A Life for a Life

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A few years ago, my sister-in-law retired, leaving her urban lifestyle and moving to a cozy cottage in Warrensville, North Caroline on the edge of the Great Smokey Mountains. Her tales of the quaint village atmosphere, the surrounding natural beauty, and the restful pace of life lure me to visit. Out of curiosity I started reading about the state, and recently stumbled across A Life for a Life by Lynda McDaniel, journalist and award-winning author of fifteen books. This is her first novel, a cozy murder mystery set in the fictional town of Laurel Falls in the remote mountains of Appalachia.

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Laurel Falls is a town that hasn’t changed much in a hundred years, including the name of Coburn’s General Store even when newcomer Della Kinkaid buys it on a whim after a stay in the Black Mountains. No one could remember why the store was called Coburn’s and no one was going to call it anything else.

o19-700x466Until she decided to buy Coburn’s, Della hadn’t known how much she wanted a change in her life. She was eager to leave her career as a high-profile Washington D.C. reporter, her cheating ex-husband and all the “big city hassles” for the dilapidated store and apartment in a tiny town known for its waterfall and miles of wilderness hiking trails. It was in the woods Della and her dog, Jake, come across the body of a young woman. The woman is a stranger to Laurel Falls and sketchy evidence points the sheriff to think she committed suicide. Della disagrees and turns to an unlikely group of customers and friends, including a forger and her ex, to solve the crime.

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Although Della hasn’t been welcomed into the community, she has made a few friends. First among them is Abit, the fifteen-year-old son of the previous owners of Coburn’s. Abit’s real name is Vester, but because he’s “a bit slow” he received the moniker as a child and it’s stuck. Abit is a character in the vein of Forrest Gump, but unlike Forrest, he is not well accepted by his family or schoolmates. Abit’s father has removed him from school and the boy has little to do but lounge in his chair on the porch of the store and watch the world ignore him as it passes by. Abit recognizes how Della and he are alike, and their friendship deepens as he helps her with the store and solving the murder.

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The story is a cloze puzzle with Della and Abit meting out information in chapters of alternating points of view. The book commences with a prologue where Abit announces, “My life was saved by a murder.” It’s true. Throughout the narrative Abit and Della form a bond, and both characters journey into self-discovery and growth that lift them from “outsider” status. Each brings skills and knowledge to the investigation and life in a closed society that the other lacks. The dual points of view I found an enhancement to the story. I found their interactions with the varied supporting characters, who add to or hinder the work of living in Laurel Falls and finding a murderer, to be believable. They add color and interest to the story, and several, hopefully, will return in the sequel.

The characters and the setting are as much to do with the story as the mystery. Author, Lynda McDaniel’s attention to detail and adroit descriptions allow the reader to step right into Laurel Falls. You can hear the trumpeting call of the pileated woodpecker and feel the mist rising off the waterfall. Drawing from her “back to the land” years in North Carolina, McDaniel has stitched a patchwork of true and fictional events and people into a thoughtful mystery rooted in race, greed power and sorrow. People from McDaniel’s time in Appalachia crop up in A Life for a Life like the cranky laundromat owner, the gentle giant beekeeper who provides Della with honey, the woman who taught McDaniel to make blackberry jam and can tomatoes, Della’s best friend Cleva.

images-8McDaniel’s writing style, while vivid with detail, is deceptively straightforward. She’s not prone to overwrite her scenes or devolve into flowery dialog. She uses authentic sounding dialog and delivers real down-home southern mountain culture in what one reviewer compared to the style of Fannie Flagg. A Life for a Life has also been compared to To Kill a Mockingbird. I agree that both depict southern mores and southern style small-town living, albeit in different eras, well. Both are character driven and back a strong message of forgiveness, redemption and acceptance.Unknown-1

In A Life for a Life, a tragedy becomes the opportunity for two unlikely characters to re-start their lives: Della accepted into the Laurel Falls community and Abit embraced within his family and offered the opportunity he had dreamed of.

