Thursday, May 28, 2015

William Zinsser (1922-2015)

I just learned today that one of my heroes is dead. William Zinsser, author of my writing bible, On Writing Well, passed away at his home in New York City on May 12. He was 92. 

I can only hope he died with pen in hand.

Mr. Zinsser worked as a journalist, then a teacher at Yale,  a freelance writer, again as a teacher, and finally, when he could no longer see due to glaucoma, he helped students and others by listening to their writing and offering guidance.

He wrote many books on a variety of subjects including baseball (Spring Training), historic American sites (American Places), jazz (Mitchell & Ruff), and American songwriters and their songs (Easy to Remember). All were written in the clear, uncluttered, personal style that his classic book on writing espoused.

I own two editions (second and third) of On Writing Well (I wrote about it here). I tracked down a hardcover copy of Spring Training many seasons ago. I also own Writing to Learn, a guide to using writing as a way to immerse oneself in an area of knowledge. The latest addition to my Zinsser bookshelf is The Writer Who Stayed, a collection of weekly essays he wrote for The American Scholar magazine (which I wrote about here).

Writing With a Word Processor is a humorous and helpful look at his trials and tribulations in learning to graduate from pen and paper to machine. It helped me understand my first word processor...oh, so many years ago.

I met him once. It was in 1997. The  30th anniversary edition of On Writing Well had just been published. He came to speak at the library and I took my well-used third edition of the book for him to autograph.

I remember thanking him, as he signed my copy, for the guidance and inspiration his books had given me. I gave him my business card. (For what reason I have no idea. I guess I just hoped he might remember me.) The morning after his appearance, I suddenly wondered if he had a ride to the airport. I phoned the hotel, but he had already checked out. I wish I had thought of that sooner. Wouldn't that have been a story to tell! 

Farewell, Mr. Zinsser. Thank you for your enthusiasm for writing and your generosity in passing on your knowledge of the craft. If I have ever managed to write one coherent, concise sentence, I owe it to you.

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Golden Age Classic Mysteries

Lurid Cover!

Here is a report on the first two classes of the History of Mystery course I am taking at the library. The free, six-week course is taught by a woman with a great sense of humor and a wealth of knowledge and many reading lists. We love reading lists.

The first 90-minute session began with a brief summing up of the beginning of the mystery genre with Edgar Alan Poe's stories featuring Detective Dupin (1841), Dicken's Bleak House featuring Inspector Bucket (1852), and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's inimitable Sherlock Holmes (1887). The instructor then gave an overview of the five types of mysteries we will be studying and a few authors in each category. 

The Golden Age: Christie, Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Allingham
Hardboiled Detectives/Police Procedurals: Spillane, Chandler, Paretsky, Rankin
Cozy: Dorothy Cannell, Carolyn Hart, Diane Mott Davidson
Katherine Hall Page
Dark and Dangerous: Elizabeth George, Val McDermid, Tana French, Patricia Cornwell
More Than Just Mysteries: Ruth Rendell, Amanda Cross, Martha Grimes, Louise Penny

She admitted that she was introduced to detective fiction as a teenager when she found a box of mysteries in her grandmother's attic 'with lurid covers'. You know the ones she means. She eventually discovered Agatha Christie, read all of those she could get her hands on, and because she decided that Ms. Christie was the best, she didn't read another mystery for thirty years!

She is making up for lost time. 

For last night's session we were to read Ms. Christie's And Then There Were None (which I read in 2012 and wrote about here). It was such a puzzler that even though I thought I remembered how the author worked it out, I wasn't really quite sure as I was rereading the tale. I was as surprised at the ending as those reading it for the first time.

The mysteries of the Golden Age were mostly written by British authors in the 1920s and '30s. They were rule-bound, classic whodunnits that center on the investigation and solution of the crime.

The structure is pretty much the same. There is the introduction of the detective; the commission of the crime and presentation of clues; the investigation including interviews with witnesses, theories of possible solutions, and further obfuscations; the announcement that a solution has been found; the presentation of the solution; and a short denouement.

Rules of the Golden Age mystery include:
**The Victim must not be famous or elicit much sympathy from the reader.
**The reader cannot be too emotionally invested in The Criminal.
**The Detective must use scientific powers of observation, reasoning, psychological analysis, and be somewhat detached. 

