After they’re gone

present darknessIt happens every time — I wind up obsessed with the writers who appeared at the Key West Literary Seminar for months after the event. Perhaps it’s just the inevitable effect of spending four days in their company, or thinking about their subjects.

I at least have a valid excuse for reading After I’m Gone by Laura Lippman after the Seminar — because it wasn’t published until February. What a great read it is — an unconventional crime novel in many ways, more of an examination of what happens to a family when its center mysteriously disappears. In this case it was first Felix Brewer, and later his mistress, who disappeared exactly 10 years after her lover. Many assumed she had gone to join him — until her body showed up 12 years after that.

Another decade has passed by the time it gets taken up as a cold case by Sandy Sanchez, a retired homicide detective now working as a consultant for the Baltimore Police Department. But the real pleasure of the book is not just following Sandy’s investigation, but in learning the story through chapters that move fluidly among characters and in different times. It provides a portrait of Baltimore in the second half of the 20th century, for the most part, in a particular upper middle class Jewish circle. And it never flags — while in some books that alternate viewpoints you just can’t wait to get away from some characters and back to others (ahem, George R.R. Martin), in this one every single chapter was interesting in its own right and I was always glad to pick up with whomever Lippman wanted to tell us about next. The whodunit aspect is satisfying, in the end (I hadn’t guessed it) but the real pleasure of this book, for me, was the people.

Speaking of compelling characters, I’ve just caught up to Malla Nunn‘s series of Emmanuel Cooper novels (s0 far) with an advanced copy of Present Darkness, which publishes in June. The books are set in South Africa in the early 1950s, just as apartheid is being instituted, and it’s a fascinating, horrifying, fraught time period especially for a man in Cooper’s position. I don’t want to offer any spoilers but suffice it to say that Cooper’s background and upbringing means he’s in a position to cross a lot of lines. He’s also a World War II vet with a nasty case of PTSD decades before that term would be applied — in his case it manifests as migraines and the voice of his Scottish drill instructor issuing orders and advice inside his head. Start with the first in the series — A Beautiful Place to Die — and read them in order.

I had always considered apartheid the most outrageous social atrocity of my high school and college years, and its ending a miracle of my adulthood — but I had never really sat back and thought about 1) how insanely recent it was 2) its endless complicated consequences for the people who actually had to live with it and 3) how bizarre it was in a country that had just sent soldiers to World War II — fighting against and defeating a regime built on ethnic hatred. Cooper is a classic crime fiction hero in many ways — a flawed but admirable man who seeks to do good in a deeply screwed up world. It’s a tribute to Nunn’s skill that I find myself missing his world when I finish one of her books — because who would really want to live under those conditions? Yet her people and the plots are so compelling that want to know what happens next for Detective Sergeant Cooper. Like Matthew Shardlake (C.J. Sansom’s Tudor series), Gaius Petraeus Ruso (Ruth Downie’s Medicus series) and Jackson Brodie (Kate Atkinson), I am eager to hear how he will get out of his next tight spot and figure out a way to, improbably, do some good.

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The Searchers on page and screen

wood and wayneDuring this year’s Key West Literary Seminar, Percival Everett, who teaches a course on Western movies, described The Searchers as a movie that both “admits to American racism and practices it.” I had noticed a recent nonfiction book about the film, and the true story behind it, published last year. Everett’s mention, plus the knowledge that we had the movie in the Monroe County Library collection, was enough for me to get hold of both.

The Searchers by Glenn Frankel is an excellent nonfiction book, one of those books that uses a focused lens to examine an important slice of American history. It starts with the story of Cynthia Ann Parker, the real girl whose family was killed in a Comanche raid in Texas. She was kidnapped and, essentially, became Comanche, bearing three children. Some 25 years later, she was recaptured, along with her young daughter, by Americans in a raid on a Comanche camp — an experience that appears to have been just as traumatic for her as the original kidnapping. She and the young daughter died a few years later. She never saw her teenage sons again.

One of those sons, named Quanah, grew up to be a leader of the Comanche and a peacemaker with whites. Teddy Roosevelt even had dinner at his house.

