Seven Books That Made Me

I have been tagged repeatedly in this meme (and the music one, and there ought to be an art one, too).  I hate lists. I hate the inherent [ahem patriarchal, capitalist, etc] need to rank and rate and declare bests, that divides us into endless competition. But as the latest tagger, Helen Grant suggested, it’s interesting to hear what has influenced your friends. So in that light, a random selection of books off the cuff, not the ‘best’ or the ‘highest rated’ but some that have had an impact on making me who I am.

fog_magic_first_edition_cover_shot

I don’t remember a lot of the details of this book, but it’s the first one I can remember changing me. Much of my childhood passed in an unremembered Zen state of being, but I distinctly recall excitedly asking my cousin as he got into the car with us (my mother, brothers and I), ‘Do you like fog? I like fog!’ because the book had so captivated me. I still love fog. I am fortunate to live in two areas prone to fog, mist and the haar, so make of that what you will. Books that fired my imagination enough to make me want to live there also included My Side of the Mountain, set in the Catskills. Huh: half the year, I live there.

182fxk7ft8j2ejpg

Yes, I wanted to be Jo, like so many young women. Her life (and her author’s) gave me a model to believe it could be possible for a girl with no experience to speak of or connections with famous people — that one could just make up the things and write about them and make books. I cannot read the book even now without crying. And I still haven’t totally forgiven Amy. Like the Alice books, indelible.

s-l300

My copy was plain: a turquoise cover with the title and Anna Sewell’s name in white, a knobbly texture. It was a book I read and re-read constantly. That kicked off my horse mania: I read every book in the library on horses. Seriously, every book. I still feel angry that the librarians (or my teachers?) forced me and my best friend to read books that were not about horses (did they ever do the same thing to boys? I doubt it). I read a book on Annie Sullivan. It was fine. But then it was back to horses. This is why I trust my obsessions.

enough-rope

I think there is an age at which many young girls diverge from the common path: some go to Plath. I went to Parker. I liked Plath, but Parker was the one for me. At an age when one is too young to know the truth of her mordant wit, one fancies she does. She is wrong. When she is older, one understands more clearly why Parker hid her sorrow behind wit so it wouldn’t frighten the mens. Also I guess I can’t squeeze in Barbara Pym this time so she’s here too. And Anita Loos. And of course Austen. And Gaskell…every funny woman.

51glauewphl-_sx335_bo1204203200_

It’s a bit unfair to make Marie stand in for a whole host of medieval books, but there it is. You’d have to understand my distaste for what I thought of as ‘medieval’ once upon an ignorant time — this is why I have such sympathy for my students’ eye rolling. Oh, but you don’t know, I tell them — and then of course I show them. My madeleine-in-the-tea moment might have been Beowulf, but Marie made me change my mind about the stereotypes. Medieval romance seemed the least interesting thing out there. It’s still not my favourite thing, but Marie told her tales — even the wretched Arthuriana — with such verve and a lack of sentiment that I even decided to retell her tales. Likewise many medieval women — Hrotsvita and Silence and Christina of Markyate and more…

220px-inalonelyplacebook

Likewise standing in for all the great crime dames like Patricia Highsmith and Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, Hughes’ masterpiece is a genius dissection of a serial killer that predates the much more lauded Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson. Where the latter gives a (surprisingly shallow) insight into the mind of a serial killer with a great deal of sympathy for him — Thompson seems to admire Lou Ford’s smug disdain for the world — Hughes lays open the brutal mind of Dix Steele with insight and understanding. There is a kind of sympathy for the mess of desires and ambitions he has, but there is no doubt about his chilling nature from page one. Hughes was way ahead of her time and still doesn’t get the acclaim she deserves. If she’d written only this book I’d call her a genius — but she’s written several excellent books.

511wvi51vnl-_sx324_bo1204203200_

Seven tomes already and I’ve barely scratched the surface. This is why I don’t like lists. They are always inadequate. So this last one stands in for all the books of the fantastic I have read and loved. It’s also to make plain that the influences go on. While we gild the memories of some books from childhood to give them lustre, books can continue to change life. I’ve written conference papers and essays on this immense novel — and finally admitted I am probably writing a book on it. I love its world, I love Clarke’s loving scholarship of it. You never know when a book will sneak up on you and nudge you to another path. This one’s put me to work in a delightful way — I even get to use my medieval scholarship a bit.

Venice and More

Apologies for dropping out of things lately: insanely busy trying to catch up. Lots of ways to entertain you, however. Example: read this wonderful review of Drag Noir that came out when I was literally on my way out of the country. Thanks, Plenitude Magazine and Latonya Pennington. The process of finding your audience can be slow, but when you do find them it’s so gratifying.

If you’re interested in crime writing at all, check out this issue of TEXT magazine: Crime Fiction: The Creative/Critical Nexus, edited by Rachel Franks, Jesper Gulddal and Alistair Rolls. I am very happy to have my close analysis of Dorothy B. Hughes’ The Expendable Man [PDF download].

