Thursday, April 28, 2011


Almost every year I attend an Oscar party thrown by Daughter #3 and her husband, where I fill out ballots predicting the winners. I never come close because I vote for those I think should win, not those who probably will. Tonight, April 28, the Mystery Writers of America, of which I'm a member, will announce the winners of the Edgar Awards for the best mysteries of 2010. I don't know who's judging or what their criteria are. But since I’m writing a mystery, I read the nominees in four categories to see what’s considered the year's best. Here are my predictions, based not on which mysteries are likely to win (I have no idea) but those I liked best.

Caught by Harlan Coben (Penguin Group USA - Dutton)

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin (HarperCollins – William Morrow)

Faithful Place by Tana French (Penguin Group USA - Viking)

The Queen of Patpong by Timothy Hallinan (HarperCollins – William Morrow)

The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton (Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books)

I’d Know You Anywhere by Laura Lippman (HarperCollins – William Morrow)

My Choice: Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter

Opening sentence(s):

The Rutherford girl had been missing for eight days when Larry Ott returned home and found a monster waiting in his house.

The finest mysteries written today combine the best qualities of literary writing—authentic characters, evocative settings, and wonderful language—combined with heart-pounding violence and nail-biting suspense. Franklin’s novel is a prime example from the first chapter on. That socko first sentence is followed by a detailed, leisurely account of Larry’s ordinary afternoon. The Mississippi countryside is lovingly presented and so is Larry, a lonely-guy who's kind to his chickens. But the horror promised by that first sentence is dramatically fulfilled by chapter's end.

This tragic story delves into the past friendship of two men, one a constable who’s just returned to his hometown after 20 years, the other a suspected pedophile. Their past history and the events of the present are surprising and sad. I especially like how Franklin has created a black man, one of the two main characters, who is far from a stereotype. Neither saint nor sinner, but a believably flawed human being.


Rogue Island by Bruce DeSilva (Tom Doherty Associates – Forge Books)

The Poacher’s Son by Paul Doiron (Minotaur Books)

The Serialist: A Novel by David Gordon (Simon & Schuster)

Galveston by Nic Pizzolatto (Simon & Schuster - Scribner)

Snow Angels by James Thompson (Penguin Group USA – G.P. Putnam’s Sons)

My Choice: Galveston

Opening sentence(s):

A doctor took pictures of my lungs. They were full of snow flurries.
When I walked out the office all the people in the waiting room looked grateful they weren’t me. Certain things you can see in a person’s face.

I’m not usually a fan of  hardboiled mysteries, but I loved this example of Texas noir, mainly because of its first-person protagonist, a warm-hearted hit man who’s dying of cancer.


Long Time Coming by Robert Goddard (Random House - Bantam)

The News Where You Are by Catherine O’Flynn (Henry Holt)

Expiration Date by Duane Swierczynski (Minotaur Books)

Vienna Secrets by Frank Tallis (Random House Trade Paperbacks)

Ten Little Herrings by L.C. Tyler (Felony & Mayhem Press)

My Choice: The News Where You Are

Opening sentence(s): 

Frank’s daughter sat in the front passenger seat humming the same tune over and over. The notes spiraled upwards and then abruptly plummeted, before starting the ascent again. Frank drove toward the city.
“What’s the tune,Mo?” asked Frank.
“It’s a song by the Beatles. It’s a man asking questions about when he gets old.”

I suspect O’Flynn’s book was even considered only because a clever publicity person convinced someone it’s a mystery. Actually it's a literary novel in which the mystery element takes a decided second place. Although the main character is a bit passive, I was engaged by his sly humor, his young daughter’s quirky character, and the book’s theme of how we as a society deal with the past and with aging. And it's British, always a plus with me.  

I also liked Vienna Secrets and its depiction of pre-Holocaust Vienna. But, even though I'm no longer a believer myself, I was put off by the author's lack of respect for Catholic doctrine. Denying someone the Last Rites is not a trivial matter when you believe it means dooming him to an eternity in hell.


(This award was presented last night at MWA’s Agents & Editors Party, but I don’t yet know who the official 

winner is.)

Wild Penance by Sandi Ault (Penguin Group – Berkley Prime Crime)

Blood Harvest by S.J. Bolton (Minotaur Books)

Down River by Karen Harper (MIRA Books)

The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Live to Tell by Wendy Corsi Staub (HarperCollins - Avon)

My Choice: Blood Harvest

Opening sentence(s): 

The Fletcher family built their big, shiny new house on the crest of the moor, in a town that time seemed to have left to mind its own business. They built on a modest-sized plot that the diocese, desperate for cash, needed to get rid of. They built so close to the two churches--one old, the other very old--that they could almost lean out from the bedroom windows and touch the shell of the ancient tower. and on three sides of their garden they had the quietest neighbours they could hope for, which was ten-year-old Tom Fletcher's favourite joke in those days; because the Fletchers built their new house in the midst of a graveyard. They should have known better, really.  

This is not really my category. I believe they're supposed to be the sort of books written by Mary Higgins Clark. Two of them I couldn’t even finish. But Bolton’s book was a stand-out, mainly for the wonderful characters, especially the handsome, self-deprecating, and  whimsical new vicar, Harry Laycock. Plus, it’s British.

Sunday, April 24, 2011


My little sister, Gail, and me in our Easter finery.

Here we see the sad lingering influence of Dior’s post-war New Look. The dress was chartreuse cotton pique, ugly enough in itself but atrocious when its flared skirt was paired with a straight-line tan wool topper and a sporty leather bag. Not to mention the round hat enhancing the round face’s roundness. Also note the white gloves, which were de rigueur for dress-up. In honor of my incipient adolescence I’m wearing two-inch heels, stockings—probably cotton, certainly seamed—a garter belt to hold up the stockings, and my first bra.

