Friday, November 29, 2013

Martha Burned my Turkey

To be clear about this, I roast a turkey very seldom. They are heavy great birds, and I am no spring chicken anymore, to be slinging heavy great birds around the kitchen. Still, the idea of placing a perfectly roasted turkey before my adoring relatives continues to grip me from time to time. I fell for it again this year.

You must understand that I don't particularly like turkey. Harold positively detests it, preferring ham, which I hardly ever cook for him anymore since I'm persuaded that the nitrites will make him sick. But, a fresh turkey, carefully prepared, without that rancid turkey fat taste that one gets from a turkey that was frozen several years ago! That might be fit to eat. So, feeling the turkey itch again, and having invited all my local relatives to Thanksgiving dinner, I turned to the kitchen shelf Harold built some years ago to hold our recipe books, now groaning under the huge collection. Among the magazines I found a copy of the November 2005 issue of Martha Stewart Living, subtitled Thanksgiving 101, with ravishing pictures of pies on the cover. Martha would tell me how to do a turkey.

And so I embarked upon the Martha Stewart turkey adventure.

It began with brining the turkey. Eighteen pounds was about right for eight or nine people, she said. I pre-ordered a fresh Butterball from the Giant. It was quite reasonably priced, I thought, considering that fresh turkeys were scarce this year, according to rumor. Then I prepared the brine according to Martha's recipe. You would think, brine, that's salt water, right? But Martha's brine called for way more sugar than salt, as well as peppercorns, herbs, and a whole lot of chopped vegetables. I think I spent a couple of hours chopping vegetables. You bring the "brine" to a boil and let it cool completely.

Completely, she said. But how cool is that, really? The turkey has to sit in the brine for 24 hours. The clock was ticking. While the "brine" was still lukewarm I unwrapped my Butterball, rinsed it, and patted it dry. The packaging material claimed that the bird had been brined already, but I told myself that their brine could have been nothing like Martha's. I was sure, for instance, that they hadn't put in chopped leeks. I would brine the turkey again. If a little is good a lot is better, my father used to say.

The following morning found me wrestling the bird onto the rack for stuffing and roasting. "Tuck the wings under the body," Martha advised, but this was easier said than done; the turkey seemed to be suffering rigor mortis, and the wings refused to do anything other than stick out awkwardly on either side of the huge puffy breast. Never mind. Once I had draped it all with butter-and-wine-soaked cheesecloth, as Martha recommended, all would be well. But I found that the old package of cheesecloth I was counting on had been used for a nest by little bugs. I threw it out. No cheesecloth, then. I did what my mother had always done, which was to smear butter all over the turkey skin and put it in the oven like that. Naked.

Martha said, begin by roasting the turkey at 425 degrees for 30 minutes. I set the timer and settled down for some much-needed rest with a good Georgette Heyer regency novel, Lady of Quality, whose plot, truth be told, is pretty much like that of Sprig Muslin, but hey. A great read. I was so absorbed in it that I didn't notice the black smoke rolling out of the kitchen door.

When the timer went off I went back into the thick air of the kitchen and opened the oven door, only to see the ends of the turkey's wings burnt off and the skin all blackened and scorched. Horrors. And three more hours before the inside would be cooked.

"Martha!" I cried. "What have you done?" In a panic I turned the oven down to 325, rather than the 350 she recommended, and basted the scorched bird ineffectually. "Nuts to you then," I muttered. After that I ignored all Martha's advice and used my own judgment. Later I turned the oven back up to 350 and basted the turkey some more. When the meat thermometer said it was done I got Harold to take it out of the oven.

I put the turkey platter on the table with the blackest parts away from the family. They were happy with it; they all said they liked their turkey well-cooked. When I had a bite I was happy with it, myself. It didn't taste like turkey. The meat was moist and in fact quite delicious, and tasted enough like ham to please even Harold. But the poor bird looked as if it had been though a terrible fire. I didn't have the heart to put the garnishes around it that Martha had suggested, the crabapples (go find crabapples these days, I was going to use kumquats) or the sage leaves. I'm sorry I didn't think to take a picture of it for you before we ate it all up.

You'll be happy to know that turkey stuffing makes a very tasty breakfast.

