Jennifer Weiner: Hungry Heart

Jennifer Weiner’s Hungry Heart carries the subtitle Adventures in Life, Love, and Writing, which pretty much describes the scope of the book, composed of memoir, essays, and a few articles from Weiner’s career as a journalist. I enjoyed it thoroughly. I picked it up in the writing section at Half Price Books, thanks to the subtitle, but it’s not a writing craft Hungry Heartbook at all. The sections about Weiner’s writing career are interesting, but the tales of her life and family are even better. Weiner has fought her weight all her life, but if you’ve felt like an outsider for any reason, you’ll identify with her. I’ve read several of her novels, and reading this sent me out to pick up a couple more, including her first, Good In Bed, now that I know how she came to write it (and the stunning advance she got for it, something pretty much unheard of in the current publishing market).

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Weiner is, as she says, a “proud and happy writer of popular fiction.” She is also something of a campaigner for gender equality in, say, the New York Times, meaning that women writers, and the fields they dominate, deserve equal treatment by reviewers, and she addresses those topics in the book.

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She also discusses her family: her ill-matched parents, her wandering and sometimes abusive father, her mother who came out as a Lesbian in her fifties, and her quirky siblings. “It is a truth universally acknowledged among writers,” she says, “that an unhappy childhood is the greatest gift a parent can provide.” I’m not sure I’d take that literally—I had a happy childhood with parents who were voracious readers and taught me to love books—but I have to agree that our childhood traumas, large and small, follow us through life. Weiner has built a successful career as a novelist on her own experiences, and it’s fascinating to look behind the pages at her adventures.

 

Spellbound Mysteries

Doom and Broom is the second installment in Annabel Chase’s charming Spellbound series. Emma Hart is settling into her new life in Spellbound, a mysterious town populated Doom and Broomby a wide variety of supernatural sorts trapped there by a curse so old no one really remembers the details. Emma, who didn’t even know she was a witch until she wandered into town and found she couldn’t leave (in Curse the Day), now has a house, a vampire ghost roommate (the previous owner), and a job as the local public defender.

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Her first court case involves defending a teenage Berserker accused of vandalism, but the real news in town involves the suspicious death of a soon-to-be-married female werewolf. Did Jolene commit suicide, or is there a more dastardly explanation?

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While investigating that, Emma also deals with her remedial witch training, especially the broomstick course, not easy for someone with a fear of heights. And then there’s harp therapy, ladies poker night, a sexy vampire named Demetrius, and of course Daniel the depressed fallen angel.

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The third book, Spell’s Bells, is every bit as entertaining, as Emma defends a lovesick Spell's Bellsbrownie on burglary charges and tries her hand at speed dating to meet a wereweasel (that dates goes about as badly as one might expect), all the while investigating the mysterious glass coffin holding a comatose dwarf named Freddie. She goes for a hike with a werelion named Fabio and visits a hilariously demented witch in the local retirement home.

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Lucky CharmLucky Charm is another delightfully funny entry, fourth in the series. While searching for a cure for the spell that has the town council behaving like children (and requiring constant supervision), Emma finds new ways to deal with her sometimes scary paranormal neighbors and learns a bit more about her own background. Chase continues to add new and interesting characters to her “cursed” town.

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There are five more books in the series. I think I’ll go download the next one.

 

Sally Kilpatrick’s Bless Her Heart

I’m not a Southerner by birth, but I’ve lived down South long enough to know just what a double-edged sword the phrase “bless your/her/his heart” can be. If you don’t already understand this Southernism, here’s a novel that will tell you all you need to know.

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Bless Her HeartSally Kilpatrick’s delightful Bless Her Heart begins with its protagonist, Posey Love, stuck in a ten-year train wreck of a bad marriage to a man who embodies everything wrong with the man as head of household, woman as submissive and obedient wife branch of conservative religion. In fact, Chad Love started his own ministry largely to take advantage of others.

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Posey, who wants a baby more than anything, has put up with her domineering husband for years, at least partly in reaction to her own mother, who has raised three children by three men to whom she was never married at all. But when Posey discovers in quick succession that Chad has been cheating (adultery and hitting are deal breakers even for Posey), run off with another woman, failed to make the car payment, and sold the house, she begins to take back her own life and finds out that hard as that is, she’s up to the challenge.

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As Posey grows into the person she was always meant to be, she takes some adventurous steps. Encouraged by her free-spirited younger half-sister, she sets out to not only give up something important for Lent (church!), but also to sample the Seven Deadly Sins, with generally hilarious results. Along the way she finds out that wishes can come true in very surprising ways.

