Monday, February 19, 2018

Honoring Our First Ladies

DEBORAH CROMBIE: On President's Day, we thought the women behind the men deserved recognition, too. We have, after all, had some remarkable First Ladies, and I suspect our American story would have been quite different without their influence. It's hard to pick favorites but I will give you two (because I'm going first, and because I couldn't choose between them.)

First, Lady Bird Johnson. Born Claudia Alta Taylor in Karnack, Texas, in 1912. A family nurse called her "pretty as a lady bird" and the nickname stuck. She is best known in Texas for the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center  and for her championing of the use of native plants in landscaping, but she was also a fierce advocate for women's rights, lending her support to the War on Poverty and the Equal Rights Amendment.

My second First Lady is another Texan, Barbara Bush, and that choice is very personal--I've met her more than once and admire her enormously. She's witty and warm and charming, she's a huge reader, and she's spent her life doing everything she can to promote literacy.

Reds, do you have a First Lady you admire? Tell us who and why!

INGRID THOFT: My choice would be Hillary Clinton, but Michelle Obama is also at the top of my list.  Hillary was a First Lady who wasn’t afraid to take on health care as her cause, a cause that proved divisive.  However, she didn’t let that deter her from enacting real progress in the form of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (better known as CHIP these days.)  I recently heard Hillary speak, and she pointed to this program as an example of not letting perfection be the enemy of good.  She noted that when universal healthcare was shot down that might have been the end of the push for affordable health insurance for Americans.  However, she decided to work with both Democrats and Republicans to put CHIP into place, and millions of children received insurance as a result.  I admire Hillary for her wisdom, her courage, her strength and her restraint.  When her character has been disparaged again and again, she’s taken the high road (just as Michelle suggested!)

RHYS BOWEN: When I was young I was so impressed with Jackie Kennedy. 

She always looked so perfectly turned out. I admired Barbara Bush for not being afraid to speak her mind and defend her husband. But if I had to pick just one it would be Michelle Obama. What a classy lady! She had the most awful insults hurled at her, words that no person should hear about themselves, and she never once flinched or gave any indication that those words mattered. And in four years she never put a foot wrong. No scandals. Just a clearly loving wife and mother. And her powerful speeches make me wish that she'd decide to run for the office herself!

HALLIE EPHRON: I know so little about former First Ladies. Pat Nixon and her cloth coat. Nancy Reagan and her astrologist. Lady Bird and her billboards. Seemed like being First Lady turned them cardboard cutouts whose main function was to stand by the president and make him look like a human being. I thought Hillary was heroic for trying to remake healthcare. 

In my opinion, no one's done it with as much grace as Michelle Obama. I was smitten by her relationships with Barack and her daughters. And let's not forget the clothes! And easy, given that she got to stand beside a man who made it easy to stand by.

HANK PHILIPPI RYAN:  Can you even imagine? Every single thing you do, or say, or wear. Every single sidelong glance, or closed eyes or lifted eyebrow. Your shoes, your child-rearing, your arms,  the actions of your husband, the books you read and the color of your lipstick, foibles and hobbies and passions. ALL under the microscope every single moment. Are you smart enough, pretty enough, wise enough, patient enough, impatient enough, caring enough, too caring, deferential enough, not deferential enough...Ahhh. I admire them all, absolutely for bearing up under that.

DEBS: Hank, I absolutely agree. I can't imagine how hard it would to subject yourself to that sort of scrutiny and criticism--not to mention the First Ladies who put their own careers on hold!

JENN McKINLAY: Hank, I could never. I swear like a sailor, play pranks with my sons that would be fodder for all the judgy types, and am about as far from a fashionista as a woman can be. Ingrid and Rhys, count me in on the Michelle Obama fan club. I simply adore her. But there is one first lady, who lived before my time, whose words echo in my head with great regularity. Eleanor Roosevelt. She said, "You must do the thing you think you cannot do." I turn to this quote in times of self doubt and it has always guided me through it. 

LUCY BURDETTE: This was my comment too, Hank, only you said it so much more eloquently. Serving as First Lady is an impossible job. You didn't choose the job. You aren't being paid for it. Your freedom to live a normal life is gone. And if you don't adore your husband or agree with his positions, you sure better be a good actress!

