More Readerly Detours – But Not Much Writing

old fashioned woman reading 2I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately.  Also learning Spanish.  Two things that have nothing, necessarily, to do with writing.

Yep, I’ve been in a slump for the past number of weeks.  I hear my husband click clacking on the computer keys and feel . . . like picking up a book or my kindle and reading some more.  His writing output which right now is prodigious doesn’t necessarily spur me on to writing productivity.  In fact, I feel a bit depressed about the whole thing.

Oh well.

I don’t think the Spanish helps with the writing, but I suspect the reading does.  I know I mentioned that I had discovered J.A. Konrath by finding kindle bargains on  He’s a terrific mystery writer, if you like that sort of thing.  Which I do!

I’ve always been a fan of mysteries.  Yesterday at my in-laws, we got on the topic by a circuitous pathway, of where we’re headed on a quickie vacation week after next.  “Pismo Beach,” I said.  And then I remembered Joe Friday’s sidekick on Dragnet – and this was his favorite place to escape from LA., too.  Who was the sidekick?  Harry Morgan played Bill Gannon, the perfect foil for Jack Webb’s deadpan Joe Friday. But this funky memory of Pismo Beach led me to remark that I’d loved Dragnet as a child and that this probably was the reason I loved police procedurals as an adult (yes, I’ve saturated myself in the Law & Order franchise, even watching the British version, so there.)

One summer I read all of Raymond Chandler – even the Black Mask stories.  I must have been in college when I did that and it was an effort to find everything, since this was a few years before the internet.  Yes, I’m that old.  Stop it.

But anyway – mysteries are my all time favorite genre of fiction.  Second to that is probably the more literary fiction and third, I’m embarrassed to admit this, is chick lit.  Well, no need to be embarrassed, right?  Okay, yeah, I guess there’s a reason to be a little teensy weensy bit embarrassed.  A lot of it isn’t that great.  But a lot of genre fiction from a literary standpoint isn’t that great.  What IS great is the story.  The plot.  The characters that you learn to love or hate – or both.

So . . . one of the genres that I’ve never really been able to connect with much is science fiction.

Another detour.  About a year and a half ago my son said I had to read Game of Thrones.  I tried.  I read the first ten or twenty pages – and I hated it.  It was confusing.  It was “dark” and well, confusing.  I couldn’t imagine it as I was reading and that’s fatal for this reader.  When I pick up a book, if I’m going to be captured by it, I can imagine the scene in my mind.  I’m a pretty visual thinker, so this is how it works for me.  Your mileage may vary if you’re a more kinesthetic or auditory thinker.

Well, with GoT, I was just lost.  And the premise of supernatural stuff happening . . . I just couldn’t get it, no matter how much my son tried to talk to me about it.

Then I had occasion to see the first episode on HBO.  It was great!  For the first time, the scene was alive and visual and I decided to give the book a second try.

And this time, with some visual help from the TV show, I got into the book, and I got captured and finished all five books in short order.

So even though fantasy is not a genre I generally like – I was able to fall in love with A Song of Ice and Fire  – after some help.

Same with horror – not a genre I generally like, but I’ve found Stephen King to be a pretty decent author of it.  I started out with The Stand and again, I read that when the TV mini-series was showing (this is years ago.)  I recognized it was a basically religious story, so that helped me with it, too.

But I have very little interest in a lot of King’s work.  I’ve read Misery which has no supernatural stuff in it, and about a year ago I read 11/22/63 which has a time travel device, but is essentially an historical novel about the Kennedy assassination (in case you didn’t catch the date.)

Now I’m at the beginning of The Shining.

About six months ago we watched the Kubrick film of the book, and even though I saw it ages ago, it felt very fresh to me.  It’s an interesting film but I can also see why King didn’t like it much.  I’ve also seen the TV mini-series that was done a few years ago which is truer to King’s vision of his own story.  It was also good, but visually it didn’t pack the punch of Kubrick’s version.

So I decided to try the book myself.  And I’m loving it.  Yes, it’s got a supernatural theme in it but to me it’s the story of an alcoholic writer which in all those permutations, holds a lot of interest to me, more than the supernatural stuff actually.

So back to science fiction.  After many detours.

Because I find it fun to tool around Kindle – I somehow stumbled upon a book with the curious title of Wool.  By an author I’d never heard of, Hugh Howey.  (For some reason, that name, Hugh Howey, reminds me of Sylvester the Cat lisping “Sufferin’ Succotash” – too much sibilance, I guess.)