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Bless Her Heart handles some very serious issues, ranging from emotional abuse to Alzheimer’s, with sympathy, understanding, and humor. Especially humor. The characters, from Posey’s rediscovered best friend Liza to her unconventional but wise mother Lark, are well developed and supportive, and Chad is a man the reader will indeed love to hate. It’s a joy to watch Posey climb out of her self-imposed shell and blossom.

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This is the fourth of Kilpatrick’s loosely related novels set in and around the town of Ellery, Tennessee. Don’t miss The Happy Hour Choir (with its heroine, Beulah Land), Bittersweet Creek (”Romeo and Juliet with cows”), and Better Get to Livin’ (the funniest love story ever set in a funeral home).

 

Heavenly Creatures Revisited

On a recent evening I started reading Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century, by Peter Graham, and spent most of the next day glued to it. If you know the movie Heavenly Creatures, this is the rest of the story, about Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker, two girls in Christchurch, New Zealand, who in 1954 murdered Pauline’s mother. There was no doubt as to their guilt; the trial centered on questions of insanity.

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Anne Perry and the Murder of the CenturyAnne Perry’s identity as Juliet Hulme was revealed by the making of the film (although not by Peter Jackson, who did not want to expose either of the women). I had read many of Anne Perry’s mysteries before that, but I don’t think I’ve read one since. (She does not come off well in this book.)

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The book is very thorough and well researched, by a New Zealand lawyer with a long-time interest in the case. He goes into the backgrounds of the girls and their families, describes the killing and the trial in great detail, and follows up with the later lives of the two women and many other people associated with the case. I haven’t been so caught up in a book in quite some time. A fascinating look at the time and place, and some very strange psychology.

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After I finished the book, I found my copy of Heavenly Creatures on the DVD shelf and Heavenly Creatureswatched it again (I hadn’t seen it in several years). The movie is quite true to the actual story, with stunning performances by Kate Winslet as Juliet and Melanie Lynskey as Pauline (both film debuts) and some remarkable special effects work animating the girls’ fantasy kingdom of Borovnia and their infatuation with Mario Lanza. The film ends with the murder.

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The film centers largely around Pauline, as her diaries were available and were extensively quoted in the script. The original title of Graham’s book, So Billiantly Clever, came from Pauline’s writings, as did the phrase Heavenly Creatures. Juliet’s mother managed to burn Juliet’s diaries before the authorities asked for them. Graham’s book goes far deeper into the girls’ personalities and behavior, and makes it clear that Juliet, rather than Pauline, was the dominant personality in their fantasies, and a willing participant in the murder.

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Heavenly Creatures is an amazing film, but for the whole story, read Graham’s book.

 

Breaking the TV Habit

They say it takes three weeks to establish a habit, although I suspect that’s a very optimistic estimate. Does it take the same time to break one? Tomorrow it will be three weeks since my Comcast cable detached itself, perhaps with the help of the vegetation shrouding the utility pole and preventing the Comcast tech from reconnecting it.

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I would have been a lot more aggressive about solving this problem if I had ever been convinced to bundle my phone and Internet connections into my Comcast account. Fortunately, those are provided by my phone company, Frontier, and work just fine, along with my Verizon smart phone. With Frontier’s wifi, I have full use of the Amazon Fire tablet I bought a few months ago. It’s not a full-scale tablet for writing and I’m not impressed with the browser, but it’s a great little entertainment machine, which is exactly what I wanted.

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So Cable TV is all I’ve been doing without. That’s not only a first world problem, but folks not far from me are still displaced from their flooded homes, thanks to Hurricane Harvey. I am not complaining.

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I’ve been surprised to discover how quickly I’ve adapted to the lack. (It helps that I’m not a rabid baseball fan and probably wouldn’t have watched any of the recent Astros games anyway, for fear of being a jinx.) I use the TV for background noise at least ninety per cent of the time, running marathons of shows I’ve seen dozens of times or listening to jazz on Music Choice. That’s easily taken care of—I have radios all over the house, including two HD radios that pull in the jazz and classical music stations that Houston seems unable to support over the air (a disgraceful situation in such a large metropolitan area, if you ask me).

