Joyce Sáenz Harris, Special Contributor
The Dallas Morning News

For the first decade of his career as a writer, British novelist Ken Follett was widely known as a master of the thriller genre, with best-selling novels of the late 1970s and early ’80s such as Eye of the Needle and The Key to Rebecca. Then he surprised everyone in 1989 with The Pillars of the Earth, an ambitious and wildly popular historical epic set in the Middle Ages in the fictional English town of Kingsbridge.

Pillars, which focused on the building of a cathedral in the mid-1100s, was followed 18 years later by World Without End, which picks up the Kingsbridge saga 157 years later, in the early 1300s.

The third Kingsbridge entry, A Column of Fire (Viking, $36), is set in the Elizabethan era and will be published Sept. 12. This time, religious intolerance is barely held in check as great empires clash, naval underdogs triumph, and the art of spying flourishes along with romance, adventure and betrayal.

Follett, who has sold about 160 million copies of his books over his 68 years, will discuss and sign his latest Sept. 14 under the auspices of the Dallas Museum of Art’s Arts & Letters Live series; he’ll do a signing-only event the next day at Interabang Books. Dallas is one of only three U.S. cities where he’ll do events for the book, which he discussed by email.

A Column of Fire is set during the late Tudor and early Stuart monarchies, with a hero, Ned Willard, who becomes one of Queen Elizabeth’s top spies. It’s the third of your Kingsbridge novels, on which you’ve worked for more than 30 years. Does this complete the story of Kingsbridge?

I’m not sure the story of Kingsbridge will ever be complete. The city has come to stand for England in my novels. And readers love it. So Kingsbridge will probably go on as long as I do.

Ned takes part in many government intrigues provoked by religious strife, including the execution of Mary Stuart, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, and the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot. How did men like Ned act as the forerunners of today’s MI6 and MI5 —the foreign- and domestic-intelligence arms of Her Majesty’s Secret Service?

Researching A Column of Fire I was surprised and amused by how much of the paraphernalia of modern espionage was invented by the Elizabethans. They had invisible ink, secret codes, expert codebreakers, and master forgers. They used surveillance and disinformation. And, like modern security services, they often got things wrong.

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By Joyce Sáenz Harris

Dallas native Harry Hunsicker leads something of a double life. In his day job, he runs his family business as a commercial real estate appraiser. But in his spare time, he writes Texas-centric thrillers.

“My day job has meant that I have been to just about every corner of the city, places most people don’t know exist,” Hunsicker says. “That’s what really colors my writing, the starting point of almost every story, the sense of place that a vibrant town like Dallas has to offer.”

In his newest book, The Devil’s Country (Thomas & Mercer, $15.95), Hunsicker introduces a new protagonist: a former Texas Ranger from Dallas. Arlo Baines gets off the bus in a dusty West Texas town and finds himself in the middle of a mysterious, cult-related murder, with two kids’ lives in the balance.

Hunsicker’s story moves at a relentless pace, with all the twists and surprises his readers have come to expect. Fans will have the chance to meet Hunsicker at the Dallas Book Festival on Saturday, April 29. We asked him to do this Q&A in advance, via email.

Before this, you published your first three-book series, the Lee Henry Oswald Mysteries, and more recently a second three-book series, the Jon Cantrell Thrillers. So, with a new protagonist in The Devil’s Country, have your readers seen the last of Hank and Jon?

Never say never, but the natural rhythm of my characters seems to follow the trilogy format. I never understood authors who stopped writing series books, complaining about where to take their characters next, until I sat down to work on the second Oswald book, The Next Time You Die. On page one, I got it. There are only so many emotional arcs you can put a character through before his/her reactions seem stale and unrealistic.

The Devil’s Country introduces Arlo Baines, a former Texas Ranger who is a damaged soul with a tragic recent history. Why did you decide to make Arlo a Ranger rather than a PI? 

I wanted to try something new. Also, I have always wanted to write a police procedural, but since I have no law enforcement background and too much research tends to bog down my writing, I figured an ex-cop was the next best thing. In terms of Arlo Baines’ character, I wanted him to be completely cut off from his old world — family, job, even where he lives — so he had to be an ex-something. After thinking about the setting, the badlands of West Texas, I decided it made sense for Arlo to be an ex-Texas Ranger, drummed out of the corps, so to speak.
There are some personal things about Arlo that we still don’t know by the end of this book. Will his loved ones’ names surface with more of his memories and secrets in a future Arlo novel? 

Yes, without a doubt. Arlo is forever scarred by what happened to his family. The events that preceded his appearance in The Devil’s Country have altered him in many ways, his worldview, the way he interacts with others, etc. Put simply, Arlo has more baggage than a luggage store.

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By Joyce Sáenz Harris

Even for fans who are well-acquainted with the work of Dallas native Stephen Tobolowsky, his new book, My Adventures with God, is a bit of a surprise: an exploration of his midlife return to the Jewish faith.

Tobolowsky 2017My Adventures with God







PHOTO: Jim Britt

Tobolowsky is a graduate of Justin F. Kimball High School and Southern Methodist University. In the past three decades, he has become a beloved character actor who displays both comedy and drama chops in more than 100 films as diverse as Groundhog Day and Mississippi Burning. He’s been on more than 200 TV shows ranging from Deadwood to Glee, most recently Silicon Valley and The Goldbergs. He also tells stories on the popular podcast The Tobolowsky Files.

Tobolowsky, who lives in Los Angeles, will return to his hometown to celebrate the publication of My Adventures With God (Simon & Schuster, $25) on Tuesday, April 18, with an appearance at the Dallas Museum of Art as part of Arts & Letters Live. He answered questions by email; here are highlights.

Like your 2012 book The Dangerous Animals Club, My Adventures with God is a memoir with a lot of Dallas and many laugh-out-loud moments. But the spiritual aspect often takes it into a more serious realm. 

Simon and Schuster asked me if I could write a book on faith. When I was grasping for a premise for My Adventures with God, I came up with something that turned out to be truer than I first imagined: Our lives often fit the template of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament.

We all have a Genesis. This is usually what we talk about on a first date: who we are, where we came from, our aspirations. Then, like in Exodus, we go into slavery. Instead of building pyramids, we lose ourselves in the desperation of first loves, first jobs. Some are trapped by drugs and alcohol, others by graduate school.

Then we escape and have our Leviticus moment. We stop and say, “This is what I am.” This is when I married Ann. When I became a father. When I returned to Judaism. Then we are shaped by mortality, as in the Book of Numbers, as we lose family and friends. And finally, we get to a place of perspective: Deuteronomy. It is here when we tell our stories to our children and try to make sense of the journey.

You were in seventh grade when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, and you write that “for those few days, history pulled back the curtain and showed us all how close we are to the edge of nothing.” Have you had any other occasions like that, such as 9/11?

Once you are aware of how delicate civilization is, you see its potential downfall everywhere. Usually in lies. They can be big lies from people in power — or the lies we tell ourselves. It doesn’t take anything as cataclysmic as 9/11. As my mother said, “Don’t break your word. You only get one. When you break it, it’s hard to get it back again.”

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By Joyce Sáenz Harris

Deborah Crombie, a native Texan who lives in McKinney, is the author of the popular Kincaid-James mystery series, which regularly appears on The New York Times‘ best-seller lists. The first novel was 1993’s A Share in Death; the new Kincaid-James novel, Garden of Lamentations, is the 17th in the series and will be published Feb. 7 by William Morrow.

Crombie’s protagonists, Detective Superintendent Duncan Kincaid and his former investigative partner, now wife, Detective Inspector Gemma James, are senior officers at the Metropolitan Police, a.k.a. Scotland Yard. Besides their police work, the two detectives also share a home, friends, several cats and dogs, and a blended family of three children.

All of Crombie’s novels take place in London and the United Kingdom, where she lived for a time. She spends part of each year there to absorb atmosphere, do research and begin drafting the next book in her series.

Deborah Crombie 2017

Deborah Crombie at home in McKinney. PHOTO: Rex Curry, Dallas Morning News

Crombie regularly blogs with seven other women writers of crime fiction at She is an avid reader who enjoys “good old-fashioned mysteries” more than psychological suspense. She also has mastered the art of brewing a perfect cup of tea.

FGarden of Lamentationsans can hear her speak Feb. 7 at Barnes & Noble on Northwest Highway as she gears up for a multicity book tour. She spoke with us first, from her historic Craftsman cottage, which she shares with with a husband, three cats and “two very demanding German shepherds.”

While your novels are police procedurals, they are very much about the characters’ personal and work relationships, as well. Ever since your protagonists got romantically involved and then married, the story arc has gotten more complex. Did you always know Gemma and Duncan would end up together?

No, I didn’t know that when I started out. One of the interesting things in the series has been the decision to marry Duncan and Gemma, because it was such a big thing. I had a lot of soul-searching, a lot of people saying, “Oh, you’ll kill the series if you have them get married.” But I thought their [married] relationship was going to be interesting, and it was going to get more complicated.

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Somewhere in a burst of glory

Sound becomes a song

I’m bound to tell a story

That’s where I belong.

— Paul Simon, “That’s Where I Belong” (1999)


By Joyce Sáenz Harris, Special Contributor

For baby boomers, singer-songwriter Paul Simon has always been a part of our world, his music inseparable from our memories. In Homeward Bound, biographer Peter Ames Carlin (who also published a best-selling 2012 bio of Bruce Springsteen) brings the shrewd eye of a reporter, as well as the enthusiasm of a lifelong fan, to his scrutiny of Simon.

This was not an easy task, and Homeward Bound gets off to a slow start. But the story gathers momentum as Carlin, working from the enforced distance of the unauthorized biographer, draws a meticulously reported, often startlingly perceptive portrait.

Here is Simon as an outer-borough striver who became a superstar by virtue of pure talent and unremitting hard work. Here is a man, first famous at age 24, who built and maintained a half-century career in the fickle field of pop by constantly reinventing himself and his music.

He seldom has seemed entirely content with the astonishing success and acclaim earned with his genius for songwriting. The unanswered question running throughout Carlin’s narrative is: Why? Where does Simon’s dissatisfaction come from, and are his dark edges inseparable from his creativity?

Part of the answer may lie in young Paul’s relationship with his father, Louis, a musician and teacher who never seemed to fully appreciate his son’s talent or his success. The younger Simon was academically gifted, a natural athlete and a leader in school, but his father considered his son’s musical achievements unimportant. Lou would have preferred Paul to be a teacher, or perhaps a lawyer; being a singer-songwriter wasn’t serious work, and according to Carlin, Paul carried his father’s judgment around all his life.

Simon’s other major source of dissatisfaction lay in his lifelong friendship with singing partner Art Garfunkel. Paul was the one with the stellar songwriting talent as well as the business smarts. But Carlin says Paul often felt overlooked because he was short, dark and average-looking where angel-voiced Art was tall, blond and more conventionally handsome. For years, the two of them spent more time together than they spent with their own brothers, but the relationship grew strained as their interests diverged.

Simon and Garfunkel split up in 1970 after five years and five albums, ending with the smash LP Bridge Over Troubled Water. While they periodically reconciled and even did a couple of reunion tours over the next 30 years, their friendship has been basically off-again for the past decade and a half. Carlin accurately describes Paul’s relationship with Art as being “by turns his oldest and best friend and a guy he can barely stand to be near.”

Paul’s solo career has lasted 45 years now, and despite its ups and downs, he has never failed to produce critically acclaimed music that has garnered three generations of fervid fans. His 1986 album Graceland, inspired by South African township music, was a landmark on the level of Bridge Over Troubled Water. His third marriage, to Dallas singer-songwriter Edie Brickell, has lasted almost 25 years and produced three now-grown children. He is a philanthropist whose co-founding of The Children’s Health Fund has helped children in Dallas and across the nation.

Paul Simon would seem to have everything a man could want, including a dozen Grammy Awards, the Library of Congress’ first Gershwin Prize for excellence in popular song, the Kennedy Center Honors, and a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as well as the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

And yet… and yet. Is he content? Probably not. On Paul’s 75th birthday, his lifelong rival Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Dylan doesn’t even seem to care about the Nobel, and it is clear from what Carlin writes that Paul would have cared enormously.

Six months ago, on his Stranger to Stranger tour, Paul appeared to have a great time with his adoring North Texas audiences, showing no sign of moodiness onstage. But, as Carlin says, “When he’s not making it look easy, he’s nearly buckling under the burden.” The songs come more slowly as time passes more quickly, and as the tour continued, he talked to interviewers about retiring.

In this tough but compassionate examination of his life, his fans will come to understand Paul Simon a little better. Here’s hoping he knows that by working through his darkest moments, something of lasting joy was created – and the roots of rhythm will remain.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer who has been listening to Paul Simon’s music for 50 years.

Homeward Bound  
The Life of Paul Simon 
Peter Ames Carlin
(Henry Holt, $32)

By Gaslight
Steven Price 
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux,  $28)

By Joyce Sáenz Harris
Special Contributor

Steven Price, author of "By Gaslight."<p><span>Stephanie Rae Hull</span><br></p><p></p>    Canadian poet Steven Price’s second novel, By Gaslight, is a dark Victorian thriller that will put paid to such fancies. If you loved big, atmospheric period mysteries such as Charles Palliser’s The Quincunx or Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, here is a novel with similar hypnotic qualities. By Gaslight draws in and magically transports the reader, as if by time machine, to another world.

Price mesmerizingly blends history and imagination in a monster of a novel – some 750 pages – filled with the lurid, Dickensian realities of a great world capital. This is a London where you might not want to linger long, even with Holmes beside you. Here is a city celebrating itself at the height of its glittering power, even as it suffocates on filthy air, drowns in fetid water and wallows in the grimmest depravities.

By Gaslight begins with William Pinkerton, elder son of famed Scottish-American detective Allan Pinkerton, threading his way through London’s slums to find a friend, one of his late father’s old agency operatives. He wants to ask Sally Porter, an ancient African-American woman, about two local criminals, Edward Shade and Charlotte Reckitt. Sally says she doesn’t know Charlotte, and as for Shade, she advises: “There ain’t no catchin a ghost, Billy.”

Meanwhile, a dapper businessman named Adam Foole arrives in Liverpool aboard the RMS Aurania. Foole is not quite what he appears, but “he had lived among the very poor and the very rich both and he knew which one he preferred.” On the Aurania, Foole meets a “burly doctor from Edinburgh,” an affable and well-read Scotsman who is interested in spiritualism and thinks detective stories would be much improved if they featured a truly intelligent detective.

“Foole had smiled at the simplicity of it but the doctor only chuckled and said Deduction, my good man, deduction.” The unnamed doctor, of course, is Doyle, who published his first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, in 1887.

Like William Pinkerton, Foole heads to London in search of Charlotte Reckitt. But for him, Charlotte is not a fleeing perp; she is his lost love, the one who got away. The two of them are veterans of the flash life, operating in the shadows and pulling off nonviolent crimes in order to live well above their modest means. Though they’ve been apart for years, a letter now has called him back to her.

When Foole learns of Pinkerton’s quest for Charlotte, the men briefly become uneasy allies – after all, both want answers about her, albeit for very different reasons. Clues emerge with the investment of much shoe leather and risk-taking as the two men venture into some truly seamy parts of London.

William Pinkerton works his case with the aid of Scotland Yard, where he encounters the Met’s own Holmes in the person of a certain Dr. Breck, who has a “long thin figure [and] grey eyes” and an uncanny gift for deduction. By the end of By Gaslight, Pinkerton also has developed an eerie knack of sussing out the truth. Whether justice lies where truth does is, he discovers, another matter entirely.

Price drives his narrative at a leisurely yet relentless pace, segueing with ease to the characters’ recent past, and even further back to the American Civil War, as more and more secrets are uncovered. Every so often, he casually drops a dazzling twist for a big reveal that leads only to more questions.

Price’s writing style, with idiosyncratic punctuation eschewing quotation marks and most commas, is reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy. There are lines that you could swear came from Hemingway, such as: “But his brother also was a man of great physical courage and together they had ridden several times on the outlaw trail with loaded rifles and there was no man William would rather have at his back.”

In his acknowledgments, the author writes: “There are many excellent nonfiction accounts of the early Pinkerton Agency, the Civil War and the lives of criminals in Victorian London. This is not one of them.” That’s true, but By Gaslight nevertheless will make you feel as if you really had explored London in 1885.

It’s a deeply unsettling, fascinating place to visit. You probably wouldn’t want to live there.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.


Special Contributor

Post-apocalyptic literature may be as old as the Epic of Gilgamesh, but in the postwar years it became a midcentury-modern, atomic-era genre all its own. Where it once was considered the province of pop and pulp, this branch of fiction achieved considerable critical acclaim in 2006 with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. By late 2012, The New Yorker was calling the genre “postapocalit.”

Nuclear annihilations, climatic or ecological collapses, pandemics, technological failures, fascist dystopias, zombie plagues and alien invasions: Each disaster category has its subgenres and its enthusiasts. And, with more postapocalit novels now being written by women, readers are finally getting more end-of-days stories with principal characters who are female.

In Jenni Fagan’s second novel, The Sunlight Pilgrims, melting polar icecaps have cooled the Gulf Stream, and the world may be facing a new Ice Age. Coastlines are vanishing, and the British Isles are frozen over, with temperatures already below zero and falling week by week in the autumn of 2020.
Yet humanity shuffles doggedly along; after all, the internet works, and while ever-grimmer news is being reported on TV, electric power still exists and transportation has not yet come to a standstill. How bad could things really be? Surely this is just an unusually severe winter looming.

So orphaned misfit Dylan MacRae, with nothing left for him in London, travels to a small coastSunlight Pilgrimsal town in the far north of Scotland, lugging the ashes of his mother and grandmother. He settles into his mother’s shabby old caravan and makes fast friends with his neighbors, who dominate much of the narrative: free-spirited Constance Fairbairn and her trans daughter Stella, who is almost 13 and struggling for acceptance as a goth girl who likes boys.

Not a great deal happens in The Sunlight Pilgrims, but Fagan draws an unsentimental, bleakly realistic picture of ordinary people refusing to believe the worst actually is at hand. Instead, they persist in living their everyday lives, worrying more about sex than about planetary doom, as they wait for the springtime that has always come before.

This is, we understand, how many humans cope with death: by believing that it can’t really happen. Not to us. What, after all, is the world without people in it? A depopulated Earth is almost beyond our imagining.

As intimate secrets slowly are revealed, winter closes inexorably upon Dylan and his little surrogate family. The mercury drops and drops, snows become impassable, food becomes scarce, and finally a drifting iceberg the size of a mountain looms off the Scottish coast.

Fagan is good at capturing the delusions allowing her characters to fool themselves that everything will be just fine if only they can find ways to cope until the vernal equinox, until the spring thaw that surely must arrive. This numbing, killing cold can’t last forever … can it?


Alexandra Oliva’s debut novel, The Last One, is the perfect postapocalit novel for people who watch reality TV. But even if you don’t follow those shows, you’ll be able to appreciate Oliva’s cleverness in creating a fictional TV series called “In the Dark” that seems every bit as “real” — that is, just as fake, manipulative and shrewdly edited — as the network shows that actually appear on our flatscreensThe Last One.

A young woman, named Sam but nicknamed Zoo on the show, is one of a dozen contestants competing for a million dollars on “In the Dark,”the series that is part Survivor, part The Amazing Race and all cynicism. Oliva invents a diverse cast of competitors and a self-obsessed host for the reality show, as well as a Greek chorus of snarky viewers commenting online (including an apparent Firefly fan using the handle LongLiveCaptainTightPants).

The reader knows something is up from the opening sentence: “The first one on the production team to die will be the editor.” But Zoo and her fellow contestants don’t have a clue that while they are busy trekking for dollars through the countryside, cut off from everything familiar, something strange and scary is happening in the outside world.

The contestants know that many of their encounters in the forest will be set dressing: scenes realistically faked for maximum impact, designed to cause emotional upset and create alarmed reactions for the cameras. But the reader begins to suspect, long before Zoo and the others do, that some of these horrors are more real than others.

Hungry, thirsty, stressed by competitive challenges and worn down emotionally and physically, the contestants are slow to realize that they are walking through unplanned dangers. Their survival game now includes uncontrollable risks that were not mentioned on the legal releases they were required to sign.

The Last One is psychological suspense skillfully played out for modern electronic media, and it just might keep you glued to your e-reader all night.

Joyce Saenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

The Sunlight Pilgrims
Jenni Fagan
(Hogarth, $26)

The Last One
Alexandra Oliva
(Ballantine, $26)


Special Contributor
Published: 17 June 2016 06:35 PM

In early 2012, Daniel O’Malley’s debut novel, The Rook, was published to heady reviews, and enchanted fans immediately demanded a sequel. Fifty-three months later — not that we’ve been counting, or anything — we finally have Stiletto, a worthy successor to O’Malley’s original tale.

“Original” was the word for The Rook, a novel that defied easy description. Equal parts mystery, comedy, spy drama and supernatural fantasy yarn, it introduced heroine Myfanwy (rhymes with Tiffany) Thomas as a seemingly shy, ordinary Briton who is, in fact, a ranking official on Her Majesty’s Supernatural Secret Service.

Myfanwy is a Rook, an operations executive of the Court, which administers the Checquy Group, sort of MI5 and MI6 rolled together with Torchwood.

The Checquy is a super-powered, black-ops government agency dedicated to fighting Great Britain’s supernatural enemies, of whom there are many. The most formidable of these foes are the Grafters, a despised Belgian army of superhuman monsters and the Checquy’s worst nemesis throughout history.

In Stiletto, something entirely unexpected has happened: The Checquy and the Grafters have declared an uneasy truce, and a formal peace agreement is being brokered in London. This masterstroke is engineered by Rook Thomas and Graaf Ernst van Suchtlen, the wily, centuries-old patriarch of the Broederschap (as the Grafters call themselves). The big question in Stiletto is: Can sworn enemies become allies without spilling oceans of blood along the way?

Some readers may be disappointed that Myfanwy plays more of a supporting role, albeit an essential one, in Stiletto. But O’Malley’s pivot opens up his universe with a zest that demonstrates his mastery of it, plunging us into the hearts, minds and intrigues of two engaging new protagonists.

One is Felicity Clements, a feisty urban-assault warrior for the Checquy. The other is Odette Liliefeld, the five-times-great-granddaughter and protégée of Graaf van Suchtlen. Both regard Rook Thomas with respect — deservedly so, as she possesses truly fearsome supernatural powers.

Unfortunately, the two young women dislike each other, with mistrust turning to loathing when Felicity is assigned to protect Odette during the peace conference. Meanwhile, acts of supernatural terrorism keep breaking out in London and around the U.K., casting suspicion on both sides as their delicate diplomacy is endangered by a mysterious gang of Antagonists. If the peace process breaks down, both the Checquy and the Grafters know the resulting war will bring destruction so catastrophic that even the average Muggle might be forced to notice it.

Having encountered the Grafters in The Rook, we know that mere mention of them is enough to make a Checquy agent turn pale. Grafters are Frankenstein monsters, so chemically and surgically altered that the Checquy regards them as barely human. Odette, at 23, has retractable bone-spur stilettos implanted in her wrists, and she sleeps in a bathtub full of life-extending goop that slows her metabolism and heals her numerous surgical upgrades. As O’Malley puts it: “Everything about her was bespoke, specially made. Her whole body was couture.”

In Stiletto, the Grafters view the Checquy as equally weird and scary, if not more so. After all, Rook Thomas and her cohort possess inborn supernatural powers, whereas the Grafters’ peculiar abilities are acquired through their scientific, medical and alchemic skills. But as we get to know Odette, her little brother Alessio and their doughty great-grandfather, it becomes apparent that perhaps these mortal enemies are not so unalike after all.

O’Malley faced a classic sophomore challenge with Stiletto: How could he pull off a sequel that would satisfy his eager following of Rook fans? Whenever readers are subject to delayed gratification from a favorite storyteller, expectations are bound to be insanely high. Moreover, there’s no recapturing the delicious element of surprise at discovering something fresh and inventive, as happens in the reading of a writer’s first, unexpectedly wonderful book.