© 2013 Kate Gallison

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Ghosts of Those Around Me

Many of you know that I have incredible honor and privilege of calling myself a writer in residence at the New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on Fifth Avenue and Forty-Second Street.

The room I work in—the Allen Room—is reserved for writers with book contracts.  I spend three or four days a week there.  I have a bookshelf of my own where get to keep the books I need from the library’s extensive collection.  On each visit, I can take any empty cubicle and spread out my research, open my laptop, and go to long ago and far away in my imagination.  It’s heaven.

It’s also a bit intimidating.  For one thing, some writers I MUCH admire, who write absolutely splendid books, are frequently in that same room.   I often wonder what I am doing in there with them.

Right inside the door as one enters is a bookshelf as tall as I, filled with volumes that were written in that room.  The one I am most aware of on those shelves is Lily Tuck’s The News from Paraguay.  I had already begun to research Invisible Country, my story set in the same time and place, when her book won the National Book Award for fiction.    Clearly, Lily Tuck and I studied the same source material.

What a daunting notion!

But I stay, and work, trying my best to tell a really good story.

If I were to run home, there are awesome ghosts all around where I live.  Here are some of the works produced below 14th Street, beginning with our hero EAP:

113 ½  Carmine Street: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym by Edgar Allan Poe

147 West 4th Street: Ten Days that Shook the Word by John Reed

Grove and Bedford: Alice’s Let’s Eat by Calvin Trillin

Charles Lane: Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

Washinton Mews: Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney

12 W. 10th Street: Etiquette by Emily Post

13 East 8th Street: Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe

East 2nd Street & Avenue A: Kaddish by Allen Ginsberg

Horatio and Washington Streets: Slaves of New York by Tama Janowitz

West 12th Street and Sixth Avenue: In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak

21 Fifth Avenue: The Mysterious Stranger by Mark Twain

5 Bank Street: My Antonia by Willa Cather

For twenty-five years, I lived on the last block of Waverly Place just before it ends at Bank Street.  Right at the end of my block stood the former home of Willa Cather.  I came and went, frequently aware of who had lived there, picturing her with pen and paper and her imagination taking herself back to the prairie.

How can I keep going, with all these impressive ghosts around me?

Actually, I cannot stop, no matter how intimidated I am.  Being a storyteller is a calling, a vocation.  It grabs some of us, and we have to do it, no matter what.  Even if we cannot do it as well as we would like, or very well at all, even if our gifts don’t measure up to our hopes and expectations of ourselves, we must keep trying.  Writing stories is not what we do.  It’s who we are.

Annamaria Alfieri

Monday, November 25, 2013

I Saw Jackie Robinson Play in Ebbets Field

When I was ten, I saw Jackie Robinson in the flesh play Second Base for the Brooklyn Dodgers in Ebbets Field. Now in my 70s, I saw Jackie in the movie, “42,” referring to the number on his baseball jersey. No comparison. On the wall I face when writing on my computer is a blown-up black-and-white photo in a cheap frame. Jackie’s in it alongside his brother 1950s Dodgers in uniform: ‘Pee Wee’ Reese, Gil Hodges, Carl Furillo, ‘Duke' Snider, Roy Campanella and ‘Preacher’ Roe. Like they just stepped out of the Dugout, exactly as I remember them.

On weekday mornings in summer, we would gather at the corner of Nassau and Bedford Avenues in Greenpoint, to take the Streetcar (a/k/a the Trolley), running direct to Ebbets Field and beyond, all the way to Sheepshead Bay and the Ocean along a pair of iron tracks hammered into the pavement up Bedford Avenue, the longest street in Brooklyn (10.2 miles). Took awhile to get there because the trolley ran through three sprawling neighborhoods, I remember—Williamsburg, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Flatbush. There were always four, five, or more of us. Most had money from home to buy a couple of ‘franks’ (with everything on it, please), a coke, and the price of admission (75 cents). Bleacher seats. Good as any because the stadium was among the smallest in the National League. The right field fence was only 275 feet away. What saved us was the fact that most home-run hitters hit from the right side of the Plate. The only thing that stood between a strong lefty hitting the ball over the fence into Bedford Avenue was Brooklyn pitching and Carl Furillo, roaming right field with his rifle right arm. We never stayed put in the Bleacher seats, anyhow. After a few innings, we’d sneak down one level to the Grandstand’s reserved seats in sections so empty that the ushers (old guys with Irish faces) would let us stay.

