« October 2014 | Main | December 2014 »

Celia's mom and Lady Marmalade

This is a 5-6 minute read, but is my favorite music story so far for my NaNoWriMo novel, so I wanted to share it. Rough draft, of course.


Celia walked in, saw Violet and Jack together on the couch, and said, “Well, it is about time.”

Then she went on, “You know what I've been wondering about?” She took off her jacket and sat down next to Violet. “You guys remember those educational workbooks with puzzles and games in them, but they were like lessons to teach you phonics and so forth?”

Violet nodded, and Jack said, “I really liked those, for some reason. They were more interesting than the school ones.”

“I thought so, too, Jack. And I was driving over here thinking about how Aunt Aleda and Uncle Earl brought me one once, the summer I turned eight. It was about science! I’d never seen a science one before, and I loved it. It taught me about weather, and planets, and a few other things, commonplace now, but back then, I thought I was learning about magic. And it felt as though maybe Aunt Aleda and Uncle Earl thought something special about me, or really thought about what I might like.” Celia leaned back and looked at Violet.

Violet said, “They sound really special, Celia. Are you going to tell them you remembered this?”

“Actually, Violet, they’ve both passed, so I won’t be doing that. However. Then I had another thought, which is this. What if they gave me that book only because they’d bought it for their son Mark and he didn’t want it? And that bothered me all the way over here.”

“They were my dad’s aunt and uncle, by the way, but their kids were the same age as me and Jeff. I don’t know, I do need to move past this.”

Jack said, “Up until today this was a really nice memory you had. How about you just go back to remembering it how it was, instead of suddenly worrying about what it might have been for?”

Celia answered, “Of course you’re right. What’s really bothering me is the twins. With me and their dad as role models, how are they going to grow up and be physicists?”

“They’re…six now? Right?” Violet was a little afraid to ask.

Sighing, Celia said, “Yes, and they want to wear eyeliner like Daddy, and also dress up and sing on stage instead of learning about how magnets work and what rocks are made of.”

Jack and Violet were now staring at Police Detective Celia Henry as though she’d grown horns.

“I really liked science, you guys.”

“And Craig thinks I’m worried for nothing, but did you know he wanted to name them Mary Ann and Ginger when they were born? Now he says he was just going through his ironic phase, but I don’t know about that. Maybe the names Tracey and Tianna are too girly, though. What do you think of Dr. Tianna Henry?”

Violet squeezed Celia’s shoulder. “It sounds great. What also sounds great is for you to relax and stop worrying about this. Your little girls are fun and loving and creative, and they have parents who love them and spend time with them. They are going to turn out fine, but you, it sounds to me like you need a spa day, or maybe a whole spa weekend.”

Celia nodded. “That’s the truth.” She stretched her feet out in front of her. “I’m not out on the street as much these days, but the job does take its toll.”

Jack was over at the computer now, starting a new file for Celia’s story, and said, not helpfully, “Anyway, Tracey used to be a male name. It’s one of those ones that got switched over the years.”

Violet and Celia looked at each other. Celia shook her head and said, “I’m glad you two finally got together, Violet, but you sure have your hands full.”

Jack gave her the microphone and signaled for her to begin.

“My dad was a pilot for a delivery service when I was a little girl, and Mama stayed home with me and Jeff, which wasn’t too common in her set. But she kept busy with all kinds of church projects. She was always taking old people to the doctor, setting up fundraisers, getting involved in all the doings, and I think some of it was because she felt guilty that she didn’t have to go to work. And she would clean, boy, how she would clean. I mean, furiously. You had to get out of her way or you might find yourself lemon wax polished along with the furniture.

“Now, a lot of times, she would sing while she cleaned, old gospel songs, mainly, which she tried to teach us to sing with her, and some old 50s music she’d grown up with. But other times she’d turn on the radio and sing along with it, and one of her particular favorites was “Lady Marmalade.” We didn’t know what that song was about back then, so Mama made up a story about a stewardess who helped lost travelers find their hotel. And we believed her.”

Violet put her hand over her mouth, trying not to laugh.

“Well, we were little kids, and we knew Mama would never tell a lie to us. Sometimes I would play stewardess while Jeffrey pretended to fly a plane, and we would help the passengers figure out where they needed to go. These were stuffed bears and rag dolls and so forth.”

