There’s a reason some people love this time of year; the same reason other folks hate it: family. Tradition dictates we spend part of our winter holidays with individuals tied to us by DNA or marriage and who you are determines whether you like or loathe the custom. My husband says, there’s a reason family push our buttons faster than anyone else; they installed most of them. Still, they are the people who define our earliest selves and even when they’re gone, their voices come back in our memories like the song of The Grass Harp, Truman Capote’s novella about his Alabama childhood. While it’s not the obvious choice for December, the Grass Harp is a tender remembrance of how love and family shape us all.
Collin Fenwick is the narrator of The Grass Harp, a boy (like the author) cast into the care of maiden aunts. Aunt Verena is the financial provider, the richest soul in town and, as Truman says, the earning of her wealth had not made her an easy woman. The other aunt, Dolly, is nature-focused and terrified of all humans in authority but self-sustaining because of her homemade dropsy cure, an old-fashioned name for swelling. When Verena tries to browbeat the dropsy recipe from the gentle Dolly, a minor revolt occurs and Capote warms to his other theme: there are family we find, not through DNA but through soul.
Collin, Dolly and their friend Catherine Creek hide in a tree-house outside of town and make friends with two other misfits – Charlie Cool, the superannuated judge who has been bossed out of his job and home and Riley Henderson, a Huck Finn of sorts who worries because he cares for no one except his sisters. These five and a family troupe of wandering evangelists quickly split the town between those who need to follow a different drummer and those who intend to call the tune.
Anyone whose memories of Truman Capote are confined to murder or his waspish love of gossip need to be reminded he was also be a tender, lyrical storyteller. It is through his eyes that we see that the the gentle Dolly is not be as cowardly nor Verena as unwavering as general gossip would have us believe and it is his voice that brings us back to the place that nurtured them both.
“Below the hill grows a field of high Indian grass that changes color with the seasons: go to see it in the fall, late September, when it has gone red as sunset, when scarlet shadows like firelight breeze over it and the autumn winds strum on its dry leaves sighing human music, a harp of voices.“
It is Dolly that reminds us that the sounds from the Indian grass are the voices of lost loved ones, telling the stories of their lives. The people are gone but their voices continue to murmur in the whisper of the leaves and the grass, like they sing in the memories of those that love and remember them still. As long as we can hear them, they remain loved and immortal in memory even if in life, they could make us crazy.
So, if the weather permits it in this holiday season, find your own quiet moment outside town and listen to the wind blowing through the long grass. May you hear the voices of those who defined you and those you found to love. And may your voice be recalled someday as well in a symphony of grass and the wind.
Another Christmas is looming fast and I see the hordes of last-minute shoppers whenever I drive by the stores – a vision that triggers my agoraphobia. Still, I understand the shoppers’ need to seek out each perfect present. Those presents are for loved ones and each year we want to give them something they want or they need. So, wish lists can really aid a holiday shopper. Still, sometimes it’s the present that’s not on the list that makes the biggest impact.
It was 1972 when we celebrated Christmas in California. My parents drove half way across the continent so we could spend the holidays with my mother’s parents in their San Diego apartment. California was unalloyed good as far as my sister and I were concerned. California meant warmth, and trips to Disneyland, and time with grandparents who would move heaven and earth to gratify our every whim. I was 13 and, in Grandma’s words “too old for toys, too young for boys”, so my wish list was fairly nebulous but my sister was much younger and very specific. She wanted Mattel’s “Barbie Surprise House”, one of the hot-ticket items that year. Since I was “old enough to know”, Mom told me about the hours she and the grandparents spent scouring stores on the hunt for that prized pink box. Unfortunately, forays into every “Toys-R-Us” in two states weren’t successful. My sister’s wonderful gift wouldn’t be available until after Christmas Day.
Mom put us to bed early on Christmas Eve, telling us Santa would avoid the apartment until we were asleep. I closed my eyes and opened my ears, wondering what delights the grownups had cooked up. I heard some odd noises and my dad’s attempt to sing but I couldn’t guess what made them all giggle. Probably a pitcher of my Grandpa’s martinis.
Christmas morning brought it’s usual avalanche of sweaters and socks, hugs and nonsense gifts as well as Mom’s earnest promise that we would pick up the Barbie Surprise House in a few days since Santa “couldn’t fit it on his sleigh”. Mollified, my sister cuddled a little stuffed dog Grandma had pushed in her stocking while I studied the source of last night’s mysterious noises. My family had given me a guitar.
Now, I had not asked for a guitar. I’d never thought about learning to play one. Yes, I liked music (who didn’t?) and, like most girls I knew, I was taking piano lessons. But a guitar? What were they thinking? Did my family want me to become a hippie?
The visit was great and my sister got her Barbie House sometime before New Year. Funny thing, though: Sis would play with the marvelous toy house until she was tired of it, and then walk away, but the stuffed dog with the club foot and belly-button stayed with her wherever she went. The name on his chest was Henry and Henry became a member of the family, and my sister’s dearest companion. At first he followed my sister through the house, then around town on errands. If Henry came up missing, Dad would tease her, saying Henry went to the local bar to drink beer, but he would search with us until the little dog was located and returned. No matter what, Henry always came home again. After a few years, Henry became a family man as relatives came to join him but he remained my sister’s favorite, following her to school and then to camp, college, and into her married life, the most loved gift of her childhood, When he disintegrated this year, we both mourned.
