Paul Simon — He Blew That Room Away

On Saturday, June 4th, my sister, brother-in-law and I attended a Paul Simon concert at Heritage Park in Simpsonville, SC. Fantastic!. His mix of new and old songs did not disappoint. Some songs left me exhilarated–some caused a nostalgic ache for a past long gone. Through it all, I marveled at the connection I felt to this man whom I know only through the words of his songs.

And what words he wrote! Words that painted pictures so vibrant that to hear them brings back vivid memories, real and imagined. I was fairly mesmerized when Paul sang America. As he crooned the words, “Kathy, I said as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh”, describing their bus ride and “counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike,” I could see the scene so clearly, I felt certain I’d been on that bus trip with them in 1968. I guess, in a way, I was…we all were.

Me and Julio Down by the School Yard makes me laugh out loud whenever I hear this line–“Mama looked down and spit on the ground every time his name was mentioned.” Can’t you just see her? With words, Paul creates an indelible picture of a woman who demonstrates her contempt for someone wordlessly.

I still remember first hearing The Dangling Conversation when I was in high school. The sound was so new, the words so thought-provoking. I followed Paul as he made the transition from Simon and Garfunkel to his solo journey. I crossed with him the Bridge over Troubled Water, and more than 20 years after I first heard his words, I was again blown away by Graceland, one of my all-time favorite albums.

Paul Simon has written so many words and phrases that have become part of our lexicon. If I say “Mrs. Robinson” in describing a woman, need I say more? Who doesn’t know about the “50 Ways…”? And as we age, don’t we have to smile when we hear the refrain, “Still Crazy After All These Years”?

When I came home after the concert, I couldn’t just go to bed. I pulled out my Essential Paul Simon CD’s and sat listening, amazed at the memories they stirred in me and how much a part of my life those songs are. The best is that Paul Simon continues to write and sing his songs. Thank you, Paul, for a lifetime of unforgettable music and poetry. Rock on!

Try not dancing or at least wiggling as you listen to Paul sing Late In the Evening.

 

In Search of Silver Linings

Oh, give me a home
Where the Buffalo roam
Where the deer and the antelope play
Where seldom is heard
A discouraging word
And the skies are not cloudy all day.

–“Home on the Range” Lyrics: Dr. Brewster M. Higley, Music Daniel E. Kelley.

I love that lyric. Must have been all those Westerns I watched as a little girl that instilled that dreamy longing in me for a place where the sun always shines. Can’t you just imagine how wonderful it would be to never hear a discouraging word?

Well, if you’ve read any of my previous blogs, you know I’m an incurable optimist always seeking the silver lining in the darkest clouds. Some weeks it’s harder to accomplish than others. I finished reading J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy last week, and while the author is an example of the power of hard work and perseverance, his book left me a bit despairing. The senseless bombing at the Ariana Grande concert this past week also left me feeling –well– quite frankly discouraged.

But then I read about Keren Taylor, founder of WriteGirl, a Los Angeles based nonprofit that connects teenage girls with mentors to empower girls to express themselves in whatever genre suits them–poetry, journals, screenwriting, playwriting, etc. The goal is to provide support for  girls through whatever problems or challenges they are facing.
Taylor says, “There might be a storm raging, but we are here to be fierce protectors of these young women and their future. It’s not easy but sure feels good.”

Writegirl has a 100% success rate in getting girls to apply to college. That is an amazing statistic. Best of all, the program is expanding to include boys and is even reaching out to correctional facilities. Again, it may be the Pollyanna in me, but I don’t see how anything but good can come of this. [For more information: http://www.writegirl.org/keren-taylor/]

Then yesterday I read about the remarkable singer-songwriter, rapper, record and film producer, Pharell Williams, and his commencement speech at NYU. He said:

“This is the first generation that navigates the world with the security and confidence to treat women as equal. You are the first ever. Our country has never seen this before. It makes some people uncomfortable. But just imagine the possibilities.”

And just this morning, The Greenville News reported that the Nicholtown Presbyterian Church, a predominantly black congregation in Greenville, received $2,000 and a letter in their mailbox last week. The donor wrote there were two reasons for the bequest. “First, I am white and used to be a terrible racist…” The donation signified a “heartfelt apology to the African American community.” The second reason ? To show that “miracles, just as in Biblical times, still happen today…” Encouraging words, indeed

Countdown to Book Launch

I’m delighted to announce that my cozy mystery will launch on Amazon.com on May 15th. What’s a cozy mystery you ask? Ironically, when I started writing Second Bloom, I had never heard the term myself.

