Good Reads for Spring

I’m snowed under, metaphorically speaking ( I live in south central  Texas and we never have actual snow down here) writing a new novel due out next spring. I love it, but it’s intense work and at the end of the day I like to relax by reading someone else’s work. Recently I’ve read a couple of biographical novels and one Downton Abbey type novel I think you all will love.

Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule by Jennifer Chiaverini is the story of the relationship between Julia Dent Grant and her servant, who was also named Julia but called Jule to avoid confusion. I was somewhat familiar with Julia Grant, having once proposed writing a novel about her, but I didn’t know much about her relationship with her husband, Ulysses Grant. The novel is really more of the love story between Julia and “Ulys” with the parallel story of how the slave Julia escaped to freedom and became Madame Jule. I enjoyed this author’s previous biographical novel of Elizabeth Keckley, called Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker. If you enjoy biographical novels you’ll like this one.

The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin is the story of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s complicated marriage to the “Lone Eagle” Charles Lindbergh who was at the time of his solo flight to Paris the most famous  man in the world. I learned a great deal about Anne herself–she learned to pilot planes and to navigate the long flights she made with Charles, and was the first woman to  pilot a glider. The novel deals with the crushing loss of their child who was kidnapped and found murdered— an event which is also well known. But the startling revelations about Charles and his secret life took me completely by surprise.

Finally, for Downton Abbey Fans, I just finished a charming WW 1 era novel about a nurse turned suffragette who falls in love with the wounded Earl of Cumberland. Lots of period detail and a well-drawn cast of characters make this book a rewarding read. A caveat:   Readers who prefer books with no sex scenes will want to know that this one contains a couple of brief scenes that may be more detailed than they are comfortable reading.

April is just around the corner and  before we know it beach season will arrive. Any of these books will make a great beach companion this summer. If you read them, I’d love to hear from you, Just drop me a line and let me know what you thought.

How About Some Peach Cobbler?

With publication of AMONG THE FAIR MAGNOLIAS just around the corner, my co authors and I have been experimenting with beloved Southern recipes. Last week I made spoon bread. This week, even though the peach crop is still weeks away, I’m making peach cobbler using canned peaches.  The recipe is known among Southern cooks as a “cuppa, cuppa, cuppa” recipe, because it calls for a cup of several ingredients. It reminded me of one of my favorite fictional characters, the plainspoken and hilarious Ouiser Boudreaux, from Steel Magnolias,  as portrayed by Shirley Maclaine.

imagesPreheat oven to 375. Grease an 11 by 17 baking dish and add 4 cups of fresh sliced peaches. Combine a cup of milk, a cup of self rising flour, a cup of granulated sugar, and a half cup of melted butter. (If you are using all purpose flour, just add 1 and 1/2 tsp of baking powder and 1/2 tsp salt to the flour). Pour this batter over the peaches and bake until done, about 35-40 minutes. Some cooks like to add cinnamon but this one allows the peach flavor to take center stage. You can use this batter to make any kind of cobbler–just pour it over 4 cups of your favorite summer fruit.

What’s your favorite summertime dessert?

No Phone Zone

So yesterday I was working away when my cell rang. Mom was on the other end, worried because she had been calling the house and not getting an answer. It was then that I discovered the cable modem had malfunctioned and none of my phones worked. It occurred to me that I should have known something was wrong–I had worked all  morning in blessed silence–no telemarketers interrupting my thoughts.

imagesI’m working now on a biographical  novel of Mrs. Robert E Lee that covers the years from 1830 to 1860. No phones back then, and so I have access to many of her letters, journal entries and even some of her recipes written in her own hand. All of which would not exist if she and the General had been able to stay in touch by phone while he was away. Not that I would want to give up my phones. I’m thankful for all the good purposes they serve–instantly summoning help when we call 911–staying in touch with friends and family in real time. And now, with my smart phone, I have the ability to snap a picture on a moment’s notice. Though I don’t generally do selfies. But phones have become a weapon of destruction, thanks to drivers who try to text, talk, and operate a 6000 pound vehicle all at the same time.