And, after a few false starts and blistered fingers, I taught myself to play the guitar reasonably well. I never became great and the tone of the instrument wasn’t much but that unexpected gift filled a hole in my adolescence. Learning songs and practicing passed some otherwise lonely hours and, even though I still felt awkward and shy around other kids, I finally had a role; I was the one who played the guitar. A few years later, another guitar-playing girl moved into town and I made my first life-long, close friend. The git-fiddle followed me, like Henry followed my sister, and although it disappeared in a burglary, the replacement guitar introduced me to the man I married (another guitar player, of course). None of the best parts of my adult life would have happened the way they did if I hadn’t learned to play that guitar. I wonder if my folks guessed, when they picked out that gift, how far their surprise present would take me.
So I’m glad when friends and relatives tell me what’s on their Christmas list. It makes shopping for them much easier. Still I keep my eye out for the unexpected gift. I’ve learned it’s the items we don’t ask for – the ones we don’t even know that we need – that we’ll use and cherish the most.
People have certain expectations about the genres they favor and mystery fans expect stories driven by a puzzle. As interesting or well-developed as some of the characters in these stories are, they still exist to serve the central plot and very few of them are driven by ideals. Holiday stories, on the other hand, focus much more on character and these usually have an underlying moral code. That’s what makes Sue Ann Jaffarian’s The Ghost of Mistletoe Mary such an unexpected delight. She balances the requirements of both genres and then blends them to create a mystery with a heart.
Like Charles Dickens, Jaffarian has a keen social conscience for the downtrodden in our society. Dickens noticed the growth of the Industrial Age also exploited the least protected in Victorian Society – the poor and children, in particular. Jaffarian’s story takes us to Skid Row in Los Angeles and the dispossessed of our own era: the indigent, the addicts, the emotionally troubled, and all too often, the military veterans whose return to civilian life is hijacked by untreated traumas. Because these people don’t fit in with society’s norms and because they tend to distrust the police, they are easy targets for criminal exploitation. But therein hangs the mystery.
One of the homeless men living on the Row insists he’s being harassed by a streetwalker known as Mistletoe Mary. Actually, the man says he’s being pestered by her ghost. While most people assume the man’s complaints stem from the onset of dementia or the last stage of alcoholism, detective Jeremiah Jones has qualifications to determine the truth. First, as a one of the few who successfully left Skid Row, he doesn’t judge the residents there by the hard times they’ve fallen on. And Jeremiah Jones knows a thing or two about ghosts.
The Ghost of Mistletoe Mary is an installment in Jaffarian’s cozy mystery series featuring Granny Apples, an endearing and outspoken remnant from California’s early days who loves modern slang and being an amateur sleuth. At first, Jeremiah needs Granny’s help to learn about Mary and how the most vulnerable people on the Row are being manipulated by others. When the bullets start to fly, he’ll need her help to avoid becoming a ghost himself!
Like her main characters, Jaffarian combines an understanding heart with practical sense and good humor and she keeps the puzzle in this story on track. Nevertheless, the greatest asset in this novella is her depiction of the street people as characters. The poor and homeless are not the despised debris of humanity here, nor are they all innocent martyrs to the Tyranny of Capitalism. They’re people, some good, some not so good, but all individuals with their own stories, sorrows and hopes. Jaffarian and her detectives never get so involved in the search for truth that they forget their objective is people.
As I said, this is a book that defies expectations and there are times you can almost forget it’s a holiday story. The setting may be in December but there’s not an dreidel or a reindeer to be seen. There’s murder and crime instead of presents and ivy and even Granny Apples can’t make the bad guys turn good. But along with the bad stuff, there’s love and there’s hope and a memory of family, the essence of December’s celebrations. So celebrate with a mystery this December. A mystery with a heart.
They say publishers love novels that turn into a series. The characters in these collections of stories develop their own fan base assuring the publisher of a a steady and increasing audience to gobble up each new adventure as soon as it hits the stands. Still, it’s tricky to write that kind of series because each book has to serve two plots. Each book has a primary, short plot: it finds and resolves a conflict that involves the new characters and most (if not all) of the permanent cast. The second plot is harder because it’s part of the overall arc of the series. This plot creates some incremental change in the lives of the permanent cast and lets them create or resolve underlying conflicts (Continuing characters must evolve from book to book or the reading public gets bored and leaves). Interweaving these two plots in each book is a little like jumping rope double-dutch style: it takes skill, balance and concentration. Thriller/Mystery novelist Val McDermid has created three different detective novel serials, the most popular of which are the Tony Hill/Carol Jordan books. Her latest in this series, Splinter the Silence, shows how a good author can make some themes serve two plots at once.
