Enough Books

Ulysses by James JoyceMany years ago — long before the Internet and delivery services that could find you anywhere — I did an internship in South Dakota.

I spent the summer in an old farmhouse ten miles north of the nearest wide place in the road, ten miles south of a town of enough size to have a real grocery store, and twenty-five miles from work at the legal services office on the Crow Creek Reservation in Fort Thompson.

For foolish reasons probably related to intellectual pretensions, I only took two books with me: Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and Joyce’s Ulysses.

It probably goes without saying that I didn’t manage to finish either one.

I remain profoundly grateful that the grocery store in Highmore included several novels by Kurt Vonnegut among the mass market paperbacks featured on its racks. I’m not sure how Vonnegut ended up with that sort of distribution, but I read several of his novels that summer.

I also lacked a television — which I didn’t miss — and the only radio was in my car. For the first month or so, I lived alone.Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre

Looking back, I really wish I had taken a large pile of books with me. I’m not sure any town (none of them, not even the state capital Pierre, came close to being a city) I went to over the summer had a bookstore.

The closest movie theater was fifty miles away. If there was a night club anywhere, I never saw it.

I’m not sure how I got by without a newspaper. Probably we got one at the office. And fortunately, at the end of the summer when the most important US news happened — Nixon’s resignation — I had a roommate and TV.

I mean, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss Nixon’s resignation.

But the real point of this story is that even when you don’t have anything to read or watch or anyplace to go, you will still not read that important book that you don’t really want to read.

Continue reading “Enough Books”

Raised in a Barn: Blocks

(I’m just back from New Orleans and the World Fantasy Convention, about which more anon… in the meantime, I’m jet-lagged and cannot brain, so here is a Raised in a Barn story from long ago…)

Part of the reason my father wanted to own a Barn was so that he could experiment with it. Try things out. Like trapezes. Or gardens. Some of his experiments worked brilliantly; some of them, not so much. One of the more interesting ones was a floor treatment, if that’s what you could call it. Dad cut one-inch slices of 2x4s to use as tiles in the front entry room, what we called the tack room (in the days when the Barn was a working barn, it was where various animal-related gear had been stored). It was a good experiment, a sort of prototype. Dad had big plans, see. For the kitchen.
The kitchen, as I have said elsewhere, was big: maybe 30 feet by 40 feet. And Dad wanted to use blocks for the flooring. But not 2×4 slices. Dad ordered a huge number of slightly smaller wooden blocks–3″ x 1 1/2″ x 3/4″ deep–made of oak, stained a dark brown and chemically treated to be fire retardant. When the blocks arrived we “seasoned” them–which is to say, stored them in huge stacks in the living room for months, until the chemical smell of the blocks gentled a little. Dad had ordered 40,000 of them, so even in tidy stacks it was a lot of wood.
When the wood was adequately cured, Dad prepped the floor by laying down long 1 x 1 inch strips of pine in a 3 foot grid, so the floor looked as though it was a vast checkerboard. Then the tubs of dull tan flooring cement came out, and that stuff smelled far worse than the blocks had at any time (I sometimes wonder how many brain cells the fumes cost us). Then, square by square, Dad laid the floor. It was a special treat if you got to lay a couple of rows of blocks (at least Dad thought it was a special treat, as many years later he used to offer me the treat of trimming his beard). So the floor got laid in tidy squares of dark oak. tightly packed together. Eventually he planned to seal them with a coat or three of polyurethane, but first he wanted the floor to cure–which I took to mean, let the smell of blocks-and-cement fade.
That was in September. We were still living in New York and going up to the country on weekends. In wintertime one of the last things we did before we left the Barn every weekend was to drain the pipes in case of a freeze. When water freezes it increases in volume, and water in pipes will burst the pipes and, when the water thaws, flood your house. But it wasn’t winter yet. No need to drain the pipes until December, at the earliest.
You see where this is going, right? A freeze hit in early November. We drove up as usual one Friday night. Dad got out of the car to turn on the lights and stopped dead in the doorway, causing one of those three-car pileups as Mom, my brother and I slammed into him. We looked, and as we were looking Dad stepped carefully into the room and sat down on the stairs. I don’t think he was crying, but he must have wanted to.
I’ve calculated that Dad used 38,400 blocks, give or take. The water from the broken pipe had flooded the entire kitchen floor; the unsealed blocks soaked up the water, swelled, and popped. The whole floor was a sea of warped blocks in mounds and piles. The work of that weekend became all about pulling up the few remaining cemented blocks and clearing up the swollen, sodden, warped remains of the kitchen floor.
The next week Dad started planning the new kitchen floor. This time he’d use flagstones. It required pouring cement reinforcing columns in the basement to handle the weight, but by God, that floor was going to be water resistant. What did we do with all the ruined blocks? Even when they dried out sufficiently, we couldn’t burn them (that pesky fire-retardant treatment). Most of them had been warped beyond the point where you could use them for much (although Dad did build a handsome chessboard out of some). Some were toted off to the dump, but for years after the great block debacle blocks remained, here and there; I think Dad hoped he’d find a use for them. Waste not, want not.

