A Goldfinch This Morning




I borrowed an e-book version of Donna’s Tartt’s The Goldfinch from the library. (Still pretty amazed I figured out how to do that, but a rent crisis made it necessary.) This morning, I arrived at 870/1427. In this passage, the protagonist Theo Decker, who suffered a terrible loss when he was 14, as well as a remarkable, if dodgy, gain, is now 26. He decides to wean himself off his drugs of choice, Oxycontin 80s, et al. These enable him to carry on a successful life, whereas alcohol, his father’s drug, or heroin would not. So he says. (This does not reflect the views of the writer who has trouble with 100 mgs of Sertraline.) The physical withdrawal is bad enough, but after that comes the DEPRESSION.

“This was a plunge encompassing sorrow and revulsion far beyond the personal: a sick, drenching nausea at all humanity and human endeavor from the dawn of time.” (863/1427- on my iPad). Theo goes on to enumerate all the futile actions we indulge in -playing, working, having babies, redecorating, reading restaurant reviews…

Elsewhere I have confessed to a black sense of humour. I embrace Beckett’s advice to a young writer, “despair young and never look back.” except I tend to apply it to life in general. So these few pages cheered me up and made me laugh.

My 80 yr-old-body had hobbled out of bed this morning with full awareness that today more strangers would file through my apartment. Eventually, one of them would buy the triplex. Very likely, they would then evict me. My place is the only unit renovated. The only available apartments are $200-800 more than mine. (We’re having a really big real estate boom in Toronto.) I try to remember that “in my father’s house there are many mansions”, but getting into those seems too radical altogether.

So I’ve been ruminating on divorce, recession, illness, housing bubbles that burst, and those that haven’t yet. But this despondent passage in Donna Tartt’s book was so beautifully written that I didn’t care.

Goldfinches, especially painted ones, do not have voices like nightingales or mockingbirds. They twitter as they swoop, parentheses of bright flashing light.



Getting the Hawk off the Ground: editing a mystery

db exp:hatThis is the 4th in a series of posts about writing my mystery Hour of the Hawk. See links to the others.




At a certain point in the editing process, I began working on a more authentic voice. In Hour of the Hawk, I was using a first person narrator telling the story in the past tense. Past tense lends distance. First person doesn’t. Because my narrator, Joanna Hunter, had a history similar to mine, one of my first revisions had been aimed at eliminating quirks and ways of speaking that were more me than her because, of course, we were different people. I liked the new, sparer, less elliptical, more direct voice. Then I got the bad news. The voice was not authentic, which is to say, uninteresting. “A lot of it was only mediocre,” said Critic A.

So glad I keep my kitchen knives sharpened to a gleaming edge!

My authentic self was fascinating, she added, and so, therefore, was Joanna’s. Where was my effervescent personality, my wicked sense of humour? I needed to let things fly. Characters hooked readers and made them read on. And I needed to love all my characters, even the irresponsible guy who put honey in a tire swing to attract bears, and ended up getting killed by one.

I wrote the beginning again. I sent it off by email. “Not working yet,” replied Critic A. I went back to work. Several weeks later, I knew enough about Tom Braddock to write a book on him alone. He had a Chumash great grandmother and a college football career, as well as three kids, and an articulate, wife who worked at a Bakersfield hospital. Most of all, I liked him. He passed muster.

But Critic A had more to tell me. I needed to create a relationship with my reader. Joanna, for example, knew what it means to age. A person could be spiritual and loving but also skeptical and cynical. That reminded me of one of my favourite sayings: Samuel Beckett’s advice to a young writer, “Despair young and never look back.” I find that hilarious, especially with a glass of Guinness. (My biological grandfather was Irish, I have just discovered.) The notes I jotted down from that long distance conversation also include the words,”dangerously compassionate”. Don’t ask me.

So I went to see Phillipa C. on Dundas W. in Toronto and arranged for her to take a series of portraits. I brought along props. I thought I would be painfully self-conscious. I wasn’t. I have done enough acting to know how to slip into a character. When I saw them a few days later, I learned more about Joanna.

I knew she wore jeans and a cowboy hat. I’d forgotten the leather jacket. I knew she was the survivor of a dangerous family and had cop phobia. (Does knowing about a crime make you guilty?) I knew she had a rock and roll side, a toughness she could trot out driving on dark desert highways. She was capable of salty language and had once been taken to the principal by a senior student. Poor fellow had aggravated her while she was on top of a ladder adjusting a bulb high in a TV studio. Joanna also saw the world through the prism Shakespeare’s plays and the St. James Bible. Her heart had been broken more than once in a been down so long it looks like up to me sort of way. And she caught glimpses of the future from time to time, and could keep track of dead people. I went back and added this point of view in brief reflections throughout the action.

By now Critics C and D had finished reading the book. They were satisfied. Not about to sort through it again for such gems. Critic B plays golf a lot, and Critic A was now deeply into her own writing. I wait on tenterhooks. In December, we will be together in Pine Mountain Club, and we will sit down to sort our book out.

Meanwhile, Critic A/Writer B had a small breakdown on the phone because she couldn’t find her authentic voice. I thought of her horizontally stripped stockings and her three print  outfits. I thought of her exuberant dancing in hiking boots on the golf green. Only children dared enter her orbit. I said try zany. Then discovering that Roget regarded that as an insult, I came up with a list: joyful, full of life, eccentric, empathetic, outside the box, dangerously unpredictable, aggressive, digressive, diverting, out of left field, hippy, unexpected, nuclear powered love and empathy generator which heals on contact.

From what she’s read to me, she’s getting on better now.

Square One Writer’s Block

The Writer by Mendelsohn Joe, 1982

The Writer by Mendelsohn Joe, 1982

Okay, I need a new direction. Writing the blog post on Cockroaches took three days and was absorbing. I had to go back through it on my iPad reminding myself of names and sorting out the red herrings from the real resolution. I neglected to say in my review that the plot was not memorable.

The difficulty arrives from the fact that I’m more or less stuck here in a mountain village in Kern County, California far from Toronto, as a result of a family illness. There are days when I am superfluous to need, but then again, a relapse occurs and I’m fully involved. I don’t even have time to think. Other days like this one, I am at loose ends despite bear incursions.

