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Browsing in a Bookstore — Yes! Really!

8 Sep

Is there anything more pleasurable than browsing in a bookstore? I have always loved the feeling of turning my head sideways to look at the books on the shelf in a bookstore or library. And how about this? Half an hour with the bookstore to yourself to browse to your heart’s content, after you put on your mask and gloves of course. 

My favorite used bookstore, Golden Fig Books in Durham, North Carolina is doing just that. You can sign up for a half an hour time slot online. Members of one household are then welcome to browse in the store for thirty minutes.

My husband and I arrived promptly at the beginning of our allotted time, and after sanitizing our hands and donning the gloves they provided, we headed into the book selection. I wandered from popular fiction to mysteries to historical fiction to memoir, before finally settling to make a choice. We both ended up purchasing used books, so we didn’t spend much. Golden Fig also has a good selection of new arrivals available if you can’t wait for the latest books to appear on the used shelves.

I chose The Atomic City Girls by Janet Beard, a novel about the young women employed in Oak Ridge, Tennessee during World War II at the pilot plutonium and uranium enrichment plant built as part of the Manhattan Project and the creation of the first atomic bombs.

The name of the store, Golden Fig, comes from the book The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. According to the store’s website, there is a point is the story “where the main character is comparing life to a fig tree. Every branch symbolizes a different path she can choose to take, and each fig represents a different career or destination.” I love the symbolism of the fig tree and the life choices it represents, and also the vast choices we face whenever we browse in a bookstore. I read The Bell Jar a few years ago when I realized that although I knew who Sylvia Plath was and had read a biography and some of her poetry, I had never read her most famous book. Once I started it, I couldn’t put it down. It is a sad semi-autobiographical story of a woman’s slide in mental illness, but riveting and thought-provoking.

We celebrated our outing and our purchases by stopping next door at Guglhupf Bakery from some sweet treats to take home. Food and books make for such a great pairing!

It’s amazing how special these little adventures are when we haven’t had the opportunity to go out much in the last few months. I am really pleased that places like Golden Fig are finding creative ways to open to customers.

Sirius Black thinks a book makes a great pillow.
Link

Chasing Art Thieves

25 Aug

All my novels in the Nara series, including the newest one, deal in some way with crimes involving art. Hotel Saint Clare refers to the art collection of the hotel owner for whom Nara works after leaving her teaching job. In The Gate House, centuries old pieces, including stained glass windows stolen from local churches, are hidden in the basement of the bed and breakfast where Nara lives with her family. In Lydia’s Story, we go back to World War II when Nara’s great-grandmother Lydia Roberts helped smuggle Jewish children across the border from France to safety in Spain. And pieces of art belonging to Jewish families, stolen by the Germans, are still being returned to their rightful owners.

In my newest novel, tentatively titled Sacrifice, Nara and Alex travel to Spain to bring back notebooks belonging to artist Felicia Browne, who died in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. They also discover an art smuggling operation going on in the Spanish town where they visit.

I love reading about art crimes, whether they are true accounts or fictionalized. One of my favorite non-fiction books is I Was Vermeer: The Rise and Fall of the Twentieth Century’s Greatest Forger by Frank Wynne. This remarkable book tells the story of Han van Meegeren, a second rate Dutch painter who became a hero of the art world when he painted fake Vermeers which he then passed on to the Germans as the real thing. Ordinarily, the Dutch people would be horrified at someone created fake Vermeers, but when it was done to put one over on the Nazis, van Meegeren was sentenced to just a year in prison for forgery.

An excellent novel about art theft is Pictures at an Exhibition by Sarah Houghteling. This fascinating story, based on fact, is set in Paris during World War II, and tells the story of a son’s quest to recover his family’s treasures which were looted by the Nazis during the occupation. It also brings to light the story of Rose Valland, a French art historian and member of the French Resistance. She secretly recorded details of the Nazi thefts of national French and private Jewish-owned art from France, saving thousands of works of art. As she listed the paintings for the meticulous, record-keeping Nazis, she hid from them the fact that she understood German and kept copies of the lists for herself.

