Merry Christmas!

And happiest of holidays from Lea Wait! I’ll admit — I wrote this post a year ago. But several people told me they remembered it and suggested I re-post … and I’m in writer’s jail … so here it is, with at least as many good wishes as last year!DSCN0614

Christmas has always been my favorite time of year. I shop for gifts all year round, I look forward to the delicious food that is part of the season. I love Christmas carols and sentimental movies. And I collect Santas and other Christmas decorations.

DSC02461When I lived in New York City I loved to take long walks, looking at decorated store windows and Rockefeller Plaza, and, later, when I lived in New Jersey, I took my daughters and mother to see The Nutcracker at Lincoln Center.DSC02475DSC02467

My home was the place where my single adoptive parent friends and their children gathered, 100-200 strong, to celebrate Christmas early in December. And my extended family gathered at my home Christmas Eve every year.

It was all exhausting, but I loved every minute of it. DSC02472

But years have passed since I celebrated joyously with my daughters and sisters and  mother … time moves on, and my family has dispersed.  I’ve married, and my husband, is, if not an absolute Grinch … well, I’ll just DSC02468say Christmas is not HIS favorite time of year.

So my Christmases have been pared down over the years. Some years we haven’t had a big tree; most years diets dictate Christmas cookies be held to a minimum.DSC02455 My husband and I don’t exchange gifts, so the only gifts under the tree are DSC02456delivered by the post office or UPS and come from loved ones far away.

Still, I decorate the house, and send Christmas cards and plan special food for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and I play Christmas carols, and watch sentimental movies. And Christmas, if not spectacular, is still a wonderful time of year.

SoDSC02466, today, I’m inviting you to peek at a few of the decorations that fill my home in December. Welcome — and Happiest of Holidays! DSC02465DSC02460DSC02474DSC02469DSC02471

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Against the Dumbing Down

 The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude. (Why I Write—George Orwell)

Knowing that we’re in for seeing plenty of old white guys in the news over the next four years, I’m inspired to go off-topic a little and talk about a crime writer who represents exactly the kind of talent I wouldn’t want to see discouraged, exactly the kind of talent we might not find out about in the monochromatic, single-gender, WASP, and uncritically-certain-of-itself political world we’re trending toward, this next little while.

Ausma Zehanat Khan is the author of The Unquiet Dead, published by St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur Books, and The Language of Secrets. the-language-of-secrets-cover_1_origShe holds a Ph.D. in International Human Rights Law and practiced immigration law in Toronto before turning to fiction full time. She’s not from Maine ( 😉 ) but her characters are Canadian and the books in the Esa Khattak/Rachel Getty series are set in Toronto.

The Language of Secrets is the second book in the series for Muslim detective Esa Khattak, who heads up Canada’s Community Policing Section. This division of the force handles all cases involving minorities throughout the country. In this story, Khattak is called in to investigate the murder of a Canadian government informant embedded in a local terrorist cell, a short time before the cell’s planned attack. The terrorist-fighting arm of the Canadian government’s desire to thwart the attack is at odds with Khattak solving the murder too quickly and that tension creates a suspenseful timeline for the novel

What is as wonderful about the book as its taut and crackling plot, though, is how empathetically Khan describes the stresses and relationships of the characters—the bureaucratic distrust of a Muslim police officer, the distrust of civilian Muslims of a police officer investigating other Muslims, the mentor relationship between Khattak and his deputy Rachel Getty. It’s as fine a crime novel as one from Tana French or Denise Mina.

What was more important to me as a reader, though, was the sense that I had of Khan’s deep empathy with her characters’ issues, making me feel their lives, their stresses, their confusions. I’m going to tread onto the thin ice of politics and art here because the conventional wisdom is that they do not mix, that what we are most obliged to do as crime writers is give our readers a good story, an escape from everyday life. Many of our readers might prefer us to remain purely entertainers. But the best of any fiction is the inspection and treatment of characters in all their contexts: social, cultural, political. What would we know of the world without work like Peter Robinson’s treatment of the 1984 Miners’ Strike in England in Children of the Revolution children-of-the-revolutionor of apartheid-era South Africa without the crime novels of James McClure like The Steam Pig?

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Polemic, of course, is useless in fiction, as in any other art, but the practice of taking a stand, something we may be out of practice doing, is not. Especially if it’s a stand in favor of the complexity of people, their native decency, an understanding of how people unlike our familiars live, thrive, and fail. We need to understand and convey how characters of different genders, cultures, countries, appearances, and experiences live in their worlds. Of course we need to tell the kinds of stories that draw readers in and compel them. But our characters carry them.