After telling Quanah’s story, Frankel moves into how the Cynthia Ann Parker story reverberated through the culture — with almost no regard to historical accuracy, naturally, and culminating with Alan Lemay’s novel The Searchers. That novel, roughly, was the basis for the John Ford/John Wayne film that is the most prominent remaining reminder of the story. And what a weird film it is. I really wanted to admire it from a pure film appreciator point of view. But perhaps because I had just read the real story behind both the Cynthia Ann Parker life and the making of the movie, I just couldn’t buy into it. All the side stories, like the nephew’s romance with Laurie, seemed like a forced comic relief. And I’ve never gotten the John Wayne that so many people admire — not his politics, particularly, but his persona. I’m glad I saw it, since it is obviously a significant piece of popular culture (the American Film Institute even includes it in its top 100 list of movies). But it didn’t make sense to me, as a story. So thanks, Percival Everett. I guess.

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Checking out

library pic from Herald

Yes, I took this photo sometime in the early ’90s. And then I paid for this photo, last year, after the Herald photo archives showed up on ebay. So I own it. OK?

Thursday was my last day at the Key West Library. It was a great job in a lot of ways … I keep telling myself and other people that it’s a good thing to leave a job while you still like it. I’ve loved and felt at home in libraries all my life, and have loved more than I could ever have expected getting to know how they work — or at least how this one works — from the inside.

It wasn’t all joy and happiness. Every single job has its challenges and this one certainly did — mostly, from my perspective, having to do with the library’s physical plant and the aging and inadequate resources it has to offer for technology access, one of the most important roles public libraries play today. During my short tenure there, I saw almost all government services and most employment functions go entirely digital, which means people who don’t have computer access or skills are SOL. Except for the public library.

But enough about the negative — I’ll save that for future rants, perhaps. Here are things I will miss about this job:

  • The people — specifically, my co-workers. The Key West Library is really fortunate right now to have a staff of smart, nice, funny, generous people. It was always a pleasure to show up for work and see them in the morning. I’ve had enough different jobs that I appreciated that — really appreciated that — and I will miss it. I will also miss many of the patrons, both old friends I got to see and chat with regularly as they came through the library, and people I only got to know through my job there.
  • My commute — a 10-minute bike ride that took me through the Meadows and the Key West Cemetery every morning, and down Olivia Street every evening. A perfect length of time to prepare/relax/reflect on my day, except during the occasional torrential rainstorm.
  • The books — Library books. Donated books. Ebooks. Advanced review copies, sent out by publishers. I have plenty of books at home and of course will continue to borrow from the library. But it was reassuring to see how much people still read, and occasionally surprising to see something new or unexpected come across the counter. I even started a Facebook album of donated books that made me laugh.
  • Helping people who genuinely need it — whether it was finding an obscure title via Interlibrary Loan or helping someone get through a complicated online job application process (I’m looking at you, CVS!), there is a great satisfaction in providing a public service that isn’t available anywhere else. There were plenty of frustrations along that line to be sure, but often it works and when it does you feel pretty damned good about your choice of employment, and the county’s commitment to keeping the library’s doors open.
  • The kids — from the babies and toddlers just discovering the wonders of the library (the train set! Story time!) to the tweens carrying home box loads of manga books (literally), it was fun to watch them grow up and be the familiar friendly face who provided the fodder to help them grow. I also learned from my colleague Art that you can entertain squirmy toddlers by showing them how the scanner beeps every time it scans a bar code.
  • The vault – I got to fill in some in the Florida History Department, giving me a better look at the many wonders inside the vault and, increasingly, online. Too many to list here but I may return as a volunteer to keep working on my project of scanning photos from local elementary schools in the 1950s and ’60s.

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Key West Literary Seminar: The Dark Side, Final Chapter download

Lyndsay Faye and Sara Gran. Read them! Read them now! Photo by Nick Doll.

It’s always a risk when the Key West Literary Seminar puts on a double session, meaning two separate Seminars two weekends in a row. We want to accommodate as many people as possible, and we’re limited by the seats available at the San Carlos Institute. But it’s exhausting for the staff and other organizers. And worst of all for those of us with the terrible duty of attending both weekends, it can get repetitive so you feel like you’re stuck in some literary version of Groundhog Day.

To everyone’s great relief and delight, this year that did NOT happen. Probably because only one panelist — James W. Hall — appeared on both weekends and truly, he’s the kind of guy you could listen to tell funny stories all day. The two weekends felt quite different, but both offered illuminating and diverse discussions of crime fiction in its many and varied and forms. Having superstars Lee Child and Michael Connelly in the house for the Final Chapter certainly added to the excitement and they were both great. Child, in particular, was an erudite speaker, who set the tone Friday morning with an entertaining talk about the roots of suspense fiction going back into human history. Evolutionary history.

