It’s been fun

 Dale Spindel  Comments Off
Aug 262012
 

    It's hard to believe that it's been  two years since Jeff Cohen reached out to me with an email, inviting me to become the Sunday blogger for Dead Guy.   Aside from the fact that this came totally out of the blue, I was kind of  surprised because Jeff  didn't know me all that well and  he was making the assumption that I would be able to produce coherently written posts  on a weekly basis.   I was also hesitant to get involved because I  didn't read very much crime fiction.  However, because I  was intrigued by the possibilities of becoming a blogger  and was  more than a little flattered to have been asked , I accepted the assignment with the condition that Jeff would consider my first six weeks to be probationary, after which either  of us could decide that it was time for me to move on.

    So here it is, two years later, with somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 posts under my belt - about 94 more than I thought I had in me.   Because I took this assignment seriously, I jumped right into the crime fiction genre, devoting the majority of my audiobook listening time and about half of my print reading time to sampling a  variety of authors that I had not previously been motivated to try.   On the road to discovering what I liked there were some stumbles  (Linda Howard, Susan Isaacs, recent Mary Higgins Clark) but also several writers who I was happy to encounter ( Tana French, Gregg Hurwitz, Linda Castillo, Scott O'Connor) as well as one author - Chevy Stevens -  who started out in the plus column with her debut novel but who stumbled with her sophomore effort. 

    But now, I've decided to move on and let someone else have a turn as a Dead Guy.  For one thing, the  list  I keep of  recently released books that I would like to read is now well over 5 single spaced pages and I need some time now to catch up  on some of the other stuff I've had to put aside (Stephen King, Mary Gordon, Geraldine Brooks, Francine Prose)  while I was  immersing myself in the reading of mysteries.  

    So to recap, what have I learned?

1.    Good writing always wins out, regardless of the genre.

2.    Sympathetic protagonists who  struggle to overcome adversity will always have more appeal for me than protagonists who are rich, beautiful and a little snarky.

3.    Crime fiction needs good plotting  and if the details of the plot rely too heavily on improbable coincidences, I  will get ticked off.

4.    Crime fiction includes a wide range of types and subcategories and, like ice cream, different flavors are going to appeal to different people without one being intrinsically "better" than the other, as long as the writing is good.

5.    In crime fiction, single mothers who work as law enforcement officers never have trouble finding willing babysitters on a moment's notice, even in the middle of the night.  (I am especially hung up on this topic because, back in the day when my kids were little, arranging for babysitters was almost always a major tactical effort.)   I would love to know if there are any  writers out there who have dealt with this aspect of working motherhood with a little more realism than what I have generally encountered.  Maybe somebody out there reading this will even take this as a challenge.

 Before I sign off, I would like to thank my Dead Guy colleagues for allowing me to be a part of their great virtual community and to those of you out there who took the time to read what I had to say week after week after week.

    It really has been fun.

Aug 192012
 

        I'm a pretty big fan of 87 year old Jewish guys - after all, my father, both my  grandfathers and all three of my uncles fit that description at one time or another over the past 40 years.   So I guess it was inevitable that I would be drawn to two recently published mystery novels that each featured 87 year old Jewish guys as their protagonists even though, unlike any of my family members, these particular Jewish guys were both  employed as detectives and lived in the South.  I thought  it highly improbable that these two books should be released within two months of each other but I decided that it would be fun to read them back to back and then report back to Dead Guy readers.  So here goes.

        Released in May, Don't Ever Get Old, written by Daniel Friedman and published by Minotaur, was given starred reviews in both  Publisher's Weekly and Booklist and I was looking forward to the "wickedly funny dialog" promised by PW.  Unfortunately, I found the  puns and Yiddishisms  sprinkled throughout the dialog to be more annoying than funny and I winced at the occasional mean spiritedness that was supposed to pass for humor.   On the plus side, Friedman populated his novel with a colorful cast of potential suspects possibly involved in the murderous quest to take possession of a large quantity of stolen Nazi gold.  The characters were sufficiently  tangled up  with each other so that I was kept guessing until the end regarding who the real bad guys were.   The book had its moments, but I didn't necessarily consider it "star worthy."