This was the first year I was allowed to choose my Easter outfit by myself. I selected each item with exquisite care. But on Easter morning, when I donned the complete ensemble for the first time, I sensed that the whole was considerably less than the sum of its parts. But what could I do? I decided to put a good face on it and soldier on.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Goodbye Miss Ellie

In November 2001 Elliot Castillo, a 70-year-old, four-times-married, father, grandfather, and former Baptist minister, moved to Provincetown, Massachusetts, donned a blonde wig, mini-skirt, and heels, picked up a microphone, and became a showgirl. Miss Ellie, as she now called herself, died last week, after almost ten years as the town’s quintessential icon, an inspiration of a sort for all pre-Boomers yearning to reinvent themselves.

Eventually, Ellie gave up the wig. Although she took hormones and grew small breasts, she never had a sex-change operation. Her elderly male body clad in sexy little outfits, her handsome bony face framed in flowing bleached blonde hair, was a familiar sight outside Town Hall, winter and summer. The expressions on the faces of tourists encountering her for the first time ranged from horror, dismay, and disdain to curiosity, amusement, and, perhaps, envy.  Propped beside a small red wagon holding her karaoke machine, was a hand-lettered sign, updated each year: “79 Years Old and Living My Dream.” She sang the standards, like Sinatra’s, “I Did It My Way.” She sang at clubs, special events, made a video.  She even had her own YouTube channel.

All his life Elliot Castillo had struggled to suppress the feeling that he was meant to be a woman. Married four times, he left his first wife and four children to take up with another woman. None of the marriages lasted, partly because he was such a philanderer. He loved beautiful women. If he couldn’t be one, he could at least marry them. The feeling grew until one day Jesus said, “It’s okay. Be a woman.”

Some of Miss Ellie’s children didn’t take kindly to her lifestyle change. A daughter turned her back; a son refused access to grandchildren. But others came around. Several winters ago, I saw her in a pew of the Unitarian Universalist Church, companionably sharing a hymnal with a middle-aged, conservatively dressed son. When she lay in a Cape Cod hospital dying of pancreatic cancer, all but one of her children were there.

I’d also seen her,  dressed in a knee-length skirt and a subdued page boy, singing in the church’s choir. When I went to the after-service coffee hour, she was the first to greet me and make me feel at home. Among Miss Ellie’s other lavishly praised qualities—her courage, her cheerfulness—she was above all an extremely nice person.

Asked what she considered herself—transvestite, transgendered person, homosexual, etc.—she’d say, “a human being.” For the record, under sex on her Facebook profile she wrote male. Under About Ellie she wrote: "Life or love is the one reality. Death or hate is the one unreality. Therefore, it's only common sense to choose life. Why die? Death is so unnecessary! Be like Ellie—sexy, gorgeous—25 forever! It's more fun that way!”

Asked in a writing class to write a poem about a butterfly, I came up with the following:

                    Painted Lady
In Provincetown on summer Saturdays
before benches bearing tired tourists
resting their fluid-filled legs, she performs;
her gaunt legs, bowed like a butterfly’s wings,
blond wig, hands too wide, jaw too big to be
what something deep inside her says she is.
Sundays, sans wig, legs covered to the knee,
she’s often found—drab bird in a sad skirt—
in the choir of the Unitarian church.
Seeking surcease from quiddity within
the sanctum of this motley flock, she lifts
her throat in commonality and sings. 
What are any of us—
pale larks warbling within the fold 
or butterflies with gaudy wings?

Goodbye, Miss Ellie. Rest in peace.

A public "Celebration of Life for Ellie" will be held at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Provincetown on Saturday, May 14 at 11 a.m., and Ellie’s children are hosting an "Ellie-palooza" tribute party on Father’s Day, June 19, at 1 p.m. at the Crown & Anchor.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Silent, or Unheard?

Gloria Steinem
They called us the Silent Generation. We weren’t silent. We just couldn’t be heard above the din of the generations on either side. Mine was the smallest generation in America. Fewer than 40 million babies were born during the fifteen years from 1931 through 1945, roughly the years of the Great Depression and World War II, when would-be parents lacked jobs or were forced apart by war. (Boundaries are porous. Some say my generation begins in 1921, or’25, and ends in 1941, ‘42 or ’45. I identify with those born from 1932 to 1945, people who today are anywhere from 65 to 79.) 

Almost 43 million children were born in the 15 years preceding my generation and a whopping near 60 million in the 14 following. Sandwiched between the Greatest Generation and the Boomers, we’re the ignored middle child overshadowed by the lavishly praised, heroic older brother, who fought a war to finally make the world safe for democracy and the indulged, noisy kid who, (with unacknowledged help from us) sparked the social and cultural revolution we’re still living with today. We middle kids are ignored or called bad names—conformist, anxious, wishy-washy, wimpy. 

But unnoticed middle children are free to invent themselves, as many of us did. A 1951 Time magazine essay popularized the term “Silent Generation,” calling it “a still, small flame” that does not “does not issue manifestos, make speeches or carry posters.” Tell that to Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Gloria Steinem, and Eldridge Cleaver. A lot of us were unconventional in one way or another: Jane Goodall studied chimps in Africa; Ram Dass studied LSD at Harvard. And many of us—Elvis Presley, Tina Turner, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin come to mind—made plenty of noise. Now our generation is dying off, shrinking more and more every day. But we’re still making noise and want to be heard. I’ll be speaking out as one member of the generation that can’t seem to shut up.