With Child, Connelly, Lisa Unger, Tess Gerritsen and other big names on board — and two, count ‘em two Edgar nominees for Best Novel (William Kent Krueger and Thomas H. Cook) — this week might have felt more commercial, to apply an overly broad adjective. Maybe because of that we had less of the old genre-vs.-literary discussion which I am alternately fascinated and bored by (I’ve got a bunch of links on my Readme page if you feel like delving into it). John Banville, Mr. Literary Himself with a Booker Prize to prove it, said he dislikes the genre stuff and wishes bookshops would shelve everything alphabetically — mainly because he feels like it ghettoizes literary fiction and consigns it to a dark and forbidding corner. We shelve all the fiction alphabetically at the library, I’m happy to say.

Once again, though, it was the women who really caught my interest — I’ve already posted about my bordering-on-embarrassing-fangirldom of Lyndsay Faye, whom I interviewed for Littoral. I had seen Sara Gran last summer at ALA, and she was even smarter and cooler than I remembered. Malla Nunn was a terrific new voice for most of the people in this crowd and her stories of writing about mixed-race people in South Africa as apartheid was being instituted were riveting. Elizabeth George’s keynote was great, setting a wonderful tone — and making me realize that I must have some kind of sick voyeuristic Protestant fascination with hearing about miserable Catholic childhoods. Mary McCarthy, Mary Gordon, Frank McCourt, you name the writer — I just never get tired of hearing about them. Or reading about them.

I tweeted a lot less this time. Not sure why, but I do know partway through Elizabeth George’s keynote I put down my notebook and just allowed myself to sit back and listen — she was not speaking in tweetable nuggets and I did not want to distract myself by focusing on listening for them.

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Key West Literary Seminar: The Dark Side, Chapter One download

Megan Abbott, Laura Lippman and Gillian Flynn. Lifetime should hire these three for a regular show analyzing their movies. Photo by Nick Doll, courtesy of the Key West Literary Seminar

Megan Abbott, Laura Lippman and Gillian Flynn. Lifetime should hire these three for a regular show analyzing their movies. Photo by Nick Doll, courtesy of the Key West Literary Seminar

I was confident the Literary Seminar was going to be great. First of all, it always is and second, with this line-up, how could it not be? Carl Hiaasen brought down the house Friday night, just as you’d expect. Joyce Carol Oates was eerily mesmerizing, like she always is. Still, it’s the unexpected that brings me the most pleasure. And though I hoped (see previous post, below) that the women were going to be my favorite parts of the event, they managed to eclipse my expectations.

The highlight was a Sunday morning panel titled “Fatal Vision: The Imprint of True-Crime Movies.” The panel consisted of Megan Abbott, Laura Lippman and Gillian Flynn. They set out by telling us that the panel’s title had been classed up and what they were going to talk about was their unironic love for Lifetime movies. And then they did. It’s already on the Seminar’s Audio Archives page and it’s worth the listen even if you’ve never seen or wanted to see a Lifetime movie in your life. Laura Lippman has already written a great essay expanding on the panel’s central theme — the lack of meaty roles for middle-aged women in Hollywood and how the true crime genre, frequently derided as trashy, allows women to express their full dark sides. Clearly it speaks to great numbers of people — mostly but not all women — and it goes beyond the camp value of seeing Meredith Baxter or Farrah Fawcett enter a homicidal fugue state. Several female friends and I agreed immediately after this panel that we need to have a Netflix movie viewing binge weekend. I also think Lifetime should consider hiring these three to host a show about the genre.

Gender was on my mind a lot through the weekend — and not in a preachy, academic kind of way. Perhaps because we started off with a keynote from Sara Paretsky, a pioneer of kickass female P.I. fiction. Cara Canella wrote a nice piece about it for Littoral and the address itself is on the Audio Archives page. And BTW, keep an eye on Littoral in general for great Seminar coverage, words and pictures, throughout. Many people were kind enough to say nice things about my program intro Friday morning and it’s also excerpted on Littoral.

The other great revelation to me during this Seminar was not a younger woman at all, but an older gentleman — Alexander McCall Smith. He’s easily dismissed as a writer of gentle cozies. He is, in person, hysterically funny and one of the Seminar highlights was when he would crack himself up reading his own work. Hopefully the audio will appear soon; when it does I’ll post it here.

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Into the dark …

KWLS2014_Web1_122812The 2014 Key West Literary Seminar is sold out, both sessions — no surprise, given the star power of many of the writers who will be appearing, many of them for the first time in Key West. There are, however, two free sessions that are open to the public on Sunday afternoons — Jan. 12 and 19 — so if you don’t have a ticket you’re not completely out of luck.