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A Life for a Life is one of the most satisfying books I’ve read this year. Everything about the book delighted me. I want to know more about the quirky folks in the mountains and the southern customs. The sense of personal independence, the strong family ties, and the slow-moving and tight-knit community are characteristics I applaud. Lynda McDaniel claims that everything she values today, she learned in her Appalachian home, and she’s written her love and gratitude into A Life for a Life.

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Filed under Books, Mystery, Reviews

The Secret to Happiness and Productivity

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Since last week’s post, I haven’t misplaced my keys once. I’ve accomplished  some writing and sent out queries. The bills are paid, the garden is watered, and I’ve managed to meditate most days. Things are looking up. Already I feel calmer, happier and have improved my outlook on the future. Am I waking up?

I looked into the benefits of meditation and learned that it reduces stress, pain and stress related inflammation from conditions like arthritis and asthma as it lowers blood pressure and slows Alzheimer’s disease. Wow! Scientists say that mindfulness meditation might be as effective as antidepressants for treating anxiety. In The Art of Meditation  by Janice Dunn published in TIME’s Special Edition: Mindfulness, The New Science of Health and Happiness, the author says doctors are recommending meditation for insomnia and irritable bowel syndrome. She says it take about eight week of practice to decrease stress, but I’m already feeling less hurried and ready to roll with the punches with the boost of serotonin, dopamine and endorphins my mindful brain is releasing.

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So what is mindfulness meditation, or vipassana practice?  It’s a way to “develop stillness in the midst of activity” according to Jack Kornfield. Vipassana means to “see things as they really are”  and the practice emphasizes mindful attention and develops immediate awareness of our experience in our activities. It teaches us to be present and alive. As Alan Watts said, “. . .It consists in being completely sensitive to each moment, in regarding it as utterly new and unique, in having the mind open and wholly receptive.”

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The leader of my Spiritual Center, Edward Viljoen, writes in his book, The Power of Meditation, “Observing life through meditation with less ‘unnecessary added meaning’ to what was happening inside and outside allowed reality to come into clearer focus.” It “opened the door to an infinity of ideas and awarenesses,” which he wondered how he’s managed without. I’m wondering about those ideas too.

RhondaGerhardPsychotherapyI started a new five-week meditation workshop today, Resiliency and Happiness. The series offers mindfulness based meditative techniques and Yoga Nidra for finding resiliency and happiness in the midst of challenges.  It’s my second series with Petaluma’s Rhonda Gerhard, and  this afternoon we explored intention in a guided meditation. Fixing on a couple of key words and keeping them in my mind throughout the meditation, I already feel like I’m on track to living in intention.

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I’m also energized and alert.  These are effects of Yoga Nidra, a state of deep relaxation combined with awareness. This practice calms the nervous system and allows practitioners to receive a subtle flow of energy throughout their bodies. There’s nothing like resting in a state of harmony. It’s better than sleep! Not only do your brain waves  slow down, but you can neutralize body sensations , like pain, stress, negative emotions and feelings, and even neutralize beliefs—part of that intention development. At the end of the hour, I came away with a sense of calm and well-being. Just what I needed, especially after receiving unsettling news today.

In the past I might have eaten a bowl of ice cream and veged-out in front of mindless TV after bad news. I certainly wouldn’t have gotten supper on the table a half hour earlier than usual, enjoyed a lively conversation with my husband as we ate, cleaned up and come back to the office to write my post—and feel really great about it. I’m happy to be here and looking forward to my next task too. By bedtime, I’ll have ticked off everything on my TO DO list and read another chapter of  The Power of Meditation.

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Namaste!

 

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Filed under Columns, Productivity

Another Half-Year Older (And what do you have to show for it?)

 

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Yesterday was  the longest day of the year. I didn’t get my writing done. I didn’t get my revision done. I didn’t get  my blog posted. What did I do all day? What do I do any day?

How can I stop churning and start winning?

Let’s consider this for a moment:

I began at 7:30 with coffee and laundry. Next I paid my mother’s bills and prepared the checks for the mail. I reordered a prescription on-line, brought our checkbook up to date and made my list of errands before showering, dressing and inhaling the breakfast my darling short-order cook made (bless his  heart).