The emphasis is on a clear assignment of guilt and restoration of order. The mysteries revolve around the idea that evil is not part of the established social order, but a disruption of it by an individual. The evil is not in the world, but in the 'least likely person.'

They are structured and grounded in the environment which is why sometimes these mysteries would include a map (the island), or house plan (the country house), or cast of characters (so very helpful in keeping the players straight). 

For the reader, there is always the certainty that there will be a solution. It is assured that by the end of the book, we will know who the evil person is. There will be no vague endings. The good are saved and the bad are punished. There is an affirmation of the rightness of the established social order of which the reader is a part. Our world is OK.

I have never really analyzed my fondness for the Golden Age Classics. But, first, I relish a good puzzle and know that even if I don't solve the mystery, the author will. The murder usually happens 'off-stage' and there is very little blood involved. Also, I love that time period and the civilized behavior of everyone (murder aside). There is always time for tea or cocktails in the drawing room even though bodies are lying dead in the bedrooms upstairs. And finally, Good does triumph over Evil.

The instructor is providing reading lists for each category of mystery and I have created a History of Mystery page and will add to it as the class goes on. Check back.

Next week, Hardboiled Detectives and I, the Jury by Mickey Spillane.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Murder Mystery History at the library

Image result for mystery books clipart
Tonight begins a six-week course at my public library entitled Murder Mystery History: An Examination of the Whodunnit Genre. It is free (we love free) and is offered as part of the library's short-course program. There have been other courses on architecture, the origins of modern science, and classical music. 

Really, my library is quite brilliant to think of this. (OK, I know a library can't think, but you know what I mean.)

I have signed up and look forward to this overview of murder mystery fiction (and am hoping for an extensive reading list) taught by the provost of the community and technical college here. According to the LFPL website, the instructor has multiple degrees in English and I hope at least one degree in Mystery. 

More to follow after I see what this 'body in the library' has to reveal. 

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

Image result for encyclopedia of an ordinary

I admit that I am as enthralled with the idea behind Amy Krouse Rosenthal's book as I am with the book itself.

Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life is her memoir, of sorts, presented in the form of an encyclopedia...A-Z. So we have entries such as Answering Machines; Anxious, things that make me; Monopoly (like me, she hates the game); the relief of a Rainy Day; memories of a Red Gingham Tablecloth; and Writing Tools - hand, typewriter, computer - and what influence they may have on a writer's style.  

There are plenty of entries detailing some of her quirks that I can identify with:

**She fantasizes about getting rid of everything in her closet except for an outfit or two.

**She not only eats when she is hungry, but also if she is worried that she will be hungry. For instance, if she determines she will be in the middle of watching a film at dinnertime, she grabs a sandwich before she goes to the theater, even though she is not yet hungry, to eliminate any future hunger discomfort.

**She returns again and again to the photo/bio of the author on the flap of a book she is enjoying.

I have done all those things. 

The entries are almost all short which appeals to my diminishing attention span. I swear, I found myself laughing out loud at an entry, nodding my head in agreement at another, and getting misty-eyed at the next one.

It seems I am always on the quest for a way to record my life, 
(see this post) and looking at it in the form of an encyclopedia certainly has its appeal.

Perhaps my first entry could be:

Encyclopedia - A word I learned to spell from a little ditty that was sung on Mickey Mouse Club. Jiminy Cricket taught us to chirp EN CY C LO PEDIA. To this day, I have to sing the letters to myself whenever I write or type the word.

And although Ms. Rosenthal didn't make an entry for Z, I would have to write:

Zero tolerance - for barking dogs, cigarette smoke, heat and humidity, rude service people, radio and television commercials, and magazine advertisements.   

Anyway, I adored this book. And as I sometimes do, I fell in love with Amy (which is why I now feel obliged to call her by her first name).  She would make a wonderful best friend! I found out more about her via a couple of her Ted Talks and her short films on YouTube. 

She loves a bit of wordplay, watches out for synchronicity everywhere, and wants to save the world by Beckoning the Lovely. 

She also has created a journal just for us - An Encyclopedia of Me: My Life from A to Z - so we can write our own record of an ordinary life.

Amy - woman to thank.