On Cousins, Connections, and the “Social” in Social Media

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First picture of the four cousins

First picture of the four cousins

I envied my children as they were growing up—they were close with two of their cousins. They were close in age, and for their first few years of life they lived within a reasonable driving distance of their mutual grandparents. The four kids played together regularly, stair steps spanning six and a half years.

My nephew and niece were older than my son and daughter. Nephew (the oldest) was charged with keeping order. As an oldest child myself, I know how unfair that was to the poor kid, but he bore it bravely. I’ve learned in recent years (now that all the culprits are beyond the age of grounding) that Niece and Son ganged up on Daughter, the baby. Daughter still has a soft place in her heart for Nephew who saved her.

A litter of cousins

A litter of cousins

The reason I envied my children is that I only had brothers and a sister. One brother was near me in age, but the others were much younger and not playmates in the way closer siblings are. I always thought it would be fun to be part of a litter.

I had six first cousins (all children of the same aunt), but I rarely saw them growing up.

I had a gob of second cousins, but saw them even less frequently. Some of my second cousins live in the Kansas City area, and I finally met them after I moved here as an adult. Three of them are women about my sister’s age, and I was struck by how much their mannerisms resembled my sister’s. The hand gestures, the speech tones—it was like watching my sister in triplicate.

A few years ago, there was a family reunion in Nebraska where I met other second cousins for the first time. I couldn’t see any family resemblances in that part of the clan. There are still some second cousins on that side of the family whom I’ve never met, and I can only wonder how genetics played out there.

Even though our family is far-flung and not close, through the power of social media I’ve reconnected with a few cousins.

Two first cousins found me on Facebook. It’s been interesting to see the pictures they’ve posted of themselves. One cousin looks like our mutual grandmother, another reminds me of my brother.

A second cousin recently found me through this blog. She was researching our common ancestors in Sacramento (though she knew them better than I did). She found my post on the Strachan-Ryan (our shared great-grandparents) wedding. Since then, we have traded emails about our memories, and I sent her a picture I had of our great-grandmother, Cecelia Ryan.

This second cousin and I met once as children, and we both recalled the meeting, but we knew little about each other’s lives since our grade school days. When we friended each other on Facebook, I saw some pictures this cousin has posted of herself. She looks more like my grandmother (her great-aunt) than I do!

And so families continue, generation after generation. Sometimes close. Sometimes not. But always with connections that transcend time and distance.

Social media now brings us together in ways that were impossible in decades past, forging closer connections, or at least letting us see the connections that exist.

When have you been surprised by a connection with a relative you don’t know well?

Sculpting My Novel and My Life

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MC900290846My writing goal for the summer was to finish an edit of my second Oregon Trail book. I got it done just after Labor Day. Of course, that was not the end of the project. I know it needs another substantial edit. And probably another edit after that.

And I’m working still on the first book, which is closer to being finished, but could still benefit from some shaping.

Some writers seem to be able to dash off a first draft of their novel, go back through it once to catch typos, and declare it done. I can’t do that. Part of it may be my inexperience—I still consider myself to be a newbie novelist. Part of it may be my unwillingness to let go.

But a substantial part is that I know I can make it better with each draft. It isn’t time to let go of the book yet. Not until I am proud of it. It took me nine drafts (four of them major rewrites) to finish the novel I published under a pseudonym.

For me, writing a novel is like sculpture. With each draft, I lay down more clay or scrape it away to reveal the story inside. On the first draft, I write the bones, the skeleton of what happens. On the next draft, I further develop the plot and fix the obvious glitches. On the next draft, I add more character back story and emotion and description.

On the next, I focus on the story arc—making sure the plot points are at about the right points, that there is not much denouement after the climax, etc. It is surprising that if you look for plot points, they are there. It’s a matter of building them up so that readers feel satisfied with the timing of the twists in the story.

Of course, writing isn’t really as scientific as this. By the third draft or so, I’m sharing the story with my critique group, and they tell me where I most need to work. So the story arc draft may come before the emotion-adding draft. Or I have to go back to the plot when I’m told something isn’t believable.

Maybe it is inexperience that I cannot concentrate on everything that a novel needs at once. It is definitely my fault that my time is over-committed and each draft takes so much time.