From those seats it felt like I could say something to Andy Pafko in Left Field and he’d hear me, but I’d have to yell to be heard by Duke Snider in Center. Of course, we knew all our Dodgers: Big Gil Hodges at First Base, Harold (Pee Wee) Reese at Shortstop, Jackie Robinson on Second, Billy Cox on Third, Roy Campanella (Campy) behind the Plate, Elwin (Preacher) Roe on the Mound, and Carl Furillo (‘the Reading Rifle’) in Right. We were nine or ten years old, from the same block, McGuinness Boulevard, named for the long-dead Alderman, Pete McGuinness (who incidentally had lived in the tenement next to mine). It was rare for a neighborhood boy to be anything but a Dodger fan, but two of our number were disloyal. Alan Cebulski was a Giant fan, who played chess on his stoop and, most galling of all, Peter McAllister, a Yankee Fan, whom we all razzed: Go live in Manhattan! but tolerated because his dad was a New York City Police Sergeant, so what could you do?

It was one of the greatest pleasures of the game to see Jackie run the bases: so quick, so smart , taking longer leads off the base than anyone once he got on. He gave the opposing pitchers fits, having to watch him constantly to thwart his running on a pitch to steal a base. I remember the way he ran: quick, almost mincing steps, then quick as a scared cat. He had a unique stance at the plate. Feet close together, bat held high, knees bent, corkscrewed. The movie never got that right. It was mostly about his troubles from being the first black man to play Major League baseball when he was signed by the Dodger General Manager Branch Rickey in 1947. I have to take off my hat to Harrison Ford for a fine gravelly performance as Rickey; he even looked like him. It hardly registered on us that Jackie was black; back then he was the heart and soul of ‘The Bums’ as we—in fact, all of Brooklyn—referred to our team.

The best thing about being in Ebbets Field on a summer’s afternoon in a bleacher seat was the lazy feeling of being suspended in time and space, as only a ten-year-old could know. Sounds came to me from Home Plate and the First Base line across the field in waves of soft murmurings. You could just about make out the announcer over the PA system but Ms. Gladys Gooding belting out the Star Spangled Banner at the start of the game was not to be shushed. The Seventh Inning Stretch loosed all that pent-up feeling in whoops and roughhousing on your friends. Game over, we’d descend to the ground on the winding cement exit ramps that girded the Stadium and always made me think, unaccountably, of the Great Wall of China.

I had the misfortune to go to a New York Mets game at the old Shea Stadium some years ago and also a Yankee game at the old Stadium (both times to shepherd out-of-town friends, baseball fans). The electronic din was unrelenting; lazy, murmuring summer afternoons were long gone. By 1954, I had left Brooklyn behind for a boarding school on the North Shore of Long Island. By 1955, I was still on Long Island and in the grip of a slow-growing amnesia, so that when the Brooklyn Dodgers, my once-upon-a-time native team, won their first ever World Series by beating their nemesis, the New York Yankees, I was indifferent. And when Walter O’Malley took the Dodgers to L.A., it was over: the romance of Brooklyn baseball and my childhood.

© 2013 Robert Knightly

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Comfort Reading

Avid readers of this blog will remember that some months ago I was having a romance with cortisone. I was writing songs for it (Just a sharp shot of steroids/ helps the misery go down,/ the misery go dooown, /the misery go down). I was stopping strangers on the street and asking them if they had had cortisone shots. Alas, it was but a fling. Cortisone dropped me as quickly as Britney Spears abandoned that high school sweetheart she married.

I have now moved on to Orthovisc, a substance that replaces knee fluid. I’ve had two injections. I got the second on a grey, cold, blustery day and found myself practically keening from pain both before and after the procedure. I know what you’re thinking: “She writes songs about medication; she accosts total strangers on the street and she keens and howls when in deep distress. Steph sounds like she’s up for a whole lot of fun. How can I get to know her better?”

Yes, I have been miserable but I always keep two things in mind. I don’t have a job that forces me to talk to Ted Cruz on a daily basis and books can make almost anything better.