Because I’m a big reader of mysteries, several people have suggested that I write a mystery. I thought about it.

Okay… I’d need a crime, a locale and a detective. I could set it here in this mountain village. Wait Mar Preston has already done in Payback, although I didn’t recognize the happy, friendly village I know in the misanthropic town she depicted. Besides hers had a town hall, whereas the real place has only one centre of administration, the club house. This village is unincorporated. In other words even its roads are private property and privately maintained. The streets are patrolled by security guards, although the sheriff rides in for serious matters. So I suppose I could write a truer picture of our remote mountain valley.

Then I’d need a crime. Darn. Something bad would have to happen. Something seriously bad. What stops me there is my own personal experience. My father had a way of being on the edge of seriously bad stuff. After his death, three different police forces spent $1,000,000 trying to figure out exactly what. I can only say it was not worth every penny. Even if he did look exactly like the police drawing. (See home page for ebook.)

Most of all, I don’t have a scientific background except for Biology 101 which taught me how to dissect a pig embryo. I suppose I could make it all up from my extensive reading and my watching of CSI, but I am loath to do so. It’s possible that television writers take liberties with fact. And I have no experience of group work in policing.

I could write about group life in a high school prep room. Pretty cut-throat especially before smoking was outlawed.

Actually I could depict two older women, who have no investigative qualifications except curiosity. And mystery reading. One of them, the elder, would be irrepressibly garrulous, a little deaf and charmingly dotty who could worm information out of a stone wall. The other an ex-English teacher, more reticent, but with a mind like a steel trap. I suppose Clara would want a slice of the royalties. Anyway, that sounds too fey and Agatha Christie has already captured the market.

I’m reminded of the conversation between the writer and the doctor at a party. Doctor: When I retire, I’m going to write a novel. Writer: And when I retire, I’m going to take up medicine.

So, no, I think not.

I could find another indecipherable novel like The Luminaries, study it carefully and blog about it. The Luminaries post draws about 150 hits a week, once 164 in one day. Any suggestions?

I have embarked on the project of following The Outlanders by Diana Gabaldon on Starz and reading the books, but those stories are pretty decipherable. They are historical romances, no matter what the author says.

I could start writing a memoir about this illness, but the patient will write her own as and when.

For the time being, I sit here on another sunny warm day on the edge of the pine wood, writing a blog about my inability to get a good idea. I swear I’ve marked a hundred “personal” essays from students just like this.





Jo Nesbo’s Cockroaches

cockroachYesterday I heard a friend describe her first apartment in New York City in the early 80s, shared with two other dancers, set amidst abandoned buildings south of Houston. She slept on the floor of the pantry. She would come home, turn on the lights and actually hear the cockroaches scuttling away.

One of life’s great philosophical questions is – to squash or not to squash. Squashing entails cockroach juice. What’s that trick with boric acid along the baseboards?

When Harry Hole (holeh) arrives in his tiny apartment in Bangkok, he observes a cockroach as big as his thumb with an orange stripe on its back. He notes there are a three thousand different types and that that for every one you see, ten more are in hiding from the vibrations of your feet. For the moment, he regrets his sobriety.

Jo Nesbo published Cockroaches in 1998, his second book after The Bat, set in Sydney, Australia and before Redbreast. It has just been translated and published in English. The comments on Goodreads range from ecstatic to so-so.

My sister, Georgia, collected all the Nesbo books, except Cockroaches and gave them to me one Christmas, suggesting I start with Redbreast. When I got around to reading The Bat, I thought I could have started with it. The real hook is the developing character of Harry Hole and my only problem was that I hate reading about drunks. I was happiest with the books where he pulled himself together at least a little. Which he does in Cockroaches much to the dismay of the government in Oslo.

Hole has been selected to go to Thailand to investigate the death of the Norwegian Ambassador in a Bangkok brothel, partly because of his international success in Australia, but mostly because he is back to drinking. He has forsworn Jim Bean to make do with beer at Schrøders, where he can down nine, and still mess with Wooler, walk home and turn up sober for work next day.

Dagfinn Torhus, Director of Norway’s Foreign Affairs doesn’t even know why it is so urgent to keep all news of Atle Molnes stabbing death under wraps. Bjorn Askilden, Secretary of State, may know, having been briefed by the prime minister’s office. As the Police Superintendent bullies Bjarne Moller, head of the crime squad, into supporting the choice of Hole as lone investigator, we learn only that trust in the P.M. is all important. His centrist government of the Christian Democrats  supports family values, is anti-gay, anti-civil union and prone to wearing yellow suits. Moller has kept Hole out of trouble more than once and seriously doubts the wisdom of choosing him to go to Thailand, but clearly this is a political decision.

Harry has troubles of his own. His mentally challenged Sis has been raped and had an abortion, but the police have dropped the case. He agrees to fly to Bangkok, only if he will be allowed to re-open the case when he returns.

He flies drunk. But with Vitamin B in his bag. He was able to get sober in Sydney by using it and although he doesn’t acknowledge it, he has made a decision for sobriety again.

In Bangkok, he meets the police team he will be working with, headed by a very tall, completely bald half-American, Liz Crumley. The rest of the team are Thai, Nho who is young, Sunthorn, baby-faced and the oldest, Rangsan, always hidden behind a newspaper but spouting key ideas.

The back story of prostitute Dim, who discovered the body, actually opens the book. She plies her trade posing as Tanya Harding -“Skates go on after panties come off.”

Harry soon meets his nemesis Woo – a freakishly large enforcer- and according to custom, Woo throws Harry off a balcony.

The murder weapon is a very old knife embedded with coloured glass but greased with reindeer fat. Obviously the murderer is Norwegian. Is it the unsatisfied wife, Hildes Molnes, or even possibly the ambassador’s seventeen year old, one-armed daughter. Is it the victim’s Chargé d’affaires, Tonje Wiig? Is it his receptionist Miss Ao? Is it his seemingly loyal chauffeur, Sonphet? Is it the loan shark who holds the ambassador’s $100,000 gambling debt? Is it Roald Bork, spiritual shepherd of the  Norwegian community? Is it Ova Klipra, the wealthy contractor who lives in a former Buddhist Temple and who can’t be found. He finds you. Is it the ex-intelligence officer Ivar Loken, known as LM (living, morphine)? Is it Jens Breeke, currency broker for Barclays Thailand? And what does all this have to do with photos of a man having sex with a child, taken through a window?