The word “cozy” says it all. Whatever you picture when you hear that word–a fireplace, a steaming pot of tea, a fluffy comforter, the smell of bread baking in the oven–that’s what to expect from a cozy mystery. Jessica Faust of Book Ends Literary Agency explains it this way:

“When you read one you feel like you’re being embraced by a world you want to be in. You’ve found new friends and maybe a protagonist who inspires you or who could easily be your best friend. The book itself doesn’t move too fast, there tends not to be a lot of blood, usually no more than one body…”

Like so many other mystery fans, I developed a  love of traditional and cozy mysteries reading Nancy Drew books, graduating to Agatha Christie as I got older. As I wrote in my November blog: “Especially when the world seems gray and gloomy, whether literally or figuratively, I know no better escape than reading about a plucky heroine who says and does all the things I can’t, a shero who conquers the bad guys and finds true love with some hunky hero.”

I got the idea for Second Bloom, the first book in my Holly and Ivy Mystery series, sitting in the garden at the Daniel Webster Inn on Cape Cod. My sister and I were admiring the flowers and I said something about Rosemary and Thyme, the PBS cozy mystery series that featured two women gardeners as amateur sleuths. Suddenly I got the spark of an idea. Wouldn’t an American version be great…a series about two sisters who garden and solve mysteries? And that’s where it all began, the summer of 2010.

The resulting book, Second Bloom, is  a cozy mystery about Holly Donnelly, a 55-year old adjunct English professor, and her younger sister, 52-year old Ivy Donnelly, a recently widowed, retired nurse. The look-alike sisters are reluctantly drawn into the investigation of an elderly neighbor’s murder when Juan Alvarez, Holly’s trusted gardener, is accused of the crime. Holly fears police detective, Nick Manelli, assumes Juan is guilty and won’t conduct a proper investigation, while Ivy feels the “hunky” Manelli is not only a good cop, but also a possible romantic match for her sister. The burning question is: can the clues the sisters unearth from neighborhood gossip about the victim’s family, a politically connected neighbor and a powerful real estate developer help save an innocent man, or will the gardening duo dig up more than they bargain for?

Tomorrow, April 27, I leave for Bethesda, Maryland to attend the annual Malice Domestic conference. This gathering is an annual fan convention  that celebrates the traditional mystery. As you can guess, these are “my people”. I’ll be there spreading the word about my imminent launch…all those years of marketing have not been lost on me.

If you like cozy mysteries, I hope you’ll check back here on May 15th. If you subscribe to my blog, you will automatically get notified when the book goes on sale and, if you subscribe before May 15th, I’ll send you Holly’s recipe for Honey Oat Bread.
Until then, wishing you sunny days and cozy nights!

Retreat…No Surrender

Dictionary.com lists six definitions for the word retreat. Quite possibly the first one that comes to your mind, as it does to mine, is this one: “the forced or strategic withdrawal of an army or an armed force before an enemy.” This definition has a negative connotation, associated with surrender and defeat. But the retreat I want to talk about today is “the act of withdrawing, as into safety or privacy; retirement; seclusion.”

Laurelwood, the exercise and yoga facility at Skyterra (www.skyterrawellness.com)

Last week I spent seven days on a retreat…not the religious kind, though it definitely had its moments of spirituality. This retreat, focusing on health and well-being, took place at the Skyterra Wellness Retreat located near Brevard, North Carolina.

Why, you might ask if you’ve been following my blog, would someone, who is healthy, retired and spending most of her time walking the dog, gardening and reading, need to go on a retreat? I acknowledge that I am very lucky to enjoy good health, but I have noticed lately that I’m not as strong as I used to be and my balance is not what it should be either.

Many people go to Skyterra to lose weight. The program does provide nutritious meals and daily strength-building and yoga classes. But Skyterra’s focus is not weight loss. It’s healthy eating. Not exercising to burn calories, but exercising to build strength and improve mobility. This program is about health and wellness for individuals of any age, but particularly ideal for retirees who want to stay fit, active and able to enjoy our retirement.