Here are some my favorites for a sour mood:

Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor novels. I know that a man who begins his day with a double Jameson’s and 2 Xanax doesn’t seem like a natural role model, but his life is always much worse than mine and he survives.

The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin. This is one of my favorite mysteries and features the Oxford don, Gervase Fen. And if your work setting doesn’t really allow the use of profanity, you’ll find exclaiming “Oh, my fur and whiskers” keeps people guessing.

The Bear Went Over the Mountain by William Kotzwinkle. While searching for food, a bear finds a suitcase that contains a manuscript. He takes it to Manhattan and becomes a huge (in more ways than one) literary celebrity. If you’re not happy about the state of publishing, this is the book for you.

Any short story or novel by P.G. Wodehouse. I do find that people either love or loathe Mr. Wodehouse. I think anyone who can write sentences like this should be venerated: “Mike nodded. A sombre nod. The nod Napoleon might have given if somebody had met him in 1812 and said, ‘So you’re back from Moscow, eh?’”

The Barsetshire novels of Anthony Trollope. I’m currently re-reading Framley Parsonage. Big questions loom. Will Mark Robarts the vicar become tainted by his association with the Duke of Ominum and the crowd at Gatherum Castle? Will Griselda Grantley marry Lord Dumbello or Lord Lufton? Will the bishop’s wife, Mrs Proudie, ruin her husband’s career by appearing to wear the clerical apron in the family?

After I read Kate’s blog from a few weeks ago, I purchased Sprig Muslin.

I’d love to hear about the books that other people turn to in times of distress.

© 2013 Stephanie Patterson

Friday, November 22, 2013

Favorite Christmas Movies, Instantly Available

After I read Sheila's insightful post yesterday I went to YouTube to poke around. You'd be amazed at what's available for free, right here on your computer screen. When you have a couple of hours, sit down and check these out. First of all a fun bit from Mickey's Christmas Carol. It lasts 3 1/2 minutes.

Then the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol itself, with Alistair Sim. Make yourself comfortable. It runs for an hour and a half. You might want to bookmark this page for when you get a chance to put your feet up. —Kate Gallison

Thursday, November 21, 2013

A Christmas List Without the Pressure

I know. Already you’re behind. Back in July, you made a list of all the things you’d do for the holidays, back when you thought you’d suddenly turn super-human. You bought a glue gun, for heaven’s sake, because you just knew you’d have time to make wreaths and centerpieces and hand-made cards. You’d have plenty of time to clean; heck, you’d refinish the floors. You’d find a very special new side dish that would become a family classic. You'd be worshiped. Your holiday table would look like a magazine and you wouldn’t say one harsh word to your sister even though her idea of helping is standing in the kitchen door with a dish towel.

Okay. Put down that list and back away. Nobody has to get hurt here.

You need a new list, that’s all. Just like when you have to exchange a gift because, while your mom is a dear sweet soul, she still tries to dress you in pink argyle.

Here’s what you’re going to do. Find a movie and watch it. And you’re only going to be interrupted if you want to be, maybe by trips to the kitchen for a snack reload. You’re going to turn off the phone and the tablet, and throw a tree skirt over them; then send the kids to their friends’ houses. I’m sure their parents would love visitors this time of year. Tell everybody you’re going to spend an evening watching something that doesn’t have a promo creeping onto your screen telling you to watch something later, instead of enjoying what you’re watching now.

But what to watch? 
Here’s where the new list comes in. 

There are plenty of classic Christmas tales that show up over the holidays, and show up and show up and show up: A Christmas Story; It’s a Wonderful Life; Miracle on 34th Street; Home Alone; White Christmas (described by a friend as “the whitest musical ever made”); and umpteen versions of Christmas Carol.

But, while I was not thinking about whether I can spatchcock a 14-pound turkey or bake five sides at five temperatures in two ovens, I went back through dozens of films set during the holidays and made a list of some of the ones I’d like to spend time and calories on.

See if there’s anything on it for you.

My final list is eclectic, but then I love all kinds of films. It might be tilted a bit toward period movies, because that’s where I live most of my creative life, with my heroine screenwriter. In addition, my picks were influenced by availability. I would have recommended Remember the Night (Barbara Stanwyck & Fred MacMurray), but it’s not easy to get hold of. You can catch it, however, December 17 on Turner Movie Classics.