But writing is what I want to do. No one will manage my time except for me. It is up to me to sculpt my life the way I sculpt my novel. I try on new activities for size—a board or committee here, a new critique group there. The activities that fit, I add to if I’m able. The ones that don’t, I carve away when I can.

Piece by piece, and draft by draft, our life work builds. On the pages we write and in the friends we make.

What sculpting does your life need?

Friends: Sometimes Mothers Know Best

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When I arrived at Middlebury College, I knew no one. The college did a reasonably good job of throwing freshmen together on a variety of activities, but friendships must develop at their own pace and in their own time.

The day we moved into the dorm, I was wearing a nice pants suit (double-knit polyester, of course, because it was 1973). I was dressed up because my father and I had flown across the country the day before, and in 1973, people from Good Families still dressed up to fly. My jeans were packed in my suitcase, and I didn’t change clothes until we had moved everything into the dorm room.

Unbeknownst to me, across the hall, a girl from New Jersey—already dressed in jeans—was unpacking her suitcases with her mother. Her mother spotted me all gussied up, and told her daughter, “Now that girl [me] is someone you should get to know. Look at her nice pants suit.”

New Jersey girl scoffed, “I’ll bet she’s stuck up. Why would she move into a dorm in a pants suit?”

S&T Midd 01-76 cropped

My friend and me, January 1976

A few days later, when parents were gone and Freshman Week was well underway, the New Jersey girl and I left the dorm for some event at the same time, both wearing jeans. We walked to the assembly hall together.

And we have been good friends now for over forty years.

Fast forward many years, to when my daughter was a preschooler. We were at a family outing for my husband’s law firm, with kids of various shapes and sizes milling about everywhere.

I tried to get my daughter to mingle with the other children. “Go play with the little H____ girls,” I said. The two little H____ girls had curly blond hair and matching summer dresses with ruffles. “Don’t they look cute?”

My daughter—never a frilly dresses kind of girl—scoffed at me, and refused to leave my side.

A decade later, she and the little H____ girls went to the same high school. My daughter and the older H____ girl were on the same cross-country team, and they became great friends. My daughter still hangs out at the H____ house when she comes home to visit. I’ve tried not to say, “I told you so.”

When has your mother been proven right about one of your friends?

Seeking Inspiration at the Plains Indians Exhibit (Nelson Atkins Museum of Art)

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As soon as I heard about it, I wanted to see the Plains Indians special exhibit at the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.  After all, I’m writing novels about travel across the plains in the 1840s—my visit to the museum would be research. So my husband and I set out for an afternoon at the Nelson a few weeks ago.

CantohujaI knew I would glean details that would enrich my novels, and the Plains Indians exhibit did exactly that. But I was also awed at the beauty of many of the objects on display.

For example, here is a picture of a pipe and tobacco bag from the Central Plains about 1845, the time my characters were traveling to Oregon. The bag was called a cantohuja, or “container of the heart.” It received this endearing name because of the sacredness of the pipe to the native peoples. I don’t currently have a pipe ceremony in my Oregon Trail novel, but perhaps I will have to work one in. At the least, I can describe a beaded, fringed bag such as this.

I was also impressed at how well-preserved most of the pieces were. Many of the exhibits were centuries old but could still be worn or used today. As I thought about this, I realized the Nelson would only include the best examples of Native American art and culture. But in addition, it occurred to me that the more enlightened white travelers in North America in the 18th and 19th centuries viewed the native tribes as anthropological oddities, so would have preserved what they collected for posterity. (The unenlightened behaved savagely to peoples they thought of as savages.)

There are stories behind the preservation of the objects in the exhibit. Who collected them? On what travels? On what occasions? And what did the collectors do with the objects originally?

Beaver bowlAs an example of the preservation of the exhibited items, here is a walnut bowl carved to resemble a beaver from around 1800. It is better polished than the walnut salad bowls I own.

The Native Americans my emigrant characters encountered might well have used such a bowl as they ate with the white travelers.  Would leftovers have been sent back to the wagons in such a bowl?

Elkhorn scraperAnother example is an elk antler scraper made in about 1820 used to prepare hides. I have written scenes where my characters buy hides and buffalo robes along the trail. The placard with the scraper informed me that this item might have been a woman’s most important tool. Note that even a utilitarian object such as this is highly decorated.

