Scarlet Letters

The not-so-private thoughts and rants of Elizabeth Donald, journalist/author and founder of the Literary Underworld.

Monday, December 23, 2013


Ah, the blessed relaxation of a holiday vacation. Or so I hear.

Jimmy's off work until January 6, damn him; except he volunteered for an overtime shift next weekend because we could use the cash. Ian's off school until January 2. No fair.

Me? I'm on duty at the newspaper today. At least I got a late start, since I thought I had a night meeting and it's cancelled. After work, I'll finish the tins of yummies for our friends, then Jimmy and I will go out to deliver them. I also have to make dinner, since we ate out WAY too much over the weekend and now I'm afraid of our bank account.

I also need to find time to get over the river and retrieve the box of photos that I brainlessly left at a signing. I've been searching for it, because it has all my photo stock and my Christmas cards, which I'd planned to, y'know, mail. Meanwhile the box of bookplates has vanished, of course, since they have to go out this week for the first round of Kickstarter incentives.

Somewhere in that I need to make a pie for the family gathering, start the prep work on Christmas Eve dinner and wrap Jimmy's presents without him seeing them.

Tomorrow, I'm on duty at the newspaper all day. After work I'm on kitchen detail, since we'll have our family turkey dinner that night. Then I'm singing at the 10 p.m. service (Ian's serving at the 4 p.m.). Of course there's still two more packages to get in the mail.

Christmas Day I am blessedly off work. Coffee cake and presents, snuggles with Man and Boy, then family gathering over at Dad and Karen's. Note to self: wrap Dad's present!

Then the day after Christmas, I'm back at work for a full day. After work, we're driving to Sikeston for the Exchange of Prisoners.

So this is an excellent time for me to have a really cool story idea that I have NO TIME WHATSOEVER to write. Any writing time I can wring from this week needs to go to Gethsemene, which still sucks and needs to be unsucked before it goes out to the Kickstarter Angels. I need to work up some photo arrays for a publisher that wants them for cover art. Then there's two short stories I owe, the post-Christmas sale to program for, the end-of-year bookkeeping, a couple of editing gigs looming and a half-finished novel my publisher would probably like to see before we all become grandparents.

So that nifty idea is just going to have to sit in line and wait until I have a little free time.

Which should be sometime in 2017.

There's only one solution: I need to be twins.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Dear Boy, or Why We're Always Broke

Oh beloved son of mine...

I suppose I can understand that multiple bowls of cereal are not enough for a gargantuan like yourself. This is why I end up buying multiple Sam's Club boxes of cereal per week and never seem to get any cereal myself, and why we go through six gallons of milk a week. And apparently all the remaining French bread. I hope it was yummy.

But then you pulled out the frozen bowtie pasta broccoli alfredo and chomped on that for a while - without heating it up. You might have put the rest back in the freezer, by the way. I am not the maid.

And then you felt like a soda, so you got out the ice cube tray - and cracked it in half. Another item for the shopping list. How, exactly, did you manage that?

But it boggles my mind that you also apparently ate an entire 19-ounce bag of cheese tortellini. I hope you at least heated it up. I was planning to make up a scratch alfredo sauce for that tortellini. Back onto the shopping list.

Remind me to teach you how to scramble eggs. Are you full yet? I think there's some styrofoam plates left over from the party, you can gnaw on those.

Stop growing,

P.S. You are totally paying for the new ice cube tray.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Meet Ariane, or How I Doubled My Personal Debt In 15 Minutes

I've either made the smartest financial move of my life, or the second-stupidest.

The stupidest financial decision I ever made was to get student loans. Young people, learn from me. Student loans of the modern era are not your parents' student loans, easily paid off five years after graduation. My student loans were bought and sold three times within six months of my graduation, all without my consent and folding the interest in as principal. Ah, the nineties. They ended up with Sallie Mae, which jacked the interest to the skies and demanded half my salary until I ended up borrowing even more money just to stave them off until I could make a deal with the U.S. Department of Education to consolidate them into an amount roughly three times what I originally borrowed. Since then, my loans have hovered over my head as an impossible debt that I cannot hope to pay off unless that Mega-Millions ticket pays off tomorrow or someone doubles my salary.