I must admit the first day I was terrified that I would hurt myself. Everyone else seemed to be able to stretch and perform the exercises I could not. When it came to modified push-ups on an elevated box, I completed one, but got stuck in the down position on the second one requiring help to get back up. Bending, I could reach just a bit below my knees while everyone else was touching their toes or grasping their ankles. The day we did a class on balance, I had to stand near a wall when standing on one foot in order not to tip over, while others were fully stretched out, leaning forward like soaring eagles standing on one leg.

I wanted to take the whirlpool bathtub home with me.

After Day 1 I was certain I would not be able to get out bed on Day 2, but guess what? I had no aches or pains the next morning. I think the Epsom salt soak in my whirlpool bathtub had a lot to do with that. But I also think the yoga classes in the afternoon helped restore the muscles that got tested in the morning. Skyterra’s unique blend of activities gets you to move outside of your comfort zone, then helps you get back to center.

Yes, Day 1 was a humbling experience, but at no time did I feel embarrassed by my limitations. The people in my group were just lovely and encouraging, and the young instructors at Skyterra are truly amazing. They pay close attention to everyone and work with you on the areas where you are weakest, assuring that you don’t get hurt. Their support and encouragement is truly heartening.

On Day 2, I no longer worried about hurting myself. I did my best. It didn’t matter that everyone was better. By Day 6 I could feel that I was stronger and I could actually stand on one foot longer without tipping over. On Day 7, when we were re-assessed, I’d lost 2 inches off my waist, 1.4 % of body fat and gained 1.1% muscle mass. Not bad for a 65 year old, right? I admit it. I’m quite proud of myself.

Additionally, I feel confident that I can continue to improve because the strength-building and mobility routines we were taught, I can do at home. All participants received an email with links to videos of the many exercises we performed daily.

Skyterra is an amazing program for the body,but it is  much more than just a physical improvement program. The Skyterra approach nurtures body, mind and spirit. The lectures on stress management, improving sleep, goal-setting, menu planning and self-compassion all help nourish you mentally and physically.

Nestled in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, Skyterra is the ideal setting for a retreat. Walking the property, hikes to the surrounding waterfalls, sitting on the dock by the lake all provide opportunities for contemplation and self-reflection…something we rarely do at home with those bills to pay, that closet to clean out, and…well…you know.

Nina and I on a hike to the waterfalls.

One more thing…all of the people at Skyterra, from the Owners to the Instructors to the Chefs, are just so darn nice, you can’t help but feel welcome and at ease. So if you’ve been considering a vacation, or you’ve actually wanted to go on a retreat, I recommend Skyterra. I went with my friend, Nina, who flew into Asheville, NC from New York, but I assure you Skyterra is a place you could travel to by yourself and feel perfectly comfortable.

Yes, aging brings with it some physical limitations, but with a little bit of effort  we can reduce the negative impact of those limitations. If you can, go on a retreat for your body, mind and spirit. Remember…you’re only old once. Don’t surrender.

Let Nothing You Dismay, cont’d.

The morning of the blizzard in the Northeast two weeks ago, I woke up and thought about what my day would have been like had I stayed in New Jersey. If the snow had started before I awoke, I would have had to shovel my way from the front stoop to the street in order to walk the dog. (I learned from experience that stepping on un-shoveled snow, especially in freezing conditions, only leaves frozen lumps that remain on your sidewalks until Spring thaw.)

My house in New Jersey, Februrary 13, 2014.

In order to walk the dog, I would have had to wear ice cleats over my boots to prevent falls like the one I took a few years back that resulted in a trip to the emergency room. Depending on how rapidly the snow was falling, I would have had to shovel my way back from the street to my front stoop after our walk.

Back inside, I’d put on a pot of coffee and walk from window to window, wondering when it was going to stop, hoping this day would not be the day my trusty landscaper, Jose Alvarez, would fail to show up to clear the walks and driveway. After breakfast, I’d put a fire in the fireplace and again make my rounds from window to window.

Should I start the snow blower and at least get the first few inches cleared, just in case Jose didn’t make it, or should I just wait until the last flake had fallen? Would I be able to get out of the driveway the next day to get to work? I would have continued to fret like that all day long.

Pansies survive all Winter in South Carolina. Photo taken February 16, 2017.