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“ Looking up, I noticed I was late. . . “

I jumped into the car and made it into my seat at the lecture on medieval tapestries (I’m researching a poem) as the lecturer took the podium. Unknown-1Back home, I inventoried the refrigerator and pantry while I ate crackers and apricots for lunch, planned the next week’s menus and made a grocery list for my Wednesday run to Oliver’s  (senior discount day). I started  salad greens soaking in filtered water for our dinner (served with sliced tomato, radish, egg, potato, chicken and tuna—refreshing on another hot evening) and went to my office to complete the waiting list of tasks: new bio for the new website, update my credits’ list, grab covers and web addresses for the anthologies I’ve published in.

“ Looking up, I noticed I was late. . . “ The Post Office was going to close in ten minutes.  I gathered the letters and parcels needing postage and flew. . . .

Back in the office I finished a volunteer proofreading assignment for the next Redwood Writers anthology and and returned to the kitchen (after a pass through my garden to smell the roses) and made dinner, ate and washed up.

IMG_6414Suddenly it was  after nine and I hadn’t written, let alone posted, a blog entry, worked on the book review now due, or worked on the revision of my second novel—a lot of zeros on my checklist.

Time is ticking by and I’m exhausted. I feel like a total loser because another day, another  half year has gone by and I haven’t done my work.

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I read an article in the Huffpost recently by Abigail Williams called “5 Secrets of People Who are Always Organized.” Here’s what she says:

  • They live by lists. The key is to keep lists manageable by breaking down long-term tasks into small steps. Maybe revising the entire book today was too ambitious?
  • They have a place for everything and put everything in its place. I’m late every day because, well, where did I leave my keys?
  • They make clear, quick decisions and stick to them. I agonize over all the options, killing efficiency. Mary Oliver opens her poem, Wild Geese, with “You do not have to be good/ You do not have to walk on your knees. . .” Just get on with it!
  • They cut the clutter. What? Clean up and keep clean my wildly creative workspace (euphemism for “totally messy”)? Now, where did I put those new file folders decorated with scenes of London, Rome and Paris?
  • They value their time. Don’t you just hate those organized people? They’re able to do it all! Uh-uh. They work smarter and delegate. And herein lies the conundrum—I’m the delegee.

UnknownSo what am I going to delegate? Certainly not the shopping, dinner preparation or laundry. I’d be thrilled to stop housework, but if not me, who? My husband is earning a living (and anyway, he takes out the garbage and mows). He’d gladly hire a housekeeper—when I earn enough to pay for her. Drop my fiduciary responsibilities to my aged Mother and our family business? But as a retired accountant I’m so well qualified. Stop volunteering? Let my garden turn into a brambly weed patch? Quit my job? No, no, and no! I love my work, and my garden is my sanity keeper.

What’s the solution? Less TV? Less sleep? Less socializing?

I’m going to add a sixth secret to Abigail’s list:

  • People who are organized pay attention.  The experts say the more time you devote to your spiritual practice, the more efficiently you’ll run your life., so meditate more often. A study done at the University of Wisconsin—Madison found “people who meditate regularly have different patterns of brain waves, potentially leading to more efficient attention-paying and learning.” Meditation then is a means to organizing your mind, exactly what I need. So if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to sit.

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Filed under Columns, Inspiration, Productivity

Until Further Notice, Celebrate Everything!

I’m enjoying Skylarity’s posts. Check him out, and celebrate everything!

 

Source: Until Further Notice, Celebrate Everything!

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The Empty Bee Box

I’m worried. What will happen when Global Warming, Big AG and the pharmaceutical companies kill our pollinators? Here’s my sextina in protest.images-2

 

The sun a spotlight on my metal chair warming
my face tilted up to soak the afternoon’s silence
as sun and land secretly conspire to riotous disorder
sprouting and blooming and bringing forth bees
and ants, gopher snakes and the pair of crows to forage
to mate; my garden their abundant future.
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Yet politicians scupper Earth’s viable future
the creatures too busy living to anticipate global warming
as habitats shrink and humans mismanage the forage
and the crops, poisoning for profit the natural world to silence,
unconcerned with topics of little interest like bees
and their Honey Bee Colony Collapse Disorder.
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Children of Earth—all affected by this disorder.
Without our pollinators we have no future.
With every bite of dinner remember the bees
industrious from blossom to flower that teem in the warming
spring after the sluicing winter, their tiny buzzing silence
shrinking, a muted reminder of loss of nutritious forage.
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Honey bee in blooming blackberry