We learn a good deal about the sex industry in Bangkok, including Dim’s enrty into it. Brekke treats Harry to a rundown on katoy, trans-sexual prostitutes -a head too tall, a touch too provocative, too aggressively flirtatious and too good looking – including the drawback of surgically constructed vaginas.

We learn a good deal about currency trading and how to make a bundle.

We are treated to a bloody, no-holds-barred boxing match as well as a cockfight and yes, only one cock survives. (You have to admire the lengths Nesbo goes to in his research.)

Most of all, we learn about paedophiles. Disgusted by the photographs, Harry calls home. He calls home much too often for Torhus and Moller’s liking for they are alarmed at his zeal in solving the crime. This time, Harry talks to Dr. Aune, his therapist. There are two kinds of paedophiles, he is told: preference conditioned and situation conditioned. Both may have been abused as children, but the former starts in his teens, adapting to the child’s age, although sometimes playing the role of kindly father. (My own father fitted this category.) The situation conditioned paedophile is primarily interested in adults and chooses the child as a substitute for an adult he is in conflict with.

So, huuuum, what do the cockroaches symbolize? Are they good after all, as Runa asks? And do you ignore them as Oslo wants, arrest them or squash them?

(I bought Cockroaches on iTunes $15 !!! and read it on my iPad.)



Never Let Me Go

never let me goWhen I finished reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go, I sat still on the sofa and thought about it. I felt unbelievably moved. What is it really about? Is it about our inhumanity to each other? Certainly, there is that.

Set in an alternative 1990s Britain, Never Let Me Go depicts Hailsham, a boarding school where children are encouraged to be creative and are given frequent medical examinations. They don’t go home for holidays. Hailsham is their home. Are they orphans? Gradually, as they grow older we learn as they do that they have been cloned to become donors, organ donors.

The novel was short-listed for the Booker prize in 2005, but I steadfastly refused to read it  because I was too squeamish. Being stuck on a mountain made me less choosey and, having more or less enjoyed Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans, I downloaded Never Let Me Go on my iPad mini. Whereas the stilted voice of the detective in When We Were Orphans irritated me, the humane voice of Kathy in Never Let Me Go drew me in immediately. Very soon I loved the three main characters, Kathy, Ruth and Tommy.

They are being raised outside of normal society so when they are released into it to live out their abbreviated lives, they can only guess at how it actually works. For much of the time, they are equally in the dark about the donation process. Mercifully, so is the reader, although we do eventually see Ruth and Tommy in recovery between donations. Kathy is their carer supporting them through the process. Four donations seem to be the limit, during or after which, donors complete. Kathy is about to finish her years as a carer and start being a donor. Is it possible that there really is a way to get a deferral if donors can prove they are in love?

The book had a cathartic effect on me. Like a Greek tragedy, it incited “pity and terror”. No doubt this had to do with the fact that I had spent much of the last few days sitting by a loved one with a serious illness – a very heart opening if fearful experience. A never-let-me-go experience.

At the same time, Peter L. Bernstein’s book about risk Against the Gods came to my attention. Bernstein contends that people are not so much risk averse as they are loss averse. He quotes Amos Tversky who says that “the human pleasure machine is much more sensitive to negative than to positive stimuli”. We can imagine a few things that would make us feel better, but “the number of things that would make you feel worse is unbounded.” And some losses we know we could never recover from.

Reviewing Never Let Me Go in the Guardian, M. John Harrison said that the novel “isn’t about cloning or being a clone”. I think he is right. The donors endure, fulfilling their role as it has been laid down for them. The novel is about life as we all experience it. Harrison ends his review: “It’s about why we don’t explode, why we don’t just wake up one day and go sobbing and crying down the street, kicking everything to pieces out of the raw, infuriating, completely personal sense of our lives never having been what they could have been.”






Summer Reading: for remote places

summer readin 1When the cable and satellite fail, what to read?

No it’s not hurricane season or even ice storm season and my bills are being paid on time. To get into this situation, I had to find myself a fairly remote mountain village with no AT&T service and a hotel room with no internet and an analogue television set without even bunny ears. If that sounds like heaven to you, leave a message and I’ll tell you where to find it. But you may have the same problem at a summer cottage.

My packing was sudden and fast, most of it done by others. I did manage to grab 4 books from the unread pile in my den. When they ran out, I found myself momentarily in Los Angeles where I bought 3 more from the mystery section at Barnes and Noble. Then I discovered the Kern County Library in Frazier Park just down the mountain, which has lots of hard cover Elizabeth George and P.D. James mysteries. A friend sent me 2 books from iTunes and this led me to go down to Santa Clarita to buy a mini iPad.

Here’s what desperation has led me to read.

Two books by Gillian Flynn who wrote the best seller Gone Girl and which I will eventually buy for the iPad. I read Sharp Objects first. Camille Preaker, girl reporter, is sent by her boss at a minor Chicago paper to investigate the murders of two preteen girls in her home town, Wind Gap, Missouri. The boss thinks this is just the ticket to get her back on her feet after a stay in a psych hospital. Camille is not so sure since budget limits mean she has to stay with her mother whose first question is ‘When are you leaving?’ Flynn’s female protagonists tend to be strange. Camille is not encouraged to have sharp objects in her possession. Momma locks the knives up at night. Camille is given to long sleeved tops and pants. If that seems strange, the condition of the young girl’s bodies is odder still.

In Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places, the protagonist is Libby Day, 4ft 8in., one of two survivors of her family’s massacre. The other one, her older brother has been in prison for years for the murders of his mother and two sisters. Libby is non-functional, but she has survived for years on the outpouring of sympathy and cash from the public. Now she’s older, other younger pathetic victims are getting the cash and Libby is reduced to having to earn something. She does so by answering a request from a murder club that wants to have the brother exonerated. Since 7 yr-old Libby was the chief witness against him, it is a hard if necessary job to accept. It is doubtful that you will be able to guess who is to blame or why the brother is content to be in jail. But maybe you’re more observant than me.