Wool blew me away – and it’s science fiction.  Who knew?  I ended up reading in short order the remaining parts of the “Silo” trilogy, Shift and Dust.

Perhaps it was the knitting references that pulled me in.  The author originally self published Wool in small novella-like pieces – each titled for the handling of the substance of wool – “Proper Gauge,” “Casting Off,” “The Unraveling,” and “The Stranded.”  Only the first section, “Holston” has no sneaky references to knitting.  But it was the first section that totally grabbed me and hurled me into this dystopian future.

The other grabber was that there were strong female characters throughout.  The primary character is named Juliette (yes, after Romeo & you know . . .), but even besides her there are fully realized women in the Mayor Jahn, Shirly, Courtnee, Anna, Charlotte, and others.  One negative I had with the books, though, is that the bad guys are all men with the possible exception of Anna, who we aren’t sure of (of course she turns out to be a good person.)  That’s a weakness of the story – because this is a fairly egalitarian world he’s created, it’s entirely probable that women would be just as reprehensible as men at times.

The story has a few other plot weaknesses, but overall, it’s an engaging, fun read.  There’s plenty of twists and turns and “black moments” to keep you turning pages, or swiping them if you’re on a kindle.  But in the end, although not completely positive, there’s a nascent hopefulness that gives it a satisfying closure.

Although there is no supernatural element to the story, there is the use of science fact, stretched to logical, or at least possible, conclusions.   What if nanotechnology can be used as a weapon in warfare?  What if propofol became the newest psychotropic drug, used to erase painful, negative memories?  What if we had perfected the hibernation of people?  All of these pseudo scientific elements in the near future (although Wool and Dust take place in 2345, the second book Shift brings it back to 2049) form the backdrop for the actions taken.

It’s the Waking Dead, not the Walking Dead, but both are set near Atlanta.  And the waking are not “dead” exactly, just in the deep freeze for decades at a time.  And nobody remembers their recent past, their legacy, due to their water being “treated” with the memory erasing drug.  And when a group gets out of line or threatens to – they are dispatched via nanos that attack their bodily systems from the inside with no way to escape them.

Of course, people not being robots (at least not quite yet), some of them do the courageous thing – they don’t conform, they make trouble, they get sneaky and attack back – and in these books a lot of these courageous ones die for their trouble.   Our heroine, Juliette, survives although she pays a high price with loss of friends and lovers and a new, painful understanding of both her people’s legacy and their possible future, which is left a bit unknown.

All in all, a great read, even if – or especially if – you don’t like science fiction.


Book Review – The Fault in Our Stars

I didn’t think I’d ever want to review  a thing, but I reviewed a Mad Men episode and it didn’t kill me (smile.)  So, when I stay up late to read and then steal moments the next day to finish a book, I know I’m rather captured by it.  The book is The Fault in Our Stars   by John Green.  Soon, it’ll be a major motion picture by 20th Century Fox.  The trailer is here.

The set up is utterly non-charming.  Two ordinary mid-Western kids with cancer meet at a teenager-focused cancer support group.

The story, though, is utterly charming, as you’d expect it to be since it starts at a rather low point.  Because, naturally, the kids are not ordinary at all and are funnier, smarter, and infinitely wiser than normal healthy teens.  Maybe because they have cancer?  Or maybe because they just are funnier, smarter and infinitely wiser human beings and as we all know – only the funnier, smarter and infinitely wiser die young.  So tragedy mixed with some comedy leads to these amazing children named Hazel Grace Lancaster, 16, and Augustus Waters, 17.

Let me start with – I couldn’t help but love this book and be moved by it (I laughed, I cried).  But still I have two big quibbles.  The first is the cancer narrative which Fault seeks to deconstruct.  (Wow.  Fancy words there.)  I mean, they do make fun of the “bravely fighting cancer patient who becomes all wise and patient to their last dying breath” meme, but at the same time, highlight it completely in their main characters.

The fact is – and if we really think hard about this, we know this – there are some truths to sickness and dying that hold, call them the “Noble Truths of Sickness and Dying.”  One is – we’re all dying as we live.  Every day is one day closer to our death and there is no way around it.  Two – any one of us can have a disease in our body right now at this very instant.  It may not have risen to the point of being diagnosed, but we’re all vulnerable to this process because we are human.  It takes time before cancer is diagnosed – the cells have to get to that critical mass.  So even in the midst of our healthiest, we could have a cancer that could make us sick or kill us and just not know it.  That’s a sobering thought, isn’t it?  At least it is to me.