Interview: Amy Sterling Casil, Ron Collins, Michael Libling Part One

Welcome to the first set of interviews. Three writers met with me (via email) and talked about many things. The interview will be posted every Monday for the next few weeks. I (Gillian Polack) am the interviewer, which largely meant throwing in a question and standing well back. The three writers (Amy Sterling Casil, Ron Collins and Michael Libling) are all pretty amazing, but I’ll let them speak for themselves. Let me throw the first of the questions in, to get them started.

Gillian Polack (henceforth, Gillian)

A stranger once asked me to tell them three things about myself. I’ve thought about this often since then, and have discovered that asking writers to tell me three things gives much more interesting replies than asking for a short life history.

1. If you had to explain what you write to that stranger, what would you tell them? (The stranger was French, if it helps.)

2. Imagine a game show (not Squid Game, a poor answer won’t kill you) where you have to describe your writing using five adjectives. The audience buzzes boring words, or predictable words. You don’t want to hear that buzzer. What are your five words?

3. What’s your favourite question about your work, the one you’re always happy for people to ask?

 

Ron Collins (Ron):

As Mike said in his answer to the first question, “Zut alors! Or, as we say in Quebec, “tabernac!” …Both of which roughly describe my feelings about the answers below…” I keep hearing ‘Tabernac!’ when I read these answers, but, as a response, it doesn’t fit them all. Read on…

 

1. What do you write?

Amy Sterling Casil (Amy): I’m a female science fiction writer and I now write stories featuring women, girls, and non-human creatures (animals, others, machine life). I also write factual books for children and teens. They’re often about medical, science, or tech topics. And, I write creative nonfiction online via the Medium service. It’s a different type of writing via online. Topics are current and the format is very different from traditional books or short fiction.

Michael Libling (Mike): Most likely, I would pretend I didn’t hear the question and move on to a topic with which I was more at ease. If forced to answer, however, I’d likely blather on like this…

I write stories about everyday life and everyday people, and then drop some freakish element into the mix, which tends to lay waste to the “everyday.” In terms of specifics, I try to avoid the obvious in my pursuit of the “freakish,” thus avoiding vampires, zombies, ghosts, wizards, dragons, and the like. The more unassuming the menace, the more frightening it is to me.

Some editors have told me I write mainstream fiction with a genre sensibility, while others insist my writing is genre fiction with a mainstream sensibility. One long-ago, former agent of mine lamented the fact my work was neither literary nor genre, which made his job too difficult. The way I see it, my fiction tends to cross categories, blending any number of the following at any given time: mainstream, fantasy, horror, mystery, thriller, and science fiction. If there is a unifying factor in my work, it would be the recurrent strains of dark humour.

My upcoming novel (Autumn 2023 from WordFire Press), THE SERIAL KILLER’S SON TAKES A WIFE, was described by one reader as “a breezy spin on horrible things.” Looking back, I think this same description could apply to most of my work.

