My Favorite Book

by-waysEvery so often someone wants to know what my favorite book is. I’m not sure about that. I know what my mother’s favorite book was—an Edwardian romance called The By-Ways of Braithe, the sort of novel that was said to ruin the morals of young girls. It was given to her by my Great-Aunt Kathleen, for whom I was named. The plot had everything: a lovely young red-headed heroine (my mother was red-headed), a priceless opal, an old mansion, secret passages, a dissolute but handsome cousin with carnal designs.

When I was two, or thereabouts, she put me down for a nap in the same room as her beloved copy of The By-Ways of Braithe, and instead of going to sleep I tore it up. I may even have eaten part of it. It was the sort of romantic twaddle that one could happily devour.

Years passed. I would have forgotten The By-Ways of Braithe, but for the fact that my mother mentioned it so often. Long after I grew up I discovered that there were such things as book-find services, and so I wrote away to one of them and secured a copy at last, which I first read and then gave to my mother for her birthday.

It was every bit as good as she had said. She was very pleased to receive it. She read it twice, or maybe three times, and then she laid it aside and began to pester me for other books that were lost in the mists of antiquity.

So I suppose one’s favorite book is the book one can’t quite have. For me, then, it’s The Yield of the Years, the memoirs of Admiral Sir Guy Gaunt, K.C.M.G., C.B., with twenty-seven illustrations. He makes an appearance in Firebomb, my spy thriller, and I’d really like to know him better, if only his book were available through interlibrary loan, or for sale in my price range.

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If you see it anywhere, please let me know.

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Screaming

peacemarchYesterday I opened the front door to the warm winds of spring and heard the happy shrieks of the children playing down the street. “It’s fun to scream,” I said to Harold. “I haven’t had a good scream since 2003.” It was March 7, 2003, International Women’s Day, in fact, when George W. Bush and his cohorts had already decided to attack Iraq and a bunch of us mistakenly believed he could be dissuaded from this by hearing from the People.

It was fun to scream. Most of us were women; it was a woman’s march. As we might have expected, W. was out of town, but the DC police herded us as far away from the executive mansion as they reasonably could and told us that twelve of us at a time would be allowed into Lafayette Square, out in front of it. We gathered on Meridian Hill and marched down Sixteenth Street, chanting. Hey, hey! Ho, ho! I forget how the rest of the chant went. From time to time we would stop chanting and simply scream.

You’ve no idea how satisfying that is if you’ve never tried it, to bellow as loud as you can together with a huge crowd of like-minded folks and hear the echoes of your screaming bouncing off tall buildings. At the end of Sixteenth Street the parade was diverted way around the White House. We couldn’t even see it, let alone be seen by anybody who might be in there. The women milled around the Mall for awhile and then marched back up to try to collect on the promise that twelve of us, at least, would be let into Lafayette Square.

The Twelve were famous writers and like that, Maxine Hong Kingston, a beloved idol of mine, Alice Walker, and ten other luminaries whose names are lost to my fading memory. They got into the square, the police asked them to leave, and they sat down, whereupon they were all led away in handcuffs.

I got there just in time to see them being led away in handcuffs, most of them grannies like myself, arrested for trying to speak truth to power. I could have been among them, if I’d been a little spryer. It would have been an honor. But the sight of better women than me being dragged off to jail, along with the sight and sound of the twenty burly motorcycle cops who came roaring up to the curb, batons in hand, to keep all the other grannies in line, took some of the starch out of me. I haven’t had a good scream since.

Pretty soon it might be time again. We’ll see how this election progresses.

Naked Writers

titiaan_zondeval_grtWriters of fiction, and even of non-fiction, reveal who they secretly are in everything they write. Their feelings about themselves, their feelings about other people, their politics, their level of education, their attitude toward organized religion and the Lord God Himself—it’s all there, in the way the writer’s characters behave, in the way fate, society, and the other characters treat them, sometimes even in the occasional page or two of philosophizing.

Philosophizing is frequently a feature of  grim-jawed right-wing men’s thrillers. There are a lot of those around, great big fat volumes with the name of the author and title of the book in a huge font size that takes up the whole cover. People like them. I like them.You don’t have to be on board with a writer’s politics to enjoy the writer’s work. Many are written by grim-jawed right-wing men, no doubt, but the thriller writers I’ve met are soft-spoken, friendly people who don’t even carry guns.

Bernard Cornwell is a nice guy and a good public speaker. I love his work, all full of violence, battle, and severed limbs. After reading one of his Saxon novels, where the churchmen are stupid, tyrannical, hate-filled villains who get hacked to pieces in front of their deluded Christian followers by the heroic Viking protagonist, I feel as though I should go to confession. And I’m not even Roman Catholic. I sense a certain hostility to organized religion in those books.

Writers (and fans) of so-called cozy mysteries appear from their writings to have a low tolerance for chaos. Theirs is a world where the cats and dogs never die. The body falls, always the body of a human being, and the rest of the book is devoted to the restoration of order. These writers are my friends and Facebook friends, and their lives are as frightening and disorderly as anybody else’s, with horrible things happening to their neighborhoods, their families, and yes, their cats and dogs, because that’s real life. Who needs it? The cozy writers perform a valuable public service by giving us a place to hide out with a cup of tea or a glass of wine and escape for a little while.

The most naked sort of naked writing has to be the semi-autobiography. Women don’t do those so much. It’s a man thing, an entitled man thing. I am Man. Behold my words. Famous literary lions have been writing them forever, so that the Great Man Writer has become a dramatic convention.  You don’t see women in the movies writing their thinly disguised life stories to great respect and public acclaim. But if you do write a semi-autobiography, trust me, you are standing there starkers.

The idea of the great manly semi-autobiography as a worthwhile endeavor tends to lead young men astray, I think. Everyone says, write what you know, but before you start you should make sure you know something. Years ago I ran a workshop at a conference where among the other offerings I was supposed to critique was a chapter and an outline for a young fellow’s great manly semi-autobiography. When I read this opus I instantly hated the kid.

It was a story of how he took a job in a profession that I knew a little something about, and worked for a woman very like friends of mine. He proceeded to sneer at his job as worthless and sneer at his boss for being old, ugly, and lonely. Then his character went out to a bar and picked up a needy girlfriend, who moved in with him. I think he hung out with her because they did the same drugs. When his cold, rejecting, self-centered behavior drove her to try to kill herself he regarded it as a personal annoyance.

Luckily two women in the workshop were able to help him with his manuscript, which they wanted to do because he was very good-looking.  Maybe I would have cut him a break, too, if I had seen his face first. But probably not. Did you know that Steinbeck kicked his dog? I read that somewhere. At least it isn’t apparent in his work.