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All Wrote Out

By Cornelia Read

So, finally got the second draft of the fourth book turned in.

I still have a very weak grasp on both who set the original arsons, and how my protag Madeline is going to be more proactive in involving herself in fingering the prime suspect who DIDN’T do it, and finding the guy who did.

(^ I have recommended the image above as cover art. My editor was amused but not, I think persuaded)

Kicking the ass of the person who actually set the the copycat arson was kind of a piece of cake, but hey, I’ve wanted to kick the ass of the person THAT character’s based on for, oh, about 15 years now. 

In fact, I saved that chapter for last when I was writing draft one, and I enjoyed the hell out of it. A little writerly revenge dessert, if you will. Wish fulfillment.

Although, okay, my writing group’s response was, “um, we get that you totally want to kick this person’s ass, but we should actually feel that your protag’s life is in danger at least for part of it, and THEN you can kick ass.” So, I tried to do that this time. At least a little more. But I did let Madeline UTTERLY kick ass at the end of it.

Also, I am trying to figure out how not to be such a terrible procrastinator in real life, about this deadline stuff. Because oh, MAN do I suck at getting things in on time. Have all my life. And it’s just ridiculous, really. I mean, okay, there is a certain OHMYGODOHMYGOD juju wonder thing that happens,

where you’re kind of forced to get in the zone and all, and sometimes the sparks fly in a good way and that part is awesome, and I do think I think of some of my best lines in that sort of state (favorites this go-round: “My husband thinks cunnilingus is an Irish airline,”

 

and “I felt like I was being sodomized by my own life. And not the fun kind of sodomy either.”) 

I mean, I got to see Cara Black, Hallie Ephron, and Hank Phillippi Ryan speak at a bookstore in Cambridge a while ago, and someone asked about their writing process, and Cara said basically she gets up in the morning, walks her dog, and then writes until about noon before she lets herself look at email. Which is just goddamn genius, really, and if I did that every day I might be an eminently more sane woman.

But of course my first thought was, “So. Maybe I should get a dog.” (Like, maybe a German Shorthaired Pointer, because they are awesome.)

Not “So. Maybe I should write for several hours in the morning instead of checking email right away and then, like, doing my tarot online at ninety-five different free tarot websites and then checking out what the free online I Ching readings have to say, and then wonder if I should make lunch or not, and check Facebook a bazillion times first. And then read someone ELSE’S book and then watch some shit on Netflix or xfinity and then go to sleep for the night.” 

Because, you know, SERIOUSLY it is a wonder that I don’t just get this card in every fucking position whenever I do that. Because it’s really fucking stupid of me.

Oh, well.

But now that it’s in, this is the fun part. Where I can do all the things I normally do–like talk on the phone with pals

And post pictures of The Great Hamster of Alsace on Facebook, with accompanying text about how weird it is that the wild hamsters of France should be wearing black turtlenecks

(seriously. In the wild.)

And various other crap that I get up to generally, but WITHOUT GUILT for at least a few days. I mean, how awesome is THAT, right?

And also, I can post video here of my new favorite song, “Philosphia” by The Guggenheim Grotto:

 

Which I think I most love because of the line, “work of art, oh to be a work of art…”

But, you know, other than that, I am pretty much all wrote out at the moment. I have been duking it out with good and evil in my head for a long time now, and maybe have a handle on it. Kind of. At least a beginning. At least in THIS book.

I hope I nail it in draft three. Which I would start tomorrow, if I had any sense. After I walked my imaginary dog.



Oh, and this morning at 2 a.m. (which will be yesterday morning at 2 a.m. by the time you read this) I celebrated with a breakfast of Ruffles and sour cream and onion dip. WASP soul food.

Although I briefly considered absinthe.

What do you guys do to celebrate something you’re really proud of yourself for finishing?

Crazy deadline lady iz comin to eat yur brainz

By Cornelia Read

Portrait of the author as:

A) A bloodthirsty Pre-Raphaelite zombie

B) The bastard love child of Leonard Cohen and Frances Farmer‘s mugshot

C) Marie Antoinette on her way to certain death in an IKEA toile-de-jouy tumbrel, with a little Anne Frank around the crossed eyes


D) Her deadline looms, much better in the mental hygiene department but not so much on keeping up with the whole personal maintenance thing, despite having showered only this morning


E) She will appear on her next book jacket


Answer: um….. all of the above? Or, in other words, what I look like on deadline, with a second draft of book four due June first. In bed.

Although my daughter said “you look like a pouting duck. What those of us in my generation would call ‘so totally Myspace.'”

To which I replied, “except that I am part duck… zombie duck.”

Oh, and also? I have to pick my mom up at JFK the night before, and clean my entire apartment. Between now and deadline. Yea.
But I leave you with this:
Any tips on what you do when you have a huge deadline looming? I need all the help I can get…
Oh, and here’s the mermaid version:
The pouting mermaid duck. Yea.

Behold and See, As You Pass By

By Cornelia Read

Last Night I went to the Grassroots Preservation Awards ceremony at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights, to celebrate my cousin Cate Ludlam’s work at Prospect Cemetery in Jamaica, Queens. Cate is most excellent, and her involvement with the cemetery is the basis of my third novel, Invisible Boy. Which just came out in French, if you happen to know of any Francophones.

It was amazing to be at the church which was known as “The Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad.” Henry Ward Beecher was the priest there, and used to hold mock slave auctions to buy the freedom of specific slaves. Also, they have a chunk of Plymouth Rock. And the Brooklyn Boys Choir performed. So the whole thing was lovely. As is Cate.

And today… well, it’s fucking Friday the 13th, to begin with. Which is rather fitting. It’s also the first anniversary of my father’s suicide. It’s been a trippy week, as you might imagine. Lots to think about.