However, O’Malley works his magic in adroit new ways, recalling all the legerdemain that delighted us the first time around. Stiletto is laugh-out-loud funny, occasionally bawdy and paced like a spy thriller replete with chases, betrayals and tragedies. There is slime, there is heartbreak, and there are wardrobe malfunctions. We even get allusions to E. Nesbit’s classic fantasy The Enchanted Castle and to Sherlock Holmes’ villainous archenemy, Professor Moriarty. Fear not, dear reader: Daniel O’Malley’s in charge, and the Checquy Files are in masterful hands.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

Daniel O’Malley
(Little, Brown, $26)

City of Mirrors

Special Contributor

Published: 20 May 2016 05:16 PM

When Justin Cronin’s The Passage was published in 2010, many compared it to Stephen King’s post-apocalyptic dystopian opus The Stand. King himself was so wowed by Cronin’s multilayered work — the first in a planned trilogy — that he bestowed upon The Passage’s book jacket a heartfelt blurb that concluded: “Read this book and the ordinary world disappears.”

The Passage was a phenomenal success, and two years later, so was The Twelve. Readers have waited almost four years for Cronin to deliver his finale, and their impatience, as recorded on social media, has been palpable. But The City of Mirrors is here, and I’m happy to report that the wait has been worth it.

By the way, you may be wondering: Do you have to have read the first two books to enjoy The City of Mirrors? Simply put, having read them will make the experience of No. 3 much richer for you, with a far bigger emotional payoff. (If you did not read the first books yet, watch out for spoilers below; if you did read them but haven’t reread them lately, get over to and zip through the detailed synopses that Cronin provides.)

Our back story: The Passage saga opened with a world in deep environmental and ethical trouble. As Cronin put it succinctly in the May issue of Texas Monthly: “In The Passage, science and the military and the government get together and make a super-predator that eats the North American continent.”

This seriously misguided attempt to create an American super-soldier, using a virus from a vampire bat, results instead in the creation of super-vampires. The Twelve, a group of former death-row inmates transformed by top-secret Project Noah, are inhumanly strong vamps: fearsomely quick, hard to kill and not even the least little bit sexy.

Their creators cannot control these monsters, so the Twelve escape and their 40 million horrendous offspring — dubbed “virals” or “dracs” — roam North America after efficiently infecting or devouring all but a handful of humans. The entire continent is quarantined, and the United States is a dead zone.

Cronin has said that The Passage germinated when his young daughter asked him to tell her a story in which a girl saves the world. That girl is the trilogy’s hero, Amy, the 13th test subject of Project Noah, who receives a refined strain of the virus. But Amy, who is just 6 when she is transformed, becomes not a monster but an enhanced version of herself, with psychic powers and preternatural awareness, plus an extended life span powered by super-immunity.

A century later, a still-adolescent Amy becomes the spiritual leader of a group of survivors who, as the series’ tough but good-hearted protagonists, remain battle-ready and on the move through Colorado, Southern California, Iowa and Texas for the duration of the trilogy.

Cronin, currently a Distinguished Faculty Fellow at Rice University, is a native New Englander who admits that Houston’s humid heat made Texas an acquired taste for him. Nevertheless, The Twelve and The City of Mirrors take place mostly in Freeport, Houston and Kerrville, where Amy’s friends set up a new Republic of Texas. The Republic is the antithesis of The Homeland, a grim slave-labor state in Iowa, where survivors were exploited and sacrificed by creepy “redeye” virals on behalf of their overlords, the Twelve.

The City of Mirrors spends a sixth of its pages on the back story of Amy’s ultimate antagonist: Zero, a.k.a. Dr. Timothy Fanning, a biochemist who was the virus’ original human carrier, infected by vampire bats in South America. A brilliant man who is disappointed in life and bereft of his true love, Fanning finds a dark purpose in his unsought role as progenitor to the Twelve.

Even after the Twelve and their masses of followers are destroyed in the second volume of the trilogy — ushering in 21 years of seemingly viral-free peace for the Republic of Texas — Zero sits like Lucifer in the shadows of Grand Central Terminal, planning his viciously triumphal comeback in the heart of Manhattan, his “city of memories, city of mirrors.”

The Passage’s ambitious arc of time leaped first a century and then a millennium. In The City of Mirrors, Cronin gives readers the deep satisfaction of taking us to that far future, where Amy and her friends left their imprints on the world, both with words and through the blood and memories passed generation to generation.

“It’s children, [Caleb] thought, that give us our lives; without them we are nothing, we are here and then gone, like the dust.” The raison d’être for these Texans always had to be the children, those precious sparks of humanity whose future Amy fought to save.

It’s not easy to successfully wind up a beloved trilogy. But with The City of Mirrors, Cronin has produced a rarity: a great, beautifully fulfilling ending for a huge story about mankind’s failure, imperfection and redemption. There aren’t too many series whose endings make me perfectly happy. But this one did.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

The City of Mirrors

Justin Cronin

(Ballantine, $28)

Available May 24

A Friend of Mr. Lincoln

A Friend of Mr. Lincoln marks a departure for the Austin-based writer. Just like his other books, this one quickly engages the reader’s imagination with its deep perspective, rich historical authenticity and a lively cast of striving, imperfect humans.

By Joyce Sáenz Harris
Special Contributor

Of all American presidents, Abraham Lincoln is the one most often accorded something like reverence. Most of us were taught a grade-school version of his life that sketches his triumph over crushing backwoods poverty, his moral conversion to abolitionist beliefs, and his rise to become Father Abraham, the Great Emancipator, savior of the Union and martyr to the cause of freedom.

But in Stephen Harrigan’s splendid new novel, A Friend of Mr. Lincoln, we meet a very different Honest Abe. This young Mr. Lincoln is a politically ambitious but socially awkward frontier lawyer of the 1830s and ’40s, one who often falls victim to “the hypo,” meaning depression and anxiety. He is driven by his concept of honor as if by Furies, yet he also relishes using his mercilessly sharp tongue to win at the law or the ballot box. He hates slavery but doesn’t really believe in racial equality. He tells terrible, ribald jokes. He is a fatalist, wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove.

A Friend of Mr. Lincoln is written from the third-person viewpoint of Micajah “Cage” Weatherby, who meets the future president as a roughhewn youth during the Indian wars and later becomes one of Lincoln’s bachelor cronies in Springfield, Ill. (Given that Harrigan wrote the superb historical novel The Gates of the Alamo, it may be no coincidence that “Micajah” also was the first name of an Alamo defender.) Cage Weatherby is a fictitious character, but Harrigan inserts him neatly and believably into Lincoln’s social circle of real-life Springfield friends such as Joshua Speed and Billy Herndon.

Lincoln takes an immediate liking to Cage, in awe that he is a published poet who has traveled to Europe. Cage, meanwhile, knows there is something special about his new friend, no matter that Lincoln is shabbily dressed, reedy-voiced and awkward as a young stork. Ambition burns inside this man, Cage realizes, and he senses that Lincoln is destined for some sort of greatness: “Lincoln was a man people tended to develop a deepening fascination with.” Yet for all the camaraderie they share, Harrigan’s Lincoln remains a riddle even to his best friends.

“The interesting thing about Lincoln,” Joshua Speed remarks to Cage, “is that he’s both the most public man and the most private man I’ve ever known. He has to hover rather precisely between the poles of his personality. Any deviation might pull him apart.”

The turning point in the men’s friendship comes when Kentucky belle Mary Todd arrives in Springfield in 1838. Lincoln is bowled over by the fact that “she knows Henry Clay! She lived only a few miles from him in Lexington and used to visit him as a girl. … It’s like living down the road from George Washington!”

Cage can’t imagine that the refined Todds would ever consider the rustic Lincoln as a possible suitor: “The union of Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd was as unlikely in theory that night as it would later prove to be in reality.” But Mary is one of those people with a deepening fascination with Lincoln, and like Cage, she senses his potential for greatness.

Lincoln, in turn, knows he needs a political helpmate, and Mary is perfect on paper: a skilled hostess with charm, useful connections and an astute, calculating mind. Nevertheless, Lincoln is reluctant to commit, and the courtship is a long, rocky one. Cage’s efforts to support his friend end up backfiring, and he learns firsthand just how vindictive Mary Todd Lincoln can be.

Harrigan’s previous novels all have been set in Texas, so A Friend of Mr. Lincoln marks a departure for the Austin-based writer. Just like his other books, this one quickly engages the reader’s imagination with its deep perspective, rich historical authenticity and a lively cast of striving, imperfect humans. His Lincoln is one of them: a young man subject to the same torments, infatuations, ambitions, enthusiasms and sexual appetites as other young men. But unlike the others, he is peculiarly fated to become a tragic, heroic figure whose best speeches are the immortal poetry he yearned to write.

After a century and a half, he also remains America’s most beloved enigma. That homely face and those weary gray eyes guard a well of secrets so unfathomable that we, even as friends of Mr. Lincoln, have yet to plumb its depths.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

Plan your life

Stephen Harrigan will speak Thursday, Feb. 4 at Highland Park United Methodist Church, 3300 Mockingbird Lane, Dallas. The 7 p.m. talk is free; a 6 p.m. reception, which includes a signed book, is $30. Register at or 214-523-2240.

A Friend of Mr. Lincoln

Stephen Harrigan

(Knopf, $27.95)

Available Tuesday, Feb. 2.

MARY-LOUISE PARKER - Bebeto Matthews - AP

I have seen Mary-Louise Parker act in three very different Broadway plays: Craig Lucas’ Prelude to a Kiss (1990), Alan Ayckbourn’s Communicating Doors (1998) and David Auburn’s Proof (2000), for which Parker won a Tony Award as Best Actress in a Play.

Witnessing those performances probably influenced my perception of Parker as a fiercely private person, a reluctant celebrity who is as elusive as a shapeshifter. She admits that she is strongly opinionated, and some who have worked with her might not call her particularly collegial. But her acting talent is undeniable — and so, it would appear, is her talent as a writer.


Dear Mr. You is billed as a memoir, but it is different from virtually any other memoir I have read. Most are fairly straight-ahead narratives, moving from Point A to Point B and onward in chronological order, including or excluding juicy details as the teller prefers. Generally speaking, you will get names, dates, places and specific happenings in various degrees of candor.

Parker, 51, does not do any of this. Instead, Dear Mr. You is written as a series of letters or thank-you notes addressed to the various men who have influenced her life. She starts with Grandpa and Daddy and includes lovers, friends, acquaintances and strangers, but not her brothers.

Almost no names are given. Dates and places aren’t often specified. There’s a fair amount of mystery here, at least if you thought you were really going to get the skinny on Parker’s past. But this memoirist isn’t giving up the goods that easily.

“People are consistently curious about other people’s business,” Parker recently toldThe Washington Post. “They always have been. They probably always will be. … No one’s entitled to anyone’s information about anyone else.”

Nevertheless, Parker reveals a fair amount of herself, or at least of the self she wants us to see, and it feels real enough that one can believe she sincerely means it. Each chapter in Dear Mr. You is a prose poem of sorts, filled with emotional memories — though Parker says in her prologue that she loathes the word memories “for both its icky tone and wistful graveyard implications.”

She fondly recalls men who “can fix my screen door, my attitude, and open most jars … slam a puck, build a decent cabinet or the perfect sandwich.” This book, it seems, is her chance to say “thank you for the tour of the elevator cage, the sound booth, the alley; thank you for the kaleidoscope, the get-well tequila, the painting, the truth.”

Among them was “Man Out of Time,” an elegant guy she met at a party, with whom she struck up a necessarily short but lovely friendship because “I just liked you so much.” It’s an elegiac story that rings true for all of us who have lost special friends much too soon.

Then there was “Mr. Cabdriver,” whose egregiously wrong turns on a bad day threw a hugely pregnant Parker into an f-bomb-fueled panic (in her defense, she had just been dumped by her longtime beau, actor Billy Crudup) and prompted the cabdriver to make an abrupt stop for her unscheduled departure. When the cabbie shouted, “Go! I am not taking you to anywhere, you are very awful! I don’t want you anymore,” Parker replied, “No one does.” Then she wailed: “I am alone. Look, see? I am pregnant and alone.”

Her misery at that moment is palpable. But so is her later joy, in “Dear Orderly,” when she writes about her son, the one perfect thing that came out of that bad time: “Look at him there, would you? I mean, have you ever? I almost can’t believe it. He’s my only and my one. He’s my ever and after. … He is my job now, the best one I’ve ever had, by a zillion, and I will be doing this one until I drop.”

In a way, Parker’s writing reminds me a bit of Anne Lamott’s, even to its offbeat, unconventionally spiritual aspects. Her most affecting chapter is her last one, “Dear Oyster Picker,” which is about her beloved father’s death. Upon finishing it, not only did I understand the meaning of the oyster shell pictured on the book’s dust cover, but I also understood exactly why Parker felt compelled to become a writer.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a freelance writer in Dallas.

Plan your life

Mary-Louise Parker will appear with Mary Karr at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 11 at the Dallas Museum of Art as part of Arts & Letters Live. VIP tickets, which include priority seating and access to the signing line as well as a book, $75; general admission $35, with discounts for students and DMA members, at or 214-922-1818.

Big Book of SherlockThe Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories
Edited by Otto Penzler
(Vintage Crime/ Black Lizard, $25)

Special Contributor
Published: 19 December 2015 08:18 AM

Almost from his first appearance in 1887’s A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes inspired readers to try writing new adventures for him.

Some of these efforts were pastiches, faux Sherlockian tales written in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s energetic storytelling style. Others were parodies that played Holmes and his faithful partner, Dr. John H. Watson, for in-jokey laughs.

New York mystery bookseller and editor Otto Penzler, 73, is arguably the greatest mystery anthologist working, with more than 50 collections to his credit. No mystery fan’s library is complete without his 1977 Edgar Award winner, The Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection. Until now, however, Penzler had never compiled a collection of Sherlock Holmes-related tales.

The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories (and at 780 pages, it really is big) required Penzler to sort through more than a century’s worth of the best Sherlockian fan fiction and winnow it down to 83 pieces. Since Holmes’ fans are legion, the number of tales paying tribute to him — originally scattered through a dozen decades of vintage magazines, obscure chapbooks and previous story collections — must now be in the hundreds, if not the thousands. That’s amazing, considering that the Canon, as Doyle’s Sherlock output is reverently known, consists only of the four original Holmes novels and 56 short stories.

The Big Book brings together stories from Sherlock-addicted writers from Britain, the U.S. and even Russia, including many who are not primarily known as mystery writers. The anthology includes names as famous and diverse as Kingsley Amis, Poul Anderson, J.M. Barrie, Anthony Burgess, Neil Gaiman, O. Henry, Laurie R. King, A.A. Milne, Anne Perry, Carolyn Wells and P.G. Wodehouse.

I was particularly intrigued by “The Case of the Man Who Was Wanted,” rumored to be a long-lost Sherlock Holmes story when it turned up in a box of Doyle family documents in the early 1940s. But, although Cosmopolitan magazine published the story in 1948 under Doyle’s name and with much hoopla, even his children were unsure of its provenance.

The true author finally was revealed to be Arthur Whitaker, an obscure British architect who had written the story and sent it to Doyle in 1911, hoping that it might be published as a collaborative effort. Doyle declined, sent Whitaker a check for 10 guineas and then stashed the manuscript away, unaware that he was setting up a literary whodunit that would not be solved for almost 40 years.

Penzler includes a couple of short pieces by Doyle: “The Field Bazaar,” written for a University of Edinburgh fundraiser in 1896, and “How Watson Learned the Trick,” a 503-word story created for the miniature library in Queen Mary’s dollhouse at Windsor Castle. You won’t, however, find Doyle’s extracanonical tales “The Lost Special” and “The Man With the Watches” in this volume, perhaps because the detective in those stories is never named — although he sounds very much like Holmes.

Penzler took great care in selecting The Big Book’s Sherlockian pastiches, making sure that his choices were extremely well-written and clever enough that they might have come from Doyle’s own hand. Many of the best ones are here, including Vincent Starrett’s “The Unique Hamlet,” David Stuart Davies’ “The Darlington Substitution Scandal,” Barry Day’s “The Case of the Curious Canary” and Stephen King’s “The Doctor’s Case.”

It is heartening to peruse The Big Book and see so many modern mystery writers — including Texas’ own Bill Crider — proving to be adept at the art of Sherlockian pastiche. It is not as easy as one might think to imitate Doyle’s style and to do it well; he too often is imitated very badly indeed.

But from 85-year-old Colin Dexter to 35-year-old Lyndsay Faye, these mystery writers have learned the trick. Sherlock-loving readers everywhere can sink happily into The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories and let themselves believe, just for a few hours, that a brand-new game is afoot.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a freelance writer in Dallas. She has been a Sherlock Holmes fan ever since she read “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” at the age of 10.

If you adored Wicked, Gregory Maguire’s hugely popular prequel set in a reimagined Oz, you may be intrigued by the idea of After Alice, his new novel published to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Lewis Carroll’s classic Victorian fantasy, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Regrettably, this literary pastiche is far less engaging than Wicked. Only hardcore Alicedevotees will have the stamina to push through its unevenly paced narrative, and even they may be disappointed by the oddly lifeless denouement. This is a case where an editor really should have said: “You know what? Let’s lose that last chapter where Darwin just rambles on.”

After Alice is not a sequel to Carroll’s Alice and its companion, Through the Looking-Glass,despite its title’s implication. Instead, it is Maguire’s tale of what happens to the bemused people left aboveground when young Alice Clowd falls down that famous rabbit hole. Her friend, Ada Boyce, goes tumbling after Alice into Wonderland. Thus Ada spends the rest of the book chasing after Alice, who doesn’t reappear until nearly the end.

Ada, the local vicar’s 10-year-old daughter, is nobody’s favorite child. She often is cruelly ignored by servants and parents fixated on her sickly baby brother. “That lummoxing galootress,” the family’s Irish cook calls her; but Ada has a lumpish fortitude that makes up somewhat for her lack of imagination.

Meanwhile, motherless Alice is mostly absent from the story and is only vaguely sketched as a mysterious creature gifted at evading supervision by adults or by her teenage sister, Lydia — the same sister who, in the original Alice’s opening paragraph, reads a book “with no pictures or conversations in it.” It is Lydia who is the center of the aboveground narrative, just as Ada is the center of the underground story.

Maguire, however, fails to make either girl into a compelling heroine who deserves the reader’s investment of time and interest.

When the two younger girls disappear, their elders don’t seem particularly worried about where they may have gone. Lydia, at 15, is far more interested in herself and in the handsome young American abolitionist who has come to Oxford for the day, shepherding the august Charles Darwin on a visit to her father. Indeed, the only one who frets about Ada’s absence is her governess, whose chief concern is that she might be sacked if her charge doesn’t turn up soon.

Underground, Ada is magically freed from her torturous back brace (worn for an unnamed condition, probably scoliosis). Thus liberated, she meets up with many of Carroll’s famous characters, from the Mad Hatter and March Hare to the Walrus and the Carpenter. Maguire’s rendering of these characters is, unfortunately, far less witty than Carroll’s, and nothing particularly original or enchanting is added to any of their established personalities.

At times, Maguire’s prose becomes so elaborately arch that he appears to be striving vainly for Nabokovian heights (an impression confirmed by a bit of dialogue that is an obvious hat tip to the master’s Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle). Granted, he’s trying to tell a story in the florid Victorian style.

But Maguire over-eggs the pudding with a barrage of dense sentences such as this one: “To a deity lolling overhead on bolsters of zephyr, however, the city rises as if out of some underground sea, like Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie, that fantasia about the submerged Breton cathedral rising once every hundred years off the island of Ys.” That came in the fourth paragraph of Chapter 1, and even now I am not quite sure why that sentence needed to be there. Only when Maguire stops trying so hard to impress does the narrative sporadically achieve some rhythm and flow.

In addition, serious real-world topics — death, abolition and Darwinism — drain much of the potentially playful tone from the chapters of the book that are set aboveground. In the underground chapters, the fantasy may not be consistently comedic, but at least the Cheshire Cat isn’t discussing the theory of evolution.

Wonderland has its downside, to be sure, what with the Queen of Hearts’ fondness for ordering beheadings. But compared to the dreariness of the Victorian age as depicted by Maguire, it is perhaps no wonder that one lonely, displaced character chooses to stay in Carroll’s fantasy land, rather than return to a real world that can never truly be home.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer. 

After Alice

Gregory Maguire

(William Morrow, $26.99)

RUBBERNECKER by Belinda Bauer


Belinda Bauer

(Atlantic Monthly, $24)

In the decade since the success of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, we’ve seen many other novels with protagonists who have Asperger’s syndrome. “Aspies” typically are highly intelligent but socially awkward individuals with obsessive interests, idiosyncratic preferences and compulsive behaviors.

British crime writer Belinda Bauer has created one such protagonist, a compelling and sympathetic one, in young Patrick Fort. He’s about to start a term of anatomy classes at a Welsh medical school because he wants “to see what makes people work.”

Patrick doesn’t want to become a doctor. He wants to study anatomy because he has a fascination with death that goes back to his childhood and the loss of his father in a car accident.

Patrick is obsessed with “the thing that changes … between life and death. I can’t feel it; I want to see it. I want to know what it is.”

His burning curiosity is not unlike that of the motorists who slow down to watch the aftermath of a crash: “Rubberneckers. Desperate for a glimpse of death.” He watches horse races, as he used to do with his dad, because it was “the only sport where death was routinely televised.

“With every crashing fall, Patrick felt the shock of the inevitable, and then a tingling in his belly — a bubble of anticipation in case this was the one, this was the horse, this was the moment when all would be revealed to him, when the door might open just a chink and allow him to glimpse a deathly Narnia on the other side.

“He had never come close.”

Bauer weaves her mystery adroitly, moving among several points of view without losing the reader’s attention or interest.

For one character, she creates a bubble of frustrating isolation as a patient in a coma ward; on the other side of that bubble, she sketches one nurse who is an angel of kindness and another whose callous obsession with catching a rich husband leads the reader to the tantalizing edge of a whole new murder mystery.

Bauer also makes us care deeply about Patrick, the solitary protagonist who observes everything and records it all mentally but avoids being physically touched by anyone.

Patrick is in the world, but not quite of the world. He has a prodigious memory, remembering a 12-digit phone number after one recitation. He views life through a veil of emotional distance, yet he experiences it with a strange intensity that is painful and often heartbreaking to witness. He endures casual verbal cruelties and social snubs that would crush most people’s spirits, for they simply roll off him.

Still, Patrick’s mysterious internal wiring contains high-voltage charges, as his classmate Meg comes to see.

“‘What’s it like to be you?’ she asked.

“Patrick was surprised. Nobody had ever asked him what it was like to be him, not even his mother.

… “‘It’s very,’ he said forcefully. ‘Very very. … Very.’

… “Meg simply nodded. ‘It must be.’”

Patrick, though legally and intellectually an adult, can be as innocently oblivious as a young child. He frequently frustrates his mother, who can’t reconcile herself to the fact that her son is hopeless at casual conversation, unresponsive to obvious statements or pointless ones. When Meg tries to become friends with him, Patrick simply doesn’t pick up on her interest.

“She cleared her throat. ‘You’re different, you know.’

“‘Only different from you,’ he said. ‘Not different from me.’”

But Patrick does pick up on a crucial fact, something that none of his fellow anatomy students notice: The stated natural cause of death for their cadaver, known as No. 19, cannot possibly be correct.

Moreover, when he discovers No. 19’s true cause of death, almost no one believes him. Then, a crucial piece of evidence goes missing.

In the wake of his discovery and the disappearing evidence, Patrick is not so much a pursuer of justice as a mad scientist intent upon proving his thesis. But in his willingness to follow the clues, even if it means placing himself in mortal danger, he becomes an inadvertent avenger, a seeker of truth and an unlikely hero.

He will have readers cheering for him all the way.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.


Aviation pioneer Beryl Markham, who in 1936 became the first woman to fly the Atlantic Ocean from east to west, is sometimes called “the British Amelia Earhart.”

While she was, indeed, born in England, Markham moved to British East Africa, as Kenya then was known, with her parents when she was just 4 years old. She grew up in Kenya as an Anglo-African during the fading imperial age and lived almost all of her extraordinary life there.

In her new novel, Circling the Sun, Paula McLain takes Markham’s story, which the pilot herself first told in her acclaimed 1942 memoir, West With the Night, and turns it into a moving first-person chronicle of a woman born before her time.

Markham’s West With the Night was admired by Ernest Hemingway, who called it “a bloody wonderful book.” Hemingway, not coincidentally, was a central character in McLain’s previous novel, The Paris Wife, which became a best-seller.