Three is – we die as we lived.  We don’t automatically get braver, more patient or wiser (funnier, more compassionate, smarter) because we’re sick or dying.  If we’re petty before we’re dying of cancer, we’re probably still counting the grudges when we’re on our deathbed, even if we were hoping that cancer would erase our less than attractive personality characteristics.  And four – we’re alive until we’re dead.  Death is both a process and an event.  But until we are actually completely dead as in no brain activity or beating heart dead, we’re alive in some way, shape or form.  The process of death has a somewhat predictable course (I say somewhat because everybody is different and not all deaths occur the same way), and in that process, you can and often do lose consciousness towards the very end.  Even with loss of consciousness, though, until the body is dead, you are still here  At least in some way, shape or form.

These truths are real and I discovered them working in hospice with patients and families. The truths offer a way to think about our own deaths that is both sobering, perhaps a bit scary (what?  I could be sick and not know it – oh my god!), but ultimately comforting, too.  And yes, they are a wake-up call to live our lives right now.  Don’t hesitate  to do the things you really, truly want to do.  There’s no point in that.

So what do these truths have to do with the book, soon-to-be movie?  Just that amazing teenagers, although of course they exist, aren’t necessarily just so due to cancer.

I know it’s hard to write about the other kind of normal, annoying teenager who gets cancer.  And probably nobody would want to read about that kid.  There is one character in this book who fits this fairly closely, but she’s dying of brain cancer, so her nastiness is attributed to this, not to just being a jerky teenager with cancer.  We never find out (she’s a minor, although important, character) if she was a jerk prior to getting brain cancer.  I like to think that this was the case, but who knows?

So, everything is heightened in a story about two “cancer kids” falling in love – they have a big adventure in a foreign country as one of their cancer “perks” (Augustus’ wish that he hadn’t taken advantage of yet).  They drink amazing champagne and eat a romantic dinner before making love for their first, and perhaps only, time.  No backseat fumblings for our protagonists.

And that brings me to my other quibble about this book.

No adult can really write teenagers all that well.  But the problem with teenagers writing a book like this – most of them aren’t good enough writers yet and they’d bungle writing the parents and other adults.  Perhaps it’s better to be left with the polished adult author writing a first-person narrative of a 16-year-old girl with terminal cancer.  She’s a very sophisticated thinker, our Hazel Grace.  Almost preternaturally so.  Almost as an afterthought, the author gives Hazel a girlfriend who is a more normal teenaged girl.  And in some ways, Kaitlyn, the friend, would have been more interesting to me as a cancer kid, but see, she would be too oriented to what she was wearing and who she was dumping this week (in other words – too shallow), to be interesting to the author.  She’d be the annoying cancer kid and that wouldn’t do.

So we get an author who has fallen in love with his main characters, and they are wittier, smarter, able to use metaphors accurately, more romantic and charming, than any teenager you know or are ever going to know.

And that’s fine.  It makes for better reading and a lot of great quotes, too.  I suspect the filmmakers had a breeze writing the script because the book offers up lots of great scenes and snappy dialogue – sort of like Tracy and Hepburn but in teenagers with cancer!

What I think is this – we all die with our to-do lists undone, and the laundry not yet folded, and our journals left off in mid-sentence.  I have a friend (who was also my hair stylist) who died of a heart attack about a week and half ago.  Right after dinner.  I hope he enjoyed his last meal, although he couldn’t know it would be that, of course.  And I’m not being snarky or cutesy when I say this, I’m being sincere.  He loved good food and was a gourmet chef, so I hope he had a great meal that Sunday night.  He’d probably be highly disappointed if it was just a bowl of cereal, right?  Like, that was it?

But plenty of people do die with “that was it?” and we can’t live our lives with high drama (or great meals and amazing champagne) all of the time.  A lot of life is ordinary, and a lot of death is, too.

Cancer, for all it’s horribleness, is a gift.  It gives the bearer of it usually some time, although never enough.  In that time, you can throw in some drama, some novelty and perhaps, if you’re lucky, some romance.  That’s the best thing about  The Fault in Our Stars – the characters know they are time limited and so they pull out the stops, and they live and love, even knowing they are “grenades” about to go off.

