Saturday, November 26, 2011

That OTHER Blog

Where I talk a little bit about new novel's structure:

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Book Review: Blue Nights

I should preface this review by saying that I adore Joan Didion's writing. There really is no one better at cataloguing the social chaos and energy that defines a specific shot of history than her. I grew up in the California of the 1960s and 1970s, and if anyone asks me about those years, I point to her. Like most of her readers, I read with such sadness about the death of her husband and daughter, and finished her book The Year of Magical Thinking with such profound respect; she defined unfathomable grief with words.

Blue Nights—her ode to her daughter, Quintana—is also a well-written book, but when I finished it, I slapped it down on my dining room table with a rare sense of irritation. With most books there is you, the reader, who is, hopefully, at the mercy of the author. The author pulls you into their world. Generally, you don't pull them into yours. When that happens, a book sort of fails. I didn't get pulled into Joan Didion's world. As a parent, I couldn't help but pull her into mine, and the parent in me was snorting in disbelief and sometimes outrage. There is an underlying question throughout the whole book: was she a good enough parent? I can't really answer that question. It's a question that all parents ask themselves frequently, although usually not hand-in-hand with mourning a child's death (and, yes, this is the worst thing that can happen to a parent, bar none). But it's hard not to stare in disbelief when she comments that her daughter was terrified that her father would go first because then Quintana would be under the care and responsibility of her mother. Why wouldn't she be terrified? This is the same woman who felt it was perfectly acceptable to bring her infant to a reporting assignment covering the fall of Saigon. Who thought it appropriate in response to this assignment to go out and buy a bunch of designer clothes. And while this disconnect with reality is a trademark of hers, it might work for her persona as a writer, it fails when we consider her as a parent. As a writer, we might find it privately amusing that she would fly from Honolulu and arrive in Hartford when it was below zero without a sweater. When it’s her kid shivering, then it’s impossible to not judge her. The reader takes a back-seat to the parent.

Didion's detachment has always been her strength. But it's an odd detachment, which is why I think it works so well in her writing. Because it's the detachment of the walking wounded. Someone so battered by reality that detachment is the only way to survive. It's the detachment of someone trying to make sense out of the nonsensical. As a parent (and please don't assume that I think I'm a fantastic parent--merely adequate), I'm listening to her questioning her efficacy as a parent, and I feel like shouting, honey, it's not about you. That's what parenting is. It's not about you. Which seems manifestly unfair because her writing has always been about her and not about her. But you can't carry that sensibility into parenting. I read over these verbal snapshots of her life and marriage, and all I can think of was that Quintana never got to be a child. She’s described as being precocious in this book, but to me it feels like more of a coping mechanism. They may have loved her unquestionably, but the Dunnes went on location, stayed in swanky hotels, wrote their articles, movie scripts, and books, and dragged her along for the ride. She had to become an adult in a child’s body.

So much for the personal issues I had with this book. We come to the writing. The last third of the book is devoted to Didion’s sense that she is losing her ability to write. It's part and parcel of other physical frailties, but although the physical maladies are terrifying, they pale in contrast to the idea that she's losing her truly wonderful way of parsing words. That her style is becoming trite, that an ability to write so clearly about the lack of center is now suffering from not having its own center.
And while I can't say that her writing falls short (the beginning of this book is as masterful a beginning as I've ever read), there is a sense of, um, where's the editor? Her repetition of phrases and concepts that in previous works united a bunch of seemingly disparate events to create a fractured whole, now does seem something of a tic.

Another stylistic choice that seemed to dominate this book was, for want of a better word, product placement. And by that I mean it is never a pair of shoes, a hotel, a sweater; it's Laboutins, the Dorchester, cashmere. Truly, are we supposed to lament that Bendel's is no longer the same? Even people are nothing more than product placement. This actress, this director gave a speech at Quintana's wedding.

Part of the strength of Didion's work written in the 1960s and the 1970s is that the protagonists of her essays were no different than you or I, except that maybe they were part of Manson's family. And although that is a hell of a difference, in her hands it was also not a hell of a difference. A "there but for the grace of God" sensibility dominated. In her current work everyone has a name. A big name. Almost like these larger than life people had no right to up and die. Unlike you and me. Because we don't have names. It's unsettling at first and then becomes annoying. It undercuts the real issue in this book. The loss of her daughter. Does it really matter that she went to school with and had dinner at this restaurant with this Hollywood icon? It doesn't make her passing any more tragic, although there is the hint that she was special because of it. When in reality, she was special because she was so loved.