As in The Paris Wife, virtually every main character in Circling the Sun is based on historical fact, and McLain does an excellent job of capturing their physical likenesses and moral centers. But while The Paris Wife told the tale of Hadley Richardson, a woman who is remembered because she was faithfully married to Hemingway, Circling the Sun is all about a restless woman who, despite being married three times, was never completely faithful to anyone but herself.

McLain does not attempt to channel Markham’s more mature voice as captured in her gorgeous West With the Night prose. This is the story of young Beryl Clutterbuck, an incorrigible tomboy who stayed in Kenya with her horse-trainer father after her mother abandoned them and returned to England, unable to bear the hardships of farming in Africa.

“Gradually it became harder to remember my mother’s face, things she had said to me, days we had shared,” Beryl says. “But there were many days ahead of me. They spread out as far as I could see or wish for, the way the plain did all the way to the broken bowl of Menengai, or to [Mount] Kenya’s hard blue peak. It was safer to keep looking forwards.”

Young Beryl’s playmates were native children, and she preferred throwing spears and riding horses to more traditional girls’ games. She resisted governesses and boarding schools until her father gave up on formally educating her. Instead, she followed in his footsteps and became a successful horse trainer, the first woman in Africa licensed to do so. Like her father, she reveled in horse racing: “I had always loved all of it — even what couldn’t be controlled or predicted.”

Beryl’s taste for unpredictability made her helpless to resist her famous lover, the aristocratic big-game hunter and aviator Denys Finch Hatton. When Beryl met him, he was already involved with Karen Blixen, the Danish-born baroness who would become known as Isak Dinesen, author of the memoir Out of Africa.

But Finch Hatton, who was 15 years older than Beryl, belonged to no woman. Charming and brilliant, he “was most himself in wild places,” Beryl says. “More than anyone I’d known, Denys understood how nothing ever holds still for us, or should. The trick is learning to take things as they come and fully, too, with no resistance or fear, not trying to grip them too tightly or make them bend.”

So until its tragic, inevitable end, the three of them were a love triangle: Beryl, Denys and Karen. “We had done a painful dance and lost a lot, we three, hurting one another and ourselves. But extraordinary things had happened, too. I would never forget any of them.”

Beryl Markham lived another 50 years after becoming world-famous, but Circling the Sunconcentrates only on the first part of her life, all the years leading up to her historic flight across the Atlantic in September 1936. McLain doesn’t even show Markham learning to fly until the final few chapters of her novel.

By then, the reader knows her very well, this tall, angular woman with the pale flyaway hair and the sharp profile. The mostly solitary life she led would not have been possible for most Englishwomen of her time, and even today it would be a difficult existence for a woman alone in Africa. McLain skillfully succeeds in portraying the inner life of a singular figure, painted vividly against a vast continent that was the only place Beryl Markham could ever belong.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.


Circling the Sun

Paula McLain

(Ballantine, $28)


Plan your life

Paula McLain will appear at two events Wednesday:

At 1 p.m., she’ll have a short speaking engagement and book signing at the North Richland Hills Public Library, 9015 Grand Ave. Free. A noon reception, which includes a copy of the book, is $40. Details at

That evening, she’ll appear at Highland Park United Methodist Church, 3300 Mockingbird Lane, as part of Authors Live! The 7 p.m. lecture is free; a 6 p.m. reception, including a signed copy of the book, is $30 and must be reserved at least two days in advance by calling Highland Park United Methodist Church at 214-523-2240 or going to

NOTE: Dallas Morning News books editor Michael Merschel asked me to contribute a DMN blog post today, discussing the process of reviewing Go Set a Watchman.  He posted it alongside the review on today’s

Former staff writer, regular critic and longtime To Kill a Mockingbird fan Joyce Sáenz Harris wrote our review of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. Here’s how her thoughts about the book evolved: 

US cover of "Go Set a Watchman"

US cover of “Go Set a Watchman”

When Mike Merschel asked me to review Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, I must admit I got ridiculously giddy. This was the best assignment a book reviewer could ask for in 2015, and I was thrilled to be one of the very few people who would be privileged to read Lee’s new novel before publication day.

I first read To Kill a Mockingbird in Reader’s Digest Condensed Book form when I was 11, just a few years after it was published and won the 1961 Pulitzer for fiction. Later, of course, I would read and re-read the complete novel many times, and I can remember illustrating scenes from TKAM in pencil drawings for my high-school English class. The Academy Award-winning 1962 film also became an enduring favorite at some point.

So when the UPS deliveryman brought the book to my door last Thursday morning, and I signed for the advance review copy, I simply sat down and started reading. Less than 12 hours later, I had finished all 247 pages, and the book was littered with yellow Post-It paper strips covered with scribbled notes.

Who knew Harper Lee is a Gilbert & Sullivan fan? …NO, cousin Francis Hancock was Aunt Alexandra’s grandson, not her son! …No mention of Boo or the Radleys at all? …What is this rape trial that Atticus WON? …Jem died of a heart attack like their mother did; “they said it ran in her family.” …Dill is in Italy, just like Truman Capote was. …Harper Lee invented “What Would Atticus Do?” long before the T-shirts and bumper stickers of today.

In the second half of the book, however, I had to stop reading and digest what was happening before I could finish.

What the what? Atticus Finch, that secular saint, heading up the Maycomb County Citizens’ Council? Tolerating the speech of white supremacists and arguing with Jean Louise about whether she really wants black people integrated into white Southern society, voting in mass, holding public office? I felt very uncomfortable as I continued reading, as if I had been betrayed by an old friend, rather than by a fictional character in a favorite book.

But after finishing Watchman, I put on my reviewer’s hat and thought not like a fan, but like a writer, like an editor. Eventually, I realized that it is a novelist’s prerogative to mess with readers’ minds. To make us think, to make us doubt our cherished preconceptions. Their job is not to foster our pleasant illusions, but to present us with some sort of truth.

For Harper Lee, Watchman was her truth, because this Atticus is the father she knew as an adult. A.C. Lee, the author’s father and the courtly Southern lawyer on whom she modeled Atticus Finch, was in fact a segregationist, according to her biographer, Charles J. Shields.

I finally understood why Watchman became a discarded first draft, and why Mockingbird was written instead. Lee’s editors wanted a different, more uplifting story with a white-knight father figure standing tall for justice. They knew what people like to read, and the story of an adult daughter wrestling with the fact that her dad is an old segregationist wasn’t exactly best-seller material for a first-time novelist. No, far better to write the story of a child learning about life’s tragic unfairness, about the loss of innocence mitigated by the surety of a father’s love, wisdom and goodness.

Harper Lee. Photo by Penny Weaver/AP

Harper Lee. Photo by Penny Weaver/AP

Now I realized what it must have cost Harper Lee to write this portrait of her father — and how relieved she must have been to revert, in Mockingbird, to the Atticus who was the father she adored as a child, rather than the aging segregationist with whom she argued about the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board decision as an adult. She wouldn’t have wanted this portrait published during his lifetime, not really. And A.C. Lee’s heart would have been crushed by it, if it had been.

Instead, A.C.’s heart grew a few sizes after Mockingbird was published. In a case of “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” he began to act like a real-life Atticus the Good, campaigning for redistricting to protect black voters before he died in April 1962.

Now, if you wish, you can certainly avoid reading Go Set a Watchman altogether, or wait until you’re feeling calmer about this whole thing. Or you can decide to believe that this is Uncanny Valley Atticus, as Jeff Weiss puts it, in an alternate universe.

Or you can settle in to read and accept Watchman, with all of its many flaws, timeline inconsistencies and continuity errors, as part of the Mockingbird canon. You can laugh out loud at more of Scout’s youthful escapades, learn further salacious details of her cousin Joshua Singleton St. Clair, the insane poet, and at last find out the name of Scout and Jem’s mother. You can discover who Jem took to his prom and what kind of wardrobe malfunction Scout suffered there. You can even witness a version of “I am Spartacus” played out at Maycomb County High School.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee wrote songs of innocence, but first she wrote songs of experience. With Go Set a Watchman, open-minded Mockingbird fans can now have both. To me, it just makes Lee’s legacy that much more interesting, complex and timely. I hope her faithful readers will hear what she has to teach us, because it is still worth learning, even if we find it rather hard to read.

Lee is a lifelong Methodist, as am I. One thing we learned in Sunday school is: There is only one perfect Father, and he is the one in heaven.

His name is not Atticus Finch.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a freelance writer in Dallas. Read her review of Go Set a Watchman here


US cover of "Go Set a Watchman"

US cover of “Go Set a Watchman”


Special Contributor

Published: 13 July 2015 10:48 AM

When last we saw young Scout Finch of Maycomb, Ala., it was 1935. Scout had survived a murder attempt, had finally met her mysterious neighbor Boo Radley and was safe at home with her brother, Jem, and their father, Atticus. That is, as every reader knows, the ending of Harper Lee’s 1960 novel, To Kill a Mockingbird — the most beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning book in history.

So from the moment it was announced in February that the Go Set a Watchman manuscript had been discovered in Lee’s archives, her readers entertained doubts and hopes.

Harper Lee. Photo by Penny Weaver/AP

Harper Lee. Photo by Penny Weaver/AP

The reality: This companion piece to Mockingbird, published Tuesday, will complicate Lee’s legacy in ways we never expected. Some readers will actively resent Lee’s revelations, while others will rejoice in her unsentimental realism. Both camps, though, will enjoy the many additional flashbacks to Mockingbird days and Scout’s teen years.

Watchman begins in the early 1950s with Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, 26, returning to Maycomb from New York City for a family visit. Atticus, beset with rheumatoid arthritis at 72, is still practicing law and still the moral center of Jean Louise’s universe. But everything else in Maycomb seems to have changed.

Brother Jem is two years gone; he dropped dead of a heart attack, just as their mother did. Her old friend Dill also is gone, if only to Italy. Atticus sold his house and built a new one; the Finches’ old home has been torn down and an ice-cream stand built in its place. Aunt Alexandra moved in to care for Atticus when their old housekeeper, Calpurnia, retired; and Uncle Jack, the doctor, has retired to Maycomb with his ancient cat.

Though the old guard of Maycomb resists change, the town has acquired a new middle class in the postwar GI Bill baby boom. At Finch’s Landing, the family mansion has been sold to become a hunting club. A sawmill has eliminated swimming at Barker’s Eddy. Even at the Finches’ Methodist church, modern influences threaten their best-loved hymns.

Readers will immediately notice that where Mockingbird was a first-person narrative through young Scout’s eyes, Watchman is told in the third person. Yet Lee puts us right inside the adult Jean Louise’s head, and we know this is indeed our old and dear friend, the “juvenile desperado” just grown a little older.

So when Jean Louise finds her adored father consorting politically with racists at the Maycomb County Citizens’ Council, it is the worst shock of her life. Her discovery is a punch to the gut, making us nearly as ill as it makes her.

How is it possible that Atticus Finch, the inspiration and role model for generations of real-life fathers and aspiring lawyers, is not the man we believed he was?

That we’ve waited 55 years for this thunderbolt makes it all the more stunning, for the pop-culture cult of Atticus the Good is one we boomers grew up and grew old with. So we ache with Jean Louise when she realizes in horror that “she was born color blind” while her father was not.

Atticus is indeed a gentleman, kindly to everyone; he reveres the law above all things. But he has fallen from his pedestal, and Jean Louise feels betrayed. So do we.

“Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience,” Uncle Jack tells his niece. He knows that in order for Jean Louise to become her own person, she has to see his brother as a fallible human being. Instead of believing Atticus to be the best, wisest man she knows, his daughter must accept him as a man who will “always do it by the letter and the spirit of the law. That’s the way he lives.”

Watchman is far from perfect. The text wants editing, and careful readers will spot several notable continuity gaps from the Mockingbird text. Aunt Alexandra’s son has the wrong name; Boo Radley isn’t mentioned at all; and a rape trial is recalled very differently from the one we know as Tom Robinson’s.

But 60 years after she began creating Scout’s story, Harper Lee demonstrates that it is indeed timeless. Today the nation still grapples with the harsh realities of race and civil rights; societal shifts still are divisive. Empathy too often eludes us, and children remain reluctant to let go of the cherished belief that a beloved father always knows best.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer who first read To Kill a Mockingbird 50 years ago.

Go Set a Watchman

Harper Lee

(Harper, $27.99)

Sarai Walker’s novel Dietland is, not to put too fine a point on it, subversive and even shocking. It is discomforting to read, exploring as it does unsettling themes of body shaming, misogyny and hypersexualized mores. This is an unflinching look at a society that is very much our own, although it feels as if the novel is set perhaps 15 minutes in the future.

Walker’s protagonist is Plum Kettle, who is 29, depressed and miserable. Plum has spent her whole life struggling with her weight and with the pain of being stared at, judged and bullied because she is fat.

No diet, not even “Waist Watchers,” works for Plum. She has never had a boyfriend; she has acquaintances but no real women friends; and she hates her job, working from home answering letters from despondent teenage girls for a glossy Manhattan-based teen magazine called Daisy Chain. Thanks to an absentee cousin, Plum does have a nice apartment in Brooklyn. But she lives for only one thing: the promise that someday, if she spends $20,000 on weight-loss surgery, she will be smaller.

“I wanted to become smaller so I wouldn’t be seen,” Plum confides. “If I was smaller, they wouldn’t stare. They wouldn’t be mean.”

One day, Plum notices that she is being observed by a young woman wearing bright-colored tights, combat boots and raccoon-like eye makeup. Instead of being mean to Plum, the young woman, whose name is Leeta, turns out to be an emissary from Julia, another employee of Daisy Chain’s huge, Conde Nast-like media conglomerate. Julia, in turn, introduces Plum to a women’s collective named after the Muse of eloquence — Calliope House, owned and run by Verena Baptist.

Verena is independently wealthy, having inherited millions from her mother, who made a fortune selling horrible diet meals and shakes to women and girls like Plum, who as a teenager bought into the Baptist Weight Loss Plan. When her parents died, Verena shut down the company and later wrote an exposé called “Adventures in Dietland,” detailing all the ways that her mother had damaged her daughter’s spirit and exploited the women who, like Plum, believed in her diet sales pitch.

Meeting Verena launches Plum’s journey through a series of difficult challenges that will forever change her. Verena is determined to help Plum reach self-acceptance, and that means not going through with her plan for weight-loss surgery. Verena’s “New Baptist Plan” includes a makeover mentored by a former TV star, meant to raise Plum’s consciousness about how difficult, expensive and painful it is for a woman to maintain the quality of attractiveness that we’ll politely call desirability.

At Calliope House, Plum finally finds friends, and she finds herself as well. “I was pleased that I no longer needed voluminous amounts of food to feel satisfied,” Plum realizes. “I was learning to listen to my body’s hunger cues and desires, which helped me know when I needed to eat, and what, and how much. … I would never restrict myself again or do math before eating.”

In the meantime, strange things are happening in the world. A guerrilla group calling itself Jennifer has begun targeting those who exploit and abuse women’s bodies.

The Sun, a British tabloid famous for its daily pictures of topless “Page Three girls,” gets blackmailed by Jennifer into printing photos of nude men instead. “Lad mags,” racy men’s magazines, likewise are pressured into acquiescence.

The world’s most famous porn star is murdered in broad daylight; more than a dozen rapists are kidnapped, tortured and killed. A famous European film director, clearly modeled after Roman Polanski, suddenly vanishes; so does a Super Bowl athlete accused of raping two women. Suddenly, there is a price to be paid for the exploitation of women, and the media world is on edge, half admiring and half fearful.

Jennifer is the world’s most-sought criminal, but who is this elusive ghost of a guerrilla leader? It turns out that Jennifer is someone not too far removed from Plum herself. “Jennifer had made up seem like down, had left us all spinning and dizzy, had set the world on fire, and she was still out there,” Plum says.

Jennifer hasn’t magically changed cruel jerks into gentlemen, of course. The difference is in Plum, now a wiser woman who, in the words of Maya Angelou, refuses to be anyone’s victim.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.


Special Contributor
Published: 24 April 2015 10:49 PM

Three historians at three North Texas universities are responsible for organizing Texas Women: Their Histories, Their Lives. While one might expect that this book would come from a Texas university press, editors Elizabeth Hayes (University of North Texas), Stephanie Cole (University of Texas at Arlington) and Rebecca Sharpless (Texas Christian University) explain in the preface that the University of Georgia Press already had a history series called Southern Women: Their Lives and Times, a natural fit for the book they wanted to write.

Texas Women is written as a clear, concise narrative, starting in colonial times with chapters on the influences of American Indian women who lived in what would become Texas; Mexican women who settled in Texas when it was still part of New Spain; women of the Texas Republic; enslaved women of antebellum times; and Texas women of the late 19th and early 20th century, with emphasis on the struggle for women’s suffrage, legal rights, health care, access to education and professional standing.

Under Spanish law, which carried over to Mexico when it became independent, “Spanish women had rights,” writes Jean A. Stuntz of West Texas A&M University. “Indeed, even a poor servant woman had the right to file suit. Her marital status was not mentioned because it was not important.” One key difference between Spanish and English cultures: “Spanish women did not take their husbands’ names upon marriage. … A woman’s name and her legal identity did not disappear upon marriage, as they did in Anglo America.” Castilian imperial law followed the Spanish conquest into Mexico and thence to colonial Texas.

Dallas readers will be particularly interested in “Latinas in Dallas, 1910-2010,” by Bianca Mercado, a UNT postgraduate and a doctoral candidate at Yale who is completing a dissertation on Mexican communities and urban redevelopment in Dallas. This chapter includes stories of Anita N. Martinez, Adelaida Cuellar, Maria Luna, Faustina Martinez, Lena Levario, Diana Orozco and other women who pushed beyond cultural barriers and helped bring their families to prominence in Dallas business and politics.

Two other Dallasites merit their own chapters in Texas Women: Julia Scott Reed and Hermine Tobolowsky.

Reed was an experienced journalist who in 1967 became the first African-American writer hired full time at a major daily newspaper in Texas. She was a columnist for The Dallas Morning News. W. Marvin Dulaney, history department chair at UTA, tells how Reed brought a new breadth and depth to The News’ coverage of the black community in Dallas. Her column, “The Open Line,” ran three times a week from July 1967 until December 1978, when a stroke ended her career. She wrote “more thorough coverage of people, events and issues in the local African-American community than most of the nation’s newspapers had previously provided,” Dulaney writes. “In short, she presented a view of Dallas’ African-American community of which most whites had no awareness or understanding.”

Tobolowsky, a Dallas lawyer, was a driving force behind the Equal Rights Amendment. According to historian Nancy E. Baker of Sam Houston State University, “Unlike the majority of states that ratified the federal ERA, Texas had a vigorous pro-ERA movement dating back to the late 1950s, thanks in large part to Hermine Tobolowsky” and the Texas Business and Professional Women’s efforts to obtain a state equal rights amendment. While Tobolowsky “avoided the appearance of radicalism at all times,” she emphasized that legal sexual equality would benefit everyone, men as well as women.

Other prominent Texans profiled in Texas Women include politician Barbara Jordan, astronaut Mae Jemison, peace activist Casey Hayden, and the Houston Post’s Oveta Culp Hobby, who led the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps during World War II and was appointed the first secretary of Health, Education and Welfare by President Dwight Eisenhower. It is astonishing to realize, by the way, that there is no full-scale biography of Hobby, who was probably the most influential Texas woman of the mid-20th century. (The only biography of her that is available is one written for younger readers.)

Texas Women is heavily footnoted, but it isn’t ponderous. For anyone interested in the real women who built Texas while struggling against long odds, it is revelatory reading.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

Texas Women: Their Histories, Their Lives

Edited by Elizabeth Hayes Turner, Stephanie Cole and Rebecca Sharpless

(University of Georgia, $32.95)


Photo: Robert Trachtenberg            

The average American woman probably has more than she thinks in common with five-time Emmy Award winner Candice Bergen.

Love, marriage, motherhood. Widowhood, grieving, remarriage. Midlife illnesses, aging parents, terrible losses. Career hiccups. Extra pounds and the realization that, after age 45, even famous beauties become mostly invisible in a society fixated on youth.

Bergen turns 69 next month, but retirement is not on her to-do list. Her second memoir, A Fine Romance (Simon & Schuster, $28), was published Tuesday, and on Wednesday evening she will appear as part of the Dallas Museum of Art’s Arts & Letters Live series to talk about her life in and out of the limelight.

Bergen, a one-time model turned actress, grew up in Beverly Hills, the child of Hollywood royalty. Her father, ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, was a huge star of radio, film, stage and early TV screens; his most famous dummy, Charlie McCarthy, is in the Smithsonian Institution. Candice Bergen’s first memoir, Knock Wood, covering the initial decades of her life and career, was published in 1984 to critical and popular acclaim.

In A Fine Romance, Bergen writes that when Knock Wood was a success, she had “trouble enjoying it.” The next year, she had her daughter, Chloe, with her first husband, French film director Louis Malle. With the birth of her child, “my writing fuse shorted out,” Bergen said in a recent telephone interview. “I didn’t write again for 30 years.” Thus, tackling a second memoir required her to retrain what she calls her “writing muscle.” She blew three deadlines for A Fine Romance, “managed to drag it out over four years … and wrote the book, stupidly, on my iPad.”

A Fine Romance is, like its predecessor, an engaging read: smart, funny, highly personal and surprisingly candid. It covers her unconventional marriage to Malle, who died of cancer at age 63 in 1995, when Chloe was just 10; her delayed introduction to motherhood at 39; her rocket ride to TV stardom in 1988 with the hit CBS comedyMurphy Brown; the perks and perils of her subsequent fame; the difficult days of Malle’s illness, his death and her widowhood; and the happiness she has found in her second marriage, to New York businessman Marshall Rose.

Daughter Chloe is the constant of A Fine Romance’s narrative, the centerpiece around which Bergen, in motherhood, constructed her life.

“She’s probably much more like her father than like me; she has his dynamism and his intellect,” Bergen says. “Like him, she can never do less than two or three things at a time. She was born a multitasker. But she gets her sense of humor from me, and also partly from my brother,” Kris Bergen.


Photo: Mia McDonald

Now 29 and the social editor of Vogue, Chloe is engaged to financial analyst Graham Albert, and her mother is busy planning a summer wedding — “very small, only 50 people” — at Louis Malle’s cherished French country home, Le Coual. Right now, Mom is still trying to figure out where all the guests will stay for this destination wedding deep in southwest France, a half-day’s journey from Paris. “I’m just turning it over to the Fates,” Bergen says. “I can do no more.”

Malle and Bergen adored each other, but they were from very different worlds. For the first five years of their marriage, she concentrated on being with him wherever he worked, which mostly was in Paris; even after Chloe’s birth, they managed to be together more often than not. “Up until Murphy Brown, we were rarely apart,” Bergen says.

In Los Angeles, Bergen’s mother and brother lived only a few minutes away, and Murphy Brown’s schedule was flexible enough to accommodate Chloe’s schooling and a normal family life. But the show’s success and its long run on TV meant that Bergen’s life with Malle became a trans-Atlantic commuter marriage, with her husband bearing the brunt of the travel.

It might be the world capital of film, but Malle didn’t like living or working in Hollywood. “He was convinced they put something in the water in LA,” Bergen says with a laugh. “It never would have been home for him. I certainly understood that. Anyone who does what we do has to deal with this.”

Though she enjoys visiting Paris and loves Le Coual, Europe could never quite be home for Bergen, either. While she does speak French, “I’m an American girl … and culturally, France is very different.”

Having the Bergen family in LA “was great for Chloe,” Bergen says. “But it was not great for her not to have her father always there.” Malle and his daughter had to work harder to maintain a close relationship, and “it was anguishing,” despite the fact that Chloe was mature beyond her years. Later, she had surrogate father figures, such as her Uncle Kris and her adored godfather, the late film director Mike Nichols, whose presence in their lives was, Bergen says, “a great gift.”

Bergen married Marshall Rose in 2000, and they make their principal home in New York City, not far from Chloe. He was a widower with grown children, and he proposed to Bergen after only three months of dating. She still has a pied-à-terre in LA, as well as Le Coual in France, but she concedes that “travel seems less appealing” at this more settled stage of her life.

“It’s been a very traditional marriage,” she says, “and I am still getting used to that.” He is “the most attentive and loving” husband, and she treasures his companionship all the more because she didn’t always have it before. At this age, she says, it feels good to have that.

