Murder in the Manuscript Room

What could be better to wile away the hours of a trip spanning almost the length of Mississippi than a good murder mystery? I’d saved Murder in the Manuscript Room by Con Lehane for just such an occasion.

In good crime novel tradition, amateur sleuth Raymond Ambler, who is NYC’s 42nd Street Library’s curator of crime fiction, sets out to solve the murder of a young woman who may or may not have been the person she claimed to be. Multiple suspects turn up, all with questionable motives for the crime. Could it be the young Islamic scholar doing research in the library, an ex-husband, or a member of a corrupt police department? Is the crime related to another in the upstate prison or maybe to a long-ago murder of a union reformer? Winding through this plot is Ambler’s growing relationship with Adele Morgan, a custody battle for his grandson, and redemption help for the grandson’s babysitter caught with drugs. Adele’s friendship with the murder victim makes her an avid partner in the search for her killer. Her fondness for the grandson makes her a willing ally in the custody fight and enhances her relationship to Raymond.

This book is second in a series and although I had not read the first, enough pertinent items from it were included that I did not feel lost, but I think not so many that readers of the first would feel bored. It also brought closure while hinting at another mystery to come. 

The book accomplished its purpose as I lost myself in the streets of New York City while the highway miles flew by to North Mississippi. It brought no new insights on life nor did it teach any grand lessons, but it took away my question of “Are we there yet?”


Behind the Cliche 

Clichés in their origins were clever or universal truths, sometimes both. “The apple does not fall far from the tree.” “It ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings.” Often, they reflect the region of the country where they originate. “Don’t buy a pig in a poke.” You may add your own favorites.

Some clichés are pertinent to the profession they represent. One of the most common ones for writers is “Write what you know.” Disputes arise with this, especially in the areas of fantasy and science fiction since even the context of these are often made up. Proponents argue that one can come to know by research or by careful preplanning as J. K. Rowling did with the Harry Potter series as she meticulously laid out her fictional community before she got involved in the story.

Within the last couple of months, I’ve published what I know and what I wish I knew. Thema Literary Magazine published, in their “Missing Letters” volume, an essay describing my search to know the rest of the story. Mama saved nearly all the letters I wrote home over the years but stopped in 1982 when Daddy died. Where are the others? Why did she stop? I wish I knew.

On the other hand, in its December edition, The Writer Magazine published my article on a subject with which I am well-acquainted. “Ranking Rejection” as the magazine suggests on the cover blurb tells why, even in rejection, some “no’s” are better than others. I know each category well and can illustrate each of them from my rejection folder, beginning with zero for no answer at all to ten for an acceptance!   

While I like seeing the article in print with my byline, I do wish I didn’t know this topic quite so well!


Myself and My World: A Biography of William Faulkner

On a week when Joyce Carol Oates was quoted as saying, “If Mississippians read, Faulkner would be banned,” it just so happened that this Mississippian was in the midst of an excellent biography of William Faulkner, Myself and the World: A Biography of William Faulkner by Robert W. Hamblin. It seemed the perfect foil for her statement.

Hamblin himself notes that excellent biographies of Faulkner have been written by academics for academics. His intended audience, the general reading public including younger readers, brought him to write an interesting and readable volume. Chronologically, he follows Faulkner from his birth in New Albany, Mississippi to his death with his wish fulfilled of leaving work that would live long after him.

Contrasts abound in Faulkner’s life. Critical acclaim in the world at large was followed by antipathy in his native Mississippi. His brilliant writing periods intersperse with times when he fell prey to alcoholism.  Family ties include devotion to his mother and taking an orphaned niece into the family but having multiple extramarital affairs.

Hamblin says if the book causes the readers to want to read (or reread) Faulkner’s novels and stories, it will have served its purpose. I will admit that I found myself wanting to do just that as I read the account of where he was in life as each manuscript was finished. Starting with the Snopes trilogy, I plan to read with the biography at hand to match the time in his life to the book he was writing. I recommend the biography even to those who aren’t all that interested in Faulkner’s work.

Even before I begin the Snopes books, I just downloaded The White Rose of Memphis, his grandfather Falkner’s claim to fame, intriguingly mentioned in Hamblin’s introduction.

So, Joyce Carol, there are those of us in Mississippi who read quite a bit. Sometimes we used to read your books.


