in the conversations, that I forgot to take pictures. Luckily, Smrithi and Arjun and Nalini came to visit when we were at another grandnephew's home, so I did get a least a picture of them when we went for an overnight at the home of Madhu and Malathi. Madhu is the youngest son of Rajan's sister, and there are pictures of her, as well. This year she had her 80th birthday, but somehow she has kept youthful and full of energy.
Smrithi, Arjun's wife.

Arjun, Vasanth & Nalini's eldest son
Madhu in foreground; Arjun in
background. 
Malathi, Madhu's wife in the middle;
Nalini, Vasanth's wife in foreground.

Pattu, Rajan's sister in foreground;
her son, Madhu at far left, his wife,
Malathi and far right; their son,
Rohid, next to her.

Maithreyi, their beautiful daughter.
The day before we left, she gave birth
to a little girl. 
Eyeshwar, Maithreyi's husband, and
proud papa. 
Our last family visit was to Bangalore, where we visited to homes. We stayed two nights with our nephew, Ashok, his wife Gayathri, and their two sons, Rohan and Tarun, and Ashok's mother (Rajan's sister-in-law) Malathi. From there, we visited another grandniece, Priya, and her husband, Balajit. Once again, I was so involved in the visits that I didn't take as many pictures as I meant to take. Priya is the sister of the pretty woman in turquoise above, Sudha. It was a great pleasure to see her and her husband, and I was really vexed with myself for not remembering to use the camera I was carrying around everywhere. At Ashok's home, too, we mostly visited, and then on the last day I remembered pictures. I did get some pictures that included Malathi and Tarun. Tarun had just gone to temple for his thread ceremony, a ceremony for Brahmins similar to a bar mitzvah for Jewish boys, in that he was crossing over into adulthood with spiritual responsibilities.

Malathi, our sister-in-law on
left, Tarun on right. You can
see how happy he was. 
My husband, Rajan on left
with Tarun. This kid has so
much personality!
We took the night train to return from Bangalore to Chennai, and then there were just two days left before we departed for Spain. Earlier Rajan developed a really serious reaction to the anti-malarial medicine we took for the trip, so he had to discontinue it after 10 days. Then we had to wait (in Spain) 21 days from the last unprotected mosquito bite in India, which was a bit stressful--all the more so as his doctor brother says he is allergic to all malarial medicine -- including the one that's used to treat the illness. I was quite worried, as there were malarial cases in both Chennai and Bangalore, and he'd been bit by mosquitoes in both places. But all was well that ended well. He made it through the incubation period, and no illness.

I mentioned that Maithreyi gave birth to a little girl the day before we left. Her father, Madhu, kindly sent us pictures of the naming ceremony. Here are two:
Such a little doll!

Such happy parents. 
The last two days we rested and spent time with Soundara and packed.  Several relatives came to visit, and we also walked over to visit some in-laws through my Pittsburgh brother-in-law's wife, Kalyani. Raghavan and Kalyani are the parents of the nephew who got married last June. Her brother, Raju,  and his wife, Renukkah, live three short streets away from Soundara. Renukkah is an artist, and her work is really dazzling.
Raju & Renukkah
Renukkah's mother
Art. The flash doesn't do
the picture justice.

Another sample.

Each of these are different
styles, and she achieves
a great deal of mastery
in each one. 
And then the time drew to a close. But seeing everyone again is something I will treasure through the years, all the more so because, due to my husband's reaction to malarial protection, we don't want to risk his health in the future. At times like these, you appreciate the Internet and all the avenues of keeping in touch with family. We are thinking of them with love and prayers and are thankful that we got this visit in.

Next week I'll be moving on to the time spent in Galicia. Until then, I'll be visiting your blogs and catching up on your news.






Thursday, September 24, 2015

Imogene's Trailer

Dear Blog Friends,

In my absence until mid-October, please enjoy this little trailer for my book.  Imogene and the Case of the Missing Pearls

See you in about three weeks.