Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Anna Lee Huber Historical Mysteries: Her Wily Characterizations

I enjoy writing about what I'm currently reading, and my current binge will probably rate several blog posts over time. I've been reading what one blogger at Book Riot has described as "feminist historical mysteries." I've taken each of those three words and analyzed them in the context of what I've been reading, and have gained some new insights.

Over the winter I began gathering books from our local public library for my wife's reading. Why didn't she do so herself? Well, I'm retired and she's still working, the library was closed for browsing (only curbside pick-up) which meant browsing was relegated to online catalog search, and I enjoy browsing (whether online or eyeballing the shelves). I also like to do nice things for my wife. What I discovered in my browsing is that there is an entire sub-genre out there of women mysteries. This is nothing new for me to discover, of course. After all, Agatha Christie is one of the best-selling novelists of all time, and she wrote stories that included not only male detective Hercule Poirot but also strong female sleuths. One BBC writer affirmed that Christie "fought Victorian literary conventions, which saw women painted as frivolous and focused on men, to bring the public gutsy females with great minds," listing four heroines that made Christie "an unlikely feminist icon." 

What my wife and I have been noticing and appreciating in our current reading is that "feminist historical mysteries" include some very good reads. Anna Lee Huber is one writer who is currently publishing intelligent, adept mysteries that include strong female protagonists. 

Why attach the word "feminist" to her books? Huber is publishing two mystery series, the Lady Darby mysteries, set in the early 1800s, and the Verity Kent series of mysteries, set in the World War I era. Both women protagonists are intelligent "inquiry agents," yet also have to work within a melieu that severely defines and restricts the "appropriate" behavior of women. These women protagonists also are paired with love and work partners who are more open to having equal relationships with women. The result of Huber's characterizations is that not only are the gender limitations of past eras seen but the challenges that face our current times are also illustrated. I like, though, how Huber characterizes the success of the couples as being based in mutual respect and honesty. The main characters are developed in a balanced manner so that gender depictions don't skew into stereotypes. 

These are historical novels, and Huber does capture the essence of the time and place. Her descriptions of castles on the moor or descriptions of the streets of London feel authentic, as do her details of the fashion of each era, whether in clothes or architecture. I especially appreciate, though, how Huber is not heavy-handed in her inclusion of historical detail and relevant background information. Such detail is assiduously woven into the narrative so that its inclusion doesn't interrupt the flow of the action. In the Verity Kent series, I found myself stepping into the WWI era in a manner that I hadn't before, feeling the overpowering stress of the trenches on the war front and also the stress of wives and families back in England, hoping against hope that the boy on the red bicycle doesn't arrive at their door with a telegram from the war office. 

Huber applies the "mystery" of these feminist historical mysteries with a deft hand. The clues arrive with due diligence, and the suspects are sufficient to keep us guessing. I honestly didn't know who the real culprit was in many of the novels until the very last few pages. As each series progresses, the protagonists become more skilled in their inquiry skills; in addition, the working relationship between the protagonists and their partners deepens. This provides not only the satisfaction of following the trail of bread crumbs the sleuths have to follow but also the engaging in the increasing richness of the relationships as they evolve. The Verity Kent series also adds the mystery "pearl" of a Moriarty-like character to the series. Just as Sherlock Holmes and Watson had their arch-villain rival in Moriarty, so Verity and Sidney Kent have their evil plotter--who shall remain unnamed to avoid spoiling the fun of discovery.

One standard I use to determine an author's skill is whether or not that author is able to credibly develop characters, no matter what gender. Do those characters seem real? Do they come alive on the page? The ability to create believable and relatable characters is one of Anna Lee Huber's strengths as a writer. I've come to realize she's just one of many women writers who have tapped into the interest in "feminist historical fiction."  Huber and other writers tap into that fascination by readers that Mark Twain tapped into with his novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Author's Court. Beyond Twain's satire is just the simple allure of a character displaced in time with special knowledge and abilities. Huber has created her women protagonists to have skills, abilities, and predilections that are more modern than the times in which her stories are set. The struggles of these characters--and their partners--to find fulfillment in their lives are not so different than our own (except possibly multiplied by an "x" factor), and that is one secret of Huber's success as a mystery novelist. Because we want to prevail, we want her wily main characters to prevail. If they can do it, then maybe so can we.

