Monday, November 29, 2010

Giving Thanks

I hate flying. I hated flying even back when they served hot meals on crockery with metal tableware and fabric napkins - in coach! I hated flying even when international flights included menus on heavy card stock painted in watercolors. I still have the menu from my flight to Shannon Airport in 1969. The beverages offered included, but were not limited to, Sherry, Manhattan, Martini, Whiskey Sour, Gin, Vodka, assorted wines...and more. A split of champagne cost $1.00. The meal consisted of Hors d'Oeuvre, Medaillon de Boeuf grille, Legumes de Jardin au Beurre, Salade, Fromage, dessert, coffee and tea. I could have ordered a Chivas on the rocks for $.50 (and probably did.) Nevertheless, even in the days when one "dressed" to travel and when every effort was made to accommodate the traveler's comfort, I hated flying. Today, I am certain I would find it a nightmare.

I was determined to spend Thanksgiving week in Chicago visiting my daughter, Katharine, and my brother, "Uncle Rudy," so I decided to drive. My son promised to look after the house and my pets. The journey takes about 16 hours of solid driving, and, of course, the occasional stopping to re-fuel, walk around and grab a snack. I divided the trip into two 8-hour drives, stopping half-way in Nashville each way. Luckily, my oldest and dearest friend lives there, and was gracious enough to provide me overnight refuge. Since I avoid public restrooms if at all possible, I am very fortunate that I can go at least eight hours without having to use "the facilities."

The scenery on the drive was pleasant; some of it was quite beautiful, particularly the mountains in North Georgia and Southern Tennessee and the rolling farmland in Kentucky. Indiana, on the other hand, was dreary verging on dismal. This was especially true when I entered what was apparently a windmill farm area. The windmills are erected on what was once working farmland - and might still be farmland for all I know. The houses and barns and silos remain, but I can't imagine living in such oppressive surroundings. The first windmill I saw, tall, slender and white, was simply an oddity. But like the sorcerers apprentice they multiplied as I drove on, first by rows, then by acres, and then by miles. The sky was white, the ground was misty, and they filled the horizon waiving their ghostly, bony arms around and around. The effect was utterly depressing and a little like being in the presence of Harry Potter's dementors, i.e. the feeling I'd never be happy again.

One of the benefits of a long road trip is the ability to listen to books and I had wonderful company in Elizabeth Von Arnim, Agatha Christie and Lilian Jackson Braun. I began with The Enchanted April, followed by Appointment With Death, and Taken At The Flood. The Christies were read by Hugh Fraser, who plays Captain Hastings in both the A&E Poirot series and the PBS Mystery! series. They were all extremely satisfying until I reached the end of Taken At the Flood which made me furious. Whatever was Agatha Christie thinking? It is outrageous that a woman would come to the realization that the man attempting to choke her to death was her one true love. True, as it turned out he was not the murderer after all, but nevertheless...I think I would have run very quickly in the opposite direction. "When Rolly told me that if he couldn't have me no one else would, and then started strangling me, I realized I really did love him after all" she confides to Poirot. Good grief! What?? I began to drive erratically and very nearly swerved off the road, so great was my utter disbelief in what I had just heard. It was not just maudlin, it was dumb. And what did Poirot do? What did he say? Nothing! Where was the outrage? Aaargh. Had it not been rented from the library the last disc would have been Frisbeed out the window as I drove through Chattanooga.

About an hour out of Savannah I slipped the first disc of The Cat Who Talked To Ghosts into the CD player. I wasn't at all certain I'd be interested in this series. I had seen Lilian Jackson Braun's books lining the shelves at the library and bookstore; she's very prolific. I am happy to report I was hooked from the first track and, notwithstanding the end of a long journey, was actually a little sorry I didn't have farther to travel. I have fallen in love with ex-journalist Jim Qwilleran aka Qwill, and his two Siamese, crime-solving cats in this breezy mystery. I have also been warned that his girlfriend/librarian is bright, witty, attractive...and jealous, so I'll admire him from afar. I may not wait for the audio book to be finished before I run out and grab all "the cat" books I can carry from the library shelves. I do so love a good find.