Playboy Magazine and The Snowy Day

People who know me well may be surprised that Hugh Hefner’s death triggered thoughts for a blog. Then again, there have been other strange topics covered here from time to time. The second surprise may come in pairing Playboy magazine with The Snowy Day. Hang with me, and I’ll connect the dots.

When he answered the phone, Ezra Jack Keats expected the first words he heard, “Long distance from Chicago.” He’d had a problem with Playboy magazine’s paycheck sent for an illustration he had done for them. They’d overpaid him. Scrupulously honest, he’d called the magazine and talked to a secretary who knew nothing about it but promised to check and get back with him.

But this wasn’t that phone call! A different voice said, “Mr. Keats? This is Ruth Gagliardo from the American Library Association. Are you sitting down? I have wonderful news for you. Your book The Snowy Day has won the Caldecott Award.” She sounded excited.

Still a novice in the children’s book world, Keats had no idea what a Caldecott Award was. He thanked her for the award and figured he’d ask around later and find out what he’d won.

“Would you like to make a statement?” she asked.

How should he respond? “Well, I’m certainly happy for the little boy in the book.”

“Oh, my. How touching! I’ll always remember what you said . . . Your Snowy Day, we all believe, will be a landmark in children’s books.” Mrs. Gagliardo asked him to keep the award a secret until after the press released the story. Keats promised and surreptitiously questioned friends who said the Caldecott was the highest award given for picture books.

If you’re still curious about the Playboy issue, Keats got a another long distance call from Chicago, the Playboy secretary saying the editors decided his art was worth more than the original agreement – no mistake and he could keep the money.

I can’t guarantee that the picture in my photo is the one under discussion since he did several for Playboy, but the magazine date makes it possible. Herbert Gold’s description in the piece of fiction “Happy Hipster” says, “He had a long creased horsy face, intelligent, and with large square teeth, a long lazy body with lots of lean on it.” Seems to me Keats captured the fellow pretty well, and one might actually read the magazine for the story and enjoy the art.

As for Mrs. Gagliardo’s prediction that The Snowy Day would become a landmark, here we are more than fifty years later buying Snowy Day stamps at the post office!


Maya Lin

Fittingly, Susan Goldman Rubin titles the chapters of her book Maya Lin with artful substances from nature since the natural world informs Maya's architectural art.

            Chapter 1 – Clay describes Maya’s early years in a home of Chinese ancestry with a father who is a ceramicist and a mother who is a poet. Given the chance to do her own modeling with the clay, hearing poetic words, and being surrounded by natural beauty sets a stage early for what she will become.

            Chapter 2 – Granite tells the story of her unexpected win by a college student over 1,421 entries to design the Vietnam Memorial. Who would have thought her simple symbolic design would require so much strength on her part to keep that design as she had envisioned or that she would get only a B + for the class?

            Chapter 3 – Water gave her a vision of using the biblical quote from the Martin Luther King address on the Civil Rights Memorial “Until Justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream” with water flowing over the quote.

            Chapter 4 – Earth took her back to childhood playing with her brother over hills behind their house. She created “Wave Field,” “Flutter,” and “Storm King Wave Field” from that memory experience.

            Chapter 5 – Glass kept an old barn in one sculpture and created a skylighted Noah’s ark with another, both with abundant glass to give a feeling of being outdoors in nature.

            Chapter 6 – Celadon green from her Chinese heritage was Maya’s choice for the basic color of the Museum of Chinese in America.

            Chapter 7 – Dunes and Driftwood became replacements for parking lots as she paid tribute to the paths of Lewis and Clark and the parallel path of the Native Americans to the ocean. She achieved her goal of showing what had been lost and what could be saved.

            Chapter 8 – Wood has her only design for a family home. Most of the time, Maya will not do this kind of work. However, she did not abandon her outdoor approach since the house has a tree growing up through the deck and an abundance of windows.

The final chapter sets her philosophy of giving back and thinking about what is missing as society takes over the natural world.

With many beautiful photographs, abundant research, and a gift for story-telling, Susan Goldman Rubin shows Maya, the human being, along with her artistic achievement and her love of nature.  I recommend this fascinating biography of the work of the accomplished architect which is also a Junior Library Guild selection if you would like additional verification.