Book 8 of 2019: Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear

In 1929 London, Private Investigator Maisie Dobbs unearths a series of suspicious deaths connected to a home for disfigured veterans. Using her knowledge of psychology and quiet determination, Maisie must unravel the mystery and finally leave her own trauma from The Great War behind.

Maisie Dobbs is an intriguing and complex read that will stick with me for a long time. Anyone with even a passing interest in World War One will find Winspear’s descriptions of the scars it created fascinating. Maisie herself is a well-rounded and intriguing protagonist. Her journey from a junior maid to university student to a battlefield nurse could be a novel in its own right, but Winspear manages to 126 pages, somehow without feeling rushed. Maisie is brave, intelligent, and resourceful but still very much a woman of her time. Her goal isn’t to break through the boundaries set for her sex and class. She only wants to help people.

As a historical novel, Maisie Dobbs is nearly flawless. I found the mystery element slightly disappointing. Soldiers dying under mysterious circumstances, leaving everything to the leader of their cloistered retreat, and buried under only their first names could have been milked for incredible suspense. That line was dropped in the middle of the book in favor of describing Maisie’s past and wartime love affair for over a third of the book. The skillful prose and complex characters make the interruption forgivable, but they would have been better showcased in their own novel or paced intermittently between the 1929 storyline. Thoughtful historical fiction is lovely, but I picked the book up for a murder mystery.

Winspear has penned an impressive fifteen novels of Maisie Dobbs adventures. I can easily see myself picking one up when I am in a less bloodthirsty, and more historical, mood.

Happy National Writing Day!

Happy National Writing Day, according to the dark cabal of Twitter Hashtags!

Writing is both my favorite and least favorite activity. It’s saved my life multiple times and inspired countless suicidal thoughts. I’ve devoted most of my life to perfecting this craft. Someday I’d like to be paid for it.

I decided to be a writer in second grade. My motives weren’t based on any deep artistic inclination. It was 1997, and I heard somewhere that JK Rowling had more money than the Queen of England. More money than the Queen of England felt like a good starting paycheck, so I started writing.

Then I kept writing.

And kept writing.

And kept writing which brings us to today. I have significantly less money than the Queen of England. I’ve made peace with not being J.K Rowling. I’m still writing and, somewhere along the lines, I found artistic inclination. The revelation that I would keep writing no matter what else happened surprised me, but it’s true. Even if I never make another dime, I will keep writing.

Please don’t misinterpret the previous statement. I still want to be paid. Artistic inclination is a poor substitute for food, rent, and healthcare.

So how do you keep writing? That question is not rhetorical. I love hearing about everyone’s process. I love specific advice to ignore or embrace. A process is a method and conditions creators use to create. They evolve and change over time. If you don’t think you have a process, you probably have many. I have at least two, depending on what I need to accomplish.

My day starts at 6:30. My phone alarm goes off at 6:30. I turn it off and go back to bed. If I remember to charge my phone in the kitchen, I have to physically rise to turn it off. Then I can feed my cat. If I fell asleep with my phone by my bed, I turn it off without getting up, and Sherbert bites my feet. I recommend getting an alarm clock that bites you.

By 7 or 7:30, I am awake enough to make coffee. Then I go back to bed, or I get dressed. After I am dressed, I take my medication, or I go back to bed. My bed may as well be a magnet. Eventually, I go to my job if I don’t go back to bed.

I pay the bills with pet sitting. Dogs and cats don’t require a lot of mental focus. If I don’t have any extra duties, I go home after about an hour. When the job is over, the work begins.

First, I clear my mind by cleaning the apartment for a half hour. I clean the same four areas every day: my desk, my bed, the cat box, and the dishes from the night before. These tasks don’t always take thirty minutes, but I always find something else to do. Focusing on menial labor allows me to free my mind of distraction before I write. Finishing these tasks gives me a feeling of accomplishment that creativity seldom affords.

After I finish cleaning, I write. My daily minimum is 250 words, though I usually write more. When I was younger, I could write thousands of words in one sitting. However, those sittings were few and far between. Now I focus on consistency rather than breaking records.

