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One Writer's World

On Vacation—sort of

I've never quite understood the idea of taking time off from writing in the summer. On the face of it, this seems like such a reasonable idea that no one would question it. Doesn't everyone need time away from whatever they're working on? A board member for the nonprofit where I used to work insisted that all of us needed time away to rest and refresh. She emphasized the need to return with a new perspective, after shaking loose the minor confusions and disagreements that inevitably occur in a group of people working closely together. It sounded great to us because we liked time off to do other things. But as a writer, I wanted time off to write, to leave my day job behind for a few days or weeks without feeling guilty.

This August seems an especially good time for a vacation. June was monsoon season in New England. Gone are the sunny early summer days with warm mornings and cool evenings. Now it's all rain. July changed that, swapping the rain for the sun. We had heat. Nothing like what was happening in the West and Southwest and South, but hot for us. I grew up in this area so I expected a few hot days in July, but not what we got. And then it ended.

August is turning out to be perfect.

The perfect time for a vacation, a time of sitting on the beach or on the dock or on a boat or in the park, anywhere but inside at a desk. And yet, this month of August as it begins finds me happily right here typing away. My imagination seems to have selected August as the perfect time to start a new mystery featuring Anita Ray, the Indian American photographer living at her aunt's tourist hotel.

At first I thought I'd start a new Anita Ray slowly, find an idea and flesh it out. I did that, but when I sat down to write the first scene, ideas and characters appeared who weren't in the one-page description I'd written. I checked it to see where the scene would go, didn't find a spot, and forgot about the outline. The scene that came the following day seemed to make sense, so I kept going.

After two and a half weeks, I have fifteen thousand words, sixteen scenes, almost sixty pages, and no idea where all this is going. Some peculiar detail in the first chapter turns out to be an important clue for a behavior in the fifth chapter. A walk-on character has had so much to say in ambiguous terms that I fear I'm stuck with her. She's certifiably crazy and refuses to go anywhere else. Anita Ray is learning to cope with her.
When writing my previous books I've created a rough outline and checked it every scene, to see how things fit together. Although I often wasn't sure how things would turn out, I did have one option in mind. This time I have none. Not a one. I have a dead body—but I don't know if he's a victim of a murder or an accidental death or even a suicide. Somewhere along the line I have to find out, and I guess I will.

I may not have planned on taking a vacation from thinking, but I seem to have done so. This Anita Ray mystery novel is writing itself while my orderly plotting brain has gone on vacation. The words are coming out, they're interesting and intriguing, and some part of my brain seems to know where it's going. Now, on vacation, I'm just along for the ride.

The title is, fittingly, The Lure of Mohini, the stunningly beautiful and seductive female form adopted by Vishnu to deceive and tempt the demons so they miss out on their share of the heavenly ambrosia. I've certainly fallen for the lure of Mohini, and follow along helplessly. And I hope she knows where she's going. I'll let you know when I find out.

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Getting to the Heart of Poverty

I came across Evicted by Matthew Desmond (Penguin Random House, 2017) as part of my research for a novel I'm working on. It is riveting, gut-wrenching, and illuminating. Here's my review.

In a book that is both heartbreaking and intellectually rigorous, the author follows eight families in Milwaukee as they struggle to maintain housing for themselves and their families despite extremely limited funds, sometimes inhabitable housing, and landlords ready to evict for petty or sometimes no reason, or just to get a different tenant. Every challenge facing a tenant is explored in greater detail in notes with statistics and documented research.


The author is fair to the landlords as well by following at least two landlords and recording their words, views, challenges and reasoning for their actions. The author listens and records, and attends housing court where he listens to other landlords.


It is impossible to summarize the contents of this book, but consider some of the incidents. A recovering addict must choose between medication and rent; he chooses rent and becomes homeless. A disabled man paints another apartment for the landlord and is credited with a pittance, insulted with complaints, and remains behind in his rent, facing eviction. Without a telephone or car, tenants must still find another place to live in a matter of days. Attending a court hearing can mean missing work and then losing a job. Eviction with or without a court order can mean losing not only an apartment but also all their possessions unless they have a place to go. Putting things in storage may keep them safe for only a month before charges pile up and soon everything a tenant once owned is gone.


If a tenant does attend a court hearing, he or she faces a landlord with a knowledgeable lawyer, and a judge who may have little understanding of the dire situation facing thousands of poorly housed families.


This book is an indictment of America's love affair with property rights and denial of the basic right of decent housing.


Unlike many other books on poverty in America, the author offers a deeper understanding and solutions. Ending poverty for 90 percent of the population is possible. Housing vouchers for everyone who needs one should be available, and free to use anywhere in the country, in any neighborhood. No one should be denied access to decent housing. If all vouchers were movable, poor families wouldn't be isolated in the worst areas of cities, the prey for avaricious landlords.


This book should be required reading for everyone concerned about poverty and basic decency in this country.

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