Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Too Much Pink. Some insights into Gender Roles by Susan Elia MacNeal

RHYS BOWEN: A couple of years ago I was asked to read and give a quote to the first book in a new mystery series. It was Mr. Churchill’s Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal. I thought it was terrific and have been delighted with Susan’s success, included being nominated for an Edgar for best paperback original. She has now written 3 books in the Maggie Hope World War Two series and her latest is His Majesty's Hope.

So I asked Susan to come and guest blog for us at Jungle Reds today. And she’s chosen not to talk about the world war or research but a subject dearer to her heart— take it away, Susan.
“Too. Much. Pink.”

The Story of a Boy at the Barre

By Susan Elia MacNeal

“No, Mommy, no! Don’t make me go back there! Pleeeeeeeeease don’t make me go back!!”

            Our then six-year-old son Matthew wasn’t crying about juvenile detention or foster care or the Russian gulag. He was crying about dance class. He didn’t want to finish his first year as a student at the School of American Ballet (the one created by George Balanchine, the legendary choreographer and ballet master of New York City Ballet).

            Eventually, my husband and I untangled the problem. Matthew’s problem was not ballet. The problem was being a boy in ballet.

            “I don’t think you should make him go,” said my well-meaning mother-in-law. “He’s too young to handle it if his friends make fun of him.”

            But how old do you have to be to stand up for who you are and what you love? When do we, as parents, teach that?

            For us, ballet started with physical therapy. At nine months, Matthew had been diagnosed with torticolis, known in layman’s terms as twisted neck. He began physical therapy three times a week at nine months, and continued through age five. When he “graduated,” we asked his therapist what more we could do. A former dancer, she said, “Ballet. I don’t know of anything better for the body.”

            The summer before kindergarten started, we took Matthew to the studio down the street and signed him up for summer dance camp—ballet, tap, and jazz. He loved it. He started dancing anywhere and everywhere, to all kinds of music.

            And then in the fall, he asked for ballet lessons. We brought him back to the same studio.

            It was a disaster.

            Matthew was the only boy in the class. The teacher didn’t help things. “Ballerinas, over here!” she would trill, excluding my son, the lone figure in a white t-shirt and black leggings. “Fairy princesses, this way, please!”

And this sort of treatment of boys in ballet class at the beginner level is not unusual. According to Mark Tappan, Professor and Director of the education department at Colby College and the co-author of Packaging Boyhood: Saving our Sons from Superheroes, Slackers, and other Media Stereotypes (St. Martin’s Press, 2009), gender role awareness at this age is normal, but it’s brought on by media and cultural influences, not biology: “For boys, it doesn’t take long to get the message that certain activities are taboo and they should feel bad about themselves if they like something stereotypically ‘girly.’ ”

Or, as Matthew put it, “Too. Much. Pink.”

            And that would have been the end of it, had we not watched the DVD of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker that December. Matthew was swept away, by the music, the dance, the drama. 

            “You know,” I happened to say one evening, “that particular Nutcracker is done here, in New York City. The Nutcracker prince is a kid who studies at the School of American Ballet. Someday, you might be friends with someone who’s really in it.”

            Behind Matthew’s eyes, I could see the wheels spin. “Mommy, I want to be in The Nutcracker.”

            And that’s how he ended up at SAB. Twice weekly we’d trek from Park Slope, Brooklyn, to Lincoln Center, where he took class with famous retired ballerinas. (One former star is known affectionately in our household as “The Yelling-est Ballerina Ever.”) And he loved class, saying, “At the other school, the teachers were nice, but at SAB, they’re firm. They show us how hard ballet is, that it isn’t just a game. I like that.” And not only were there other boys at SAB, but they were treated with respect.