            I then  jumped  right into  Harry Lipkin, Private Eye, by Barry Fantoni, which was released by Doubleday with a 60,000 first printing in July.  It too received a starred review from Booklist and although it did not earn a star from PW, the review was strongly positive.   Indeed, the book jacket invited me to "meet Harry Lipkin, the world's oldest private detective, part Sam Spade, part Woody Allen, all mensch."  Unfortunately, Harry Lipkin was such an all around disappointment that  in comparison it made Don't Ever Get Old look like Murder on the Orient Express.

        First off, Harry Lipkin wasn't even remotely funny; there may have been a time when  culinary delicacies like blintzes and lox and bagels  might have sounded funny to those not accustomed to Jewish gastronomy, but those times are long past.   Aside from what Harry ate, a couple of passing references to Jewish practices, a handful of Yiddish words  and the fact that Harry was acquainted with a rabbi, there was really nothing that gave Harry more than the most superficial sense of being Jewish.  Ditto for Norma Weinberger, the wealthy Jewish widow who hires Harry to find out who among her household staff is stealing from her.    Even worse is that the list of potential suspects, a tough black guy, an attractive Hispanic woman, an inscrutable Chinese guy, and an aging white hippy are nothing more than a bunch of obvious stereotypes straight from central casting.   None of them are remotely fleshed out enough to be of much interest to the reader.  The plot basically consisted of Harry conducting a series of perfunctory investigations in order to rule out each of the suspects and I was able to predict what the solution to the crime was going to be many, many pages before it was finally revealed.   Furthermore, the only two potentially dangerous guys who Harry encounters are dispatched fairly early on in ways that are are so lacking in tension or any kind of effort on Harry's part that it gave the impression that the author was just going through the motions as far as any kind of plotting was concerned.   It's as if Fantoni  stitched together a simple series of events without bothering to hide the seams.   Some of the dialog  that ensues between Harry and Norma as they discuss their plan to entrap the thief is so lacking in basic logic that it was not only painful to read but downright insulting to anyone who expects a certain level of effort from an author.

    As poorly written as this book was, what bothered me as much as anything was the fact that the prices of things mentioned during the course of the story were completely out of whack with today's realities.  Examples include Harry's fee of $50 per day for his private eye work, a lunch for two in a  Miami Beach restaurant that totalled $5.00 including the tip, and an in-season  stay in a Miami  Beach hotel penthouse suite that  cost only $300 a night.   I also made the observation that no one in the book ever used a cell phone; this might have been credible in the case of Harry but not at all credible for any  of the  younger characters.   All of this  led me to the conclusion that this book was  written about thirty years ago, with the manuscript  languishing in a  file cabinet somewhere until somebody thought they could make some money off of it.  Or could it be possible that the British Fantoni just didn't know how to properly convert pounds to US dollars?  All of this also made we wonder if  a screenplay based on the Harry Lipkin character isn't currently in the works  and that the book was published as a way to generate some synergy.   That nobody at Doubleday thought it necessary to do some editing to bring this book into the 21st century is particularly galling.

   A couple of final thoughts:

1.    The experience of reading these two books has made me become much less trusting of the awarding of stars by the major reviewing media. ( I also have to confess that my distrust of starred status  has  been reinforced by a  piece of literary fiction  that I am currently listening to on audiobook.)  I have to ask myself if this is because I have become a more discerning reader or if it is because reviewers' standards have become more lax.   A starred   review definitely increases the liklihood that  a librarian will purchase that book for his or her  library's collection.  All I can say is that librarians - and everyone else - should beware.

2.    Has 87 become the new 60?

What Comes Next

 Dale Spindel  Comments Off
Aug 122012
 

    One of the books that was being heavily promoted at last spring's Indie Book Buzz for librarians was Jon Katzenbach's What Comes Next.  I was intrigued by the concept of an elderly man in the early stages of dementia witnessing the abduction of a teenaged girl and then struggling to keep his wits about him long enough to be able  to help rescue her.  My interest in the book only increased when I found out that one of my friends, a devoted reader of mysteries, was a huge Katzenbach fan and couldn't wait to get her hands on a copy.   Then, not long after she started reading the book, this same friend lamented to me that she was having trouble continuing with it because the story was so incredibly violent.   She wanted to know what I thought.  I definitely needed to check this out.