Monday, May 3, 2021

The Joy of Spring Gardening

Chives, arugula, radishes, kale, cilantro, and asparagus. The spring garden is beginning to produce, but that "produce" isn't just the vegetables my wife and I eat, even though our fresh food is a substantial part of what we gain.

The first positive gain each year from our garden is just getting outside into the fresh air and open sky. After a long year inside, being outside is uplifting, and physical tasks in that fresh air are invigorating to the system even when there is some fatigue. Even when "getting outside" means being in our mini-greenhouse, there is still the smell of fresh soil, the warmer temperatures, and the promise of what is to come at a later date outside.

Every spring brings for me a sense of renewal--and it's not symbolic but actual. The earth thaws and can be worked. The soil is ready for planting and watering. The physical activity and the participation in the spring cycle of the seasons is like jumping on a streetcar. We are moved along with the plants; we are uplifted, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. By engaging in the process of planting and nurturing the seedlings, we enliven within ourselves that same dynamism that drives the plants from the seed--stem and leaves to the sky, roots deep into the soil. As poet Dylan Thomas wrote: "The force that through the green fuse drives the flower / Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees / Is my destroyer." Beyond and deeper than mind and intellect, we are one with nature.

We cannot minimize the simple act of working the earth, though. And it is work, getting our hands dirty in order to get the soil ready for a new season. There is an inertia to the cold, dark, sleeping months of winter that working in the garden can dissipate. For every sore muscle and blister, there is the inspiration of the seeds and of sap uprising that calls us to get the job done, to not miss the planting time, and once the seed is in the ground and the garden plot watered, I find it impossible to not lean on the rake and admire the beauty of sun warming the soil, the joy of handing the job over to nature, to sun and rain and soil.

The garden can be a mandala, circles within circles, cycles within cycles. To attune ourselves to the grammar of our garden is to learn the language of nature, to discover within the simple syntax of the garden the cosmic song of life. We have to be receptive, though, and to pay attention. If we give ourselves to our garden, our garden will give us back ourselves. We are the sun and rain and earth and wind--and the underlying unity from which all the elements arise. I am never alone in the garden but share a common bond, breathe the common air, knowing in my bones that there is nothing common about the miracle of spring and the sweet fragrance of peach blossoms blowing across the awakened earth. We are bees in flight. Let us do our work, according to our true nature; let us find the nectar in the flower and celebrate our time on this beautiful earth.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

A Covid Parable, a Parallel Tale

I'm calling this a parable or a tale, but this is actually a true story. It's the correspondences, the connections which make this story resonate beyond its simple premise.

My neighbor for many years was an elder lady who lived by herself. Her husband had passed away long ago, and her daughter was old enough to be a great-grandmother. Margaret was almost ninety years old when she told me this story. Still living independently and driving her car herself, my son and I enjoyed her quiet, steady, unflappable approach to life. Come winter, we would always shovel her sidewalk and driveway for her. Come spring, Margaret always gave me some fresh rhubarb from her backyard for rhubarb coffee cake.

Margaret had driven a car for so long that her driving experience pre-dated the use of seatbelts. Those vintage autos just didn't have seatbelts--and don't even think about airbags.

"For a long time," Margaret told me one day, "I didn't wear seatbelts, even after cars started coming out with them. It wasn't that I didn't believe in them. I'd known people who had been thrown through windshields in a wreck."

The question I asked, of course, was if she knew that seatbelts were effective, then why hadn't she used them . . . and why did she use them now?

