Friday, January 21, 2011

Finding Treasure

There are times when I, truly believe...I can compose a decent sentence or spin a clever yarn; but then I inevitably run head-on into an example of true mastery - mastery not just of words but mastery in the unfolding of a story. In short, I experience the brilliance of a gifted writer, and self-confidence in my own ability deflates like a sad balloon. As disconcerting as those moments are for the writer in me, they are pure Heaven to the reader in me.

First, a little background information might be useful to explain what I mean. Very recently I took another long road trip, this time to Virginia, the home of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and more importantly, my son and grandson. Although the weather collapsed a few days after I left to return home, paving the streets with sheets of ice that made them treacherous, it was crisp and clear and sunny during my stay with just the right bite of winter in the air. The town where this part of my little family lives is nestled at the foot of the Appalachian mountain range. Why do mountaintops lure us to them? Is it because we feel tall and mighty upon reaching their summits, or because they remind us how truly fragile we are? The visits themselves are always enjoyable and filled with family things to do. However, the solitary travel there and back can be gnawingly monotonous without a good book to keep one company.

As I usually do, I visited the library on the island for audio books before cruising out of Savannah. Golden Age mysteries are usually what I select for on-the-road reading, largely because they entertain without mesmerizing me to the point that I forget where I am or what I'm doing and drive off a cliff or into a cow pasture. This trip was no different. I started with Gambit by Rex Stout starring the detective Nero Wolfe. I had never read anything by Stout; however, he came highly recommended. I was able to name the murderer myself (always a disappointment) but not until the last disc. Not quite Dashiell Hammett, but readable.

The next book in the queue was Crocodile On The Sandbank, by Elizabeth Peters. Peters, whose real name is Barbara Mertz, has a PhD from the University of Chicago in Egyptology and her Amelia Peabody mystery series recounts the adventures of Amelia and her husband, archaeologist Radcliffe Emerson, as they dig up ancient tombs, retrieve artifacts, and solve mysteries while fending off fiends and villains. Years ago I picked up The Hippopotamus Pool and enjoyed it very much. On my own library shelves it sits next to The Ape Who Guards The Balance, Falcon At The Portal, He Shall Thunder In The Sky, and Lord Of The Silent. I've never read any of these others, although I am forever meaning to do. By happy accident, it turned out Crocodile is the first of the series; it was nice to have the background. I liked it enough to give me incentive to press on with its neglected progeny one day.

On the heels of the Peters book came, A Place Of Hiding by Elizabeth George. One summer I was given Deception On His Mind and read it at the beach. Although I only remember small bits, I must have liked it well enough because I also have A Traitor To Memory, In Pursuit of the Proper Sinner and...well, one other I can't recall right at this moment, none of which I've read. A Place of Hiding was somewhere between a warm bottle of beer and flat champagne. I'll still drink it, but I could be having a lot more fun.

As I neared home, I had a choice between Through A Glass Darkly by Kareen Koen and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (author of The Remains Of The Day). I had no idea what possessed me to pick either of them up at the library. First, I didn't think they were mysteries, my favorite genre for audio. The cover on the latter didn't appeal to me at all, and the title sounded like a romance novel. Not my style. I tried to reach for Through A Glass Darkly (I liked the title much better than the other); but, it had slid out of reach on the passenger seat, and I couldn't pull over on the highway. By default, its geography determined that Never Let Me Go was next on the menu.

From the wet pavement I could tell it had rained earlier in the day; but, the clouds had moved on and the late afternoon shadows were long and deep, each second drawing me closer to home. It was a Monday and I very nearly had the road to myself as I slipped quietly through tall pines. I slid the first of the eight discs into the player and waited a moment. The lovely, soothing voice of Rosalyn Landor filled the silence, "Chapter One. My name is Kathy H. I'm thirty-one years old, and I've been a carer now for over eleven years..." What I heard after that was calming and chilling and beautiful and sinister all at once.

I arrived home with only part of disc one completed, and anticipated resuming it on my way to work the next morning. My commute is only 20 minutes, which equates to approximately 15 pages covered each way. Not enough time for this book...not by a long shot. I've never simultaneously listened to an audio book while also reading it in its physical form. As I might have mentioned before, the island library is very small. I seldom find a particular book I'm wanting by walking in and searching the shelves. I usually have to order it from the system and then wait a few days before it's available. This book was special; I couldn't stop. Short of sitting in my car for hours on end with the motor idling, there was only one thing to be done. And so it was, I would at least give it a try and check the library stacks on my way home. I headed for the proper aisle and ran my hand over the spines...G...H...I. At first I was deflated. I could see there were only a handful of books in the "I" portion of the shelf. So when my hand stopped on Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go, I exclaimed (shouted, really), "I can't believe my luck!!" This outburst caused the librarian to look up from her keyboard. She didn't frown or tell me to "Shuush." She peered above her glasses and smiled at me. She smiled the smile of a confederate book fiend; the "I know...I know" smile. We were in alliance; I was on friendly turf.