    I decided to give the audiobook a listen and was at first a little dismayed to find that the "old" man, named Adrian,  was merely in his sixties, a stage in life that I no longer consider to be all that old.  I also had a little trouble at first acclimating myself to William Roberts' overly theatrical sounding narration.  However, I kept going and found myself getting drawn deeper and deeper into the pathos  evoked by  a demented Adrian  communicating with his dead wife, brother, and son  who just happen to be providing him with extremely valuable advice on how to proceed with his quest to rescue the abducted teen.   Far fetched?   Yes, but it made for an extremely compelling narrative.

    But Adrian is not the only sympathetic character Katzenbach creates for this story.   Fifteen year old Jennifer is  a perfect storm of pathos; a loner at school with an equally unhappy homelife, still mourning for her dead father and using a teddy bear that he had once given her as a surrogate for his love.  However, all of this pales in comparison to what happens to  Jennifer after she is abducted and  is thrown into a situation that is every parent's worst nightmare. 

    And then there's Terri Collins, single mother and police detective.  Terri is tormented by Jennifer's abduction because she had intervened in Jennifer's two previous runaway attempts and was aware of Jennifer's less than perfect home life.  Terri  also has our sympathy  because she is trying her best to be a good parent to her young daughter in spite of the fact that she too experienced a difficult childhood and a painful domestic situation.   

     One of Katzenbach's strengths as a writer is that he is also able to create  vividly unsavory villians.   Not only are Linda and Michael lovers, but they are also business partners; how they utilize Jennifer to produce large sums of money for themselves is horrifying and brutal, both physically and psychologically.  Once the  heart of their crime is revealed, the focus of the book turns to  whether or not Jennifer will be rescued from the grip of Linda and Michael before it is too late.

        Yet another selling point  of Katzenbach's writing is that he  makes the effort to  provide his readers with especially well drawn portraits of  secondary characters; registered sex offender Mark Wolfe is both a suspect and a source of valuable information and Katzenbach puts the reader in the uncomfortable position of feeling both revulsion and pity for Wolfe.    Another neat trick of the author's is to provide some serious social commentary through relatively brief encounters with a couple of college frat boys, a pair of New York sophisticates and some wealthy Russians.   That these characters' stories are left unresolved is no accident and at the end of the book I found this lack of resolution to be as disturbing as any of the events that went before it.     

    I was surprised to find that by the conclusion of this 13 disk audiobook, not only had I grown accustomed to the sound and style of William Roberts' narration, but that I was actually going to miss listening to him, a testament to how engrossed in the book I became. 

     I do have one question, though.    In the world of fiction, are there any female detectives out there who are not single mothers?   The last  female detective I can remember who was happily married with children was Mary Beth Lacey and that show was cancelled in 1988.

Aug 052012
 

    I am the first to admit that I have a  bias against choosing mystery novels as the topics of discussion  for my library's book group.   Because the raison d'etre of mystery novels is to offer up a crime and  then lead  the reader down the path to its solution, I have always considered most representatives of the genre to be  lacking in the   sense of ambiguity that provides fodder for some of the best book group discussions.   However, my interest was sufficiently piqued by reviews for Mr. Peanut, by Adam Ross, that I selected it for the group this past spring.   After all, how could I resist a book with jacket notes that describe it as being a "police procedural of the soul?" 

    The premise of Mr. Peanut is highly original; writer David Peppin has been accused of killing his wife but the team of detectives assigned to work the case includes none other than  Dr. Sam Sheppard, the iconic former murder suspect famously exonerated of killing his wife but who, in the parallel universe of Mr. Peanut, is  now working as as a homicide detective in New York City.   Rounding out this tale of extreme marital disfunction is Sheppard's investigative partner, Ward Hastroll, a man who was happily married until  the day his wife decided that she was no longer going to get  out of bed.    Ross tightly weaves together these three separate tales of marriage gone bad into such a dark fabric that it is almost impossible to summon up much in the way of sympathy for any of the major players, save perhaps the deceased  Mrs. Sheppard.    Ross  also  throws in some fascinating insights regarding the filmmaking genius of Alfred Hitchcock and ultimately got  me to understand that I was reading the literary equivalent of an Escher drawing - the deeper I went into the story, the less sure I became of what I was actually seeing.   There were times when I felt as though  I had hit  the mother lode of ambiguity.