“I probably enjoy my time alone a little less,” Bergen says. Being married “is like having radiant heat next to you in bed, and I get used to that.”

Candice Bergen will discuss A Fine Romance at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at First Presbyterian Church, 1835 Young St., Dallas, as part of the Dallas Museum of Art’s Arts & Letters Live. Tickets are $15-$65. or 214-922-1818.

If you’re a big fan of the PBS series Call the Midwife — and if you’re really, really interested in birthing babies — Sally Hepworth’s novel, The Secrets of Midwives, might be just your cup of Horlicks: comforting, slightly sweet and unlikely to keep you awake at night.

This is the Australian writer’s first book to be published in the United States, and it’s getting a sizable publicity push. However, despite enthusiastic blurbs from the stellar Liane Moriarty and other well-known writers of women’s fiction, The Secrets of Midwivesdoesn’t quite live up to its marketing hype.

Part of the problem is that, aside from its unflinching clinical details of natural birthing techniques, there’s not much new in this three-generation story. The Secrets of Midwivesalternates chapters from the points of view of grandmother Floss, mother Grace and daughter Neva. All of them are trained midwives — but unfortunately, the three women are not terrifically engaging characters.

Floss and Grace live with their respective mates on Conanicut Island, off the coast of Rhode Island, while Neva lives on the mainland. Floss is an elderly lesbian and a long-ago emigrant from England; Grace is a 60-year-old hippie who distrusts M.D.s in general and loathes obstetricians in particular; and Neva, at 29, is a rebel who is single, unattached and, as her mother and grandmother are shocked to discover, 30 weeks pregnant.

“How could I not have known?” Grace whines several times. “I’m her mother, I’m amidwife.” Floss assures her daughter that Grace herself had “nothing more than a thickened waist until the eighth month.” Apparently Neva was surrounded by midwives and doctors who were oblivious to a pregnant woman under their very noses. She also refuses to reveal the identity of her baby’s father, which turns her mother into an unbearable snoop.

One major issue with The Secrets of Midwives: The men are bores. Grace’s long-dead dad is nasty and boring; Grace’s accountant husband is blandly boring; and Neva’s love interest, who is not her baby daddy, is sweet but boring. When you’re reading women’s fiction and you don’t care who the baby daddy is, that’s a big problem. Worse: The infrequent sex scenes aren’t very sexy.

Hepworth’s prose is workmanlike, and her similes occasionally stumble into sheer awkwardness: “When I wanted to launch into banter, my throat clamped shut like a preterm cervix.” Yes, really.

It is unclear why Hepworth decided to set The Secrets of Midwives in New England, since there seems no particular reason for its Rhode Island locale beyond the weary plot device of having a birth occur on an island during a winter storm. Conanicut is portrayed so nondescriptly that it could have been any coastal island in the Pacific Northwest.

Therein is one of the book’s biggest problems: It doesn’t feel authentic. The characters don’t think or talk like Americans, much less New Englanders. In one instance, Grace thinks: Red sky at morning, shepherds take warning. That’s the British version of the saying, and perhaps British-born Floss would have used it. But Grace grew up in the U.S., and most Americans would say, Sailors take warning.

The Secrets of Midwives is most likely to appeal to women readers who have a particular interest in birthing practices, especially in regard to home births and those that take place at birthing centers. It pays proper respect to the traditions of midwifery, and it paints a glowing picture of the deep satisfactions in assisting with a natural birth. But it simply doesn’t delve deeply enough into either its characters or its setting, and in the end, it fails to deliver.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

The Secrets of Midwives

Sally Hepworth

(St. Martin’s, $25.99)

Roz Chast, 60, is a Brooklyn native who has been drawing her famously subversive, angst-ridden cartoons for The New Yorker since 1978.

Because she was an only child, Chast found herself solely responsible for making huge decisions — including finally moving her parents to “the Place,” an assisted-living facility near her own home in Connecticut. As first her father and then her mother faded away with senile dementia, Chast struggled with conflicting emotions of love, guilt, fear and sorrow.

She turned her experiences into a best-selling graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (Bloomsbury, $28), perhaps the most affecting cartoonist’s tale of a parent-child relationship since Art Spiegelman’s groundbreaking Maus.  The memoir was a finalist for a National Book Award, won a $50,000 Kirkus Prize for nonfiction and was just named a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award for autobiography.

She’ll be discussing the book Wednesday night at the Dallas Museum of Art. Ahead of that, she answered questions by email.

Your fans know there is personal anxiety in almost everything you do. But this book, being a memoir, is quite different. How surprised have you been by its positive critical and popular reception? Did you suspect, when you began the project, that no one would be even remotely interested in such a personal story?

I think I expected something in between those two. That some people would be interested in the topic, only because I had friends who were going through similar things — taking care of a parent or an in-law that was starting to become more dependent.

Did you have it in mind eventually to write something, even as all of this was happening over the eight-year period that you documented? Or did the thought of publishing only come later as you reviewed your journals, drawings, photographs and the poems and memorabilia that you had saved?

I didn’t have it in mind during the entire time at all. A lot of the very specific details came from emails I’d written to friends. When I decided to write this book, I would type certain words into my email search boxes, like “the Place,” or “my mother,” or the name of my mother’s aide, or “Ensure,” etc. And emails detailing a specific conversation I’d had on that topic would come up.

In addition to emails, I had my weekly batches of cartoons I did for The New Yorker. The batch is a group of rough sketches, and then they select one (or none, on a bad week) from that group of seven or so cartoons.

So some of the cartoons in the book (the one about the olives, the Ouija board one, the one about the oven mitt, the cheese danish, several others) were ones I had submitted to, and were rejected by, The New Yorker. And I had the journal — the yellow notebook I refer to in the book — that had all the conversations about logistics: Meals on Wheels, care agencies, visits to Maimonides [a hospital in Brooklyn], and so forth.

Your affection for your father, George, was made clear, and I got a little teary reading your account of his death. Your relationship with your mother, Elizabeth, was more complicated and ambivalent. It wasn’t her death scene that made me ache for her; it was your description of when you brought her to spend the night at your home after your father’s death, and “she suffered one of the worst, if not the worst, indignities of old age: loss of bowel control. … My poor, poor mother!” That’s the scene that choked me up. How hard was that to write?

That was kind of hard, because it was so awful, so humiliating for her. But I hate how the topic of getting really old is not really talked about — the loss of body control, etc. It’s totally glossed over.

If I believed TV commercials, we’re all going to be playing tennis and eating tasty, healthy gourmet meals until we’re 115. Then we’ll die quietly and non-messily in our sleep, at exactly the same moment as our partner, if we have one.

A new children’s book that you wrote and drew, Around the Clock, was just published on Jan. 13. Have you ever been inspired by special things you drew or wrote for your own two kids, or by things your kids have said to you?

I do get inspired by things my kids have done or said. Usually it’s tangential, but occasionally it’s very direct.

When my daughter was around 16, she was doing homework in the living room while listening to some hip-hop music. I came into the room and did a little lame Mom dance, just to tease her. You know, when you sort of shuffle and wave your arms a little, and slightly move your hips in a Mom way? She looked up and said quite seriously: “Mom. Stop. You’re hurting me.” Which cracked me up. I used that line as-is.

How often are you able to rework a rejected cartoon and get it accepted? And: Is cartoon editor Bob Mankoff an easier or a tougher sell than his predecessor, Lee Lorenz?

I rework maybe one out of 10 cartoons. Sometimes I have to rework them three or four times, which I don’t mind if I really love the idea. After that point, I give up. As to who’s a tougher sell: both about the same.

What is your favorite Charles Addams cartoon?

There are SO MANY great Addams cartoons. The one where the Addams family is on the roof, dumping a cauldron of boiling oil on the carolers below, is pretty sweet.

Your dad is quoted in Can’t We Talk as saying: “No one could deny that religion caused a lot of problems in the world. Fanatics want to kill people who aren’t on their team!” How do you feel about the fact that cartoonists have taken center stage in the conversation on global terrorism?

My dad was right.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

Plan your life

Roz Chast will appear at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, January 28, at the Dallas Museum of Art, 1717 N. Harwood St., as part of Arts & Letters Live. Reception at 6:30 with the author for Annual Series Supporters. Tickets $35 for public, $30 for DMA Partners and $15 for students. or 214-922-1818.


Special Contributor

Published: 02 January 2015 12:14 PM

Real estate is an obsession for many people, as millions of HGTV viewers can testify. Normally, we think of it as a benign sort of obsession, and we think of our real estate agents as a benign sort, too.

Unless your agent is William Heming. In which case, think again.

In Phil Hogan’s new novel, A Pleasure and a Calling, Heming is what the Brits call an estate agent, one who takes a deep interest in his clients’ lives. This, he confides, is “the job from heaven.”

With each new client, he makes a copy of the house key and keeps it. He has hundreds of keys arrayed like trophies on the wall of his own house, which no one ever visits. Then, whenever he pleases, he lets himself into a client’s house and becomes intimately acquainted with every aspect of their lives. It is more than a game to him. It is a thrill, an intoxicant, a mini-vacation that allows him to feel fully alive.

“Here, among strangers’ belongings, is where I am most at home, moving quietly and surely,” Heming muses. “I know where they keep their private things, how they arrange their lives. I follow their plans and make mine around them. … I will eat or drink something, perhaps take a small keepsake — a teaspoon, a sock. But … I am not a stalker, or a voyeur. I am simply sharing an experience, a life as it happens.

“Think of me as an invisible brother or uncle or boyfriend. I’m no trouble.” In fact, Heming considers himself to be “a ministering angel” who is “more than happy to change a lightbulb or rewire a hazardous plug, or sort out a dangerous boiler.”

At times he can be an avenging angel as well, as when he spots a wealthy former client clipping the side mirror from an old-age pensioner’s parked small car, then fleeing the scene in his “behemoth” SUV. Heming plays good Samaritan and anonymously replaces the mirror for the old lady. Then he proceeds to make the malfeasant SUV owner’s life a merry hell, replete with breaking shoelaces, popping buttons, missing Rolexes, leaking pipes and the arrival of an amazing array of expensive merchandise that no one has ordered.

If Heming’s mischief ended there, he would be merely amusing. However, he slowly reveals that his hobby springs from the dark grounds of his childhood, when he was “an invisible boy” who enjoyed watching people, and sometimes manipulating them, as if they were his personal set of puppets.

“I hadn’t much of significance to say to my fellow pupils, and vice versa,” Heming recalls. Yet he “winkled out their secrets — their family nicknames, who among them had had an appendix or tonsils out, who was going skiing that winter. … I filled a spiral notebook with my findings and conjectures (Tomerton was gay, I surmised; Faulkes’s stammer was the product of torture as a child), spilling into two notebooks, which became three, four, five and more as my enterprise gathered weight. I kept their lives, all of them — the weaklings, the bullies, the dolts, the young Mozarts and Einsteins — locked in my chest.”

Hemings’ secret life takes an unexpectedly dangerous turn when he becomes fascinated by a young woman who is having an affair with a charming cad of a married man. Once he acquires her key, or rather the key she had given to her lover, he moves into her attic for five days and spends his nights there in “a career first. I ate, drank, dreamed and breathed her. She was that newest drug, that highest ledge, the rarest butterfly, all in one.” Now he is indeed a stalker, a man obsessed who must evade not only the law but also the one person who, it turns out, is nearly as diabolically clever as he.

A Pleasure and a Calling starts out slowly, meticulously building the first-person portrait of a sociopath. But, 70 pages in, the novel takes a sharp turn into Patricia Highsmith country, and the deliberately bland, purposely forgettable Heming stands revealed as Tom Ripley with a real estate license.

Author Phil Hogan is a veteran journalist and critic, and this is his first book to be published in the United States. Here’s hoping for more to come.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

A Pleasure and a Calling

Phil Hogan

(Picador, $25)

 The late writer J. California Cooper granted few interviews, according to her obituary today in the New York Times. But 20 years ago, I had the opportunity to spend a day with her at her home in Marshall, Texas, where she lived for seven years and wrote three of her books. This story appeared as the cover of the Sunday High Profile section of The Dallas Morning News, on July 24, 1994.

This enigmatic Texas writer is no open book

J. California Cooper


Staff Writer

MARSHALL – One of America’s great writers works right here – but
almost nobody knows it.

Which suits J. California Cooper just fine.

For the past seven years, Ms. Cooper has lived quietly in an
unpretentious neighborhood in the small East Texas city of
Marshall. Her house is bright green, like the tall old trees that
arch overhead.

“If you pay attention to nature, you know God loves color,” the
writer muses. “And if you were his favorite color you might be
green, because I know he loves green. Everything in the world is
green, almost.” Her smile is richly knowing, beatific as a
cafe-au-lait Buddha.

This corner of Texas has proved an oasis of peace and
productivity for Ms. Cooper. Her second novel, In Search of
Satisfaction (Doubleday), will be published in October. Her fifth
collection of short stories, Some Love, Some Pain, Some Time, will
follow in the fall of 1995.

Her previous story collections – A Piece of Mine, Some Soul to
Keep, Homemade Love and The Matter Is Life – won Ms. Cooper a
reputation as a gifted teller of tales. Her first novel, Family,
published by Doubleday in 1991, was bought by the Literary Guild
and helped to give her a wider, more mainstream audience.

J. California Cooper

But without Alice Walker, Ms. Cooper says, “this stuff could
still be sitting in the drawer.” Ms. Walker, a novelist who is
perhaps best known for The Color Purple, saw Ms. Cooper’s plays and
urged her to try writing stories. Ms. Walker then published A Piece
of Mine through her own company, Wild Trees Press.

“In its strong folk flavor, Cooper’s work reminds us of Langston
Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston,” Ms. Walker wrote. “Like theirs, her
style is deceptively simple and direct. …It is a delight to
read her stories.”

Their creator likewise is deceptively simple and direct, wearing
a veil of mystery even when she seemingly bares her soul.

She is “the ultimate pragmatist,” says daughter Paris Williams
of Oakland, Calif., who calls her mother “compassionate,
imaginative, practical and very loving in more ways than I can

“One of the greatest compliments I ever received came from
her,” Ms. Williams adds. “She once said, `As long as I’ve known
you, I’ve never known you to be intentionally hurtful to anyone.’

“But that’s because I’m her child. That’s the kind of values
she raised me with.”

You know, I am a grown woman of some considerable character and
an excellent education. Which age, I am not going to tell you. I
mean, how important is age? Just try to live, I say, with wisdom
and concern for others. But by living this long (not too long), I
have learned a few things.

– “Friends, Anyone?” (from The Matter Is Life)

Ms. Cooper, who laughingly calls herself “a semi-recluse,” is
intriguingly eccentric. She writes her stories in bed, in longhand,
usually in the early-morning hours. She says she is “a bed-crazy
person,” and that writing by hand “is the only way I can get these
people (the characters’ voices) to come.” Later, she will “fill out
the skeleton” of narrative as she transfers her work to a computer,
to be printed out in manuscript form.

“I don’t know how to write,” she says disarmingly. “I just do

Her occasional public readings are vivid events marked by a
natural flair for drama, and she can hold a cafeteria full of
restless high-schoolers spellbound. But she doesn’t go out of her
way to seek publicity, preferring to let the media find her – when they can.

She’ll talk about her work while letting many things about
herself and her personal history remain deliberately vague. “She
guards her privacy,” says her daughter.

For example, Ms. Cooper appears 60-ish – but “a woman who will
tell her age will tell anything,” she quotes with a laugh. Her
years show in the tranquil, seen-it-all lines around her lively
eyes. But her hands are amazingly smooth and youthful, like those
of a 25-year-old.

Her given name, Joan, now is shortened to the initial “J.” Ms.
Cooper doesn’t usually reveal what the “J” stands for, but Alice
Walker mentioned it in the introduction to A Piece of Mine. The
adopted name “California” is after her home state; she spent most
of her life in Oakland, Berkeley and the San Francisco Bay Area.

But her father, Joseph C. Cooper, came from Marshall, and when
she was 12, she spent a year in his hometown, living with an aunt.
Later, Ms. Cooper often returned to visit. Thus she has never
forgotten her Texas roots or the gritty realities of country life,
such as picking cotton for a penny a pound.

Ms. Cooper wrote 17 plays before publishing any of her fiction,
and she was named San Francisco’s Black Playwright of the Year in
1978 for Strangers. In 1988, she was given the James Baldwin Award
and the American Library Association’s Literary Lion Award.

In 1989, Ms. Cooper won an American Book Award for Homemade
Love, and the honor brought her a flood of attention. Some of it
was the sort most struggling writers would kill to get, but much of
it she found exasperating.

It was “the only time I’ve seen her become disagreeable,” says
Reid Boates, the New Jersey literary agent who has represented Ms.
Cooper for the past eight years. “A private atmosphere is very
important to her.”

“When you win an award, all kinds of people want to talk to
you,” says Emma Rodgers, co-owner of Black Images Book Bazaar in
Oak Cliff’s Wynnewood Village. “They take your time – and your time
belongs to you and no one else.”

By 1987, Ms. Cooper had already lit out for the territory: “I
think she idealized the country life,” her daughter says. At any
rate, Ms. Cooper found solace and more of the solitude she craved
in East Texas.

Her place was goin to be nice. She furnished it with the best of
things, tho she never lowed no one in them special rooms. She
didn’t much go in em herself cept to go sit and look round at what
was hers. Hers.

– from Family

In Marshall, California Cooper lives in an idiosyncratic,
inconspicuous but densely textured sanctum of her own devising.
Here, she has her pair of goldfinches and her two cats: one
neurotically shy to the point of invisibility, one aggressively
sociable. She also has eight chickens, all named, who provide her
with fresh eggs to eat and give away. She surrounds herself with
shelves of books and music, with hanging plants, manuscripts and
works of art in progress.

This is her world, but be warned: The welcome mat is not out.

She doesn’t mind the occasional public reading, book-signing or
a good chat over lunch in town. Occasionally she will sit and visit
in the shade of her trees. But she rarely invites guests into her
home, and she discourages drop-ins.

“I DON’T WANT ANY COMPANY,” she says sternly.

She says visitors disturb her “vibes,” the quietude that lets
her listen to the vivid characters’ voices inside her head. Even
her chickens or her old pecan tree, she says, can tell her a story.
Hers is a creative process that can best be described, perhaps, in
one word: “organic.”

“The stories arrive full-blown,” says Mr. Boates. “That’s their
magic, really.

“Her writing process is listening to her characters, and it’s a
very special way of working. That’s what lets her write in the
voice of a cocky, narcissistic young man in one story, and in the
next as an old woman, remembering some incident with her daughter
50 years ago.”

Says Ms. Rodgers, “She talks like people talk.”

Oh, and how her characters do talk.

Vigorous, melancholy, malicious, tormented, joyful, nostalgic,
headstrong, and most of all human – California Cooper’s people talk
like real folks.

Her mostly first-person narratives flow “partly from experience
and partly from observing,” says her daughter, Ms. Williams. A
typical Cooper story is like a parable whose moral often can be
summed up: What goes around, comes around.

In Ms. Cooper’s universe, evil is punished, “integrity always
triumphs,” and the eternal verities – God, love, family, justice –
stand in stark contrast to human foolishness and conceit.

When her characters do or say thoughtless things, Ms. Cooper
says, “I love it, because I don’t like a fool. I really don’t like
a fool! All my life I’ve prayed, `Don’t let me be a fool.’ ”

She likes people with get-up-and-go. “Make a mistake,” she says
firmly. “But let it be a mistake where you’re reaching and you just
reached a little too high.”

However folksy her stories might be, there is nothing naive or
innocent about them. They can be funny, sensual or uplifting – but
they may also make a reader squirm. In the story titled “Vanity,”
for example, a beautiful woman’s narcissism leads her into a life
of utter degradation, rendered in grim, unflinching detail.

And her characters’ tragedies become her own. “Me, when I get a
chance to cry, I cry,” Ms. Cooper admits. “I cry at my own stories,
right on the stage. I try not to, but when I’m reading, I hurt.”
She cries when she writes her stories, too, “because I’m living

Ms. Cooper’s previous novel, Family, portrays that most American
of institutions in a struggle to survive. The saga begins with
Clora, the matriarch, a woman born into slavery. Despair drives
Clora to suicide, and the book is told by the voice of her spirit,
watching over a beloved daughter named Always.

While Family is in a sense more Always’ story than her mother’s,
it is Clora’s voice, disembodied and eternally weary, that echoes
in the reader’s mind:

Some people say we was born slaves . . . but I don’t blive that.
I say I was born a free human being, but I was made a slave right after.

Ms. Cooper says she is proud to be who she is, a black woman who
has prevailed. But she also believes, as the title of one of her
Homemade Love stories puts it, that “happiness does not come in

Neither does kindness or goodness, evil or misery. Though her
narrators most often speak in the vernacular of black America,
there is no color line drawn between Ms. Cooper’s heroes and her
villains. Family’s story of Clora, Always and their kin is a
universal one, encompassing not only the African-American
experience but the family of mankind.

Family is “the nucleus of life,” Ms. Cooper says. “If you think
about it, what else is there in the world?”

You know, I’m just a kid, but I got nerves, and sometimes
grown-up people just really get on em! Like always talkin about how
kids don’t have no sense “in these days.” Like they got all the
last sense there was to get. Everybody with some sense knows that
if grown-up people had so much sense the whole world wouldn’t be in
the shape it’s in today!

– “How, Why to Get Rich” (from The Matter Is Life)

It all started with paper dolls.

Maxine Rosemary Lincoln Cooper – “Mimi” – was an independent
woman who “wanted to be a pioneer or a gun moll.” Mimi’s youngest
girl was known as the one who made up stories. She put her cast of
paper dolls into homemade plays, creating drama from pure

Which was adorable at age 6 or 8 – but at 18?

Mimi appreciated her daughter’s lively imagination, but enough
was enough. You are too oooold for this! she ruled. Time to put
away childish things, like those paper dolls.

“My mother took them away,” Ms. Cooper says. “But the next year
I was married and was getting ready to have a baby.

“She should have left me alone with those paper dolls! But she
took them away – and so I began to write stuff out.”

She had always loved fairy tales. “Imagine a diamond mountain
and a lemonade lake and a golden apple!” Ms. Cooper marvels. “Who
would think of a pea under a mattress?”

Real life, of course, didn’t always have a happy ending. Ms.
Cooper “was married a couple of times, but they’re dead.” But if
marriages did not last, motherhood did. So “my child,” as she
affectionately calls Paris in the dedication of every book, is her
pride and joy.

Ms. Cooper is possessed of both earthy practicality and a
certain childlike ability to live in her imagination. “And I am the
most grateful person in the world that I haven’t lost it,” she says.

“People used to say, when I was grown and had a daughter, `She
just crazy. She ain’t never gonna grow up.’ Because the way I
thought and the way I acted – I carried my daughter around in my
bicycle basket! She never got hurt; we did fine. But lots of things
I did, people thought they were juvenile.

“They were not juvenile,” Ms. Cooper says softly. “They were
innocent, I think.

“And I still like paper dolls.”

My mama say Time is like an ocean tide. It just keep rollin on,
bringin new things for a person to try to sift through. You don’t
never know what’s comin! Or what ain’t comin!

– “Sisters of the Rain” (from Some Soul to Keep)

California Cooper “is probably the pre-eminent African-American
short story writer today,” says John R. Posey of Fort Worth,
publisher of The African American Literary Review. “She seems to
have a way of connecting her characters to African-American women
all over the United States today.

“She gets huge turnouts for her readings,” Mr. Posey adds. He
recalls that at one such event at Black Images Book Bazaar, “I was
one of maybe five men there. …She’s a legend among African-American female readers in Texas.”

Indeed, Emma Rodgers says that until Terry McMillan’s Waiting to
Exhale came along, Ms. Cooper was the best-selling author at Black
Images. Ms. Cooper’s work now is being anthologized, is turning up
in American high school and college literature courses, and is read
and respected in Europe.

Fame and success have their uses, because they allow Ms. Cooper
the freedom to arrange her life as she chooses. What she does not
like is the assumption that success makes her a public property.

“I meet a lot of people who want to hug me and kiss me,” she
says. “You cannot hug and kiss all these people. What makes them
think that – that you belong to them?”

She remembers walking down a hallway at her publisher’s and
seeing Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, a Doubleday editor, coming
toward her. “I had on some black pants and a pretty orange knit
sweater, and she looked me up and down in a split second,” Ms.
Cooper reminisces. “Then she looked at my face, and she smiled. I
saw her, and I smiled and nodded, and we kept going.”