Another great non-fiction book about art crimes is Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures by Robert K. Wittman and John SchiffmanWittman is the founder of the FBI’s Art Crime Team, and had an amazing career recovering millions of dollars’ worth of stolen art and artifacts from around the world. His recoveries run the gamut from Rembrandts to a lock of George Washington’s hair, stolen by a janitor who thought no one would miss it. 

While we are unable to visit art museums right now, although some in Europe have reopened with special tour protocols, reading about the art world can at least keep up our interest level and increase our knowledge. Art is a precious part of culture, from whatever part of the world it originates. It reflects our history, and how creative people of the past and present have seen our world.

 

 

A Bookstore a Month

10 Aug

 

I started out with a grand plan to visit a new bookstore or library each month of 2020. We all know how that worked out.

My bookstore for January was McIntyre’s in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a lovely independent bookstore with a huge mystery section. I was even able to participate in an author’s event and have some of my books for sale on the Sisters in Crime table. And I highly recommend the Belted Goat next door for a delightful, casual lunch, when we can go to restaurants again.

February was a bonus. I traveled to Los Angeles and stopped in at the public library in Hawthorne, California on a morning walk from my son and daughter-in-law’s house. Later our whole Los Angeles gang went to Skylight Books in the Los Feliz neighborhood. This relatively small store contains a wide selection of literary fiction, books on music, art, film and theatre. I loved browsing their shelves of Los Angeles regional culture and history.

We followed our visit to Skylight Books with a visit to Figaro Bistro down the street for afternoon pastries and ice cream.  And since we were on vacation, we meandered on down Vermont Avenue to the Yque Tshirt shop. Hey! That’s what you do on vacation!

Before returning home, we made a repeat visit to The Last Bookstore in downtown Los Angeles, one of my favorite bookstores. It is one of the largest independent bookstores in the world. This amazing store has everything, including nooks and crannies and a rabbit warren floor plan that just makes you want to get lost, or maybe spend the night. This gigantic store contains 250,000 new and used books on two floors, and includes an Arts & Rare Book Annex, thousands of vinyl records as well as graphic novels.

So, what makes a good bookstore? I love surprises. It might be the architecture and design. I love being able to wander from room to room, making discoveries as I go. This is also true of City Lights in San Francisco, another favorite of mine. Organization is important, but not too much. I like the categories to be clearly labelled so if I want to browse mysteries or cookbooks or books translated from Spanish, I can find them. Friendly, helpful staff definitely make for a good bookstore. But not too friendly and helpful. I need to spend time alone among the books.

I am dreaming of the day I can continue my exploration of bookstores in person. Maybe next year I will aim for two per month.

I will end with a short list of a few of my other favorites, just in case you want to check them out, or at least look at their websites.

The Strand, New York City

Title Wave Books, Anchorage, Alaska

Tattered Cover, Denver, Colorado

Golden Fig, Durham, North Carolina

Malaprop’s, Asheville, North Carolina

Foyle’s, London, UK

Is It Breakfast?

24 Jul

This is a “taste” of what’s to come in my next novel, tentatively titled Sacrifice.

In her first breakfast in Spain, Nara Blake enjoys a chocolate croissant and café con leche for breakfast. Maybe not what super health conscious people would consider a good breakfast, but she is on vacation. Sort of. That’s about the only time I eat chocolate croissants. And meals in Spain are very different from what we are accustomed to in the United States.

Breakfast, or “desayuno,” is usually just as I described, a pastry of some sort, and coffee.

Croissants, which originated in Austria but achieved huge popularity in France, are popular in Spain as well. They are made of a light, flaky dough into which butter has been folded, something like a puff pastry.