    Although the extreme bleakness of Mr. Peanut made it impossible for me to love this book, at its conclusion I nonetheless felt that I had experienced something that was extremely virtuosic  and I was in awe of Ross' ability  to create something of such intricate structure.  The dilemma I  face now  is that  even though I think  a second reading  of Mr. Peanut would reveal to me even more aspects of its genius, I just don't love this book enough to want to read it a second time.     Not surprisingly, the people in my book group were pretty evenly divided between those who thought highly of the book and those who didn't, making for  some pretty good discussion.   So, while I will likely not be recommending Mr. Peanut to  large numbers of people, there are still a select few who I think might appreciate this particular read.

    Around the same time that I was reading Mr Peanut, I was also listening on audiobook to The 500, by Matthew Quirk.   The initial premise is extremely weak - the fact that third year Harvard law student Mike Ford allows himself to be intimidated by a collection agency threatening him over the unpaid medical bills of his deceased mother simply defies belief, especially since it took me only about thirty seconds on the internet to verify that adult children are not responsible for their deceased parents' debts unless they are cosigners to the loan.  Ironically, it is his  personal desire to repay this debt which sets Mike up as a candidate for employment at a law firm that promises big bucks in exchange for doing work that Mike initially doesn't realize will cause him to be morally, ethically and legally compromised.  Toss in one rich and beautiful (of course) co-worker  love interest,  some shady international doings, lots of action and some brutal killings and you basically get the idea.   I enjoyed the Washington DC setting and the author did a pretty good job of building suspense in spite of the fact that I sometimes found myself wondering how someone supposedly as smart as Mike could keep making such stupid decisions.   These shortcomings were balanced, however, by an extremely cynical point of view regarding the workings of government which I also share.  Unfortunately, only a few weeks after having listened to this book, I remember very few of its details regarding either characters or plot.  The bottom line is that The 500 is the type of book that makes for a fairly compelling beach read and is also not a bad choice for anyone really into conspiracy theories.

Jul 292012
 

    Back in February, I blogged about PW Select, the quarterly feature in Publishers Weekly that focuses on the world of self publishing.   For those of you who either missed reading it or don't remember, self published authors can, for a fee of $149, purchase a brief listing for their book that includes basic bibliographic information plus what appears to be a thirty word or less description of the book.  In each edition of PW Select, no fewer than  twenty-five of these books listed  will also be chosen to be reviewed by members of PW's staff but the reviews will remain segregated in the ghetto of PW Select  rather than being intermingled with the regular PW reviews for that issue.   My scepticism and distaste for the way PW was conducting  this enterprise was duly noted here .

    And yet, because hope springs eternal, I actually felt optimistic when the July 9 issue of PW Select heralded "A Strong Crop of DIY Titles."  This was followed by a  paragraph that crowed that 45 of the 184 titles listed were given full reviews and that this was the first time since PW Select's inception that more than one title had been given a starred review.  I wondered if maybe things hadn't started to turn around or if perhaps I had been a little too harsh in my initial assessment of the motivation behind PW Select.

    Well, dear reader, they haven't and I wasn't .  Here's why:

1.    Of the 184 titles submitted for listing in PW Select, just under a quarter of them were selected to be reviewed.

2.    Of the 27 adult fiction titles that were reviewed, twenty-one were given unequivocably  negative reviews, two books received what I  would consider to be mixed reviews, while only four books were given positive reviews, with two of those titles  receiving starred status.

3.   Those who submitted adult non-fiction titles faced less favorable odds,  with only 13 out of 75 titles (17%) being reviewed.   However,  eight of those thirteen books received postive reviews (5 of those starred), with three  receiving mixed reviews and only two receiving  outright negative reviews.  I also found it more than a little curious that four of those five starred reviews were for memoirs by ordinary people no one has ever heard of.

4.    In the children's book category, five of the fifteen books were selected for reviews but only one was written about favorably while three of the titles received mixed reviews and one book received a completely negative write up. 

    Contrary to what was stated, a sampling in which more than half of the titles selected for review are negatively critiqued is not indicative of "a strong crop of DYI titles."   One can only imagine what the PW staff thought of the titles that did not make it into the review section.

    Perhaps the most troubling point of all is that I continue to be unable to find PW's selection criteria for how it chooses which self published books to  review.  Lacking any other information to go by, the logical assumption would be that PW staff members choose to review  those titles that they consider to be the best of the bunch.   Because such a large percemtage of  the reviews are so negative, isn't it then logical for me to also  assume that the books not selected for review were at least as bad, if not even worse, than the ones that were featured in the review section?   What possible reason could there be for overlooking more worthy titles while choosing to publicly trash the weaker offerings?  And yet, I still wonder if some of the better offerings aren't being ignored.