Violet was shaking now. Celia glared at her, but it did no good.

“Time passed, of course, and when I took the French course in high school, all the kids said they knew how to say something in French because of that song, and I said I did, too, “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?” which I said meant “Do you have a bed here for me?”

Jack held his hand up and paused the recording. “Violet, you have to get hold of yourself.” But they could both see he was also trying not to laugh.

Violet beckoned Celia over to the bar, and handed her a glass of water. “I’m so sorry, Celia. But this is the funniest thing I’ve heard in ages.”

“Well, Violet, I have to inform you that it will probably seem even funnier to you IF you let me finish telling it.” Celia put on her law enforcement face, and then grinned. “I do understand.”

She went back to the other side of the room, picked up the mike, and said, “Let us proceed.”

“That was a little embarrassing, but it made enough sense that nobody bothered me too much about it, and after that, I put it out of my mind. I did well at French, but then I did better at Spanish in college, which has been sometimes helpful in my career.

“So then I became a police officer. When you are first starting out, you spend a lot of time out on the streets, driving around looking for trouble, learning about the people in the community and also gaining experience. On one of my first nights out, we drove up Route 35 to where the gentlemen’s clubs are, and busted some ladies who were plying their trade outside in one of the parking lots. And that’s when it hit me.”

Violet grabbed a blanket lying on the couch next to her and bit into it.

Celia laughed. “When I saw Mama at breakfast the next morning, I had words with her about this situation. She said she never did lie to us about anything else but just could not admit to us that she was singing a song about a hooker. I told her I believed her, but I’ve wondered about it ever since then.

“I guess you can laugh all you want to now, Violet. That’s the whole story.”

Violet looked at Celia with tears in her eyes, and they laughed together for several minutes.


Then I just shouldn't have named him Jack, is the thing.

I never meant for my ongoing story character Jack D’Abruzzo to become my Lord Peter. I inserted deliberate flaws from the beginning, eight or nine years ago. He never used his broadcast degree; he lives with his mother and owns a donut shop. He’s previously always dated women who are way too young for him. He started out goofy and kind of manic. But I let him be the theatre director and then I let him buy the building, and then I let him grow interested in Violet, who is not that much like me, but is something like I’d probably be if I never had children.

But now he’s stuck in my head all the time, and since I made him up, well, that’s super awkward. I thought he could be handsome like Russ Columbo, but I didn’t want him compared to an idiot, plus, he wouldn’t be because no one knows who that is and I probably already use too many arcane references. Maybe like Jerry Vale, but with less face in his face. But more like one of those guys who is just perfectly pleasant and ordinary-looking until he hits the late 30s and suddenly has a strength to his face that nobody saw coming except maybe his mother, because she married the guy he resembles an awful lot. Maybe kind of like Perry Como only four inches taller, because I really don’t feel like overthinking this.

Although, I have to wonder at myself for thinking only of singers. His mother’s maiden name was Cassotto, so I guess it turns out like if Alan Alda and Bobby Darin had a baby, and that doesn’t really bear consideration, does it? It doesn’t matter. I describe him only as over 45, about 5’ 10”, black hair with threads of silver, and reasonably fit. That’s good enough, enough.

Anyway. I’ve resisted just handing him over to Violet, but it isn’t quite reasonable that all these characters in their late 40s all stay single. They can’t just up and get married, though. His mother still needs him, but there’s no way she could live in Violet’s old Victorian mansion. And why would I make Violet leave that place? I would not do that to her.

Maybe my personal ideal is that sort of relationship. They’re firmly together, but drift in and out of each other’s houses as they like. If I had my own house all those years, I might resent someone else taking up permanent space in it. And that house has been in her family since it was built in the 1860s, so it has to be lived in. If you don’t live in a house, Nature tries to claim it for its own. So I think Violet can have Jack in her own way and Jack can have Violet in what I have masterfully deemed pretty much the same way, and bits of me will find rest in that, for now.  

Well, I guess I’ve worked a couple things out so that I can carry on. But I want the computer to just shut right down if I start having him quote Wilde for his own.

Okay, Jack can look like Matteo Garrone, only I’ve let him keep his hairline for now. He's pointlessly vain about it. 