In the end I certainly would recommend this book because Joan Didion is one of the most thoughtful and fantastic writers of her generation, but Blue Nights doesn't have the strength of The Year of Magical Thinking. I think this is the most personal of her books (for obvious reasons), but it's also one of her weaker books, perhaps the inevitable fall out of the detached finally becoming attached with little to attach to.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Guest Blogger Ann Parker

Dear Readers:  You're in for a real treat today. I'm part of a blog tour for Ann Parker, whose writing I adore. Seriously, there are people like me who can, on occasion, write, and there are people who are artists with words. Ann is one of these writers. I've had the privilege and joy to watch her write her way through three books, and here now is a spotlight on number four. If you like mysteries and you love historicals, Ann Parker is the writer for you.

Eat Well and Thrive… or Not – by Ann Parker

Firstly, I want to thank Claire Johnson for the chance to guest post on Roux Morgue as part of my virtual tour for MERCURY’S RISE, the fourth in my Silver Rush historical mystery series.
Since I write mysteries, people die and my sleuth, Leadville saloon-owner Inez Stannert, must ferret out the criminal and the crime. This latest book in my series takes Inez to Manitou Springs, a fast-rising health resort and tourist destination, where there was a whole lotta dying going on, not all of it (or even most of it) of a nefarious nature.

In 1880, during the time the book takes place, Manitou was famous for its mineral waters. It also had a mild climate, wide open spaces, and beautiful scenery. It had some very high-class (for the West, anyway) hotels, and it had many many physicians. The reason being that Manitou was a “destination resort” for many from the East Coast and Europe who suffered from a variety of ailments, particularly tuberculosis.

The cause of tuberculosis, or consumption as it was popularly called, was still unknown in 1880. Robert Koch, the physician who would discover the bacteria that causes the disease, was still conducting his research in Germany. Even though no one knew for certain what caused this dreaded disease, that didn’t stop physicians from developing their own theories and regimens for “curing” or at least slowing its progress.

Diet, in particular, was seen as an important element in controlling TB. However, some of those diets are pretty alarming by today’s standards: if the tuberculosis didn’t kill you, it seemed that your plugged arteries probably would. For instance, a Fannie Farmer cookbook from 1904 (long after Koch’s discovery), advises a dining schedule that a Hobbit would appreciate: besides breakfast, dinner, and supper, “there should be a luncheon in the morning, another in the afternoon, and still another before retiring.” Fats, in the form of cream, butter, olive oil, bacon, and beef fat were part of the recommended diet. And eggs. Lots of eggs. Preferably raw. Some doctors advised 18 eggs a day. Milk and beef were also staples of the consumptive’s diet (and we’re talking full-fat milk here, cream and all).

Still, eggs, cream, and beef fat would have been far preferable to the “slaughterhouse cure,” that became popular among consumptives in Denver in 1879. This particular cure involved drinking the blood of freshly slaughtered oxen and cows. And if we’re to segue into talking other comestibles taken to forestall the march of tuberculosis, I should mention the patent medicines and nostrums peddled to a desperate public, who lived in fear of the “white plague.” These so-called medicines and tonics contained ingredients such as cod-liver oil, lime, arsenic, chloroform, turpentine, kerosene, the ever-present alcohol, and yes, mercury.

We can all shake our heads in dismay and wonder what people were thinking of back then, to turn to some of these diets and remedies. But we have the virtue of hindsight. What will folks a couple generations from now think of our efforts to tame diseases such as cancer with diet? It would be interesting to know…


Ann Parker is a California-based science/corporate writer by day and an historical mystery writer by night. Her award-winning Silver Rush series, featuring saloon-owner Inez Stannert, is set in 1880s Colorado, primarily in the silver-mining boomtown of Leadville. The latest in her series, MERCURY’S RISE, was released November 1. Publishers Weekly says, “Parker smoothly mixes the personal dramas and the detection in an installment that’s an easy jumping-on point for newcomers.” Library Journal adds, “Parker’s depth of knowledge coupled with an all-too-human cast leaves us eager to see what Inez will do next. Encore!” Learn more about Ann and her books at

MERCURY’S RISE and the other Silver Rush mysteries are available from independent booksellers,, and Barnes and Noble.

Leave a comment on this post to be eligible to win a Silver Rush mystery prize! Winner will be announced later this week. To see the rest of Ann’s virtual tour, check out her Appearances page on her website.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

A Farewell

I took down the rant I put up yesterday because it doesn't serve any purpose other than to paint me as a crank with a grudge. Not that I don't feel strongly about these things, but...enough.

Anyway, on to not necessarily lighter but certainly more important matters. We finally had a wee little send off for my uncle today. He died a few months ago, but my aunt was quite sick herself and it's taken this long for her to bounce back. She and my uncle were good friends with Jessica Mitford, so a funeral was not in the picture! We just had a get together at my cousin's house, with boxes of See's candy (my uncle had something of a sweet tooth) on every surface. I made a cake, and I got to hug a lot of people I don't see that often; people who knew me and my sister as small children and now we're in our fifties. My uncle loved a good party, even better was a party with his family around him. He would have approved. Cheers, Uncle Fred.