Sunday, September 13, 2015

kinsey and me (too), part 2

Not much is said of the (too) in kinsey and me (too), part 1, unless you surmised that I too would stay awake to "read Nancy Drew mysteries on hot summer nights," as Sue, Kit, and Kinsey did. This post will go back and pick up on the 'me too' thread.

I have always felt a kinship with Kinsey Millhone, although I could never follow her regimen of running three miles a day (five days a week), and I have no training in martial arts or marksmanship. I appreciate to the fullest Kinsey's irreverence for most social mores and I endorse her minimalist lifestyle: small cars, a casual wardrobe (with one good black dress/tunic for emergencies), and readiness to travel at the drop of a hat. I love peanut-butter and pickle sandwiches, but am not addicted to the fast food Kinsey shamelessly devours in her car. Since high school, 3x5 index cards have been my preferred medium for important notes and lists, and Kinsey always carries a big bundle of cards in her shoulder bag.

Having spent memorable times in Santa Barbara, I enjoy the settings of Sue Grafton's novels. Her fictional Santa Teresa and neighboring cities including Colgate, Montebello, Perdido, and Cottonwood are thinly veiled versions of towns in the greater Santa Barbara/Ventura area. When Kinsey travels outside this area, 'real' place names are used: Reno, San Francisco, Bakersfield, Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, Culver City.

Getting to know landmarks and characters through a series of novels makes a reader feel at home. This is true in Anthony Trollope's Barsetshire and Caroline Keene's* River Heights, as well as in Sue Grafton's Santa Teresa. Kinsey's friends are my friends: lovable landlord Henry Pitts, restaurateur Rosie, confidante Vera, the enigmatic Dietz, and a cohort of officers from the Santa Teresa Police Department.

My kinship with Sue Grafton is simpler in a sense, but more complex in others. She was born in 1940, I in 1941; we came along at the tail end of the 'silent generation (1925-1942),'** born before Pearl Harbor yet shaped by our parents' experiences of the Great Depression and World War II.

I have watched Grafton age gracefully through book-jacket photos taken from 1983 to the present, and in each one she looks like someone I would meet at a community event or remember from my high school class of 1958. Just look at those dimples!

With this image in mind it was fun to spot Grafton's dimples on the face of evil Edna Shallenbarger, an embezzler who skips bail to appear in X. Kinsey tells us: "She smiled with her lips together, creating a dimple in each cheek. The effect was curious. Malice surfaced and then disappeared" (pp. 154-55). I sensed that Sue Grafton has used her dimples to great advantage throughout her life, and I now I will continue to look for dimples on the faces of characters in her fiction.

It's tempting, but I do not intend to count the ways that reading Kinsey and Me has informed -- and will continue to inform -- my reading and re-reading of the Kinsey Millhone mysteries, but I do want to comment on the 'me too' effect in Grafton's X. Don't worry. No 'spoiler alert' is needed.

X is set during a serious drought that lasted from 1986 to 1991, and all the households in Santa Teresa are being asked to cut back voluntarily on their water use. Henry Pitts is trying hard to comply by taking out his thirsty lawn, putting in a drip irrigation system, and learning about gray water. At times I felt like I was reading my own blog:

Weather pundits warn that California's drought is not over . . . . Water-saving measures abound: days and hours (minutes!) of watering time are severely limited, cities pay $2.00 per square foot and more for residential lawn removal, and courses in xeriscaping appear in college extension catalogs. People joke about the 'water police.'
But where Henry's compliance is still voluntary, we in Culver City have moved to the mandatory level. A fine of $250 will be levied any time we are caught running potable water outdoors, at times other than before 8:00 a.m. or after 6:00 p.m. on Tuesdays and Saturdays. One neighbor in particular likes to phone the water company whenever she spots a violation.

From time to time I have written about my preoccupation with organizing our household effects. Sandra Felton, one of my current gurus in this area, recommends a regimen of three C's to use when decluttering: consolidate, containerize, condense. Following this procedure, I am currently consolidating and containerizing a vast number of things -- mostly yarn and other craft supplies -- into an indexed series of Bankers Boxes (about 30 so far, with no end in sight).