Frustrating myself

Here's a short thing I wrote three and a half years ago. I liked it the way it was, though it is far from perfect, and so I never edited it. What it is is perfectly me. This is my voice.

But—NaNoWriMo. You know, I don't rush it. I don't spew garbage for a word count. I don't over think it, either. I decide what to write. I look up details I might need, and I go for it. The next morning I reread it superficially, adding a word here or there to clarify syntax, and then I move on, knowing it can be repaired, beautified, or built upon later.

Yet the story turns banal beneath my fingertips, and other than when I'm writing dialogue, I lose my voice. So this year's effort is nearly all dialogue or speech, because I can't bring myself to dull my inner vision by typing it out.

The clouds have lifted and the energizing sun is filtering in through my window. Maybe that will help. Because I need to use my voice to write about something other than my self.

This is completely about my self, from April, 2011. 0411

From the Unlocked Twitter Vaults

I snapped some thoughts and conversations, most of which don't have a lot of context, because that amuses me. You will see there's a big gap at one point. That was pretty much the worst year ever, and we won't speak of it. You should do this, too. It's a hoot. (At Twitter, I sometimes have said words like "hoot.") Also, if you want a full effect, you might read this from the bottom up.

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 6.43.22 PM

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 6.38.04 PM

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 6.19.27 PM

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 6.22.09 PM

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 6.25.32 PM

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 6.31.39 PM

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 6.36.10 PM

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 6.34.02 PM


Another memory for NaNoWriMo

I took a true story of my own, moved it forward 12 years, gave it to a hard case called Teresa. Obviously, as usual, very rough; some of it's pretty much just placeholders, because I'm feeling descriptively lazy and can fill it in later.  About 825 words.

“Oh!” Teresa said. “I know just the kind of thing you mean. Would you like to hear my story?”

“Sure,” said everyone.

“Well, when I was 12, my grandma was dying of kidney disease.”

“Aww,” went the general chorus.

“Yes, it was hard to deal with, but that was 25 years ago. My mom and aunts took turns spending evenings with her in the hospital, because she’d gotten bed sores from a lack of care.”

More shocked murmurings.

“It’s hard to believe, in this day and age, but it happened. So they each stayed, actually around the clock, but my mom was there in the evening, because it was the best time for me, and her. And sometimes she’d leave me some dinner, or instructions for how to make myself something. I did know how to cook pretty well, because I’d learned in Girl Scouts. We had to make breakfast, lunch, and dinner to earn our badges.

“But that year was actually when I started learning in earnest, and maybe it was because of this spring, in 1989, when Grandma was sick. In the evening sometimes it was just me and the dog, and it felt a little spooky, so I’d always turn on the TV to watch old movies. I wasn’t really into all the regular shows, because as you will no doubt recall, most of them were pretty stupid.”

Jessie said, “I liked The Cosby Show!” There was agreement about that, and a couple of the others named shows they liked.

Teresa said, “Yes, okay, it wasn’t all terrible. But I was really into the old stuff just then. We didn’t even have cable yet. Oh, shut up. We didn’t have very much money, you know. Don’t be rude. But we had this crazy TV channel that showed old TV shows and movies.”

Jack said, “I remember that, and I remember it before anyone had cable, too. They had theme weeks, with a certain actor or topic, for the evening movie.”

“Yes, exactly, you old man.” Teresa grinned. “I don’t remember what the theme was that week, but somehow, I remember it was a Thursday? And they were showing a movie set in Italy, so I decided to have spaghetti.”

A chorus of “Awww,” from the crowd again. Teresa rolled her eyes. “I was twelve, you guys.”

“So, Mom didn’t go in for Ragu, but it wasn’t really like she just cooked from scratch all the time, either. She had these little packets of something called ‘spaghetti sauce mix,’ and I found one, along with the spaghetti, and followed the directions. You had to add the powder to a can of tomato paste and water and a little oil, and stir and heat it. And it was very hard to figure out how much spaghetti to make, so I did this thing, where you hold it in your hand and sort of estimate the diameter…

“And I was worried about getting it done exactly at the same time, and also in time for the movie. But I did, plus, I had canned peaches.” Teresa stopped and smiled, remembering.