Yes, she would have loved to meet Mrs. Onassis. But that’s the
kind of fandom Ms. Cooper prefers: respectful, not presumptuous,
not overly familiar.

She is humbly grateful, she says, for every reader who enjoys
her work. But owning California Cooper’s books, it is clear, does
not mean owning her.

“Nobody really knows me,” she says softly, “and I’ll tell you
why. Because I am really extra special private for some reason I
don’t know.

“My daughter knows me more than anybody. But I don’t know of
anybody else, except my mother, and she’s not alive.” Her voice
drops down, sadly: “Oh, I hate that. Now, when I have enough money
to take her somewhere.”

Ms. Cooper has dealt with many losses in her life, the most
recent being that of her only brother last January. But “her
biggest, most important loss was her mother,” says her daughter,
Ms. Williams. “She’ll never get over that. It’s been about 12
years, and it’s still a very big wound for her.”

Time’s passage is an essential element in Ms. Cooper’s art. She
is acutely aware of the encroachments of age. “I just hate to see
this time pass,” she frets.

She has done much in her life – traveled the world, reared a
child, worked as a manicurist, a waitress, a secretary, a loan
officer. She says she even joined the Teamsters and drove buses and
trucks in Alaska. “Oh, what a place, what a place! Mountains,
mountains, just glaring in the sunlight – diamonds, diamonds! And
just as pure and clear.”

She loves to tell stories, but she likes to do, too. “I don’t
believe people hate to grow old so much as you hate to grow past
your opportunities,” Ms. Cooper says. “The way life looks to me is,
you can do different chapters.”

In her next “chapter,” she plans to move back to Oakland for at
least part of each year, to be closer to her daughter. And she
doesn’t plan to be writing books forever, because she wants to do
so much more: take art classes and learn to paint pictures. Perhaps
even train as a practical nurse and take flying lessons, so that
she can take medical care to people in remote places of the world.

Meantime, she stays tuned in to the follies of the human heart,
observing, laughing, wondering and always aware.

“I tell people: You’d better watch what’s going on around you,”
Ms. Cooper says. “Because this is life.”

By The Dallas Morning News

Published: 12 September 2014 06:42 PM

Merritt Tierce’s new debut novel set in Dallas, Love Me Back, got some high-profile attention at BookExpo America last spring, even winning mention on the front of Publishers Weekly’s “Show Daily” edition. The message the book world heard was: Much should be expected of this edgy new talent.

Attention for Tierce, 34, didn’t end there. The book’s dust jacket features an admiring blurb from fellow Dallas author Ben Fountain (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk), who selected her as one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” in 2013. The advance-review copy boasts a rare personal rave from Sonny Mehta, chairman and editor in chief of the Knopf-Doubleday Publishing Group, who calls Love Me Back “unconventional, painful, poignant and fiercely engaging.”

Previously, Tierce was a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a 2011 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award winner and a contributor to Dallas Noir, a highly readable collection of dark-edged short stories from local writers, published last fall by Akashic. Her story, “The Private Room,” was excerpted from Love Me Back, where it appears as the final chapter. Though every story in Dallas Noir had its grim aspects, “The Private Room” was by far the bleakest.

In her day job, Tierce is executive director of the Dallas-based nonprofit Texas Equal Access Fund (TEA Fund), a grassroots feminist organization that provides financial assistance to women who cannot afford the cost of abortion. Choice is, perhaps not coincidentally, integral to Love Me Back, though it’s not the choice of whether to have an abortion. Rather, self-destructive choices drive a middle-class teenager — a church-going high-school valedictorian headed to Yale — to abase herself in the most horrifying ways.

Love Me Back’s protagonist is Marie Young, who is not quite 17 when she gets her first job serving at an Olive Garden in Dallas. Marie graduates to waitressing at a Chili’s and at the Dream Cafe before landing a big-time serving job, an opportunity to earn hundreds in tips nightly at a swanky Dallas steakhouse that she calls The Restaurant. (In real life, Tierce waited tables at Nick & Sam’s.)

Marie’s life, much like Tierce’s, was thrown off track by an unplanned teenage pregnancy. It’s unsurprising to learn that Tierce spent years waiting tables before she turned, successfully, to writing fiction; her details of restaurant life have a gritty authenticity that comes from having been there and done that. But Marie’s path, unlike her creator’s, contains no hope, no redemptive light at the end of the tunnel.

Marie’s too-early marriage buckles under the stress of working opposite shifts and living in poverty. Marie loves baby Analisa but feels she has no maternal instinct, that she is “only her nursemaid.” At Chili’s, however, she finds she’s good at something: “I learned how to sweep aggressively and efficiently. I learned how to anticipate and consolidate, which is all waiting tables is. I learned how to use work to forget.”

When her husband takes custody of Analisa, Marie pours her stunted emotions into work and the surrogate, dysfunctional family created by each restaurant’s ever-changing staff. At her lowest point, she uses drugs, and “in about three months’ time I had sex with approximately 30 different men who worked for or patronized my steakhouse, the bar next door, Il Castello, and Cosimo [a nightclub]. …But it wasn’t about pleasure; it was about how some kinds of pain make fine antidotes to others.”

She engages in joyless, graphic ménages à trois, in anonymous hookups where she remembers men only as “the black one” or “the white one.” She allows herself to be “pimped out” by co-workers, to be slapped around, insulted and used. She cultivates her reputation as a tough girl, one who “was not afraid of whatever debasement awaited.” In private, she inflicts small burns upon herself. When she finally settles down to seeing someone exclusively, he is one that she calls “the hateful man.”

Marie’s story is painful to read, but Tierce’s focused, fiercely unsentimental writing nevertheless lingers long in the memory. This is not a feel-good, book-club sort of story, but rather one that will leave the reader with an ache in the heart and a queasiness in the gut. The presale word on Tierce is true: Her unflinching realism may haunt your dreams.

Don’t come to Love Me Back expecting to love the protagonist. Don’t come expecting a happy ending. In this agonized slice of Dallas life, there is none to be had.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a freelance writer in Dallas.

Love Me Back

Merritt Tierce

(Doubleday, $23.95)

Available Tuesday


Plan your life

Merritt Tierce will appear at 7 p.m. Sept. 25 at The Wild Detectives, 314 W. 8th St., Dallas.



The Dallas Morning News Special Contributor

Published: 30 August 2014 02:05 PM

Jessie Burton’s debut novel, The Miniaturist, begins like many a Gothic mystery before it: An 18-year-old virgin arrives in a strange place, on the doorstep of a great house where she has been invited but does not feel welcomed.

However, the time is not the 19th century, and the place is not a British lord’s brooding manor on the moor. Instead, it’s the autumn of 1686 in Amsterdam, a city then in its Golden Age and a powerful center of world trade.

The Miniaturist is set in much the same world as Tracy Chevalier’s best-selling Girl With a Pearl Earring, a story placed two decades earlier in another 17th-century Dutch city, Delft. But Johannes Brandt, the man at the center of The Miniaturist, is even more of a mystery than the Johannes Vermeer of Chevalier’s story.

When The Miniaturist begins, no Gothic courtship awaits us, for Johannes already has legally married Petronella “Nella” Oortman, a girl from an ancient but impoverished family in another town. Johannes is 20 years Nella’s senior, “a true Methuselah” in her opinion. Still, he’s a wealthy merchant in Amsterdam, a supremely eligible bachelor and even reasonably handsome, making him quite the catch in a world where marriage is the only real option for a Dutch girl of good family.

So the marriage is accomplished, but it has yet to be consummated. Nella arrives in Amsterdam on the Brandts’ second-best barge, alone but for her beloved pet, a little green bird in a cage. The Brandts’ nine-room house, on the prestigious Herengracht canal, contains no husband to greet Nella. Instead, she is met by her haughty sister-in-law, Marin, a saucy maidservant named Cornelia and Johannes’ manservant, Otto — he is a former slave and the first African Nella has ever seen.

When Johannes finally appears, he is kind to Nella, telling her that she has nothing to fear from him. But he’s in no noticeable hurry to bed his young bride. He is an important man, a shrewd, bold merchant sailor whose business might as well be his mistress. In this, Johannes seems not so different from other Amsterdammers, devout Protestants who preach humility but prize wealth and consider business the lifeblood of the city. It’s a place where Joel Osteen’s prosperity gospel would fit right in.

Johannes’ wedding gift to Nella is a huge cabinet containing a sort of dollhouse, an amazing miniature version of their own house. “The accuracy of the cabinet is eerie, as if the real house has been shrunk, its body sliced in two and its organs revealed,” Burton writes. Marin is horrified that her brother has spent 3,000 guilders on it; Nella, while touched by Johannes’ generosity, is perplexed.

Back in her hometown, “Nella had known children who’d been given cabinet houses, but none so grand as this. … Her heart sinks. I am too old for this, she thinks.” The cabinet house, meant for a child to practice housekeeping, “is a monument to her powerlessness, her arrested womanhood. It’s your house, her husband had said, but who can live in tiny rooms, these nine dead ends? What sort of man buys a gift like this, however majestic its casing, however beautifully made?”

Johannes is never cruel, but Nella “wants love,” as her mother used to say mockingly. “She wants the peaches and the cream.” Lacking the lagniappe of romance, Nella becomes obsessed with her cabinet house, ordering tiny accessories and furnishings from the only miniaturist in Amsterdam. Though this mysterious craftsman avoids meeting her, Nella is both enchanted and mystified by the exquisitely worked objects that arrive in each delivery from the miniaturist.

Who is the Kalverstraat artisan who knows every secret of the Brandt household? More importantly, how will those secrets be exposed? For when they are, they tear the Brandts’ lives apart as surely as if the Zuiderzee had once again rushed in and flooded their world.

In The Miniaturist, Burton uses a historical object — the real Petronella Oortman’s cabinet house in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum — as the springboard for a fantastically spun tale of love and mystery. It’s a story that astutely reflects our own age’s obsessions and prejudices, and it’s one not to be missed.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a freelance writer in Dallas.

The Miniaturist

Jessie Burton

(Ecco, $26.99)



The Petrus III, a small yacht in Paris owned by Patrick Esquerre, founder of La Madeleine. Petrus III is docked in the Seine's Bassin de l'Arsenal, right by the Bastille monument, and available for rent. Photograph by Joyce Harris/special to "FD Luxe" magazine.

Polished woods, star treatment and sweet dreams: One writer may never sleep on land again

written and photographed by JOYCE SÁENZ HARRIS

PARIS — It all began when I realized that the last time I saw Paris, Ronald Reagan had been president. This time, I wanted to feel that we were not just visiting Paris, but living there. “Let’s see if we can stay on Patrick’s boat on the Seine,” I said to my husband. “You mean Patrick’syacht,” he said, correcting me. Our friend Patrick Esquerré, the courtly founder of Dallas-based La Madeleine Country French Café, is a co-owner of Petrus III, which, indeed, at 71 feet can accurately be called a gentleman’s yacht.

Paris, France

We arrived in Paris on a sunny June day. Patrick’s brother, Gérard, met us at his beautiful Left Bank apartment in the 6th arrondissement’s Saint-Germain-des-Prés. From there, he drove us to the marina and got us settled into Petrus III. The 60-year-old, Dutch-built vessel charmed us with its vintage, understated teak elegance. Petrus III has three bedrooms and 2 1/2 baths, a fully equipped galley and a dining salon that seats eight. It came complete with a skipper and a berth at the Right Bank’s Bassin de l’Arsenal, the marina just below the Place de la Bastille’s landmark gold-topped obelisk. The pleasure port links the Canal Saint-Martin to the Seine and divides the 4th arrondissement from the 12th. Cathédrale Notre Dame, the heart of ancient Paris on Île de la Cité, is just a 20-minute walk away.

Petrus III surrounded us with comfort in a serene, homelike atmosphere. We had plenty of privacy in our pied à mer, with all the space we could possibly want, indoors and out. On the aft deck we could dine en plein air; on the foredeck, steamer chairs invited lounging, napping and people- watching. The master stateroom, a teak-lined snuggery with a private door opening to the aft deck, featured a French queen-size bed and luxury linens as comfortable as any fine hotel’s. But no hotel had ever made me feel so cradled in security, sweetly rocked to sleep by gentle river currents.

We quickly grew accustomed to casually boarding a neighboring yacht in order to reach Petrus III, which was double-parked alongside it in the slip. (We also discovered that if we came home after 11 p.m., the port’s gates would be locked; we would then report to la capitainerieon the Boulevard de la Bastille so the marina’s overnight supervisor could let us in.) On our last day aboard, late in the afternoon, our skipper maneuvered Petrus III through the canal lock and made a starboard turn toward Île Saint-Louis and Île de la Cité, with the majestic bulk of Notre Dame on our port side. For three hours, we sailed by a succession of landmarks — the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower and the Grand Palais — passing under one magnificent bridge after another, before finally circling back around the tip of Île aux Cygnes, where the Statue of Liberty stood looking downriver. Along the way, in what seemed like scenes from some romantic comedy, we were hailed like movie stars by Parisians promenading on the bridges and along the riverbanks. They waved and called to us, companionably raising Friday-evening bottles of bière. We returned their salutes, calling back and lifting glasses of Saint-Émilion for one passing toast after another. “They probably wonder if we’re somebody famous,” I said to my husband. No, not famous, in fact — just very, very lucky.

The Petrus III, a small yacht in Paris owned by Patrick Esquerre, founder of La Madeleine. Petrus III is docked in the Seine's Bassin de l'Arsenal, right by the Bastille monument, and available for rent. Photograph by Joyce Harris/special to "FD Luxe" magazine.

JOYCE SÁENZ HARRIS is a Dallas freelance writer and former newspaper journalist who has worked for The Dallas Morning News and The Boston Globe. She is a regular contributor to The News’ Sunday book reviewsHer work also has appeared in Texas Highways andRosewood magazines.

Sleeping on the Seine: Chartering the Petrus III Proceeds from rentals support the Association Petrus III, a not-for-profit benefiting children’s education through vision care. The yacht can be chartered for lunch, brunch, dinner or overnight stays. Three- to four-hour Seine cruises are $1,529, including champagne/aperitif for four to six persons. (Additional passengers are $103 each, up to a total of 15 people aboard.) The master stateroom is $484 nightly; six nights are $2,558. A one-day cruise to the Marne river is $2,488 plus food and wines. A two-day cruise to Giverny and the home of Claude Monet is $4,148 plus food and wines. For reservations, contact Gérard Esquerré via email at, via phone at 011-33-1-6-22-45-33-43, or call Patrick Esquerré in Dallas at 469-688-2165. For more information, see

‘The Pink Suit,’

by Nicole Mary Kelby

Published: 02 May 2014 07:24 PM

Updated: 02 May 2014 07:36 PM

It is the most famous piece of women’s fashion in the world, an elegant garment so marked by tragedy that it has been hidden away forever in the National Archives. It is so burned into the collective memory that any woman’s coat or dress of its type — a particularly vivid shade of rose pink, trimmed with navy blue — brings it instantly to mind, and one cannot help but think of a terrible November day in Dallas.

Novelist Nicole Mary Kelby picks up those threads of memory and weaves them into The Pink Suit, a subtly heartbreaking, completely believable tale inspired by the Irish immigrant dressmaker who made Jacqueline Kennedy’s Chanel knockoff.

As in Kelby’s book, the real-life dressmaker was named Kate; the character otherwise is fiction. But the pink suit’s detailed genesis gives historical weight and substance to Kate’s story, which seems every bit as true as the first lady’s.

Jacqueline Kennedy is a central but remote, rarely glimpsed figure in The Pink Suit. At the Manhattan atelier of Chez Ninon, she is known as “the Wife,” the ne plus ultra of global fashion in the early 1960s. At a moment’s notice, the entire staff leaps to her command, for she is their idol, their queen, and “it was always Christmas when an order came in from Maison Blanche.”

For an American first lady, buying Paris couture — then as now — is considered politically insensitive. So Chez Ninon copies and re-creates French outfits for the Wife. In the case of the pink suit, Chez Ninon goes so far as to pay Coco Chanel for the right to make a line-by-line replica, even using Chanel’s own muslin patterns and fragile wool-bouclé fabric.

Chez Ninon’s stylist cleverly rationalizes this dodge: “The suit is American if we make it. The reporters can’t touch her for that. If we make it, she’s not taking jobs away from anyone. She can wear French without the criticism — it’s the gift that keeps on giving.”

Kate is proud to be not just a “back-room girl” seamstress but a dressmaker. She may be just six years off the boat from County Cork, but she has a refined sense of style and exquisite skills that enable her to create anything she wants. Sewing is “about perfection. Each stitch must be exactly like the one before it; each must be so small that it seems part of the fabric.

“Each tuck and pleat carefully disguises any flaw in the wearing or the wearer — small breasts, uneven hips, thick waists, and, of course, waning youth.” In the case of the first lady, tailoring disguises what Kate always thinks of as “Slight Spinal Sway,” the legacy perhaps of too much horse riding. Kate always builds forgiveness into the Wife’s wardrobe, and she puts loving, heartfelt care into her copy of Chanel’s pink suit.

Fashion is the art of the possible — Kate was quite fond of saying that, but it was true. With a needle and thread in her hand, anything was possible, especially when it came to the first lady, because Kate’s sister, Maggie Quinn, and the Wife were exactly the same size. Kate couldn’t help herself. On a rather regular basis, she turned her own sister into a ‘Little J,’ as everybody in the neighborhood called her.”

Inwood, their neighborhood on the northern tip of the island of Manhattan, at the time was so predominantly Irish that it was like a transplanted slice of Dublin. In Kelby’s hands, Inwood becomes another character in the story, a traditional village filled with its residents’ prejudices as well as their loyalties. Here, Kate has family, makes friends and, eventually, finds love along with heartbreak.

That fatal day in Dallas, “the suit that Kate knew every stitch of, lived every tuck and pleat of, had worried over, and cried over … this pink suit was the last thing the President ever saw. And it had been made by so many hands, so many hearts. Those who were well known and those who were never known, and those whose names would be forgotten, not just Kate: it was a part of them all …

“He died in all of their arms.”

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.




"Secret Daughter" by Shilpi Somaya Gowda

Here’s my book review from Sunday’s Dallas Morning News:

Secret Daughter, by Shilpi Somaya Gowda (Morrow, $23.99)

By JOYCE SÁENZ HARRIS / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

Dualities abound in this engrossing first novel by Dallas writer Shilpi Somaya Gowda.

The story arcs over 25 years in two nations with very different cultures: India and the United States. The narrative follows two sets of parents, and at the heart of the tale are two children.

One is a boy who grows up to live a double life so that he and his parents might escape the Mumbai slums. The other child is his sister, a little girl with two names, who is born into one culture but grows up in the other.

Gowda knows both worlds. She was born in Toronto and grew up there, with parents who were Mumbai natives. She earned her university degrees in the United States, but she never lost touch with her Indian roots.

In 1991, she spent a summer working in an orphanage in India, and her experiences there, especially her friendship with a charming toddler girl, inspired Gowda to write the story of Asha, the child whose life is forever changed by a mother’s sacrifice.

Shilpi Somaya Gowda

Because of a change for her husband, Gowda moved to Dallas from San Francisco in 2005 and enrolled in writing classes at Southern Methodist University. Secret Daughter, which grew out of a class project, “would not have gotten written unless I made that move,” she says.

Gowda’s cultural ties to India, along with her Western life and education, led her to create two very different women: Kavita Merchant, the impoverished villager who knows too well what happens to unwanted girls, and Somer Whitman, the American pediatrician who marries a fellow physician from India.

Somer’s infertility leads her and her husband, Krishnan Thakkar, to adopt Kavita’s baby, Asha, from the Indian orphanage where Kavita had surrendered her. Gowda vividly describes the cultural fears and shocks confronting a Western woman in India, followed by the insecurities attending Somer back home, as she strives to mother a child who looks like Krishnan, but not like her.

“Nature had already deemed she couldn’t be a mother, and now she wonders if they made a mistake. … Would she know better what to do with Asha if they shared the same blood? Would Asha respond better to Somer if she didn’t look so different from everyone she’d known in her short life?”

Gowda weaves her tale deftly, alternating viewpoints between Kavita and Somer, with occasional chapters told through the eyes of their husbands. Later, a teenage Asha takes over much of the narrative as she journeys back to India to meet Krishnan’s family and to search for her identity, unaware that her birth mother never stopped wondering what happened to the little girl she gave up.

The sounds, scents and sights of India are vividly drawn, pulling the reader deep into a culture that most of us have only glimpsed, perhaps, in Slumdog Millionaire. Two worlds collide, then meld, in a story that intimately considers how we all are shaped, through fate or free will, nurture or nature, by the astounding power of family love.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

PLAN YOUR LIFE: Shilpi Somaya Gowda will appear at 6 p.m. Monday at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, 2719 Routh St., Dallas; make reservations at 214-981-8803 or e-mail millingworth@ Gowda will also be part of the SMU Writer’s Salon at 7 p.m. April 9 at Legacy Books, 7300 Dallas Parkway, Plano.

My recent book review in the Sunday Dallas Morning News:

By JOYCE SÁENZ HARRIS / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News
Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

Think of Alice in Wonderland, and you probably see a pinafored little girl with long, pale hair, the image from Sir John Tenniel’s classic illustrations.

But the real Alice was born in the mid-19th century, a daughter of the dean of Christ Church College at Oxford University. As a child, Alice Pleasance Liddell wore her hair in a short, dark bob. In a famous photograph taken by a family friend, she is dressed as a ragged Gypsy girl, and her direct gaze is disconcerting: both innocent and worldly wise.

The family friend who took that picture was Charles L. Dodgson, the Oxford mathematics don and shy, lonely bachelor who became a surrogate uncle to Alice and her sisters. Their relationship is at the heart of Melanie Benjamin’s fine historical novel, Alice I Have Been (Delacorte, $25).

After 145 years, Dodgson’s tale of a little girl who falls down a rabbit hole and into a world of wonder is still an object of literary fascination. Just one month ago, a collector paid $115,000 at auction for a red morocco-bound presentation edition of Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There. Dodgson gave the book to Alice Liddell, and she inscribed her name in it.

In fact, Dodgson – who became famous as Lewis Carroll – sent his muse a copy of every new edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its 1872 sequel, Through the Looking Glass. Yet he became mysteriously estranged from the Liddells around the time he wrote the fantasy he originally titled Alice’s Adventures Under Ground.

“There was no escaping him,” the fictional Alice Liddell says of Dodgson in Alice I Have Been. With the 1865 publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, “our lives were seemingly bound together for eternity. … Alice in Wonderland. I would never be anything but.”

In Alice I Have Been, Benjamin re-creates a vanished Victorian world among the dreaming spires of Oxford, a scholarly kingdom where Alice and her sisters grew up in the privileged social nexus of the deanery. “Mr. Dodgson,” who lives just across the way, is awkward among adults but at ease when he takes his little friends, the Liddell sisters, on picnics and outings.

The don is a stuttering child at heart, and no one questions his kindness to the dean’s children. But young Alice grows emotionally attached to Dodgson, who makes her feel special, valued in a way that her busy parents never do.

Dodgson’s affection for Alice, meanwhile, is a pure one. Or is it? When Alice is 11, there are muted but devastating repercussions for all. As Alice’s childhood ends, so does her family’s friendship with Dodgson.

Still, the don keeps his promise and writes the fantasy he had first told the Liddell girls on an idyllic summer outing. A single, privately printed copy goes to Alice; later, Dodgson rewrites Alice for publication, and it is a sensation. Alice – who enters a doomed romance with Queen Victoria’s youngest son – must keep the secrets of her unconventional childhood throughout her very conventional life.

Benjamin artfully weaves a story – much of it historical fact, embellished with fiction – remembered from the perspective of Alice in 1932. By then she is a widow of 80 whose one surviving son wants to exploit his mother’s status as the “real Alice.”

“But oh my dear, I am tired of being Alice in Wonderland,” the “real Alice” thinks. “Does it sound ungrateful? It is. Only I do get tired.”

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

PLAN YOUR LIFE: Melanie Benjamin will speak at 7 p.m. March 19 during Late Night at the Dallas Museum of Art, 1717 N. Harwood St . Tickets, free with museum admission, can be reserved at DallasMuseumof or 214-922-1818.