     Although I want to retain an open mind regarding the possibility of finding self published books that would make good additions to my library's collection, I find PW Select to be mostly just a waste of my time.   I perused all 184 listings and found that in the vast majority of cases, a 25-30 word description  just wasn't enough to get a sense of what a book was about although in some  cases the poorly composed descriptions served as red flags to stay away.   What was equally discouraging was the fact that  none of the five titles in the listings (3 fiction and 2 non-fiction) that did catch my eye were selected to be reviewed.   Since collection development librarians make up a large portion of the target audience for PW, why was A Degree is Not Enough!: 8 Smart Things You Need to Do in College to Jump Start Your Career and Finances, by Katherine Berntzen passed over for a review in favor of such esoteric  titles as Inside the Cup: Translating Starbucks into a Drinkable Language, by Kenneth Brown and My Top 40 at 40: Making the First Half Count, by Kari Loya.  The first sentence of the review for this latter title begins, "In this entertaining nonfiction collection, voice-over artist Loya celebrates his 40th birthday with 40 wide-ranging tales from his own life."   It's  likely that some of my patrons might be interested in 8 Smart Things You Need to Do in College  but  I don't think anyone is going to be beating down our doors for either Inside the Cup or My Top 40 at 40 so what, exactly, was the rationale behind reviewing either one of these two books?

Based on my own experience with PW Select, I 'm guessing that most librarians have already made the decision not to waste any more of their time with it.  Unfortunately, self published authors, at least for the short term, are probably going to continue to pay $149 for the illusion that their money is buying them valuable exposure to people who make book buying decisions.  The people at Publisher's Weekly should be ashamed of themselves.

For the record:  Of the 89 self published fiction titles listed in PW Select, I identified 15 that would fall under the classification of crime fiction and two of them received positive reviews, Accidental Felon, by Gloria Wolk and White Heat, by Paul D. Marks.

 

Jul 222012
 

    It's been a while since I've thought about the consequences of authors who were not mystery writers trying their hand at crime fiction.  This time, I'm giving some consideration to several authors of children's books and what would have happened if they had gone off in a different direction.

    Charlotte's Web of Deceit, by E. B. WhiteCharlotte's Web meets Animal Farm in this dystopian thriller in which some animals are more equal than others.  Feigning friendship with Wilbur, a pig committed to overthrowing the carnivorous regime of the evil Zuckerman (no relation to Philip Roth), Charlotte uses her skills as a computer hacker to intercept the coded messages that members of the resistance transmit to each other over the world wide web.  At first unable to accept that Charlotte could be responsible for such acts of betrayal, Wilbur accuses his friend Templeton of being the mole who ratted him out.   While in solitary confinement - and only hours before his execution - Wilbur is visited by Fern, Zuckerman's secretly vegan niece, who sets Wilbur straight both  about Charlotte's deception and Templeton's loyalty as she and Templeton help him escape from the pen(itentiary) only to face additional dangers as he runs off into the woods in search of other members of the resistance, ultimately finding sanctuary at a food co-op in Berkeley.

Green Eggs and Ham, by Dr. Seuss-  The dangers of consuming genetically engineered food are explored in this political thriller.    In an attempt to modify healthy foods such as broccoli and spinach so that they will be  more appealing to children,  Rutgers food sciences professor  Dr. Samuel Iam colaborates with faculty members in the psychology department to learn more about consumer preferences.   Things go horribly wrong when a jealous faculty colleague tampers with the test results.

Click Clack Bam - Cows that Kill, by Doreen Cronin - Tired of substandard working conditions, the cows of Brown's Farm are mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.   After initiating  a strike that totally shuts down the production of milk, Farmer Brown, in a scene reminiscent of "The Silence of the Lambs," kills and eats one of the recalcitrant cows.   Not long afterward, Farmer Brown begins to manifest startling neurological symptoms.  It is up to Dr. Drake,  considered a quack by many, to solve this medical mystery.

 Go the F**k to Sleep, by Adam Mansbach - After several break-ins  by an unknown intruder at the Bear  residence have resulted in considerable property damage to their home furnishings, young Baby Bear becomes consumed by anxiety over the prospect of a future encounter with the tresspasser which causes him to lose his ability to hibernate through the winter.   After a neighbor overhears Papa Bear telling his son to "go the f**k to sleep," she calls social services and Baby Bear is placed in foster care.   A heart rending legal battle ensues as the Bears struggle to regain custody of their son.  This novel also offers a strong indictment   of a police  force that is unable to provide a basic level of  safety for this extremely rural neighborhood.