But my favorite object in the exhibit is the red stone pipe bowl shown below. It is from about 1820, and depicts a Pawnee myth involving a boy and bear. According to the description of the pipe, the bear derives power from the sun and the boy in turn receives power from the bear’s claws. It looks like it could still draw smoke.

I also wondered if a small child might play with such a pipe if he could get his hands on it. Perhaps a child in my novel could do exactly that.

Pipe with Boy & Bear

The museum curators describe their exhibit as follows:

Together the 140 works will reveal the accomplishments of Plains Indian artists, not only as the makers of objects that sustain tradition and embody change, but as the bearers of individual creative expression and innovation.
 

This description is accurate, but it doesn’t invoke my imagination the way the actual objects did. As I walked through the art and objects of daily living, I thought about the history of the native peoples and the emigrants who went through the prairies, about the humane and inhumane encounters between these peoples through decades of change, and about how our lives are different today because of these encounters.

The Nelson Plains Indians exhibit contains objects from around the United States from Massachusetts to California, the Dakotas to Texas, as well as those from museums and collections in England, France, Germany, and Switzerland.

Beaded boots 2014The Plains Indians exhibit displayed Native American artworks from the earliest discovered items all the way into modern creations. I admired this pair of beaded boots by Jamie Okuma made in 2014, though I must admit I preferred the older objects, which looked like they contained more stories.

The Plains Indians exhibit will be at the Nelson until January 11, 2015. I encourage you to go see it—it is well worth your time. And, of course, you can also partake of the food and atmosphere in Rozelle Court while you’re there.

When have you been inspired by a museum exhibit?

You Do Have My Nose!

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In every family, there are traits and physical features that no one wants to own.

For example, I have my father’s ears. So does my sister. So does my daughter, who calls them “the Claudson ears.” Our ears all stick out at the top. I suppose we should be glad that most of us are girls, and we can wear our hair over the Claudson ears.

A year ago my daughter posted a picture of herself as a toddler on Facebook. One of her friends claimed she couldn’t see any resemblance between the picture and how my daughter looks now. I posted a comment, “Just look at the ears.” The friend immediately recognized my daughter.

One day when I was a teenager, we were talking about family noses and who had whose nose.

My nose is a little pointed. Not too bad, but it’s fairly prominent for someone who is only five-foot-one. I think it’s the same nose my maternal grandmother (Nanny Winnie) had, though mine is more exaggerated.

Whether it is Nanny Winnie’s specifically or not, I’m certain that the nose came from my mother’s side of the family. My mother definitely had the nose, too.

Funny thing was, she never would admit it.

That day when I was in my teens, I told my mother my nose had come from her. “No, it didn’t,” she said. “My nose isn’t as big as yours.”

I insisted. “Yes, I got your nose.”

She wouldn’t believe me.

Until she saw this picture. Here we are together in profile on my wedding day:

MFC MTH at T's wedding 1977 (edited)

When my mother saw this photo, she said, “Oh, we do have the same nose.” And it’s obvious we do.

A picture is worth a thousand words.

Which family traits do you and your relatives fight over?

Haunting Book: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra

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Constellation of Vital Phenomena coverI had another novel in mind for my last haunting book review this month, but then I read A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra, and it immediately became the most haunting book I’ve read this year.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena  is the story of the impact of the Chechnyan wars on the people of a small village. The citizens of this village show all the humanity and inhumanity of how people behave under  stress. The story revolves around a man’s abduction by Russian soldiers while his eight-year-old daughter Havaa watches. Her neighbor Akhmed takes her to an abandoned hospital where only one doctor, a weary woman named Sonja, remains to treat the victims of war and illness. Sonja, already overwhelmed by the work of running a hospital single-handedly, does not want to assume responsibility for Havaa.

The novel’s timeline takes place over five days, but through numerous flashbacks we see the impact of both the first and second Chechnyan wars on the characters and their families. The flashbacks give the novel a broader scope than simple narration of the five days of Havaa, Akhmed and Sonja’s lives could have. The story is both small and universal, as any good novel should be.

Marra’s prose is beautiful, even as the events he depicts are horrifying. We see torture and sex trafficking, drug abuse and lust, betrayal and euthanasia. Each tragedy makes sense in its time and in the connections between the characters, even as the horror of the novel’s totality mounts.

