Sunday, December 3, 2023

A Family Celebration.

 RHYS BOWEN:  Over Thanksgiving this year we had a big family celebration: my husband John turned 90. For this momentous occasion I rented a big house so that the whole family could come in and stay together. When I say big house, it was more like a mansion... eleven bedrooms, eight bathrooms, a casita with a complete games floor, grounds with swimming pool, putting green, spa etc etc.

The family all arrived, including our niece from England. We had a lovely Thanksgiving Day, with all the trimmings. 

Then the next day was to be the official celebration of John's birthday. Daughter #2 woke feeling sick. She was taken to urgent care. Type A flu. She started masking and distancing. Then granddaughter #3 felt sick. Off to urgent care: not flu, not Covid. Upper respiratory infection. Since they live nearby in Phoenix she went home to her own bed. then grandson #1 felt sick. He went to bed.

Granddaughter #1, who has inherited a lot of my personality, suggested, wickedly, that everyone who fell ill had once crossed her... evil chuckle. She was just kidding, of course, but shows she is a mystery writer's grandchild. (and note. She didn't get sick... one wonders....???)

We had a catered meal of John's special food, a fabulous evening of presents and everyone had to present a poem or song. They were hilarious. Lots of laughter.

Then next morning daughter #3 and husband felt bad. Daughter in law felt bad. Niece felt bad. Guests were dropping like flies. My son, the magic chef, made a huge soup of leftovers that just felt that it had healing properties. We all parted the next morning and John started feeling sick. He went home, slept and ran a fever. So off to urgent care for him: Type A flu.  He is on Tamiflu and feeling much better. I started taking it preventatively.

Note the social distancing to the right of the photo.

We all had a good time. John's birthday celebration went perfectly but all the things I thought we'd do--the fiercely competitive ping pong, bocce ball, putting tournaments--never happened. It was definitely low key. It seems that everything is uncertain these days, doesn't it? We have had to cancel four cruises in four years. At least this latest wasn't Covid but still not fun.

I hope your Thanksgiving was wonderful with no sniffles of any kind. (And as I write this I'm still feeling well. Fingers crossed....)

Saturday, December 2, 2023

Crackers of Coincidence.

 RHYS BOWEN: As a writer we are constantly told that we should not use coincidence in any of our stories. It simply isn't fair to the reader. Everything has to happen for a purpose and with intention.

The only thing wrong with this is that coincidence happens all the time in real life. Or does it? Is anything random in this world? Do some things happen because they were meant to happen? Certain people were meant to meet. Someone took a different route home one night and it changed his life, he bumped into his future spouse, he saved himself from a train crash.

I can recount so many instances from my own life. One example of coincidence: we were at John's club in London watching a rugby game. The man sitting next to me asked me to save his seat while he went to get a beer. When he came back he asked me if I lived close to London.

No, I said. I live in America.

Oh, which part?

California, I said.

Whereabouts in California?

Marin County, I said.

Which city? he asked.

San Rafael.

I live in Novato, he said.

 Literally five miles from us. What's more, he also spent many years working in Malaysia, as John did. So did his wife. And... they are now our very dear friends.  We meet them on our walk almost every evening.

And the latest coincidence... or is it something more, happened last year.

Our family always insists on various British traditions and one of them is Christmas Crackers. The kind you pull. They break with a bang and inside is a little gift. When I tried to find crackers last year everyone had sold out. My agent suggested i try TJ Maxx as she had seen some in her local store. I went to our store. Not a cracker in sight. I asked an employee who had clearly never even heard of crackers. I was about to give up when I rooted through a random shelf of odd Christmas decorations... a stuffed reindeer, candles etc etc. And there, buried, was one box of the most beautiful crackers you have ever seen.

Deluxe crackers they were called.Whereas most crackers have silly little plastic gifts--a whistle, yoyo, jumping frog etc, this one had really good pressies: a nail file kit, a screwdriver kit, both of which we use, clever puzzles, a tiny bowling set.  In TJ Maxx they were only $14.

Thrilled with my find I carried it to the front desk. While I was standing in line I read the back of the packet and nearly dropped them.  Imported from Hong Kong by the Swan Mill Paper Company.

The Swan Mill is a small paper factory in Kent in the south of England. It was run, during his entire adult life, by my father. In those days it was in the middle of apple orchards outside a small village. We lived in a big house next to the factory grounds. All the village inhabitants worked for my dad. As factories go it was insignificant. It made paper napkins and spiral bound notebooks (the first to do so). It had never had things made abroad or dealt in crackers. And yet here I was, holding this box in my hands, that were now shaking.

It was almost as if I could hear my dad saying, "You looking for crackers? Here you are, love."

I still feel tears come into my eyes as I write this. It had to be more than coincidence, didn't it? The one box of crackers left in the world and they came from my dad's factory.

Do you have a similar experience to share? A time when you really sensed a departed loved one was getting in touch?

I already looked diligently this year, including TJ Maxx but none of the crackers came from the Swan Mill.

Friday, December 1, 2023

The Best Novels in History (or are they?)