Sandra Brown

Sandra Brown, who lives in Arlington, Texas, is a writer who has produced a long string of New York Times bestsellers.

Sandra started her career as a romance novelist, but over the past two decades, her specialty has become the fast-paced, contemporary thriller — crime fiction dealing in murder, corruption, betrayal, and steamy sexual intrigue.

RainwaterHowever, her new book, Rainwater (Simon & Schuster, $23.99), is something very different. It’s a story that was inspired by Sandra’s own family history. It is set in 1934, in rural, Depression-era Texas. And while there is indeed corruption and murder in Rainwater, there is also romance, courage and heartbreak. And in her title character, David Rainwater, Sandra has created one of her most memorable heroes.

Here is Sandra Brown, talking about Rainwater.




When they were young: Sandra's paternal grandparents.

You have said that Rainwater is very close to your heart, and that it was inspired by Depression-era stories told in your family. What real-life experiences happened in your grandparents’ time that made you want to tell this tale?


In 1934, as part of the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation’s attempt to remove surplus commodities from the open market, independent dairy farmers were required to pour out the milk they couldn’t sell to dairies. My paternal grandfather refused to waste good milk when families in his community were starving. He’d been giving away his surplus milk to people in need. Federal agents showed up at his farm, and engaged in an armed standoff against my grandfather and some of my gun-toting relatives. However, without a shot ever being fired, the agents withdrew and my grandfather continued to give away his surplus. This made a distinct impression on my daddy, who was six years old at the time. He told this story to me, and it fired my imagination.



Sandra's new book was inspired by her father's family, who owned a dairy farm in Central Texas.

You’re always on a tight writing schedule, because you’re under contract to produce a book every year. How did you ever make the time to write Rainwater in addition to your other commitments? How long did it take you from the time you began writing?


This story insisted it be written. So when I finished SMOKE SCREEN, but before I began SMASH CUT, I gave myself two months in which to write the first draft of RAINWATER. I didn’t know where the story would go, exactly. I just began writing and let it unfold on its own. When I completed the first draft, I had to put is aside for months while I worked on SMASH CUT. Then, throughout the year, whenever I took a break from SMASH CUT, for instance when my editor was reading the first draft of it, I’d take out RAINWATER and work on it. It took a year to complete, working on it when I could. And when I couldn’t because of other obligations, I missed it!



On the farm: Sandra's paternal grandparents, later in life.

There’s a good deal of racial tension portrayed in Rainwater. Did you research how racial segregation affected ordinary people in small-town Texas during that era, 75 years ago?


Anyone who grew up anywhere in the United States during the past 75 years has experienced racial segregation on some level. Racial lines were definitely drawn in Central Texas during 1934 when RAINWATER is set. In the story I tried to remain true to the general mindset, from the viewpoint of both blacks and whites, while asserting that not all whites are bigots.

Autism plays a significant part in the plot of Rainwater, but it had not even been identified or named yet, in 1934. What did you learn about the historic treatment of autism? Were autistic children often institutionalized?

What’s really interesting: I didn’t know Solly was autistic until he pulled the pan of hot starch onto himself. I didn’t know he was going to be a special child in any way. When Ella, the doctor, and Mr. Rainwater burst into the kitchen to see what had caused the ruckus, there was Solly, shrieking. His autism came as a total surprise to me. Autism wasn’t given a name until the late forties. One of the characters in RAINWATER refers to Solly as “backward.” She says this to Ella’s face, and not unkindly. I believe that’s simply how Solly would have been regarded by people at that time. He would have been an object of pity. And, yes, most children with this condition were either committed to institutions or locked in the proverbial attic.

Read the rest of this entry »

Here is my latest book review, from the Sunday (Nov. 1, 2009) Dallas Morning News: 
Louisa May Alcott biography details author’s lifelong struggles

By JOYCE SÁENZ HARRIS / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News
Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.


Woman Behind Little Women coverTwo women, both closely identified with the American abolitionist movement, wrote enormously influential best-sellers in the mid-1800s. The first, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery epic Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is acknowledged as a philosophical precursor to the Civil War, but it is barely read today except by scholars of 19th-century literary feminism.

Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott

The second novel, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, has never been out of print since it was first published in 1868. Its tomboyish, restless heroine, Jo March, is considered a female icon worldwide. The domestic drama of the poor but proud March family still entertains modern readers from ages 8 to 80, and Little Women has frequently been adapted for stage and screen over the past century.

Moreover, its author evolved into an object of increasing literary fascination over the past 35 years, as it became clear that Alcott was much more than, as she disparagingly put it, a writer of “moral tales for children.”

In her new biography of Alcott (the basis of a PBS American Masters documentary to air Dec. 28), Harriet Reisen puts 20 years of study into a highly readable story. She casts a revealing new light upon an ambitious woman who was very much like her literary alter ego – except that Louisa Alcott’s life was harder, unhappier and far less healthy than Jo March’s.


Harriet Reisen

As the daughter of Transcendentalist philosopher Bronson Alcott, Louisa moved in literary circles from childhood. But her charming, impractical father seldom provided financially for his family. The Alcotts moved frequently, evading debtors and staying afloat with the generosity of family and friends.

Often, their meals were bread and water. The work of keeping the family fed, clothed and sheltered fell mostly upon Louisa, her three sisters and their mother. Louisa, strong-willed and driven by a yearning for travel and luxury, helped support her family with her “scribbling” even as a teenager.

For 20 years, she wrote dozens of pseudonymous Gothic thrillers for pulp magazines and papers – the same dark, “blood-and-thunder” stories that Jo March wrote for pay. “I’ll be rich and famous and happy before I die, see if I won’t!” Alcott declared.

Alcott portrait by George Healy

Alcott in a midlife portrait by George Healy (courtesy of the Louisa May Alcott Memorial Association)

She won notice under her own name, especially with Hospital Sketches, stories from her months as a Civil War nurse. But Little Women made her a celebrity at home and abroad. Alcott wrote novels for adults, too, but her juvenile works – notably the Little Women sequels Little Men and Jo’s Boys, Jack and Jill, Eight Cousins and its sequel Rose in Bloom – made her fortune and let her support her entire family. But she never found lasting romance or true happiness.

Throughout her life, Alcott was haunted by death and illness. Family deaths were often retold in her saga of the March family, but she could not put the loss of her artist sister May (“Amy”) into her final book, Jo’s Boys. She became the guardian of May’s baby daughter, Lulu, and raised her namesake during the last decade of her life.

Despite the wealth she achieved, she worked almost incessantly except when her poor health interfered. Reisen believes that Alcott suffered from lupus, a debilitating auto-immune disorder.

When she died in March 1888, after a probable stroke, she was 55. Alcott never knew she had outlived her father by only two days.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

Louisa May Alcott

The Woman Behind Little Women

Harriet Reisen

(Henry Holt, $26)




"How It Ends" by Laura Wiess

"How It Ends" by Laura Wiess







How It Ends (MTV Books/Simon & Schuster; $14)  is the latest novel from Laura Wiess, author of Such a Pretty Girl and Leftovers. Although it is marketed as a YA [young adult] novel, How It Ends is a dark-edged, compelling portrait of love’s power over evil, and adult readers are likely to relate to it on a wholly different level than younger readers will.

Mothers and their high school-age daughters may particularly be drawn to share reading the story of teenage Hanna and her relationship with Helen, an elderly neighbor who has become Hanna’s adopted grandmother. By story’s end, long-held secrets are revealed and illusions are shattered as Hanna moves into adulthood.

Laura Wiess

Here is Laura Wiess, answering questions about How It Ends.

Q&A for Laura Wiess, on How It Ends:

The first half of this book felt like a YA novel for teens, but in the second half, the parts with Louise’s memoir felt like a serious novel for adult readers. Were you ever tempted to change the concept of your book, so that the “novel-within-a-novel,” the audiobook How It Ends, would become your central story, aimed at an older readership?

Hi, Joyce! I’m so glad to be here.

I flirted briefly with the idea back in the beginning, while writing the audiobook and worrying if teen-age Hanna would ever be able to understand how different life had been back then, but then I realized that was exactly the point. Helen was worried that Hanna would not understand, so of course I was worried, too. These were secrets Helen had kept her whole life, and they could never be a casual reveal but if she wanted Hanna to know the truth and not be left with haunting, unanswered questions then exposing her past was a risk she had to take. And since the heart of the story is about the strength of the loving relationship between Hanna and Helen, an unofficial granddaughter and an unofficial grandmother, we needed to know both of them to really understand the Why? behind Helen’s initial decision to lie to Hanna, and then her later decision to confess.

So they had to be woven together, both voices, young and old, because they’re irreversibly intertwined, because they showed up together in my mind and gave each other so much. I needed to explore how grandmothers and granddaughters interact, coming together from different generations, armed with different opinions, experiences and focuses, sometimes clashing, sometimes impatient but also meeting on common ground, and despite their differences, giving each other love, comfort and care.   

Helen’s part of the story starts out seeming like a subplot to Hanna’s teenage self-absorption and romantic angst. But by the end of the book, Helen’s tale takes on great urgency and power. Did its emotional evolution surprise even you, as you were writing it?

In a way, yes, although I pretty much knew right from the start where we were headed and the intense emotions we would be mining to get there. I knew living inside of Helen was going to be rough – it had to be, to be true to her – and it definitely was.

The story’s momentum nearing the end was nerve-wracking, a relentless, no-mercy kind of internal storm there was no getting away from until I’d felt every scene and written every word. That surprised me, how fierce and raw peeling away all the options and facing the inevitable had left me.      

How important was it for you to show the arc of a relationship between characters of completely different generations?

It’s an integral part of the story’s foundation, along with the idea that no one is ever only what you think they are, and that we never really know the private heart of anyone unless it’s deliberately revealed.

There’s an organic rhythm to their relationship, a natural ebb and flow that shifts in accordance with Hanna’s blossoming and Helen’s withering. Hanna is pulling away from her family, making independent (and inexperienced) decisions and searching for her place in an unknown but thrilling new world. Her voice in the beginning of the book is young, excited, and self-absorbed, concerned more with navigating the bewildering maze of love, lust, school, and partying than boring old home life, and so of course it stands in stark contrast to Helen’s more settled, serious one. As Hanna grows and learns, though, her thoughts, actions and her voice matures.

Helen understands the necessity of Hanna’s pulling away (even while she mourns the loss), and is wise enough not to hold Hanna too tightly, or make her feel guilty for leaving her behind. Hanna then chooses to return to Helen because she wants to, not because she’s being forced into it.  She chooses to stay with Helen during a very difficult, heartbreaking time, and making that choice teaches her more about love, life, loss and the depth of her own strength and love for Helen than she ever could have imagined.

Parents often try to protect their children from pain and loss, to shield them from the realities of illness and death. Do you believe it is important for children to grow up understanding that tragedy is an unavoidable part of life?

Children are going to experience pain and loss whether they’re protected or not,  so how tragedy is handled within the family may be just as important, if not more so, than the tragedy itself. To what degree is it explained or exposed? What is the nature of the tragedy, how many questions are answered, and to what level of detailed truthfulness? What is the truth, and how is it handled?

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I have to admit, this little satire cracked me up.

Apparently it is going viral across the Web, assisted by social-networking sites such as Facebook, which is where I first saw it. It originally comes, as best as I can tell,  from another WordPress blog, Cash Peters’ The TV Swami:

“This morning I was awoken by my alarm clock powered by socialist electricity generated by the public power monopoly regulated by the US Department of Energy. I then took a shower in the socialist clean water provided by the municipal water utility. After that, I turned on the socialist radio to one of the FCC- regulated channels to hear what the socialist National Weather Service of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration determined the weather was going to be like using socialist satellites designed, built, and launched by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. I watched this while eating my breakfast of socialist US Department of Agriculture-inspected food and taking the socialist drugs which have been determined as safe by the Food and Drug Administration.

At the appropriate time as kept accurate by the socialist National Institute of Standards and Technology and the US Naval Observatory, I get into my socialist National Highway Traffic Safety Administration-approved automobile and set out to work on the socialist roads built by the socialist local, state, and federal departments of transportation, possibly stopping to purchase additional fuel of a quality level determined by the socialist Environmental Protection Agency, using socialist legal tender issued by the Federal Reserve Bank. On the way out the door, I deposit any mail I have to be sent out via the socialist US Postal Service and drop the kids off at the socialist public school. If I get lost, I can use my socialist GPS navigation technology developed by the United States Department of Defense and made available to the public in 1996 by President Bill Clinton, who issued a policy directive declaring socialist GPS to be a dual-use military/civilian system to be managed as a national socialist asset.

After spending another day not being maimed or killed at work thanks to the socialist workplace regulations imposed by the Department of Labor and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, enjoying another two meals which again do not kill me because of the socialist USDA, I drive my socialist NHTSA car back home on the socialist DOT roads, to my house which has not burned down in my absence because of the socialist state and local building codes and socialist fire marshal’s inspection, and which has not been plundered of all its valuables thanks to the socialist local police department.

I then get on my computer and use the socialist internet which was developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration and browse the socialist World Wide Web using my graphical web browser, both made possible by Al Gore’s socialist High Performance Computing and Communication Act of 1991. I then post on and FOX News forums about how SOCIALISM in medicine is BAD because the government can’t do anything right.”

Dallas at night, if not from a DC-9.

Dallas at night, if not from a DC-9.

A conversation today on Facebook reminded of a column I wrote back in 2002, about the classic Jimmie Dale Gilmore tune “Dallas.” It’s probably the most famous song ever recorded by The Flatlanders, a Texas trio of lifelong friends from Lubbock: Jimmie Dale, Joe Ely and Butch Hancock.

I’ve always thought the song nailed the character of Dallas in a number of telling ways. So here’s the column again… and if you want to hear the song sung by Jimmie Dale himself, here’s a YouTube link.

Published: May 19, 2002
(c) The Dallas Morning News

The topic at lunch (and don’t ask me why) was: What kind of a beautiful woman would Dallas be?

Dallas is like a beautiful woman … with a hangover?

With a Bible?

With Manolo Blahniks in a Neiman Marcus bag?

We never quite decided. The conversation moved on to what the members of the Algonquin Round Table would talk about if they were around today.

After lunch, however, I realized that one Texan has already described the kind of beautiful woman Dallas would be. He did it 30 years ago, in fact. I heard him sing about it just last autumn.

Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s song “Dallas” never made it to the top of any charts in 1972. It was the lead-off tune and lone single from an album by a Lubbock trio called Jimmie Dale Gilmore and the Flatlanders. The project got a dismal, half-hearted release in eight-track format and promptly vanished from all commercial view.

But Jimmie Dale Gilmore and his fellow Flatlanders, Joe Ely and Butch Hancock, did not vanish. They went on to become three of Texas’ favorite singer-songwriters, each with his own cultlike following.

Meanwhile, fans in England rediscovered the trio, and the word spread back home. Eventually the Flatlanders album, a neglected stepchild of corporate Nashville, became the darling of music collectors.

Years later, the album – aptly retitled More a Legend Than a Band — was re-released on CD, in slightly reconfigured form, by Rounder Records. (Sun Records, which had produced the original release, also released the album on CD but called it Jimmie Dale Gilmore and The Flatlanders “Unplugged.”) Jimmie’s song “Dallas” probably got its widest exposure when he sang it as a duet with Natalie Merchant on Jay Leno’s Tonight show.

Today, the Flatlanders’ music is widely recognized for the traditional jewel it always was.

The band began performing together again in 2000 and at last has another CD, Now Again, being released Tuesday.

The trio is scheduled to play the Granada Theater on June 26 and will also be part of the “Down From the Mountain” tour at Smirnoff Music Center on July 20.

I saw the Flatlanders play at the Texas Book Festival last year in Austin. The literary crowd loved them; historian David McCullough, among dozens of others, two-stepped up a storm.

But a clear favorite among the Flatlanders’ tunes was “Dallas,” for the fans hummed and sang along with that one. This is how the opening chorus goes:

Did you ever see Dallas from a DC-9 at night?
Dallas is a jewel,
Yeah, Dallas is a beautiful sight;
Dallas is a jungle,
But Dallas gives a beautiful light.
Did you ever see Dallas from a DC-9 at night?

A careless listener might mistake this song as a hymn to our fair city. In a way it is, for if anything, Dallas is even more spectacular by night now than it was 30 years ago.

But the reference to “a jungle” should tip you off that something darker is coming. And sure enough, it does.

Now Dallas is a woman who will walk on you when you’re down,
 But when you are up, she’s the kind you want to take around.

Now Dallas ain’t a woman to help you get your feet on the ground,

And Dallas is a woman who will walk on you when you’re down.

That’s the kind of a beautiful woman Dallas is, according to Jimmie Dale Gilmore.

Any number of local heroes and has-beens would likely agree with him that Dallas dearly loves winners and is mighty tough on losers.

The “middle eight” verse of the song could be sung by many Dallas newcomers, legal or otherwise:

Oh, I came into Dallas with the bright lights on my mind;
I came into Dallas with a dollar and a dime.
Then the song gets really dark:
Dallas is a rich man with a death wish in his eyes,
A steel concrete soul with a warm-hearted love in disguise;
A rich man who tends to believe his own lies.
I say, Dallas is a rich man with a death wish in his eyes.
And all this, mind you, was written years before anybody invented J.R. Ewing or the savings-and-loan scandal.
Ever since I first heard “Dallas,” I’ve thought it really should be our unofficial city anthem.
Of course, it never will be. It is much too dark, too subversive, for a city that habitually directs its feet to the sunny side of the street.



If we do have an unofficial anthem, it’s probably Frank Loesser’s 1956 Broadway hit, “Big D,” from The Most Happy Fella.

You’re from Big D,
My, oh yes,
I mean Big D, little a, double L, A-S.
And that spells Dallas,
my darlin’, darlin’ Dallas;
Don’t it give you pleasure to confess
That you’re from Big D,
My, oh yes!
 Of course, the talented Mr. Loesser caught the way we Dallasites like to think of ourselves — my, oh yes.


But I suspect our fellow Texan, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, may have caught more of the way we really are.

Papa'iloa Beach: Can't you almost see Sawyer?

Papa'iloa Beach: Can't you almost see Sawyer?

We got back last Monday from a trip to Maui. On the way back, we had a 24-hour stopover on Oahu… meaning we were in LOST territory.

Unfortunately, I did not run across any LOST shoots that Sunday. Nor did I bump into any stars in the airport or in Waikiki — unless you count spotting the Searcher, aka Penny’s boat, in a Honolulu marina.

But I did persuade my indulgent husband to drive us to a couple of LOST sites in the brief afternoon we had to explore the North Shore, in the area around the cool surfer town of Hale’iwa.
Papa'iloa Beach on Oahu's North Shore, a backdrop familiar to LOST fans.

Papa'iloa Beach on Oahu's North Shore, a backdrop familiar to LOST fans.

First we checked out Papa’iloa Beach, where a lot of LOST beach camp scenes have been shot. We were very near the actual shooting site, but not as close as we would have liked. We didn’t have the time (or the energy; it was hot) to trudge a mile south, down the beach and around the point, from the public-access spot where we could legally park.

But the mountains were there as a green backdrop, the beach looked a whole lot like the beach we all know and love… and if you used your imagination, you could almost see a shirtless Sawyer sitting on the rocks, looking out to sea. (Well, at least I could almost see him. My husband was probably imagining Kate or Juliet.)

YMCA Camp Erdman welcomes LOST fans.

YMCA Camp Erdman welcomes LOST fans.

Next we went up the Farrington Highway to YMCA Camp Erdman, also known as the Dharma Barracks or “New Otherton.”

Almost nobody was around Camp Erdman that day, and even before we checked in at the Welcome Center, no one seemed to mind that we parked and walked around to shoot photos. As you can see from their sign (above), they seem to welcome LOST fans.
Kate was held captive in Camp Erdman's Assembly Hall.

Kate was held captive in Camp Erdman's Assembly Hall.

We spotted the gazebo and the Others’ recreation hall (above), sometimes used as their temporary jail. You’ll recall that’s where Kate was kept prisoner when she tried to rescue Jack, who didn’t really want to be rescued.

The yellow cottages of "New Otherton," aka the Dharma Barracks.

The yellow cottages of "New Otherton," aka the Dharma Barracks.

The mustard-colored cottages (above) were unmistakable, although the campgrounds didn’t look nearly as green and pretty as they do in the show (I suspect the LOST crew does a lot of set dressing beforehand). It’s obvious that the cottage interiors we see are sets; the real interiors are much more spartan.

All in all, it was a fun afternoon. If we’d had a few more days in Honolulu, we might have taken a pricey tour of Kualoa Ranch, a private estate where many LOST shoots take place, on the windward side of Oahu. Or I might even have contacted Grass Skirt Productions to see if I could finagle a backstage, on-set visit.
But for the brief time we had on Oahu, it was enough to know that we were as close to the Island as we were ever likely to get. Now when I watch the reruns and see the Barracks, I can think: “Wow…I was there!”
Summer of Two Wishes by Julia London

Summer of Two Wishes by Julia London

Texas is home to many romance novelists, but not many of them take the kind of leap that Austin’s Julia London has just made.

Julia’s best known for her historical romances, but her new novel, Summer of Two Wishes (Pocket Books, $7.99), is a contemporary. And not just any contemporary, but one dealing with a very serious issue: the effects of the current war in Afghanistan on one returning veteran, as well as on the folks back in his Hill Country hometown.

The story centers around Macy, a young war widow in the small Texas town of Cedar Springs, who suffers through two years of grief and loneliness after her cowboy husband, Finn, is reported killed in Afghanistan. But after she finally recovers enough to marry again — this time to a wealthy land broker, Wyatt — Macy is stunned by the news that Finn has been found alive after all. He comes home to Cedar Springs, and Macy finds herself torn between loyalties to her two husbands. Which one will she choose?

There are plenty of hot, steamy love scenes, of course — but Summer of Two Wishes also tackles difficult issues such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the stresses of military family life, and even the thorny legalities that ensue when a person declared dead is found in fact to be alive.

Julia London

Julia London

Here is Julia London talking about Summer of Two Wishes:  

Hello, Julia! This is the first book of yours that I’ve read. I was interested in it not only because you’re a Texan, but because you set your story in a part of Texas that we all know and love, the Hill Country.

Another Hill Country lover—that’s great.  Although at this time of year, I wish I was anything but a Texan.  It’s too hot in August for sane people, isn’t it?

You have written a lot of historical romances before now. What made you decide to write a contemporary? And why take on a subject as intense as the emotional fallout from a war that is still ongoing?

It was a need to stretch my creative wings, I think.  I love the historical romance novels I write; it’s like living in a Jane Austen period film.  They are definitely flights of fancy, and they are fun.  But I also had this compelling need to write stories that are grounded more in reality and about people who could be our neighbors. As for the subject matter—what better way to ground the story in reality?  The war is something we’ve all experienced.  In fact, this idea came about because my nephew had served in Iraq with the Marines.  He’s out now and on to a new life, but every year, our local paper prints the faces and names of all the men and women from Central Texas who have been lost to the war.  I couldn’t look at those pictures without thinking of my nephew.  And I thought about all the families who were seeing their loved ones there and who would give anything if they came back. I started thinking, what if one of them did come back?  What would they come home to?  How would life have changed?  The story built from there.

What kind of research was necessary to get the details right about the lives of servicemen and military families?

It was an education for me.  There are several sites and organizations that are dedicated to the families of servicemen and women, but one in particular, the gave me insight into what it must be like to be left behind.  I also spoke with people from the military who had been to Iraq.  Interestingly, I never met anyone who had been to Afghanistan.  I read a lot of news items to form that part of the story. 

By an odd coincidence, Tom Batiuk’s syndicated comic strip “Funky Winkerbean” also just featured a very topical storyline about a serviceman believed dead for years who is found alive through an Iraqi prisoner exchange. He suffers from a loss of memory, but he does remember his wife. However, he comes home to find his wife has remarried.

Really!  That is an odd coincidence. 

One big difference: The wife in the comic strip chooses a different husband than the wife chooses in Summer of Two Wishes. 

I honestly didn’t know which husband my wife was going to end up with until near the end.  I went through the process of deciding with her.  I can’t imagine how painful it would be to make that decision in real life.  And it could honestly have gone either way.  She loved two men, and two men loved her.