Postscript:   I usually begin working on my blog posts three or four days in advance; such was the case this past Wednesday when I came up with my alternate version of Green Eggs and Ham.   However, in my original version, the bad guy was not a jealous colleague but a  mentally deranged graduate student.   On Friday, I realized that this would need to be changed so as not to offend anybody and have it appear as though I was trying for a cheap laugh in the wake of recent events in Colorado.   Fortunately, I was able to make the needed changes within a matter of seconds and no one would have been the wiser had I not decided to share this with you.  

My point?   Sometimes, through the fault of nobody, awful coincidences do happen and circumstances may not  always allow  for an easy fix, so perhaps a little restaint is advisable before rushing to judgement regarding  someone  else's  seeming insensitivity.

Like everyone else, I am saddened and sickened by recent events and will briefly get on  my soap box to make a call for increased levels of gun control in the US.   However,what  is also needed is a call for much more money to be spent on research into the causes of  mental illness and for the development of  more effective treatments for those  who are so afflicted.   Had guns not been available to this highly disturbed and dysfunctional individual, it is highly likely that he would have found some other way to wreak equivalent havoc.    Gun control is only a part of the answer.

Jul 152012
 

    A small article with the headline "Parasite posing a danger to humans" caught my eye in last Sunday's paper.   It seems that toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that already affects between 10 and 20 percent of all Americans, has been linked to an increased risk of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and, if that weren't bad enough, a Danish study has also found a possible link between infection with this parasite and an increased incidence of suicide in women.   Although the connection between parasitic infection and certain types of mental illness is intriguing to ponder, it was the following that stopped me dead in my tracks as I read this article:

        "The parasite's optimal host is the cat - it can complete its reproductive cycle only in the feline intestinal tract.  It has developed an ingenious mechanism for survival.  It turns rodents into willing cat food.

        When  a rat or a mouse is infected, it suddenly flips from being petrified of cats to being attracted to them.  Studies have shown that the cells in the rodent brain that regulate sexual arousal become active when mice and rats get a whiff of cat urine, suggesting the smell turns them on.  As a result, they drop their guard, the cats eat them - and the parasite can reproduce at will."

        Wow, that is one smart parasite.

        After I showed the article to my husband,  he commented that this would make a great plot  device for a murder mystery and  suggested that I should blog about it.  After all, it has been a time honored technique in both real life and fiction to stage an actual murder so that it would appear to have been a suicide.  Deliberately infecting someone with toxoplasma gondii in anticipation that she will later kill herself might not be the most efficient way to do someone in, but it is something that would be pretty hard to prove and it is also something that would likely slide completely under the radar of most law enforcement agencies.  So, if a bad guy wants to get rid of his wife but wants to keep his hands clean - both literally and figuratively - all he has to do is keep letting his wife clean Fluffy's litter box and let toxoplasma gondii take care of the dirty work. 

        And yet, while a plan such as this might actually work in real life, I'm not so sure it would work all that well in  fiction.   When I read any kind of novel, but most  especially crime fiction, one of the things  I crave is believability; the characters must come across as real people and the situations must seem plausible.  Even though coincidences do occur in real life, I absolutely hate it when an author  needs to rely too heavily on coincidental happenings in order to make  the various strands of a plot line hold together.   

         I also hate it when an author ignores the concept of probability; this is definitely attributable to the fact that I once considered becoming an actuary and took a number of college level probability and statistics courses in preparation for doing so.   Although I never did find work as an actuary, all these years later I  remain very much tuned in to the probability of whether or not any particular event  or combination of events might actually happen, in life as well as in fiction.  

       I am way more accepting of the occurrence of the  improbable  in real life than I am  in fiction because an author has a level of control over what happens to his or her characters that is  just not available to any of us in real life.   And for me it is not especially satisfying to have the solution to a crime revealed as something so totally obscure or unlikely that I find myself muttering at its revelation, "now what are the odds of something like that actually happening." 

   So, I'm  throwing  out as a challenge for  anybody reading this to come up with a credible piece of crime fiction that uses toxoplasma gondii as the murder weapon.   

