Everything Books
Writing and reading and books, books, books (and anything that might relate)

December 24, 2012

A Christmas Story

When I was nine years old, my parents and I moved from Maryland (where we lived on the water and sailed and ate fresh seafood, which we often caught ourselves, and spent time on our own little sliver of beach) to landlocked Indiana (where a narrow creek ran through our back yard).

I wasn’t one bit happy about this move, and our very first Christmas there I wrote a story, which I also illustrated, that… shall we say… reflected this.

All these years later, on Christmas Eve 2012, I’d like to share it with you.

The Late Christmas

In Hoosier City everything was a dark gray. The mail boxes were gray, the people’s clothes were gray, what they ate was gray, and the sky was gray. Not one person was happy.

One day a jolly old man came to Hoosier City. He met Mr. Vox Poxie, the king of gray. Mr. Vox Poxie inquired what he was doing on his property.

“Why I…” the trespasser stuttered.

“Enough!” commanded the king. The king led Santa Claus (for that was his name) through the town. Santa stared sadly at the people. An old woman who was hanging battered clothes on an old clothesline in her tiny, gray yard almost broke his heart.

They walked on. Santa Claus eyed the shabby houses with little children playing unhappily in their yards. A tear rolled down his cheek and soaked his beard thoroughly.

Finally they reached Mr. Vox Poxie’s castle. The king invited Santa Claus inside. “Now once again, why are you here?” the king inquired.

“Well I…”

“Enough!” said the king. Santa Claus stared at the king, thinking this man is crazy! “Well now, what is your name name?” asked the king.

“Kris Kringle. But everybody calls me Santa Claus.”

“Oh well, why are you here then?” asked the king.

“Well I…” Santa Claus started.

“Enough chatter!” cried the king. “Let me show you around.” Santa Claus followed the king through room after room until they were back in the main room.

“You never did tell me why you were here,” said the king.

“I did try, you know,” said Santa. “My sleigh broke down. You see, Prancer and Dancer have this thing going between each other, Dancer being a girl, and Prancer being a…”

“Enough!” shouted the king.

“You might not get any Christmas presents if you keep that temper,” said Santa. “Well anyway, they stopped flying and started to talk, and the sleigh stopped, and here I am,” finished Santa, quite out of breath from talking.

“Oh, I see,” said the king.

“Do you know of a hotel that I could stay in?”

“Oh heavens no!” exclaimed the king. “You can sleep in my wife’s room.”

“Won’t she mind?” asked Santa.

“Her? She’s dead!” said the king.

“Oh,” said Santa Claus. The next morning when the king went in to see what Santa Claus wanted for breakfast, he wasn’t there. But there was a note attached to the post. It said: Dear Mr. Vox Poxie, I have left. But I’ll be back for Christmas. Santa Claus.

The king gasped. Christmas? What was Christmas? He did not know it, but that very day was Christmas Eve.

When he got up the next day, there was gray snow on the ground. No Santa, no presents. The next day and the next day, no Christmas. No Santa. No toys.

On the third day, he awoke in the night to sleigh bells. Was it? Could it be?

Yes it was. It was Santa Claus!

Quickly, the king hopped back into bed, and the next morning everything was green! The houses were new! The people were happy! Everybody was playing with toys! Even though Christmas was late, it was a nice one! And everybody lived happily ever after!

December 19, 2012

A Velva Jean Christmas

When it got toward supper, I went into the kitchen and rolled up my sleeves and started cutting up vegetables for soup. For some reason, it was the only thing I could think to make. There was an actual icebox, not just a springhouse, but the stove was the same– an old comfort stove just like Mama had and just like Ruby Poole had. Granny still used a Dutch oven. I tried not to think of what Granny would be fixing over at home.

Velva Jean Learns to Drive

Minnie Kinsley Justice, better known as Velva Jean’s beloved Granny, is based in part on my great-grandmother Florence Fain. Mama, as the family called her, married my great-granddaddy (they called him Papa) on the North Carolina-Tennessee line just four days after her twentieth birthday.