I did take one hardbound book with me on the trip. When I went to hear James Swanson speak, I also signed up to volunteer for the Savannah Book Festival which takes place next February. Lisa Genova is the keynote speaker for the Festival and I checked Still Alice out of the library the day before I left for Chicago to gain some familiarity with her work. Dr. Alice Howland (the Alice of Still Alice) is a Harvard professor who is an expert in cognitive psychology. She is brilliant, highly respected, widely published, and is married to a man who is also a professor at Harvard. Together they share interesting friends, accomplished careers, successful children, collaborative projects, and they are happily married. At the height of her career, at the age of 50, Alice is diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer's Disease. The novel takes us, month by month, through Alice's decline, as she is slowly robbed of her brilliance. Although the book is fiction, Genova (who is also a Harvard professor) has thoroughly researched this hideous disease and the destruction it leaves in its wake. If any project deserves funding, finding a cure for this insidious and cruel monster should be high on everyone's list. It is not a selective thief - it takes everything one has and is no respecter of persons. Still Alice will frighten you, anger you, and it will stay with you. We reside in our minds; it is where we are stored. In losing our minds we lose ourselves.

Katharine and I had Thanksgiving dinner at "Uncle Rudy's" house and stayed the night. The table was beautiful and bountiful. There were two turkeys (one deep fried and one roasted) and a duck and all the trimmings and plenty of wine and lots of good company. I could have cried with happiness. The time flew by too quickly, as time is wont to do.

When I walked in my front door after being gone a week, Tallulah the cat was waiting to greet me. Typical of Lulu, she lead me straight to her food bowl, meowing at its emptiness, the remains of breakfast scattered on the floor. Her brother, Blue, was hiding under the bed and hissed his disapproval of my absence. He apparently deigned to forgive me because a little while later he crawled onto my right shoulder and fell asleep. Saji, the arthritic dog, got up with some difficulty and stretched and wagged his tail and wanted a biscuit. I was home - my books on their shelves, photographs in frames, a basket of mail - small insights into the life lived there. I was home with a renewed appreciation for my journey, my family, my friends. I was thankful; my cup runneth over.

Monday, November 8, 2010

North And South

When I'm not listening to a book on tape or Led Zepplin during my morning commute to work, I have the radio tuned into a local talk show. Several weeks ago I was mentally arranging my work day and only half listening to the radio. But something the host said caught my immediate attention: James Swanson was in town and would be speaking that evening to promote his latest book, Bloody Crimes: The Chase For Jefferson Davis And The Death Pageant For Lincoln's Corpse.

I can't remember if I read Swanson's Manhunt last year or in 2008, but it was one of the best books I read that year. In fact, it remains one of the most interesting books I've read in recent memory. It recounts the twelve days spent by John Wilkes Booth from the assassination of Lincoln to his capture and death. Like the author, I have always been fascinated by The Civil War. It was probably that fascination which lead me to a life-long love of history in general and fostered my declaration of a major in college. Growing up as a child in Chicago, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln was the most revered figure of all the American giants we learned about in school - as was befitting a state in the union which adopted the motto "Land of Lincoln." Few eighth grade field trips did not include a trip to Springfield to visit Lincoln's tomb. His birthday, February 12, was a holiday. Schools and many businesses were closed. Most families I knew had a portrait, bust or statue of Lincoln somewhere in their house. The most popular picture was the same one that graces our penny. Our house held a bronze bust of Lincoln which was given away as a promotional advertisement by Lincoln Savings and Loan. I would be willing to guess the bank is long gone or gobbled up by a conglomerate; but, the bronze bust of Lincoln is still sitting on one of Shorty's bookshelves. And, of course, he was particularly special since he and my sister shared a birth date. (She would wish me to point out, month and day only...not year.)