After two winters here in South Carolina, I am profoundly grateful I made the move to this milder climate. The day of that Northeastern blizzard, we enjoyed bright sunshine and temperatures in the 40’s here in Mauldin. The previous snowfall, we did get an inch of snow, but the roads were all melted by the end of the day…and that’s with no plowing. Admittedly, it’s been an unusually mild winter here, but last year was pretty much the same.

I find it nothing short of miraculous that this Dianthus bloomed for me all Winter.

The best part of all is that our last frost date is April 15. If you are a gardener like me,that is a dream. After the year-end holidays, you have the month of January to relax, flip through seed catalogs and peruse your garden books. In February, you can plant your snap peas and lettuces outdoors and start your seeds for the summer garden.That is exactly what I did last Sunday following the Master Gardener Symposium my sister and I attended on Saturday.

Entitled “Ideas for an Inspiring Garden”, the symposium lived up to its theme.The most stirring and motivating talk of the day was delivered by W. Gary Smith, a landscape architect and designer with the soul of an artist and gardener (http://wgarysmith.com/). Mr. Smith’s lecture focused on natural patterns in the landscape and how to replicate them in our own garden designs.

Image taken from “Green Prints – The Weeder’s Digest”, No. 49, Spring 2002. Don’t you love that title?

Mr. Smith’s last slide was an idyllic photo of some rustic chairs clustered beneath a copse of trees overlooking a breathtaking mountain vista. He said he couldn’t help getting emotional about gardening and that in a world where many people feel fear and anger and view the world as a dangerous place, gardeners know better. He was met with thunderous applause as he concluded his talk by encouraging us to continue to create places of beauty, love, comfort and solace in our landscapes. (Sigh!)

So forget the groundhog. Whether you’re planting seeds  out-doors, or you’re at the reading seed catalogs phase, or even if you only have one houseplant on a windowsill to comfort you, be hopeful and inspired. Spring is on the way!

Who Wrote Shakespeare?

On Sunday evening, June 26, 1977 I sat down at the desk in my room at Wroxton Abbey in Oxfordshire, England. The next day I would attend the first of my master’s level classes at Wroxton College, the British campus of Fairleigh Dickinson University. That summer we would be reading Henry VI, Parts One,Two and Three. Later in the summer, we would be attending all three of these Shakespearean history plays performed at the Royal Shakespeare Theater in Stratford-upon-Avon.

My sister, Mary Ellen, and me on a return visit to Wroxton Abbey, Summer 2011.

I still remember the thrill I felt when I read that the setting of the first scene was Westminster Abbey. I had just been there the day before. Yes, I loved Shakespeare before, but my three summers at Wroxton would transform that love into unconditional adoration.

Imagine my horror when I picked up the newspaper this past October and read the following headline: “Oxford says Shakespeare will share credit for Henry VI.” Wait…what? That’s right. Oxford University Press’ new edition of Shakespeare’s works will credit Christopher Marlowe as co-author of the Henry VI plays. [Are you rolling in your grave, Will?]

Gary Taylor, a professor at Florida State University and the principal investigator of the new edition crowed, “Shakespeare has now entered the world of big data.” He and a team of 23 international “scholars” used “computerized data sets to reveal patterns, trends and associations— analyzing not only Shakespeare’s words, but also those of his contemporaries.”

Seriously? Why would anyone do that? Have modern scholars run out of original ideas and thoughts to explore and research? This reminded me of one disappointing lecture by a tutor at Wroxton that focused on the number of active and passive verbs Shakespeare used in his plays. After listening to visiting Shakespearean scholars lecture all semester, providing brilliant insights into Elizabethan life and times and inspiring interpretations of Shakespeare’s writing, I found the verb identification exercise rather uninspiring. And now, computer analysis of Shakespeare? Positively dispiriting, not to mention yawn-inducing.

It’s no secret that writers often seek the advice of other writers, and in Elizabethan England, there was “a demand for new material to feed the appetite of the first mass entertainment industry.” I’ll concede that the small group of writers working at that time probably consulted one another and may have even collaborated. As a writer myself, I participate in classes and critique groups where members of the group provide wonderful suggestions about editing my phrasing, language, and even plot, and I have amended my work based on their suggestions. Does that make them my co-authors?