And tomorrow is my 30th boarding school reunion. I missed the 25th because I was on tour for my first novel, which is pretty damn luxury reason to miss something I otherwise would have loved to attend. Especially because I got to do several gigs with the very gracious and lovely Lee Child. It was at one of those that I saw Dad for the first time in nearly twelve years, actually. And we kind of re-bonded after a long hiatus. Which was a nice thing to have happened, considering how it all turned out.

So, sad old times, happy old times. Fuck me, it’s a lot, you know? So I spent a chunk of today at the family cemetery on Centre Island, which is in Oyster Bay, New York. Ludlams and Smiths–my mother’s people. The gravestones go back to the late 17th century. Which is pretty mind-boggling. Wrong family, but I felt like communing with those who’ve gone on to whatever’s next.

And I stopped, as I always do, in front of my favorite headstone, the one with the inscription:

Behold and see, as you pass by

As you are now, so once was I.

As I am now, you soon must be.

Prepare for death, to follow me.

Yeah, baby… memento mori.

So that’s all swirling around in my head today. And I hope I don’t cry tomorrow, because it’s going to be a happy goddamn day and they’re going to dance the Maypole and the dogwood flowers are going to be out.

So fuck death, and sadness, and misery, and all the bad shit. It’s spring, it’s May, it’s gorgeous out. I wish everyone a day of perfect peace and happiness, and only good memories.

Who do you miss, my ‘Ratis? Who would you like to spend the day with today, if you had them back for just a little while. Tell me something good.

 

Sickety sick sick…

By Cornelia Read

So my daughter calls me EARLY yesterday morning and asks me to call her health center at school to tell them that she needs to stay home for the day, because she is sickety sick sick. I think to myself, “yeah, right… must be late with an English paper or something,” but I dutifully call in and say I’m keeping her home for the day. I am in New York at this point, and she is in New Hampshire.

And then I get on a train to come home to New Hampshire, and am suddenly sooooo tiiiiiiiiired that I curl up on my little Amtrak seat on my side, with my feet up on top of my bag, and pretty much sleep from Penn Station to New Haven.

Get off at Back Bay, take the Orange Line to North Station, get on the train for New Hampshire, and am soooo tiiiiiiiired again that I lie down across my seat with my feet up on my bag, and sleep until the lady sitting behind me starts talking on her cellphone about how she’s been getting all these weird calls all day that are actually intended for a phone number that’s one digit off from hers. She is telling this to whomever lives at the phone number that is one digit off. And she is really, really boring, and they kind of don’t believe her. And then she has to call someone else and tell THEM all about this problem with the phone, and by this point I want to grab the cellphone from out of her hands and just whack her upside the head with it until she stops talking. But I am too tired, so instead I jam my headphones into MY phone and listen to opera and Patsy Cline for a while.

In New Hampshire the leaves are now unfurling, and the tulips are up outside my building, and even though it was snowing about three weeks ago it’s eighty fucking degrees out, and I know they won’t start the air conditioning in my building until Memorial Day, because they have to turn the heat off before the AC will work and once that happens they can’t turn it back on again or something and sometime they have a bad frost in, oh, JUNE, and they don’t want anyone to freeze to death so instead we just sweat miserably.

But luckily this happened last year too and I managed to snake the very last two fans at Walgreens, so I know I can just lie down under my fan when I get up to the third floor and recover a little.

And when I get into the apartment, my daughter says, “I’m so sick, but it’s really weird. I don’t want to barf or anything, I just feel kind of off and get really, really dizzy whenever I stand up. And I’m sooooo tiiiiiiiiired.”

And still I am such an idiot that I think she is utterly goldbricking, until I woke up this morning after about thirteen hours of sleep and felt totally exhausted and then tried to stand up and got really, really dizzy.

YEA. Not!

 

So here we both are, stupid and dizzy and really tired and weird, and I’m wondering if there are tsetse flies or some kind of shit in New Hampshire, because this sucks and apparently whatever is causing it is going around my kid’s school, as I discovered when I called in to the health center again this morning to say I was keeping her home again.

I had all these big plans to write a groovy blog post this morning, but my brain is more steel wool than steel trap, so, um, I slept most of the day. I am heartily sorry.

Instead, I offer you the best book trailer I have ever seen, made by Gary Shteyngart. I first watched it a while ago because my pal Jordan Foster said it was amazing, and that he had been the coolest teacher when she was getting her MFA in writing at Columbia, and she sent me a link.

I remembered it this morning because my kid asked if I knew anything about any of the people teaching English at Barnard, and I did not, but I said, “hey, wait a minute–there is this really cool guy at Columbia, and you should watch this video on Youtube, and also take a class with him.”

So here it is:

 

This man may have single-handedly restored my faith in literary fiction writers. And even Jay McInerney. Which is saying something.

Although I think they should have used me and JT in the deb sequence.

Okay, now I’m going to go drink more iced Theraflu. O joy, o rapture.

And also, Jordan has threatened to actually buy and send me this:

To which I responded “ewwwww… Gaggenau!”

I am soooo not a royal wedding person. Surprise, surprise.

My sister and niece got up at two a.m. in Berkeley so they could watch the whole thing, though.

So here’s my question for you ‘Ratis this week, because I’m utterly boycotting that whole topic (other than from the major-appliance angle), and I’m still sickety sick sick:

If you had to have someone else’s picture decoupaged to the front of your refrigerator, whose would it be? And why, of course.

I’m thinking I’d like these guys on mine, if I had to have an image of two strangers:

Road Trip!