Despite my Yankee upbringing, and my inbred reverence for Lincoln, I also grew up with a romantic melancholy for the Old South, fostered no doubt by movies such as Jezebel and Gone With The Wind (both well before my time, I hasten to add, but still accessible to me). Those tales of the South painted pretty pictures of life in the great plantation houses made wealthy from cotton and tobacco crops. Looking through the prism of Hollywood in the 30s and 40s, the films seldom exposed the evil upon which much of this wealth rested. But slavery was a fairly well-covered topic in school. Intellectually, I knew that a system which enslaved one human being to another was, at its soul, wicked. Such a society would, and should, fail. But there were other stories as well. Stories of privilege and plenty, of ideologies battling each other, of broken lives and devastated homes, and bodies lying in farm fields. Stories of a way of life coming to an abrupt end.

When I moved South over twenty years ago, I was surprised at how much The Civil War was still being fought in the minds of my new neighbors. Whereas, it was a topic covered in school and sometimes in film up North, it was always distant history. Down South, the war between the states was viewed through a different lens. I came to realize the memory of the war was kept fresher because most of the blood shed in that bloodiest of wars was shed on southern soil. The legends were kept alive by the proximity of the battlefields, the crumbling ruins, the monuments. Even today, you will raise the temperature of the room by recalling the memory of General William Tecumseh Sherman. To say he is still reviled around these parts is an understatement. One speaks his name with caution for there will be at least one denizen of the South present who will surely consign his soul to the devil. Speak it with a Yankee accent at your peril. Sherman is best known as a human juggernaut who burned as much of the south as he could on his March to the Sea, sparing nothing in his path until he reached Savannah. Savannah, I am most grateful to say, he gave to President Lincoln as a Christmas present instead of torching it to the ground. (But perhaps he was kind to small children and dogs.)

After learning James Swanson was to speak at one of the churches downtown, I decided I would go home after work, grab my copy of Manhunt, and head out to hear him. Swanson was a treasure trove of historical fact, but mostly I remember the anecdotes and odd tidbits. For instance, Swanson owns a locket containing a lock of Lincoln's hair which was cut as he lay dying. The locket is framed and hangs in his bedroom. Imagine walking past Lincoln's hair every morning and evening. I was stunned when he said Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederate States Of America, was a guest at the Savannah home of Hugh M. Comer, stood on the veranda and gave a speech to a cheering crowd of thousands of people who packed into Monterey Square. Stunned because at that very moment my car was parked outside the front door of that house. When I walked back to my car on that quiet evening I stood for a moment and tried to imagine how different it must have appeared on May 3, 1886. I tried to imagine a noisy throng gathered to hear Davis speak. I listened for ghosts. All long gone, I heard nothing but a whippoorwill calling.

I found Swanson to be a very engaging and friendly fellow. Being a Yankee, and great admirer of Lincoln, I told him I felt guilty that a small part of me was hoping John Wilkes Booth would make it through the dragnet. Swanson threw his head back and laughed. "You know, I was in Chicago when a woman came up to me and said, 'I hate you, James Swanson.' I was taken aback for awhile until she added, 'You made me like John Wilkes Booth.'" "Are you satisfied that you know him now?" I asked. He smiled and said, "Ahhh".

As I told a lady standing next to us who had not read Manhunt, it is a marvelous historical work that reads like a thriller. Even though I knew how it ended, I thought just maybe he'd get away this time. Of course, things worked out the way they should have. Artfully, without turning Booth into an heroic or sympathetic figure, Swanson succeeded in making him human. I broke a promise to myself not to buy Bloody Crimes at the lecture, but in the end I figured...what the hell...and picked up a copy.