Here we go. A few picks, in reverse order of preference, for your consideration.

5. The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)
Bette Davis, Monty Wooley
Written by Julius and Philip Epstein, based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart; Directed by William Keighley

Sheridan Whiteside, famous wit, radio host and literary critic, takes over the small-town Ohio home of local leading citizens when he’s temporarily confined to a wheelchair after falling on their icy steps during a speaking tour. Gloriously spoiled and self-centered, he commands the household, manipulates lives without a second thought, and entertains an eccentric parade of visitors, many of whom were based on real life celebrities such as Noel Coward, Harpo Marx and Gertrude Lawrence. [Alexander Woollcott was the real-life inspiration for Whiteside.] 

Played by Monty Wooley without pulling punches, Whiteside is a tyrant used to adoration and obedience. But when he goes too far and threatens the happiness of his secretary, who’s fallen for a local Joe, he — for Christmas Day at least — is forced to consider the consequences of his behavior. 

While Bette Davis is pitch-perfect as his uptown-girl secretary, it is not a perfect film. The staging is, well, stagey. And the local Joe is out of his league. (Many otherwise entertaining period films are marred by a weak performance from someone the studio had under contract for their looks.)

Still, it’s a spirited, highly diverting time-capsule glimpse of Broadway legends Kaufman & Hart sending up their celebrity friends and the people who take abuse to be around them.

Try something tart with it, like a tall glass of holiday-red Campari and soda.

If you’re not drinking, something salty, like peanut brittle.

4. Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
Barbara Stanwyck, Dennis Morgan
Written by Lionel Houser and Adele Comandini; Directed by Peter Godfrey

Leave your logic out in the cold, make yourself a hot buttered rum, curl up and enjoy Barbara Stanwyck in this screwball tale of a popular homemaking & food writer who enraptures readers with magazine articles full of blissful details about her perfect life on a Connecticut farm — all of which is a total fraud. Elizabeth Lane, the envy of millions of American women, lives is a New York apartment and can’t boil an egg. Because she loaned him money to buy his restaurant, a local chef has been dishing her recipes while she invents the rest.

When her publisher (unaware of her deception — I told you, leave the logic outside) decides it would be great publicity for her to entertain a naval war hero for the holidays, she has to scramble to find what she needs, beginning with a farm in Connecticut, someone to pass as her husband, and a baby.

Dennis Morgan, popular as both a singer and actor in his career, in thoroughly winning as the sailor she falls for, and their forbidden attraction (remember, she’s supposed to be perfectly married) gives this light entertainment some heart. Sidney Greenstreet as her publisher, determined to get off his doctor-mandated diet and get some of her famous cooking, and SZ Sakall, as the anxious chef trying to derail the heroine’s pending marriage to the wrong man, add fine decorative touches to this holiday package.

3. Die Hard (1988)
Bruce Willis, Bonnie Bedelia, Alan Rickman
Written by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza, based on a novel by Roderick Thorp; Directed by John McTiernan

McTiernan’s shatter-the-glass spectacle is over the top in so many ways. But most of them work, thanks to the confluence of McTiernan’s taut direction, the source material from Roderick Thorp, and the lead performances — Bruce Willis at his wise-acre best; Bonnie Bedelia, who makes a complete character out of a mostly reactive role; and Alan Rickman as the masterfully smooth villain. [Don’t tell me J.K. Rowling didn’t change the nature of Severus Snape after seeing Rickman’s performance in the first Harry Potter film.]

You probably know the plot. You’ve seen variations of it tried dozens of times since: supposed terrorists hijack an entire building in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve and demand a fortune to release their hostages. Only a New York detective, accidentally there while visiting his estranged wife, stands in their way. 

After a long day of holiday shopping, set out a good bottle of whiskey and a big bowl of caramel corn, and remind yourself — even when the stubborn stupidity of upper-echelon law enforcement reps and the trite portrayal of journalists begin to grate — why action film makers have been trying and failing for decades to match Die Hard’s impact.

To this day when a building blows up on screen, David and I say (often in unison): “We’re gonna need a shitload of screen doors.”