Nicci French’s (Nicci Gerrrard and Sean French) novel Blue Monday is A Frieda Klein mystery, Frieda being a psychologist working in London. She finds herself treating a man who longs for a red-headed son, he himself being of that colouring. Then a child like that is kidnapped. Should she report this to the police? The kidnapping has striking similarities to the kidnapping of a 5 yr-old girl 20 years ago. But why would the kidnapper wait so long to strike again. And is the patient living two lives, unable in either to remember the other. Frieda teams up with DCI Karlsson in an attempt to rescue both victims.

The last of the 4 books, I brought from home was a Christmas gift, Denise Mina’s Field of Blood. Hinging on the murder of a 3 yr-old by a couple of 11 yr-olds, this was not a book I would have chosen to read, but it was all I had. Paddy Meehan really is a girl reporter, barely 18, from an Irish Catholic family settled in Glasgow. There’s enough ethnic strife to make an interesting book all by itself. Really Paddy, who bears the name of a notorious traitor, is a copy ‘boy” in the early 1980’s, not an easy role in a newsroom full of leering, hardened, alcoholic, male journalists. She sets out to the prove that the children are not solely responsible, and this leads her into the investigation of a much older child murder as well. Young as she is, Paddy has her own idea  of how she wants to live. Her family is strict Catholic, but Paddy can’t see the point. After being shunned by her family, she skips one Sunday. The next Sunday, she gives in to her mother’s pleas: the adult children go to please mother, mother goes to please father and father goes as a role model for his children.

In Los Angeles two weeks after I arrived, I bought Donna Leon’s Willful Behavior, Lee Child’s Tripwire and Elizabeth George’s In Pursuit of the Proper Sinner.

Donna Leon is an American writer living in Venice and writing short mystery novels set there primarily and featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti, a man who is very fond of his professor wife’s cooking three times a day and possibly a glass of something after his mid-morning espresso. In Willful Behavior, his wife who teaches 19th century English literature, especially Henry James, to a roomful of uncomprehending louts, asks him to help a student clear her deceased grandfather’s name. Next thing, the poor girl is dead and Brunetti is caught up in historical crimes: trafficking in Jewish-owned art during the war. A friend of mine had a great idea, write a cook book featuring recipes for the meals Brunetti eats. Too late. Someone already did. http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/7233570-brunetti-s-cookbook

I thought I had read all the Lee Child books, featuring tough guy Jack Reacher, but I was wrong. Tripwire is the second Reacher thriller. The retired army major has earned commendations and medals in the Military Police, but he spends his retirement travelling by bus or hitch-hiking across the U.S., sleeping in cheap motels, his only possession the clothes on his back and a folding toothbrush. Trouble finds him easily. This time he is digging swimming pools in the Florida keys when a private investigator comes to find him and ends up murdered. Reacher travels to NYC to find out why. There Hook Hobie, a disfigured vet with a hook for a hand, waits warily for his tripwires, one in Hawaii and one in Vietnam to warn him to shut down his scam and leave town. But there’s this one last score….. This adventure takes Reacher back to a woman that he first fell in love with 15 years when she was 15. Now he can finally admit that to her. Or can he?

Elizabeth’s George’s In Search of a Proper Sinner was well underway when I left it in my grandson’s home. I frantically texted -using a borrowed Verizon phone. The reply was, “Is there anything unusual you want me to do with it?” It arrived back up the mountain a few days ago, but since I haven’t finished it, I will write about it and George’s novel Deception on His Mind in a 2nd summer reading post. Coming soon. I will also describe another early Lee Child novel, Running Blind.

Here we are my reading companion and I in yesteryear. (Not.)  Just when I think the Lee Child books is too hardcore, I discover she can’t put it down. That was no lady. That was a reader.

summer reading 2

What I Learned At Easter Brunch: the times they are a-changing

IBM SelectricAt Easter brunch, I learned that a 15 lb, 3-month-old baby is too heavy for these ancient arms. I learned that a grade 3-er doesn’t read cursive writing, except her name, which she can proudly sign. I learned that a 30 year-old is baffled by the expression “ham it up” and others, which astonished elders then trotted out to further bafflement. I learned that this same young man can solve a computer problem that I have struggled over for at least an hour in a split second. I relearned that even the grade 3-er spends half her time face down to her device – a tablet, as did those 20 and 30 with their smart phones.

I already knew that my 19-year-old grandson, who was having Easter brunch across the continent, had a problem telling time on a non-digital clock and my 28-year-old grandson prefers to print rather than write. Although he must have also more or less mastered his signature – to be a doctor. That can be blamed on the “hippie” school he went to in Los Angeles. I have heard about an 18-year-old who went to apply for his passport and couldn’t sign his name. There is an ad posted in my doctor’s office for private lessons in cursive writing. My sister, Georgia says that curriculum is so demanding these days that teachers can’t give much time to practice, although cursive is still taught in the school she knows best.

In the spirit of cultural exchange, I recalled to a 20-something, my progress from straight pen and ink well to fountain pen. She knew about fountain pens, but had never much considered there was a time before the ball point pen or biro as the Brits say. She had never heard about the dastardly male-child practice of dipping the braids of the girl in the desk in front into his inkwell. She obviously had never been chosen for the momentous task of filling the ink wells. She had missed the joys of ink splatters and blotting paper. I inevitably got marked down for messy writing. We were allowed fountain pens eventually and I got one when I graduated from grade 8. And lost it in early grade 9.

The computer whizz recalled that first they had to write their essays in cursive and then they were forbidden to. In fact, even I experienced the shift to typed-only essays in my night school courses, a major pain since I had deliberately not taken typing so that my father couldn’t make me quit school to work in an office. In addition, school secretaries no longer typed material for teachers – cost cutting started in the 70s. The typewriter with corrective ribbon -an IBM Selectric- came along to save me. I could barely lift it.  I learned to type one-handed, 3-fingered, quite fast, as I am doing now – while looking at the keys. My first Apple desk top computer in 1992 was a dream come true, of course no corrective ribbon, but “delete” and “undo” and “copy” and “paste”.