By Cornelia Read

I’ve been thinking a lot about driving, this week. Mostly because I had to do all that grownup paperwork stuff that owning a car requires–the kind of thing I suck at deeply and profoundly. I got a speeding ticket on the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut last week, then got pulled over in New Hampshire Sunday… and Monday. The New Hampshire stops were because my inspection was out of date. And then Wednesday I went to traffic court for a speeding ticket I got last November. Yea! Not!

Today I’m driving down to New York again, to do some pre-college stuff with my lovely kid, and see my little brother, and hang with the beau, and generally relish time in a city where there’s decent Chinese food and bagels. Yea! Really yea!!

I got that ticket on the Merritt driving my stepmom and half-sister up to New Hampshire from Brooklyn, to look at colleges and stuff.

“Are you sure you want to come all the way down to New York?” my stepmom had asked.

“Absolutely,” I’d said. “I LOVE driving.”

She laughed and said, “well, you come by it honest.”

Which is very, very true. Both my parents were huge road trip people, as were both sets of grandparents. My mom’s father hated flying–he got on an airplane once in the Thirties and swore he’d never do it again. Not because he was afraid they’d crash, but because they locked the doors and he had wicked claustrophobia.

“I’d have no problem with it at all if you could fly with the doors open,” he often explained. But as a result, he and my grandmother went everywhere by ship and train and car, forever afterward.

My father’s father was rather infamous for driving like a maniac everywhere he went, especially when he was going from lower New York up to the Adirondacks. Family myth holds that he was once passing another car on a blind corner when a logging truck suddenly appeared, hurtling towards him. He played chicken with it and it drove off the asphalt and on into the woods. With about five of my seven uncles in the car with him at the time.

My parents were big on cross-country road trips–separately, of course, since they split up in ’67. Mom was the leisurely sort, taking at least two weeks to drive from California to New York at the beginning of most summers. We stayed with friends of hers across the country, or camped out at KOAs along the way. And stopped at every garage sale and junk store she could find for all three thousand miles.

In ’72 we made the trip in a 1967 Ford Country Squire wagon she’d bought for $150–me, my little sister, my little brother, and our favorite babysitter at the time, who’d been over for dinner the night before we left so Mom invited her along for the hell of it.

 

I remember putting a silver spoon on some railroad tracks somewhere in Iowa, because we’d forgotten to bring a knife for our picnic meals. The train squashed it into an excellent slicer/spreader thing, which was way cool.

Unfortunately, Mom had ignored the garage guy who’d suggested she get the brakes done as she was buying the car from him in Monterey. She rear-ended a nifty little red Alfa-Romeo convertible in New Hampshire, that July, and I hit the back of the front seat with my bottom teeth.

We stayed in this place that looked the the Tucker Inn from Seventies Cool-Whip commercials that night.

(And I did not know until Googling for a picture that Mrs. Tucker was played by one of the nuns from The Flying Nun. Cool!)

Mom instructed me to go downstairs to the coffee shop and order a “frappe” with an egg in it, since that’s what they called milkshakes in New England. This was my dinner, as the dentist at the ER had had to pull my two bottom front teeth forward with his fingers from their flattened position over my tongue, and had then given my four stitches on the inside of my bottom lip.

The waitress looked at me kind of funny, and I noticed that my beverage still had lumps of ice cream in the bottom of the glass when she served it up. I figured I could eat a lump of ice cream, so drew one up to the top of the glass with an iced-tea spoon, only to discover that the woman had put a hardboiled egg into my drink.

Dad was more about distance than garage sales, the times I drove with him. We did the California-New York jaunt together the following summer in four and a half days–only stopping in Elko, Nevada for an afternoon because they had a great Volkswagen repair place and excellent “broasted” chicken across the street at a Dairy Queen. Dad lived in his VW camper in those days, so we could just pull over wherever we were when he got tired late at night and sleep in the back.

This mostly worked out okay, except for the night we crossed the Continental Divide and were coming down the eastern side of the Rockies around midnight.

There are not a lot of places to pull over, when you’re going downhill that fast for that long. There was some kind of gorge over to our right that put kind of a premium on parking spots. Finally, when Dad was really bleary and wiped, we saw a sign that said “Garbage Cans, 500 Feet.”

He wheeled the van into the little spot and set the parking brake and we crashed hard on the mattress behind the front seats, both exhausted and immediately falling into comatose sleep.

Until suddenly the entire cabin of the van lit up with a bright light and we were simultaneously blasted by a very, very loud train whistle.

“Cornelia… do you remember if I pulled across any tracks?” asked Dad, rather calmly I thought.

“Um…” I said, racking my brain and pretty much ready to puke on my own feet with terror. But I didn’t have time to finish the thought as a very long freight train suddenly rocketed by, about four feet to my right.

We hadn’t seen the tracks because they were slightly below the level of the highway. Luckily.

I guess travel is in all of our blood–Mom’s maternal grandfather ran a shipping line, and Dad was named after a family friend who opened a bunch of hotels near train stations throughout the Southwest: Fred Harvey.

I did a lot of driving cross-country myself, when my girls were little. I can advise you from actual experience that it is a REALLY REALLY bad idea to drive from Colorado to California along Highway 50 with a pair of two year olds in your back seat. There is a reason it’s nicknamed “The Loneliest Highway in America.” Also, it is really flat and boring. And if one of your kids should happen to do a face-plant into a concrete outdoor bench at a Dairy Queen along the way, you will be lucky if it’s the day the travelling doctor shows up in town that week to run the clinic. Even if your kid doesn’t need stitches.

Anyway, more driving today… and it’s awfully nice to have my iPhone tunes playing on the car radio instead of having to listen to “Brandy” on an AM station all the way across Iowa or Nebraska.

Do you come from a car family? Any great road trips when you were a kid?

Ahoy, there!

