I first read Lace as a 16-year-old schoolgirl at Dominican Convent High School in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, in the 1980s. I remember that chunky, glitzy novel being passed around during math, biology, religious education classes ... under our desks, pages earmarked as it moved along ... for your reading pleasure ...
What giggles it provoked; how many hushed discussions it spawned, and how those we called the "forward" girls dissected and expounded on the text. And all of it done right under the noses of the austere nuns.
The women of Lace — Judy, Pagan, Kate and Maxine — battle and strive from the 1940s right up to the late '70s to fulfill their ambitions. They do it on their own terms, at times ruthless, at times fragile. There is Kate, the supremely talented war correspondent; Maxine, the uber-successful interior designer; Judy, the public relations dynamo; and Pagan, the business-oriented, charity fundraiser.
And, of course, Lili, single-minded actress, clawing her way up from B-movie hell to A-list star, uttering those unforgettable, pivotal words: "Which one of you b - - - - - - is my mother?" when she finally manages — through all kinds of scheming — to bring the four now-estranged women together and confront them in suite 1701 of a New York hotel.
To whom the book belonged remains a mystery, but in a sense it belonged to all of us convent girls in that sleepy town in southern Zimbabwe. We were having our eyes opened in more ways than one. We took turns taking it home, like a beloved class pet.
Lace traveled from my own modest home in a newly integrated, formerly whites-only suburb, which lay on the fringes of the blacks-only township, to the lavish hillside mansions of my white schoolmates. It drew us all together like only a juicy novel, set in exotic lands could.
Many years later (married and a mother of two, living in Switzerland) I revisited Lace. I was writing what would become my debut novel, The Boy Next Door, which draws, in part, on my teenage years in Bulawayo. I was now in the very country where some of the glamorous action takes place. The Switzerland of private boarding schools, chateaus, chalets and the jet-set, worlds away from my own hometown, and yet the book still held its exotic appeal.
Shirley Conran really knows her characters and, boy, does she have the vocabulary and artistic flair to realize them. They are alive, bristling with desire and energy as they make their way in the world.
There is glamour, intrigue, scandal, and such wonderfully realized, provocative, unapologetic female characters that, surely, they can be considered feminist icons in their own way. They are go-getting, take-charge, make-things-happen women. They want and demand fulfilling careers that soar to stratospheric heights, and great sex to boot.
But even then the fundamental feminist question was being asked: Can women really have it all, or does something have to be sacrificed along the way?
In light of all this, perhaps it's time to take Lace out from that second inner row on my bookshelf and proudly slot it, right next to Simone de Beauvoir.
Irene Sabatini's latest book, Peace and Conflict, comes out in November.
The southern French town of Aix-en-Provence is known more for good living than for murder. But the town's languid beauty is also what makes it a perfect setting for Mary Lou Longworth's Provencal mysteries with Inspector Verlaque.
On a recent afternoon, Longworth is comfortably ensconced at her favorite cafe under the plane trees. She watches the locals stroll by under a slanting, Mediterranean sun. Longworth could have set her mysteries 20 miles south of here, in the tough, crime-ridden port town of Marseille. But she says that would have been too predictable.
"Aix is a place where you don't imagine anything bad happening," she says. "And yet, behind all the carved wooden doors and the chiseled golden stone facades, there's a lot of mystery."
The small size of the city helps too. "It's very, very compact," she explains. "It's a college town and it's a law town. So it seemed a perfect place to set a mystery. And I liked the idea of this beautiful, beautiful place having a dark side."
Longworth says she doesn't do violence. So her mysteries are like intricate puzzles. The reader pieces them together with the help of the series's two main protagonists — investigating Judge Antoine Verlaque, and Marine Bonnet, a law professor at Aix university. The two are an on-again, off-again couple and complete opposites.
"He's opinionated, he loves good wine, he's fussy about what he eats, he smokes cigars," Longworth explains. Meanwhile, "Marine is somebody who is very beautiful but doesn't know it. Like many women who are in their 30s and not married yet, she has worries. She's very honest and somebody with a lot of integrity. What you see is what you get."
Verlaque, on the other hand, "is a man of hidden mysteries."
The interweaving human relationships are an integral part of Longworth's series and key to solving her crimes. She says she's most inspired by 1950s British novelist Barbara Pym, who was fascinated by the minute details of English life. Longworth hopes she has turned that kind of lens on Aix.