I usually have three to five projects going on at once. I write essays for this blog, prose for publication, scripts to be performed, and new comedic material. I try not to write on any given subject for more than a half hour at a time. After forty-five minutes, I become sluggish. I get into my own head about editing or originality or money or any number of distractions. When that happens, I close my computer and do something else. When I’ve done something else for thirty minutes, I return to writing, and the cycle starts again.

Something else encompasses the entire rest of the universe. On bad days, I fall into the vortex of the internet and lose hours of creative time. To avoid that sticky spider web, I go off screen.  I count creative activities, like writing longhand, drawing or painting, and reading books for research or inspiration as time spent working. Exercise, eating, cleaning, playing with my cat, or taking a nap are necessary for my physical and mental health. Physical and mental health is required for writing.

Incorporating health into my creative routine is the hardest lesson to learn. Yes, I can ignore my aching back, grumbling stomach and drooping eyes to finish a project on time, but it’s not sustainable. We have a vision of the starving artist, squinting in candlelight with blisters on his fingers, breath visible in his thatched hovel. Reject it. Suffering can lead to art, but life will provide plenty without your input. You do not have to sacrifice health and comfort for creativity. I write much better with my anti-depressants, sugar loaded coffee, and my cat at my feet at the desk I love than I would in a cardboard box with only a bottle of cheap whiskey and negative self-talk for company. Life is necessary for art. Make caring for your body and mind a part of your routine, regardless of your creative inclinations.

I can keep the write/something else cycle up for most of the morning. Once I accomplish my word count, I am free to seek out other diversions. I may pick up some extra jobs, go to the library and research, or socialize. I seek out new opportunities and complete the mundane tasks of promotion and budgeting. I keep writing. Writing is fun. It can frustrate or depress at times, but most of it is fun. I couldn’t have kept writing for so long if it wasn’t mostly fun. My process keeps the work fun for longer and helps me navigate everything else.

Enjoy your work, your creativity, and your life. Find your own process.

If you enjoyed reading about my writing process, you should check out Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey, a book detailing the creative process of such figures as Georgia O’Keefe, Leo Tolstoy, and dozens more. Also, How Do You Write, a fantastic podcast where author Rachael Herron interviews other authors about their process has become a part of my process! I listen to the show while I clean in the morning!

Book 7 of 2019: Lavender Los Angeles from Roots of Equality

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Roots of Equality Authors: Tom De Simone, Teresa Wang, Melissa Lopez, Diem Tran, Andy Sacher, Kersu Dalal, and Justin Emerick

Published in 2011, Lavender Los Angeles provides a brief overview of Queer history in Los Angeles, from the pre-colonial era to the passage of Proposition 8 in 2008, including photographs and illustrations.

The history of Queer people in Los Angeles is rich and storied. Lavender Los Angeles provides an excellent starting point for those, like me, intimidated by more massive tomes. At 127 pages, the authors don’t have time for much-nuanced analysis of the events. Instead, they focus on the events themselves, the notable people, and how they fit into the overall narrative. Lavender Los Angeles is a history book for the people who hated history class.

Despite the page limit, Lavender Los Angeles makes a concentrated effort to include women, people of color, and trans people at all stages of the narrative. From the two-spirit healers of the Indigenous community in the colonial era to Margaret Chung, the first known Chinese Woman Doctor who boasted romantic affairs with Sophie Tucker and Elsa Gridlow in the 1920s, to Angela Douglas, founder of TAO (Transvestite/Transsexual Activist Organization) in 1970. In a field predominantly focused on white, cis men, I appreciate the intersectionality of Lavender Los Angeles.

However, that intersectionality would have been better served with color illustrations. Black and white pictures create a sense of distance to the events. Distance is fine when discussing the lavender marriages and police raids of yesteryear but Proposition Eight, banning same-sex marriage in California, passed a little over a decade ago. Monochrome photographs separate the reader from the immediacy of these issues.

Roots of Equality also managed to avoid the pessimism I usually find in Queer History. While never sugar-coating events, they focus instead on the victories and the sheer joy that the LGBT+ community achieved in Los Angeles. Lavender Los Angeles, despite the closeted connotations of the title, made me proud of my community and eager to participate more fully with my city.

Who Are We?

There are concentration camps in The United States of America. Human beings, many of them children, have been locked away without trial in horrifying conditions. They are sick, dying, and outright murdered by their captors. Their captors operate with no independent oversight, little press coverage, and the financial backing of The United States Government. Our tax dollars fund concentration camps.