But you want pictures, right? The whole album can be found here, but let me show you a glimpse of this amazing city (click pictures to embiggen). And there’s still the manuscript exhibit to upload!

Crime Fiction in Gdansk: Day Three (and Four)

2014-09-11 19.09.33

It’s the little things that make a difference. I liked the attempt to give the authentic feel of a crime scene to the conference area.

2014-09-11 14.01.31

Although rat poison in the loo might have been overdoing it… O.O

Good thing I resisted the urge to call these posts “Gdansking Lessons” which I was temped to do, following in Vonnegut’s footsteps (“Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.”). After the late night, I nonetheless managed to get up early and have a hearty breakfast before heading to campus one Paul short (I had already arranged the day before to change my name by deed poll to “Where’s Paul?” because that’s what everyone called me most of the time).

I got some tea, got my Powerpoint slides up and then launched into my talk on Dorothy Hughes’ In A Lonely Place, a too-often overlooked classic of noir. I was surprised how many people turned up for the last day — and an early talk — but the audience was kind and I hoped I had a reasonable argument. David Malcolm put me in a good mood by saying he’d read “ASBO Bambi” the night before and really enjoyed it (and here’s the original headline that inspired it for those interested). With luck there will be a proceedings volume in the future, so you will all be able to read a better version of my paper.

After a brief break we were back for a catch-all panel that brought together very interesting topics. Wendy Jones Nakanishi spoke about Japanese crime fiction of which I knew not a jot and was captivated. I’m going to have to get a list from her as they were really fascinating. Natalia Palich talked about the ‘metaphysical’ detective story in Czech literature (maybe that’s what I should have called White Rabbit) and Janneke Rauscher looked at readers reading crime fiction in public, particularly how they review novels set in their own towns. People take it personally if you a) get anything wrong or b) fictionalise anything that’s not really there.

2014-09-11 11.22.20

The last panel had Gill Jamieson talking about adaptating George V. Higgins and I don’t know how I’ve managed not to ever see The Friends of Eddie Coyle in all these years — especially as I love Robert Mitchum so much — but I will remedy that blindspot very soon because the dialogue is just so great. Dominika Kozera talked about Hoodwinked! which I’ve not seen at all but the opening riff on Red Riding Hood hooked me of course and I think this is a programme I ought to investigate.

2014-09-13 14.41.30

The closing lunch gave us a chance to chat with folks for a while before the dispersing began. I had a Royale with Cheese and this beer which was very tasty. I sat on the end of the long table (I always choose liminal space) and chatted with Hector, Wendy and Maurice Fadel. Funny that Wendy turns out to be a Hoosier, so we were swapping “how I got where I am” stories. Fascinating woman! Then some folks left for a walking tour, but I took advantage of hitching a ride back to the Willa Marea so I could pack up before the evening’s activities and do quiet stuff like watch Adventure Time in Polish.

I love conferences, but it’s a drain being surrounded by people all the time when you’re accustomed to being alone a lot.

I chose the right moment to head out to the conference ‘cooling’ as it had been jokingly called because I ran into Paul J who was likewise heading out. I kept us from getting lost on our way to the pub 😉 even though he had said “women have no sense of direction”.

(-_-)

He also told me he had run into Mr B who was going to the Kinski pub. “He was supposed to take me!” I complained. So I texted him to give him a hard time and he said I should come by. It turns out the Kinski is just around the corner from the warming/cooling pub. So away I went. And fell in love!

2014-09-13 22.28.32

It’s dark, quiet and full of little nooks. You could hold a conversation. How rare is that, where most pubs deafen you with noise — either music blaring or television screens. And the beer was good but you’ll have to ask Mr B what it was I got as he picked it knowing what I like. Tasty.

I think this is his birth certificate.

I think this is his birth certificate.

Behind the bar!

Behind the bar!

So we sat and chatted for a long while and after all the hubbub of the conference, it was great. The music was good, the beers were tasty and nothing better than yakking with an old friend. When they closed the downstairs bar, we went upstairs and while it’s more open — you could imagine a jazz trio playing there until dawn — it was still relatively quiet and peaceful and just the way to spend my last night in Sopot. And neither of us had to get up too early the next day.

Would you buy a used novel from this man?

Would you buy a used novel from this man?

Agnieszka and her husband (a Scot — so many Scottish connections at this conference!) took me to the airport when I checked out of the hotel, so we had a chance to talk over coffee for a while so I could thank her for this fantastic opportunity. Agnieszka did amazing work and so did Ula, Marta, Arco and the rune master tech guy (who’s name I missed!) and everyone else who had a hand in the conference. Well done, very well done.

The less said about being caught between the moon and New York City, the better (never fly Lot!). Thanks Bertie for picking me up at JFK and driving us back upstate. In bed by 2 am, up at 6 and away to campus to teach a 12 hour day. But that’s the price we pay for seizing great opportunities. Bring on the dancing lessons.

And I have my limited edition dishwasher unfriendly mug, which I am not allowed to wash!

2014-09-16 11.39.36

Crime Fiction Mug