"Aix is a small, pristine town, but with these big characters," Longworth says. "I mean, everyone has this ... larger than life personality whether it's the waiter in your favorite cafe or the neighbor downstairs who kind of yells at you in a good way as she's hanging her laundry outside. And so I thought, that's perfect for a book. ... It wasn't too hard to put these characters on the page."
'Real Downton Abbey Stuff'
A native of Toronto, Longworth was living in Santa Cruz, Calif., when she arrived in this old Roman spa town 17 years ago after her husband landed a job in the area. She spoke no French, and friends said they'd be surprised if she lasted two years. But she began writing articles about travel and local cuisine, all while struggling to learn the language.
"I was so thrilled to be here, so thrilled to walk my daughter to school instead of having to get in a car," she says. "We walked through the market every day ... and buy food and ask questions and point to things if I didn't know the word. And the Aixois were very welcoming. ... I never felt out of place."
Longworth says being an outsider in Aix also had advantages. In addition to meeting market traders, she also got to meet counts and nobles, who took her into their chateaux and told her tall tales of their families. Real Downton Abbey stuff, she calls it. So Longworth decided to try her hand at fiction, and thought mystery would provide the perfect medium.
"I had never sat down and written a mystery, nor read very many," she admits. "But I did devour all of Donna Leon's from the beginning of her mysteries set in Venice. And the Inspector Morse series set in Oxford. And both of those towns remind me of Aix in size and beauty. You know, it's a bit of everything. It's armchair traveling. It's a mystery, and I've always liked the puzzle of mysteries."
Since 2008 Longworth has taught a writing class once a week at New York University's Paris campus. But she says she prefers life down south.
"[In] Aix, you slow way, way down," she says. "People have time to talk. I think that's what really attracted me to the city. I was trying to learn French, and shopkeepers, waiters, other mothers waiting outside the school for their children ... they were interested."
'Their Neighbor, Their Friend And Their Cafe Patron'
Through her delicious descriptions and close attention to detail, Longworth transports readers to Aix's cobbled streets, with its bubbling fountains and sun-dappled plazas. Passing in front of Église Saint-Jean-de-Malte, Longworth explains this church is the favorite church of her character Marine Bonnet.
"Marine likes it because she can see the spire from her balcony," Longworth explains. "Her balcony is just a garden to the left of us. And the colors change literally every hour. The best part is around 7 o'clock on a summer night when it turns bright pink, and then gradually fades to gray."
The next stop is the neighborhood cheese shop where Longworth is a customer and friend. The Verlaque and Bonnet mysteries also plunge you into a languid world of epicurean pleasures and good living — a place where the food and wine are often as important as clues to the crime.
Longworth's series is smart, and filled with cultural and historical references. You may find yourself looking a few things up.
And while she partly models her characters on friends and acquaintances, only a few know she's a mystery writer. Longworth says the Aixois revere writers too much.
"I wouldn't want people at the cafe to know I'm a writer," she says. "It's a work I do that's separate from my relationships in Aix. So I just want them to treat me as they've always treated me — just as Mary Lou, their neighbor, their friend and their cafe patron."
The last stop on our Aix mystery tour is Longworth's cigar club. Which confirms my suspicion — she's modeled the bon vivant, inspector Antoine Verlaque on ... herself!
Longworth is the only female member of this club, but she's clearly accepted into its bosom. When you understand food and wine, she says, a good cigar is the natural next step.
"They're full of taste, full of flavor," she says. "They can be spicy, they can have chocolate, they can have a bit of a leather taste like some red wines."
Longworth smokes her cigar on a terrace overlooking the terra cotta rooftops of her beloved southern French city, while Cuban music floats out into the air.
There's a running joke in Los Angeles that everybody — from your dog walker to your dry cleaner — is writing a screenplay. Curt Neill is one of those aspiring screenwriters — a sketch comedian who has tried to write screenplays, but never finished one. "I've never even gotten close," he admits in Caffe Vita, an LA coffee shop where he writes.
But he's full of ideas for scripts. So many, in fact, that he started a blog for all the ideas he can't deliver on — he calls them "idea seeds." Finally, in a fit of frustration, Neill wrote a book titled This Movie Will Require Dinosaurs, in which he presents a collection of (intentionally) dreadful beginnings of screenplays — which don't get very far. Here's an example:
Anywhere from 20 to 25 GUYS are involved in a gunfight. Some of the guys are GOOD GUYS, some of them are BAD GUYS, and one of them is AGENT JOHN MACKEY (good guy).