That said, I loved Michelle's grace and dignity and sense of humor, and admire many other of these women, as well. It's been interesting to go on several tours of the Little White House here in Key West as research for DEATH ON THE MENU. Harry Truman spent a lot of time here--and did important work here too, often with other government figures and the press in attendance. But Bess Truman did not love it, so she often didn't come. And that didn't seem to bother anyone! Can you imagine that happening these days?

DEBS: Lucy, I was so sorry I didn't get to see the Truman White House when I visited Key West. I can't wait to read DEATH ON THE MENU so I'll be up to snuff the next time!

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I'm going to go back in time a bit - a hundred years, to be exact. I've always been fascinated by Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, the second wife of Woodrow Wilson. Edith was the widow of a socially prominent but somewhat inept businessman when she was introduced to the also-widowed Wilson. She was forty-three and he was fifty-nine and they fell deeply in love, despite a swirl of rumors that they must have been having an affair before Ellen Wilson's death (some even speculated that the two had done away with the first Mrs. Wilson - clearly the Alex Jones conspiracy-monger types aren't a new phenomenon.)

Edith was prepared for the sort of social hostessing First Ladies were called upon to perform; what she got instead was WWI. She flung herself into supporting the effort (and setting an example) with "gasless Sundays, meatless Mondays, and wheatless Wednesdays" at the White House. In a move that may remind you of Michelle Obama, she set a flock of sheep to graze on the White House grounds, to free up the manpower mowing took, and then had the sheared fleeces auctioned off to benefit the Red Cross.

But she's best known for what she tried to most keep under wraps - stepping in for her husband after he suffered a devastating stroke in 1919. From then until the end of his term in 1921, she read every legislative paper and piece of correspondence sent to the president, dealt with the ones she didn't think her husband needed to bother with, and condensed the rest into easy-to-digest summaries to suit Wilson's weakened condition. She always described herself as a mere steward for her husband's work, but members of the Executive branch tacitly acknowledged she was, in reality, running the show.

She was politically active in the Democratic Party for the rest of her life. Born in the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, she was an honored guest at JFK's inauguration, and died at the ripe old age of 89 in 1961. Hurrah for Edith Wilson!

DEBS: Julia, I love this story about Edith Wilson! I had no idea! I was  hoping we'd learn some things we didn't know about First Ladies, and I had great fun hunting up the photos.

READERS, do you have any great stories about First Ladies to share?

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Life Lessons in The Reluctant Fortune-Teller @KeziahFrost

LUCY BURDETTE: You met debut author Keziah Frost in the fall when she wrote a terrific post for JRW on editing. But now her new book, THE RELUCTANT FORTUNE-TELLER, is almost out and I asked her to return and tell us more about it. Welcome Keziah!

 KEZIAH FROST: We all have more than one career in us.

That’s what my protagonist Norbert, a retired accountant, learns in his seventy-third year as he launches into an occupation he never could have predicted for himself: that of town fortune-teller.

My debut novel, The Reluctant Fortune-Teller, is said to be witty. I hope it is! We need laughter now more than ever. It is also about many things – among them, how people reinvent themselves – to their own delight and peril.

Norbert is having trouble making ends meet. He is a practical man, and doesn’t believe in card reading or anything to do with the psychic world. But when three forceful women he knows from his art league show up on his door step and insist that he can solve his financial crisis through telling fortunes—and that they can teach him how to read cards…, well, you’ll have to read the book to find out all about his delight and his peril.

And just maybe, Norbert’s journey to create a new version of himself will inspire you, as well. I hope so!

In elementary school, a kind teacher told Norbert’s class that each child has a special gift to share with the world. We all have heard this claim. It seems that some people know just what their gift is, while others wonder if they’ll ever find theirs, or if they even have one at all. Norbert was in the second category, wondering in his later years if he had any gift at all. He doesn’t feel special or gifted in any way. He certainly isn’t a person that anyone notices or listens to…. That is, until he goes into business reading cards for the tourists and residents in his quaint lakeside town. 

As “Norbert Z, the Amazing Psychic,” Norbert suddenly becomes interesting. People make appointments to listen to him and they press money into his hands to show their faith in his abilities.

As Norbert’s new career takes shape, his confidence grows; he comes into a new sense of himself; he changes.

We live in a time of continuing education, mid-life career changes, and post-retirement careers. In my own life, I’ve been a college English instructor, a painter of pet portraits, a bilingual teacher, a birth doula, a bilingual counselor and now: a psychotherapist and a novelist. Each new career identity has benefitted from lessons learned in all the previous ones.