2. We’re No Angels (1955)
Humphrey Bogart, Peter Ustinov, Aldo Ray
Written by Ranald MacDougall, based on a play by Albert Husson; Directed by Michael Curtiz

It’s not often you get light-hearted and Devil’s Island in the same sentence, let alone in a holiday film.

Three convicts escape the Devil’s Island prison and insinuate themselves into the lives of a sweet, but bumbling local shop-keeper, his wife and their daughter, with robbery in mind to fund their trip off the island. While perfecting their plan, they discover their intended victims are facing ruin at the hands of an officious, but respectable relative who considers it just good business to throw them out and break the daughter’s heart by forbidding her to marry his son.

What are criminals to do? With a blithe disregard for traditional morality, they dispense their own justice, and disarm you completely while they’re doing it.

Bogart holds his own, toe to toe, with Ustinov in snappy patter and droll asides. And Aldo Ray as their young, amoral pal is a grand foil for them both. [You should catch Ray’s brilliant performance as the dim-witted boxer in the Tracy & Hepburn vehicle Pat and Mike. The man didn’t get to make enough good movies.]

I think you need to munch on some old fashioned sugar cookies for this one, and open a bottle of something sparkling.

Now we get to my #1s. Yes, two of them.

Your choice here depends on whether you’d like a holiday story about love or a really dysfunctional family.

1. The Lion in Winter
Peter O’Toole, Katherine Hepburn
Written by James Goldman, based on his play; Directed by Anthony Harvey

First, big thanks to Annamaria, who reminded me about this classic film. We were chatting about our holiday favorites, and she said, “Lion in Winter.” I laughed out loud. Then immediately realized how brilliant a choice that was and decided to steal (uh, homage) the idea.

Acting doesn’t get much better than O’Toole and Hepburn as King Henry II and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. Once passionate for each other, his affairs and her conspiracies have turned love’s flame into a relentless desire to immolate the other. After years confined by the king for her attempts to overthrow him, Eleanor is invited to spend Christmas 1183 at court and together as a family — and what a family. Two parents and three sons feasting on treachery, all plotting to manipulate the others and control who will be named Henry’s heir.

Beyond the two leads, there’s the treat of seeing Anthony Hopkins long before the fava beans and nice Chianti as son Richard; a naughty, deceitful turn by Timothy Dalton as the king of France; and the frustration of John Castle as son Geoffrey, who is every bit as conniving as the others, but can’t figure out why no one wants him on the throne. You might find the characterization of son John a bit off-putting, to put it mildly. Henry’s determination to name this filthy and not-too-bright scoundrel his heir is only explicable because Richard is a bit too close to mommy, who encouraged him to lead rebellions.

But oh my, when O’Toole and Hepburn parry and thrust with Goldman’s bright, bracing dialog, the sky lights up.

You’ll need something to keep you warm though. Lion in Winter also does a terrific job of showing that winter in a medieval castle was, figuratively and literally, not for the thin-skinned. So maybe a throw rug and big mug of mulled wine.

Of course the heat of the constant family friction might help a little.

Outside of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, no film couple has been so dysfunctional and so riveting.

1. While You Were Sleeping (1995)
Sandra Bullock, Bill Pullman, Jack Warden
Written by Daniel G. Sullivan and Fredric LeBow; Directed by Jon Turteltaub

This film is first-line proof of the adage that 90% of directing is casting.

Lucy is a lonely young woman (and a bit of a recluse) who longs for love while selling tokens in a Chicago transit booth. She fantasizes about a future with a handsome lawyer (Peter Gallagher) she sees every day on the platform, and when he’s accidentally shoved off it and knocked unconscious by thieves on Christmas Day, she jumps onto the tracks to save him. At the hospital, where he remains in a coma, a nurse overhears her musing “I was going to marry him,” and, quickly, not only has Lucy been ushered to the man’s side but also embraced by his family as his fiancĂ©e. Then she meets his bother.

It’s a credit to the director Turteltaub, Bullock and Warden (as the family’s longtime friend who knows her secret) that you’ll buy why she can’t tell them the truth, over and over. And the actors playing the wacky members of the family pull real people out of what on the page would look hokey and jokey. The cast even manages to beat back the efforts of the musical score to tip your insulin balance.

Bullock and Pullman are at the top of their game, and love unfolds quietly and naturally. The scene between the two ought-to-be lovers on the slippery pavement in front of her apartment is a classic.