So this is one way we fight as writers, against the dumbing down of the world, the reduction of people to stereotypes and pat phrases. We show understanding, even love, to all of our characters, even the villains; we fight against the tendency to let even the most minor of them lie flat or display stereotypical appearances, words, or actions. orwell

We diminish our power (what power we have) if we don’t understand our characters and write as deeply and powerfully as we can about their uniqueness. Of course in doing that, we risk exposing ourselves, our own values, our hearts, our prejudices. But we will need this kind of honesty going forward, dear friends, as much as we ever have. We are not, I hope, only here to entertain.

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It’s Her Face

John Clark apologizing in advance for a long post. It’s something I wrote many years ago. This year has brought more losses of friends than any I can recall., so I’ve been remembering some of the people who stayed with me in spirit. This is the story of one in particular.

I’m a vague shadow blocking the hazy sunlight streaming through the front door. Her face mirrors the mix of feelings inside as she tries to place my voice and decide: Am I expected, or someone who has stopped for a more sinister purpose?

”Good afternoon, Mrs. B, I have brought you new audio books,” I say

Her thin body, most of its remaining flesh puddled around her hips, relaxes and she leans forward eagerly as I pull boxes from the plastic bag, reciting title, author and reader slowly and distinctly.

Mrs. B fumbles for her glasses and holds each container inches from her face, scanning the synopsis, exclaiming over each one. ”Ah, I love Stuart Woods. Tom Brokaw, what a man!”

I listen gracefully to an oft recounted story, her voice full of anger and lament as she recounts the trauma inflicted by a New York who robbed her of her eyesight, one of many such events in her 97 years that might have brought down one of lesser spirit.

She pulls me back to the present, interrogating me about the offerings I have brought today. Mrs. B has two steadfast rules regarding the books I bring: No homosexuality and no abortion. Each time she reiterates them, she pauses, and in her dry Russian accent adds with a chuckle, ”Profanity, I don’t mind, after all I lived for many years in New York.”

Imagine playing here as a child.

Imagine playing here as a child.

Her odyssey would make a wonderful oral history, if only I had the time. I have heard enough to have patience, affection and respect for this woman who now sees the world more with her wisdom and spirit. She motions for me to sit. I move aside some of her knitting and drop softly to the couch. There are countless children on the Boothbay peninsula who have hats and mittens thanks to the endless motion of her knobby fingers.

”How is the library?” she asks. I catch her up since my last visit two weeks ago. She nods and sighs, sharing my lament about lack of space and lack of progress towards a new building. Her conversation circles back to her losses; her eyes, her relationship with her daughter who hides upstairs most of the day, lamenting her own devils. I step around this pitfall. I know her daughter well and like both of these aging women with their European manners and distinct accents. I have witnessed laments flung in both directions, knowing this dance has been going on for more than 60 years and there is little I can do, or that they would accept from me that might change anything. It is an affectionate bond, one that will shatter when Mrs. B. Dies, leaving a gaping hole of silence in this small house nestled in the pines at the far end of an island.

I look at her face as she talks about the escape. I always return to her face. The eyes, more expressive in their sightlessness than those of most who can see. They’re separated by a nose as rugged and angular as the mountains she fled through at the end of World War Two, her ten-year- old daughter in tow. Eyes that have shed a million tears over the years for losses that would eat the soul of lesser women.

Mrs. B was born to Russian nobility, her admiral father a naval hero to the Italian people for his rescue efforts during the Messina earthquake. Her growing years were spent playing with the Czars children until the Bolshevik Revolution when her family fled for their lives,first to Sebastopol, then to Istanbul.

One of Mrs. B's childhood playmates.

One of Mrs. B’s childhood playmates.

As she speaks, I imagine her father’s struggle to support the family as a dock watchman before being recognized by an Italian naval officer and who offered asylum in Messina.

Mrs. B. pulls me back from my reverie, apologizing as she does numerous times during our chats. Her laments, like those of most elderly people who have lived a rich and important life, are few, but they occupy an increasing space in her head as her mobility and sight have continued to evaporate. I tell her I do not mind, and mean it.

She returns to her strong opinions regarding the War in Bosnia, another area she knows intimately. In between her words, I slide back into her past, remembering the family move from Messina to Yugoslavia. There, many years ago, Mrs. B. fell in love and married Wladimir, a mathematician and engineer. Not long after, their daughter who remains upstairs as we chat, was born.