Afterward, they moved to Murphy, North Carolina, to live on Fain Mountain, named for her family. They raised ten children there when they weren’t following Papa’s blacksmithing work over to Copperhill, Tennessee, or Ducktown, Tennessee, or up to Woodfin near Asheville, North Carolina.

Mama played the auto harp. She loved her children and her husband, even though he was in and out of trouble for most of their married life (he was, after all, descended from outlaws). He called her Bebe. She called him Old Mule. Like Velva Jean’s Granny, Mama was a wonderful cook.

In honor of Christmas and family, tradition and Velva Jean, here is one of Granny’s holiday recipes.

Dried Apple Stack Cake

Cooking time: about 18 minutes


6 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 cup shortening
1 cup sugar
1 cup molasses
3 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup buttermilk


Sift together flour, soda, baking powder, salt, ginger and cinnamon. Cream the shortening and sugar, then add molasses and mix well. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Stir in the vanilla. Add the buttermilk alternately with flour, mixing well. Place the dough on a floured surface. Work in enough flour to make it easy to handle, but not enough to make it stiff. Divide the dough into 9 portions and shape these into balls. Place 1 ball in a greased 9-inch round pan. Press the dough with your hands evenly over the bottom of the pan.

Bake at 350 degrees for 15 to 18 minutes or until lightly browned. Cool slightly before removing from the pan. Continue the same process for each ball of dough. You can use the same pans again, but grease them each time.

Stack the layers with apple filling (below). Store the cake in an airtight container or wrap it well at least over night for the very best flavor and moisture. (The cake freezes well.)


1 pound dried apples
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon

Wash and cook the apples in water until tender. Drain and then mash well, and then mix with sugars and cinnamon.

December 13, 2012

71 years later, a spy girl’s haunting account of Pearl Harbor

Becoming Clementine was read in its early stages by a woman named Betty McIntosh. At 97, she is America’s most famous living female spy. During World War II, she served in the OSS and, after the war was over, in the CIA. She has also authored four books, including one named Undercover Girl, a memoir of her years as a secret agent. When she offered her review of the book, I was (understandably) petrified. After all, she had lived what I’d only researched and written about. She was there.

Here is what she said:

“Reading this splendid novel allowed me to vicariously share wartime adventures with a sister spy. Velva Jean had everything that was required of us operatives in OSS (Office of Strategic Services), a forerunner of the CIA. She had the courage to survive undercover behind enemy lines in constant danger. She carried out life-threatening orders without question and bravely faced capture. Becoming Clementine is a spellbinding spy saga.”

Relief. Tears. Gratitude. That’s the only way I can describe how I felt.

Before she was a spy, Betty McIntosh was a reporter. Elizabeth Peet McIntosh grew up in Honolulu, where she learned Japanese and yearned to travel and have adventures overseas. Her father worked for the Washington Herald as a sports editor, and Betty, as she was called, soon followed him into reporting. She was working as a correspondent for Scripps Howard near Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked. She soon left Hawaii for the Scripps Howard bureau in Washington, D.C.

In 1943, she was covering an exhibit of sleeping bags stuffed with chicken feathers at the Department of Agriculture (not exactly the grand adventure she’d dreamed of as a girl), when she was approached by an official from the OSS. He said, “Are you interested in a secret overseas assignment?” She didn’t hesitate: “Yes.”

At the OSS training facility in Bethesda, Maryland, she learned to shoot a .32-caliber pistol. She swore an oath never, under any cost, to reveal OSS secrets. And then she was sent to India. Her mission: to create deadly propaganda by concocting “fake but authentic-sounding rumors, news stories and radio reports to make the enemy citizenry think their troops were losing and that they should give up.” From there, she was sent to China (with fellow spy Julia Child), where she unknowingly participated in a plot to kill Japanese soldiers, delivering a bomb disguised as coal to a Chinese secret agent. She was one of the few women assigned to the OSS division of Morale Operations.

This past week, on December 7, Betty McIntosh’s account of the attack on Pearl Harbor– deemed too disturbing and graphic at the time she wrote it– was published for the first time.