It also destroyed my credit, as did a number of medical bills that my insurance mangled over the years. I don't use credit cards; I cut them all up and paid them off beginning in the mid-nineties. I fell into a lapse of stupidity when I started touring and got a credit card because hotels were refusing to reserve rooms on debit cards; but having learned my lesson, I cut it up a few years ago and will have it paid off within the year.

Suffice to say, credit and I are not good companions. The only cars I've owned were used cars, bought for cash or via someone else's credit. My dad helped me buy Mulan the Toyota in 2004, because my toxic credit set off klaxons when we walked into dealerships. She was five years old and had 86,000 miles on her. I paid for the car, but it was Dad's good name that got it for me.

I paid off Mulan in 2009, and happily drove a debt-free car for the last four years. Mulan, who was named by Boy at the age of five, has been a trooper of a car. She has visited more states than most people, carrying me to conventions in Chicago, Kansas City, Indianapolis, Lexington, Atlanta, Nashville and more, besides wearing a track up and down I-55 to Memphis. She's hauled books across the Midwest and back, more books than a normal sedan really should be asked to carry. In all, I put nearly 200,000 miles on the old girl.

A few Christmases ago, Mulan's timing belt snapped. It was disheartening, but the first major repair for the car was not the worst thing in the world. I wrote Infinity to raise the money for the repair, which turned out to be one of my better novellas. Then right after we moved into the house, Mulan threw her transmission. That $1,700 debacle was a much larger problem. We sold everything we could think of, raised money with the only marketable skill I have (writing, you pervs, writing), and still had to borrow the rest.

If I'd known she'd only last another year and a half, I think I would have sadly bid her farewell then. But we had just moved into the house and we were flat broke. We'd had no time to prepare, all our tax-return money had gone into the move, and Jimmy was still paying off his car to the tune of $400 a month. Don't get me started.

Mulan trundled along for more than a year, but she's been showing her age. So it wasn't a complete shock when she busted another timing belt two weeks ago. It was, however, bad timing.

We had a plan. Once Jimmy's car was paid off, we would start setting aside money to buy a replacement for Mulan. Not a new car, or even a new-to-us car. A Craigslist junker for cash. Drive it into the ground, then get another one. Neither of us wanted a car payment. Unfortunately, Mulan didn't get her copy of the plan.

The Craigslist plan was out: Jimmy still had two payments left, we'd had no time to build up the cash. The repair would be $650, also beyond our capabilities unless we stiffed the rent or all our bills for a month. And I'm still working on the novella for the Kickstarter, so another crowdfunding project was out.

Enter Dad, who kindly offered to introduce me to his awesome Honda Lady. She handled internet sales at a local dealership, and had sold Dad his two Hondas, which he loves. I had frequently admired my stepmother's Honda CRV, and we thought that would be the perfect car: reliable, tough and can haul books. And maybe my credit had improved enough to get a high-mileage, used CRV with Dad as a co-sign.

So that was the new plan. Honda Lady was terrific. She had the CRVs I'd picked out on their website ready when we showed up for our appointment, and Dad and I went for a few test drives. (Wow, they are sure nicer at a dealership than they are at the bad-credit junker lots that Jimmy and I usually frequented. They didn't even photocopy my driver's license or ask for a blood sample.)

But the new plan had problems. The higher-mileage cars could not be financed for a long-term loan, because if it dies halfway through the loan term, I have a big problem and therefore so do they. Oddly enough, they could finance me with a better loan if I bought a new car.

I'd been looking at CRVs so that I could haul the booth around the country, not because I really wanted a compact SUV. No, what I wanted was a teeny subcompact with spectacular gas mileage that also could haul books, which would have to be a TARDIS. Or so I thought.