The other major difference: In the comic strip, there’s no apparent media fanfare over the “dead” soldier’s miraculous return.  However, I think your portrayal of the media frenzy surrounding Finn seemed far more likely to be what happens in such a case. Did you feel it was important to show what sort of public pressure is placed upon returning veterans, from the media and from their family, friends and fellow citizens?

I think in this particular case, it would certainly be a big part of the story.  I can’t imagine that happening today without a lot of fanfare, and probably a lot more than I portrayed.  And it seemed to me that the intense media spotlight would add so much more stress to the situation, which, as an author, I liked.  I also read a lot about the return home, and I tried to put myself in the shoes of returning soldiers.  For some, the adjustment to civilian life seems so drastic, and I guessed that people run out of patience when a soldier doesn’t adjust as quickly as they would like.  I thought it was important to show how that would affect someone who essentially has been living as a captive in the desert the last few years.

Thanks so much, Julia!

Thank you!  I am very happy to have shared some time with you and your readers. 

Quinn Cummings at 10, backstage in a dressing room, 1977.

Quinn Cummings at 10, backstage in a dressing room, 1977.

If the name “Quinn Cummings” sounds vaguely familiar to you, it’s probably because in the back of your mind, you have a memory of a precocious child who played Marsha Mason’s daughter, Lucy McFadden, in 1977’s The Goodbye Girl. She got an Academy Award nomination for that role, in which her comic timing rivaled that of Richard Dreyfuss. Quinn also was the girl who in 1978 joined the Aaron Spelling drama Family in its third season, playing Annie, the adopted daughter of Sada Thompson and James Broderick.

Quinn Cummings (Photo by Donald DiPietro)

Quinn Cummings (Photo by Donald DiPietro)

That child grew up a long time ago. Thirty years have passed; she’s almost 42 now, and she has acted only occasionally since her teens. Now Quinn’s a businesswoman with her own company (she invented the HipHugger baby sling), and she’s a mother. She always loved to write, and for the past several years she has been blogging on The QC Report

Notes from the Underwire

Notes from the Underwire

The success of her blog led to Quinn’s first book, the just-published Notes from the Underwire: Adventures from My Awkward and Lovely Life (Hyperion, $14.99). Technically speaking, it’s a collection of first-person essays, a sort of episodic memoir, although that description makes the book sound way more serious than it really is.

In fact, while there are some serious moments in it, this is one very funny book.

Notes from the Underwire covers everything from Quinn’s acting career to her stint as an AIDS hotline volunteer, from her Significant Other (known here as Consort) and their daughter (known here as Alice) to the perils of homeownership and the bloodthirsty habits of their cat, Lulubelle, a nonpareil predator who is supposed to be catching only mice and rats:

I measure the advent of spring not with the first crocus but the first bird skull. I long to explain to Lu that we only wanted the ugly and verminous eaten, but that would have been like asking Godzilla to stomp only Tokyo’s less popular neighborhoods.

Quinn tells us why she never got to go to her prom, how she spent a couple of years as a talent agent, and how she realized she was not meant to be a sitcom writer. She also opens up candidly about the most terrifying time of her adolescent life, when she feared losing her only surviving parent to cancer.

Here’s Quinn Cummings on Notes from the Underwire.

* * *   

Hi Quinn: Unlike some of your blog-tour reviewers, I’m coming to Notes from the Underwire as a newbie to your blog. So please forgive me if some of these questions would have obvious answers for a longtime reader of The QC Report.

How much of the book came directly from the blog? Did you do much rewriting of original blog posts for book publication?

Very little is from the blog. This annoys me tremendously, as I am lazy and hoped to cut-and-paste my way to being a published author. Mercifully, my editor had other plans. What little was originally in the blog has been edited and, one can only hope, improved to a fare-thee-well.

As a cat lover, I nearly laughed myself sick over “A Nice Big Fat One.” Is Lulubelle still living with you and paying her rent on time?

Lulabelle appreciates your interest but isn’t surprised by it; without ever understanding the idea of the Internet, she’s always assumed she’s world-famous for her beauty, charm and killing skills. Just last month, I was outside watering the plants when she trotted by me in a casual yet purposeful gait. A second later, she leapt into a bush and emerged with something wiggling in her jaws. I shouted “LU!” impotently, and she sneered at me before snapping the neck of the mouse. I think I was to understand that’s what would happen to me if I continued to be a buzzkill.

How grateful are you that so very little of your “child star” past is readily available on YouTube?

I don’t know how much of my earlier life is on YouTube because I’m too fearful to look, so I’m going to say that if very little is on there I am VERY GRATEFUL and yet wish there was a little less.

“Like a Tattoo on Your Butt” was a heartbreaking chapter, especially because I lost a brother (at age 34) to non-Hodgkins lymphoma. He left behind two very young daughters whose whole lives thereafter were changed by his death in 1995. I couldn’t help wanting to know: What happened to your mom? What happened to you?

I’m so sorry about your brother; I’m so sorry for his kids. My mother defied the odds and was able to recover from Lymphoma with only a single round of chemo. She’s here in Los Angeles, still leading an interesting life and adoring her granddaughter. What happened to me? I got over it.

At the end of that chapter, you say you told your vice principal  that you didn’t “plan on getting close to anyone.” But now, of course, you have Consort and Alice. When did you dare to let yourself hope that you could, in fact, be close to someone again?

As I said, I got over it. I didn’t go through Sarajevo; I had a sick parent who then got better. Eventually, I defrosted enough to realize that caring for other people might put you as risk of loss, but not caring for other people sapped most of the color and the flavor out of the world. It’s frightening to imagine losing either one of them, but choosing to participate in the world is infinitely better than sitting in the bleachers.

Quinn, I enjoyed the book tremendously, and you have made a new fan. Thanks so much!

Thank you for such thoughtful questions. Let me know when it’s up and I’ll link to it.

Walter Cronkite in 1991 (Washington Post photo)

Walter Cronkite in 1991 (Washington Post photo)

Today I’m thinking about how, back in the summer of 1992, I had a phone conversation with Walter Cronkite.

The occasion was a High Profile cover for The Dallas Morning News, a story about author James A. Michener, then 85 years old. I had spent an amazing day with the hospitable Mr. Michener — just the two of us, talking, having lunch at a local Chinese restaurant, then talking some more — at his summer home in Brunswick, Maine.

By the time I went home, I had a list of his friends and associates I wanted to chat with. And the one I was most eager to contact was Mr. Cronkite, then 75 and still busy as ever, though retired from the CBS News anchor chair for 11 years.

Over the 10 years I was a High Profile reporter, I often placed such phone calls to secondary sources who were as famous as, or even more famous than, the people I was profiling. Cesar Chavez, Lady Bird Johnson, Dan Rather, Ross Perot, Lloyd Bentsen, Barbara Walters, Franco Zeffirelli, Dame Joan Sutherland — ordinary folks like that. There were only a few times when I was a little nervous about making those calls.

The call to Mr. Cronkite was one of those times.

I mean, this was Walter Cronkite. How many times had I watched him on our family’s TV set as that deep, reassuring voice informed me about the tragedies and triumphs of the 1960s and ’70s? How often had I heard him introduce himself: “This is Walter Cronkite…”? Or sign off with, “And that’s the way it is…”?

Thousands of times, surely, over some three decades. I probably knew that voice as well as I knew my own father’s.

So yes, I was nervous. But I called his office at CBS and left a message for him. And a few days later, my phone rang, and that unmistakable voice informed me: “This is Walter Cronkite.”

So hypnotized was I that I had a little trouble remembering to scribble my notes. But he was kind and patient, and we talked for 10 or 15 minutes, mostly about Mr. Michener and their friendship. Among other things, he told me that his favorite Michener book was Chesapeake.

In the story I wrote (published on Aug. 16, 1992) I ended up using an anecdote about one of their adventures aboard Mr. Cronkite’s beloved sailboat, the Wyntje:

“One time when we went sailing on Chesapeake Bay, we picked Jim up in Oxford, Maryland. We were sailing to Annapolis, and it got nasty out there. Jim was getting pretty wet, and I was worried about him, so I asked if he’d like to go below. But he wouldn’t.

“Eventually the storm passed, and I told Jim that it was lovely of him to insist on staying with me.

“He said, “Walter, I couldn’t afford not to stay on deck. The State of Maryland just made me an honorary Admiral of the Chesapeake. How would it be if they heard I went below in a storm?’ “

I went home that day and told our then-13-year-old daughter (who had met Mr. Michener on our Maine trip): “Guess who I talked to today for my Michener profile?”


“Walter Cronkite!”

“Wow!” Pause. Puzzled look on her face. “Who’s Walter Cronkite?”

I then realized that Mr. Cronkite had retired from the anchor desk when she was only two years old. “He used to be the anchorman on CBS,” I told her. “He’s really iconic, really famous and respected among journalists. Well, among everyone who’s a grownup, really. I can’t believe I got to talk with him!”

All these years later, our daughter is now 30, married and the mother of two small children. I know that Walter Cronkite will never mean to her what he meant to my generation, or to her grandparents’. She’ll never think of any news anchor as “iconic,” really. The communications world has changed so radically that there will never be another news figure with the kind of respect, authority and clout that Mr. Cronkite had.

He was a serious journalist, a real newsman. He did his job well, he loved his work, and he helped to change the world and make it a better place. That’s the best way any journalist can hope to be remembered.

Home is the sailor, home from the sea. Godspeed, Uncle Walter.

Harry Potter & The Half-Blood Prince

Harry Potter & The Half-Blood Prince

Thanks to a media preview screening, I’ve already seen Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, which officially opens with midnight showings on Wednesday.

It’s safe to say this film is highly anticipated: Across the lobby, fans already were queueing up for another screening five hours later, at 7 p.m., one of those first-come-first-seated promotional showings. And to be honest, they’ve really been waiting longer than that; the new HBP movie’s opening date got pushed back from last fall. So hardcore Potterheads have had about nine months to crank up their squee levels.

hp6intposter1Number six in the series is the darkest yet, as the boy wizard’s fan base surely knows. It pays a good deal of attention to certain key aspects of the J.K. Rowling book, while other parts of the original story, as always, must fall by the wayside — even with a running time of two and a half hours, something’s gotta go.

Overall, I felt this sixth film compares favorably with the three more recent entries in the series. (The first and second installments of Harry Potter, directed by Chris Columbus, were huge box-office successes — but were blown away artistically by No. 3, Alfonso Cuaron’s critically acclaimed The Prisoner of Azkaban, which set the standard for all Potter movies thereafter.)

What will Rowling purists quickly spot as hits and misses in Half-Blood Prince?

Draco in HBP

My major complaint is that I’d have loved to see the book’s opening chapter dramatized. That chapter, “The Other Minister,” discusses a series of disasters in the Muggle world, which are really caused by rampaging Death Eaters, followers of the wizarding world’s evil Lord Voldemort. I was hoping for a couple of scenes with the Muggle Prime Minister (who simply would have to have been played by Michael Sheen, Tony Blair’s cinematic alter ego) and the new Minister of Magic, Rufus Scrimgeour (who will be played in the next Potter film by Bill Nighy).

However, screenwriter Steve Kloves (back after a hiatus from Order of the Phoenix) and director David Yates (returning for his second Potter film in a row) chose to show us, rather than tell about, one of the disasters: a new bridge that inexplicably collapses in a freak storm, thanks to Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) and a couple of other Death Eaters, the creepy Carrow siblings.

Slughorn in HBP

And instead of giving us scenes from the hilarious chapter with Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore retrieving Harry from the Dursleys’ home, we get Harry in a railway coffee shop, flirting awkwardly with a comely young waitress before Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) whisks him off to persuade Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent) to return to Hogwarts as the new Potions professor.

Another big departure: After Harry is deposited at the Weasleys’ home, The Burrow, a fiery Death Eater attack makes it clear that no place is safe. In the book series, a similar attack happens at a Weasley family wedding. But that event happens not in Book 6, but early in Book 7, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. So it seems safe to assume the wedding’s not going to happen in the film series, because the bride and groom don’t show up in this movie at all. Neither does the surly house-elf Kreacher, although he’ll surely appear in the movie version of Book 7.

Lovers of Quidditch will be happy to see one last airborne match in this installment. And as in the book, teenage hormones rampage through much of the film, with “snogging” and humorous romantic situations to leaven the increasingly darker themes of death and loss.

Ginny and Harry in HBP

The leading trio of Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) are joined by Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright), Ron’s sister who has grown up to be Harry’s love interest, and who gets much more screen time in this film than in the previous ones.

Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch) is happily daft as ever, and the lovelorn Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave) is all over her “Won-Won.” There’s a wonderful set-piece with the Weasley twins, Fred and George (James and Oliver Phelps), in their amazing Diagon Alley joke shop.  Meanwhile, a solitary Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) lurks miserably about, determined to carry out his secret mission for Voldemort and restore his family’s lost honor.

Other Hogwarts teachers, such as Minerva McGonagall (Maggie Smith), Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) and Rubeus Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) get a few crucial scenes each, but I felt Snape in particular got short shrift in this film, considering his importance to the series. We never even see him teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts, formerly Harry’s favorite class at Hogwarts. (And has anyone else out there ever wondered what it would have been like if they’d cast Daniel Day-Lewis as Snape? He’s the only actor I can think of who just might have out-Snaped the amazing Rickman.)

Voldemort’s craven sidekick, Peter “Wormtail” Pettigrew (Timothy Spall), is fleetingly spotted in the “Spinner’s End” scene, which also introduces a badly miscast and horribly made-up Helen McCrory as Draco’s mum, Narcissa Malfoy. (Why, oh why didn’t they get Naomi Watts for that role?)

Frank Dillane

Frank Dillane

In his scenes as 11-year-old Tom Riddle, young Hero Fiennes-Tiffin (nephew of Ralph Fiennes, who plays Voldemort) holds his own with Gambon’s Dumbledore, projecting a youthful malevolence appropriate for the boy who will grow up to be the Dark Lord. It’s also worth noting that Riddle at age 16 is played by another scion of a British acting family: Frank Dillane, son of actor Stephen Dillane (who played Thomas Jefferson in HBO’s John Adams miniseries). The two young actors bear enough resemblance to each other that it becomes easy to believe this is the same boy at different ages.

When Harry and Dumbledore journey to the cave where Voldemort has hidden one of his Horcruxes — a personal relic containing a piece of his irretrievably damaged soul — Yates recreates the scene almost exactly as Rowling imagined it. And it is both dazzling and fearsomely scary. Even when you know exactly what’s coming, the moment when an Inferius grabs Harry is still enough to make you gasp.

It does not do to be too much of a purist with these movies; after all, watching a film is not the same experience as reading a book. But seeing what Yates can do with such a powerful scene makes me wish again that he’d had the chance to direct the first two films as well. There were so many moments in this new film where I was completely, happily absorbed in the story — never mind that I know the entire plot inside out. That’s the mark of an adroit director.

Fortunately, we know Yates is shooting the final two Potter movies. Deathly Hallows is already in production and will be released in two parts, in 2010 and 2011. With twice as many hours to tell the last story, even diehard fans may be satisfied that justice will be done to their beloved wizard’s saga.

As one of those annoying people who would rather read a good book than do just about anything else, including work for a living, I have finally found a way to make my obsession semi-respectable: I am anointing myself as a book blogger.

To celebrate, here is the first of what I hope will be a series of blog tours with interesting authors. (And muchas gracias to my baby sister, the blogger known as the Little Fluffy Cat, for recently educating me as to what a “blog tour” actually is.) I’ll continue to write about other subjects, too. But this venture promises to be fun for me, and I hope it will be for you, too.

With that in mind, let’s start the fun now.

Sarah Bird

Sarah Bird

My inaugural blog-tour Q&A is with award-winning Austin novelist Sarah Bird, the author of one of my all-time favorites, The Yokota Officers Club (Knopf). Her seventh and most recent novel, How Perfect Is That, has just been reissued in paperback (Pocket Books, $15). Sarah is a regular columnist for Texas Monthly, and she is also [full disclosure here] a personal friend.

Backstory: I profiled Sarah for The Dallas Morning News shortly after Yokota was published in 2001. We spent a 110-degree summer day toodling around Austin, hitting some of her personal landmarks such as the LBJ Library, the University of Texas, and Seneca House, the real-life Nueces Street co-op that was the setting for Sarah’s first comic novel, Alamo House.

How Perfect Is That

How Perfect Is That

Seneca House makes a major reappearance in How Perfect Is That, which The News called “a perfect, curl-up-with-a-margarita splash of summer fun…wickedly good.” Its heroine, if you can call her that, is Blythe Young, a trailer-trash Cinderella who married up — way up — into Austin society, snagging Henry “Trey” Biggs-Dix III, “a scion of one of America’s wealthiest dynasties.” But now the marriage is kaput and Blythe has been pre-nupped into poverty. She’s trying to maintain her social standing and make a living as a high-end caterer, and she’s failing miserably. How miserably? She can’t afford to get a Pap smear. And her plight gets worse, and skankier, and funnier, by the page.

Here’s the fabulous Sarah Bird, on How Perfect Is That and other writerly topics:

Now that How Perfect Is That is out in paperback, is it safe for you to reveal to us how its hardcover readers reacted to it? Was there a love-hate thing going on there?

Joyce, hello!  What a doll baby you are, in general, but in particular for allowing me to jump into your digital world like this.

It’s quite interesting for me to talk about a book that was published a year ago.  In that year, I’ve read all the reviews — I am definitely not one of those lofty writers who can hold themselves above the fray and ignore reviews — and had lots and lots of discussions about How Perfect Is That.

The one piece of the reaction to this book that is utterly different from any of my others is how stunningly polarized it is.  More than anything else I have ever written, How Perfect does seem to be a love-it or hate-it read.  This came across very dramatically for me in following the reviews on Amazon.  Until yesterday, I had no — none, zero — four- or three-star reviews.  All fives, twos and ones.   (Oh, Joyce, I don’t think I’ve ever gotten one star before, and reading those one- and two-starrers, I did wish I were an above-the-fray author who never bothered herself about such matters.)

This dramatic lack of middle ground has led me to two conclusions:  One, if a book is foisted upon a reader as a “comic novel,” if the foisterer promises that this will book will make you lose bladder control, and if the reader then does not find the book to be a laugh riot, that reader will be mightily irritated.  Irritated enough to let Amazon know about it.  Apparently, novels that are held out to be comic — unlike thrillers, romance, or even general mid-list literary fiction — don’t miss by inches.  They either synch up with a reader’s sensibilities, what he or she thinks is funny, and are a dead-on hit, or they don’t work at all.

Second conclusion:  It can be a challenge to read about a character who makes moral choices that you, the reader, wouldn’t.  My “heroine,” Blythe Young is a user and an abuser.  A striver and a conniver.  A climber and whatever rhymes with –imer.  Bad two-timer?  Annoying street-mimer?  All right, not the last two, but she is a scoundrel.  The big question hanging over the book is, “Can she be redeemed?”  The bigger question that I was addressing was, “Can she be really funny in the process?”

A few months ago, when I needed to make myself feel confused and depressed, I did a bit of self-Googling.  A series of random links led me to a site that proposed that my first novel, published in 1986, Alamo House:  Women Without Men, Men Without Brains, was the first chick lit book ever.  Who knows?  Though someday it might be remarked that How Perfect Is That was the first in another line:  Bitch Lit.

Did your male readers react differently to Blythe than did females?

I’m going to do a dangerous thing and generalize:  Females are much more likely to demand that a protagonist be someone she can relate to.  Not necessarily like, but someone who would make pretty much the same moral choices that she would.  I’d say that this is even truer if the protagonist and the author are female.

Why did you use your old Austin co-op’s real name, Seneca House, this time around — why not make it “Alamo House” again?

Yay!  Thank you, Joyce, for noticing.  When I wrote Alamo House, I used the name of the co-op where I lived while going to graduate school at UT, Seneca House.  Norton published that book and, fearing libel suits, had me expunge all ties to the real world.  They told me I could call the co-op either Magnolia House or Kudzu House.  Okay, that last is a joke, but New York at that time, early eighties, had a much harder time understanding that Texas was not the South.

I’ve was delighted that Knopf had no problems allowing me to use the real name of my old co-op, which I have a great deal of affection for.

Just exactly how much did you know about Austin high society, prior to writing How Perfect Is That? And how much did you have to exaggerate said society for comic effect?

How Perfect Is That involved a different sort of research than I’d ever done before.  For the high-society sections, I had to go to school on fashion, shoes, handbags, which designers are in, which are out, what each one signifies, the whole semiotics of apparel.  Fortunately, many kindhearted souls in high places helped me with the high-society research by sharing their worlds with me, allowing me to glimpse lives that are a round of charity galas, private jets, and Dom Perignon by the crate.

The low-society stuff was much easier since, like my heroine, I did actually live in a UT co-op boarding house called Seneca House while I was getting my master’s at the University of Texas.  But in that day and age, it housed female graduate students.  It has since morphed into a co-ed, mostly undergraduate, sometimes feminist, mostly vegan, generally activist house which the current residents were kind enough to allow me to visit several times.

So both worlds had their own anthropology, and getting the anthropology right is one of my chief joys in writing.  Mostly, though, I found it hilarious imagining what it would be like to have Barbara Bush as your mother-in-law.  What a weekend with that whole crew might be like.

Pretty much everything was exaggerated.

Do you still get nervous before book signings? Are you finding that using “new media” (such as blog tours) has made promoting your books any easier?

Such a timely question since this is, literally, my very first day of book blogging ever and it is making me oddly nostalgic for the old ways and old days.  Alamo House was published in the mid-eighties at about the same time that readings and signing started becoming popular.  Prior to that, practically the only writers who toured had won Pulitzers.  It just wasn’t that common.  So it took a while for me to get comfortable with this new public aspect of writing.

It started to fall into place for me when I started to think of signings as parties and I was the hostess.  It truly all clicked for me with this book.  Because of my heroine’s fondness for all cocktails — be they grain-, fruit-, or chemical-based — I was inspired to ask Tito’s Vodka to be my sponsor.  They agreed, and my mantra became:  A Buzz With Every Book.

Wow, Joyce, end of “nerves” for everyone.  And, P.S., my apologies to your readers who came to signings in any non-indie bookstore, because, gosh darn it, those big corporations just could not get into my Buzz With Every Book program and let me serve cocktails.

So, at this point I don’t know what effects new media will have.  I am kind of sad, though, about anything that keeps people from getting out of their houses and having a cocktail.

Can you talk about the new novel you’re working on? How about the film adaptation of Flamenco Academy — is it really happening?

Yes, I can!  I am ecstatic that Knopf — my dream publisher, home to my dream editor — has given me a contract for the next one which should be out Fall 2010.  It is about a single mom facing the prospect of an empty nest.  She’s worried about her daughter leaving home, and flat-out terrified that her only child won’t go to college.

Joyce, here’s what I say about all film projects I have ever been involved with:  Don’t buy your popcorn until you’re in the lobby.  I would love for that novel [The Flamenco Academy] to become a film.  It’s been optioned by a wonderful producer, Anne Walker, who produced most of Rick Linklater’s films.  I had a grand time adapting it.  And now the script is in the hands of the gods.

Joyce, come back to Austin.  We’ll eat enchiladas at Curra’s.

Sarah Bird is the author of six previous novels, and writes a regular column for the magazine Texas Monthly. Her features appear frequently in other magazines, including Ladies Home Journal and Good Housekeeping, and she is also a contributor to She lives in Austin, Texas.

"American Adulterer" by Jed Mercurio

"American Adulterer" by Jed Mercurio

Here’s a review I wrote for the Books section of the Sunday Dallas Morning News:

By JOYCE SÁENZ HARRIS / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News
Joyce Sáenz Harris ( is a Dallas freelance writer.

American Adulterer is a strange, morbidly fascinating novel, one sure to generate a fair amount of negative reaction from people who will not read it. Those who do read it, however, will find it peculiarly sympathetic to its subject, President John F. Kennedy, even as it cuts a mythic figure down to very human, deeply fallible proportions.

British author Jed Mercurio, who has a medical background, begins with the conceit of using JFK as “the subject” of a psychiatric study. His actual name does not surface for many pages, but the identity of “the subject” is quite clear from the first sentence:

“The subject is an American citizen holding high elected office, married, and father to a young family, who takes the view that monogamy has seldom been the engine of great men’s lives.”

As the title promises, much of the book revolves around the subject’s libertine attitude toward sex. Yet there are no sex scenes as such in the book. Rather, there is suggestiveness, accompanied by matter-of-fact observations about sexual desire from a male point of view. It’s a man’s world in the early 1960s, and women are regarded subjectively when they are noticed at all.