"It wasn't that I didn't believe in seatbelts," Margaret said. "It was just this one thing that kept me from buckling up. You see, I was afraid that if I was in a crash, my seatbelt would get stuck, and I would be trapped and die in a fire. I was afraid of burning up in a car fire. That would be such a terrible way to die, and it has happened to people, you know."

"So what changed your mind?" I asked.

"It was just time, really," Margaret said. "More and more people used seatbelts. More and more information and facts came out about seatbelts and how they made you safer. Eventually, I realized that there was no doubt that seatbelts saved many people from dying from automobile accidents. I couldn't argue that."

She said, "I thought about my fear of dying by fire, trapped in a car, and I realized that was a possibility. It did happen. I also came to realize, though, that many, many people died in car crashes. You could almost call it a common occurrence. Being in a car crash, the seatbelt sticking, and then having the car catch on fire and you dying in the fire--now, that was a very rare happening, a very small part of the deaths from car wrecks. I just came to realize that it was much more likely that I'd die in a regular crash than from a fiery crash that I couldn't escape because of my seatbelt. I just had to face my fear and choose the safest course."

Margaret chose the safest course of action, the safer of two possibilities--seatbelt or no seatbelt. She chose to wear a seatbelt while driving. "It took a while for me to be comfortable wearing that seatbelt," she said. "I knew I was safer, though, and that got me past my fear."

Additional Information

--from the Northeast Georgia Health System blog

--8CBS News Show, Las Vegas

Monday, April 19, 2021

My Local Public Library Has Only Curbside Service--How I Learned to Browse Online

Ever since I could read, one of my favorite pastimes has been reading, and closely associated with that has been the happy pursuit of browsing for something interesting to read. With the arrival of the current coronavirus pandemic, businesses and governmental agencies have adapted to the necessary medical protocols, our friendly public library among them. Reducing its service to online catalog book checkout and curbside delivery is the current service available to my town's bibliophiles. 

The library has had an online catalog for a long time, one which I used occasionally to determine if a particular book or author was available at the library. Almost always, however, I used the in-library computers for a quick search. "Does the library have Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan of the Apes," I'd ask myself, for instance, and a quick check of the computerized "card catalog" would determine the availability of the novel--assuming that I just didn't walk over to the "B" section in fiction and do an eyeball check myself.

I had never actually browsed with the catalog, though, and that is something I learned to do with the advent of the pandemic. First I had to flounder around a bit and remember my sign in and password. Having done that, I then had to learn how to use the catalog's search functions. I discovered that I could look for more than a specific title or author. I could reference also according to subject, for instance adding the search words "ocean," "historical," and "women." I could also search for books that were part of a series. 

A fun activity I began with my wife was to find books for her to read. I had done this some prior to the pandemic, cruising the stacks and pulling a few books I thought she'd like. Now I had to learn how to do this via the computer catalog. My wife was raised by the ocean, which she misses here in Iowa, so that has always been a "go-to" subject for books. She also enjoys novels with strong female protagonists, although gender is not a deal-breaker. Finally, we've discovered that we both enjoy mysteries and detective novels. 

In addition to the library, we have also come to rely on online book buying, both used and new books. We've also utilized my Kindle a bit for ebooks when necessary, although we still enjoy reading hands-on paper books more. The process that has evolved is that I discover an author--and perhaps a series by that author--and then browse the library catalog to determine if the library has that author's books. Then we'll fill in any books missing from a series or from that author's backlist by purchasing online. 

One good example of this process is books by the author Anna Lee Huber. The library catalog displayed as a new book A Pretty Deceit, the fourth book in Huber's Verity Kent mystery series. I researched the author and discovered she also writes a Lady Darby mystery series. I bought the first books in both series as samplers. My wife and I both enjoyed them, and we have purchased and read the series, which included our reading only one of the books from the library.

Searching for novels that have ocean settings, I discovered the novels of Mary Alice Monroe. My wife has really enjoyed her novels, and we've been able to check out a number of her novels from the library, filling in as needed by online purchases. Monroe has a number of stand-alone novels and also has written books for two series, a Lowcountry Summer trilogy and the Beach House series. My wife's read all her novels, and although I've read only one of these novels, I'll probably read more in the future.