            More than respect, actually. Males in ballet are not just a rare commodity, but also a historically privileged minority. It’s a definite advantage to be a male in ballet. First of all, there’s less competition. And at SAB, all boys attend on scholarship—a savings, at the beginner levels, of about $7,500 per year. Peter Martins is not just Ballet Master of NYCB and a major choreographer, he is also Mr. Balanchine’s successor as Chairman of Faculty at SAB. As Tappen says: “That’s the way the patriarchy works—men are privileged to have the authority to be the directors and leaders and ones in charge, with resulting higher salaries.”

            But something happened to Matthew that year. He became increasingly aware of gender roles and terrified the kids at school would find out and tease him. He began to get stomachaches before class, not wanting to go. “Why not?” I asked finally.

“Mommy, ballet is just too girly,” he confided.

           The subtext, to quote Billy Elliot’s disapproving father in the eponymous film, is that male ballet dancers are thought of as “poofs.”

“They’re not,” Billy counters. “Ballet dancers are as fit as athletes!” But it’s that underlying homophobia that persists. And what my son, even if he couldn’t yet articulate it, was sensing.

            Somehow, though, we made it through. A myriad of things helped. One was the incredible support we received from SAB. Matthew and his father were able to observe an advanced boys-only class—taught by a male teacher. “It was really cool that a man was teaching a class of all boys,” Matthew said. “It was really hard and athletic and I loved it.”          

            Although we went through a wrenching time of questioning and then resolution—Matthew ultimately made the decision to follow his love for dance and continue at SAB—it seems as if ballet itself is also questioning its own image and trying to tone down the pink.

When asked about his classmate’s reaction to his taking ballet, he shrugs. “They might still laugh,” he says, “but I’d like them to take a class and see how hard it really is. And then if they like it, that’s great, and if they don’t, that’s OK, too.

“It’s all right for boys not to dance ballet.”

Susan Elia MacNeal is the author of the New York Times bestselling Maggie Hope mystery series from Random House. Her novels have been nominated for the Edgar, Macavity, Dilys, and Barry awards. She lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, with her husband and son.
And Suan will be giving away a copy of His Majesty's Hope to her favorite comment of the day.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Living in the Past

RHYS BOWEN: I write two mystery series that are both set in the past. This should make the research challenging as I can't go back in time to check things out.... or can I?

My Royal Spyness books take place in a world with which I'm quite familiar. I'm not saying that life for the upper class in England hasn't changed since the Thirties. One only had to see Prince William putting his child's car seat into the Land Rover and then driving himself away from the hospital to realize that modern royals want to do things for themselves. But when I was growing up the older generation spoke and acted like the characters in my books. I sat in drawing rooms that were cold and drafty with one fireplace miles from the nearest arm chair.  Then I married into a family with funny nick names and stories about past grandeur (they used to own Sutton Place, plus several other grand houses). There is a family legend that my father-in-law said to a cousin who wanted to marry someone who owned a shop "No trade in the family. I forbid it."  He drove an aged Daimler and his generation came from a time when they still had servants to do everything. 

When I was at college I met girls who had never got themselves a glass of water before leaving home. I also had a friend whose brother dated Princess Anne. So lots of good insights to the upper class way of thinking.  As far as the physical research--Lady Georgie's London home is in Belgravia which really hasn't changed much. I love to walk around the St. James part of London and poke into shops that have been there since Victorian times--gentlemen's outfitters, chemists with strange concoctions in the window, musty bookshops and of course Fortnum and Mason. So it's easy to go back in time if I can blot out the roar of the current London traffic.

Recently I was lucky enough to encounter an extra special way of bringing my 1930s to life--I met my friend English woman who spends the winter months like me in Arizona and she collects vintage clothing. When I say 'collects' that is an understatement. She has rooms full of 1930s tea gowns, drawer of cloche hats, gloves, shoes. Every year she goes to Napier, New Zealand, to attend an Art Deco week in which the year 1931 is recreated with picnics, dances, vintage car parades and everyone in authentic period costume.

So now when I want to know what someone in my books would wear for a particular occasion I rush to Dinah, who produces the outfit and lets me try it on. At a fashion show last spring I modeled an authentic velvet cape and shoes for my "come as your character" presentation. The shoes were super comfortable too.