You have to have chocolate for this one, maybe a whole chocolate cake. And in honor of that scene, how about a little ice wine to go with it?

Do you have your own holiday-film favorites? Let’s hear them.

Sheila York

Copyright 2013, Sheila York

Monday, November 18, 2013

How to Choose a Book Title

Our guest today on the Crime Writers' Chronicle is Rayanne Culpepper, the immensely powerful eminence grise of a New York publishing house which shall remain nameless. She has promised to appear from time to time to tell us our business. Today she shares a few thoughts on book titles.

So you've finished your crime novel. Before you do anything serious with it, you have to make sure it has a good title. Preferably a title that not only bears some relation to the contents of your book, but also helps your book to best-sell.

A cursory examination of the New York Times fiction best-seller lists for the past few years will reveal certain patterns, which you can always analyze and in fact copy (the patterns, that is, not the titles, although it's true that titles cannot be copyrighted). Most best-selling novels are crime novels of one sort or another. Make a list of the recent best-sellers with a view to using them for models. Strike out those that are definitely not crime novels. Fifty Shades of Crime is not a good title, unless your book is what is called a cozy, where any silly title is acceptable but best-sellerdom is not within your reach.

A strong, punchy noun with overtones of menace makes a good best-selling title. Inferno (Dan Brown), The Forgotten (David Baldacci), The Heist (Janet Evanovich), Guilt (John Lescroart), Deadline (Sandra Brown), The Quest (Nelson DeMille), The Racketeer (John Grisham), The Drop (Michael Connelly). Bombshell (Catherine Coulter). Mistress (By James Patterson). If your name is James Patterson you can do anything you damned please, but on the other hand you're not reading this post, looking for advice, are you? So.

A good way to choose a menacing name for your book is to open your Thesaurus (of course you have one) to synonyms for a creepy noun of your choice, say, Murder. Under Killing we find such gems as Slaughter, Assassination, Carnage, Bloodbath, Deathblow, and on and on. All excellent titles for a thriller. You can have them for free. Don't send me your manuscript, I only look at submissions from agents.

If a single word seems too stark and bare, tack a modifier on your menacing noun, as in High Heat (Lee Childs) or Threat Vector (Tom Clancy). Don't say, "in Death." J.D. Robb has a corner on that.

Another winning approach is to use an imperative verb phrase, such as Don't Go (Lisa Scottoline), Fly Away (Kristin Hannah), Don't Say a Word (Barbara Freethy), or Kill Alex Cross (Patterson again). Play around with these concepts. Something appropriate is bound to occur to you.

Some years ago a team led by British statistician Dr. Atai Winkler was commissioned by to study best-selling titles over a fifty-year period. They analyzed some 700 titles, determining whether a title was literal or figurative, the word type of the first word, and the title’s grammar pattern. The result was the "Lulu Titlescorer," a program able to predict the chances that any given title would produce a New York Times No.1 bestseller. You can use it to predict the success of your title. Here's the link:

Good luck. Watch this space for Step Two: Finding an Agent.

© 2013 Rayanne Culpepper

Sunday, November 17, 2013

That Day…

On November 22, 1963, a motorcade on Dealey Plaza in Dallas, at about 12:30 P.M. changed my life forever.

And yours.

And our nation. Our world. The future of planet earth.

The incident is still the subject of widespread debates, books, films. Has spawned numerous theories and scenarios in fiction, as well as non-fiction.

A moment before the murder, the First Lady of Texas turned to him and said, "Mr. President, you can't say Dallas doesn't love you!"

If you or I wrote that in a novel the editor would probably cut it out. Truth IS stranger than fiction.

Jackie said, moments later, " They have killed my husband! I have his brains in my hand."

I have rarely read a more poignant sentence in any novel…

One of the most amazing facts was that at that time it was not a federal offense to kill the President of the United States!

People often ask, " Where were you… ?"
- December 7, 1941?
- November 22, 1963?
- September 11, 2001?

That day in 1963, a day of lost dreams and dashed hopes, America's sacred honor was stained with Jack's red blood and universal dreams were shattered.

The mystery of who the killer was still haunts us. Was it a lone gunman? The mob? The Soviets? The CIA? The government?