Mackey's a great shot, so he's just taking out Bad Guys one by one.
He shoots BAD GUY #7, but he doesn't die right away.
BAD GUY #7: If I'm going down, you're going down with me, Mackey!
He pushes a red button on a DETONATOR and the whole place blows up in flames. But not before Mackey and the remaining Good Guys get out just in time.
This fake screenplay continues with this life-or-death question from Agent John Mackey: "Who wants tacos?"
AGENT JOHN MACKEY: Who wants tacos?
Stupid question. Everybody does. END SCENE.
Who wouldn't want tacos? But can they afford it? Unless they have trust funds, screenwriting hopefuls like Neill usually nickel-and-dime their way through the day. Neill was earning money delivering pizza, but he recently quit that job. Risky, but now he's a published author.
"This is the first thing I've been paid to write," he says. "All I do is point out how bad I am, and that's what worked for me."
This amuses Neill's friend, fellow writer Sandeep Parikh. He has written lots of screenplays, and even sold some. But he's had plenty of duds.
"Most of my furniture is made out of crappy screenplays I've written," Parikh says. "It's cost-saving. It's how I get by."
LA is full of writers who never finish; writers who finish but never sell; and writers who finish, and sell their screenplays, but never get them produced. Parikh is one of those. He once sold a script to Comedy Central.
"It was nice to get paid," he says. "It was a big payday."
Five figures — the most he'd ever gotten. It paid the rent for months.
"[But] I ended up spending a year and a half on it," he says. "So who wants to live for, effectively, $15K-a-year salary?"
Parikh has had quite a bit of success as a writer, but he knows that once a script is sold, the decision to actually make it or not is out of his hands. The buyer owns the script. So it can sit on a shelf somewhere — forever.
Justin Becker, another of Neill's writing pals, has had a different frustration after having sold.
"My experience so far," he says, "has been that every time you move onto the next stage, it presents an exciting opportunity for it to fail or die in a new and exciting way."
Everyone has an axe, says Becker. And they are just waiting to chop the script. An executive, a programmer, a director — eventually, they just stop getting in touch.
"It's a slow no," Becker says.
A successful screenplay, according to Neill — although, really ... how would he know? — must grab readers on page one, and never let go.
"Everybody reading it at any stage has to be able to see it," he says. "So you have to paint the picture properly without making it too obnoxious or boring to read. You got to be able to really put the picture in the people's minds before they've ever seen the actors who are going to be in it."
FADE IN: A series of still photos. Black and white. Ancient.
BABE RUTH SWINGS — An icon of American history. His giant upper body balanced delicately on tiny ankles and feet. The huge bat in an elegant follow-through...
DISSOLVE TO: TY COBB ROUNDS THIRD — The most vicious ballplayer of them all, a balletic whirling dervish.
DISSOLVE TO: JACKIE ROBINSON STEALS ROME — Yogi Berra applies the tag. Too late.
DISSOLVE TO: JOE DIMAGGIO WITH HIS SON in the Yankee clubhouse. Walking down the runway, Joe in uniform. Number five.
PULLBACK REVEALS: A WALL COVERED WITH BASEBALL PICTURES behind a small table covered with objects and lit candles. A baseball, an old baseball card, a broken bat, a rosin bag, a jar of pine tar — also a peacock feather, a silk shawl, a picture of Isadora Duncan. Clearly, the arrangement is — A SHRINE — And it glows with the candles like some religious altar. We hear a woman's voice in a North Carolina accent.
ANNIE (V.O.) I believe in the Church of Baseball.
In coffee shops all around Los Angeles, there are people who believe in the Church of Screenplays. Writers and writer wannabes, fixated at their laptops, typing out scenes and dialogue and brilliant ideas. Neill's book This Movie Will Require Dinosaurs salutes those efforts — and makes hilarious fun of them at the same time.