I enjoy searching for possible books for my wife Sandy, and it's great fun to discover an author that she really enjoys. Because I'm retired and she's still running her business, it's easier for me to carve out some browsing time. Besides, as a lifelong reader, a writer, and a retired language arts teacher, it's great fun to browse the stacks, even if I have to do it virtually. It has also been a source of enjoyment for Sandy and me to read the same books and then to talk about them. Sharing our enjoyment of reading is a simple joy, which is especially pleasurable in our sometimes complicated world. We have tried a few authors that we aren't crazy about, but even those discussions are a source of pleasure and sharing. 

If you haven't interacted with your local library's online catalog, I suggest you try it out. I think my town's public library has done a great job of dealing with the dangers of the pandemic while still working to meet the needs of its patrons. Curbside service--actually, I'm feeling a bit spoiled!


Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Getting the COVID-19 Vaccination to Help My Family

Being vaccinated for the COVID-19 virus was a decision I made for my personal health. When the vaccinations first came out, there was some concern because the vetting process was fast-tracked because of the pandemic dangers. However, my 'older-than-65' group was not the first to receive the vaccinations, and when my group hit the front of the line a couple months into the vaccination process, I had read enough to convince myself that the risks assessed to the covid shot were exponentially less than the risks of the actual virus, especially since I was not frail in health, with pre-existing health issues, or with a history of allergic reactions. 

I remember one open-letter I read that used the numbers 1/250 and 1/250,000 when assessing the relative risks of the virus and the vaccination. That is to say, using an analogy, if you were borrowing a car to drive to a town an hour away, which car would you borrow--the car with one chance in 250 to break down, or the one with one chance in a quarter million? I also remember one doctor commenting on "speculation regarding possible negative side effects" by simply stating that the speculation provided no scientific evidence that such concerns were viable. Personally, for me, the real dangers of the virus out-weighed the fears that there might be something out there about the vaccinations that we don't know about, especially after millions have received successful vaccinations. 

I looked at the research, the speculation, the objective results, listened to the experts, considered the empirical data--and then signed up. The "signing up" for me was early enough in the game that some real research and footwork was required, due to the lack of a centralized sign-up system and a central information source. I didn't just receive my vaccination for myself, though, and not just society's health. I also received my vaccination for my family. I am the first in my family to receive a covid vaccination. I think that's a significant event. At one point there was the consideration of what would happen if our children became sick and were hospitalized with the virus. Who would take care of the kids or grandkids? Now that I am vaccinated, I can for the sake of my family take advantage of my vaccination and care for my family by myself if necessary. I would follow the protocols but would also have an over 90 percent effectiveness rate for not catching the virus, and an almost 100% effectiveness of lesser severity if I were to get sick. Yes, there are the variants, but my vaccination certainly does not increase my risk of infection by a variant strain of the coronavirus. I have, so to speak, one more layer of protection for myself than the rest of my family.

My point is that I'm situated to provide assistance to my family until others are immunized. Science indicates that it would be safer for me to tend to family members exposed to the virus than for those who are not yet immunized, should someone be hospitalized or immobilized. I find that personally comforting. Now that my parents have passed, I don't have to worry about traveling long distances to care for them, which would be more difficult if I weren't immunized, especially if they had been vaccinated and I had not--or even if they had not been vaccinated, since they were very frail in their last years. My life has become focused on our family of twelve who all live in the same town. 

I can focus on my family here at home. My physiology can be the family's rampart to keep danger at bay, if necessary. There are always dangers, but I've done what I can to keep everyone safe. That's why, in fact, I researched and made sure I was vaccinated as early as I could for my age group. I hustled and put myself at the front of my family, at the front of the line. I don't just see my immunization as a protection for me; I also see it as a weapon that I can use against the virus to defend my family. It's a strange world in which prudence makes me powerful.

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