She looked over at Jack before continuing. “The movie was called ‘Houseboat’ and it starred Cary Grant and Sophia Loren.

“Yes, you big dummy, I knew you’d like that. And so I ate my spaghetti and watched that movie, and there’s this scene…”

She could see Jack inhale and hold his breath, smiling widely at the same time, but went on. “There’s this romantic scene where Sophia Loren and Cary Grant are dancing together, and the song that is playing says ‘You’re here, the moment’s near, you’re almost in my arms.’ It seemed insanely romantic to me, sitting in the dark eating my peaches, which I’d saved for last because they were sweet and that meant dessert, and it was the kind of thing where you hold your breath waiting, hoping something doesn’t spoil it. And then something did spoil it, but of course it all worked out in the end.”

She could feel everyone at the table exhale at the same time, and felt a little nervous about continuing.

“So now and then, I’m either eating spaghetti and thinking of that song, or the movie is on TV, and I think about Grandma, who took me to the city to buy me fancy jeans, and taught me how to do Fill-It-Ins in the puzzle books, and made me potatoes and eggs. And it’s dark suddenly, and I’m on our old loveseat watching TV with the dog, waiting for news.

“So is that the kind of story you mean, Jack?”

Jack tilted his head and looked at Teresa, reflecting. No one ever sees this side of her, and he can tell it’s hard for her to reveal. “Yes, Teresa, that’s just what I mean.”

“Well, good. But don’t include me in it, okay?”



Reaching back, hungrily, on a cloudy cold Thursday

I don't mind getting older, and I don't mind weighing a little more than in previous decades. But about a month ago, the asthma I suffer mainly in cold weather took sixteen leaps from mild, intermittent to raging, slaughtering, so that I have been lying in unhappy repose, finally submitting to daily pills and daily puffs and the dull hope of a December in which climbing the stairs does not defeat efforts to do something else once I've arrived at the top of them. Because along with that dull hope is the notion offered by the doctor that perhaps in a few weeks I can take up light stretching and gentle walks and take control over the Ohio-fueled or possibly coincidentally peri-menopausally-fueled expansion of my waistline.

Mostly I just want to go around and do stuff again.




YesterdayYesterday, trying out my sweet new winter hood.

NaNoWriMo: today it's personal

Every year during NaNoWriMo I do a few of the same things. There's always an Italian restaurant scene. Always some people sitting around drinking expensive whiskey and reminiscing. And always one day when I just write some memory from my past. That's what this is. I hope you know I'm not offering it as a great piece of writing. I just wanted to share. It's about 2000 words, which is about four minutes for the average reader.


Mary came into the studio half covered in paint. Violet was there that afternoon, and she made cocoa for herself and Mary. They sat and talked awhile, as Jack was downstairs in the theatre, consulting with someone about lights.

Mary said, “I sometimes forget to change my clothes before I paint. At home, I just take off most of them, and paint in my underwear, but obviously I can’t do that at the shop. She grinned. “So at first I worried people would think I just never clean myself up, and then I decided they could see it as decoration, instead.”

Violet said, “That seems really satisfying to me. And if you’re wearing a blue top, but have a bit of emerald between your fingers or something, you’re actually pretty well coordinated.”

Mary said, “Exactly.” And they both smiled in contentment.

“Although,” Violet went on, “I expect there are people who do not actually cover themselves with the paint they are brushing onto a canvas…”

“Ah, but that’s just the thing,” Mary answered. “Most of the time, I don’t actually use brushes!”

She and Violet laughed again as Jack came in, and Mary said, “Yes, we were talking about you, in case you were wondering.” Then she whispered in a loud dramatic tone to Violet, “DON’T WORRY, I’LL NEVER TELL HIM YOU SAID THAT.”

Mary rarely shows a serious side to anyone but Kathy, her boss, and one or two close friends, and her children. Some people think she’s being serious at times when she’s having a laugh, which confuses her, but she’s mostly reconciled herself to it. She operates best under the banner of “quietly eccentric.”

Jack rolled his eyes. He asked Mary to sit on the stool he now had set up with a full microphone stand, and cautioned Violet to be silent. “None of your fussing around. Come over here and sit down, as a matter of fact.”