It’s hard to account for the obsession with discrediting a beloved and venerated writer who’s been dead nearly 500 years. Historically, there have been writers, scholars and critics who questioned Shakespeare’s ability to have written all the plays that have traditionally been attributed to him. Some say Shakespeare simply didn’t have the experience to write about the subject matter he covered. In response to that James Shapiro, author of Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? writes:

“What I find most disheartening about the claim that Shakespeare of Stratford lacked the life experience to have written the plays is that it diminishes the very thing that makes him exceptional: his imagination.”

The Bard

So, my question to the scholars using “big data” to analyze Shakespeare’s plays is what imaginative contribution have you made to the world of literature? Even if you’re right, does it really matter that Christopher Marlowe, a poet and playwright himself, may have written some scenes in the Henry VI plays, perhaps to help out a fellow writer trying to meet a deadline or because he needed the money?

Will any one of the scholars who completed this study be quoted 500 years from now? Methinks the answer lies in the Bard’s own words. Compared to Shakespeare, the scholar using computer analytics to define his work is:

“…but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more.” Macbeth, Act V, Scene 5

And as for his computer study, well:

“ It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.” Macbeth, Act V, Scene 5

Long live Shakespeare! Long live the Bard!

Let Nothing You Dismay

Earlier this month my sisters, Jane, Mary Ellen,  and I attended a play at Centre Stage in Greenville entitled Let Nothing You Dismay, a delightful  comedy about a couple awaiting the birth of the baby they’re going to adopt.  Yesterday, my mother, Mary Ellen, and I attended Miracle on 34th Street at the Greenville Little Theater.  At the end of the first act, when Kris Kringle has been remanded to Bellevue Hospital because he’s been deemed insane for saying he’s Santa Claus, the music playing  was…you guessed it…God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen. As the actors scurried off stage in disarray and the lights went down, the music seemed to stop on exactly that line…”let nothing you dismay”.

That kind of sealed the deal for me. Right then and there,  I decided that my mantra for this year will be “Let nothing you dismay.”  Whenever I feel discouraged or blue, I will remember those words and carry on.  After all, no matter how bleak things might seem on any given day, there is always something to be glad and grateful for.

The Pollyanna principle is a subconscious bias towards the positive.

The Pollyanna principle is a subconscious bias towards the positive.

Now, I’ve already admitted in previous blogs that I am a Pollyanna, and to my chagrin, my cheerfulness over the years has sometimes been dampened with that chilly glass of frosty words, “Oh, it’s easy for you.” Maybe.  I won’t deny that I have been extremely fortunate in my life. I never take that for granted and every day I feel a profound sense of gratitude for my good fortune.  But my life has not been free of tough choices, and a bit of hard work and determination have also been part of it.  I may be wrong, but I also think my constant search for the silver lining doesn’t hurt. Let me give you an example.

This Fall I was hard pressed to find the silver lining in a notification from our local Department of Public Works that the city would no longer be collecting glass for recycling because manufacturing new glass was now cheaper than recycling it.  At the time, I scratched my head, questioning this logic. I thought we recycled because we wanted to reduce the amount of waste going into landfills and save our environment,  not because we made money doing it.  Recently, as I put a glass bottle in the regular trash, I shook my head and asked the air, “Doesn’t anyone do anything unless they’re making money anymore?”  A dismaying thought indeed.

www.simpsonvillegardenclub.com

www.simpsonvillegardenclub.com

Well, I thought about it and I am pleased to say I came up with an answer.  My garden club works for no money to fulfill its mission “to stimulate the knowledge and love of gardening among amateurs; to encourage civic plantings and recycling of solid wastes; to aid in the protection of nature’s plants and birds; to promote the study of gardening, landscape design, flower arranging/horticulture and environmental concerns through schools and non-commercial flower shows; and to encourage the love of all phases of garden club work among youth and seniors”.

That’s right. All of that is accomplished by a dedicated band of woman who generously volunteer their time and work tirelessly for the sheer joy of gardening and a deep-seated belief that what they are doing is good for the environment  and good for the community they live in.  The Simpsonville Garden Club:

  1. conducts monthly meetings, free to the public, with speakers who teach us how to be better gardeners
  2. plants the garden outside of the Police Headquarters in Simpsonville
  3. maintains an eco-friendly planter donated by the club and placed in front of Simpsonville’s historic clock tower
  4. conducts a yearly garden show at the South Greenville Fair that members of the public can participate in for free, and
  5. conducted a tour this summer of home gardens volunteered for viewing by members of our community.