By Cornelia Read

I’m thinking a lot about traveling, today. This is because I’m going to be driving up to the Maine Festival of the Book with my new pal Toby Ball, who wrote an incredible debut novel called The Vaults–a book that is dark and twisty and fabulous in all the best possible ways…

We’re going to be doing a mystery panel at 9:30, and then driving back to New Hampshire. And then I’m going to clean my apartment–really, really fast–and then I’m going to drive to New York City (Just like I pictured it! Skyscrapers and everything!), which takes sane people about five hours but me somehow about four. I say this is because I have really good music on my iPhone. Others’ mileage may vary.

But! Also! In October I get to go on a cruise! Which I have never done before!! On the biggest ocean liner currently sailing!!! With a whole bunch of mystery authors!!!

And I want everyone to totally come on this boat with us. So there, this is me, shilling totally.

But!! Here are the other authors who are going to be coming (alphabetically):

Megan Abbott | Bill Fitzhugh | Joanne Fluke | John Hart | Stephen Hunter | Lisa Jackson
Reg Keeland | Harley Jane Kozak | Gayle Lynds | Otto Penzler | Gary Phillips 
Cornelia Read | Robert Ward | Kate White | Don Winslow

I mean, how cool is THAT? Plus… the ship is amazing. Here is an article the New York Times just wrote about it:

Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas!!!

So, hey, if you are a cruising type person, consider coming along for this, because it is going to be So Awesome. Seriously. And we are going to be sailing to really, really cool places. And, you know, mysteries! At sea! With buffets and stuff!!!

If you have ever been on a cruise, do you have any pointers? This will be my, ahem, maiden voyage…

 

I will try to check in from the road today, dear ‘Ratis… I hope everyone has a fabulous weekend!!

Chic, Fabulous Cara Black

By Cornelia Read

Today it’s my pleasure to interview the magnificent (and chic, and fabulous–see above) Cara Black, author of the Aimee Leduc mysteries, set in Paris. Which is the smartest place to set a mystery series EVER, and I wish I’d thought of it instead of setting my first novel in not-quite-so-intriguing Syracuse, New York.

I first met Cara when I was a student at the Book Passage Mystery Conference in Corte Madera, California, and then my mystery writing group invited her out to dinner so we could ask her all about her journey to becoming published, and her marvelous novels, and just her fine self in general. She was a tremendously lovely dinner companion, and has become a friend I cherish.

And without further ado… some Q&A about Cara’s latest novel from Soho Press, Murder in Passy

1. I love your stories about how you pick each neighborhood that will feature in a novel. What drew you to Passy for Murder in Passy?

Sometimes I feel like writing a murder mystery isn’t unlike being a detective. It’s about finding the bits that fit the puzzle of a story I want to write. Passy – in the exclusive 16th arrondissement – still retains a ‘village’ feel despite its haute-bourgeoise reputation.

Passy’s beginnings were humble, a village on the outskirts of Paris where Balzac fled to hide from his creditors. Empress Eugenie, Napoleon the III’s wife, took the waters at Passy. Hector Guimard, the father of Art Nouveau,

whom we have to thank for the wonderful verdigris metal Metro entrances, lived and designed buildings in the quartier.

My friend who lives in the 16th kept badgering me to write about her quartier but for me it was too staid, too chic and not my detective Aimée’s ‘hood.’ But it was discovering that a Basque Cultural Center had existed near the tiny police station (unchanged since the 30’s) along with a long historical presence of the Basques in the quartier that changed my mind. What a contrast in this very conservative and wealthy quartier!

My family and I had spent time in the Basque country,

we loved the culture, the people and the food,

yet witnessed the rubble of bombed farmhouses from ETA’s–the Basque Separatists–militant actions. That made me wonder…what if the ETA–who were very much in the headlines at the time–used a wealthy environ as a hideout. What if this murder struck close to Aimée? 

2. You were joking around recently about Parisian maids in neighborhoods so fancy that the maids themselves wore pearls. I dream of being that chic in my next life. Any tips for this one? I’ve given up on the scarf gene already…

That’s a conundrum Cornelia. I wish I had the scarf gene too. I think, after much observation, scrutiny and obsessing about this, Frenchwoman follow a simple dictum. They buy quality, a few pieces – accessories and staples; the shoes, bag, one good little black dress and jacket, the coat.

It’s all about mixing and matching whatever you have in the closet with a few good pieces – it’s about putting it together, for a formal look the little black dress, a weekend lunch, mixing a stylish tousled thrown-together look with a Vuitton scarf.

That flair, that je ne sais quoi factor…that’s another gene.

3. What are your favorite low-end and high-end places to eat in Paris? I was a big fan of Chartier in my college days for cheap steak tartare and chocolate mousse. These days I like a tiny place called Le Petit Vatel, in the Sixth.

Both pretty cheap. 

Oh yes, Chartier for the ambiance and the price.

Low end is my favorite falafel on rue des Rosiers, L’as du Fallafel.

There’s always a line in the street, The NY Times wrote about it, yet still for my 6 Euros the best falafel outside of Tel Aviv. I’ve been going there since forever.

La Marine–old-fashioned bistro on quai Valmy in the 10th with a bobo hipster crowd–borders the Canal Saint Martin, serves locals too and stays reasonable. Consistently delicious.

Near the Marche d’Aligre, 12th arrondissement, the tiny wine bar le Baron Rouge crates in fresh Normandy oysters–that morning–can’t be beat. 

Vatel, meanwhile, was the guy famed for committing suicide when the fish was delivered late for a banquet for Louis XIV at which he was maitre d’hotel. He also invented creme Chantilly for the same meal. Ran himself through with a sword, apparently.

 They take their food seriously – then and now – these chefs.