The novel’s title comes from a definition in Sonja’s medical dictionary:

“Life: a constellation of vital phenomena—organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.” 

 

And, indeed, the novel is about life and all its vital phenomena. Ultimately, we see the power of love and compassion amidst the ugliness of war, but to say any more would be a spoiler.

SPOILER ALERT— THE REST OF THIS POST DISCUSSES THE PLOT AND THEMES IN A CONSTELLATION OF VITAL PHENOMENA.

Some of the characters in this book are heroes, but few are truly villains. Most are victims. They all lose family and friends, and many lose their self-respect as well. Some do their best during extraordinarily difficult times, and some discover their inability to act as they should.

Here are some of the key characters in the novel:

Havaa: At the heart of the novel is eight-year-old Havaa, whom Akhmed saves after her father Dokka is imprisoned by the Russians. As a child, she is not responsible for anything that happens to her, and caring for her drives many of the developments in the plot. Havaa also carries a secret that binds many of the characters and their pasts together.

Akhmed: Although only Havaa’s neighbor, Akhmed takes her to a hospital to save her, and agrees to work as a doctor in exchange for her care. He went to medical school, but is a far better artist than doctor. He is married to Ula, a woman with dementia, whom he mostly abandons to work in the hospital

Sonja: Sonja is a London-trained surgeon who returned to her native Chechnya to find her sister Natasha. She is bitter and exhausted because of her inability to care for everyone the war has sent her way.

Natasha: We see Natasha only in flashbacks. When war came to Chechnya, she fled and was caught up with sex-traffickers who also turned her into a drug addict. She returns, then flees again, and Sonja never finds out what happened to her, though the reader does.

Khassam: An old man and neighbor of Akhmed, Khassam tries to salvage what is left of his community when he cannot salvage his relationship with his son, an informant.

Ramzan: Ramzan, Khassam’s son, was tortured during the first Chechnyan war, and now informs on his friends and neighbors. He is troubled by his actions, and yet cannot find a way to extricate himself from the horrors and losses in his life.

Even when characters seek to escape their cruel reality, even when they betray their friends, I had to forgive them, because of the horrors they endured. Sonja has saved so many lives with her skill and lost her brilliant career; should I condemn her for her brusqueness toward a child who needs a home? Ramzan has been tortured and maimed; I condemn him for informing on his friend to avoid more torture? Akhmed saves Havaa and brings light to Sonja; should I condemn him for killing his bedridden and dying wife when he is about to be captured?

Anthony Marra does a masterful job at making readers ask these questions, of making us sympathize with people surrounded by cruelty who often become cruel themselves. His haunting prose is always cognizant of and compassionate toward human frailty.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena  is most like The Sandcastle Girls of the other haunting books I have reviewed, and also contains themes similar to the non-fiction Unbroken. We see the same inhumanity of man to other men that war brings out no matter where in the world and when in time it occurs.

This book is fiction, but its themes are real. It is a miracle that any of the characters in A Constellation of Vital Phenomena retained any scrap of goodness in the face of the evil around them. And those of us who live our lives away from evil cannot in our complacency hold the less fortunate responsible. Some of Marra’s characters believe they are beyond redemption, but we readers do not have to believe that they are.

Who are we to judge?

 

California Grows Quickly Despite Slow Communications

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Throughout 1848, fortune-seekers streamed into California, even though the U.S. government had not yet acknowledged the discovery of gold. By October 1848, there were 8,000 men mining for gold in California, doubled from the 4,000 in July of that year.

William T. Sherman made his second trip to the gold fields in the fall of 1848, and reached the Stanislaus River, called “Sonora” after the region of Mexico where many of the miners came from. Sherman reported that more and more mines were being discovered every day, both north and south of the Stanislaus.

Peter Burnett, photo from Wikipedia

Peter Burnett, photo from Wikipedia

Miners poured into California from Oregon. A few brought wagons down the east side of the Sierra Nevada and reached Sacramento in late October 1848. One of these Oregonian miners was Peter Burnett, who later became California’s first governor.

Burnett described the difficulties of the trail to California along the Yuba in his Recollections and Opinions of an Old Pioneer. He wrote:

I could hear the wagons coming down that rough, rocky hill until midnight. Some of the people . . . had been without water for nearly two days.”

. . .