Incomprehensible and cruel this throwing off of forage
this dismissal of reality as Earth spirals to disorder.
The presidential request of scientists’ silence,
the denial we have nothing but a bright future
making America great as global warming
dries farmlands to dust and starving the bees,
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already confused by neonicotinoids, bees
losing their way, unable to fly from forage
to hive. Monsanto, Dow, Bayer aiding the warming
with aggressive pesticides that cause disorder
to the natural cycle. Only super viruses survive the future
as Varroa, the destructor parasite sends bees to silence.
We must tabulate the evidence and fill the silence
with the real news. Gone the clover, the alfalfa. Our bees
are starving and the almond crop is dwindling. In our future:
the memory of honey and butter spread on hot toast as we forage
the cupboard for a remnant of natural food, but find disorder
of empty plastic containers, the leavings of the Earth’s warming.

 

I offer the other beings my acre of forage.
My bees and I are saving seed for the coming disorder.
To plant a field of wildflowers—my policy of warming.

 

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Filed under Poetry

In Memory, With Love

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People do not die for us immediately but remain bathed in a sort of aura of life which bears no relation to true immortality but through which they continue to occupy our thoughts in the same way as when they were alive. It is as though they were traveling abroad.  Marcel Proust

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I’m waiting for Mike, but he’s not coming back. He left us last month as the dreary rains dried up and the Napa Valley rioted into leaf and bloom. I was sure he would emerge from his Beemer in the swirl of white petals billowing from the trees shading the Upper Valley Campus parking lot. The prodigal student returning, his hat jaunty over his crisp pink button-down and white duck trousers a manuscript tucked into his portfolio and a twinkle in his eye.

You might say Michael was this teacher’s pet. But in the four years Michael Weaver Layne and I shared stories and literary criticism, we became more than teacher and pet. We became friends.

Mike trusted me with his words and I saw in his writing the potential for acclaim. His mind was wildly creative and he wrote with abandon and humor. It was a joy to read his stories and a joy to know him. Jonathan Franzen says on death: “The fundamental fact about all of us is that we’re alive for a while but will die before long. This fact is the real root cause of all our anger and pain and despair. And you can either run from this fact or, by way of love, you can embrace it.”  Mike Layne loved life, embraced it, and brought lightness to my world.

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“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there. It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so as long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away.”    Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

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Mike Layne’s legacy remains with us in his beautiful architecture, infinity pools, irreverent short stories and an unpublished novel, Mammoth, written in the style of a Clive Cussler thriller. It was Mike’s dearest wish to co-publish Mammoth with Clive. At his death, Mike was negotiating with Clive’s editor for a leg up. He was going to make it.

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Mike was also compiling a book of short stories to be titled Blah Blat and Blather. The following is one of the stories slated for the collection and one of the last pieces we worked on in class.

In an email to our group:

Dear incredible writers,
  After class, at home perched on my porch with another full glass of Pinot, I ruminated over the class critique. The original ending, something I fashioned from memories of Bambi came out as planned  (I admit to being a Disney fan, Frozen giving me warm toasty moments).images-1
    But Daphne’s observation jarred me into re-crafting the ending, cleansing it of much Walt’s fantasy.  So—–with meekness, I’ll stand it on.
Mike

 

 

Lord is my Shepherd

by

Michael Weaver Layne

No moment’s timing could have been better than when Lord entered my life. Vicky had left me, slamming the door in my face, ending what I thought was a near perfect relationship.

“What could be wrong with wanting sex three times a day?” She screamed as she stomped down the steps to the gravel drive.

“I suppose nothing, except the demand it imposes on durability,” I shouted. I felt durable enough, after all, I run marathons. But even runners need occasional breaks.

