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Monday, March 31, 2014

Another Amazing Read

It took years for me to finally read my first Dennis Lehane novel a few weeks back.  Last week, I followed up with  The Given Day, Lehan’s widely acclaimed historical novel, a break from the mystery/detective stories he’d written before.  At over seven hundred pages, it’s a time investment— one I’m glad I made.  

The story focuses on the events leading up to the Boston Police Strike of 1919.  Lehane weaves the topics of race, anarchy, graft and paranoia that was Boston in the early twentieth century, with chapters featuring Babe Ruth, the biggest thing in baseball at the time, before he was traded from The Red Sox to the Yankees.  It’s a gritty novel and pulls you into the streets of the city, the rough tenements of the North End, sweeping bay views of South Boston, the Brahmin enclaves of Beacon Hill, the jagged environs of Scollay Square.  Most of all, it sucks the reader into the consummate pride, and the desperate unfairness with which the patrolmen were treated.  These men made less money than dockworkers and janitors as they put their lives on the line —working something like twenty days on with one day off, for under minimum wage, with no overtime, in station houses filled with rats and vermin.  Oh yeah.  And if they ripped their uniform in the line of duty, whatever.  They paid for their uniforms themselves. 

No spoiler here.  You’ll have to read the novel or your history books to find out what happens. But perhaps this story resonated with me all the more because as it happened, two firefighters lost their lives in Boston while I was reading it, reminding me that dedicated public servants put their lives on the line for us every day.  In my mind, there could never be enough pay for the risks they take.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Crossing the Line

A few of you may know that for thirty-two hours a week, I work at our town’s senior center.  My employment continues to school me in the kind of wisdom gained via experience.  In this regard, Friday I had a conversation with one of our van drivers, a man in his early seventies.  I whined, I suppose, about the storm that’s predicted to sweep up the east coast in the next few days and pummel us with late-season snow. 
“You may not know this,” he said.  “But the old timers, the old-salt Yankees who predicted the weather by the almanac, or the feeling in their bones, had a name for the kind of storm that comes up the coast this time of year.  It’s called a line storm.”
 “Really?  I never heard that term before.”

 “It’s one of those storms that will melt in about three days.  They say you have to have one before the seasons can change.”   

The idea resonated with me.  I had this picture of a grey-bearded farmer watching the horizon, knowing, sans the Internet, or a weather report, or the newspaper, or anything other than having lived a lifetime in which such storms occurred, that they herald the real end of winter.

As for me, well, I Googled.  According to Merriam Webster, a line storm is an “equinoctial storm,” and a long time ago, back when folks still predicted weather by the shape of the clouds and the ache in their knees, Robert Frost wrote a love poem called A Line-storm Song.  If you are so inclined, you can that find here.  

Let's hope this new found knowledge keeps me warm on Wednesday, when I’m shoveling it.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Butt in Chair...

Sunday 10:55 a.m.  I need a blog post for tomorrow, and I’ve got nothing, a position I find myself in a lot lately.  But I know this.  If I start writing, it will come.  That’s why I don’t believe, really, in writer’s block.  Sure, life gets in the way of writing sometimes, well, lots of times, but when I force myself to sit down, something ALWAYS ends up on the page, although, as I type this, I have no idea what.  

I could talk to you about how, in a sort-of back up to corned-beef and cabbage (I like it, my husband doesn’t), about the shepherd’s pie I plan on making after conjuring up this post. (Happy St. Patrick's Day, folks.)  But I’m pretty sure that highlights the paucity of my subject matter.

I could write about the pond down the street, and how the ice is still thick enough for men to stand on.  A group of them gazed down at their fishing holes as we drove by on our way to church early this morning. I don't remember the ice ever being strong enough in mid-March to risk it.   But these days, everyone’s complaining about the cold and I don’t feel like adding to the chorus. More power to the fishermen for their long season.  In a few weeks fissures will spider across the ice, then chunks of it will bob on the breeze.  Not long after, the sun will drop one day and we'll register the music of peepers.  There's no surer sound of spring. (Just cheated there and gave myself a peeper-preview on YouTube, oh, such a hopeful sound.)

I could stick a picture or two in here, and perhaps I will. 

During the the last mild weekend, my husband and I beat it out of the house to walk around the harbor.  I convinced him to trespass a few hundred yards up to the Jesuit retreat and we found the best seat outside of the house.
Later, we climbed Beacon Rock, a mountain of stone at the water’s edge.  I think I remember it is called Beacon Rock because back in the day, folks climbed it to signal to the light keepers stationed a mile out at Minot Light.
The shallow steps chiseled out of rock, and rusted spikes that look like they may have held a safety chain once, offer testimony to that.

That gets me on a train of thought about those light keepers. Imagine being trapped inside a column of stone in the middle of a raging ocean until the cresting seas subside?  I've mentioned in earlier posts, before they built the current tower mid-nineteenth century, two light keepers lost their lives when an earlier version tipped over in a storm.  It would have taken a pretty self-reliant customer to choose that job.  I’m guessing back then, those intrepid keepers felt as far away from earth as astronauts do today, an unfathomable world apart...

Which triggers one last thought...

That movie Gravity may have won a lot of awards, but the idea of watching it scares me to death.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Stepping Out, Baby!