“Below, glowing in the hot sunshine and in the narrow valley of this lovely and rapid stream, we saw the canvas tents and the cloth shanties of the miners.

Meanwhile, not only was official acceptance of the gold rush slow to come from Washington, but news from the East Coast also arrived slowly in California. On October 23, 1848, the San Francisco newspaper, The Californian, reported news just received from the east via Monterey:

We have been politely favored with the perusal of a letter from Monterey to a gentleman of this town, from which we gather some highly interesting and important intelligence. Two vessels had arrived at Monterey, by which intelligence had been received from Boston and Washington up to June 29.

. . .

“Martin Van Buren was a self nominated candidate for the Presidency, taking the anti-slavery side of the question. Hale of New Hampshire, was the abolition candidate.

“The election for Presidential electors is to be held on the same day in November throughout the Union.

This last point was significant, because 1848 was the first year in which the presidential election took place on the same date throughout the U.S.—November 7, 1848.

In the 1848 presidential election, the candidates were Martin Van Buren, a former Democrat (and former President) who headed the Free Soil Party, Lewis Cass of the Democratic Party, and Zachary Taylor of the Whig Party. Taylor won, but died in 1850, just sixteen months after taking office.

Of course, residents of California could not vote in the 1848 election, because California was not a state. This newspaper account came just a week before the election took place. It had taken four months—from late June until late October—to reach California. How could California ever become a part of the nation when communications were so slow?

And yet, less than two years later, on September 9, 1850, Congress approved California’s statehood.

When have poor communications caused difficulties for you?

Haunting Book: The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

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Book Thief coverI’ve posted about other haunting books set during wartime (see here and here). The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, is as haunting as any of those featured in my earlier reviews.

A writer friend of mine gushed one day, “You’ve got to read The Book Thief. It’s so wonderful. And I am the Messenger. Zusak’s language is so good. Every writer should read them.”

She is someone whose opinion I value, so I tried The Book Thief. It was wonderful—beautiful language, a poignant and riveting story. I wasn’t so crazy about Zusak’s first novel, I Am the Messenger. The Australian writer Zusak was more successful in portraying Nazi Germany than in writing about his native country.

The Book Thief is the story of a young girl, Liesel Meminger, whose mother sent her to live with a foster family in Germany during World War II. She is the book thief of the title and steals books from a wealthy woman in town. Her foster family also harbors a Jewish man, and much of the novel deals with the relationship between Liesel and the Jewish Max Vandenburg.

Although the novel has been marketed to a young adult audience, it is a dark and tragic tale, and the narrator is Death. Some readers think Zusak’s choice of perspective is weird, but it worked for me. Death stalks the characters from the very beginning of the story, when Liesel’s little brother dies and she steals her first book, The Gravediggers Handbook. Death is omniscient, while a human character would not be, allowing for a rich story that sees more than Liesel possibly could.

SPOILER ALERTS—THE REST OF THIS POST DISCUSSES THE PLOT AND THEMES IN THE BOOK THIEF.

The characters in The Book Thief were unique: Liesel herself, trying to survive her childhood during wartime; Rosa Hubermann, the gruff foster mother who worries about feeding the child; Hans Hubermann, the artistic foster father who worries he cannot feed Liesel’s spirit and so teaches her to read; the Jewish refugee Max Vandenburg who also feeds Liesel’s love of books; the neighborhood rapscallion Rudy Steiner, as trapped by the war as Liesel is; and the rich mayor’s wife Ilsa Hermann who permits Liesel to steal books from her library.

Death himself is a compelling character. Who knew Death has such a wry sense of humor? He tells us early on:

***HERE IS A SMALL FACT  ***
You are going to die.
 

In The Book Thief, Death is overworked in wartime and compassionate toward his customers, not the Grim Reaper of Ingmar Bergman films. He needs a vacation and a distraction. Death explains himself:

. . . why does he even need a vacation? What does he need distraction from?
. . .
It’s the leftover humans.
The survivors.
They’re the ones I can’t stand to look at, although on many occasions I still fail.
. . .
It’s the story of one of those perpetual survivors–an expert at being left behind.
It’s just a small story really, about, among other things:
* A girl
* Some words
* An accordionist
* Some fanatical Germans
* A Jewish fist fighter
* And quite a lot of thievery
 

That, in a nutshell, is the story.