If you’re one of those people who just likes to read a few books by Seminar authors or is overwhelmed by the sheer number of writers on the roster here, here is my recommendation: Forget all those rock star guys and look to the women. Especially the younger women. For me, the Seminar’s chief appeal — beyond getting to hear from really smart and often hilarious writers — is the discovery of emerging writers, the non-rock stars. Who, more than likely, will be the rock stars of tomorrow. This year, for whatever reason, most of those newer voices seem to be women.

While the hard-core thriller world is male-dominated, it’s not like women writing crime is a new thing. The Golden Age’s primary stars were women: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham. Since then, P.D. James and Ruth Rendell have been writing great books. More recent and successful female crime writers include Sara Paretsky (who will deliver the keynote at the Seminar’s first session, Chapter One), Elizabeth George (Final Chapter keynote), Laura Lippman (Chapter One panelist), Lisa Unger (Chapter One), Tess Gerritson (Final Chapter) and Kate Atkinson, who will not be at the Seminar, but whose Jackson Brodie books are among my all-time favorites. The hottest rock star at this Seminar, despite the presence of such crime writing celebrities as Carl Hiaasen, Lee Child and Michael Connelly, might just be Gillian Flynn, of Gone Girl fame. She’ll be at Chapter One, including a talk at the free Sunday afternoon session.

The writers I’m most looking forward to hearing from, though, are the women you may not have heard of … yet. I’m guessing they’re the rock stars of the future: Megan Abbott, Sara Gran, Attica Locke, Malla Nunn … and my personal favorite, because I’m especially fond of historical crime, Lyndsay Faye. I already loved her books set in 1840s New York and her Sherlock Holmes solves Jack the Ripper book, Dust & Shadow. And she couldn’t have been smarter or more generous when I interviewed her via email for Littoral, the Seminar’s online journal. The books by these younger women are on the radar screens of librarians and smart readers of non-formulaic crime fiction. I hope the Seminar introduces them to many more.

If you are interested in following the Seminar in close to real time, the best way to do that is via Twitter. I’ll be posting @keywestnan, the Seminar itself is @keywestliterary and many folks will probably use the hashtag #kwls. If you’re enough of a Twitter person to subscribe to lists, both the Seminar and I have lists called the Dark Side, of the writers attending this year’s Seminar so you can follow them even if they don’t use the hashtag.

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Another Austen update. Really.

SENSE AND SENSIBILITYYou’ve had enough of the Austen continuations, updates, mashups (zombies! sea monsters!). You don’t want Jane to be a detective, or Elizabeth Bennett to take up solving mysteries. You don’t need Colin Firth diluting his Regency splendor by playing Mark Darcy to Bridget Jones. I get it. I even find myself wondering if the BBC might forgo another round of film adaptations every decade or so (though I always get sucked in when they do — see addendum below).

So when I read some good reviews of Sense & Sensibility by Joanna Trollope, I sighed. Do we really need yet another telling of an Austen story, set in contemporary times? But the book was just sitting there on the library’s new book shelf and I had a whole lunch hour. So I picked it up.

Damned if the thing didn’t charm me, through and through — both for the satisfying re-telling of the Dashwood sisters’ triumph over mean relations and caddish men, and for the added pleasure of seeing how Trollope worked modern social mores and silliness into the story. She had to do some minor contortions to account for the women’s sudden loss of fortune and social standing (in this version the girls’ mother is not a second wife but a woman who ran away with the elder Mr. Dashwood, who left his wife and son behind).

Evil sister-in-law Fanny and her nasty mother, Mrs. Ferrars, are quite as obnoxious, if in more modern ways. And the dashing Willoughby — or Wills, as he’s called here — tries to give Marianne a sports car, not a horse. But generally the characters go through their paces in approximately the same ways. The servant class is represented in minor but telling cameos by a series of Eastern European nannies.

It’s a quick read, but fun. Highly recommended. I even hope someone does a film adaptation of it — which would make a fine counterpart to the most recent BBC version from 2008 which is quickly rising in my personal ranks of Austen adaptations (this is the addendum mentioned above). I love Ang Lee and Emma Thompson and all that but let’s face it, she was way too old to play Elinor and Hugh Grant just too stammery to earn her love. Every single person in the more recent version is perfect in their parts. And it’s a perfect length, too, a three-parter so you don’t have to give up an entire day like the six-hour Pride and Prejudice, but it still has room for the plot to breathe.

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