So my feelings of dismay are dispelled by my fellow gardeners. I salute you, Steel Magnolias, who give so much to so many, asking no money in return for the work you do. You are the silver lining I was searching for.  I am cheered knowing  that no matter what gloom and doom is reported in the news today, no matter that you won’t receive a penny for the work you do, you will continue “to touch the earth and make it grow”.  Tidings of Comfort and Joy!  Merry Christmas, Everyone.

sam_1209

My pointsettia from last year survived and bloomed again this year. Life’s good.

The Definition of “Tough”

My friend, Nina Augello, shared with me something she wrote while at Elmhurst General Hospital with her father last month. I’m pleased to be able to share it with you.

What does it mean to be tough? Archetypes like the 6 foot 4 inch cowboy battling the elements in a lawless landscape come quickly to mind, but they’re probably a bit simplistic. I am sitting besides my 90 yr. old father in his hospital bed where he has been wrestled into submission by 4 injections of sleep medication and a powerful tranquilizer. He doesn’t want to be here and he is periodically still yelling orders in his sleep. Yesterday when it finally hit him that he was in a hospital, he looked me in the eye and in the most lucid tone told me that I had no brains for bringing him to a place like this.

In many ways he was right on point because the ER was a noisy beeping madhouse of the screaming unwashed with no Mother Theresa in sight and I was supposed to be the smart one—so there was no greater insult he could hurl that would hit me where I live. He has always been a take no prisoners tough cookie.

To say that my father is strong willed is a laughable understatement. Even as his dementia has progressed he has maintained a strict schedule of grooming and exercising and hasn’t relented in his demand for home-cooked meals prepared to his specifications. I am strong-willed too and as the first born and the “son” he never had my childhood is littered with many a clenched jaw confrontation that I am surprised to say didn’t cause us to pulverize our back molars—apparently our teeth are strong-willed too.

Notwithstanding the breathing problems that sent him to the ER, he is at once whistling in his sleep and then asking for coffee in Italian. Last night (his first day in the ER} he asked me if I had prepared dinner and do we have enough to feed all these people–a perfect coda to my running joke that when I was growing up, my family cooked enough food to feed Nebraska if it dropped by unexpectedly.

The electrical system of my father’s heart is winding down and there is a circling the drain effect on his lungs and kidneys. Being old is not for sissies but being “old” old is a whole other deal that no amount of jaw clenching is going to ameliorate. At some point soon I will be faced with difficult choices and will have to decide in proxy when it’s time for him to stop fighting the good fight.

In the coming days I’ll get to see just how tough I really am.

In Memory of Angelo Augello

1926-2016

Angelo Augello passed away Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 2016

 

Book Review: Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving

The main character of John Irving’s novel, Avenue of Mysteries, is a writer named Juan Diego Guerrero. Irving says this about his protaganist’s writing:

“In a Juan Diego Guerrero novel everyone is a kind of outsider; Juan Diego’s characters feel they are foreigners, even when they’re home.”

avenue-of-mysteriesThe same can be said about John Irving’s novels in general, but this is especially the case in Avenue of Mysteries. Born in Oaxaca, Mexico, Juan Diego and his sister, Lupe, are los ninos de la basura or dump kids. Their mother was a prostitute and they were raised by el jefe, the dump boss, who had a relationship with her at one time. Whether or not el jefe was Juan’s biological father is one of the book’s many mysteries.

What is extraordinary about Juan Diego is that he has taught himself to read, scavenging books that have been tossed in the garbage. Even more remarkable, he has taught himself to read both Spanish and English. Lupe, on the other hand, speaks her own language that only Juan Diego can understand. He is her translator. Some people think she’s retarded, but  she often surprises them because she can read their minds and sometimes she can even foresee the future.

We learn the story of Juan Diego’s life in Mexico and later in Iowa, mostly through his dreams and memories. After the luggage carrying his medication is delayed on the first leg of his flight to the Phillipines, Juan Diego’s “thoughts, his memories—what he imagined, what he dreamed were jumbled up.” And thus begins a masterfully crafted story that moves seamlessly from the present to the past and back again.

On the back jacket of Avenue of Mysteries is a blurb lifted from a TIME magazine review. It says:

“…unlike so many writers in the contemporary canon, he [John Irving] manages to write books that are both critically acclaimed and beloved for their sheer readability.”