The conversation at brunch moved to the study of key board/ typing skills. Mostly, it doesn’t seem to be happening. It is assumed that one way or another kids have those skills once they get to high school. So much for QWERTY. The little finger may become vestigial.

The 50-year-olds watched cartoons from the thirties as children and learned old-fashioned expressions then or from Andy Rooney pictures. The 30-year-olds are more apt to have learned expressions from Rooney Mara, whose tattooed girl had computer chops they can admire.

My own colloquial history, alas, goes back to the 19th century. My grandparents were born at the end of it, and dragged their parents’ language from mid-century in to my early life in the late 30s. One internet citing traces “ham it up” to a mid 19th century touring theatre group in the U.S. led by a man named Ham, and given, I suppose, to exaggerated gestures and bombast. (The 19th century means 1800 to 1899, by the way.)

Sorry if that note is offensive, but yesterday I told someone that one of my grandsons is in California, the other in Massachusetts and she asked if they were far apart.

Earlier I remarked to a friend about the beautiful robin song we could hear and she said, “Is that a robin? I don’t know bird calls.”

What is the world …… etc?

It’s Earth Day. It wasn’t called that in 1949. It was called Arbour Day and we were herded outside with rakes and other implements of mutual destruction to clean up the school yard and we were jolly well expected to know the birds we heard there and the trees we raked under and the bushes and even the bloody weeds.

Okay. Times change. Catch up girl.

I dislike the way the French police their language. The number of French words in use – so quick research tells me is about 43,000. Samuel Johnson’s 2 volume English dictionary of 1755 had about the same number -of English words. Today’s Complete Oxford Dictionary, 20 volumes, has over 200,000 and some estimates put the number of English words even higher. The amazing thing about our language – you are reading this in it after all, so it’s ours- is its adaptability. We accommodate change and even embrace it. (I do still bristle at “grow our business”, having the old idea that you can grow carrots but not businesses.)

True, for over 30 years, I was in the business of holding the line on grammatical structure. I had that mandate, but I didn’t like it much. I saw that sentence fragments could be the best way for students to express an idea, for example. I red-penned errors that made a sentence incomprehensible, but I may have let down standards otherwise.

Talking to Georgia, I said wealth distribution is changing so that a small percentage of people -1%?- have most of it and I think there is a similar disparity between the percentage of people who read and those who don’t, between the intellectual and the non-idea people. Of course they are not at all the same group. In fact, apart from Conrad Black, the 1% and the readers seem exclusive of each other. (I know, really, me bad, as the kids now say. Dumbed down from my bad. Even dumbness can be dumbed down.)

I failed to transmit my knowledge and love of the King James Bible and the Anglican liturgy to my children. I made a stab at it by giving my bar mitsva-ed grandson the King James Bible and he used it as a literary resource. The younger one eats up marketing books. He believes strongly in the necessity of being cultured, but his definition differs from mine. He seems to mean “becoming fully human”.

Looking at my past, I see that apparently, I don’t want to set our culture in stone but I am uneasy with the rapid change I observe. I suspect that my uneasiness comes from the fact that I am cut off from what is replacing it, out of touch, a relic of a bygone age. Except at Easter brunch.


Deconstructing The Luminaries: #2 the gold trail

panning for gold

Once again this post is for people who have already read Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries.

See also https://115journals.com/2014/04/05/deconstructing-the-luminaries-a-timeline/

Those who have not yet read the novel, see https://115journals.com/2014/03/27/the-luminaries-eleanor-cattons-booker-prize-winning-novel/

In this post, I will examine what happened to the fortune in gold (£4000 or about $300,000 in today’s money).

pre 1865 – Crosbie Wells discovers gold while prospecting in the highland gold field of Dunstan and stashes it, without smelting it or going through the mandatory registration with a bank; he stashes it in his wife Lydia’s safe in Dunedin

Lydia and Francis Carver steal the gold dust/nuggets and Crosbie’s papers; Lydia sews the gold into the seams of 5 dresses; having established the practise of shipping of trunks of dresses to Melbourne to be fashionably altered in Lauderback’s name, they pack the 5 dresses with the gold in them in a trunk (since Lauderback was having an affair with Lydia, this seems reasonable)

May 12, 1865 – in Dunedin, Francis Carver, using the name Wells, hires Emory Staines to watch the trunk one afternoon (labelled with Lauderback’s name, it is due to be shipped on the Godspeed; at night Crosbie Wells flees for his life and is told about the trunk Carver is shipping in Lauderback’s name and diverts it from the Godspeed to the Titania; seriously wounded by Wells, Carver misses the departure of the Godspeed and does not know the trunk has gone missing;

June 14, 1865 – Carver takes over the Godspeed when it returns to port and sails it to Hokitika

June 18, 1865 – Hokitika – Staines tells Crosbie Wells about guarding a trunk for a man who used the name Wells; using Crosbie Wells’ birth certificate as identification, Carver places an ad in the paper to try to find the trunk;

July 28, 1865 – Hokitika – Anna buys a trunk full of dresses sold by the salvagers of the wreck of the Titania and begins to wear all but the orange one, while plying her new trade as prostitute;

pre Sept – Clinch, Anna’s landlord discovers the gold sewn into the dresses and assumes Anna knows about it; Anna thinks the weight is caused by lead inserts that are meant to hold the skirt down; when Clinch checks the dresses, he mistakes the lead Ah Quee has used to replace the gold for the gold itself and goes on assuming Anna knows about it;

Sept 20, 1865 – Ah Quee who has discovered the gold sewn into Anna’s dresses, removes the last of it while she lies in a drugged stupor; he smelts all the gold and stamps it with the name of the mine he is indentured at, ‘Aurora’; he hands it over  to the mine’s owner Staines: Staines ‘steals’ it, thus not registering the find or paying half of it to his partner Carver or Ah Quee, his stipend; Staines buries the fortune on Maori land;

Oct 11, 1865 – Anna tells Crosbie’s story to Staines; during an altercation with Carver, Anna suffers a blow that leads to the loss of her unborn child; she blames Carver and says it was his child; outraged and knowing the child was Wells’, Staines  asks Crosbie to draw up a deed of gift giving Anna half the buried fortune but passes out from drink before he signs it;