Swanson appeared to have a good time working the room. Savannah is an easy place and I think he felt that ease. He seemed in no hurry for the evening to end. I handed my two volumes over to him for his signature, thanked him, and walked out into the quiet night. I got into my car and tossed the books on the passenger seat. When I got home, I put the books on my night stand. It was only later, just before I turned out the light, that I flipped open one of the covers and read, "To Linda _____, my fellow traveller - North and South - on the journey to discover John Wilkes Booth."

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Felony and Mayhem

I've missed you, missed you, missed you. I have so much to tell you, but where to start. Let's talk about books, shall we?

One would think that with shelves heavy with books I have yet to read I would have no trouble finding something just right. But the sad fact is, of late it has been all fits and starts - with nothing quite right. A trip to the bookstore was in order. Sometimes nothing else will do – not even the library...or the shoe department at Macys. I usually haunt a small, locally owned (and home grown) bookstore on one of the squares downtown. It’s the sort of little shop with creaky wooden floors, low ceilings, over-stuffed furniture, and “rooms.” Being an independent bookseller, it is staffed with people who actually read most of the books in stock - an often overlooked but valuable fringe benefit. Go often enough and someone will eventually learn your reading taste and be able to set your compass to true North. But, it’s hard to compete with the big boys. As a result some of the books are a bit more expensive than one would find at a large chain. And, obviously, the boundaries of its real estate prevent it from holding as many titles as one would find at a mega store. Nevertheless, for sheer meandering through stacks, it is my bookstore of choice. You are welcomed at the door with the tinkle of a little bell, and a smile, and a greeting for a “good” time of day. But I was on the other side of town meeting with a client whose store is spitting distance from Barnes & Noble. And so what’s a girl to do? True, there was also the lure of my discount membership. I am almost ashamed to say how fickle I am in my loyalty when a 5% discount is involved. I caved. I was not sure what I wanted although I felt certain I would know it when I found it. A stroll down the Fiction section merited nothing; I moved on to the Mystery aisle.

It was there, on a top shelf, I came across a series of books published by Felony & Mayhem Press with Art Deco covers reminiscent of 1936 movie stills. Although they publish several “vintage” authors, these volumes were written by the late British author, Margery Allingham. An inside page proclaimed that books published by Felony & Mayhem were originally published prior to 1965 and featured “the kind of twisty, ingenious puzzles beloved by fans of Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr.” Aside from the delicious name of the publishing house, the book titles themselves were too seductive to resist: Police At The Funeral, Death Of A Ghost, The Case Of The Late Pig, Dancers In Mourning, and The Fashion In Shrouds. But I could only allow myself one and eventually chose The Crime At Black Dudley. Joyous find! What fun! It was the jolt my happy-reader-button needed. Even better, Black Dudley introduces Allingham’s “gentleman sleuth”, Albert Campion. Better still - there are more.

I fully appreciate that the cliche of the English manor house in the middle of nowhere, filled with eccentric house guests, and murder committed in the dark during a parlor game has been so overworked it should itself fall dead with a thud. But it works. It even seems fresh.

Although obviously well known to many readers, Margery Allingham was new to me. I therefore lay claim to her as my very own discovery. Usually newly found authors come my way through the suggestions of others. I am very puffed up that I stumbled upon Allingham without any hints from the outside world. How I blithely worked my way through Miss Marple, and Hercule Poirot, and Sherlock Holmes and Nancy Drew without bumping into Allingham I shall never know. Chalk it up to one of the benefits of an inadequate education, perhaps. Since she was a fairly prolific writer prior to her death from breast cancer in June of 1966, (the same month and year I graduated from high school) knowing there are other volumes waiting for me when what I am reading gets dreary feels a little like opening the pantry door and finding provisions in store for a blustery winter.

A few days after my great discovery, I met the author of one of the best books I have read lately. I was carrying Black Dudley at the time, having just a few more pages to go until the end. I am afraid I spent more time discussing Allingham than John Wilkes Booth. Nevertheless, he was gracious - and I think his interest was piqued. But that’s another story for another time.