Set during the Depression, washed in dreamy grays and greens, Jules Feiffer's new Kill My Mother looks like an old noir film; you almost expect Robert Mitchum to step out of the pages, flicking a cigarette lighter. The story is classic Hollywood too: spitfire Annie spars with her mother as she searches for the truth behind the death of her policeman father. But Feiffer's loose-limbed drawings and twisty plotting (and his strong, delightfully flawed female leads) make Kill My Mother a much livelier experience than even the wildest noir. In these opening chapters, we meet Annie, her best friend and her mother Elsie — who works as the secretary for a hard-drinking private detective. And there's a mysterious blonde, because of course there's a mysterious blonde. Kill My Mother will be released August 25.
Excerpted from Kill My Mother: A Graphic Novel by Jules Feiffer. Copyright 2014 by B. Mergendeiler Corp. Published by Liveright Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.
I grew up on a mortgaged cattle ranch with a grandmother, who spoke in tongues, and a mother addicted to prescription pills: Percodan, Valium, Vicodin, you name it. My father was killed when I was just an infant (pickup, train tracks), and my grandfather was an oil pipeline worker in the Middle East. He had a Kurdish bodyguard named Abdul who once killed a man with a knife.
At the age of 14, I stumbled across The Stranger, Albert Camus' famous novel of absurdity and detachment. It was hard not to relate.
It was the voice I connected with first, antihero Meursault's poker-faced assessment of a world that makes as little sense to him as mine did to me. His mother has just died, though he never bothers to inquire precisely when. The day after the funeral, he goes swimming, starts a meaningless affair, then strolls off to the movies to see a comedy. A week later, he shoots a man to death (he doesn't own up to pulling the trigger, exactly: the way Meursault tells it, "the trigger gave"). When questioned by the judge about his motives, he explains that he fired those five shots (five!) "because of the sun."
While I was listening to this guy talk about how happy he is awaiting execution, something strange was happening to me. Hard to put my finger on. Had I even read a novel before this one? Where on earth did I come across it? It was that Cure album Standing on a Beach. The cover had a warning sticker (otherwise I never would've picked it up). The very first song on the record was inspired by Camus' book, so I decided to go straight to the source.
So now I had this voice speaking to me, a maladjusted French-Algerian who has difficulty mourning his mother, an impartial observer of his neighbors, who beat both dogs and women. What is it that makes him tick, I wondered? Then, for some reason, I was wondering about myself. Would I respond to events as coldly as Meursault? It wasn't exactly what he says or does that caught my attention; it's all he's not saying, not doing. That might be what makes him so strange — his disconnectedness, his distance from normal human feeling, the way he just observes.
As I pedaled down the dirt roads of rural Oklahoma, the fine red dust powdering the blond hairs on my arms, there were two of me: the Me who thought my usual thoughts, and the Me who thought Meursault's. Meursault says, "I had pretty much lost the habit of analyzing myself," but his story had the opposite effect on me. When talking to his lawyer, Meursault feels "the urge to reassure him that I was like everybody else." I felt that, too — which was a problem, I decided, because Meursault isn't like everybody else. Neither was I.
So I read The Stranger over and over my freshman year of high school. It was a thin paperback that fit snugly in my hip pocket, and it was comforting to have Meursault available like that. It was comforting to consider the ways the two of us were alike, more comforting to consider all the ways we were different.
Because, much as I wanted to, I couldn't really adopt Meursault's emotional detachment. It was plenty appealing: seemed like if you were detached that way, things might not hurt as bad. My problem, I decided at the time, was always feeling too much. There was this white-hot rage I felt toward my father, a man who'd sat there in a stalled pickup on the tracks of the Frisco railroad, trying to get the thing restarted, too ashamed to go back and tell the friend he'd borrowed the truck from that he'd gotten it flattened by a train. (His solution was to stay behind the wheel, grinding the ignition, until the train hit and killed him.) There was that red-hot rage I felt toward my mother. There was a medium-rare kind of rage I felt toward all the little Podunks in my little Podunk community. (Its actual name is "Little" — Google it.) And then there was that raw-pink rage I reserved for myself — I knew, deep down, I was the littlest Podunk around.
All this rage (and about a squillion other emotions): a thoroughly un-Meursault way of existing on Planet Earth. And this, I finally realized, was what made me a stranger of a different kind: For years, too much feeling seemed like a curse I carried, but when I started writing (imitations, at first, of Meursault's story), that depth and intensity of emotion became an incredible gift, and oddly enough, the rage began to cool. It was Meursault who helped me do that — a stranger who, in time, became a friend.
Aaron Gwyn's latest novel is Wynne's War.