Having learned from Staines about his buried fortune and realizing it is actually his, Wells finds it buried on Maori land and takes it home where he hides it in his kitchen (the gold is now restored to its rightful owner but it is stamped Aurora so cannot be spent;

Jan 14, 1866 – wearing her orange dress Anna visits Staines and later takes opium, passes out on the road and is arrested for attempted suicide; Crosbie Wells dies from an overdose caused when Carver put opium in his drink; Carver finds the gold stash and attempts to burn the unsigned deed of gift; he then sends word to Lydia to come to claim it as Wells’ widow;

Jan 15, 1866 – Anna finds the gold in the orange dress and she and Gascoigne get her bailed out; they remove the gold and hide it under Gascoigne’s bed; Clinch buys Crosbie’s estate; Nillsen discovers the gold in Crosbie’s house; £400 is paid to Nillsen as finder and £30 to Frost, the banker who splurges it all away;

alerted by Balfour’s questions, Frost remember that Crosbie’s hoard was originally stamped Aurora – since resmelted – and tells Mannering that Crosbie had stolen it

Jan 17, 1866 – Clinch pressures Anna to pay him her rent, (he still thinks she has access to the gold in her dresses, but she can’t even get access to the gold under Gascoigne’s bed); as a result Anna falls back into Lydia’s grasp for Lydia has arrived to claim her husband’s fortune;

Feb 18, 1866 – Shepard, the gaol governor has blackmailed Nillsen into loaning him the £400 to get started on building the gaol before Lauderback can be elected and build roads instead; now this has  come out and Shepard publishes the idea that it was a gift from Nillsen;

Mar 20, 1866 – Anna forges Staines signature on the gift of deed that Devlin, the clegryman, has shown her; (he found the unburned document in Crosbie’s stove);

April 27, 1866 – Moody, defense lawyer, proves that Anna is illiterate and could not have forged Staines’ signature; the gold is awarded to Staines, but he ends up paying out half of it to Lydia, now Carver’s widow, as well as legal fees, money to buy Anna out of Mannering’s control, a bonus to Ah Quee and Frost’s £30, but Staines, ever the optimist doesn’t care. He gets nine months hard labour and Anna at the end of it.

Once again please leave a comment so I can correct errors or add omissions.







Deconstructing The Luminaries: a timeline

As the title implies, this post is intended for those who have read Eleanor Catton’s novel The Luminaries as it contains significant spoilers.

If you haven’t read the novel, try this reviewhttps://115journals.com/2014/03/27/the-luminaries-eleanor-cattons-booker-prize-winning-novel/

Feb 1839 – the Sook warehouse in Kwangchow, China is raided, opium is found hidden in tea cartons and the elder Sook is executed; Sook Yongchen turns to Carver for help;

pre 1865 – After winning at the wheel in Lydia’s gambling establishment, Crosbie Wells accepts her hand in marriage instead of the payout money – which Lydia doesn’t have and never thought she would need since the wheel is crooked. Crosbie discovers a fortune in gold in the  highland gold field of Dunstan – £ 4000 (about $300,000 in today’s money)

1853 – Ah Sook arrives at Port Phillip, Australia, is robbed of all his money, tries to contact Carver, is beaten by Jeremy Shepard, takes refuge, is found by a buck-toothed woman -Margaret Shepard, given opium, begins to recover, goes to kill Carver, instead comes upon Jeremy Shepard, Margaret manages to save Sook by killing her husband; Sook is tried but found not guilty when Margaret testifies Jeremy killed himself; Carver is arrested for smuggling and sent to Cuckatoo Island for 10 years, hard labour;

July 1864 – Sook learns the released convict, Carver, has sailed to Victoria, Australia to look for gold

Jan. 18, 1865 – Carver meets Pritchard in Hokitika, NZ and offers to sell him opium, which he smuggles in, in tea cans;

April 27, 1865 – Anna Wetherell and Emery Staines meet briefly on their ship and arrive separately in Dunedin. Lydia Wells takes Anna under her wing. Lydia ascertains that the two, Anna and Staines- share the same birthday

Carver, posing as Frances Wells, starts a long con on Lauderback, threatening Lauderback that someone thinks he- Lauderback- was an associate of a man called Carver who committed a murder and this someone is out to take revenge on Lauderback. As a result, Carver/Francis Wells gets a position on the crew of Lauderback’s Godspeed. Carver and Lydia start shipping dresses to Melbourne, Australia in Lauderback’s name, ostensibly to be fashionably altered. Since Lauderback has been having an affair with Lydia Wells, this is a reasonable ruse.

May 11, 1865 – Crosbie discovers that the fortune he left in the safe at his wife Lydia’s is gone along with his papers and knows she has stolen them;
-May 12, 1865 – Lydia burns the morning paper so that Crosbie will not learn of the arrival of the steamer Active in port along with someone Crosbie has been waiting 12 years to see. This seems to be Lauderback who has previously always come when Crosbie was away. (Lauderback has come to figure out who is shipping in his name);
-a bottle of laudanum arrives and finds its way surreptitiously into Crosbie’s booze at Lydia’s hands;
-Carver, posing as Francis Wells, tells Lauderback he has cuckolded his ‘brother’ Crosbie Wells and forces him to sign over the Godspeed to him;
-Lydia prepares for a party for ‘gentleman with naval connections’ in her home/gambling house ;
-Staines spends the afternoon watching over a trunk labelled with Lauderback’s name, due to sail on the Godspeed, ostensibly for a man named Wells, but actually Carver;
-A Chinese man is looking for an ex-con who did time on Cuckatoo Island, i e, Carver:

-in the evening Crosbie Wells escapes Carver’s attack cutting Carver’s face in a c-shape from eye to mouth, while Anna’ sleeps’ nearby in Crosbie’s bed (the origin of her addiction?);
-Crosbie flees to the docks, discovers Carver’s efforts to ship a trunk to Hokitika in Lauderback’s name, diverts it and takes passage to Hokitika;
-the Godspeed leaves without the wounded Carver, still under Phillip’s command because Carver has not yet claimed ownership.
June 14, 1865 – the Godspeed returns to port in Dunedin and newly scarred Carver takes over as owner/captain and sails to Hokitika

June 18, 1865 – Staines meets Crosbie Wells in Hokitika, tells him about watching the trunk for Carver and the fact Carver is his partner, having stood him £ 8 for supplies; Staines cashes Crosbie’s nugget at the bank for him and is rewarded;
Carver begins his search for Crosbie Wells and for the missing trunk in Hokitika by placing an ad in the name of F. Crosbie Wells;
Anna and Staines are surprised and delighted to meet. (See cosmic twins theory in comments.)