Ron:

I used to say that I write speculative fiction, and just left it at that.

Unfortunately, or fortunately I suppose, that’s not really true now. I’ve written twenty or so novels, and nearly 200 short stories, and when I look at them, I see the fact is that I write across pretty much every genre. I’ll chuckle at myself here and admit that I was tempted to end that sentence with “except horror,” but then had to chastise myself because I’ve done several things with at least some elements of horror in them. Bad writer!

Here’s the thing, though. I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t like the default feeling of talking about genre anymore. Yes, I still focus on speculative fiction—science fiction and fantasy and things that go in strange directions—but the reality is that I love story, and that’s what I’m trying to do. Tell stories—hopefully stories that matter to me, filled with characters I can relate to.

I can’t control how people react to those stories, of course. The world is full of opininated people, and I can’t please them all. But these days I figure that if I tell stories that matter to me, I’ll be speaking to an audience that will care about them, too. And if someone doesn’t find them relevant, well, that’s fine. They just aren’t my audience.

So, what matters to me?

That, unfortunately, you’ll need to read some of my work to decide.

 

2. What are your five words?

Amy:

Emotional, easy-to-read, eclectic, exciting, and electric

Ron: Hmmm. I think I’m going to get buzzed.

Honestly, I don’t know. I sit down, and whatever comes out comes out. Last week, for example, I went to the writing desk totally intent on writing a science fiction story for a publication I often contribute to, but my brain wouldn’t do that. Instead, it wanted to work on a psychological thriller of a short story that bordered on, yes, horror.

That said, I’m a while male of a certain age, so I’m sure that comes out in ways I couldn’t even begin to describe. To generalize, I guess … hmmm … well, let me at least try to answer the question.

·         Hopeful.

·         Honest

·         Wide-ranging

·         Entertaining.

·         Compassionate

See what I mean? I’m totally getting buzzed.

 

Mike: With apologies to Amy for my failure to emulate her alliterative triumph.

Off-the-wall.

Menacing.

Digressive.

Wistful.

Unpredictable.

 

3. What’s your favourite question about your work, the one you’re always happy for people to ask?

Amy:
What inspired you to write story ________________ [or essay/article ____________]?

Ron:

“I love your work, can I give you a check?”

(grin)

Seriously, in this world where attention spans can be measured in picoseconds, I’m just happy for any attention my writing gets at all. It’s nice when people have read something of mine and ask about where it came from, and it’s nice when people ask where they can get my work—though I admit that since I am so all over the place (and write that way under my one and only name) I often wonder if I send people the right direction.

Most of my email questions seem to center around when the next book in my SF series is coming out, which is good news/bad news since I’ve done a mini-Martin and had a gap. The good news, though, is that the wait is over and the series is back in production.

That’s a problem with being an independent publisher, though. There’s only just me, so when life happens, if I can’t get my feet to the pedals for a period of time, everything grinds to a halt.

 

Mike:

Every writer likes to hear, “Where can I buy a copy?” But I also enjoy when a reader asks me, “Did this actually happen? Is that real?” Since much of my writing is grounded in reality and often strays into the autobiographical, I get this a lot. Likewise, I prefer to leave the answer to the question as ambiguous as possible, leading to further speculation.

 

Gillian:

Three questions is enough for one week! Next week there will be more questions, more answers… and some picture.

Unbuttered Thoughts on Social Media

A few years back, after the news reported all the shenanigans with Facebook and elections, some people I know quit that platform. They were justifiably angry.

Lately, I’ve noticed a number of people on Facebook making self-righteous posts about quitting Twitter. Certainly I share their lack of enthusiasm about Elon Musk.

But if you’re willing to put up with Mark Zuckerberg, why get outraged over Elon Musk? Outside of the fact that Musk makes a point of being a particular kind of super-rich asshole in public, what’s the difference between them? Both platforms have problems and they start at the top.