For my other series, the Molly Murphy books, I'm equally lucky. Parts of New York haven't changed much since the early 1900s. I chose a house for my heroine on Patchin Place in New York and got an email from the man who lives there now, complete with lots of photographs he'd taken  of the interior and back garden. I go to New York and walk the streets Molly walked. I sit in Pete's tavern and realize that Molly wouldn't have been allowed inside. And sometimes I get a complete gift of insight: like the time I attended the feast of San Genaro in Little Italy. Mulberry Street was lined with booths with hissing kerosene lamps, strings of colored lights, smells of garlic and great coils of sausage cooking. And the crowd was channeled between the booths--the noise level was incredible, bouncing back from those high tenements. This is how it was, I thought (only a little cleaner under foot now). And then halfway down the street I came to a tent with the words "Freak Show. See the snake woman. 50 cents.) I really thought I had been transported back in time. What a gift.

And of course I set my books in places like Nice and Paris, so I've had to endure brutal research trips to those places--slaving away checking out all the bistros and wine bars and fashion stores. What we writers do for our art!

Attention: Coming tomorrow! Susan Elia McNeal of Mr. Churchill's Secretary fame. Susan will be giving away a copy of her new book to the best comment of the day!
And Rhys will be giving away a copy of Heirs and Graces at the end of the week to her favorite comment of the week. So visit often and join in the chat. 

Monday, July 29, 2013

Luxury or Necessity?

RHYS BOWEN: Luxury or Necessity?
Every five years I buy a new car. For the past twenty years that car has been a Camry-- good, solid, dependable family car. But this time, with the books flourishing, I thought I might treat myself to a little more luxury.  So I started looking.....
 I had always dreamed of a Porsche but my logical side says why pay for a car that can do 130 m.p.h when I get a ticket for anything over 65? And it really is rather small for that long journey between San Francisco and Phoenix.
 I have always wanted a convertible but most people have stopped making them, apart from VW Beetles and companies like Mercedes for the price of a small house.
 And Lexus has exactly the same body as my Camry. And Mercedes gas mileage isn't great. And I don't like Audis very much-- so the question is what exactly does luxury mean for me?
 A good looking sleek exterior, but then my Camry looks pretty elegant.  Heated seats would be nice for winter, but my winters are in Arizona where they are not necessary.  I don't need wood trim. I don't like leather seats--too hot in summer.  But I would like a moon roof. And a built in GPS system. And blind spot warning would be nice and something that flashes if I stray out of my lane. And a car that parks itself?  That would be great. So I'm going to keep looking. I may well end up with another Camry!
And this has started me thinking, dear Reds. What does the word LUXURY mean to you? Not just in cars but in life?
For me it's not designer clothes or expensive wines. Oysters and lobster any time, definitely. Being pampered with a massage occasionally although I died of boredom when I had a facial. I find as I get older I am less attracted by things. Time to myself  is a great luxury. And I have to confess that traveling business class really is fabulous and worthwhile. And being able to visit far off and exotic places.
So how about you?

HALLIE EPHRON: A Camry IS luxury... said the woman who's driven a long line of Honda Civics into the ground. Reliability is what I care about in a car. Period.
I'm sure this will come as a surprise to no one, when it comes to luxury for me it's all about food. The occasional really good steak. Lobster of course. Fresh fish right off the boat. Ripe garden tomatoes. Real saffron and fresh herbs. A really swell bottle of champagne to wash it down.