The childhood friendship between Liesel and Rudy develops into puppy love (more on Rudy’s side than on Liesel’s), and the reader yearns for their adolescent infatuation to mature into adulthood. Even Death seems to root for them. But will they survive the war to let it happen?

Although the plotline is often harsh, the moments of kindness in The Book Thief give the tale a humanity—even from Death—that I found both tragic and sweet. Zusak writes about the randomness of life and about how we can change its course through how we treat others. His prose is unsentimental and lyrical, tragic and sweet.

Not everyone dies in the course of the novel, though Death does greet many of the characters. I won’t tell you who dies and who survives. All I’ll say is that I cried.

The Book Thief makes a strong case for the power of words and of writing to maim and to save. As Hitler’s Mein Kampf killed a nation and much of a continent, so Max’s words and Liesel’s own become balm for the soul.

I have not seen the movie, but I’d like to see how much of the mood of the novel was retained. The book has almost 70,000 reviews on Goodreads, so I won’t go into any more detail; you can read about it there. I’ll just say, every writer should read The Book Thief.

What book would you recommend to writers?

Halloween Costumes: Making Good and Making Do

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My husband and I have been invited to a Halloween party requiring costumes, and we are panicked. What will we wear?

I’ve seldom put a lot of effort into Halloween. As I’ve written before, I am the pumpkin carver in the family, and we usually have a jack o’lantern for the front porch. I buy candy to give to trick or treaters, and when my kids were small, I did a little decorating.

And they had costumes. But rarely did I put much effort put into the costumes. When my son was a baby—my first Halloween as a mother—I made him a cape to go with his Superman onesie. The time spent on that cape was a good investment. It became a pirate’s cloak for a later Halloween, and also inspired his superhero play for years. It may still be buried in a drawer somewhere.

More typical of my costume efforts was the Halloween when my son was three. I talked him into being a doctor, because the hospital where I had given birth to his sister a few months earlier had given him paper mini-scrubs and a mask—a good enough costume, I decided, no matter how unappealing to a toddler boy in love with Batman and Robin.

pumpkin costume

The pumpkin costume I made for my daughter

The year my daughter was two, she insisted she wanted to be a pumpkin. Her brother tried to explain that being a pumpkin wasn’t the thing to do, she was supposed to look scary and smash pumpkins instead.

No dice. She wanted to be a pumpkin. My daughter was far less malleable than my son had been as a toddler.

So I made a pumpkin costume—the most elaborate costume I ever created. I measured her, designed it from scratch on paper, purchased orange and green and black felt, cut out the pieces, sewed them together, stiffening the seams to make it stand out around her body. I even made a matching green hat and bought my daughter green leggings for a complete pumpkin ensemble. I was very proud of myself.

By the time Halloween rolled around, my daughter was less enamored of being a pumpkin. I think she had entered the princess phase. But I managed to get her to wear the pumpkin costume for trick or treating.

And I made her wear it again the year she was three. I was back in my “making do” mode. The leggings didn’t fit that year, but I found black tights or something to keep her warm.

Now, after more than a quarter century, the costume hangs in a spare closet, waiting for some other child to need it. (See picture above.) This is why I didn’t put much effort into costumes. The payoff wasn’t there.

In later years, we occasionally bought a plastic costume off the rack, but usually we created costumes from clothes on hand. One year, my son decided he would be Dick Tracy. Dick Tracy wears a yellow coat and yellow fedora and carries a gun. We found a yellow hat, and I convinced him that his yellow rain slicker could be the coat. A water gun made a good enough gat.

J as Dick Tracy

Son as Dick Tracy. He’ll scare the crooks, won’t he?

That same year, my daughter was an angel. All that costume required was her white nightgown and a silver shoebox cut into a halo shape and stapled to a headband. Voila! Instant holiness, no matter how much of a devil she was in daily life.

M as angel

Daughter as an angel. She could pretend for an evening.

But none of this helps with this year’s conundrum . . .

What are my husband and I going to be this year? The party is this Saturday. All ideas are welcome.

Haunting Books: The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm, by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)

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cuckoo calling coverI’ve mentioned before that I wasn’t fond of the Harry Potter books. But I read all seven of them, if only so I could talk to my nieces and improve my crossword puzzle performance.