When Kinsey talks about assembling Bankers Boxes I once again feel that I am astride that fine line between fiction and fact. Kinsey uses her knowledge of Bankers Box construction (and deconstruction) to find an important clue about X's worst villain, and I can see just exactly how she did it. Luckily, I don't think I'll need to follow her example. But who knows? Someday I might want to conceal the details of a secret yarnbombing project. Where better than between layers of cardboard in Box Y?

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* collective pen name of a large group of underpaid ghostwriters working through the Stratemeyer Syndicate to create the Nancy Drew mystery series. 

** "too young to see action in World War II and too old to participate in the fun of the Summer of Love." See NPR's How Generations Get Nicknames.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

kinsey and me (too), part 1

Years ago, on the advice of a friend, I read G is for Gumshoe, Book 7 in Sue Grafton's alphabetical series of Kinsey Millhone mysteries. Soon thereafter I doubled back to A is for Alibi and kept with it through W is for Wasted -- the last few titles via my Kindle e-reader. Naturally I pre-ordered Book 24 ([is for whatever]), but what was I to read while I waited?

I noticed that Amazon's Sue Grafton page offered a book of short stories, Kinsey and Me, and so I ordered it even though I prefer longer fiction. The first half of Kinsey and Me features Kinsey Millhone, solving cases lickety-split within the rigid confines of the short-story format. The second features a fictionalized Sue Grafton, coming of age in Kentucky as 'Kit Blue' (née Conway) and coming to terms with the transitions in her alcoholic parents' self-destructive lives. The 'Kit Blue' stories were written during the decade following her mother's death. 'Vanessa' "died of an overdose of sleeping pills after extensive surgery so that the cause of death was probably listed as Despair" (pp. 273-74).

Besides the two groups of stories, Grafton presents three excellent essays which, for me, establish her credentials as a writer of elegant nonfiction. There's a preface in two parts: first describing the important differences between the mystery novel and the mystery short story, and then laying down a rationale for the writing of the more personal second part of the book. Between the two parts, "An Eye for an I" traces Grafton's own development as a reader and writer of crime fiction, alongside a detailed analysis of the genre. Finally the introduction to the second group of stories delves into the relationship between Sue, Kit, and Kinsey, starting with their largely unsupervised childhoods, free to read Nancy Drew mysteries on hot summer nights.

No doubt I could go on forever comparing and contrasting the parts of Kinsey and Me, but I'll stop with a couple of observations about style. The second half is written at what your English teacher would have called 'a higher level of diction' than anything you'll ever see in a Kinsey Millhone novel or story. It's a treat to witness Grafton take flight onto this more abstract level, but it's also a treat to see her come back down to the straightforward level on which Kinsey moves. I think the difference in style and tone is based on the fact that Kinsey is always moving into the future whereas Kit is always moving into the past.

I loved all the stories and essays in Kinsey and Me, but they would not keep me occupied until Book 24 finally downloaded itself onto my Kindle. Again, what was I to read?

Anthony Trollope (1815-1882) rarely disappoints, and the Trollope group on Facebook was discussing his one-volume novel Miss Mackenzie in July and August. I read it quickly while waiting for the group to begin its discussion, and signed up to write summaries for the last three chapters (28, 29, and 30). BTW this was the first time I have been able to stay in sync with the group schedule, and I greatly enjoyed the leisurely second reading, enhanced by comments and background material from other readers. I shared some info on aspects of Victorian life -- mourning attire and dinner-party service à la russe, for example -- and am looking forward to the group's next project.

Just as I stepped away from the rarefied atmosphere of Miss Mackenzie, Sue Grafton's X appeared on the menu of my Kindle Paperwhite. There was no 'is for' clause in the title. Grafton takes up this issue in a USA Today interview:
I first thought of using 'X is for Xenophobe' or Xenophobia, which suggests a fear of foreigners, but alas, not one single foreigner materialized in the course of the writing," Grafton says. "There's a box of files with an X on the lid, a Father Xavier, a married couple whose last name is Xanakis, and a missing painting of a xebec which is a three-masted sailing vessel, but none of these seemed to encompass the whole. Finally, it occurred to me that since I was the one who invented this 'rule' about '…is for…' I was surely entitled to break it.
Let's wait for another day to talk about reading X with the new insights afforded by Kinsey and Me.


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POSToccupations by Frances Talbott-White is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License