And what about you? Have you had more than one career, or more than one identity in your life? Do you believe you have at least one more gift in you that is asking to be developed? Do you dare to open that gift?

The Reluctant Fortune-Teller will be released by HarperCollins/Harlequin/Park Row on March 6, 2018. It is Keziah Frost’s first novel. In the back of the book is a fortune-telling guide, so you can get together—perhaps with your book club—and read fortunes using Norbert’s method. There are also questions for discussion. And if your book club would like to
Skype with Keziah Frost to discuss The Reluctant Fortune-Teller, you can just contact her through her website.

Keziah Frost is a psychotherapist who has felt she was “supposed to” write novels since she was in fifth grade. That was five decades ago, and she is thrilled to see her first novel ready to go to print. She had so much fun writing this one, she hopes to write many, many more. (Says Lucy: And check out her blog, which includes Norbert's readings of various book people, including Lucy herself...)

Saturday, February 17, 2018

A Special Place by Leslie Wheeler

LUCY BURDETTE: Leslie Wheeler is an old friend of the New England contingent of Reds--and we're so thrilled that she has a new novel out! Today she's talking about the importance of her setting--and offering a book giveaway to one lucky reader. Welcome Leslie!

LESLIE WHEELER: A college writing teacher of mine said that we write about what we love and hate. In Rattlesnake Hill, I’ve written about a place that’s very close to my heart: the Berkshire Hills of Western Massachusetts. I love the area and the seventeen acres I own, especially the pond.

The pond was my father’s idea. Perhaps because he’d spent boyhood summers by a lake in northwestern Montana, he always wanted to live near fresh water. If there was no body of fresh water nearby, he created it. In Southern California, we had a swimming pool, as did many other families, but my father also installed a small Japanese pond, and at another home in Maryland, he built a miniscule waterfall.

My father picked the site for the Berkshire pond in a low-lying area behind the house, with tall pines at one end. Over the years, he showed such a keen interest in it that we dubbed him the Pond Master. Sometimes, he fussed over the pond. During one particularly dry summer, he extended a garden hose into it to raise the water level. But mostly, he enjoyed the pond. He could sit for hours in a chair, turned to give him a view of the water. He was a driven man in a demanding profession, and I think he found tranquility in that view.

Like my father, I feel duty-bound to preserve and protect the pond. I’ve battled beavers that tried to dam it, waged war on cattails and other weeds that threatened to overwhelm it, and when the pond filled with silt, I’ve had it dredged—not once, but several times.
The pond is also a source of great pleasure for me. I love watching how it changes from one season to the next, from spring green, spotted with tadpoles, to summer murky, fall crystal clear, and finally to winter frozen over. 

It serves as a barometer, too. If I want to find out how windy or rainy it is without going outside, I observe the pond’s surface. When its surface is so still that I can see the reflections of the trees in the woods beyond, I could sit for hours, like my father, taking in the beauty and peace.

A pond not unlike my pond figures in Rattlesnake Hill. It’s where Kathryn Stinson, my main character, goes when she needs a break. With all I put her through in the novel, I figured she needed a place where she could relax and regroup, if only for a little while.

Readers: Do you have a special place, indoors or outdoors, where you go when you want to get away from it all? Have you given your main character such a place, too? One of the commenters will receive an ARC of Rattlesnake Hill.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Leslie Karst: Appropriation or Appreciation?

LUCY BURDETTE: I love Leslie Karst's culinary mysteries and so I'm thrilled that there's a new one coming very soon and I have it ordered. If you love food and mysteries, these are for you too. However, today she has a confession to share with her readers...and us...

Buon giorno, tutti! I write the Sally Solari culinary mysteries, set in the beautiful beach town of Santa Cruz, California. My protagonist is descended from one of the original Italian fishermen who arrived in Santa Cruz from Liguria in the 1890s, and her father is fiercely proud of Solari’s, the family’s traditional Italian seafood restaurant out on the hundred-year-old wharf.

house-made pasta with clams

But although Sally practically grew up in the kitchen of her dad’s old-school restaurant, she is also sympathetic to the “food revolution” that has recently descended upon the town’s surprised old-timers. And when she inherits her aunt’s trendy restaurant, Gauguin, the dynamic between Sally and her father—hurt that his daughter no longer wants to work at Solari’s and convinced she now looks down on her family heritage—grows tense.