Despite my indifference toward the Harry Potter books, when all the hoopla arose around J.K. Rowling hiding her identity to publish an adult crime novel, I decided to read it. I also was about to publish a novel under a pseudonym, and I was curious why a famous author would follow this path also. And her first book under the name Robert Galbraith, The Cuckoo’s Calling, received good reviews.

I’ve now read both books that Rowling has published to date under the Galbraith pseudonym. Both The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm were better than the adult novel that Rowling published under her own name, A Casual Vacancy, though that wasn’t a bad book.

(NOTE: In this review, I’ll call the author Galbraith, unless I’m referring to the Harry Potter books.)

I thought The Cuckoo’s Calling was a wonderful, gritty detective story. Like all the best noir protagonists, Cormoran Strike is a tortured soul with an unfortunate former love interest. What makes him unique is that he is a disabled veteran, still suffering from a war injury in Afghanistan that left him without part of his leg. He was forced to leave behind his successful career in the British military police to become a private investigator. Cormoran is also the illegitimate son of a famous rock star.

In The Cuckoo’s Calling, Galbraith has Cormoran investigating the death of a supermodel, someone who lived in the world of the rich and famous that his father inhabits.

Rowling’s many years of writing the Harry Potter books shows in the fast-paced plot and well-developed characters in The Cuckoo’s Calling. If it takes a million words before a writer knows what he or she is doing, then Rowling has paid her dues, and kudos to her for moving out of the youth fantasy genre into hard-boiled detective fiction. She is good at it.

SPOILER ALERTS—THE REST OF THIS POST DISCUSSES THE PLOT AND THEMES IN BOTH THE CUCKOO’S CALLING AND THE SILKWORM.

One of the things that I liked best about The Cuckoo’s Calling was the relationship between Cormoran Strike and his gal Friday, Robin Ellacott, a young PI wannabe, who is engaged to a guy who wants her to be a Human Resources clerk. The reader can tell instinctively that Cormoran and Robin would be a better match, if only he can get over his ex-longtime-girlfriend, and she could drop the dorky fiancé.

Obviously, Cormoran and Robin get the bad guy. But before they do, readers wend their way through a maze of suspects and clues that equals the best of modern crime writers. The ability to develop intricate plots that sustained Rowling through seven Harry Potter books shows in her Cormoran Strike novels. She doesn’t have the edginess of Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl), but Rowling writes a very competent noir novel in a modern setting. Her plotting and the relationship between Cormoran and Robin take The Cuckoo’s Calling to near the top of my list. I think her mysteries are comparable to the novels of Tana French and P.D. James, both of whom I like very much.

silkworm cover imageI really cared about what happened to Cormoran and Robin, so I again jumped to get The Silkworm, the second novel published under the Robert Galbraith pseudonym. I highly recommend The Silkworm as well as The Cuckoo’s Calling. They can be read in either order, though it is always nice to start with the first book in a series.

In some ways I enjoyed the second book more than the first. It is set in the world of authors and publishers—a world I know a little better than the world of super-models. And the relationship between Cormoran and Robin shifts a little, as both recognize problems with their current and past loves, though they also recognize the perils of a workplace romance.

The Silkworm is far gorier than the first book, as it features a horrific murder method involving disembowelment and acid. I must say that as soon as I realized that missing entrails were a component of the mystery, I developed a strong suspicion about the murderer, which proved to be correct, though I had no idea of the character’s motivation.

The second novel was also grittier than the first. The savagery of the murder and the shadiness and sexual deviance of the many suspects all made The Silkworm darker and more violent than The Cuckoo’s Calling.

My only complaint about the plotting in The Silkworm was that once Cormoran figures out whodunit, the readers have to wait a couple of chapters before he tells them. Cormoran sets up an event to provoke the murderer into action, but the readers don’t know who or what he’s trying to do. All writers manipulate their readers, but this obvious manipulation felt clumsy and annoying to me.

In addition to delivering a really good murder mystery, Galbraith also provides commentary on English social classes, wealth, and gender inequality. The themes of The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm feel real, even if some of the bad guys are over-the-top evil.

I am definitely looking forward to Book Three about Cormoran and Robin. I like these characters far more than Harry Potter and his gang, but then, I read Harry Potter as an adult.

What mystery or thriller series do you eagerly seek out?

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