Violet obeyed with a smile, taking a seat on the luxurious Danish leather couch opposite the recording equipment.

Mary asked, “How many Danes were killed to upholster that couch?”

Jack answered, “Eleven, I believe.”

She grinned and said, “Okay, I’m ready when you are.”

“I heard this song the other day, which I had not heard in just years and years, and it’s been rolling through my head ever since. But my memories of it have come back slowly, like a stage at a time. I expect there’s more still, that I’ve forgotten and that might never come back.

“I tried so hard to be an ordinary kid. The fact is, I really was, but somehow never felt like other people saw me as one. I listened to the radio stations, wore the clothes, bought the teen fan magazines, went to the skating rink on Friday nights, and made sure Mom got the trendy snacks for my lunchbox at school. I collected Lip Smackers, gauze blouses, pukka shell necklaces, and toe socks. I watched the right TV shows. I don’t know, though, mostly I was alone. There weren’t a lot of other kids nearby, and maybe that made the difference. Maybe if I knew them at home, they’d have known me at school.

“It seemed to me that practically every kid in my class could have been a star athlete. They were all shiny and glossy and could run fast in their expensive tennis shoes. I felt dull and flat and slow by comparison. And I was really, really skinny. Strangely, this led people to believe that I, too, had athletic ability, but that was laughable. Every year we had a series of fitness tests we had to perform, and the only one I was really good at was sit-ups. For some reason, I could do an astounding number of sit-ups in a minute. But I was a slow runner, and could never climb the rope, and when I threw a softball to measure how far it would go, my gym teacher said “You throw like a fat girl, what’s wrong with you?”

Violet gasped. Jack stopped the recording. Mary nodded. “He was special, Mr. Repp was. I remember this very nice and talented girl in my class named Michelle. She was one of those girls who seemed perfect, but was also so kind and polite, you could never be jealous of her, just sort of happy that she was herself. And I remember that more than once, he picked her up and carried her around the gymnasium on his shoulders when we were in 4th grade. I have always wondered what she thought about that. He called her ‘Tiger,’ too.”

Violet said, “That sounds repulsive!”

Jack said, “Maybe he was actually her uncle, or something.”

Mary and Violet just stared at him. Violet said, “I have occasionally wondered how he ended up. Maybe he was just super clueless, like, to give him the benefit of the doubt, you know?”

Violet said, “Yes, but the fat girl thing. You can’t have been the only girl he insulted, besides which, just, ugh, I don’t know.”

“There was a fat girl in our class. Not like it is now, with so many people struggling. We all knew someone who was just built large, or who fought their weight, but it wasn’t common. Which probably made it extra hard. Shawna was in our class, and I wondered if she heard him and how she felt. It angered me so much. But I just couldn’t throw a ball very far. I could roll one! I was often kickball pitcher for both recess teams, because I was lousy, otherwise, and other kids wanted to kick and run the bases, anyway.”

Jack said, “Hey, you must have always been a good bowler!”

Mary answered, “Actually, I was awful. I was just awful at everything until I was about 19, and then I bloomed or whatever they always said I’d do.” She smiled happily.

Jack started recording again.

“So then I went to junior high, and we had a girl’s gym class, and I was terrible at all the sports, and the girls were shocked that I didn’t have a bra yet, so my aunt gave me one my cousin had outgrown, because she and my mom were utterly clueless about these things somehow, and it had red piping on it, so then they made fun of that. And all the girls got leather clogs with wooden heels, but when I went to get mine, they didn’t have the right size. Instead, I picked out a pair of stack-heeled loafers which were actually very sharp, but they weren’t clogs, you know, so they were wrong.” Mary sighed, but rolled her eyes with a smile.

“At that point, I started to figure a few things out. I took charge of my style, and also my fitness. I had a frustrating year barely passing all the gym tests, and so the next year, I started jogging with my dog, figuring I could get stronger that way. I wore what I liked, worked on being a little bit avant garde, and ignored the girls who seemed to need to judge me for that.” Mary looked over at Violet, who grinned and nodded. She knew that same experience very well, though in her case, it stemmed from very different reasons.

