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.

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.

Book 4 of 2019: Chronicles of Old Los Angeles by James Roman

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A history/ tour guide for LA, chronicling the city’s foundation, it’s violent beginnings, and the inception of Hollywood all the way to the present day. Far from comprehensive, Chronicles of Old Los Angeles delivers twenty four concise chapters on the sordid history of La La Land.

I really enjoyed this book. Roman doesn’t get bogged down with every detail of LA history. He skips to the shimmer and scandal in true Los Angeles fashion. Chronicles is an excellent introduction to Los Angeles History.

Some highlights:

  • California’s first attorney general, Edward J.C Kewen attempted to shoot the opposing lawyer during a criminal trial, ended up shooting a spectator and causing the jury to flee.
  • Henry Huntington birthed LA’s enormous sprawl by buy cheap real estate, installing a station on his Pacific Electric Railway and profiting off the communities that grew around the stations.
  • The Warner Brothers missed the premiere of The Jazz Singer, the first talkie which would cement their place in history, to attend a funeral. Sam Warner, chief proponent of talkies, had over worked himself in the weeks before the premiere and died the night before.
  • West Hollywood spent decades as an unincorporated area, separate from Los Angeles and Beverly Hill, mostly to skirt the law. Operating under the authority of LA County meant that gangsters like Bugsy Siegal and Mickey Cohan could run their speakeasies and gambling operations without the city police breathing down their neck. It also meant that the LGBT+ community could live their lives in relative safety at a time when homosexuality itself was a crime. Weho was the site of the first known gay rights group in the US, The Mattachine Society. They later elected Valerie Terrigno as the first mayor of West Hollywood and the first openly lesbian mayor in the US.

Los Angeles is a fascinating city. Chronicles of Old Los Angeles is a great starting point for those who want to learn more.

Book 3 of 2019: The Pout Pout Fish by Deborah Diesen

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I read this book with a small child. It concerns a blue fish, the titular Pout Pout fish. Through out the story, Pout Pout is admonished to smile and be happy, while he insists that he is “A Pout Pout fish, with a pout pout face,” destined to “spread the dreary wearies all over the place.”

SPOILERS:

After pouting all over the ocean, he meets a beautiful fish who “instead of saying “hey” … plants a kiss on his pout and then she swims away.” Pleased, Pout Pout Fish declares he’s been wrong all along, that he is in fact a “kiss kiss fish,” and proceeds to smooch the entire ocean.

Yikes.

There’s a lot to unpack here.

First, this book was published in 2013 so somebody should have caught these issues. I kept waiting for someone to ask the Pout Pout fish what was wrong or tell him that he’s still liked, despite his melancholy. No such luck. One fish literally says that pouting is a “unattractive trait”! That’s right, kids! Fake a smile or no one will ever love you! Maybe he’s a pout pout fish because his “friends” keep insulting him for the way his face looks!

Second, where’s the consent? Don’t smooch without asking, children, no matter sad they look. It was such an easy fix. Beautiful fish could have easily said “maybe you’re a kiss kiss fish.” Pout Pout agrees to experiment and decides she’s right. Boom! Now your kid’s book is about how you can improve your spirits through friendship and affection, rather than the origin of an aquatic serial harasser.

Third, I don’t like the message that physical and romantically coded affection will save anyone from depression. Pout Pout fish literally has a pout pout face. It’s the face he was born with. Can he change the connotation and be a kiss kiss fish with help from those who care about him? Sure, but it takes a hell of a lot more than non-consensual smooches to get over than hurtle.

The Pout Pout Fish does have its charms. The illustrations are bright and engaging. The prose is lively and bright, with fun, tight rhymes. It’d be great if children weren’t tiny sponges who can soak up all sorts of wrong messages if you couch them in clever words and charming images. I can’t recommend The Pout Pout Fish, but I’ll probably pick it up again, considering the kid is obsessed with it.