I watched as she throttled her Subaru down my long drive to the Silverado Trail.

Okay, it’s over. I sighed.

I poured a Pinot into my glass, filling it to the rim and settled into the teak chair on my porch and began dissecting my thoughts. No more evenings with Vicky on the porch, watching the cars go by. No more evenings in bed with Vicky feeling my manhood sucked away ––– sitting solo on the porch –––– not nearly as bad as I had feared. I missed Vicky the nympho but welcomed the respite from her lusty demands.

I filled my glass once more and gazed across my vineyard and down the vacant drive to the Silverado Trail. A pickup swerved into my drive, sliding to a stop, its driver kicking something out of the truck’s rear bed.

“Oh no! Good lord not again.” I cursed. From my porch, I could see a little gray ball of fur yelping desperately at the truck as it sped away.

“Damn,” I growled, “Another abandoned orphan.”

It occurred all too often. An unwanted pet dropped into the midst of paradise to fend for itself, or if lucky, find adoption.

I set my glass on the table and loped down the drive. “Hey boy, come on it’s okay,” I shouted.

Rather than dart off into traffic to be run over, as these outcasts often did, the little fur bundle, yipping happily, dashed in my direction zigging down the drive. I knelt to my knees and it sailed into my arms, swabbing my face with its tongue.

“Good lord stop that,” I shouted with a laugh, holding the pup at arm’s length and just beyond the reach of its tongue. Lordy Lordy, you’re an affectionate little dog.

We bonded instantly.

“Lord.” I announced, let’s name you Lord.”

From that instant, Lord became his name and we became inseparable, best buddies, constant companions, and like the nights with Vicky, Lord and I shared the bed –– the difference, cuddling and sleep our only goal.

He loved television, particularly the Simpsons. He would lay motionless for episodes, his chin on crossed paws, one ear up and one down, his one blue eye and one brown, following Marge’s blue hairdo as if it were another candidate in need of herding.

Lords intelligence amazed me. I figured out ways for us to entertain each other. I taught his tongue to read braille. I made up plastic cards with raised dots for the words, roll over, sit, or shake. Lord would lick them, then for a treat, perform the command.

Other things too. The fire hydrant I brought home from a flea market and placed in the yard. Lord understood immediately and from that day on, it stood as his private urinal.

Lord grew into a fine sheep dog, eager to chase a Frisbee. He loved my pool and the mallard that would drop in on misty mornings. In fact, Lord loved everything. His insatiable fondness for life, his tragic flaw.

His first affair was with the skunk who lived along the Napa River, his amorous advance meeting with a blast of spray. Repeated baths of tomato soup did little to clean Lord or mask the skunk’s odor.

Next, he sought romance with a porcupine. Our vet spent half a day plucking quills from Lord’s muzzle.

In spite of these miss-adventures, he loved every animal on the ranch. The raccoons that he treed at night with gleeful barks, the squirrels whose walnuts he would dig up and chew like a bone.

Lord become a canine gigolo, lavishing love on all the ranch’s creatures.

Born to herd, he constantly dashed along the river or between the vines, organizing the progress of any creature he could spot. Quail scattered at his approach, gophers ducked back into their burrows, butterflies drifted higher as he bounded into the air to move them this way or that.

Herding was Lords passion and the bigger the thing, the better the challenge.

One morning as the lingering fog lifted, a UPS truck sped down the drive, a challenge that Lord could not ignore. Barking with delight and nipping at the tires he tried to swerve the truck to the side of the driveway.

Lord dashed in too close tripping under the truck’s front bumper. The driver unable to avoid hitting Lord rolled over him with a sickening thump.

Twisted and broken, Lord lay on the drive his tongue still lapping the air, his eyes bewildered, his hind leg twitching, then turning still.

I scooped him up and hugged him to my chest wishing desperately for one more swish of his tongue, one more wag of his butt.

I felt his last shudder. It was over.

He slumped, limp in my arms, his legs dangling in weird directions from his crushed pelvis.

“I’ll miss you, Lord,” I whispered in his ear, tears rolling down my cheeks and dripping from my chin.