“In eighth grade, we had to take this fitness test in the fall and again in the spring. I didn’t do so well in the fall, taking over two and a half minutes to run a quarter mile, but I ran around with my dog all winter, and rode my bike everywhere, and then when it was much warmer out, I put on jogging shorts and took off up an old road past our elementary school, sometimes running three or four miles at a time, at what was a pretty serious pace for me. I had read in a magazine about how important it was to keep a good rhythm while you run, so I used to play songs in my head like a radio. The song “You” by Rita Coolidge had come out, and it might have sounded sad at the time, but for me, that song was about my dog, whose name was Monty Python. We’d gotten him two years earlier, thinking he’d be a good companion for my older brother, but he bonded with me, and stuck by my side for five years, until he was killed in an accident. At age two, he could have kept up with me, though, for as far as I could run.

“And so I’d run, to that disco beat or to another, doing intervals, though I didn’t know that’s what they were. Every time that song played when I wasn’t running, I’d see Monty and I, breezing along in the sunshine together. When I heard it the other day, I remembered that, all in a flash.” She stopped and closed her eyes just then. Violet and Jack watched her, as she shook her head and began again.

“When the spring fitness tests came, I was so excited. I just knew I’d do better, and I told my teacher, Mrs. Bryan, about how hard I’d been working at it. She told me she expected good things from me. Well, what do you know, I was running next to the girl from elementary school, Michelle, who was very fast. She ran that quarter mile in about a minute and a half, or a little less, and set a record. But I ran it in under two minutes! I’d shaved an entire minute off my fall performance. I was giddy with success. Mrs. Bryan said that if I’d worked as hard as I said I did, I should have done better. She was just like that, I guess, and I tried not to let her make me feel bad. And I did receive a good grade for my effort.”

Mary saw the looks on Violet and Jack’s faces, and said, “You guys, this is a happy story! It was a victory, and I owed it to my dog, for whom the song ‘You’ could have been written.”

She went on, “But here’s an epilogue for you. My senior year in high school I was at a different school, and we had to run a mile to pass our one mandatory year of gym. I’d chosen a fitness class, too, because it taught us how to work on a weight machine, and aerobic exercise, and lots of other things, without ever having to be on a team. I wore fun Flashdance- and Fame-style clothes, and was one of the best in the class, blazing through sit-ups, and running the mile in about eight minutes, which is not even a little bit fast, but pretty good alongside all these girls who were lazy and walked half of it, barely finishing in the maximum fifteen.

“Plus! This is why I paint. I was also always surrounded by all these people with loads of artistic talent, and I couldn’t even paint an owl on a rock for Mother’s Day in Girl Scouts. But it turns out, all the messes I made as a child, cutting and gluing and painting things that didn’t look like they were meant to really brought me a lot of joy. So I determined that when I grew up, I’d do something to help people enjoy whatever they love without judgment or grades, or competition. I teach people to bowl and to paint, and to grow tomatoes and peppers, and you do not have to be great at any of these things in order to take real pleasure from them. Maybe I’d have never known that if I hadn’t been so frustrated by how others perceived my efforts when I was a kid.”


My brother gave me the 19th century to love

I graduated from high school believing I hated English Literature. And wasn’t that fond of the Americans, in terms of what was considered classics. I was mainly stuck on Sinclair Lewis, and everyone else except Harper Lee came up short (or very, very long,) and dull. It was disappointing for someone who likes to read pretty much all the time. My brother, who was about 24 just then, told me I’d just been reading all the wrong books. He suggested, among others, Jane Austen.

I realized it’s customary on the internet to wax on about having begun reading at three, to have read Jane Eyre at age eight, and Pride and Prejudice at eleven, and therefore having been absorbed in it all from the beginning, but I didn’t begin reading until six, at eight I was reading Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew, and at eleven, Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, and Judy Blume. I read all the 1970s YA there was, and all the murder mysteries, and quite a lot of horror about child ghosts haunting old houses and wells and things.

People are just as shocked to learn I began in such a paltry way as they are to learn I have no college degree. But for me, it was not paltry. It was a young life steeped in reading what I found around me. I can assure you that in the 1970s and early 80s, no child was reading classic Regency and Victorian literature unless they had a fairly unusual set of books on their shelves at home, or a rather enlightened relative to show them the path. It was not ordinary at that particular time to stumble over Wuthering Heights, which is a book I still loathe, but that’s another topic.