Instead, I met the Honda Fit. Definitely a teeny car, with combined gas mileage of 32mpg (so far more like 40) and stripped down of all nonessentials to a nice low price. In fact, the new Honda Fit was on sale for $15,000, nearly four grand cheaper than the used CRVs.

But what about the boooooooooks? Turns out, the Honda Fit is a hatchback that does a neat little magic trick:

Hello there, Literary Underworld (we have cookies)

That's 57 cubic feet of hauling space. And, if I travel alone, I can also fold down the passenger seat for even more space. Even cooler: the back seat also folds UP, so I can fit tall things if necessary.

This is somebody else's picture, because I'm too lazy to go outside and fold up my seats just to show you.

Still I was dithering. A car payment is a thin slice of hell, as I recalled from paying off Mulan. Of course, then I was a single mother who had just begun her writing career. I didn't have a partner to help pay the bills, I didn't have a (thin, anemic, trickling) second income from my fiction work, and Boy was still young enough to need after-school care and babysitting on a regular basis. (On the other hand, he wasn't drinking six gallons of milk a week, either.)

We talked it over endlessly, and I veered from "this is insanely stupid" to "this is the best idea ever." And then I sat down with Mephistopheles the Finance Guy, who informed me that the car payment would be about $75 more than I expected.

Jimmy pointed out that it was still significantly less than his car payment, and I pointed out that his car payment was strangling us. Jimmy reminded me that he's due for a raise early next year; I reminded him that I'm not, thanks to salary freezes at Ye Olde Newspaper.

In the end, what kicked it over was the warranty. By buying a new car, and kicking in the extra $16 for the extended warranty, I am covered bumper-to-bumper for seven years, or a year longer than the loan. As Jimmy pointed out, that is peace of mind that we have never had. When we really examine it, the biggest financial problem either of us has had in our single lives or that we have had together has been unexpected car repairs. Even now, we know we will have to scrounge up another $500 for Jimmy's catalytic converter before he can re-register his car.

The other point that Mephistopheles made: this particular dealer gives me a lot of bonuses I've never had. Not just the free car washes for life or two years of free maintenance, including tire rotations and oil changes. But if I go all seven years of the warranty without needing a major repair, I get the extra cash back as a bonus. That's $1,685 I'll get if the gamble doesn't pay off and the car needs no work for seven years.

And it comes in blue.


It was far too easy. Sign on a piece of paper, and bingo! You have doubled your personal debt. Fifteen minutes of signing my name on papers, and Honda Lady was handing me fancy electronic keys and showing me how the gizmos work. After Dad departed (with a biiiiiig thank-you and hug from me), I stood there with Honda Lady, kind of overwhelmed.

"Excited?" she asked.

"And terrified," I replied, grinning. "I never had a new car before. I really didn't think I ever would, not with my student loans."

And she hugged me.

So now I have a new car, and the ability to drive wherever I want, and we are guaranteed at least one of our cars will be working for seven years. Sure, I'll be paying it off after Boy goes to college. But it'll help my credit, it'll get me where I need to go, and a little magnetic skull sign would look awesome when we go to conventions, don't you think?

The boys love it - we've gone on a few little joyrides around town, and the sightseeing is awesome with that giant Popemobile windshield. Boy started calling it the Swag Wagon, since "swag" now means "cool" in teenspeak, and he is forbidden to drive it EVER. Best of all, since nothing was required in cash, we were able to make the last payment on Jimmy's car early and are now free of that.

Still terrified, since debt is bad. But the peace of mind is growing on me. And I can't recommend Honda Lady enough, since she was terrific to me even though the bad-credit klaxons should have been roaring over my head as soon as I walked in. If anyone local wants a referral, please let me know; I'd like to give her more business.