I don’t know if Twitter is going to survive Musk, but I think Jorts the Cat has a good approach to the current situation:

All jokes aside: I am certain that we will work together to find new and innovative ways to be completely unruly, ridiculous and annoying here. We always do ❤️

[Edited 11-4-22 to add:] Dave Karpf has some excellent observations on the Twitter situation. He had speculated that it would stay unchanged for 1-3 months and be dead in a year. Now he thinks it will change in 1-3 weeks and be dead in six months. Karpf is a  professor at George Washington University who studies the Internet and politics and I only know about him because of Twitter.

I also understand that Facebook (I refuse to call it Meta, because while I always honor individual name changes, I laugh at most corporate ones) is in financial trouble, probably because of its silly foray into virtual reality that is not yet ready for prime time.

The owners of far too many companies don’t understand what their product is about or why their users and customers use them. They are too busy looking at ways to make money in the short term to figure out what it is they’re providing.

I’m pretty sure that how much money can be made from something in the next few months is not a good metric for any product or service, but I digress.

I started out skeptical of social media. In general, I found the internet to be a place to publish things I wrote, to read lots of different work, to do research, and to send letters (that is, email as a substitute for mail). I took to blogs immediately — the reading and writing thing — but the other forms did not attract me.

I signed up for Facebook and Twitter because people told me that was how to promote my writing. Now people tell me I need to use Instagram and TikTok and probably 20 other things I haven’t heard of to promote my work.

But here’s the truth: I don’t think I’ve figured out how to use social media of any kind to promote my writing. Continue reading “Unbuttered Thoughts on Social Media”

What Deborah’s Playing on the Piano

Saturday afternoon, I attended a lovely Hallowe’en student concert at Cabrillo College. Audience was masked, performers masked or PCR tested. So great to hear live music again! One of the pieces was a synthesizer adaptation of Satie’s first Gnossienne, which I’m working on. (It was very weird. Very weird on steroids.) That reminded me it’s been a while since I posted what I’m working on now. For those new to this journey, I’m an adult piano student who began piano lessons 15 years ago, my first ever formal instruction. I’m a grown-up, or so the theory goes, so I get to play what I want.

 

  • Satie. Gnossienne #1. It’s a hoot. One measure that goes on for pages, with directions like “Postulez en vous-même” (wonder about yourself). Lots of repetition of the motifs with subtle differences of expression.
  • Gillock. “Silent Snow” from Lyric Preludes in Romantic Style. Gillock was primarily a teacher. These short pieces are beautiful and fun to play as they challenge technique. The one I just started requires exquisite control of dynamics and pedaling. Gillock’s pieces are a great prep for composers like Debussy and Satie.
  • A couple of Schubert waltzes. They’re like “bon-bons” or Chopin Lite.
  • “Warg Scouts” from Howard Shore’s music for The Hobbit. The dwarves are running for their lives, Radagast is trying to lure the orcs on their wargs away, and Gandalf is scheming to get his part to Rivendell. Pounding rhythm. Am I nuts? When I looked at the piece, I went, “Ack!! I can’t possibly!!!” So I’m tackling it slowly with the metronome under my teacher’s guidance. Might take a couple of years to get it up to tempo (quarter note = 180, agitated) but it will do wonders for my technique. And be soooo much fun!
  • Bach Invention 14. If I skip a day, it falls apart. Otherwise, I’m focusing on the way the motif bounces back from one hand to the other, detached notes in one hand but legato in the other.
  • Debussy. “Claire de Lune.” Be still, my heart. I’m about a page away from playing it straight through and then we get to work on dynamics, speed, and expression.
When I have time, I work on my past repertoire. Current favorites are “May It Be” (Enya), Debussy’s “La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin,” Satie’s 1st and 3rd Gymnopédies, a transcription of Ashokan Farewell, and a bunch of music from LotR.

Something new

This Monday, today, October 31 (if I say it often enough, I’ll believe it – where I am it is a blowy November day and a famous horse race is in the offing) is the introduction to something new. Starting next week, as they come to hand, I’ll be posting long interviews with writers. By ‘long’ I mean that the first one will extend over four weeks.