July 28, 1865 – George Shepard (governor of the gaol, the late Jeremy’s brother and now Margaret’s husband) sees Sook Yongsheng; Anna, pregnant with Crosbie’s child and exiled by Lydia, arrives on the Godspeed and is taken under the wing of Clinch, who runs the Gridiron Hotel; she doesn’t know Crosbie is living an hour outside town; she is actually working for Mannering; a trunk full of silk dresses is salvaged from the wreck of the Titania and Anna buys them from the salvagers.
-Staines buys the Gridiron Hotel from Mannering
-Staines tells Anna Crosbie is in Hokitika

Anna begins plying her new trade as a prostitute and taking opium at Sook’s place in Chinatown in Kanniere

Sept 20, 1865 – Ah Quee having discovered the stash of gold in Anna’s dresses while she slept off her opium, removes the last it, except for that in the orange dress, which she never wears while working; (previously -Ah Quee smelts all this gold, stamps it with the name Aurora, Staines’ claim, which was initially salted by Mannering and is actually worthless; Ah Quee expects his boss to bank it and pay him his paltry share: Staines takes it instead and buries it on Maori land)

Oct 11, 1865 – Anna tells Crosbie’s story to Staines; Anna loses her unborn child having suffered a blow, ostensibly from Carver who did hit her, but the serious injury was caused by his horse rearing; she gives the impression Carver was the child’s father and accuses him of killing her child;  Crosbie, at Staines’ instruction, draws up a gift of deed assigning half the fortune in gold to Anna and signs it, but Staines does not, having fallen asleep;
Crosbie (p.673)- digs up the gold bars and stashes them in his home;

Jan 12, 1866 – Lauderback’s shipping container, containing his books, letters and the deed of ‘sale’ of the sailing ship Godspeed to Carver arrives on the Virtue but is misdirected and does not arrive at Balfour’s office;

Tauwhare betrays Crosbie Wells to Carver, telling him where Crosbie lives

Jan 14, 1866 – Wearing her orange dress, Anna goes to Staines’ home for the night; while he is sleeping, she goes back to her room at the Gridiron Hotel to take opium, intending to return to Staines;
-while she is gone Staines wakes up, goes out, falls and hits his head;
-extremely high, Anna falls, hits her head and ends up collapsed on Christchurch Rd: -Carver uncorks a phial of opium (again see cosmic twin theory in comments); Crosbie drinks half a phial of opium on top of a good deal of alcohol;
-after finding the stash of gold bars in Crosbie’s cabin, Carver puts a piece of paper in Crosbie’s stove; next he needs to alert the widow, Lydia to claim it;
-Lauderback arrives from his trek over the alps to find his half-brother, Crosbie dead; -Lauderback finds Anna lying on the road; unconscious Anna is put in jail;
-Staines, also suffering concussion, falls on Gibson Quay and is nailed into a shipping crate;
-eventually Tauwhare reports having seen Lauderback and his 2 men arrive at Crosbie’s cabin on this day, after another man has also visited;

Jan 15/16, 1866 – Annie gets bail, leaves jail and she and Gascoigne remove the gold from the orange dress and hide it under his bed; Crosbie is buried by Devlin; Nillsen discovers the fortune in gold bars  after being hired to clear the dead man’s cabin and gets paid £400;
-Balfour tells Lauderback his container has not yet arrived instead of telling him it is lost; -Lauderback discovers that he ‘sold’ Godspeed to Francis Carver, not Crosbie Wells; previously he had thought that Carver (Francis Wells) was Crosbie’s half brother, extorting Godspeed as retribution for Lauderback’s cuckolding Crosbie; Lauderback knows now that he has been conned by Lydia, Wells’ widow, and Carver.

Jan 17 – Lydia arrives and makes a claim on the fortune at the bank; Frost tells Mannering the fortune was stolen; Mannering and Frost visit Ah Quee to force the truth from him; Balfour visits Lowenthal on the Sabbath;
Clinch buys Crosbie’s property and gives Frost £30 finder’s fee; Lydia arrives in Hokitika and lays claim to the fortune;

Jan 17, 1866 – Pritchard confronts Anna about the opium she took on Jan 14th. her gun goes off and Staines, now an opium addict, hiding behind the drapes is shot (or locked in a crate on board ship, he suffers a bullet wound thus preventing injury to Anna -cosmic twin theory); Gascoigne agrees to bring Anna to meet Lydia, but becomes angry when Anna asks him for help to pay her rent from the gold found in her orange dress and in G’s keeping, so does not; Lydia goes and gets Anna and takes her under her wing again; Staines gets away unseen but gravely wounded;

Jan 27, 1866 – Walter Moody sees a bloody apparition start up at him from a container, saying Magdalena; Moody arrives in Hokitika, but the ship he was on has to remain anchored beyond the reef because of bad weather; Moody meets the 12 worthies in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel and listens to their stories, which are bits and pieces, scrambled and misunderstood of the above events:
-the Godspeed is wrecked;

Feb 18, 1866 – Gascoinge advises Carver how to claim insurance for the wrecked Godspeed;  Lydia holds a seance to summon Staines’s ghost and instead “speaks” in Cantonese Sook’s words vowing revenge on Carver for causing his father’s execution; Ah Sook learns Carver is in Hokitika and forms a plan to kill him; Shepard writes a letter to the newspaper admitting he has used private money to build the new jail and lies that it was a gift from Nillsen; Lauderbank’s trunk is delivered to Moody by mistake and Moody learns Crosbie was Lauderback’s half-brother;