And Ariane? We're getting to know each other. I gave the name a test run this weekend and it suits her. People will think I named her after the heroine in Infinity, which was a car-related novella. But what only you loyal blog-readers get to know is that I named the Infinity character after my favorite perfume when I was a teenage girl, perfume they don't make anymore. I still have a little smidgeon left, and I plan to wear it at my wedding. And they said I can't be sentimental.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Ten (or more) Books

There's no way to properly discuss ten formative books in a Facebook post. Books have been far too much of an influence in my life for that. But after the fifth or sixth time I'm tagged on a meme, even I start to notice.

Trying to choose only ten books is... difficult. I started reading at age three, or so I'm told, and haven't stopped since. I don't consume books at the rate I did as a young person, mostly because I'm old and tired and after a few pages I fall asleep. It's also much more slow going reading a nonfiction book on history or philosophy than the paperback novels I devoured as a youngster. But if there's a good mystery on my nightstand, it'll be consumed posthaste.

Here's my books, in no particular order, with honorable mentions:

1. Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell. I discovered this book about the time Nancy Drew was losing her appeal for me. As much as I adored Nancy and her titian-haired adventures, she was always getting captured and having to be rescued. Scarlett O'Hara captivated me because she stepped up, took responsibility for herself and everyone around her, saved the farm and her family (sometimes kicking and screaming) and did it with her own skills and the tools she had at hand. At first she relied on a man, and when he abandoned her by the side of the road in the middle of a war zone, she shook it off and rescued them herself. My parents were concerned about my fascination with this book, because of its racial politics and questionable view of history. They shouldn't have worried; the racial politics (and Scarlett's moral shortcomings) flew right over my young head. It was simply the first book I'd read in which the woman saved herself.

- Honorable Mention: Black Beauty by Anna Sewall. How much of my love for this book was because of its point-of-view structure, its examination of the times in which Sewall lived, its vivid descriptions... and how much was because like most young girls, I adored horses? Unknown. I just know that Black Beauty lives on in my mind more than The Black Stallion, King of the Wind or any of the other horse tales I read as a girl.

2. Imzadi by Peter David. I discovered Star Trek the summer before Next Generation premiered. I couldn't get enough of it, catching every episode on syndication, and was glued to the television for each TNG episode. Naturally, I read the books. Every mass-market paperback I could afford, including those of this up-and-coming fellow named Peter David. Imzadi was one of the first for which I splurged on a hardback, and quickly became my favorite. It explores the backstory of Riker and Troi, and forms the most fascinating time-travel story paired with the best love story in Trek. It works as a romantic adventure as well as a Trek story, and I read it over and over in my teens.

Honorable Mentions: Strangers from the Sky by Margaret Wander Bonanno, which was my favorite read-to-tatters Trek book until Imzadi came along, and Diane Carey's Final Frontier and Best Destiny novels, which explored the career of George Kirk and (in the latter) his relationship with young Jim. They should have filmed any or all of these instead of AbramsTrek.

3. IT by Stephen King. Most of King's work falls in the category of "favorite books," especially his earlier work. But IT tops them all. All of King's work is about a boogedy-boo on top and something else underneath: Cujo is about a rabid St. Bernard, but it's really about marriage and its trials and failures. The Shining is about a haunted hotel, but it's really about alcoholism in the family. And with IT, King used his favorite trope (the small evils of small-town life) to showcase not just a shape-changer that lives off fear, but the imagination of childhood and how we lose it as we grow up. We forget the magic and it takes an industrial crane to suspend our disbelief, and that is the great tragedy of human life. IT was the scariest of creatures because it could be anything or anyone. It could be whatever you fear, and that ordinary person you're chatting with (or the person in bed beside you) could turn out to be the monster. It is the only book I ever had to put aside because it scared me too much, but I went back to it a year later and finished it. To this day, it is my favorite book.

Honorable Mention: The Stand. I love destroying the world, and reading King's version of it is always a thrill ride. It is a close second to It, grander in scope but lacks a bit of that bone-chill. 