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I have discovered that I actually watch very few current shows. I don’t watch reality shows, and over the last year the news has become the worst reality show of all. For what I do want to see, I’ve found alternative methods. CBS.com shows current shows the day after broadcast. (No, Star Trek fan that I am, I haven’t subscribed to their pay service.) The Xfinity Stream app I downloaded to my Fire tablet allows me to watch most cable shows live (I watched the return of Major Crimes on TNT the other night), as well as access to the Music Choice Channels. (Apparently one only gets full service and broadcast channels with an Xfinity home wifi network, but there’s the eggs-in-one-basket thing again.)

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On the Fire or the computer, there’s a lot to enjoy on Amazon Prime: movies, TV, and some very good Amazon-produced shows, and a wide range of music. And then there are the three shelves of DVDs, many of them as yet unwatched, in my living room. This week I’ve rewatched Topkapi and Heavenly Creatures.

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What I have escaped from, I now realize, is the schedule. I’m not planning my evenings by what’s on TV, or when some show starts. I’m not searching for something to “watch” (largely meaning ignore) while I’m getting it all together in the morning. I’m not staying awake at night to watch something I’ve seen a dozen times, just because it’s there. I’m not planning my lunch break to coincide with some show I’ve seen seven times, or hurrying home from something to catch another rerun. The next time my cable box gives me trouble, I’ll probably get one without a DVR.

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Yes, I will get the service reconnected one of these days. I have a new understanding of those who cut the cord with their cable TV providers, but I still like the convenience. But in the meantime I’ve been reading more, getting to sleep earlier, and not watching reruns (well, I have been keeping up with Deep Space Nine on Amazon Prime, but that’s it, honest). I’m going to try to stick with that. We’ll see if three weeks plus is long enough to change a rather mindless habit.

More Mysteries (To Read!)

No technological enigmas today, just three very readable mystery novels.

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Maggie Doyle is back in a new adventure in Zara Keane’s The 39 Cupcakes. She’s settling into her new life as a private investigator on Whisper Island, just off the coast of Ireland, and into her growing relationship with Garda Sergeant Liam Reynolds (at least until his outspoken eight-year-old daughter comes to visit). The Movie Theater Cafe is hanging on (with a showing of Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps) despite the opening of The Cupcake Cafe right across the road. And Maggie’s cousin Julie has recruited her to help chaperone thirty summer camp kids on a tour of an archaeological excavation.

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The 39 CupcakesPeople may call Maggie a Corpse Magnet, but it’s actually one of the kids who discovers the first body. Bones do turn up in archaeological sites, but not with modern dental work. With Reynolds technically on vacation, Maggie and her unofficial assistant Lenny are off and running on the investigation.

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The 39 Cupcakes brings back many of the characters from Maggie’s previous cases and adds a few new ones. The cast and the setting of these books is so much fun, and Maggie works her way through the mayhem around her with great humor, seeing her father’s country with American eyes, struggling to pronounce Irish names, and waiting for those official divorce papers.

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Fortunately we won’t have to wait too long for Maggie’s next case: Rebel Without a Claus, coming this holiday season.

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Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone mysteries never spend much time on my TBR shelf. I’ve been a fan of the series since the first book, Edwin of the Iron Shoes, came out in 1977. Over the years we have met more and more members of Sharon’s large and increasingly The Color of Fearcomplicated family, and a number of them figure prominently in the latest installment, The Color of Fear. When Sharon’s visiting Shoshone father is attacked and beaten on a San Francisco street, the incident appears at first to be a random hate crime, perhaps related to other recent crimes against minorities. But when Sharon and her colleagues investigate, it appears there’s a lot more going on—and someone will go to any lengths to stop Sharon from finding out the truth.

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Sue Grafton also has a new mystery on the shelf, Y Is For Yesterday. I haven’t picked that one up yet, because I’m three behind—V, W, and X are still waiting for me. I’ve been reading Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone novels since A Is For Alibi (1982), and I will catch up. These are two series that will stay on my keeper shelf.

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I missed David Handler’s Stewart Hoag mysteries completely when they were published in the 1980s. I picked up the first one, The Man Who Died Laughing, when it popped up on an ebook sale email recently (I get far too many of those). How could I resist a mystery starring a one-hit wonder writer conned into trying his hand at ghostwriting? Not to mention the basset hound, Lulu.

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The Man Who Died LaughingIn The Man Who Died Laughing, Hoagy heads to California to ghostwrite the autobiography of famous comic Sonny Day. Much of Sonny’s story comes out in the form of interview tapes, but he’s reluctant to answer the one question everyone asks—what caused the public fistfight which ended his partnership with straight man Gabe Knight. That question seems to be at the heart of a whole string of drastic events: death threats, vandalism, arson, and finally murder. Someone clearly does not want the answer to become public.