The sun is still shining. I had coffee this morning and went to work. I played with my cat. Later, I’ll attend a class and call my mother. There are concentration camps in the United States of America, and I could very reasonably go through my entire day without thinking about them at all, let alone doing something to help. It’s both a privilege and a shame.

Who are we, as a nation, that we can allow such things? We are the same nation that nearly destroyed ourselves over the right to own other human beings. We are the Trail of Tears, Mexican Repatriation, and Japanese Internment camps. We tore people born on this land away from their families and their homes, why am I shocked at the treatment of refugees? If I am so shocked and horrified, why do I read books about liberation rather than taking to the streets against injustice?

Because it is easier. I feel safe with my doors locked, running the errands necessary to survival. Occupying my mind with creativity, petty desires, and tedious dilemmas feels better than confronting and dismantling my own privilege. I tell myself that it’s a different world now. I ask who would be served by risking my income or physical safety? Whose mind can I really change by arguing about fascism and human dignity? If we have been fighting the same battles for centuries, what hope is there for victory now?

There are concentration camps in America. It cannot be unknown. We can go about our lives, but there are concentration camps in America. We can quibble or sob or shake our heads in resignation, but there are concentration camps in America. There is a precedent for the concentration camps in America. This is who we are.

Who do we wish to become? Can I become the type of person I read about? Can I act, not for comfort or safety but because the action itself is right? Can we, as a nation, stare our crimes in the face and make honest recompense? If I recognize that the safety promised by silence is an illusion, will I break it?

Now is the time to find out.

Book 6 of 2019: An Act of Villainy by Ashley Weaver

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I am continuing my crime fiction spree with An Act of Villainy by Ashley Weaver. Amateur sleuth Amory Ames and her formerly philandering husband, Milo, are called to investigate a series of threatening letters sent to Flora Bell, a rising theatrical star and mistress of their married friend, Gerald Holloway. When Flora is killed on opening night, everyone in the cast is a suspect. Amory must find the real killer to save the Holloways’ marriage.

An Act of Villainy is the fifth book in the Amory Ames series. I have read none of them. I followed the plot without any problem. Weaver is skilled at establishing background without being bogged down. We know that Amory and Milo had difficult times in their marriage but have since rekindled their affections, through solving murders. We don’t need to know anything else to enjoy this engaging mystery.

Weaver’s greatest strength is her character work.  She manages to elicit sympathy for a betrayed wife, her cheating husband, and his mistress all at the same time. The stereotypical villains have soft emotions, beloved families, and sordid pasts. Amory is an intelligent detective with lots of empathy and little patience for patriarchy. She inserts herself into a murder investigation, in 1933, with little to no pushback through sheer quiet determination. She doesn’t sneak through alleys or infiltrate criminal organizations. She sits down and drinks tea. Somehow this solves murders.

Unfortunately, this particular murder left a bad taste in my mouth. The mystery is technically serviceable, though the culprit felt shoehorned in. Like Amory, I suspected nearly everyone else before the actual killer, because there was no stated evidence against them until the last few chapters. There was no smoking gun, merely a collection of details glazed over as description. Of course, we learn about dozens of suspicious deaths surrounding the murderer, after they confess. Amory solves the case thanks to an offhand remark from her mother, rather than actual detective work. The solution was a surprise, not because of its originality, but because there were more likely options.

The rest of the story was good enough to overshadow the lackluster solution. For me, the actual crime is the least important element of detective fiction. I want to follow the clues and solve the case, yes, but most importantly I want to care about the characters involved. I care about Amory Ames, so I’m looking forward to reading her other adventures.

Book 5 of 2019: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

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As the first lady private detective in Botswana, Precious Ramotswe solves problems in her clients’ lives, exposing con men, tracking missing husbands and independent daughters, and battling the powerful to rescue the innocent.

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency was just as engaging the second time around. Mma Ramotswe is practical, independent, and hilarious. Botswana is portrayed as a modern country, avoiding the poverty fetishism that so often appears in books about Africa. You can tell that McCall Smith, a former professor at The University of Botswana, truly loves the country.