I buried Lord under an ancient oak tree and within sight of my perch on the porch. I filled my glass with pinot to the rim, with eyes still pooling tears I stared at the mound of freshly piled soil.

A blue Jay scolded from an over-hanging branch, a haunting requiem bidding Lord farewell.

I looked at the two dog biscuits, Lord’s favorites that I placed next to his Frisbee on top of the mound. Two squirrels scurried down from the tree and scooped the soft dirt, reverently burying the biscuits.

Their heads popped up at a sound from the river. I followed their gaze. From beneath the trunk of a fallen tree, hidden in shadows, I spotted the outline of the skunk. The squirrels twitched their tails, alerted by scraping from the gravel drive. The porcupine shuffled past casting the burial mound a passing glance then disappeared into the mustard growing beneath the vines in the vineyard.

I looked back at the still squawking jay and caught a glimpse of the raccoon peering from behind a branch.

I re-filled my glass and walked over to the grave. I could feel eyes watching me. Lord’s friends mourning from afar, hidden yet present. I stood over the Lord’s grave alone.

A butterfly floated by.

My fingers twitched as I took Lord’s epithet scribbled on the back of a box of his favorite kibble and nailed it to the tree.

Lord my best buddy, I’ll miss you, dear friend

When we first met, I never thought it would end.

Now you are gone, and impossible to replace

Life without you, I’m not sure I can face

Your blunt little butt and eyes mismatched

All that is left, this note I have scratched

Lord you were my Shepherd

A friend so true

Never a day— that I won’t miss you.

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Mike, if I may steal your words— you were a friend and “never a day—that I won’t miss you.”

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He was a man, take him for all in all.
I shall not look upon his like again.

Shakespeare         Hamlet

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Filed under Memoir, Obituaries, Students

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I’ve never taught at a university, but I know what schools are like. After I won my MA, I accepted a position as a non-credit teacher at a local community college. Wow! I was stoked—I planned to put all that theory into practice and knew my school would celebrate my work and dedication.

Let’s just say I was delusional. It didn’t take long to discover I was regarded lower in status than that broke second cousin on the doorstep. Like credit staff, non-credit teachers are expected to attend meetings, plan, assess and report but for half the hourly pay. As Alma, a character in Oink, says, “It’s all work, low pay, and no respect.”

It’s always a delight to meet a protagonist that embodies my own values. Emily Addams is a professor of women’s studies at Arbor State University. Founded as an agricultural college in Northern California, it is rapidly shedding its reputation as an easygoing and humane community as the university adopts the worldviews of the corporations funding research into new technologies and cuts funds to the small programs.

A new Vice Provost has come aboard and Emily and her colleagues from the interdisciplinary programs face a difficult and perplexing choice for funding purposes. If they don’t choose, they may lose their programs, but even if they come in under the umbrella of Humanities or Social Sciences, they will have to prove their programs worthy of receiving funds. One way or the other, the warm community built over the years looks doomed. Building community and fighting injustice are important to Emily and she’s spent her career doing both, especially through cooking and eating.

PigBaby1Emily learns that Peter Elliott, a Professor of Plant Biology has been found face down in one of the school’s pigpens, presumably poisoned. The rumor says a group opposing genetically engineered crops is behind the poisoning as Elliott is researching GMO corn and a staunch supporter of Syndicon, the major GMO seed controller. Emily had learned about the GMO issues at a panel on GMOs and wondered, “was it GMOs themselves or the policies of the corporations that produced them— the relentless focus on profit, the resistance to regulation, the absence of concern for harming, or even helping, others… “ that gave GMOs a bad name?

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But Emily has other worries. Forty something with a young daughter and recently divorced, she’s getting into the dating game. As we meet her, she’s worried that her hair-do has flattened (I empathize with that) because she’s meeting mathematics professor Wilmer Crane after work for their first date. Crane tells Emily about finding Elliot in the pigpen clutching a piece of cornbread, which turns out to contain goat cheese and caramelized onions—Emily’s signature recipe.     2077366

Emily is named a suspect and rallies her community with food and camaraderie to investigate what really happened. She learns Elliot was receiving secret corporate funding for his new strain of genetically modified corn, he’d betrayed two of his women students and his highly accomplished wife through his philandering, as well as the Save the Fields organization gunning for him.