It should never take cancer to teach a person to live in the midst of death.  But then again, we are always living in the midst of death.

We are all grenades about to go off.



Hey, Honey, Make Me an Old Fashioned

old fashioned drinkFirst, let me assure everybody that Easter worked out well.  We ended up buying flowers for the ‘rents and visiting with them and then did the Nugget’s basket with her.  It was a medium-sized circle of greetings, hugs and kisses (at least from the Nugget) and an all-around good time.

That’s the addendum to last week’s post on my anti-social ways.  If someone tells me to be someplace at a certain time (okay, within a time parameter), I generally show up, suit up and even . . . have a good time.  I know the ‘Publican has been ready to tear his remaining hairs out with my perversity on matters social.  I say I hate sociability, I complain loudly and often, and I say “NO” to just about everything at the beginning.

Then I get over myself and go and have a good time.  Or, if not a good time, I figure, hey, one day while I’m writing about this it’ll be a good vignette.  (Ha!  anyone who writes can always use even bad times as fodder.)

We got back in time for our Sunday evening ritual, pizza and television.  A very exciting evening indeed.  I was going to add “ice cream” to the list and many Sundays we’ve been doing this; last night, however, it was gelato, salted caramel Haagen Dazs for the ‘Publican and Breyers’ Tiramisu for me.  Since I’m working on one pound less a week, I had a small bowl and he had the almost pint (Haagen Dazs has cut their ounces, those bastards!).

But the best part of the evening was “Mad Men.”  We were early adopters and loyal viewers, so it only seems right to follow it to the end.  I guess I never realized how few people watch the show, but unlike Breaking Bad or The Walking Dead (both shows that we watched and loved – and with the zombies, we still watch and love), when we talk to others, nobody ever knows anything about what’s going on with the show.

Mad Men is a show for baby boomers and even though we are, or were, a mighty demographic, we’re aging and, in a twist of irony, nobody cares what we watch, eat, drink, or buy anymore.  Certainly not ad men!  The demographic they want is younger than us now.  It’s the Gens X & Y and even millenials they court.

I’m just about the same age as Sally Draper is on the show.  I graduated from high school in 1975, so in 1969, I would have been in middle/junior high school.  And although our lives are radically different in many ways, we have similar dads.  Not that my dad was as handsome as Jon Hamm’s Donald Draper, but he was “the man in the gray flannel suit” of his era, just like Don Draper.  So when I watch Mad Men, I think of my father and all the men of his generation.

Last night was an interesting show.  In the last few seasons, we’ve been introduced to one, now two, black women secretaries.  Their arrival has not been exactly with open arms, but it’s now 1969 and it’s time for the ad agency to get with the program.  First, it’s interesting that no black men work there, only black women and I don’t think that’s accidental, because the positions they work in are clerical and ostensibly considered less prestigious.

The jobs for men would be 0n the creative side, the graphic designers and copywriters, or on the accounts side, the getting and keeping of business.   At this point in history, accounts men are men who have pedigrees in WASP society (Bert Cooper, Roger Sterling, Kenneth Cosgrove, Pete Campbell, even Harry Crane) either by birth or by attendance at the right colleges, and are able to wine and dine the captains of industry who will be their clients, also men from WASP society primarily.  There are no Irish, Italian or Jewish (let alone Puerto Rican or black) men or women doing account work at Sterling, Cooper.  The only way a person of ethnicity, color or non-Protestant religion would make it in the advertising world would be through creative, but even there, it’s been a tough nut to crack.  We were introduced to a gay man in Season one, Sal, who was also Italian, but he’s been gone awhile.  Peggy Olsen, a woman, has made it through creative, and we have Michael Ginsburg and Stan Rizzo.  Of course, our main man, Don Draper is a man without the right past (although with a very WASP name), or any past at all, and he is the head of creative.

So in 1969 it would be almost impossible for an African American man to be hired in this advertising agency in any position, although it’s probably only a few years away from one being a graphic artist or copywriter.  And probably a decade before one will be an account executive.

Ironically for some women, it’s clear that being a secretary is not without any movement up the ladder.  After all, we meet Peggy Olson in the first episode as she’s starting her first day working for Don Draper as his secretary.  By the time we meet her now, she’s got her own office, has left the tutelage of Draper and then returned through a merger of two firms.  She’s a lead copywriter and the creative genius behind many accounts.  She’s come a long way, baby. (it’s implied in an earlier season that Peggy is responsible for the Virginia Slims’ tag line.)