4. What are they wearing in Paris, this winter?

Winter white. And black, always. Shearling coats because it’s cold. Knee high boots. The short jacket layered over a tailored blouse, long sweater, tight pants or mini and heels.  

 

5. What are you working on now? 

I’m editing my next book titled Murder at the Lantern Rouge – the story is set in a Chinatown in Paris existing in the medieval northern edge of the Marais.

There’s four Chinatowns in Paris but this one’s the oldest and smallest. The story came from a comment from a man working for the RG (Renseignements Generaux, like our FBI), who told me ‘No one dies in Chinatown.’ 

 

Now when’s YOUR next trip to Paris, Cornelia?

How about tomorrow?

Thanks so much for having me!

Cara

February. Again.

By Cornelia Read

I don’t know if I mentioned this when I was whining about February LAST year, but when I was a child in Carmel, California,


I invented a game which was a great hit among the neighborhood children. It was called “Winter.” We would wander around the quasi-canyon in my back yard pretending it was snowing, that we had nothing to eat, and that we were–of course–orphans.

We usually did this while wrapped in my mother’s picnic blanket and a number of beach towels, pretending to shiver pathetically. Since I’d invented the game, I got to be the one who would carve chunks of dry rot out of the old stump under our clothesline. This was the main ingredient in what I called “stew,” which was basically a pot full of creek water and… well… chunks of dry rot. Which we would then pretend to eat. Slowly, in order to stretch it out and assuage our faux hunger.

It was important to make only a parsimonious amount, so we could pretend to suffer adequately. When we were feeling particularly melodramatic, we would call the contents of the pot “gruel.” Same basic recipe, just more creek water and fewer stump chunks. Amazingly enough, not a one of us had yet discovered Edward Gorey.

All of this to say that as a person raised for the most part in California and Hawaii, I vastly prefer my romanticization of winter from afar to the actual fucking season. To which you would be perfectly justified in replying, “well, DUH, Cornelia.”

And all of that to say that I basically suck at winter. Okay, HUGELY suck at winter. Which is my only excuse for totally spacing this blog two weeks ago. Even though I was in Florida at the time. Which of course compounds my guilt.

I did not, in fact, FORGET to blog. No, that would have been the obvious thing to do.

Instead, I wrote a blog post and posted it at The Lipstick Chronicles. On someone else’s day. And then headed back out on a circuitous chunk of road trip with my mother and totally forgot to check on comments at the other place. Which is luckily a place at which I blog with wonderful people equally as smart and fabulous as you fabulously brilliant people here, so somebody did me the favor of taking the post DOWN so I wouldn’t look like as much of an idiot as I am. Which is quite an idiot, as you might imagine.

So. February. I say we all need more gruel, though I would prefer to curl up under my sofa with a cake-mixing bowl (large) of warm gravy and a fifth of dark Haitian rum.

And just ignore everything until March first. That would be ideal.

And to compound the compounding, I didn’t fall asleep until three this morning, and… well… here we are. Thank you for being so patient with me. You guys are awesome.

And once again, dear ‘Ratis, I ask for your wisdom: How do you survive seasons of gruel–of the body, or of the soul? The woman with the brain of an ADD-raddled fruit fly would like to know.

Getting Lucky

By Cornelia Read

Sometimes I wonder about the phrase “getting lucky,” or even the single word “lucky.” The connotations are positive, even though the type of luck one’s discussing is never actually specified.

Which seems like maybe a bad idea. 

It’s even a bit like one of those “leverage your synergies” business misuses of words that have most annoyed me, over the past ten years or so: using the word “quality,” unqualified, and presuming it means “high quality.”

Some regional manager of sales blathers on and one about how “This is a quality product/job/experience,” without bothering to wonder what KIND of quality. I mean, shitty quality? Mediocre quality? Quality that elicits multiple gagging noises from all the other people trapped in the conference room while the guy’s fucking Powerpoint presentation drags on and on?

This is why I refuse to watch “The Office,” by the way. My daughter keeps telling me it’s wonderful, and I keep saying, “look, if I have to spend upwards of eight hours a day in a room full of inarticulate assholes throwing ill-sharpened darts of political expediency at one another, the least I should get out of it is health insurance.”

And then she says, “What the hell are you talking about, upwards of eight hours a day? The show’s an hour long.”

And I say, “yeah, but that’s not how long it FEELS.”

She is routinely not amused. Go figure.

Meanwhile, I have been getting lucky lately. Good lucky. Lubricious lucky. And auspiciously “my editor actually kind of likes the first draft” lucky–all at the same time.

(Um… not, like, simultaneously. Just, generally within the same loose time FRAME.)

Which, hello, doesn’t suck. Hugely doesn’t suck. (okay, maybe sometimes… um…)

Yeah. This after five years of no lucky.

(Hint:

Take this image, and then draw a huge red circle and slash over it.)

That would be how not lucky. For five years. Well, except for that one night with the Irish guy I used to… ahem… yeah. Not going there.

(Look! Something shiny! Behind you!)

Where were we? Oh yeah. The last five years of my not-lucky…

So, time for visual aids… here’s what the last five years of my life have been like, in pictures. (Because it is 3:43 a.m. and I have been, ahem, getting lucky. The good kind.)

It started becoming like this, first:

And there had already been a lot of what felt excruciatlingly like this:

Which didn’t exactly improve.

And then the real estate market went to shit:

And meanwhile the whole marital situation was like this:

No, actually, more like this (if Elizabeth Taylor had been entirely blameless and Richard Burton had become a shrill Fox-News-Republican asshole):

Which at least made us both pretty goddamn happy when it got to this:

And then there was a lot of this:

 

Which sucked hugely, and didn’t make anything feel LIGHTER or anything, as you might expect.