Hono­lulu after Pearl Harbor: A report published for the first time, 71 years later

By Elizabeth P. McIntosh

On Dec. 7, 1941, when Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor, I was working as a reporter for the Hono­lulu Star-Bulletin. After a week of war, I wrote a story directed at Hawaii’s women; I thought it would be useful for them to know what I had seen. It might help prepare them for what lay ahead. But my editors thought the graphic content would be too upsetting for readers and decided not to run my article. It appears here for the first time.

For seven ghastly, confused days, we have been at war. To the women of Hawaii, it has meant a total disruption of home life, a sudden acclimation to blackout nights, terrifying rumors, fear of the unknown as planes drone overhead and lorries shriek through the streets.

The seven days may stretch to seven years, and the women of Hawaii will have to accept a new routine of living. It is time, now, after the initial confusion and terror have subsided, to sum up the events of the past week, to make plans for the future.

It would be well, perhaps, to review the events of the past seven days and not minimize the horror, to better prepare for what may come again.

I have a story to tell, as a reporter, that I think the women of Hawaii should hear. I tell it because I think it may help other women in the struggle, so they will not take the past events lightly.

I reported for work immediately on Sunday morning when the first news — Oahu is being attacked — crackled over the radio, sandwiched in a church program.

Like the rest of Hawaii, I refused to believe it. All along the sunny road to town were people just coming out of church, dogs lazy in the driveways, mynas in noisy convention.

Then, from the neighborhood called Punchbowl, I saw a formation of black planes diving straight into the ocean off Pearl Harbor. The blue sky was punctured with anti-aircraft smoke puffs. Suddenly, there was a sharp whistling sound, almost over my shoulder, and below, down on School Street. I saw a rooftop fly into the air like a pasteboard movie set.

For the first time, I felt that numb terror that all of London has known for months. It is the terror of not being able to do anything but fall on your stomach and hope the bomb won’t land on you. It’s the helplessness and terror of sudden visions of a ripping sensation in your back, shrapnel coursing through your chest, total blackness, maybe death.

The vision of death became reality when I was assigned to cover the emergency room of the hospital.

The first victims of the Japanese-American war were brought there on that bright Sunday morning.

Bombs were still dropping over the city as ambulances screamed off into the heart of the destruction. The drivers were blood-sodden when they returned, with stories of streets ripped up, houses burned, twisted shrapnel and charred bodies of children.

In the morgue, the bodies were laid on slabs in the grotesque positions in which they had died. Fear contorted their faces. Their clothes were blue-black from incendiary bombs. One little girl in a red sweater, barefoot, still clutched a piece of jump-rope in her hand.

Firefighters from the Hickam Air Force Base carried the victims in. The men had a red T marked on their foreheads, mute testimony of the efficiency of first-aiders in giving tetanus shots to ward off lockjaw. The body of a man with a monogrammed shirt, H.A.D., was marked DOA (dead on arrival), trundled off to make room for victims who were still breathing.

There was blood and the fear of death — and death itself — in the emergency room as doctors calmly continued to treat the victims of this new war. Interns were taping up windows to prevent them from crashing into the emergency area as bombs fell and the dead and wounded continued to arrive. I had never known that blood could be so bright red.

Returning to the city, I felt a mounting sense of fear as Honolulu began to realize that more was in the air than an Army alert.

I went to a bombed store on King Street, where I often, in times past, stopped for a Coke at the cool drug counter.

Seven little stores, including my drugstore, had nearly completely burned down. Charred, ripply walls, as high as the first story, alone remained to give any hint of where the store had been. At the smashed soda fountain was a half-eaten chocolate sundae. Scorched bonbons were scattered on the sidewalk. There were odd pieces lying in the wreckage, half-burned Christmas cards, on one, the words “Hark the Herald” still visible. There were twisted bedsprings, half-burned mattresses, cans of food, a child’s blackened bicycle, a lunch box, a green raveled sweater, a Bang-Up comic book, ripped awnings.

I ran out of notepaper and reached down and picked up a charred batch of writing paper, still wet from a fire hose. There was, too, the irony of Christmas tinsel, cellophane, decorations. A burned doll, with moving eyes, singed curls and straw bonnet, like a miniature corpse, lay in the wreckage.