I have to tell you I laughed out loud when I read that. So, was the reviewer acknowledging that critics like books that are unreadable? I have read my share of critically acclaimed, prize winning novels that experiment with time…no boring, formulaic beginning, middle and end for them. Quite frankly, they make my head hurt. Half the time I’m not sure who’s speaking or what century we’re in. I do believe those writers should read and study Avenue of Mysteries. This is how you do it so that your reader is with you every minute, enjoying the journey, spending time reflecting on the ideas you’re writing about, not struggling to figure out who’s who and what time period we’re in..

"The books which help you most are the books that make you think the most." Theodore Parker, American Transcendentalist and reforming minister of the Unitarian church.

“The books which help you most are the books that make you think the most.” Theodore Parker, American Transcendentalist and reforming minister of the Unitarian church.

There is so much more to say about this book. Irving expounds on various topics —writing, life’s mysteries, Shakespeare and the Catholic Church (anyone who went to Catholic school will most certainly recognize Sister Gloria) to name just a few. There’s also one wonderful episode in which Juan Diego views a book store bulletin board in Lithuania and mistakenly thinks he’s stumbled on a dating service that matches people based on the novels they read. He thinks it’s a wonderful idea. My question is why hasn’t anyone thought of this before?

I look forward to writing future blogs inspired by Mr. Irving’s reflections. I’d love to  share some of his thoughts on writing and I especially can’t wait to write my answer to the question “Who wrote Shakespeare?”

Just a word of caution. In previous blogs, I have expressed my love of cozy mysteries and happy endings. The word cozy is not one that could be applied to John Irving’s work, and satisfying might more aptly describe his endings than happy. If you’ve never read John Irving before, you might prefer to start with his all-time, best-selling novel , A Prayer for Owen Meany. However, if you are looking for a masterful piece of writing that gives you much to think about, Avenue of Mysteries is the book for you.

Book Review: Dear Killer

I was an English major in college and have a Masters Degree with a concentration in Shakespearean studies, but I must confess there are times I like nothing better than to crawl into a cozy mystery or a romantic suspense story. Especially when the world seems gray and gloomy, whether literally or figuratively, I know no better escape than reading about a plucky heroine who says and does all the things I can’t, a shero who conquers the bad guys and finds true love with some hunky hero. Formulaic and unrealistic? Perhaps. But sometimes that’s just what you need.

dear-kill-cover-finalTo my delight this week I discovered a new, audacious female protagonist, Marley Clark, when I started reading Dear Killer by Linda Lovely (http://www.lindalovely.com/). Marley is a 52-year old widow and a retired military intelligence officer, working as a security guard for the fictitious Dear Island community where she lives on the coast of South Carolina. When she discovers the body of a local real estate appraiser drowned in a Jacuzzi, she becomes involved in a murder investigation that upends her lazy “Mayberry by the sea” and puts her in mortal danger.

Linda Lovely is masterful at writing page-turning suspense scenes. I stayed up past midnight last night because I just couldn’t stop reading…that from a person who rarely makes it up past ten o’clock. Lovely’s writing style is a pleasure to read and Marley’s voice throughout is full of wry wit and raw, honest female emotion. She’s absolutely someone I’d enjoy having a few beers with.

What about the romance, you’re probably wondering. Well, Lovely does not disappoint in that aspect. The deputy sent to investigate the murders is Braden Mann. That’s right, Braden Mann…what a name! What a guy! He’s twelve years younger than Marley, but he doesn’t even seem to notice. Their spicy love scenes will warm you up on a cold night.

And here’s the best of all…Dear Killer is just the first in the Marley Clark Series. I’m often regretful at the end of a book when I must say good-bye to characters I’ve come to enjoy spending time with.  How I love learning these characters live on in a series!

My next book club title is John Irving’s Avenue of Mysteries. It’s been awhile since I read a John Irving book and I really am looking forward to it. Then there’s Bruce Springsteen’s young face beckoning me from the cover of Born to Run, which I just haven’t had time to start reading. Marley Clark will have to wait a bit…but winter’s on its way, and I have curling up in front of the fire on a dark and stormy night with No Wake Zone, book 2 of the series, to look forward to.

If you like romantic suspense, you’ll love Dear Killer.