And meanwhile I had moved 3000 miles away from a place I’d spent nine years accumulating excellent friends in, which felt like this:

 

Only without the boat. Or even any sled dogs, for shit’s sake.

And meanwhile I was trying to write one of these:

Which most days made me feel like this:

(Hint: I would NOT be the person pictured standing in the doorway with oven mitts on… And I watch this even less than I watch The Office. Which is to say NOT AT ALL.)

Except I would have been puking this:

So progress on the work front was pretty much this:

Which I’m sure made my edtior and agent feel like this:

Which of course helped me write better and faster. Not.

In fact, I ended up consoling myself with a lot of this:

And other fine online viewing.

Even though I was totally worried about my dwindling supplies of this:

And then I really had to finish my first draft for my lovely, long-suffering editor:

Which actually worked out, and meanwhie there has been a good bit of this lately:

 

Um, except for the whole “actually, one of us is NOT a chick” thing.

(And neither of us being named “Britney,” either. Thank GOD.)

So, now it’s 4:20 (heh) and I’m going to go to sleep.

Please wish me more luck. Good luck.

And as for you, dearest ‘Ratis… Got Luck?

Fortunetelling in a thunderstorm

By Cornelia Read

Many years ago, my sister Freya and I went up to Grandmama Read’s house in Purchase, New York, to hang out with our dad for a couple of days. He’d driven east from Malibu in his old VW camper, and was spending some time at the old family place.

I wrote about that house in my first novel, A Field of Darkness, but moved it to Centre Island, New York (across the Long Island Sound) and gave it to my protagonist Madeline’s great-grandmother on her mother’s side.

It was probably the rotting magnificence of the place that always made me feel at one with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s advice to his daughter Scottie in a letter:

You are a poor girl… and if you can’t make up your mind to being that, you’ll become one of those terrible girls who don’t know whether they are millionairesses or paupers.

Oddly enough, he wrote that to her when she asked if she could go to Dobbs, my high school. I suppose they didn’t have scholarships in those days, which is how I afforded the place.

(This is actually my GREAT-Grandmother Read’s house in Purchase, now a country club.)

But here is how I described Grandmama’s house, which was called WAREF in real life–for William Augustus Read and Edith Fabyan:

The trimmed lawn was a last-minute attempt to conceal massive and catastrophic entropy, ineffectual trompe l’oeil. There wasn’t the time or inclination to pull the thick beard of ivy from the twenty visible windows, to replace the broken, coffin-shaped panes of glass in the great bronze lantern. It was just another rotting pre-FDR palace that had started as an homage to Monticello and ended as a second-act Gone With the Wind set–forty acres, no mule.

I stepped through an arched doorframe and into the cool, boxwood-scented darkness of the arcade leading to the front door. There were no sounds but the last of the Canada geese, honking as they abandoned the place, and the heels of my loafers ringing off the slate in the few spots that weren’t choked with fallen leaves.

More leaves had blown inside, skirling around the thirty-foot diameter of dark marble floor as I came through the front door. The entry was [hmmm… a typo. I meant “surrounded by” here, or something] a circular, gossamer-railed staircase sweeping up to a viewing balcony, light slanting in through high windows.

Bronzes of my great-grandparents’ heads rested in a niche halfway up the stairs. Dodie’s hair was shingled flapper-style, Jake’s brilliantined straight back off his forehead. The room would have been imposing, had the pale mint wallpaper not been hanging down in broad sheets, only occasionally stuck back up to the plaster with ragged lengths of packing tape.

Considering how badly I’d fucked things up in the last week, it seemed entirely appropriate that I was back here at Chateau Failure to mark the occasion.

Well, I’m going to keep going with this, so you have the full sense of what it was like to wander on inside…

“Hello?” I said, my voice echoing until a pair of yipping, rheumy-eyed shih tzus came barreling around the corner [their names were Pensee {pan-ZAY} and Bouton {boo-TON}] their nails clattering on stone, yellowed hair held off their faces with tiny pink and blue plastic barrettes.

I waded through the dogs and into the dining room, where the table was set for twenty. Dodie’s portrait condescended from above the sideboard, emeralds sparkling from her cocked hip.

[Tougher to see in this sepia repro. That’s actually an emerald-and-diamond bar pin in the hanging sash of her dress, directly below her left wrist.]

I touched the bottom of the frame, though of the painting’s nickname and whispered “Nice to see your back again,” [the title thought up by a weekend houseguest, admiring this likeness from the dining room table sometime during the Twenties, if memory serves…] then ducked through the pantry and into the kitchen itself.

My father was the youngest of Grandmama’s nine children–Bill, Curtis, David, Roddy, Peter, Sandy, Donald, Jean, and Freddy. Still the rebel one, the little boy who’d held his breath lying on the floor of FAO Schwarz in the city until she’d bought him the firetruck he was desperate for one Christmas season, though secretly she’d recently purchased the same truck and it was already wrapped up for him at home. I suppose with your ninth child you tend to just give in.

So picture the two of them at that long, french-polished mahogany table for dinner in the early Eighties, with my sister and I along for the ride. Dad’s hair was graying, his ponytail long, his long untrimmed sideburns wild as a whaling-ship captain’s muttonchops. Grandmama was hunched forward with age–her thin silver hair up in a sparse chignon, wearing her Belgian shoes and a silk day dress under a thin cardigan.

Maria the cook, in her plaid flannel shirt and blue jeans and baseball cap and sneakers–gold front tooth winking as she grinned at me in the candlelight–would have brought out one of the two salads perpetually served at that table: either a wedge of iceberg lettuce in Thousand Island, or shredded iceberg serving as a bed for half a canned pear with a dollop of cottage cheese in the hole where the core had been, dressed with a splash of translucent, bottled, and herb-flecked “Italian.”