4. The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin. Levin taps into one of women's greatest fears: becoming irrelevant, a subset of her husband, the loss of her identity in the roles that society created for her. Many thought that Levin was making fun of the women's movement when he wrote this book at its height, but he was really pointing the finger at the husbands who expected wife-mothers to cook, clean, raise the children, look like a goddess and properly submit in bed - and in turn, the fears of those men when they realized their wives were adult women with thoughts and feelings and motivations of their own that weren't entirely about them. Stephen King wrote a brilliant review of the Stepford Wives movie in the 1970s, in which he pointed out the true horror of the final reveal (SPOILERS): It's not that the Katherine Ross android has no eyes. It's that she's so much more beautiful than Ross, with perfect makeup and breasts three times the size of Ross's. Her horror is not just that her husband traded her in for a robot look-alike; it's that this was what he really wanted. Something beautiful, subservient and soulless, because her soul isn't important to him. So when the century turned and they made it into a fucking comedy I went a little nuclear. This isn't funny stuff, folks.

Honorable Mention: Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K. Hamilton. I lost interest in Anita several books ago, after the series became nothing more than sex scenes woven together by a thin plot thread. I can't criticize Laurell for her choice; the ardeur got her on the New York Times bestseller list, and who wouldn't want that? But I liked Anita the way she was in the first few books: Browning in hand, facing the enemy... and with Hamilton willing to kill off major characters. Anita's not just spending most of her time on her back now; the whole series has gotten too safe, because nobody important dies anymore. So it's easy to forget how damn fun those first five books were.

5. The Rainmaker by John Grisham. I've liked much of Grisham's work - A Time to Kill and The Pelican Brief both were amazing novels that dug into the heart of American race relations and politics, respectively. But it's Rainmaker that has my love, because it's a sheer delight of the most cathartic manner for anyone who has battled an insurance company. It has a wry, snarky wit; you will find yourself giggling during a book that by all rights shouldn't be funny. After all, leukemia and domestic violence are a laff riot, aren't they? The movie apparently felt it needed to make Rudy less competent and the insurance company somehow more sympathetic, since it changed much of the court case to make it less of a stomping. But I've always felt that was a mistake, because watching that insurance company get the shit kicked out of it for evil claims handling is a joy to anyone who's ever had to fight for decent medical care, as I have my entire adult life.

Honorable Mention: Primal Fear by William Diehl. I read the book before it was a kickass movie, and it was a Swiss watch of a story leading to a twist ending not even I saw coming. I never liked any of the other Aaron Stampler novels as much as the first one, though.

6. In the Bleak Midwinter by Julia Spencer-Fleming. I hesitated before adding this one, because it's new to me. But it's also an awesome accident. Last Christmas I requested In the Bleak Midwinter by M.R. Sellars. Murv is a friend of mine, and his Rowan Gant mystery series is amazing. Strongly recommended, folks. Jimmy went to Books-a-Million (because he's not yet housebroken; indie bookstores, please!) and picked up the Spencer-Fleming book by mistake. I blinked twice: instead of Murv's Wiccan detective, I had a book about a female Episcopal priest who is a former Army helicopter pilot and helps the local police solve crimes. Sounds ludicrous... but it was amazing. I tore through that book and was delighted to find out that it was the first of a series. I started ordering them as I finished them, and soon I was ordering two at a time. Which reminds me: the next one is waiting for me, so I'd best drop by my bookstore.

- Honorable Mentions: The Tess Monaghan mysteries by Laura Lippmann. A series gets to be boring after a while - see Patricia Cornwell and Stephen White - but Lippmann's ex-reporter detective rings true because Lippmann herself was once a journalist. Also, Sparkling Cyanide by Agatha Christie, which I consider to be more emotionally compelling (and quintessential Christie) than her better-known Ten Little Indians.