My other Monday posts will appear in between interviews and interviews may follow each other rapidly or be months apart. But there will be interviews.

Why?

Around me, so many readers are asking “Why haven’t we heard of this writer?” One of the reasons is because fewer writers are given as much time by bloggers and podcasts and critics. I was looking at my own visibility in the US and realised how little of me is known to readers of Locus, which is the leading magazine for science fiction and fantasy – I don’t fit their profile for an author. Many, may writers don’t fit these profiles. Because so many of us are less visible, writers don’t develop as many profound loyalties to writers who fit the profile of important magazines and critics, or who are not on the right lists and win the right prizes. It’s harder to discover those unique voices and to seek out writers who are not in our own country or published by our favourite imprints. It’s harder, to be honest, to see writers. I want to see writers. Who they are, how they talk, and I want to enjoy time with them. That’s what these interviews are about: time. Time to argue, to be fascinated, to chase to find a book, to stop and think, to laugh. Time to see just how interesting writers can be.

Years ago I did group interviews for BiblioBuffet, a literary e-journal. These interviews among my most popular work from those days and are still discovered by new readers. Those readers occasionally report back to me about them. They tell me how good the interviews are, because of their length and their substance.  I looked at my early interviews again recently, to determine their persistent appeal. I think it’s because when a group of writers get together, we have conversations. We go in unexpected directions and give readers insights into work. There is no PR template.  It’s exciting to not know where an interview is headed, or how a writer responds to questions and how the whole thing can become immensely wise or devolve into silliness on the same page.

The first interview will appear, magically, throughout November and maybe into early December After that, it will be as they’re finished. I don’t restrict length, or push for a given novel to be publicised. This isn’t about publicity, after all. It’s about writers. These writers. About how fascinating writers can be and how not a single one of us thinks the way we expect they will.

The first interview is from Amy Sterling Casil (one of the members of this Treehouse) with Ron Collins and Mike Libling. It’s all ready to go, which means I can tell you with the power of advance knowledge… it’s so much fun! Such a good start to this new series.

Final Friday: And We’re Away…..

Last month I blogged about the weeks leading up to the launch of my most recent book, Uncanny Times.  But now we’re a ten days post-launch, and it’s time to check in, and do a reality check.

I’d been doing pre-release publicity up to the day or release: blogposts and podcasts and interviews and social media all over the place until even my mom would have been tired of seeing my face.  Does it actually move any books?  God only knows, and They’re not telling. You do what you can to the best of your ability and spoons, and hope something sticks. 

But even with all that, even with the positive reviews the book was getting and the publicity, and the very successful Goodreads giveaway, and everything else we were able to do… come October 18th, it was all in the hands of the bitch-goddess of Retail.

Take a deep breath.  Wait.

Everything up until now has been Possibility and Expectation. Shit’s real now.

Some people like doing a Big Event on the day-of.  I’ve done that before, and, honestly… the stress of planning always overwhelmed any actual benefit, either emotionally or sales-wise.  I think everyone should do it at least once, but after that…. unless your publisher is doing all the work, go with what you, personally, enjoy.  If that’s a big party, great! If it’s staying home on your couch and ignoring everything, also great!a "congrats!" balloon and a copy of UNCANNY TIMES on a wooden bartop.

Since we had events lined up for that weekend, I chose to meet friends for drinks after work, to properly toast Uncanny Times on its way.  (I showed up to find one friend already there, hand-selling the book to her fellow drinkers at the bar.  That’s the kind of friend every writer should have).

While I’d love to say that the next morning I woke up and simply went back to work, focused on the next project, that would be an utter and absolute lie.  I checked the Amazon rankings. And googled my name + title. Promoted the book signings I was going to do that weekend. Rinse and repeat every few hours for the next three days.