These first courses of lackluster greens were served in bowls and underplates of heartbreakingly exquisite porcelain, which of course only served to magnify their culinary pedestrianism. And after 1976, I always thought of my Grandfather Gus before I took a first bite of lettuce, missing the way he’d wrangle his salad around a little with a heavy silver fork before pushing the bowl away and raising his head to look down the long table, trying to palm it off on someone else as he’d done at every meal I could remember by querying in his Whartonesque New York accent [think FDR pronouncing “nothing to fear but fear itself” without a single modern “R” sound], “Who’d like some more of this delicious bunny bait?” 

(Grandaddy on the left, as a child, probably circa 1900. The boy in the other two images is his twin brother Curtis–one of the first Americans to die in France in World War I. Grandaddy held FDR personally responsible for the loss of his brother, as Roosevelt had then been secretary of the Navy and as such had purchased a number of defective Doran airplanes from the French.

Great-Uncle Curtis was sent up in one to test it out and crashed off Dunkirk. Apparently, the fabric had a habit of peeling off the wings.)

(Left to right: Grandaddy Read (William Augustus,) Russell Bartow Read, Caroline Seaman Read, Curtis Seaman Read, Duncan Hicks Read.)

But of course that night with Dad and Freya and Grandmama, Grandaddy’s chair was empty. It was just the four of us seated close to one another at the table’s other end, awkward together as Reads so often seemed to be: Grandmama in the late stages of her final dementia, Dad stoned and petulant, Freya and I holding our collective breath–the poor relations, not wanting to put a foot wrong because just about anything could set our father off into yet another one of his Primal Therapy crying and/or screaming jags (something to be avoided at all costs, especially mid-meal.)

The room was candle-lit, a good number of tapers flickering from the arms of two large Georgian candelabra. Maria disappeared back into the kitchen, its swinging door hidden from sight behind a large folding Chinese screen, graceful figures gliding timeless through black gardens.

Behind Grandmama was a large bay window, through which you could glance over the property in the daytime, the view extending past the long swimming pool and Grandaddy’s hangar and the servants’ cottages and across Westchester County in the distance, all the way to the Sound on a clear morning. The other end of the room had a large fireplace at the center of the wall, flanked by a pair of tall built-in sets of shelves that contained platters and serving pieces of Rosenthal china, glazed in white and gold and salmon with a proud stag portrayed at the center of each.

[Two years later, Freya and I and Cousin Mark and our friend Sue from boarding school would stand in a circle before that same fireplace, the room now emptied of furniture following Grandmama’s death, our arms around each other’s shoulders as we sang “Lean on Me” from start to finish–all of us crying, but secure in the knowledge that we’d be kinder and more loyal to one another than all the previous generations had managed to be. And why not? There was literally nothing left to fight over, no possessions or fortune to drive us apart.]

We ate in silence, Grandmama’s new teeth unmoored in her mouth.

Freya and I, having had the importance of dinner-table conversation drilled into us by our mother over many long years, were wracking our brains for some inoffensive topic to offer up. She thought of something first, thank God.

“I was at a county fair recently,” she said, tossing a bouquet into the conversational abyss. “And I had my fortune told by an old gypsy. She told me I’ll have two children someday, a boy and a girl.”

Grandmama brightened. “You have a son and a daughter?”

“Not yet,” said Freya. “But a fortuneteller told me I will someday.”

“How lovely,” said Grandmama. “I’m sure you’ll be a very fine mother.”

We knew Grandmama was fond of fortunetellers. Her girlhood best friend from Boston, Mrs. Vanderhoff, had also moved to Purchase, and used to tell fortunes with regular playing cards. She’d taught Mom this method of divination in the early Sixties, and we’d clamored for readings as children.

Every card had some lovely meaning: “In the woods near the water,” “a dark-haired older man….” Even the things one was meant to say while laying out the patterns of each phase of the reading were wonderful, “To your house, to yourself, to your wish/What you do expect, don’t expect, sure to come true…”

Maria came out to clear the salad plates away, then brought forth some overcooked lamb chops and frozen string beans. The table went silent once again, but a few moments later Dad brought forth a trial topic.

“I was driving across the country in the van,” he began. “Things went rather well until the center of Kansas, when all of a sudden BOOM, CRASH, TINKLE-TINKLE, the whole engine gave up…”

Grandmama looked up again from her plate, saying (and this you should hear with your mind’s ear as a feminine version of Charles’s Boston Brahmin accent, on MASH) “What’s that, Freddy–fortunetelling in a thunderstorm?” (fawtune-telling in a thundah stawm?)

Which was hysterically funny, to all of our great relief, and the four of us shared a deeply good communal laugh–the likes of which that table had probably not been the site of since the mid-Sixties.

Grandmama was so pleased to have scored our approval, though she was uncertain of the conversation’s general thrust, and of which year in which it happened to be taking place. But that was the happiest I’d seen her in as long as I could remember, and it was a wonderful night because of that.

(Grandmama is third from left, front row. This was taken at Great-Grandmother Read’s house in Purchase. The bride is Carol Read, Grandaddy’s sister. She’s marrying Archilbald McIlwaine, another WWI Naval Aviator who was part of the “Millionaire’s Unit” of Yalies, along with Great-Uncle Curtis. Click here for the archived wedding announcement in the NY Times, if you’d like to know what the bride, bridesmaids, and maid of honor were wearing. Apparently there were 600 guest, many of whom “arrived by special train from New York to White Plains, motoring from there to Hill Crest.”

Most of the ushers were flyers, too. This great guy named Ron King is working on a documentary about them all, and gave me this jpeg over Christmast. Check out his website for the film: http://www.millionairesunit.org/. It’s totally gorgeous.)