From all this, you may well surmise that, like Sally, I am also of Italian heritage—and many of my readers, and friends, do in fact assume this to be true. After all, I write about an Italian American family, I speak some Italian, and I have the olive complexion and (once-)brown hair of una vera Italiana. Indeed, I myself had always assumed I had, if not Italian, at least some sort of Mediterranean blood running through my veins.

But the sad truth is that I recently had my DNA test done, only to discover that, alas, I possess no Italian—or Mediterranean—ancestors whatsoever. Così triste!

Santa Cruz artichokes

So what does that mean to me, as an author of these stories about an Italian American family?

There’s been much discussion of late about “cultural appropriation” in literature, the idea that writers shouldn’t create characters with cultural or ethnic attributes different from their own. In other words, the argument goes, a young man of European descent who’s lived his entire life in Vermont has no business making his protagonist an elderly, Kenyan woman. The problem, of course, is that taken to its logical extreme, this would mean that women couldn’t write about men, gays couldn’t write about straights, and the wealthy could not write about the poor. And where would that leave us authors of fiction?

But I do get the concern. When you try to create stories about cultures far different from your own, it’s easy to fall into the trap of false stereo-types and tropes. But the key word here is “easy.” Yes, it can be easy to slide into cliché, but that’s not because of the attempt to write about another culture; that’s because of bad writing.

espresso—the writer’s friend

It seems to me that the key to being respectful in one’s writing is to do your best to truly understand your subject and your characters. Which doesn’t mean you can’t create a Japanese side-kick if you’re from New York City. But if you’re not familiar with the culture you better damn well do your homework first: hang out with some Japanese or spend time in the country; study the language; read books written by Japanese authors.

In my case, I’m not actually all that different from my protagonist, who is a fourth-generation Italian and thus relatively far-removed from her ancestral roots. Nevertheless, Sally’s culture is unlike mine in significant ways: she’s twenty years younger than me, was raised Catholic, and has older relatives who are still very much “Italian” in their sense of identity.

from the New World yet so very Italian

Yet I feel comfortable about writing the character. I’ve lived in Santa Cruz for over forty years and have known numerous members of the Italian American community, some quite well. And I do my research: reading oral histories of the old-time fishermen, interviewing the guys who operate the davits (boat cranes) out on the wharf, researching the cuisine the Ligurians brought with them to California, and, of course—the very best part—sampling myriad dishes at my local Italian restaurants!

Solari’s Linguine with Clam Sauce

But most importantly, I have profound respect and affection for the community, whose vital contributions have helped make our town the special place it is. And if I can bring a sense of that vibrant community to life on the page so that others may learn something of the history and culture of my beloved Santa Cruz, then I am content.

What about you? Readers: How do you feel about characters who are culturally different than their creators? And authors: What do you think of the issue of “cultural appropriation”?

About Death al Fresco

It’s early autumn in Santa Cruz and restaurateur Sally Solari, inspired by the eye-popping canvases of Paul Gauguin, the artist for whom her restaurant is named, enrolls in a plein air painting class. But the beauty of the Monterey Bay coastline is shattered during one of their outings when Sally’s dog sniffs out a corpse entangled in a pile of kelp.

The body is identified as Gino, a local fisherman and a regular at Sally’s father’s restaurant, Solari's, until he disappeared after dining there a few nights before. But after witnesses claim he left reeling drunk, fingers begin to point at Sally’s dad for negligently allowing the old man to walk home alone at night. From a long menu of suspects, including a cast of colorful characters who frequent the historic Santa Cruz fisherman’s wharf, Sally must serve up a tall order in order to clear her father’s name.

The daughter of a law professor and a potter, Leslie Karst learned early, during family dinner conversations, the value of both careful analysis and the arts—ideal ingredients for a mystery story. She now writes the Sally Solari Mysteries (Dying for a Taste, A Measure of Murder), a culinary series set in Santa Cruz, California. An ex-lawyer like her sleuth, Leslie also has degrees in English literature and the culinary arts. The next in the series, Death al Fresco, releases March 13th.

You can visit Leslie on Facebook , and you can go to her author website  to sign for her newsletter—full of recipes and fun Italian facts!—and to purchase all her books.