I watch Mrs. B’s face alternating between outrage and sadness from events and memories unspoken and wonder: wasn’t one desperate dash ahead of an advancing army enough for a lifetime? Not for Mrs. B. She has lived with the uncertain grief of a lost husband for more than half a century since that day when Wladimir disappeared into the Nazi war machine and was never seen again. Circumstances left her no time for grief or lament. At the end of the war, mother and daughter fled across Europe, often on foot, sometimes in cattle cars, surrounded by strangers, every moment filled with the possibility of capture, rape, or death.

She pulls me back to the present. The sun is setting behind Westport Island and I will be late for supper. She apologizes for keeping me. I smile, and remember she cannot see it, so I put it into my words, assuring her I do not mind. On the hour-long drive home, her face lingers in my mind.

Linda answers the phone and motions to me, ”Telephone for you,” her standard way of alerting me that the outside world is intruding on my planned workday again. I immediately recognize the wheezing voice on the other end. Mrs. B. Is in the hospital. Could I find time to stop by and bring her some fresh audio books?

Only the setting has changed. She lifts her head as my shadow falls across her face. It is a tiny bit softer, even though there is additional gauntness. A fall, several months ago has finally overwhelmed her. She apologizes for her weakened voice, the result, she laments of hitting her diaphragm in the edge of a chair as she fell. I recite the authors, titles and readers from this latest batch of audios. I have depleted the library of Stuart Woods, one of her favorites. Mrs. B. Has taught me a lot about being old and blind. It doesn’t matter that you have heard a book before. In the filmy gray world behind her eyes, these are old friends, not something already heard.

Can I do her a favor? Would I buy the Tom Brokaw and Ted Koppel tapes she listened to last month? They have become icons of comfort and integrity in her dark and shrinking world. I agree and help her write out a check for the library. Another integral fact of blindness is the trust she must place in others, having only their voices and prior actions to guide her choices. I promise to return the following week.

A couple weeks have passed when Mrs. B. Calls again, half apologetic, half impatient. She is now in the local nursing home and wondering what has become of her audios. I blush, feeling a wave of guilt. I had forgotten to order them. I do so immediately.

This time, she doesn’t respond until I take her hand and greet her by name. The gauntness has progressed. Where her nose had once been one of the Pyrenees, separating her sightless eyes, it has now become the Matterhorn. She no longer tries to sit and act the part of hostess. She and I share the same unspoken thought. Her days are dwindling. I bring her the Ted Koppel tape which arrived that morning, apologizing for not having both of them. She grips my hand tightly and I can hear the sadness of terminal resignation so unique to the elderly in her voice.

”I will be 97 on March 28th. I have survived two wars, I speak seven languages, I worked as a bookkeeper until I was past 80, I sailed on steamers by myself and am being treated like a child!”

The soft roll of her Rs echoes through the sterile white room as she slumps back, exhausted from her brief diatribe about her present arrangement. After collecting herself, she lists a few simple desires that do not seem outrageous to me. One staff member allows her to have her nail file and scissors, on the next shift they are confiscated. She pays for a telephone in her room, but no one will get a cord that allows her to have it beside her bed. She does not want food heated in a microwave-she can sense a metallic taste and this practice continues over her protests. She wants thin hot cereal in the morning and gets thick hot glop.

As she lists her issues with the staff, I see a brief flash of animation and determination return to her face. It’s the Mrs. B. I have come to love and admire: the feisty, blind, strongly opinionated Russian lady who moved from New York City to Boothbay and settled with her retired daughter on a dirt road at the very end of an island when neither had a car or a drivers license. I hold her hand for a long time, watching her face change as she returns to her memories and her losses. There is a long and not uncomfortable silence we share before I say goodbye and return to work.

The following Friday, I am away at meetings all day. The Tom Brokaw tape arrives. On Saturday, I find it sitting in my chair when I return to work. The day is hectic and I am unable to make the trip to the nursing home. It’s just as well. On Tuesday, when we reopen, I find a thin strip of newspaper taped to the side of my computer screen. It is Mrs. B’s obituary. Her face, the image that followed me whenever I left after a visit, is finally able to relax, no longer required to reflect the pain and sadness of nearly a century of loss, no longer finding itself pulled into twists and scowls of righteous indignation and outrage. The face slowly fades from my memory as the years move on. It was a privilege to watch the face and know the woman whose face it was.