That Sunday after dusk there was the all-night horror of attack in the dark. Sirens shrieking, sharp, crackling police reports and the tension of a city wrapped in fear.

Then, in the nightmare of Monday and Tuesday, there was the struggle to keep normal when planes zoomed overhead and guns cracked out at an unseen enemy. There was blackout and suspicion riding the back of wild rumors: Parachutists in the hills! Poison in your food! Starvation and death were all that was left in a tourist bureau paradise.

I talked with evacuees. From Hickam, a nurse who had dropped to the floor in the hospital kitchen as machine gun bullets dotted a neat row of holes directly above her; from Schofield, a woman who wanted me to send word to her sweetheart “somewhere in Honolulu” that she was still alive; from Pearl Harbor, a nurse who wanted scraps of paper and pencil stubs to give to the boys in the hospital who had last messages they wanted sent home; a little girl named Theda who had a big doll named Nancy and who told me in a quiet voice that “Daddy was killed at Hickam.”

At the office there were frantic calls from all sorts of women — housewives, stenographers, debutantes — wanting to know what they could do during the day, when husbands and brothers were away and there was nothing left but to listen to the radio and imagine that all hell had broken out on another part of the island.

It was then that I realized how important women can be in a war-torn world.

There is a job for every woman in Hawaii to do.

I discovered that when I visited the Red Cross centers, canteens, evacuee districts, the motor corps headquarters.

There is great organization in Honolulu, mapped out thoughtfully and competently by women who have had experience in World War I, who have looked ahead and foreseen the carnage of the past seven days and planned.

December 10, 2012

Readin’ around the Christmas tree

I’m allergic to real Christmas trees, which means that all my life I’ve had an artificial one. This isn’t as bad as it sounds– the tree doesn’t turn brown, you don’t have to water it, and there aren’t any pine needles to clean up.

Also, about half of the ornaments come from my childhood, which means the tree and its contents have great sentimental value. There are the ones I made myself in grade school, the cloth globes from Japan, the pink rocking horse I tried to eat because I thought it was candy, the angel who sat at the top of my very first tree, and who still sits atop my tree today. I even have my dad’s favorite Santa ornament from when he was a boy.

Last week, we decorated our Christmas tree (as you can see, Rumi the cat helped us), and it got me to thinking: what if I made a tree out of books? What better way to combine two of my favorite things– Christmas and reading?

Here’s some inspiration:

(Library tree from the Gleeson Library in San Francisco)

(For those with limited space and a red wall)

(A German book tree)

(From the Moravian Book Shop in, of all places, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania)

(A little tree for those limited on space)

(A book tree centerpiece)

(The perfect use for those first editions)

(A tree for your office)

(A tree of books)

(A printed paper pine tree)

December 3, 2012

When a bookcase isn’t just a bookcase

When I was growing up, I loved Nancy Drew. Her stories were always full of tunnels and secret passageways and walls that became doors if you knew just where to press. These tunnels and passageways meant mystery and danger and, of course, excitement. I love this kind of thing so much, I even wrote a secret staircase into Becoming Clementine:

Beyond the glass case was a door, and Gossie opened this and I followed her inside. Bookcases stood on three walls. She shut the door tight behind us and plucked a book out of the middle shelf. I watched as she pressed a button in the wood. Another door swung open, which led into a small room. Rising up out of the middle of it, like a ship’s hatch, was a narrow set of stairs with no railing…

As I’ve been re-envisioning my office this past weekend, I find myself daydreaming about having my very own bookcase that leads to a secret room beyond…

Kind of like these:

November 30, 2012

Spring cleaning

When Thornton Wilder finished writing his novel Theophilus North, he told friends: “So I finished the plagued book. I’m accustomed to turn my back on a piece of work once it’s finished– but it’s something new for me to feel empty-handed and deflated– to wake up each morning without that sense of the task waiting for me on my desk. Daily writing is a habit– and a crutch and a support; and for the first time I feel cast adrift and roofless without it. I hate this and am going to get back into a harness as soon as I can.”