Mar 20, 1866 – Devlin talks to Anna while Lydia is out and shows her the unsigned deed of gift, assigning Anna half the fortune; Anna forges Staines signature despite the fact she is illiterate; Ah Sook buys a gun and has it loaded; Shepard puts out a warrant for Ah Sook’s arrest; Ah Quee is mistaken for Ah Sook and attacked in town: Mannering rescues him; Sook seeks refuge with Margaret Shepard who eventually betrays him; Shepard shoots Sook: Staines turns up and is treated for his wounds and is imprisoned beside Anna who is also back there;

April 27, 1866 – Anna’s trial for attempted suicide, public intoxication and grievous assault on Staines begins -Walter Moody for the defense; during Lauderback’s testimony, Carver is arrested for fraud against Lauderback when Crosbie’s signature on the Godspeed’s bill of sale is proven to be forged; Carver is murdered by Tauwhare while being transported to jail; Staines’ testimony that he was hiding in Anna’s room, high on her opium when he was accidentally shot, clears Anna of the most serious charge; Anna is acquitted of all charges;

Staines, charged with falsification of a report, embezzlement of ore and dereliction of duty, pleads guilty to all charges, is found guilty and sentenced to nine months hard labour.

The luminaries look forward to a loving life together in nine months.

If you find errors or can add detail, please leave a comment. I intend to keep revising as needed.


The Luminaries: Eleanor Catton’s Booker Prize winning novel

luminariesThe good thing about Eleanor Catton’s Booker winning novel, The Luminaries is that when I got to the end, I started all over again. The bad thing about it is that when I got to the end, I had to start all over again. Good because it is interesting and multi-layered enough to read again. Bad because I still didn’t get it.

The book’s 832 pages took me 13 days to finish. (Usually a book takes me three days.) I gave up television and cold weather kept me inside, so reading it was pretty much all I did.

Should you read it? It depends.

Reviewers are widely divided. Bill Roorbach in the New Yourk Times (Oct.16/13) waxed lyrical in its praise. nytimes.com Another reviewer refused to review it because he couldn’t get past the first few pages and then, after it won the Booker, did read it and decided life was too short for such books. He notes that Catton has suggested her book does not appeal to men over 45. In his blog, Claude Nougat examined the pros and cons in “Should You Read The Luminaries?” and decided to wait for the price to fall. http://claudenougat.blogspot.ca There are 72 pages of reviews on Amazon, ranging from 1 star to 5. The bad reviews remind me that Rome plowed Carthage with salt so that the city could never recover.

Almost every review mentioned its slow start and the fact it was written in Victorian English, formal and stilted. I nearly wore out the page at the front where the characters are listed. Until I had more or less memorized who was who, the twelve men at the meeting in a back room of a shabby hotel, I couldn’t keep them straight. Even after I had been provided with detailed physical and psychological descriptions, I couldn’t tell them apart easily once they got talking. One reviewer said “Don’t tell. Show.” Something I harped on as a writing teacher, but Catton feels the novel form is ripe for reinvention.

True, I wasn’t immediately hooked, but two readers I respect had thought of giving it to me, so I persisted and soon I was drawn in to it.

First there was the exotic setting – Hokitika on the west coast of southern New Zealand during the gold rush of 1865-66, beginning on January 27th. Yes, that would be summer down under, but it is a dark and stormy night, as almost all reviews point out, so stormy in fact that ships are in more danger than usual at that perennially dangerous port.

Second, there are the three mysteries, which newly arrived Scotsman  Moody stumbles upon when he gate-crashes the private meeting of 12 worthies of the town who have gathered to try to resolve: why did a drunk, Crosbie Wells die with a fortune in gold bars hidden in his shack, why did Anna Wetherell – alias the Whore- try to kill herself with opium and what has happened to the wealthy, likeable and beautiful young man, Emery Staines, who has disappeared without a trace. Oh and what of the gift of deed to Anna of half the fortune, found unburned in the ash tray of Crosbie’s stove.

Other puzzles soon emerge: how has the villian Francis Carver harmed Ah Sook, Crosbie Wells, and Anna, how many illegitimate half brothers does the politician Alistair Lauderback have, who is Mrs Wells actually married to, where is Lauderback’s missing shipping crate, who shipped the trunk with five silk dresses, why is the warden, Shepherd intent on killing Ah Sook and vice versa. Etc. etc.

The ownership of the fortune in gold is particularly tricky. You may need a flow chart. Let’s just say a heap of irony is involved.

And third, why is there a zodiac chart indicating the sign of each of the 12 worthies as well as the position of the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Venus, and Mercury? And who are the luminaries?

One reader I know is studying the astrology first. I’m leaving that until later, but I am grateful she e-mailed me an astrological chart. (Balfour is Sagitarrius, Gascoinge, Capricorn and so on until you get to Pritchard who is Scorpio.)

Other reviewers have verified my conclusion that some mysteries are never entirely cleared up, although I was left with a pretty good guess at the truth.

The book gets better and better as it goes. Part One, “A Sphere Within a Sphere”, set on Jan 27th is 360 pages long and includes a retelling from 12 points of view of the events of Jan 14th; Part 2, “Augeries”, Mar 20, 1866, 159; Part 4, “Paenga-Wha-wha”, April 27, 1865/April 27,1866 , 95 pages long; Part 5, “Weight and Luchre”, May 12, 1865, 40 pages long; part 6, “The Widow and the Weeds”, June 18, 1865, 21 pages;  Part 7, “Domicile”, July 28, 1865, 11 pages; part 8, “Mutable Earth”, Sept. 20, 1865, 4 pages; part 9, “matters of Succession”, Oct 11, 1865 2 1/2; part 11, “Orion Sets When Scorpio Rises”, Dec 3, 1865, 2 pages, part 12,”The Old Moon in the New Moon’s Arms”, Jan 14, 1866, 1 1/2 pages and we finally learn who the luminaries are. In short, the novel moves from slow-paced, DIckensian to brevity, to the episodic and lyrical. It was the speed and loveliness of the end that made me like the luminaries so much that I wanted to stay with them for a second read.

What I propose to do another time is to post a chronological time line. You may not want to read that until you finish the book and maybe, way down the road, I will have a guest talk about the astrology. https://115journals.com/2014/04/05/deconstructing-the-luminaries-a-timeline/

eleanor cattonThe auhor, Eleanor Catton