You wonder why I am telling you all this, when croissants are quite common in the United States. Even Burger King makes a croissant sandwich. At least I think so. I haven’t been to a Burger King in decades.

But croissants in Europe aren’t the same. European croissants are smaller. You know how we tend to want everything super-sized in the U.S. European croissants contain less sugar and more butter, making them lighter and flakier, and less sweet than those on this side of the Atlantic.

That being said, authentic croissants can be found in this country, if you visit an authentic French bakery. And sadly, many places in France have started using pre-made frozen croissants which they simply bake up in the morning. 

The chocolate ones are referred to as “pain au chocolate.” Literal translation – bread with chocolate.

But back to Spain. “Desayuno” is not meant to be a breakfast to get you through a day of physical labor. But not to worry. The Spanish traditionally have a break in late morning for “almuerzo.” In Latin America, “almuerzo” refers to lunch as we know it, but historically in Spain, this is a small meal before the major afternoon meal. Yes, you read that right, a meal before a meal. This can be a time for “tapas” or small plates, although tapas are also popular in the late afternoon. It could be a “tortilla,” which in Spain is like an omelet with potato and onion. 

So Nara and her husband Alex enjoyed their croissants for “desayuno,” before strolling around the village and then stopping for a little “almuerzo” before they go to meet the priest who will hand over the notebooks of a British artist who died in Spain during the Spanish Civil War.

I am looking forward to the day I can travel to Spain again – more delicious food, more adventures, more ideas for fiction. Until then, back to the work of writing.

Keeping in Touch

2 Aug

However much we may complain about FaceBook and other social media, for someone who has moved around as much as I have, it has been a Godsend for keeping in touch, and reestablishing contact, with old friends, and especially former students.
I have taught high school English and social studies in four states as well as international schools in Costa Rica, and I have former students and colleagues around the globe.
Recently two former students, one from the US and one from Taiwan, posted articles that were so great I had to pass them on. I am providing the links here, in case you missed them on FaceBook. And thanks again to Summer and Ping-Ya!
It always pays to keep in touch.

10 Myths about Introverts
The Only 12 1/2 Writing Rules You’ll Ever Need

17 Jul

I just came across this blog, and this quote, which I love, and thought I would share it.

A Small Press Life: Books. Art. Writing. Life. Tea.

“All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree. All these aspirations are directed toward ennobling man’s life, lifting it from the sphere of mere physical existence and leading the individual towards freedom.’-Albert Einstein

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Have you read this one? Killer Ambition by Marcia Clark

8 Jul

     Besides writing my own books, I read constantly, both because I have had a life-long love affair with books, and because I like to see what other writers are saying. I review books for Suspense Magazine, which gives me an opportunity to dip into titles that I might not have picked up otherwise. In this process I have discovered some new favorite novelists.

One of my recent favorites is Marcia Clark, best known for her role as a prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson trial. Ms. Clark has authored three legal suspense novels that show not only her legal experience, but also a talent for tense, intriguing suspense dramas.

The following is the review I wrote for her latest, Killer Ambition:

Marcia Clark scores once again with a taut, suspenseful and intelligent legal thriller. In the third Rachel Knight novel, the teenage daughter of wealthy Hollywood director Russell Antonovich is kidnapped. After he delivers the ransom money, one million dollars in cash, the girl is found dead in the trunk of a car at the Los Angeles airport. DA Rachel Knight and her friend Bailey Keller, a detective from the LAPD, believe the case to be a kidnapping gone wrong, until the suspected kidnapper is also found dead in a shallow grave on a remote mountain road.

As the investigation proceeds, the prosecution’s evidence points toward Ian Powers, a former child star, now high profile manager and close family friend of the dead girl, Hayley Antonovich. Although the police find strong forensic evidence, they are unable to identify a motive for the killing, until Rachel and her associates dig deeper into the backgrounds of Antonovich and Powers, as well as the would-be kidnapper and Hayley’s boy friend, Brian Maher.