This crime of all crimes to many of us…

The quest for the truth continues. The weeping has not ceased for 50 years…

Where were YOU?
That day?

THAT DAY . . . . . .( written November 22, 1963)

You prince and king and everybody's hero,
idol of the poor,
friend of intellect and all we knew to be
in our reborn post-war world.
Could any mature man
not weep
THAT day, when ignominy raped our youthful joy?
Why… oh God, why???

The cry of Dallas-town
will echo down the empty alleys of time
as long as there is any wind
to blow limp papers along deserted city streets.
Until the last corn stalk
in western civilization outlines an autumn sky.
Until the last grave is dug
in what we call

Don't tell me, critic-man, there are no
messiahs of politics, no kings in democratic states… or that
grown men are ashamed to cry.

THAT day, their women kissed the dust with
women's tears. But women have no monopoly
on weeping. We know to live is to weep.

THAT day everyone of us knew
a little part of ancient Greece.
Tragedy became large, wide-eyed,
terribly personal. The horrible events
were echoes, tapes and films and heart-rending photos
of a world's pathos and grief
we had always known, since Virgilian plagues,
those high tragedies by Euripedes, all the Greek-greats of ancient times.

Some part of each of us died
THAT day. Our own red blood
spurted out in Dallas. The ballads now
sing "In Dallas-town…"
The elegies will sing
a hundred years from now
and carry out the long tradition
of tragedy's tale. God will
there will be elegies
in a world not quite
all Western…
A hundred years from now…

Thelma Jacqueline Straw

Dear Friends and Colleagues of Crime Writers' Chronicle,
Please share with us where you were… THAT DAY…


Friday, November 15, 2013

Ten Things I'm Not Going to Do

My birthday is this week. It's one of those momentous birthdays. When my mother had this birthday, some thirty years ago, she was in a coma and had four days left to live. Nevertheless I woke up this morning perfectly happy, and I still am, although my literary career is in the toilet and there are a number of other hard truths I find myself unable to deny. Hey, at least I'm not going to be dead in four days, that I know of.

So, a list of things that, let's face it, I'm not going to do. Not going to have to do, not going to be able to do, or just not going to do.

  1. Die right away.
  2. Write my autobiography. Many of you will be happy about that. You know who you are.
  3. Lose the twenty pounds. If they're not gone by now they're here to stay.
  4. Make a pants suit out of the loud wool plaid stuff I got last summer. On sober reflection I feel that such a garment would make me look as if I had dressed myself as a racetrack tout for Halloween. Instead I think I'll make a poncho out of it.
  5. Have Christmas dinner with my ex-husband and his wife.
  6. Give another dime to a political party.
  7. Forget to take my pills.
  8. Pass up a chance to go out to dinner with Harold. This is Lambertville, after all, where you can't get a bad meal. Except maybe in our house when I'm trying a new recipe.
  9. Perform a tap dance in public. (Although I have a great pair of shoes for it.)
  10. Master the English concertina. I keep saying I'll take it up again, but…

Okay, enough of this. I'm going to go have fun now. Carpe diem and all that. You go have some fun too. Life is short.

© 2013 Kate Gallison

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Headline Bloopers

A number of years ago, my students in a technical writing class gave me a gift: one of those little books that you used to be able find at the cash registers of bookstores, when there were bookstores.  Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim was published by the Columbia Journalism Review and documented hilarious headlines, mostly from local newspapers, back in the day when there were local newspapers.   I share of few of them today.  Many are about crimes or crime fighters; some only sound that way.  All are documented, real headlines that ran in actual newspapers:

Beating Witness Provides Names

Youngstown Police On Duty Getting Smaller

Lawmen from Mexico Barbecue Guests

Man Robs, Then Kills Himself

SCSC Graduates Blind Senior Citizen

Robber Holds Up Albert’s Hosiery

Juvenile Court to Try Shooting Defendant

Police Can’t Stop Gambling

Drunk Gets Nine Months in Violin Case

Police Kill Man With Ax

Police Union to Seek Blinding Arbitration

Not about crime but too funny to pass up:

Stiff Opposition Expected to Casketless Funeral Plan

Bishop Defrocks Gay Priest

Chester Morrill, 92, Was Fed Secretary

Annamaria Alfieri