Last month here in San Antonio, a new city ordinance went into effect, prohibiting drivers from using cell phones while behind the wheel. No exceptions. In the first month of enforcement they handed out over 1000 traffic citations, at $200 each, to drivers caught talking or texting while driving. It’s a good rule and one I hope they will  continue to enforce.

I’ve been thinking about Alexander Graham Bell, the man who first gave us the telephone. I can’t help wondering what he would think of the way his invention has evolved.I’ve decided that tomorrow, I’m going to turn off my phones while I’m writing. Thanks to that malfunctioning modem, I’ve rediscovered the marvelous beauty of silence.

The Abuse of Authors

Two events this week have set me onto my high horse. First was the announcement from author Tess Gerritson regarding her lawsuit against Warner Brothers and New Line Cinema. It seems she had a deal with New Line for the movie that became GRAVITY starring Sandra Bullock. But in the interim between signing her deal and the release of the movie, Warner Brothers bought New Line and one of their directors “wrote” the movie based on Tess’s story, and made GRAVITY without giving her any credit or the money she was promised. She sued and was told that Warner was under no obligation to honor the New Line contract. The decision was based on some sort of shortcoming in the original filing, and her legal team is now crafting an amendment that may give her another chance to recover what is morally, if not legally, hers.

The second event was the announcement on Tuesday that Harper will publish Harper Lee’s  “Go Set a Watchman”: in July. The press release says “Watchman” was the original book that Lee intended to publish but her editor was so taken with the voice of the young girl “Scout” that Lee was asked to revise the book to tell the story from Scout’s point of view. That book of course became “To Kill A Mockingbird”  which won the Pulitzer Prize and to date has sold more than 40 million copies. “Watchman” is set in the 1950’s and is about Scout as a grown woman, looking back on her childhood. Like most of the rest of the world, I loved Mockingbird and under different circumstances I would be overjoyed with the announcement of another Harper Lee novel. But by reliable accounts, Harper Lee who is now 88 years old, is frail and significantly debilitated after a stroke. Two of her family members, speaking anonymously said that at the funeral of Miss Lee’s older sister Alice a few months ago, Miss Lee sat in her wheelchair mumbling to herself and shouting at inappropriate times. Yet the press release announcing this new novel contained an extremely lucid quote from Miss Lee, giving the background on the book and expressing her delight that this new novel will be published. When her editor was asked about this apparent disconnect, he said that he is confident she is fully cognizant of the situation and is looking forward to publication. But he admitted he has not seen her or spoken to her in more than 8 years.

I’m not making any wild accusations that I can’t prove. But it makes me uneasy that this frail woman, alone now in the world except for her lawyer and editor and a few friends suddenly discovers a manuscript she thought was lost and is in good enough health to participate in its publication when just three months ago she was wheelchair bound and nearly incoherent. Especially coming as it does on the heels of a 2013 lawsuit in which Miss Lee sued her then literary agent whom she said duped her into signing over to him the copyright of Mockingbird.She was 87 years old then and said she did not remember signing such a document.The suit was settled in September of 2013.

What is it about our culture that makes it okay to steal an author’s work, exploit it for gain without paying for it? Or in the case of Miss Lee, perhaps taking advantage of an infirmity? Miss Gerritson and Miss Lee are at least lucky enough to have the financial resources to fight back. Most authors don’t. Not every author has to fight movie companies, but even modestly successful authors must be constantly on guard against pirates that steal their work and put it up online, free for the asking. For every pirate site that is discovered, there are others that go undetected and book sales suffer for it. This is simply theft and those who take advantage of pirate sites are just as despicable as the pirates themselves.

In other countries, Japan for instance, or Argentina, which in 2011 considered paying published authors a monthly stipend to allow them to continue creating literature, writers are honored and their work is valued as important to the culture. Here, not so much.