       BTW, although I first read about toxoplasma gondii in the July 8 edition of the  Star Ledger, a more complete version of this same article first appeared in the July 6 edition of the  Los Angeles Times and can be found here.                    

        

    

Vacation brain

 Dale Spindel  Comments Off
Jul 082012
 

    I took off from work this past week and filled it with an interesting balance of things that were pleasant - lunch and a movie with my sister, casual shopping outings with my daughter and a friend -  and the productive - cleaning out my clothes closet, dresser drawer, and the black hole that is the cabinet under my night table -  while trying to stay cool  during a week of temperatures hovering near the 100 degree mark here in New Jersey.  Unfortunately, this past week of living with virtually no deadlines or  responsibility of any kind  has turned my head to mush and I could not summon up the mental discipline to write much of anything for this week's blog post.   And looking at the careless errors from last week's post (it is simply inexcusable to create a list which has two #9s), it appears that the early symptoms of vacation brain were manifesting themselves well in advance of my actual week off.

    Therefore, I submit for your pleasure a slightly belated Independence Day present.   More than 30 years later, I can still remember the thrill I felt while  sitting in the movies watching the first few minutes of Manhattan and thinking that the opening sequence alone was worth the price of admission.   If, for whatever reason, you choose not to listen to Woody Allen's voice, skip over to 3:00 and just enjoy the fireworks.      Happy belated July 4th!    

Jul 012012
 

1.    Meeting too frequently - Because people who belong to book groups tend to be avid readers, they want to have time to read books of their own choosing, aside from the ones that have been selected for the group.  Although I know of groups that meet on a monthly basis, I am much more comfortable running a group that meets every six weeks.

2.    Regularly choosing books that are more than 400 pages - I know that some of you out there are going to disagree with me on this one, but I think that people are more likely to go along with reading a book that they might not otherwise have chosen to read  as long as it is perceived as being not too much of a committment on their part.    When I really wanted to do a book that was more than 500 pages (The World According to Garp), I asked the group's permission first.

3.    Choosing titles that are too similar in geographic or chronological setting-  I know that there are book groups that exist for the purpose of reading around a particular theme, but I like the challenge of coming up with books that hew to the theme I  refer to as  "tsuris (Yiddish for troubles) around the world."  Although at least half of the books my library group has read have dealt with tsuris of the American brand, we have also read about tsuris of the Dutch, English, central African, Canadian, Russian, Chinese, Greek. Eastern European, Japanese, Irish, Indian, Bosnian, Vietnamese and Korean varieties.  There has even been diversity within our category of American tsuris, with books that have had us sampling troubles that were inherent to various locations in  New England, the deep South, Johnstown , Pennsylvania (during the time before the great flood), Manhattan, ( various times between 1900 and the present), Brooklyn,  Jersey City, Newark, Alaska, a Japanese American interment camp during World War II, San Francisco, Boston,  along the Mississippi River,  Los Angeles and the Ozark Mountains. 

4.    Not coming prepared with questions that are more provocative than "what did you think of this book?" -  Although some books come published with their own set of book group questions in the back and it is also  not too difficult to find ready made discussion questions on the web, I find it worth the time and effort to  make up my own sets of questions based on my  impressions of the book.  I specifically ask the group members to offer their opinions with regard to the author's skill as a storyteller, the author's ability as a creator of realistic  and interesting characters, and also what they think about the author's overall ability to use language in a beautiful way.

5.    Selecting titles that support a particular political agenda- Although I don't know for sure the political leanings of everyone in the book group, I am fairly certain that our imembers run the full political gamut from right to left and I see no point in choosing titles that are going to offend one segment of the group or another or raise the potential for the discussion to veer off into tirades or hurt feelings.  It's possible that none of the above may happen, but with a book group that is open to anyone from the public who happens to walk in,  I'm not willing to take that chance.

6.   Selecting a string of titles that are unrelentingly depressing  -  Although It's  easier to sustain a discussion of  life's pathos and injustices, too much tsuris can just be such a downer.  Still, it's a real challenge to come up with truly discussable books that have a happy or at least somewhat upbeat ending.  We've broken things up by doing such titles as The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd; To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee; Final Payments, by Mary Gordon; The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery and The School of Essential Ingredients, by Julie Bauermeister - and even these books are not without their element of tsuris.  Suggestions, anyone?