And so, too, has Joan Holloway Harris.  She’s an older version of the secretary who takes care of her boss in more ways than one, but triumphs through it all because she’s smart and is the consummate pragmatist.  When 1960 dawns, she’s basically already the office manager as well as Roger Sterling’s on-again, off-again lover.  Eventually she parlays herself into a partnership with the firm (although how she does this is really horrible at the time).

Joan’s now flexing her account executive muscles – in last week’s episode she schooled a marketing professor, and by the end of last night’s episode, she moved upstairs to her own office with the accounts men.  One of her accounts is none other than Avon Cosmetics, which in 1968-69 was probably a pretty big coup.

No matter their gains, though, the women have to take a lot of crap to get where they are.  And the two African American women have to take even more.  Dawn, the first secretary who ends up working for, and being loyal to Don Draper, has proven herself a capable employee who breaks into the very white walls of Sterling Cooper.  Shirley, the newcomer (you can tell this because she wears her hair in an Afro, where Dawn has relaxed hair – a difference between when they were hired and what was considered acceptable then) is working but she’s not as happy about it – she is getting married and it’s implied that her fiance would prefer her to not be working at all.

When a dozen red roses are on Shirley’s desk, Peggy’s reaction is that they are for her (even though the card is not in them . . .) without even asking Shirley if they are hers.  When the truth comes to light, Peggy’s embarrassed but blames it on Shirley (hey, she’d been drinking in her office for awhile by then), saying that Shirley humiliated her because she didn’t immediately let her know, or let her know privately, and is flaunting her fiance status in front of her (uh, yeah, she’d been drinking for awhile).  She demands Joan move Shirley off her desk.

And of course, Dawn who now works for Draper’s replacement but still fields Don’s office calls (and surreptitiously gives Don the dope by coming over to his apartment in the evening after work), has her own issues to contend with.  Secretaries in those days were much more than just typists or message takers; they also would do many personal errands for their bosses (and some still do.)  In this case, she’s off to buy her boss a bottle of perfume for his wife because it’s Valentine’s Day.  And sure enough, while she’s gone, Draper’s daughter Sally just casually drops by, thinking she’ll find her dad at work.  Ooops.

Don Draper hasn’t told any of his family, including his wife, that he’s basically been furloughed for who knows how long.  He keeps the fiction that he’s still working because, as he tells Sally, he’s ashamed and doesn’t know what to do about it.  The guys in the office are probably hoping he’ll just get another job and slink away, but it’s unclear what he’s going to do, even as he goes to lunch with a guy from another agency, for no reason other than social.  Right.

So back to Dawn – her boss, the unimaginative and old school guy that he is – stomps off to Joan to demand that she be moved off his desk, too.

What’s clear to everybody at the agency is that neither black woman can be fired because of their skin color.  For what it would mean to be the ad agency that just happened to fire it’s only two black employees on the same day.  The optics of this are devastating to the firm.  Plus Joan knows that they are valuable beyond the optics, because they’re good employees, even if neither of their own bosses seem to get this.

So she moves Dawn to the reception desk and then finds out that none other than Bert Cooper himself who is the big, big boss (played by Robert Morse who starred in Broadway’s “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”) just can’t have a black woman sitting at the reception desk where anybody coming off the elevator could see her.

Bert says this standing casually in Joan’s doorway, as if she ought to know this and no, he’s not thinking that Dawn be fired, of course not.  As an aside, you know that Cooper would also not tolerate having an old woman, or a fat woman, or a less than attractive woman, or . . . a man (oh, horrors, a man in reception, what’s the world coming to!) at reception, either.

The ending scene in last night’s episode is a fitting one.  As Joan has now moved upstairs, her last act as office manager is to replace herself . . . with Dawn.  And as Dawn moves into her new, private office, she sits down at the desk and smiles.

I knew this wouldn’t be just any show watching the first episode.  In it, Peggy goes to Joan’s doctor to get birth control pills, which in 1960 was a radical act.  The pill is the single thing that set women more free from their biology than anything that came before it.

Which is why I love the show.  For all its horror in showing us who we were, we also get to see how we have changed.  Yes, the change feels glacial episode by episode, but from our perspective today, it’s pretty monumental, too.

P.S. to Mad Men watchers – yes, Sally Draper made her dad drinks when she was about six or seven.  Gotta love the 1960’s.