7. Ender's Game/Speaker For the Dead/Xenocide by Orson Scott Card. Gah. I didn't know anything about Card when I began reading this series, and after Xenocide the Ender series failed to keep me. But those three books changed my vision of what science fiction could be. I've detailed in CultureGeek why I find such a cognitive disconnect between OSC's public ravings and the spirit of tolerance, empathy and forgiveness embodied in those three books; I won't reiterate them here. Suffice to say I'm glad to keep them in my library, and staunchly refuse to give him any more of my money.

- Honorable Mention: Twilight Eyes by Dean Koontz. Koontz is very hit-or-miss for me - mostly miss, to be honest - but this one is special. A carny who can see "goblins" - sadistic demon-like creatures who look just like us - begins to encounter more and more of them on his travels with the carnival, and realizes something terrible is brewing. It's a strange little book in that the first two-thirds comprise the original novella, and then he wrote a third section that kind of feels tacked-on. It was added to the paperback edition but does not appear in the original hardcover. It's not bad, mind you, and I can see why he felt the story wasn't over. But it's a hard break in the story, and probably the only thing keeping it from being one of my all-time favorites.

8. The Fan by Bob Randall. The what? you're asking. A ticking time-bomb of a novel, it was the first book I read told in epistolary format. That means the whole book exists as letters, newspaper articles, notes, etc. - nothing is in narrative. I found the structure fascinating, as well as the terror of this aging star's obsessed fan. It was made into a substandard movie in the early '80s starring Lauren Bacall and Michael Biehn, but the book is definitely worth your read; and the ending floored me. It had enough of an interest for me that I experimented with epistolary format in "Wonderland," my short story that took a science-fiction bounce on Frankenstein and won the Darrell Award.

Honorable Mention: Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris. Harris is one sick fuck; I didn't even finish Black Sunday, and that's rare for me. But his first two Lecter novels are masterpieces of psychological warfare and the forensics of the warped mind. When he tried to turn Lecter into a hero in his later books, at the expense of one of the best heroines in modern literature, he ruined the series. I hope the money was worth it; again, can't throw stones. But I could read those first two books over and over. 

9. Strange Wine by Harlan Ellison. How do you pick the best of Ellison? His use of the language is second to none, and as difficult as he may be in person, his commitment to excellence can't be dismissed. This is probably my favorite of his collections, though Slippage and Deathbird Stories also come to mind and Angry Candy has some fine pieces. Whatever you may think of Ellison personally, check out Dreams With Sharp Teeth, the documentary about his life and work. It doesn't pull punches about his failings, but I always find it inspirational, even as it reminds me how little I have done in my career, and how far I have to go.

- Honorable Mention: Unwelcome Bodies by Jennifer Pelland. Every story in this collection is strong, and years after reading it for the first time, it still sticks in my mind. Science fiction is at its best when it's making a subtle point, and Pelland's pen dissects our obsessions with beauty and the impact of our physical selves with brilliant acumen.

10. Watchmen by Alan Moore. Who wasn't affected by this? It's silly to even recap it, except that it was maybe the third or fourth graphic novel I read and cemented my fondness for the art form. As a rule I don't care for Moore - V for Vendetta has done more harm than good as far as I can tell, I was disappointed in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and I cannot even bring myself to speak of Lost Girls. But Watchmen was a true masterpiece. I suppose I was properly prepared for it; Jason Tippitt loaned me his copy right after I finished Arkham Asylum, which is also not light reading.

- Honorable Mentions: Fables Vol. 1, which introduced us to Fabletown in awesome style, terrific art and a fun whodunit. I often wonder if Once Upon a Time ever got sued by the creator of Fables. By Vol. 4, Fables had seriously strayed from its kickass beginning. I kept reading through Vol. 10, but I never really got past the lobotomization of Snow. Still, it was great stuff from the start. And I'd be remiss not to point out Why I Hate Saturn, which nobody's ever read but me. The first two-thirds of that graphic novel are the funniest I've ever read. It loses its way toward the end, but that hasn't stopped me from reading it over and over.

Damn. Now I want to go read.