 

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Weekend Update: December 3-4, 2016

fallsbooks1Next week at Maine Crime Writers, there will be posts by Brenda Buchanan (Monday) Dick Cass (Tuesday), Lea Wait (Wednesday), Susan Vaughan (Thursday) and Brendan Rielly (Friday).

In the news department, here’s what’s happening with some of us who blog regularly at Maine Crime Writers:

Maureen Milliken and Jen Blood will be signing and selling books at the Belgrade Holiday Fair, 10 a.m.-3 p.m., Route 27, Belgrade Lakes, on Saturday (December 3). The first book in Jen’s new Flint K-9 series, The Darkest Thread, was released in October and the second in Maureen’s Bernie O’Dea mystery series, No News is Bad News, came out this summer.

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Bruce and Kate along with the owners of Mainely Murders Bookstore at a recent event held at the Kennebunk Free Library.

Kate Flora is delighted to have received this e-mail this week: “It gives us great pleasure

windwardto inform you that your story, IDA MAE BUYS A CROWN VIC, has been selected for inclusion in BUSTED: ARRESTING STORIES FROM THE BEAT.” It’s always a thrill to have a short story selected for an anthology. This story about a timid wife and mother finding her calling as a police dispatcher has long been a favorite of mine and I’m so pleased it has found a home. Also still celebrating the fact that I have a story, Careful What You Wish For, in Level Best’s newly published collection: Windward

 

Bruce Robert Coffin will be interviewed in studio at WERU-FM 89.9 with Nancy Tancredi as part of Writer’s Forum at 10:00 am on December 8th. Also on December 8 at 6:30 pm he will be speaking at the Falmouth Memorial Library. Letterpress Books will be on hand selling copies of his novel, Among the Shadows, and copies Best American Mystery Stories 2016, featuring Bruce’s short story Fool Proof.

Lea Wait will be at the Unitarian/Universalist Holiday Craft Fair in Brunswick on Saturday, December 3, from 9 until 2. (Across the street from the front of the Curtis Memorial Library, at 1 Middle Street. And in addition to crafts, there’ll be soups, bread, desserts … and Christmas goodies.)

An invitation to readers of this blog: Do you have news relating to Maine, Crime, or Writing? We’d love to hear from you. Just comment below to share.

And a reminder: If your library, school, or organization is looking for a speaker, we are often available to talk about the writing process, research, where we get our ideas, and other mysteries of the business. Contact Kate Flora

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Getting a Peek

Bruce Robert Coffin here at the helm of the Maine Crime Writer’s Blog. This month I want to talk a little about one of coolest benefits of being accepted into the writing community. The opportunity to read unpublished manuscripts. Believe me when I tell you that not much compares on a coolness scale. Imagine reading the manuscripts of unreleased novels written by your favorite thriller and mystery writers. So far this year I’ve perused the unpublished works of Kate Flora, Brenda Buchanan, Joseph Sousa, and the latest MWPA Best Crime Novel Award winner Brendan Rielly. See what I mean? Too cool. With writing styles as varied as the hues of autumn, they all succeeded at capturing my imagination with a well-told story. Not only do I get to read their latest work but they actually want my input! The great thing about doing this is that as writers we each have strengths and weaknesses. Some of us write strong dialogue, some wonderful descriptive prose, or great introspective scenes. But like a good golf scramble none of us does it all.img_3442

Reading unpublished work allows the writer to have the benefit of other accomplished eyes, with other strengths. Like beta readers on steroids. No matter how many times we read and edit our own writing, things are always overlooked. Some intended punctuation or word that we would swear is there but, in fact, isn’t. A fresh set of peepers always helps put things in proper perspective.

But there is another benefit bestowed when reading unpublished works of accomplished scribes. Reality. It’s like getting a peek behind the curtain where the Great and Powerful Oz pounds out endless words on a MacBook Pro. I see the work before it’s entirely finished. Like a fresh paint job it might have drips or an occasional run, some imperfection that reminds me that great writing doesn’t just happen. It’s hard work! With each keystroke comes possibility. It takes time to formulate and craft worthwhile ideas. A never-ending massage of sentence and paragraph until the exact thing we meant to say begins to take shape. No matter how prolific the author, no matter how many stories or books we’ve penned, none of us gets it right every time. Although, I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say I wish we did. It’s this peek at the work in progress that motivates me to work even harder. The realization that no matter how much we write there is always room for improvement.Led_Astray

Now I suppose your all wondering, how did I like the new works of Kate, Brenda, Joe, and Brendan? I loved them. When will you be able to read them? As soon as they’re ready, my friends. As soon as they’re ready.

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