Freya did indeed have two children in the years that followed, a boy and a girl. They’re terrific.

Dad and Grandmama are gone, WAREF has long since been sold, the portraits are all with Aunt Jean in Buffalo. Who knows who got the silver. We have a little bit of china.

Many years afterward, I was meant to be driving from New York to Boston but pulled off the Hutchinson Parkway onto Purchase Street, suddenly aching to see the old place though I was already running late. I drove along the long road, beneath the shade of its ancient trees, unsure of my bearings.

Finally, up on the right I saw the old pale brick wall and pulled into the driveway. There were construction vans out front. The new owners were doing all the work my family had neglected for the past forty years.

I looked up at the old bronze lantern over the entryway’s arch, at the white window sashes set into the facade’s pink Monticellan facade. I thought of getting out of Dad’s Porsche in 1965 with my teddy bear in my arms, coming to visit with Baby Freya for the very first time.

She was swaddled up in woolen blankets in the car’s back seat, tucked into a wooden bureau drawer for a bassinet. There’s a photograph that Mom took as I’m looking up at her from beside the green car, wearing a little gray wool coat and white ankle socks and brown laced Buster Brown shoes.

Dad’s behind me, leaning down to pick up Freya. His hair is crisply cut short, parted exactly, slicked back. Brooks Brothers shirt, cable-knit sweater, elegant shoes: the “Before” picture, if ever there were one.

It was probably twenty-five years later that I stood next to the carpenters’ cars and vans, listening to the sound of saws and sanders from inside, thinking about all we’d lost in the interim, but all we’d gained too. Made me cry a little.

A young dark-haired guy stepped out from the entry’s arcade and smiled at me. “Help you with anything?”

“Sorry,” I said. “I just wanted to stop and look. This was my grandparents’ house and I haven’t seen it in a long time.”

“Really?” he said, smiling wider. “We’ve all been wondering about who they were… what they did, to have lived in a place like this.”

He seemed like a really nice guy, so I said, “Well, they didn’t do a whole lot. They were both born rich, you know?”

“Where’d the money come from?”

“My great-grandfather founded a bond house in New York.

(The great-grandparents, William and Caroline. Newport?)

…His sons kind of hung out, after that. They were Naval Aviators in World War I, but I don’t know a lot other than that. I grew up in California. My dad dropped out and became a hippie and lived in his van and worked in a gas station and stuff. He didn’t really like to talk about all this.”

“No shit?”

“No shit. And it’s kind of a trip to think I hung out here, as a kid. Seems like someone else’s dream, you know?”

“I bet,” he said.

I crossed my arms and looked up at the window of the bedroom I used to stay in, the one with the green-and-white toile wallpaper with all the peacocks.

“You want to see inside?” he asked. “We’ve done a lot of work. It looks pretty good now.”

“Thank you for the invitation, but I’m running really late. Gotta get to Boston.”

“Mind if I bring some of the guys outside? They’d probably dig getting to meet someone who lived here.”

“Sure,” I said. “I’d like to meet them, too.”

So I waited for a minute while he went back in, then returned with a half dozen young men in painter’s pants and sweatshirts and toolbelts. We all shook hands, and I thanked them for taking such care with the place. They were really nice.

“Tell the new people I hope they’re really happy here,” I said. “It’s a beautiful place. It deserves to have happy people in it.”

Then I got in my car and drove to Boston.

I’ve been thinking of all that a lot over the last couple of weeks. I’ve got a bit of a lull in the writing, waiting for my editor’s notes on my first draft of Book Four, and the holidays are over, and I’m wondering what’s up with my love life, and what the new year’s going to bring, and whether the second draft of this book is going to be any good… the usual shit and worries and demons, with some nice stuff mixed in lately too.

So I’ve been doing a little fortunetelling for myself, thinking of Mom and Grandmama and Mrs. Vanderhoff while I do it. Mostly online, tarot cards and I Ching (Dad’s favored method of divination).

I think fortunetelling is kind of great, if you take it in the right spirit. A little guided meditation, some thinking points on what you’re going to do next, what random things might be coming into play, and how you can accept challenges mindfully and stay as kind and compassionate as possible in the process. So I thought I’d share a few links to good websites for anyone who’d like to gain a potential overview of the coming year–love and work and people and everything. Some are more serious than others, some really just for fun, some deep, some glancing over the surface of things. I like them all…

Salem Tarot

You can get a pretty decent free three-card reading at this site. My pal Muffy turned me on to it years ago. I like it so much I actually got a live reading from Christian Day in Salem, right when my first book was coming out. Nice guy–he told me he saw me sitting at different tables, always surrounded by piles of books. He said my life was going to get immeasurably better. He was right.

Click here for a free three-card spread.

Hollywood Tarot

This one is just fun. The webmaven designed a deck using publicity shots (well, and mug shots) of the famous: the Nine of Cups is Barney, the Princess of Wands is Madonna. Frances Farmer is in there, and Grace Kelly, and Dolly Parton. Not deep, but often apropos…

Click here for a choice of spreads: one-card, three-card, Celtic Cross

iFate.com

I love these guys… Click here for an I Ching reading that’s actually comprehensible (Love I Ching a little further down the page.) Click here for a selection of groovy tarot readings.

New Age Store

This is the best online reading site I’ve found. Deep and inspiring card interpretations on many topics. You can do “express” readings for some spreads (in which the cards are chosen for you without your having to shuffle), and choose either “deep” or “highlights” readings of each spread. Click here for the home page, then click on Tarot. The other readings are fun, too. Cartomancy is a little like what Mrs. Vanderhoff used to do. The readings are positive, thought-provoking, and very insightful.

I wish you all a magnificent year, dear ‘Ratis, with love and friendship and happiness for us all…

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