ROSEMARY HARRIS: There have been trips when a flush toilet was a luxury for me.
When I was young I thought the Jaguar, British Racing Green of course, was the coolest car. Now I just want something I can throw all my toys in. My car is a 12 yr old Jeep Grand Cherokee. Pushing 150,000 miles.
Luxury is now mostly experiential. Less about the thing and more about the experience. Privacy is a huge luxury for me. I would rather have a tiny house on a plot of land with no neighbors than a MacMansion chock-a-block with the next guy. Not a jewelry person - I'm wearing a $6 ring from Urban Outfitters next to a Cartier. And I'm happy shopping at TJ Maxx.
I don't really have Food Envy either. I have framed the menu from Paul Bocuse but no desire to go back. And nice hotels are fine but I've really taken the kool-aid on house or apartment rentals. I don't really like all that bowing and scraping.
Lest I sound boringly high-minded or highly-evolved...last May we stayed at Villa San Michele in Fiesole. Their scraping was mighty fine. Luxury is the perfect thing at the perfect time. And just the way you want it.
And I confess when we travel, when I can afford to I stay in nicer hotels.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: My Honda Accord is five years old. I traded in my last Accord at five years, but think I'll be driving this one at least another couple. It has 40K on it, and is still great. It is an EX: leather seats (a must for me because of the dogs), seat warmers (which I ADORE), and a moon-roof. And I do like high-performance cars (I once had a Honda Prelude, which was fabulous,) but they just don't make any sense for my lifestyle.
Other luxuries? I don't care anything about expensive jewelry, or fancy-label clothes. Nice restaurants are an occasional treat, but most of the time I think I could make better at home. My idea of a fun evening out is a couples' date with my daughter and her fiance at Mi Cocina's. (Mambo limos!) Or dinner and a movie at iPic. I like nice hotels and room service when I'm traveling on book tour, but am happy with a Hampton Inn or Hilton Garden--middle of the road and just fine.
$10 a bottle Sauvignon Blanc is my wine of choice, although I dare say I'd enjoy better but it's not a priority.
I'd like to travel more, but when, between book tours, trips to England for research, and deadlines!
Most of our money that could be spent on "luxuries" goes into the old house!

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: This is such an interesting question. It really is. What is luxury? Ah...I love to travel with extra legroom seating, love to get on the plane first and stash my carryon without battling for space.. i  love to have a comfortable hotel room, and room service.  (Part of it is--just wanting to have some time to myself. I love my profession, and the book tour--it's a dream! But sometimes, the luxury is quiet, and time.
I'm not big on jewelry, and fancy food is nice but not something I think about. I love to go to Costco--but buy rack of lamb. Does that make sense? I love nice t.owels, and bathrobes, and great shoes, and  perfume. I have a lot of clothes--but I've been on TV for35 years.  And RO, to quote Sue Grafton, I don't do rustic.
Our car! Oh, dear. it's a 12 year old Avalon, which we love which has, I think, 145,000 miles. We love it. I always look at BMWs on the road, but I don't need a BMW. I really don't care about cars. And, more than you ever needed to know, I have never had a massage or a facial. But I do use a Chanel compact and I insist it's the only one that works.

LUCY BURDETTE: I love good food, but it needn't be fancy or expensive. I like to read about tasting menus costing hundreds of dollars, but more for the theater of it and the personality of the chefs than all that frou-frou food.
Cars I don't care much about either. But like Debs, I'm crazy for seat-warmers--on days when your back hurts a little--heaven!
And the times we've upgraded to business class with miles have been very very very pleasant. Seats and baggage space are so tight on planes these days--I find the whole business quite stressful and not at all civilized. Some years ago we were taking my elderly father and stepmother to England for a last hurrah. I worried ahead for months and months about getting us upgrades for the trip overnight to London. When we got to JFK (a horrible airport!), I sent my wonderful hub up to the counter to check our status. He came back after a while and reported that we'd been offered the upgrades to business class but he turned them down.
"They were going to charge us an extra $75!"
You can imagine how fast I sent him back over...and how much we all four enjoyed those reclining seats with foot rests and the little packet containing slippers and an eye mask and a toothbrush. Ahhhh, heaven...

RHYS: I'm amazed that so many Jungle Reds seem to drive 12 year old cars. I like to have a car within warranty when I drive those 800 desert miles between SF and Phoenix. So I think our combined confessions seem to indicate that luxury is not brand or style, it's comfort and good food and time. Amen to that.
How about you dear readers? What is your idea of luxury?