7.    Letting one person monopolize the discussion or allowing disagreements to degenerate into personal attacks - This  needs no explanation.

8.    Consistently picking books that are too obscure - Our group attracts new participants whenever we do something that has a huge fan base, books like like Pride and Prejudice or To KIll a Mockingbird.

9.    Thinking that because a book has won a major literary award, everyone is going to enjoy reading it - A few years back, I picked Waiting, by Ha Jin because it had recently been the recipient of a National Book Award.  Not only did no one (including me) like the book, but none of us could figure out why it had been considered worthy of the award.

9.    Not serving refreshments - you would be surprised at the amount of good will a pot of coffee and a box of donuts can generate.

 

Jun 242012
 

    Last week, Erin posted some thoughts about book  groups and asked for  feedback regarding what qualities  a book needs to possess to make it a good choice for a book group.  It's a topic I've spent a considerable amount of time thinking about over the years;  my library's book group will celebrate its tenth anniversary this August.  The group has met roughly every six weeks since August of 2002 and by the time our anniversary rolls around, its members will have shared 87 books with one another.  We're planning a big anniversary party for August and  hope to have another  celebration in December of 2013 when we reach the 100 book milestone.

    Before offering my opinion regarding what makes a book a good choice for a group discussion, it's probably a good idea to offer some background regarding the membership of our group and the rules that it operates by.   We've had as few as three people show up (our first meeting) or as many as 27 although we generally average between 12 and 15 per meeting.    Over time, membership in the group has shifted  as people  either lose interest, move away or pass away.   Fortunately, there are always new people showing up, some of whom enjoy the experience and keep coming back.  Demographically, our membership is mostly women over the age of  50 but there are also a couple of younger women and a handful of 50+ guys.     Having both male and female points of view definitely makes the discussion more lively and unpredictable.

    From the beginning, I made the decision that the group would not be a democracy, my philosophy being that if the members of the group expected me to  lead the discussion, that it was only fair that I should be able to choose the book that was going to be discussed.  The incentive for other members to take  turns leading the group is that whoever leads the session can pick the book that will be discussed and this strategy has worked to a certain extent.    Although a fair amount of pressure comes with  the responsibility of selecting the books that  the group reads, the fact  that I am invested in a particular book means that I will do a better job of leading that discussion.       I will sometimes choose a book that I have already read and am itching to share with the group, but most of the time I pick books that I haven't yet read but want to.   So what do I look for?

1.     If, at the conclusion of a novel, the main character's fate has not been clearly spelled out, it is inevitable that group will have multiple opinions regarding what the author intended as the character's fate.   There's nothing like a good, spirited argument to keep the discussion flowing.   Examples: Tulip Fever, by Deborah Moggach, Thieves of Manhattan, by Adam Langer

2.    Stories with  moral ambiguity at their center also have people taking sides and engaging in passionate discussion.  Examples: Tell Me a Riddle, by Tillie Olsen; Atonement, by Ian McEwan; The Story of a Marriage, by Andrew Sean Greer

3.    Books that are so beautifully written that everyone can't wait to share their favorite passages with the other members.  Examples: The World According to Garp, by John Irving; Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson; Three Junes, by Julia Glass; Winter's Bone, by Daniel Woodrell

4.    Required reading from high school that was remembered fondly and that we are looking  to revisit  with an adult's perspective.   Examples: The Great GatsbyPride and Prejudice,  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

5.    Classic titles that we read in high school but were too lacking in life experience to understand as teenagers.    Examples: Heart of Darkness; The Good Earth; Mrs. Dalloway

6.    Something thrown  in from left field.  For the session after we discussed Pride and Prejudice, I deliberately picked  Love Story, by Erich Segal so that the group could discuss the qualities that make one book an enduring classic and the other just another piece of pop culture detrius.

7.    Recommendations from people whose taste in books I trust.  Examples: Empire Falls, by Richard Russo; Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks; The Things They Carried,  by Tim O'Brien;The Human Stain, by Philip Roth; A Lesson Before Dying, by Ernest Gaines.

8.    Books that I  love so much that I wanted and excuse to read them again so that I could discuss them with the group.  Examples: Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer; The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth; Snow in August, by Pete Hamill, Little Children, by Tom Perrotta; The Clothes they Stood Up In, by Alan Bennett; Midwives, by Chris Bohjalian.

Next week: Book discussion pitfalls