Mercurio’s “study” posits that his subject’s extramarital sex life was a hobby bordering on addiction. Like other, less famous unfaithful husbands, this one was a compartmentalizer, a rationalizer. The other women in his life were not great romances; they were novelties, challenges for conquest, convenient vessels for physical release.

This could almost qualify as a nonfiction novel, so deftly does Mercurio weave together verified historical fact and sheer imagination. Obviously, we have no idea what really went on in JFK’s head, aside from his own public words, none of which had anything to do with his priapism.

His private life remains mostly a mystery, because those who knew him best, his wife and closest friends, remained loyal to the romantic myth they helped create. Mercurio does his best to strip away the mystery, creating a character who feels authentically like Jack Kennedy. The clinical approach lets the author speak authoritatively about his subject, as an analyst would. But the analyst is soon replaced by the novelist working inside his subject’s head.

It is not a comfortable place to be. Mercurio often dwells on how much physical pain Kennedy endured, how excruciating his days and nights were, and how much deception went into the public image of his youth and vigor. It becomes clear that, if he hadn’t been assassinated, JFK might well have died due to his medical and pharmaceutical issues before he could have served out a second term.

Some sections of American Adulterer have nothing to do with adultery. And those passages are the ones where the president is with his family, the very people who will most likely never read this book.

Although we see little of his parents or siblings (and surprisingly nothing of his brother and confidant, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy), Mercurio sketches exquisitely tender moments with Caroline and John Jr., scenes that portray JFK in exactly the way his family would like best to remember him.

Most affecting of all is the chapter having to do with the agonizing death of the Kennedys’ prematurely born son, Patrick: “His son shows in his few hours of life what every human being should. He seizes every breath. Like his father, he lives a life of pain but never surrenders. … He wonders, when his own end comes, how long he will fight, and if he will give in, and if he will show the courage the boy has shown, his beautiful, beautiful son.”

The dreadfully familiar ending in Dallas comes quickly and unrelentingly thereafter. Perhaps because I haven’t read a lot of assassination literature, I’d never realized why JFK couldn’t escape the fatal, second bullet. “This man wrecked his back saving a wounded comrade, but this is only part of the story,” Mercurio writes dispassionately. “The condition was exacerbated by his philandering in a hotel room in El Paso, and for these two inseparable reasons he wears a brace that holds his head high when otherwise he would be able to duck the next shot.”

Joyce Sáenz Harris ( is a Dallas freelance writer.


I took my five-year-old granddaughter to see a stage production of The Wizard of Oz, Sunday night at the Music Hall in Fair Park. We had good seats (thank you, Craigslist!), and it was fine as far as G-rated family entertainment goes.

Broadway caliber it was not: The Dallas Morning News’ drama critic had complained that the production was a bit cheesy and amateurish, and I have to admit that I’ve seen better acting and singing in any number of community theaters.

But never mind. Isabella and I share a love of the 1939 Oz movie, which we have watched together so often that by now I have memorized every line of dialogue, every song lyric, every bit of business.

Sometimes she will request an Oz song from me, usually a medley of the introductory solos sung by the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow (whom Iz charmingly refers to as “the Squarecrow”). She was fascinated by the whole stage show, although it may say something about the human actors that she was most impressed by Toto. “He’s a real dog!” she whispered, ecstatically.

Oz fanatic that I am, perhaps it was fate that I once met Judy Garland’s daughter. (No, not Liza Minnelli – Lorna Luft.) With my talent for completely useless trivia, I know an unhealthy amount about the Oz movie.  Things like: Buddy Ebsen was supposed to play the Tin Man, but he turned out to be deathly allergic to the metallic makeup and had to be replaced by Jack Haley. But you can still hear Ebsen singing in the chorus of “We’re off to see the Wizard…”

I can tell you that the Munchkin Coroner, Meinhardt Raabe, is still alive at 93. I know that Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch of the West, suffered a terrible burn during one of her pyrotechnic vanishing scenes.

I know that Texas native King Vidor (who survived the 1900 Galveston hurricane) shot the sepia-toned opening scenes of Kansas with the still-amazing cyclone effects, while credited Oz director Victor Fleming was busy with Gone With the Wind.

It’s odd to realize that the film’s signature song, ”Over the Rainbow” almost didn’t make the final cut, thanks to MGM studio execs who thought it slowed down an already-long film. Fleming was perfectly willing to let the song go on the cutting-room floor. The songwriters, Harold Arlen and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, desperately pleaded their case to Louis B. Mayer himself, who relented — and they were vindicated when it won the Oscar for Best Song.

I still think it’s too bad that the film didn’t use the song’s introductory verse:

When all the world is a hopeless jumble
And the raindrops tumble all around
Heaven opens a magic lane
When all the clouds darken up the skyway
There’s a rainbow highway to be found
Leading from your windowpane
To a place behind the sun
Just a step beyond the rain…

Happily, they used that verse in the stage version, and it almost made up for everything the production lacked, even the Music Hall’s bad acoustics. Seventy years on, the magic of Oz is still there for those who await the rainbow.

There’s a good story in the New York Times about the exhibition celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Even people who haven’t been there often recognize this landmark on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, just off Central Park. It is one of the last great works of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who died at age 91, six months before the museum opened in 1959.  He spent 16 years working on the Guggenheim, which is one of his most recognizable buildings, probably rivaled only by Fallingwater.

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (NYT photo)

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (NYT photo)

The Guggenheim was a huge controversy in the 1950s. It was called an eyesore, an anomaly, a parking garage masquerading as a museum. I suspect it would still be considered radical today if it had just been designed and built in a major American city by one of the world’s great contemporary architects.

But when I walked into it, I immediately knew what Mr. Wright intended a visitor to feel. Suddenly I was inside a chambered nautilus, that “ship of pearl” as the poet Oliver Wendell Holmes described it: enclosed in spiraling circles and flooded by an ethereal light.

I’ve been an FLW fan for a long time, and any time I am in a city with Wright buildings in it, I try to visit them. I haven’t gotten to them all, by any means, not even close — although I am well acquainted with both of the Wright buildings in Dallas (the Gillin House, which is a private residence in North Dallas, and the Kalita Humphreys Theater building on Turtle Creek). There are so many more Wrights I want to experience, because every one is beautiful and memorable in its own way.

Mr. Wright was a singular genius, and he well knew it. He once remarked airily that he could merely shake his sleeve and ideas would fall out — and he probably did not exaggerate much there. He led an outrageous and controversial life, to be sure. But he was a particularly American kind of genius, one who built for millionaires and for ordinary people alike. He came from the Midwestern prairies, and his love of the American landscape — of its hills, trees, deserts, rocks, skies and water — is evident in every one of his designs.  

Every time I walk into any Wright-designed building, I am amazed and uplifted not just by its beauty, but by its organic quality. For something so completely man-made, every Wright building owns an essential connection to the earth — one that began with Mr. Wright’s turn-of-the-century Prairie houses in Oak Park, Ill., and continued right into the dawn of the space age with the Guggenheim.

An Alexandrian  colleague recently suggested to me that, in this current media crisis, laid-off journalists  are suffering a sea change: transforming themselves into experienced (and in some cases fairly expensive) wordsmiths for hire. 

For as newspaper and magazine staffs shrink and shrivel, hundreds of ex-journalists are of necessity becoming commercial writers: publicists, corporate spokespeople and freelance “communications” specialists who wield the English language for a living.


Full disclosure: Occasionally, I do this very thing myself. In a practical sense, I find it very much like what newspapers call ”rewrite”: taking feeds of information, quotes and statistics from other reporters and reweaving the strands into a story. Or in the case of PR, not into a story but a press release, or a pitch letter. I have editing experience, I’m a clean writer, and I’ve always been pretty good at rewrite, and so I’m finding the transition to freelance PR writing is not too difficult. 

Here’s the thing: There are plenty of educated business people in this country who are very good at what they do, but who either don’t have the time to write, don’t like to write, or aren’t particularly gifted in writing clear, persuasive English. I have always known I could not do their jobs as well as they do. Now it turns out they can’t do my job as well as I do, either. And so they’ll pay me to do it for them.

When you’ve been a writer all your life, and especially when you’ve been paid to write plain English for a living, you tend to take your ability for granted. It’s surprising to discover how many people do not take it for granted. 

To me, language is just a skill I was born with, one I honed professionally for 30 years. To those who don’t like to write, or who can’t do it so quickly and easily, such adeptness verges on a sort of voodoo magic, rather the way we mere mortals regard the Warren Buffetts of the world. I can’t imagine how the Oracle of Omaha does what he does, but I can admire how brilliantly he does it, and I would gladly hire him to manage my portfolio, if only I could afford it.

Needless to say, my services do not cost as much as even one share of Berkshire Hathaway. And I doubt I’ll ever turn my rewrite capabilities into a full-time job as a publicist or spokesperson, as a few of my fellow former journos have done.  Still, it’s nice to know that I can still spin the straw of raw information into the gold of a paycheck. Especially since I am qualified to do absolutely nothing else.

My Alexandria colleague wonders if  “something of the wild and unpredictable [must] inevitably be disappearing from the natural history of human information metabolism in favor of something more… domesticated.” I suspect he is right, at least for those of us who weren’t all that wild and unpredictable to begin with. The gonzo madman Hunter S. Thompson was never my role model. I was always more into the witty, genteel subversiveness of Tom Wolfe.  

But then, the newspaper culture has been becoming more domesticated ever since I got into the business, in the post-Watergate era. Once earnest young Woodward-wannabes with journalism degrees began flooding into newsrooms in the 1970s, the business inevitably lost some of that raffish, Front Page charm that made it so dear to romantic Hollywood screenwriters. The old-school newsmen who kept fifths of bourbon in their desks surely considered us youngsters a bunch of wet smacks — and worse, a lot of us were forgodsakes women.

It’s probably just as well that most of those old guys are gone now, and can’t see what their once-booming business has turned into, and what their starry-eyed successors have become. For them, PR was the Dark Side. For us who have been laid off and who will never have another job in a newsroom, well, PR is what pays the bills, and that’s all we’re really interested in these days.

In his satire Gulliver’s Travels, Dean Swift invented the character of Climenole, who was a “Flapper.” These servants of the Laputa society facilitated communication between their eternally distracted masters by means of a well-placed smack from a blown bladder filled with small pease or pebbles and fastened to a short stick. In a recent piece in the Huffington Post, Erica Jong suggested that perhaps we have become like the Laputans, so distracted by modern technology that we are living more in the virtual world than in the real one.

If that is indeed the case, it may be that the job of Climenole is one with a bright future for ex-journalists. We’ve always been pretty good, after all, at getting people’s attention.

These days, when newspapers are playing it so very safe, it’s weird, wild and wonderful to see something as wacky as the Louisville Courier-Journal’s front page as rendered by a Turkish conceptual artist.ky_cj

Nicholas Lemann has an interesting piece in The New Yorker, “Paper Tigers,” in which he discusses recent biographies of prominent press barons. He particularly addresses Wall Street Journal owner Rupert Murdoch and his likenesses to earlier media moguls such as Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst (as well as the WSJ‘s earlier powerhouse, Barney Kilgore).

(Those who, like me, are devoted fans of Citizen Kane will be unable to read the Hearst passages without thinking of Charles Foster Kane and his fictional New York Inquirer, mercilessly mirroring Hearst and his New York Journal.)

Lemann says that each of these media barons had an individual but uncanny knack for knowing what their readers wanted, and each learned how to build a fortune while providing the supply for that demand.

He concludes:

 These days, we seem to be drifting toward the world that media reformers have dreamed about for half a century, where the press is made up entirely of small players. If we get there, we may find ourselves missing the dinosaurs who once roamed the earth.

Anyone who knows me probably knows about my obsession with Lost (currently airing Wednesdays at 8 on ABC).  There are a number of TV shows I like a lot, but only one to which I am an abject slave. This happens to me every once in a while, pop culture-wise. It’s kind of like how I was hopelessly hooked on Harry Potter from Book 1: I was fixated on Lost from the pilot episode on. As a result, I have spent the past four and a half years either (a) watching Lost or (b) waiting like a lost puppy for Lost’s next season to start. Yeah, it’s utterly pathetic. I know.

The Geronimo Jackson ladies' T
The Geronimo Jackson ladies’ T

There’s no really good way to explain my infatuation with Lost. Well, of course there’s Josh Holloway, who plays James “Sawyer” Ford, and Henry Ian Cusick, who plays Desmond Hume, and Matthew Fox, who plays Dr. Jack Shephard. They’ve got some mighty good-looking men on that show, and they’re good actors too. Among the women characters, my favorite is Dr. Juliet Burke, played by Dallas’ own Elizabeth Mitchell. And then there’s a whole raft of other characters: Kate Austen, the former fleeing felon and freckled femme fatale; Hugo “Hurley” Reyes, the large and lovable slacker and lottery winner who calls everyone “dude”; Sayid Jarrah, an Iraqi who was tinker, torturer, soldier and spy for the Republican Guard in the first Gulf War; John Locke, whose paralyzed legs and broken back are miraculously healed as soon as he lands on the island; and Sun and Jin Kwon, the Korean couple with gorgeous looks and ugly personal secrets. Then there’s Daniel Faraday, the mentally fragile physicist and time-travel expert; Miles Straume, the sarcastic “ghostbuster” who talks to dead people; and Frank Lapidus, the ace pilot who becomes quite the expert at flying to and from a mysterious island that doesn’t show up on any charts or maps.

The premise of Lost is well-known by now: In September 2004, an Oceanic jetliner breaks apart over the South Pacific en route from Sydney to L.A. A few dozen people from the plane’s midsection and tail section wash up on an island and await a rescue that never comes. Three months later a freighter arrives on an ominous mission, bringing the news that the world believes Oceanic 815 to have been lost at sea with no survivors. Eventually six of the Oceanic castaways return to civilization, a media army and worldwide fame — while telling no one about leaving behind a group of friends who must fend for themselves as the island goes skipping through time.

But the rest of the Lost universe is what makes most of us fans so happily mental. “The numbers”: 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42. The smoke monster. Dead people who don’t seem to stay dead. The island’s unseen ruler, Jacob. The gigantic remains of a statue with four toes. The hippie-era Dharma Initiative and its indigenous opponents on the island, “the Others.”  Richard Alpert, the Others’ shaman, who never ages.

On Lost, even the good guys aren’t all good, and the seeming bad guys aren’t all bad either. Flawed, complicated, devious and ruthless though they can be, Lost‘s villains are some of the series’ most interesting people. Billionaire Charles Widmore, who used to be the Others’ leader, can be appallingly cruel or astoundingly kind, but he’s never predictable. And Benjamin Linus, the rival who ousted Widmore as leader of the Others, is one of TV’s great bad guys. As played by the amazing Michael Emerson, Ben is bug-eyed and shrimpy, but also steely and manipulative. He looks like a complete milquetoast, yet he commands respect, fear, hatred and loathing. Ben can’t be trusted. Ben lies. Ben kills people. Yet the show wouldn’t be nearly as much fun without him.

One of the show’s little in-jokes is Geronimo Jackson, a fictional 1970s-era band whose name keeps popping up throughout the past few seasons. Right now you can find their single “Dharma Lady” on iTunes (they sound a lot like the Grateful Dead), and you can buy Geronimo Jackson T-shirts online at the store.

Although I love reading and participating in Lost fansites and blog discussions, I’ve never bought any Lost magazines or action figures, Dharma Initiative-logoed merchandise or other diehard-fan paraphernalia. But for some strange reason, I decided that I wanted a Geronimo Jackson T-shirt, and the other day I got one. Somehow it appeals to me — maybe because I came of age in the ’70s. If Geronimo Jackson had been a real band, I probably would have listened to them back then. Heck, I’d probably still be listening to them: I’ve got early David Bowie in my car’s CD changer right now, and he still sounds good to me after 35 years. 

After this current season, Lost has one more season to go, its sixth, before the series wraps up. I have no idea how the story of the island and its inhabitants will end.

But whatever happens, at least I’ll always have Geronimo Jackson.  

If you doubt that American newspapers are an endangered species, take note of this:

Last week, the Hearst Corp. announced that, unless big concessions are made by employees (both union and non), the San Francisco Chronicle would be put up for sale.  The Chronicle, which was founded in January 1865, is the dominant daily newspaper in the Bay Area, and on the West Coast is second only in size to the Los Angeles Times. 

Since newspapers are hardly a hot commodity nowadays, that means the paper would be shut down soon. Once the Chron‘s gone, San Francisco will be the largest city in America — maybe in the world — not to have its own daily subscription newspaper.

Hearst also is about to cut loose the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The P-Iis the smaller newspaper in Seattle, and it has long struggled financially despite a JOA (joint operating agreement) with the dominant Seattle Times. But the Times is in trouble too, and it may not last much longer than the P-I.  Other Hearst newspapers such as the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-Newsare hanging on grimly. Like A.H. Belo’s Dallas Morning News, they are the only dailies left in Texas’ largest cities, which all once boasted two newspapers each. But the Houston Post, San Antonio Light and Dallas Times Herald have all been gone for years now.

Last Friday, the Rocky Mountain News published its final edition after nearly 150 years of serving the Denver area. The city’s remaining paper, the Denver Post, is owned by Dean Singleton’s Denver-based MediaNews Group — which also owns the El Paso Times, the Los Angeles Daily News, the Oakland Tribune and some 50 other papers, mostly in California, New England and New Mexico.

The Denver Post, like virtually all American metro papers, has struggled financially in recent years. How much longer will the Post survive? Well, since it’s MediaNews’ hometown paper, maybe it will last longer than some of Singleton’s previous enterprises. Here in North Texas, then-young “Dinky” Singleton (a former DMNer) tried to revive the old Fort Worth Press back in the 1970s. When the fledgling paper went down for the count, his employees never even got their final paychecks. (I know this because my husband was one of them.)

In 1986, Singleton came into town with much fanfare and bought the Dallas Times Herald after LA-based Times-Mirror decided to sell it.  He kept DTH for less than two years before selling it to an associate who let it die on the vine. The company’s assets were sold to the DMN for $55 million in December 1991, and the Herald was immediately closed down.

This pattern is not particularly new. Afternoon papers, former afternoon papers and less-dominant dailies have been a disappearing from this country since the 1960s. Two-newspaper American towns are rarer than whooping cranes. The only American city with more than two daily newspapers now is New York, which has the New York Times, the New York Daily News, the New York Post and Long Island Newsday. 

However, now even the city with only a single dominant daily cannot count on having its newspaper around forever. San Francisco may be the first major city without its own major daily paper; Seattle could be the second. Who will be third? Fourth? Newspapers — even those that still make money, such as the Austin American-Statesman — are on the block all over the country. Without buyers, they face certain diminution and probable extinction. Perhaps some, such as the P-I and  San Francisco Chronicle, will continue to exist in a shrunken, online-only format. Many will not even survive to that extent.

Many bloggers and online commenters assume that “everyone” gets his news online nowadays. Recent surveys, however, say about 20 percent of American households do not have computer access, and roughly the same percentage of heads of households say they have never sent an e-mail. 

People who live on very limited incomes, people who live in remote or rural areas, people who aren’t comfortable with new technology or who consider themselves too old to learn about it — those people aren’t going to consider a laptop as a viable alternative for news access. They might just watch more TV news. But TV won’t be carrying local obituaries, church news, wedding announcements, crossword puzzles or a lot of other things that ordinary people buy a newspaper for.

Most of the real “news” on the Web, in fact, still comes from newspapers and wire services (which have mostly existed to serve newspapers). A city without a daily newspaper is a city that can  expect to see more corruption in its government, because the watchdog of a local free press will have been muzzled if not euthanized. Good investigative reporting is something you won’t see much of, once the daily paper is gone. Television stations, with their shrinking ad revenue, slashed budgets and news staffs, are under the same constraints as other news outlets; they’re having to do less with fewer resources, too. 

Personally, I don’t want to live in a newspaper-less city.  Maybe it’s just because I’m nearly 55, but I cannot imagine getting up in the morning, having coffee with my husband and not having the morning paper there to share.

I know that a lot of people wonder what the big deal is, why print journalists and others are so sentimental about dead-tree news. That’s because they’ve never really had the newspaper habit. The feel of newsprint in one’s hands —  like reading books instead of computer screens — will never quite be replaced by a Kindle. 

All I can say is: I feel sad for you folks who don’t know what I’m talking about. You don’t even know what you’ll have missed. At least, not until the next piece of Obama-like history is made, and you realize you can’t even buy a newspaper to save for your grandchildren.

UPDATE:  The New York Times looks into the future with this story: “As Cities Go From Two Newspapers to One, Talk of Zero.”

And KPLU 88.5, the NPR station in Seattle, ponders what it will be like for Seattleites to live in “A No-Newspaper Town?” 

Good lordy. I just looked at my blog and realized I haven’t written anything new in weeks. And it’s not because nothing has been happening to me, because plenty has. Believe me. I’ve been one busy, busy girl.

For one thing, we bought a new guest bed. I’m sure this sounds like something that would take all of one afternoon to accomplish, but when you are, as I sometimes refer to myself, “technically unemployed,” everything is more time-consuming and more complicated, because you have to find ways to save money doing it.

It was my husband’s idea to buy a new guest bed. He didn’t think the futon sofa-bed we bought merely two years ago had turned out to be nearly comfortable enough for a normal-sized grown person to nap upon.  It was comfortable enough for me, but then I weigh a hundred pounds less than a normal-sized grown person. (That person would be him.)  He thought it would be nice to have a twin bed in there. Something that wouldn’t take up too much room, and as a bonus, wouldn’t encourage us to have undue numbers of overnight guests.

I pointed out that a twin bed would not be long enough for a normal-sized grown person, and what we really needed was an extra-long twin bed — the kind most often used by college students. Those mattresses are five inches longer than a standard twin bed, and thus  they accommodate nappers who are bigger than your average eighth-grader.

Since he is the one who still has a paycheck, I decided he knew whether we could afford this purchase. We could, he said, as long as we didn’t spend too much on it. So I began the search for bedding bargains.

I found a name-brand Twin XL mattress and box spring on a half-price sale at Sears, for $310. I found a steel bed frame at Wal-mart for $40. I found a heavy, solid-wood twin headboard being sold for $40 on Craigslist. I found a Twin XL waterproof mattress protector, a dust ruffle and a vintage Bates of Maine jacquard bedspread on eBay. I bought  a microfleece blanket for $15, and white Twin XL sheets on sale at Bed Bath & Beyond — $10 for a set of two fitted sheets and two pillowcases;  I already had a Twin XL white flat sheet stashed away.  It took me several weeks to get all of this rounded up, and it only cost us about $600, which we easily could have spent for the mattress set alone, were I not the queen of bargain shoppers.  Granted, it cost me hours and hours of my time, but as long as I’m not charging my freelance rates as a personal shopper, time is no big deal.  

My husband, the one who knows whether we can afford things, also decided we could afford a vacation. I suspect this was mostly because he was going stir-crazy after six months of being cooped up in Dallas. Southwest was offering great airfares, so I did all the trip-planning, and we went to San Diego for a seven-night vacay. I found us a wonderful place to stay on Coronado, with a package deal that included a daily gourmet breakfast for two.  We had a lovely time, even if I did manage to lose my favorite Ray-Bans, which vanished and were subsequently found squished, presumably by the wheels of a car. Probably our own car, actually.

Oh, and I’ve begun freelancing, though I’m still waiting for the actual paychecks to begin rolling in. My first “special contributor” byline appeared in the DMN three and a half months after I left its employ. It was an extremely odd sensation to see my name there again.  It’s nearly as strange as realizing that I’m always seeing old stories of mine re-posted on the DMN website, complete with “Staff Writer” and my old DMN e-mail address.

It is even more peculiar to realize that all these months later, my old office phone number has not been disconnected. I’m not kidding — my DMN voicemail still worked when I called it yesterday. Call 214-977-8710 and leave a message; maybe I’ll call back. Or not.  After all, I’m a busy girl with places to go, people to interview and write about, and 500-page books to read and review. Not to mention cooking, laundry, shopping and errands to do.

I never knew it could be this time-consuming to be a technically unemployed housewife. But truthfully? I kind of like it. I think I’m happier and more relaxed than I have been in years. Our house is paid off; our health is good; the grandkids are thriving. Right now, that’s all I can ask for.