My one complaint is with the narrative arc. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency wants to be both a novel and short story collection at the same time. Some of the chapters work as stand-alone pieces, while others must be read together. Chapter 12 is a two-page description of Mma Ramotswe’s house. It’s charming and gives the reader a better understanding of the character, but it’s not a story by itself.

Still, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is an engaging read. The mysteries are uncomplicated but not obvious. There are no grizzly murders, criminal geniuses, or convoluted ciphers. Mma Ramotswe helps ordinary people with everyday problems until she discovers the case of a young boy abducted by a witch doctor. Even then, she approaches it with the ultimate pragmatism, lamenting only the superstition that would drive her countrymen to commit such crimes.

Alexander Mcall Smith is a talented and prolific author. I look forward to continuing the series.

On History

What is your history?

What do you know about where you come from? Your family, your community, your nation? How much of it do you trust?

I was a history major for a brief moment in college. I took a colloquium on Women’s History in the United States from the late colonial era to the civil war. Women’s history is a relatively new subject, rising to prominence with second and third wave feminism. Before that, there was just “History” which roughly translated to “History of White, Heterosexual, Cis Men. White women were primarily relegated to footnotes. Women of color could expect even less. The primary sources from men, if they mentioned women at all, recorded only the madonnas and the whores, women who exquisitely fulfilled their expected roles or deviated from them enough to require punishment. Primary sources from women weren’t studied. “No one was interested in Grandma’s old diaries,” my professor opined.

This is true across disciplines. Sources from people of color, Queer people, disabled and neurodivergent people, religious groups beyond Christianity, and poor people were ignored or actively suppressed. It’s unsurprising, given the worldwide bigotry that still plagues humanity, but it’s depressing. Before college, all I knew about Black history started with slavery and skipped ahead to Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King. We devoted a week or so to the Holocaust from sixth grade on, mostly in Language Arts, and Asian Americans spontaneously appeared to build a railroad and be interned a few decades later. Native Americans might as well have vanished after the Trail of Tears and the Deer Laws. Anything I learned about other groups, I learned in college or via my own research.

I went to the library recently. During Pride Month, books about Queer People and History are on prominent display. I picked up one called Gay LA by Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons, about Queer History in Los Angeles. They touched briefly on the habits of local Native Americans, declaimed as “sins against nature” by the Catholic missionaries. Then it was a history of drag performers slyly alluding to homosexuality, draconian laws banning men from dressing too feminine and the LAPD luring innocent men into then illegal trysts and arresting them. People lost their reputations, their jobs, their homes, their families, their body parts, and their lives, all under the guise of morality. I realized quickly that the only specific records of these people existing were in speculation or arrest records.

There was more to them than that. These people lead full stunning lives because of and beyond their sexuality and gender identity. They should be remembered for more than the worst thing that happened to them, but they are names in a book now, with little more than a sentence about their lives and their deaths. Most don’t even get that.

How many human lives have been forgotten because of ignorance and bigotry? I think about my family history. To my knowledge, I am the only Queer person among them because I was lucky enough to grow up in an era and location where open homosexuality was legal, rather than an automatic death sentence. I am fortunate to choose my own career, choose my own partners, or lack thereof, to talk openly about my mental illness without fear of being locked away or lobotomized. Yet, I know that these qualities don’t just appear out of nothing. Did my great grandparents really want to be married, or did they merely follow the rules that they had to? Is there a Great Aunt or Uncle that no one speaks of because they were “well… off”? How would my life have changed if my ancestors were allowed to live as their most authentic selves?

History repeats. Much as I hate to quibble with Jorge Santayana, History doesn’t care whether we learn from it or not, it just repeats. I am fighting the same battles my mother endured for my freedom. Queer children still risk violence and poverty, often sanctioned by their cultural institutions, to live as their most authentic selves. The news tells the same story again and again with only a change of the names.

History repeats but people can change. If the tragedy repeats, so too must the joys. I fight on a firmer surface because of my ancestors’ endurance, and so do you. Our history is one of triumph against incredible odds. Whether it was written down or not, you are the proof. You are here. You are reading this because people like you lived. Whether they died violently or anonymously, they first had to live. You have survived to this point. Given the frailty of the human body and the vast cruelty of our world and random chance, that is an incredible achievement. Relish it. History doesn’t end within the pages of books. History is happening now. There is more of it than we can possibly conceive. Learn as much as you can, and change your own as you can.