And then I made myself stop.  Not entirely – I’m only human, after all.  But the every hour nonsense, yeah.  I should note here that I do not take Amazon “bestseller” status with any particular seriousness. I watch how the ratings fluctuate, and note dips or peaks rather than any particular number.  And, of course, I anxiously read the early reader reviews. But my focus shifted from “what will critics say/how can I get the word out?” to “how can I expand my reach?”

Because, and this is a truth it took me a few books to learn, Launch Day is a day to celebrate, to enjoy, to stand on a chair and shout out to the world THIS IS MY BOOK ! IT’S HERE! But it’s also just one day in a long march of days, and the weeks after launch matter just as much as the days before.

And then, sooner than you think, but honestly also not soon enough, you have to let the book do what it will do, and go back to work on the next.

I’m looking forward to that.

 

and remember….

image of one person handing another a book, with the text: If you love a book...tell one friend!

Process

I love learning how to do stuff. When I was a kid I had weaving lessons the way that my peers had piano or violin lessons. I taught myself to sew when I was a teenager. Taught myself to knit. And when I see a recipe for something I’ve never made — particularly if it’s a fairly basic thing (like cheese) or a really complex thing (baklava! beef Wellington!) my thumbs start twitching. It’s not that I need home made cheese — I’m pretty much the only cheese eater in my house — but the urge to know how to do it is nearly overwhelming.

This is the reason I have found myself doing things as foolish as refinishing my own hardwood floors or stripping wall paper: it’s not that I’m an insane DIY-er; I’m learning the process (also learning that I never want to do it again). By the same token, I’ve taken stage combat and fencing classes (never real martial arts, mind you, but I can use a quarterstaff, a rapier, a broadsword, or pretend to beat you to a pulp) so I’d know. And don’t get me started on assembling Ikea furniture.  It’s like crack: look! This goes there! Cool!

What licenses me to do these things? Being a writer. A few months ago I was talking to a group of Girl Scouts about my career, and someone asked me what the best part of being a writer was. I don’t know what the girls were expecting, but when I said “research!” they looked as if I’d said “spinach!” But other than being a scientist or a beta tester, I know of no other profession that encourages — requires — that I find out how things work.  That can mean plumbing the depths of biology or astronomy, or reading (as I currently am) about women’s legal status in medieval Italy. It can mean reading, or it can mean, for me, getting out a hammer and nails and building a chair, just to see if I can, and so I’ll know the smell and the noises and the feel of wood under my hands.

In the end, writing is all about the process too. With each project, book or story, I find out different things about how I write and what I –and the project– need.  Getting to learn new processes is just an extra! added! bonus!

 

©2011 This post was originally published on the Book View Café Blog

The Downhill Path to Understanding

I’m waiting for mail. I blame conversations. I also blame virtual and hybrid science fiction conventions. This last month, I’ve been to a couple, and one of them worked out how people could get that casual chat that’s such a part of face to face conventions. And all this is good… except…. Except… when one is sitting at one’s computer (notice how I distance myself from something I’ve done) it is the work of but an instant to buy that book that the group is talking about.

A group of prize-winning Korean writers talked about influences on their work, for instance, at VICFA (the Virtual meeting for the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts) and one of them threw casually into the conversation that the most important writer was finally in translation. Reader, I now own Kim Bo-Young’s I’m Waiting for You.

Most books are still heading my way.

Only one has arrived, and it’s related to me trying to understand why the popular view of Jewish history in central and eastern Europe is so very wrong (mostly) for anything prior to the 1770s. What happened in and around the 1770s, was the partitioning of Poland. A vast country (the whole of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) went, to describe it a bit simplistically, from being dominant, to being under the rule of others. Most of the sense of Jewish history we have came from places under Russian rule, which is currently very topical. So many lives were changed so profoundly and for such a long period, that we still think of Tevye the Milkman as being a kind of Universal Nice Jew and Anatevka as being the classic stetl and stetls being the only place Jews could live in all those vast regions.