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The book is set in the early 1980s, and many celebrities of the day wander in and out of the story (perhaps to assure the reader that Day and Knight are not based directly on any real people), lending considerable atmosphere to the setting. There’s quite a bit of wry humor, but the mystery is a bit darker than I expected. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I have another Handler tale (The Woman Who Fell From Grace) waiting on my Kindle. I’ll be watching for others in the series.

 

Nature vs. Technology

One of the hazards of living alone is that there’s no one else around to handle some task I don’t want to do. If I can’t do if myself, I pretty much have to hire it done. (The benefits include eating cereal for supper, knowing what’s in the refrigerator, and never finding the toilet seat up in the middle of the night.)

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Monday afternoon I came home from the grocery store to find the TV, which I had left playing the smooth jazz station on Music Choice, displaying the dreaded “One Moment Please” signboard. Well, once in a while, the channel really does come back on shortly, so I turned on the radio and waited half an hour to call Comcast. The mechanical woman who answers the phone there (and does her best to protect any human being from having to talk to a customer) assured me there was no outage in my area and offered to send a reset signal to my cable box.

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I have never ever had a problem solved by a reset signal, but it was worth a try. When I got a text message half an hour later asking if the reset had succeeded or failed, I replied “failed.” By then I had checked my other TVs and discovered that none of them were working. I tried to explain that to the thickly accented Comcast agent who called me back, but he insisted on trying to fix the living room box. The usual procedure of unplugging the box and plugging it back in resulted only in a total failure of the box to reboot. At that point the agent (in India, I’m sure) gave up and scheduled a tech appointment for Friday morning, the next day that I could be home.

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I use the TV for background noise ninety per cent of the time; I’m used to it, but not having it isn’t a great sacrifice (albeit, given Comcast’s rates, a rather expensive one). So for several days I listened to the radio, watched video on my tablet, read, and went to bed earlier than usual with no TV to distract me.

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Then the reminders kicked in: one email and two phone calls, one leaving a voice mail, on Thursday afternoon. On Friday morning, I was up early, in time for another phone call at 7:30 and a text message saying the tech was on the way. The next text message, at 8:23, telling me that the tech had arrived, was a bit disconcerting, since there was no tech in sight, but a nice young man did arrive at 9:05. He listened to my description of the problem—the TV box in the living room was out, the one in the bedroom had the right time and the program guide, but no programs, and the ancient TV in the sewing room had no video signal—he immediately knew that the problem was in the outside wiring, specifically in the line coming from the utility pole out back.

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And that’s where Nature came into the picture (or lack thereof). The utility pole is shrouded in bamboo. Wet bamboo, thanks to the overnight thunderstorm we’d just had. The Comcast tech couldn’t get his ladder close to it. He went around the block and approached it from the other side (the pole is actually located on the other side of the fence in a neighbor’s yard). He could see the disconnected line from there, but couldn’t reach it.

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Comcast, he told me, leases access to the utility easement and poles from CenterPoint, the company that handles all the electrical infrastructure around here. Hacking through the bamboo is not the cable company’s responsibility.

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So I called the local tree service that contracts with CenterPoint to trim trees. I had their phone number because they’d left a note on my door a few weeks ago, but as far as I can tell they never did any work in my yard. It seems to me that if Comcast can’t get to the utility pole, neither can the phone company or, more to the point, CenterPoint’s own workers. When the tree service supervisor called back, he seemed pretty unconcerned about pole access, although he did promise to send someone out to look at the problem next week.

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So I’m contemplating the thought of spending a chunk of this weekend hacking down bamboo myself, waiting to see what the tree service says, or looking for someone I can hire (spending a chunk of money rather than time) to solve the problem. And then calling Comcast back and finding someone to actually listen to what I need.

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I had lunch yesterday with a friend who was horrified by the thought of no TV—but she wanted to watch the Astros game last night. Missing that didn’t bother me—I’m glad they won, but I wouldn’t have been watching. I have radios, books, Amazon Prime, piles of DVDs, and the Internet. I can weather a few more days without Comcast just fine.

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But it makes me wonder just who really has jurisdiction over something as simple as utility poles (alas, my neighborhood was built up long before buried lines came into use). And maybe it would be nice to have a husband, son, brother, or nephew who would go out and cut down that bamboo while I read a book.

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