 RHYS BOWEN: I read a piece recently which listed the thirty best novels of history, as voted on by random people.  The top three were : Nineteen Eighty Four, Frankenstein and The Lord of the Rings. Two of those I would agree with being on the list, but Frankenstein? Is it only impressive in that it was so original and written by such a young woman? The rest of the list included Four Dickens novels, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Dracula, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe… Fahrenheit 451 was one that left a lasting impression on me, and I’m glad it was included.

 Many of them I agreed with: To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, ( they didn’t include Wuthering Heights that I feel is superior) but others I questioned: I agree that A Tale of Two Cities was a masterpiece but A Christmas Carol? It’s a fun, moving, little moral tale but is it a great work of literature? Were all those books considered masterpieces because not many books were published in those days?

Is Alice in Wonderland a masterpiece? Better than Harry Potter? Better than The Wind in the Willows? Dracula is clever but great literature?

The list included the Brothers Karamazov, but not War and Peace. And if we’re including foreign novels why not Les Miserables? Death in Venice? One of Garcia Lorca?

I must note that there are no current works among them so the Reds need not feel slighted that they weren’t on the list. The most recent is the Orwell, or the Steinbeck.

Some I think I might have included are : The Remains of the Day, Animal Farm, The Forsyte Saga, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Grapes of Wrath, and if we’re including Dracula,  why not Stranger in a Strange Land?

Other novelists who didn’t make the cut were James Joyce, Hemingway, Thomas Hardy, Stephen Crane, George Elliot, Rudyard Kipling, Goethe, Virginia Woolf, Edgar Allen Poe, Wilkie Collins… Which makes me wonder what makes a great novel? Why do some stories stay with us when others are read, enjoyed and then forgotten? Is it all about the quality of the prose or the story told?

What do you think? And which books would you have included?

HALLIE EPHRON: Boy that’s a lot of books. All outstanding. The one I’d add is my all-time favorite: Water for Elephants. Such a moving portrayal of circus life, a man nearing death, a heartbreaking love story. And then, there’s the elephant. A whodunnit with an elephant!

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I always feel both guilty and unlettered when I see these lists, because I’ve never read (or finished) half of the novels listed. This is a little better than most - I’m only missing THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV and ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST. To be honest, I think the random people voting may just be recalling what they had to read for English Lit in high school - there are a LOT of Old White Guys in this list.

So I’ll suggest a few that I didn’t get exposed to until later in life: MRS. DALLOWAY, THE HANDMAID’S TALE, and THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE (alternative: WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE.) 

Or how about AMERICAN BORN CHINESE by Gene Luen Yang, or PERSEPOLIS,  by Marjane Satrapi? Graphic novels are a truly original variation on the traditional form, and I think they deserve to be considered seriously. 

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Impossible. Edith Wharton’s…well, I guess AGE OF INNOCENCE, but I like CUSTOM OF THE THE COUNTRY better. And Mark Helpron’s WINTERS TALE. Thomas Wolfe’s LOOK HOMEWARD ANGEL.  Totally think STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND. Yes, ALice in Wonderland is better than Harry  Potter. ANd now that I’ve typed that–I wonder, what is “better”?

We could do this forever–it’s fun, but impossible.

And I do think it matters at what point in your life you read them–when I first read Edith Wharton, maybe in high school? I was bored and dismissive. Then I grew up. But I fell madly in love with NICHOLAS NICKELBY. And DRACULA–well, that’s the scariest thing I have ever read, to this day! 

DEBORAH CROMBIE: These lists make me crazy! I agree with Julia that I think people put the books they remember from high school English lit–most of which I seem to have missed out on in my checkered education. Is it the best prose? The most profound theme? The most elegant structure?  I can only add a few books that were game-changing for me: T.H. White's THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING, THE LORD OF THE RINGS, STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, THE FORSYTE SAGA. And, as this one has been much on my mind with her death, A.S. Byatt's POSSESSION. And what about, in recent years. HAMNET? Such glorious writing!

And I think I would include ALICE and Harry Potter, because they are so imaginative and such cultural touchstones.

JENN McKINLAY: No Mark Twain? No Alexandre Dumas? No Brothers Grimm? No Maya Angelou? No Gabriel Garcia Marquez? Stupid list. 

LUCY BURDETTE: Phew, I so agree about this list making me feel unread and so I’m relieved talking with you! THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS would be on the top of my list. I still love reading it. Also CHARLOTTE’S WEB, and maybe something romantic and straightforward like GONE WITH THE WIND? Maybe the question should be ‘which books would you like to have, if shipwrecked on an island?’ I suspect the titles would change…

RHYS: Oh, I so agree with Possession. It's a masterpiece. There are not many books I read twice but that's one of them. Are the rules for a great novel that it has to be more than just a tale of an incident in someone's life? That it echoes the human condition and speaks for everyman? Or is it just a rattling good tale that keeps us turning pages and stays with us long after we've put it back on the shelf? I can think of plenty of those. Connie Willis. Kate Morton. So many mystery friends including those here.

Many of those on the list I only read because I had to. What about adding that the book touches emotions, brings joy? 

Which books would you add or not include?