Named one of the funniest books coming this spring by BookBub.Com, author J.L. Newton describes the first of the Emily Addams series, “Culminating in a twist as curvy as a pig’s tail, Oink: A Food for Thought Mystery is at once a sly send-up of the corporatized university and a reminder of why community belongs at that heart of human life.” She makes a good case for community and organic food, punctuating her points with delectable recipes at the end of each chapter. Her language is both accessible and intelligent, Emily and her colleagues sound like professors, parents and friends in realistic dialog and witty narration. I appreciated the thoughtful and often humorous look at two important themes, the corporatization of campuses and GMOs.

Newton does not support corporate influenced universities, but she does make a case for the potential for GMO foods to feed the world. Respected scientific societies, including the National Academy of Sciences and thebc2f1ddf99da4c777b98768be883078e_400x400 World Health Organization, have concluded that the GMO crops on the market are safe to eat. Even pundit Michael Pollan said recently the technology itself may not fundamentally pose a greater health threat than other forms of plant breeding. “ I think most of the problems arise from the way we’re choosing to apply it, what we’re using it for, and how we’re framing the problems that it is being used to solve.”

Cozy mystery fans, fans of food novels, and readers concerned with the health of our world and its people will enjoy the twisting plot and the delicious dishes shared throughout the novel. I’m working my way through the recipes and reliving the scenes as I cook. Part of that enjoyment comes through the vivid sense of place Newton has created. At times her description becomes lush and lyrical as she details the flora and fauna, the climate and the bucolic campus.

Emily Addams comes alive on the page. She is intelligent, caring, witty, concerned and a great cook. She connects with people through sincerity and food and doesn’t try to be more than her capabilities. She fears, questions herself, doesn’t give up easily and does what is right. I’m really pleased to find a new voice in Emily Addams who I can both identify with and share a corn and cherry scone!

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Congratulations to J.L. Newton for her debut of what I’m hoping is a long-lived series of Food for Thought Mysteries. Smart, timely, readable but not dumbed-down—“Oink is a celebration of community connected to the joy of food and fellowship.”—Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber, authors of The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy. Oink is out today.  Pick up your copy at Amazon or your local bookstore. And if you’re local, join J.L. Newton for her launch of Oink In Berkeley.-1

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Dying on the Vine

 

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I didn’t think it could get any better than a wedding in Mexico turned murder mystery, but Marla Cooper has proven me wrong with the second Kelsey McKenna, Destination Wedding Mysteries, Dying on the Vine. This time Kelsey and her intrepid crew solve a crime close to home—the Napa Valley—Wine Country.

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3eaf37254262351bb62495396d14dbaaThe Napa Valley is possibly one of the most beautiful places on earth. I’m lucky enough to drive through it every week to work, and lately the vines have broken into bud, the mustard has begun to bloom and the fruit trees have exploded into clouds of flower. The wineries have put on their party dresses, welcoming the start of tourist season— locals are flocking out to partake of the spring bounty exuberantly sprouting around us.

Even I left my computer to attend a medieval

birthday party at St. Helena’s Castello di Amarosa, a 13th century castle brought over and assembled by the Sattui family, I pictured the disaster if barrels started rolling. Kings, queens, ladies, nuns, even the Pope wouldn’t be safe—I was reading Dying on the Vine at the time.

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Ok, so they don’t wear medieval costume in the book, but danger lurks in the real lives of wedding planners! Kelsey McKenna isn’t coddling a bride in an exotic setting as the story opens; she’s helping out her friend Brody, a wedding photographer, at his booth at the Wine Country Wedding Faire. She isn’t looking for clients, more interested in the cupcakes, but she’s approached by Haley Bennett and Christopher Riegert in a pinch because her father has fired the planner, Babs Norton. Kelsey can’t say no but, as Babs is the “Queen of Wine Country Weddings,” she calls on Babs to smooth the water and collect Babs’ files. Unfortunately, Babs lies dead on her office floor.images-5

 

The wedding planning community is small and buzzing by the time Kelsey attends the funeral. There, she is accused by Babs’ assistant, Stefan, of murdering his boss. Because she found the body, Kelsey’s a person of interest. She will have to clear her name and enlists Brody and her new assistant, Laurel, to help.