I know more of the history of the region now, and understand both why the change happened, and why a lot of people take the position of Jews in the late Russian Empire as typical and push it back to the seventeenth and sixteenth centuries. I need to know more about how people actually lived. Polish SFF fandom is helping me in this endeavour, but I also have to help myself. I helped myself to much reading. Some I’ve borrowed, some I’ve read online, but very occasionally there is something I must buy because I live in a city with too small a Jewish population to obtain it locally. A book by Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern is the most recent ‘must-buy.’ It’s called The Golden Age Shtetl. A New History of Jewish Life in East Europe.

My little library of Jewish history is slowly growing, as is my knowledge. This book covers the transition period, when Jewish life changed so dramatically. Before the book begins, there was the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, where Jews could work in almost any trade and lived in cities and towns. At the end of it, we have that dream of a small town or even village Jew, being thrown out of their home by an uncaring Tsar.

The reality is complex, but if I can understand those changes, I’ll know my own heritage but I’ll also be able to write more about it, whether using it as a setting for fiction, or writing critical essays. The immediate reason I bought the book is partly because someone mentioned it and I checked it out, but mostly because I had a conference paper on Jewishness in a couple of works of fiction accepted and I need to know this book to write it. Right now, my subject knowledge is cumbersome. One day, learning about this subject will tip down the artificial mound of rubble made by ill-digested information. As I roll down that hill, everything will suddenly be clear.

And now I must watch for mail. I’m still missing eleven books. They’re all work-related, just as these two are, and every single one of them is likely to upend things I thought I knew and maybe, just maybe, push me off that hillside and start on the real learning.

Comfort and the Lack of It

The Mirro Crack'd book coverMy comfort books of choice are mysteries.

This is in part because a good mystery can engage your mind while being separate from the real troubles of your life. But it’s also because when I was around 10 or 11 I graduated from reading Nancy Drew to diving into my mother’s extensive pile of Agatha Christie books.

That is, I associate those books with the somewhat simpler time of childhood.

As a kid, I vastly preferred the Poirot novels to the ones featuring Miss Marple, and I continued in that preference until after my mother died and I ended up with a bunch of her books. I picked up a Marple and discovered I liked those stories much better than I had as a kid.

It might have been because I had reached the age that Jane Marple is in some of the early books. Christie wisely never quite specifies her age, but at a guess she’s in her late 50s in the early ones and maybe pushing 90 by the end. I was ready for stories about a smart old woman.

And Miss Marple is very smart, a reminder that the misogyny of the 20th century wrote off a large number of intelligent women with a lot to offer society. Christie’s plots are always absurd, but that doesn’t take away from Miss Marple’s powers of observation and detection.

I recently discovered that one of the ebook providers through my library has the Miss Marple books and, in need of some comfort reading, I’ve been going through them. Last week I finally decided to try The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side, one of the later books, published in 1962 when Christie herself would have been in her 70s.

As a rule, when I re-read a mystery, I’ve forgotten who actually “done it,” though pieces of the story come back to me. (This rule does not apply to books I’ve read multiple times, such as Gaudy Night.) But in this case, I not only remembered who the murderer was, I also remembered that I really hadn’t liked the book when I was young. So I wasn’t sure what I’d think.

I did like it better this time, though I was also much more aware of the ableism, racism, and issues of social class that permeate the story.

On the other hand, it wasn’t ageist. One key subplot involves the companion who now lives with Miss Marple because of her health. This companion is the sort of person who talks to her charges as “we” and ignores their preferences because she doesn’t believe they are mentally competent. Since we see her from Miss Marple’s POV, we understand just how grating that behavior is for an old person, even one who needs some assistance.

But the real reason I’m writing about this book is that it slipped out of the comfort reading category because of a key element of the plot that feels all too relevant in a time of ongoing pandemic.

Discussing that requires a major spoiler for the book, which I might not do except for the fact that it was first published 60 years ago and I suspect that very few people who really want to read it and be surprised have not already read it.

If you fall into that small class, don’t keep reading. Continue reading “Comfort and the Lack of It”