It is working quite well, this listening in part and then picking up the thread of the story and reading in part. Today is Friday. I can stay up all night to finish it if I chose. Since starting it, I've heard that it is best to approach Never Let Me Go without knowing anything about the story line. I quite agree, so I will say nothing about it. And as well, I will leave the reviews to those who are adept at such things...the academics and others with scholarly or literary attainments. I am simply a reader who - on particularly good days - fancies herself to be a writer as well. Besides, I can't even pretend I could ever do this book justice.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

I Planned To Procrastinate But I Decided To Wait

I wish I could say I've neglected The Curious Reader because I was breathlessly engaged in composing a searing entry for the short story competition. You know...single-mindedly clacking away at the keyboard...a pencil stuck in my chignon...perhaps two fingers of Scotch in a squat glass at my elbow (NB: imagine here a female version of F. Scott Fitzgerald minus the cigarette smoke blooming from a crystal ashtray). But I cannot.

First, of course, there was Christmas and all the hubub that holiday brings with it. It isn't Christmas Eve and Christmas Day that wear me out. I can handle those. No. The stress of Christmas comes from our seeming inability to resist tinkering with it. Wasn't the first Christmas wonderful enough just as it was? Must we make a "season" out of it? Must we be forced to endure the never-ending commercials showing people giving each other shiny, new cars? White was the favorite color being pushed on us this year. There must be an overrun of white ones in the showrooms. One of these hawksters even managed to suggest we could actually get the automobile into the house (which, by the way, appeared to be an ultra modern mountain lodge with postcard perfect views of snowy vistas just outside its wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling windows) and then stuff it into a super-sized red Santa stocking. It is enough to put one off fruitcake forever. In any event, Christmas is a busy time.

Further consuming my time was the re-organizing of the kitchen cabinets, drawers and pantry. On that note, I will publish a warning to you - if you do not absolutely need to embark down that road, don't. What began innocently at the utensil drawer spread slowly and insidiously (like the Blob from the 1950s movie of the same name) from shelf to shelf and cupboard to cupboard. It oozed itself toward the pantry and then to the etagere where the pots and pans hang out. I was faced with dilemmas I wasn't equipped to handle in my already delicate holiday-wrought condition. For instance, what does one do with 5 cans of cinnamon? All opened? I vaguely remembered a recipe for Christmas ornaments using obscene amounts of cinnamon mixed with applesauce. I made a heart that hung from a red silk ribbon from that recipe one year and figured I must still have it written down and tucked somewhere. Naturally, this spurned a new mission to find it in the books, and tins, and binders and magazine racks full of recipes and other "things kept" that I (ever hopeful) think might be useful in the future.

The effort of organizing, and arranging, and re-uniting a thing with its parts (cookie press dyes with the cookie press; pasta machine with its crank and the bolt that holds it to the counter top; meat grinder with the little spinning thing that you insert into the round tube that you finally attach to the hub of the KitchenAid, for instance) and then finding homes for everything on fresh shelf liners was exhausting enough. But compounding the enterprise is the angst that comes with admitting, for instance, that the piece that held the blades to the mandolin was lost and would never be found, no matter how long the other pieces sat around, like squatters taking up real estate. Without the lynch pin, the thing was no longer a mandolin. It was junk.

But, oooh, there is always that haunting fear that the lynch pin might...just found somewhere - too late. I recalled holding on to a 14k gold earring for years. Every time I opened my top desk drawer at the office there it was in all its glinty glory. Finally, in a spurt of bravery and blinded by a sudden desire for organization I threw it away. A year later we were moving from our office to new digs, and in cleaning out a "bank box" of papers which was tucked under my desk I found the earring's match. Not only was it a slap the forehead moment, I also felt guilty that I had thrown away something that actually had some intrinsic value (albeit it very little). Nevertheless, clutter is clutter and in my kitchen I whittled it down. Even if I were flying over the Pacific, or sitting on a train bound for Budapest, with the precision of a surgeon I could direct someone to the trussing string sitting in the right rear corner of the second-to-the-right-drawer next to the oven. See? How easy was that! Garlic press? Lemon reamer? Fluted pasta wheel? Go ahead...test me.

It took three days to get all the chaos straightened out. There are still a few bits sitting on the table awaiting final disposition. Among them a small cast iron skillet that is not only a ridiculous size to be of any practical use, but requires the attention befitting a diva. Quite frankly, I want to pitch the rusty little wench. But I'm waffling.

With the holidays behind me, the decorations put away, the kitchen in order, I can't conceive of a reason why I can't throw myself into the short story competition. No excuses come immediately to mind; but, with a little luck I'm sure I can think of something.