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Breaking News!

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  Coming to you from the fabulous Midwest Writers Workshop in Muncie Indiana! Gave the keynote's the audience..and still floating from the wonderful response. If you ever get a chance to go--it's wonderful.

Okay, Reds, time to check  in! What are you up to this coming week?

I've got a great story on TV Monday night--about rats (Wait til you see the pictures!) in a certain apartment building. Guess who the landlord is?

My smiling face is on the cover of the new RT BookReviews Magazine, how cool is that? And The Wrong Girl got 4 1/2 stars--the same rating as Sue Grafton and Lee Child. :-)

Only a short time til THE WRONG GIRL comes out in hardcover--Sept. 10--very exciting!

And THE OTHER WOMAN is out in paperback! If you haven't entered my contest to win a Nook, Kindle or $$ to a bookstore of your choice, here's the link!

And starting Friday, I'll be hanging out with Ro, Brad Parks, Jane Cleland, and a host of others--as Guest of Honor at the Deadly Ink conference! It's my first DI, and I'm very excited.

Reds and friends of Reds, what's up with you for the next week?

LUCY BURDETTE: My gosh Hank, I get dizzy just reading about what you're up to! I'm waiting for edits on MURDER WITH GANACHE (coming in February)--which should arrive in my inbox on Monday. It's been nice to have a break from the story--I had one good, new idea, but not sure I'll have time to work it into the manuscript. But meanwhile, it's available for pre-order. I have to say, the cover is adorable! 

RHYS BOWEN: I'm also breathless just thinking about your schedule, Hank. A different city every weekend, all those flights and airport security... eeek.
I'll be catching my breath after the Book Passage Mystery conference, enjoying time with my family visiting from Phoenix. We plan a hike to Arch Rock in Point Reyes. it's 9 and a half miles so I'm hoping I'm up to it. Also Exploratorium with kids, ballet tomorrow and lots of high energy in the house. Oh, and I do have a deadline and a Jungle Red blog so I'll need to squeeze in some work. 

And I've just remembered a launch of Heirs and Graces the week after. How could I forget that?

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Indeed, Rhys, how could you forget that!!! We haven't!

I am writing. Or should that be #IamWriting... Trying to settle into a good routine after lots of stuff going on this summer; work on the house, a wonderful visit from my brother, my daughter's engagement and the craziness of wedding planning. 

The Sound of Broken Glass came out this month in Germany and is doing very well, I think.

As for upcoming events, I'll be at the Hardesty Library in Tulsa on September 6th, then Bouchercon in Albany, NY, from September 18th-22nd.  And the weekend after that, MY DAUGHTER IS GETTING MARRIED!!!  

Then it's back to work for me on the newest (#16) Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James book, To Dwell in Darkness. It's due to my publisher in November and should be out sometime in 2014.

HALLIE EPHRON: I'm writing writing writing. Working title: Night night, sleep tight. Set in Beverly Hills in 1965 and 1985. I'm having a lot of fun with it.

And busy with events. On August 5 I'm on Nantucket teaching a crash course on mystery writing in the morning and giving a book talk in the evening at the Atheneum. The the Duxbury Library on August 8, and really looking forward to speaking at the Green Brook Country Club Book Club Luncheon in North Caldwell, NJ on August 21. Lots more to follow.

HANK: Pals I met at MWW13 also have books coming out very soon--the incredibly talented John Gilstrap's new thriller HIGH TREASON is out August 1..Suspense Magazine says  "This is the fifth book in the Jonathan Grave series and very possibly the best." (The First Lady is kidnapped. There's the definition of a terrific hook for you!) 

And the fascinating DE Johnson's evocative and original mystery DETROIT SHUFFLE-- set in corrupt Detroit in 1910 during the battle over women's suffrage--is out September 3--"Johnson’s immaculate plotting and high-tension writing make for a spellbinding read!"  (He is a wonderful writer!)