Last year, Dennis Lehane, award-winning author of best-selling novels like Shutter Island, A Given Day, Gone Baby Gone, and Mystic River, came to town as part of an Authors’ series put on by our library.  I confess.  While my husband has read many of Lehane’s books, I hadn’t gotten around to it.  Crime stories, mysteries, thrillers and the like, mostly sit at the bottom of my TBR pile.  (Remember, I’m a chicken.) But this guy is from Boston, writes about my world, and when they announced he was coming to speak last spring, I was curious.  I mean, he writes best sellers, AND they get turned into block-buster movies. 

To convince myself I wasn’t some kind of celebrity-stalker, before he came I went to the library, but  with all the press about his pending visit, none of his novels were available.  I had to settle for a book of his short stories.  Sigh.  I don’t read short stories much either.  But in this case, I did, and it took me about one paragraph to understand why this guy is so successful.  Oh baby, can he write.  Why I didn’t march right out and buy of all of his books, well, I don't know…I just didn’t…even after he spoke in our high school auditorium and proved he can captivate with his voice, every bit well as with his pen…

Ugh.  Long lead up there.  In December, I picked up a stack of used book at a sale put on by a local church.  They’ve been sitting in a paper bag in my bedroom, and when I finally got toward the bottom of the pile last week, I found Prayers for Rain by Dennis Lehane.  

But still, I had this hesitation. It’s just not the kind of book I usually read. Fanning the pages, I said to my husband.  “I’m going to start this, but if it doesn’t suck me right in, I’m giving it to the library.”  Well, no worries, mate.  That thing slurped me up like an industrial vacuum cleaner on steroids… all four hundred and sixty pages of it. 
Holy, moly.  What have I been missing?  If you want a lesson in voice?  Read Dennis Lehane.  If you want a lesson in setting?  Read Dennis Lehane.  If you want twists and turns that surprise you, and bombshells that get you again, read Dennis Lehane.  If you want a book that holds you in its clutches until the very last line, and hangs on even when you are done, this is the guy for you. 
The story was, at times, tough, and yes, the things I suppose I was afraid of, blood and guts and gore, appeared as I expected.  But instead of offending my delicate sensibilities, all they did was drag me further into the fiction, because it was written so well.  Oh, the stakes.

And the humor.  Don’t forget the humor, Liza…in passages like this:

The priest who presided over the noon mass at Saint Dominick of the Sacred Heart Church acted like he had tickets for the Sox game at one.  Father McKendrick strode up the front aisle at the stroke of twelve with two altar boys who had to jog to keep pace.  He riffled through the greeting, penitential rite, and opening prayer like his Bible was afire.  He zipped through Paul’s Letter to the Romans as if Paul drank too much coffee.  By the time he slammed through the Gospel According to Luke and waved the parishioners to sit, it was seven past noon and most of the people in pews looked wiped…Two minutes flat.  The fastest sermon I’d ever witnessed. Father McKendrick definitely had Red Sox tickets.

The parishioners looked dazed, but happy.  The only thing good Catholics love more than God is a short service.   Prayers for Rain, Dennis Lehane, Copyright 1999.

There's a lesson here...for me, anyway.  Remind me next time, will you?  The only one I hurt by maintaining my reading comfort zone… is me.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014


It's IWSG Day.  Click on the picture to link to other writers' posts, supporting other writers.

 There are certain Saturdays. 

As I write this, the thermometer hovers at nineteen degrees.  Still, it’s burning season and the rough winter has left us with piles of debris.  My husband patrols out back, wearing his wool-plaid burning shirt, tending to a fire.  Our daughter, currently taking an extended break from school, has left for work…a double shift which means she’ll be gone until late.  And I’m here, in the house, dressed in fleece and sweats, listening to the furnace click on and off while I play YANKEE MAGAZINE.

Almost thirty years ago, my husband’s mother bought us a subscription to YANKEE, a lifestyle publication featuring in-depth stories about New England culture that warm me deep down.  My favorite piece is a regular essay called “The View from Mary’s Farm,” by author Edie Clark.  By crafting the right details and employing a lyrical rhythm of words, she invites her readers to step into the wood stoves, the apple trees, the stone walls of her life.  In truth, when I began writing my own essays in Middle Passages, I saw myself as an Edie Clark wannabe.  I still do. 
I’ve learned a lot from Edie over the years.  About building a new life when an old one passes on, about small town idiosyncrasies and politics.  Through one of her books, I’ve come to know food that touches the heart, chowders and codfish cheeks, the pleasures of community suppers.  Each of her essays comes to me as a truthful kind of fantasy that adds depth to my own life.  And when I’m lucky, once in a while, a day arrives in which everything aligns in such a way that I may consciously emulate Edie.  Today is one of them, and while I work, I’m making beans.

I’ve already finished the blog post overdue from last week.  It’s all tuned up, ready to publish Monday, which leaves me with this post for Wednesday, tweaks to a SOUTH SHORE LIVING article due on Friday, and review of a critique partner’s manuscript.  And the beans.  I soaked them last night, and as I write this, they simmer on the stove.  In a while, I’ll drain them, dress them with molasses or maple syrup, add an onion, mustard, some thyme and boiling water.  I'll place them in a low oven and let them bake all afternoon.  That’s my project. 

Thanks to Edie, it’s what makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something Saturday-necessary and house worthy while I perch in front of the computer and write.  Tonight, I’ll sit down to supper draped in the comforting mantle of a day filled with good and enjoyable work.   

By sundown, there will be words and beans, and not long after, a bellyfull of comfort. In my mind, you can't get more YANKEE than that.