In the short-term plot, silence is what happens when crusading women are squelched. Bloggers, journalists and other feminists who step into public debate have been showing up dead after being attacked in the social media. Each of the deaths look like a suicide and most assume these women died to escape the continual cyber-bullying even though those close to the women all insist the victims never seemed depressed or suicidal. The local police don’t realize there’s a serial killer in the mix and it’s up to profiler/psychologist, Dr. Tony Hill and retired detective Carol Jordan to stop the murderer before more speakers are silenced.
The second silence has been building around central character Carol Jordan for some time. For seven novels, Carol Jordan fought criminals, the media, and her sometimes foolhardy supervisors in the police force in order to bring the guilty to court and speak for their victims. Her weapons in the fight were her anger, brain and drive; her sole release, the relaxation that came from alcohol. Her support staff knew about her boozing but kept quiet since it didn’t seem to affect her work. Then Carol’s brother was murdered and grief drove her from the job and into the bottle. A phone call from jail provides Tony with the opportunity break through Carol’s withdrawal and ask her to get help.
Still the fight against progress permeates Splinter the Silence. As the killer fights the idea of women having independent lives, Carol fights recognizing her dependence on drink, no matter how damning the contrary evidence. Even when she glimpses the how far she has fallen, Carol’s continued sobriety is no assured thing.
Val McDermid never hands out assurances but life doesn’t either. Instead, her books hold out hope for those who keep trying to communicate. As long as her characters engage readers’ emotions, she will be begged for more stories of Dr. Tony Hill and DCI Carol Jordan.
Every November for the past 15 years, various aspirants to Literary Lionship have girded on their writing tools and thrown away their few remaining brain cells on what is known as NaNoWriMo – the Nation Novel Writing Month. The objective of this event is to see if the would-be writer can create a first draft of a 50,000 word novel within 30 days. What follows is the expurgated diary of one of these self-imposed masochists.
11/1/15 – Ok, here goes nothing, as the man said. Got an idea, got a word-processor and the nice people at http://nanowrimo.org/promise that if I’ll just scribble down 1,666 words of this thing every day, I’ll have a sure-nuff 50K word first draft by the end of the month. At least Darling Spouse is in my corner. What would I do without him?
11/4/15 There are thousands of writers using this site and everyone else seems bustin’ loose and making literary history. I’ve got a first chapter done – I don’t like it, it stinks, but at least it’s done. I sure am glad six or seven of these people want to be my writing buddies – misery loves company and maybe they can help me figure out a better beginning since all of them seem to be terrific scribblers. Still I think my “buddy” BigWriteGuy probably started before November 1 – nobody kicks out 12K words on their first day! Anyway, I don’t need to focus on anyone else’s attempts to cheat. What I need is to find a better opening to this cockamamie story!
11/13/15 Day 13 and I’m already 2,700 words behind where I ought to be. Acck! This is Not My Fault! First off, a virus killed my link with the internet which meant I lost contact with my writing buddies, my dictionary, my thesaurus and my word count validator. I got the computer to regain the ‘net by reinstalling the Operating System but the repair ate my word-processing program! Are they sure Marcel Proust started out this way? On the good side, my imagination gave me a character named Jeremy and that guy is funny! No wonder writers like what they do.
11/16/15 Well, I’m a day behind schedule but I’m at the half-way point both in words and plot. You know, I used to laugh at writers on the chat shows who talked about characters that appeared and then took over the story. They weren’t kidding! I’ve got to get that louse, Jeremy out of the story quick – he grabs all the good lines but he’s not advancing the plot! I’ve tried asking my writing buddies but none of them respond to my emails. I thought we were going to help each other through this experience! Well, I need some help getting that little scene-stealer out of my story!
11/20/15 – 6 Thousand words behind schedule and why did I ever agree to do this? Other people are experiencing the gold-bitten, thrill of November (ok, not my favorite month but right now Purgatory looks like a vacation in the Bahamas compared to this!) I know why they call this part of the book a pinch point – this is when the reader sees how impossible the hero’s quest is. Well, I know what happens here at the 67%/ Pinch Point mark and I know what will happen at the 75% point (the plot rounds third base and kicks for home) but damned if I know what happens between them! That’s roughly four thousand words of story I need to figure out now and I haven’t got a clue! Tell the truth, I’m not sure I even like these characters anymore.
11/25/15 Oh somewhere folks are happy, traveling to a T-day feast
In some spot, Balloons are filling for a 3 mile parade (at least)
Somewhere families gather to laugh, love, eat and cook
But the only Turkey in this house is this lousy, stinking book!
11/28/15 So this is what the last mile up Everest looks like. No silly wannabes on the forums at this stage. Nobody’s talking. Nobody’s brainstorming. There’s a fair amount of weeping and wailing in some spots, but that’s got to be expected. And me, I’m trying to make it up one more step, write one more paragraph, fill in one more hole in this farchadat story. If I ever say I want to do this again, I want someone to hit me over the head, tie the collected works of Dickens around my neck and throw me in the River! Now I know why so many writers are warped, drunken, no-good, goof-balls! They write!
11/29/15 …And the rest is silence.
12/2/15 – Darling Spouse asked today when I was going to start the revisions. Maybe my next book should be about murder.