And don't forget our Rosemary's THE B*TCHES OF BROOKLYN is now available as an ebook!

HANK: So Reds, what's up with you? Check in, please!

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Whose A&& is That?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  I have a new pal for you! 

Having spent the early part of her career in the sometimes-friendly skies, author Marylu Zuk says she perfected the art of smiling through anything - at least until she was out of the passengers’ sight. (Like what? Like: "Really sir?  You actually need me to buckle your seat belt for you?")  Her career path has taken her from babysitter, to playground supervisor, flight attendant, road warrior, workshop presenter, sales manager and enrollment VP. The titles have changed, but the job responsibilities did not – maintain order and keep people happy. 

An avid people watcher and eternal optimist, Marylu says she always finds the silver lining.  So listen to this--we always wonder where book ideas came from, right? 

While getting ready for a promotions event a few years ago, Marylu says  she used the two-mirror trick to see how she looked in her jeans.  

‘Oh my God! Whose ass is that?!’ she exclaimed… and the idea for her first book was born.

 A storybook for women with illustrations by Traycee Bosle, WhoseA(XX) Is That? –  invites every woman to relax her abs, exhale, and laugh at what we rarely see – our own backsides!

Today, Marylu reminds us that it's all about how you look at it--and not just our rears.

You say it like that's a bad thing.. 

Picture this. Somewhere in your mid-twenties your best-friend and sometimes-roommate blurts out ‘you act like a fifty-year-old woman!’  My reaction of course is a simple, ego-injured, ‘Huh?!’

She then proceeds to pack her bags, ending her post-graduate, three-month visit, and heads back to the east coast for a fabulous new job – leaving me wondering, in the blistering desert sun, what on earth she meant. And it gnawed at me… for a minute.
Perhaps it was the fact that my roman nose was always buried in a book. Sue me, I like to read.

  Or maybe, it was my total aversion to the whole bar scene. Or that I preferred the 4:00am shift at work, which had my alarm going off when most folks my age were rolling into bed. Or, that my fashion sense was inspired by the dominant female presence of my early years - the Sisters of Some Super Holy Saint. Pick one.

Whatever triggered her comment, I responded in my typical non-confrontational style. Rather than ask for clarification, I absorbed the sting and buried those words somewhere deep in the back of my brain with other barbs instead – another story for another day perhaps.

Fast-forward a few decades through my crazy, hectic, working mother, balancing act lifestyle and I, like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole, tripped over and arrived at the 50-year mark.  Seeing that number over and over again on all those birthday cards reminded me of those long ago words.  My friend? She pleads the fifth, claiming no recollection whatsoever.

As for me?  In the interim, I’ve managed to add a bit more color to my wardrobe, overcome those self-diagnosed, nightlife anxiety attacks – ‘yes bartender, top mine off please’ – and have come to realize my dear friend had actually given me a glowing compliment all those years ago.  If I knew then what I know now, my ‘Huh?!’ would have been a sassy ‘you say that like it’s a bad thing’.

I’ve discovered a certain feeling of freedom that comes with each extra candle on my birthday cake.  My vocabulary, while still politically correct, is now peppered with salty language (my father and the nuns would be mortified). But, the most significant personal change has been in my once omnipresent need to control things. It diminishes a bit each day as I continue to morph into a more mindful lifestyle – embracing the whole don’t-sweat-the-small-stuff movement and intentionally focus on enjoying the moment I’m in rather than stressing over what’s passed, and agonizing over what may never come to be.

This mindset change is no doubt attributed to all that nose-in-the-book-reading (that hasn’t changed, by the way) of mountains of self-awareness articles, books and blogs… and just living life. Like those grade school connect-the-dot pictures – life experience itself brings the big picture into focus. 

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go act like a fifty-year old woman!

How about you? I’d love to hear what you’ve come to embrace on your life’s journey.

HANK: And hey, reds, how do YOU feel about your rear?