The criminal trial begins, and Rachel is pitted against a defense attorney who does not hesitate to use any dirty trick available to discredit the prosecution’s evidence. And as well as proving her case, Rachel must deal with the members of the press who hone in on a great celebrity story, no matter who is guilty or innocent. Eventually the truth comes out, illustrating the lengths to which will go in order to achieve success in a cut-throat industry.

Ms. Clark’s strong female characters and insight into both the motivations of the criminals and those who surround them, as well as the lawyers and police who search for the truth, make this an exceptional novel. Her personal experience as a prosecutor make her uniquely qualified to write about the investigations and courtroom proceedings, but her strong writing makes the novel entertaining and satisfying.

 

History Is Real

28 May

One of the challenges of studying or writing about historical figures, real or fiction, is imagining them to be as real as we are. Somehow people of the past lose their reality as flesh and blood, and seem to reside only on the printed page or in the flatness of a photograph.

It takes a leap of imagination to understand that the past is just as real as the present. Only the surface of life has changed. People felt joy, fear, anticipation, sadness just as we do. They worried about the future. The worries may have been different; they were not concerned about global warming, whether someone would hack their email account or if genetically modified foods were safe. But concerns about family never change, and the joy of a celebration and sadness at misfortune are the same century to century.

My book Lydia’s Storyphoto(43) is set partially doing World War II, an era that fascinates me. I think part of the fascination is that my parents were young during that time. They met and married in 1942 and were apart for three years before my dad returned at the end of the war.

I look at their photographs and imagine their feelings. I once asked my mom how they did it, not knowing day to day when they would be together again, when the war would end, who would come home and who would not. She said that all they could do was live day to day, as if everyday was closer to the end, although they didn’t know when the end of the war and separation would come.

The photo of my parents that I am posting today was taken in 1945, after my dad returned home. The joy and hope for the future is clear in their faces — as clear as if it were taken today.

Seeing a Project Through to the End

19 May

I am currently working on finishing a writing project that I began at least nine years ago. Yes, nine years. It was the project I was working on before my trip to England and the inspiration for The Gate House, my first published novel. After that I wrote Lydia’s Story, a follow-up to The Gate House. But I have always felt that I needed to go back to the first story, tentatively titled Nara of the Islands. This is the Nara who appears in both of my later books. In The Gate House, Nara has recently arrived in England from a fictional Caribbean island called St. Clare, and her boy friend back on St. Clare has stopped calling her.

I thought it was important to finish telling the first part of Nara’s story because it shows who she is and where she came from. Her background is half British and half islander. She never knew her mother. Her father kept secrets from her. Telling the beginning of her story is important to the development of Nara as a character. When I wrote The Gate House, I took the characters from this earlier piece and simply placed them in a new situation. Now is it time to finish the beginning of the story.

And there is something satisfying about finishing a project. I have a knitting project I began in January and hope to finish in another month. And I will finish both of these projects. Completion is difficult — everyone has unfinished projects of one kind or another lying around — but the satisfaction of completion is worth the work.

Forward to the Past

27 Apr

Writers never throw anything away, or at least they shouldn’t. This week I pulled out an old “almost novel” that I wrote before my first one, The Gate House, was published.

This one, tentatively titled Nara of the Islands, is really the original story of my protagonist who appears in both The Gate House and Lydia’s Story. This book tells of the years just before she and her father moved to England, and her life in the fictional Caribbean island nation of St. Clare.

It is interesting to read something that I wrote almost ten years ago, and to see how my style has changed, and the images of my characters. It is a very different book from the last two in some ways. Although it is somewhat a mystery, there are elements of magic that I let go of in the later books.

I think it is a story that needs to see the light of day, for better or worse. I plan to polish it and at least self-publish on Kindle later this year.

If you are a writer, do you sometimes “resurrect” old pieces to rework them? And readers, what about other types of old projects? Is it fun or frustrating to go back something you worked on in the past?