Meanwhile, the wedding looms and Kelsey and Laurel don’t know any of the details. Simple things like who is the caterer? Where are the flowers coming from? The couple left everything up to Babs and the file isn’t accessible. Kelsey needs to do some sleuthing just to find out what still needs to be done for the wedding and as she uncovers the plan, she also uncovers secrets that send her down one wrong turn after the next.

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It’s when another planner is attacked that Kelsey starts to fear for her own life, but it’s too late to turn back. The wedding must go on. And in the end, it does, but with that expected Cooper twist!

Cooper has crafted another funny, smart and on trend cozy mystery. This book may be better than the last, pointing to an author who takes her craft seriously. While the Dying on the Vine is often hilarious, Cooper has woven chilling suspense and heart thumping pacing throughout, balanced out with plenty of descriptions and opportunities to slow down and get to know the characters. The twists and turns kept me reading almost all night and the big climax was a total surprise. I didn’t see it coming—those Cooperesque red herrings again (but I missed the tequila donkey this time).

I fell in love with Kelsey and Brody in, Terror in Taffeta, and I’m pleased to get to know them better in this second of the series. Kelsey proves her integrity and again demonstrates her professionalism, but we also see her more vulnerable side. She needs her friends to help solve this murder. The three, Kelsey and her two sidekicks, Brody and Laurel are well characterized and create an agreeable synergy. Each personality is distinctly portrayed through their actions and the crisp, modern dialog. Kelsey’s and Brody’s banter reminds me of siblings or best friends, funny and familiar. Laurel is new to the scene, but she holds her own, proving her mettle through her trustworthiness, initiative and competence.

Dying on the Vine is a delicious late harvest Zinfandel boasting notes of humor and suspense, full-bodied character and a sweet finish. Marla Cooper and Kelsey McKenna don’t disappoint.

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Congratulations Marla Cooper! Dying on the Vine published yesterday and I’m already hankering for my next destination. Might it be Kelsey’s own dream wedding? Where will we cozy-up next?

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Lovers at the Alhambra, Generalife, Spain

P.S. Don’t you love Cooper’s book covers?! Read my review of  Terror in Taffeta here.

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When Will We Ever Learn?

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Novelist Nathaniel Robert Winters shares a poem today. Find his work at Amazon.

 

 

 

Custer Died For Our Sins

Western train throws a loud whistle

but bison won’t be moved

car screeches to a whiplash halt

 

Buffalo hunters emerge

bringing down great beasts

too many to count

a hole appears

showing the endless tracks beyond

 

Locomotive belches black cloud

starts slowly, picking up speed

white way west

 

Lakota Nation weeps

 

One hundred fifty years later

it is not tracks that scar Dakota land

but a pipeline

oil way south

 

Lakota Nation still weeps

 

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Green Grass, Yellow Mustard

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Thank you 123rf.com

 

Now and again I like to showcase the wonderful writings of my Upper Napa Valley writing workshop attendees. The following poem is by Theresa Cordova Ortez, a member of our Napa Valley College class, Autobiographical Writing, held at Rianda House, St. Helena’s Senior Center. Theresa writes Flash Memoir, scenes of her life and family. This is her first poem and it captures the beauty I’m blessed to experience every  day as I drive to work. I hope Theresa’s poem inspires you to visit the Napa Valley this spring.

The Cycle

Blue skies

Sunny days

Yellow mustard swaying in the fields

Grassy green hills

Beautiful grape vines stripped of their fruit

Standing tall in tidy rows, waiting for their time

When once again they will bear grapes

The color of deep purple and gold

the color of sun

This world-renowned jewel that sparkles like a diamond

This beautiful Napa Valley, which we are so fortunate to have

To visit, to work, and for me

To call home

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Thanks Abe K. via Flickr

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Filed under Autobiographical Writing, Poetry, Students