Those girls read Frances Hodgson Burnett, I read Ian Fleming, in a set of cheap hard cover books Mom kept in the little bookcase with the sliding doors at the bottom. I did love Louisa May Alcott, and if I’d known how much more sickly sweet prose on the order of Eight Cousins had been written in the late 19th century, I’m sure I’d have covered it all. But I did not, until much later on.

So my brother told me to read Jane Austen. I didn’t know quite where to begin, but where I ended up first was in a tree in Loose Park in Kansas City, with a bag of almond croissants and a new copy of Emma, bought at an overpriced bookstore on the Plaza. I was captivated. And then by Pride and Prejudice, as well. I just read Emma first because I liked the cover better.

When I learned I could see a film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice starring the divine Greer Garson, I sought it out eagerly, and was subsequently deeply disappointed. It was all wrong, strange and anachronistic and parodical. Of course Miss Garson was good in it, as was Laurence Olivier, an actor I’ve always only uncomfortably liked, but then, that too is another topic.

Later on, I learned to appreciate that 1940 adaptation as a Thing of Its Own. I learned the action was deliberately pushed forward thirty years, which explains the sets, costumes, and dances. I knew more about how movies were made in that era, and that this one was meant to follow on the heels of the hugely successful Gone With the Wind. Realizing all this, it stands well on its own terms, and even the story changes mostly make sense. There’s a long, long absurd scene near the end that keeps the movie from being a great, though highly adapted story. But I’ve made my peace with it in a way I have yet to make peace with the 2005 adaptation or any adaptation of Mansfield Park, another Jane Austen novel.

At first I loved only Emma and Pride and Prejudice. I liked, but did not love Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park. I wanted to like but struggled with Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Persuasion just needed me to grow up a bit more before it became one of my favorite novels of all. And Emma Thompson taught me to love Sense and Sensibility by writing a perfectly edited version of it for her 1995 adaptation. Turns out there’s nothing wrong with Austen’s original version that a confident red pen couldn’t fix.  

I learned to appreciate Mansfield Park by championing Fanny Price as a worthy heroine, against people, even Jane Austen herself, who found her too good to be liked. I kept rereading it so I could defend my position, and found much more to appreciate in it.

I understand Northanger Abbey for what it is; a very well done pastiche of the gothic novels that were so popular in Austen’s own youth, but I’ll never really like it.

Eventually I read all the Brontes, but see only sister Charlotte as a literary friend. I’ve read Gaskell, Dickens, James, Trollope, who is my 19th century Sinclair Lewis—more able to be satisfied with how it all goes along, though—and quite a lot more from the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. I still like morality plays only when they are accompanied by a strong dose of humor. I’ll never appreciate Nathaniel Hawthorne or Herman Melville, but I learned that when a Russian wrote the same sort of story set in the same general period of time, I usually enjoyed it. 

I like the concept of Sherlock Holmes far more than the execution.

My shelves are filled largely with Golden Age detectives and with Wodehouse, and many favorites from my youth, but there’s one set aside for Austen and Trollope. That love began with a fairly earnest recommendation from my brother, and was birthed in a big old tree in one of my favorite spots in the whole world, over thirty years ago. I’d have still discovered Louise Penny, my favorite current author, without the benefit of first reading Austen, but it’s less certain I’d have found appreciation for Joanne Harris and Margaret Atwood and a few others.

Even still, in looking over the lists of what other people consider quite important to have read, there are whole swaths I could never put checkmarks to, because I was never assigned them in 300 level literature classes or introduced to them in ways that induce my interest. There are so many people floating about loftily proclaiming a person cannot be well-read without having delved into them all. But I get the sense these are still the same people who talk of having begun reading at three and quit Mensa at nineteen, and they make my head tired. Maybe if they could convince me they also loved The Clue in the Jewel Box, Ellen Tebbits, The Summer Jenny Fell in Love, and anything by Ellen Conford or M.E. Kerr, then they could convince me my life is incomplete without having finished The Epic of Gilgamesh, but for sheer volume of books consumed they’ll never touch me, and I feel fine about that. Plus, old favorites need annual attention between discoveries of new ones. Today is a good day to read Emma again.