I couldn’t have said it better. It is amazing how sad and purposeless and lost you feel after finishing a manuscript, even when that manuscript still has many steps to go through before publication. I handed the fourth Velva Jean novel (American Blonde) over to my editor in mid-September. Soon, she will send it back to me with her first round of notes and we will go back and forth till the novel is ready.

There is a mountain of other writerly work to be done. Even without American Blonde on my desk, I am as busy as ever. However, I still feel like Dickens’s Miss Havisham, wandering around my office, bereft and lonely, still dressed in my writing clothes, searching for the next idea. I have many, many, many of them, but until I’ve settled on one and am lost inside it, that feeling of being adrift and roofless will linger.

Usually, there is only one thing to do. Clear away the cobwebs and clean the office.

To offer some perspective, the only time I ever feel like cleaning is when I finish a book. I am not someone who vacuums to relax (like my best friend), or who scrubs the refrigerator shelves when she’s angry (like another friend of mine). Growing up, you couldn’t even tell that I had a floor because every inch of my carpet was covered in clothing, books, and records.

But to make ready for whatever comes next, I need to clean my office. Not just dusting and straightening– we’re talking some sort of overhaul. I need to clear away some of the clutter, reorganize bookshelves and closet, move my desk, reconfigure the furniture and general layout. In short, new book, new office. It happens every time.

Soon enough, I’ll be happily back in that harness, and I might as well be ready for it.

November 26, 2012

George and the office supplies

Years ago, I was lucky enough to have a fluffy, white dirtball of a cat named George (and his pristinely gorgeous brother, Percy). George was truly the most remarkable cat I’ve ever known. He was a real man’s man cat. Even guys who thought cats were silly, guys who claimed they only liked dogs and real dogs– not baby, stupid ones– liked George. For one thing, he was dirty. He didn’t believe in grooming. He was like a Marlboro kitty. He swaggered when he walked, sometimes pulling out his back hair as he sauntered, spitting it aside like a cowboy chewing tobacco. He was naturally gorgeous, but his hair stood up in patches from the mats that he refused to tend to, and his feet were always dirty from walking in dirt during his supervised trips outside.

His voice was gruff and impatient. When the TV was too loud or I was talking too raucously, George gave me an earful. He didn’t like you to be loud. I had to always keep the television on volume 12. One notch higher, and George would chirp a blue streak.

You could carry on conversations with him. The two of us used to sit outside together under the cherry tree in our front yard and talk. I would talk, and he would answer. He would say something, and I would reply. Sometimes I said stupid things, and he would give me a withering look. He had a knack for making me feel stupid. He was the smartest creature I have ever met, feline, human, or otherwise.

When he was six, he was diagnosed with a heart condition by the man who invented animal cardiology. George was given six months to live, but he lasted– in true, stubborn George fashion– till fourteen with a heart three times its normal size. Teams of doctors studied him. He was a medical marvel.

For a while now, I’ve been collecting stories for a George book about his many, many lives. Here is one of my favorites…

Life Number Four– The Cat Bell

By the time George was three, I was a graduate student at the American Film Institute, where I was studying screenwriting. On May 12, 1995, it was my turn to deliver my first full-length script to my writing class, and I had all seven copies, including one for the teacher, ready and waiting by the front door. As I walked through the living room to the door, I passed by George, who was hunched up on the floor, wheezing like a bellows. Percy sat next to him looking concerned and faintly annoyed, and every now and then, he leaned over and licked George vigorously on the head. This only made George wheeze harder.

My first thought was: Dear God. What has he eaten now?

I watched him a minute to make sure this was really something and not just a false alarm, like the time I had skipped class to take George to the vet because he was limping. I had rushed him there, breaking all kinds of speed limits and making the clinic in record time, and when we arrived, the limp had disappeared.

When I was sure that this was in fact legitimate—that he really and truly couldn’t breathe—I called my friend and classmate Annie and told her I was having an emergency. She said, “What did George eat this time?” I laughed politely before hanging up the phone, then I wrapped George in a towel (since the age of two, he had refused to ride in a cat carrier), grabbed my purse, and ran to my car.

The ladies behind the front desk spotted us pulling into the parking lot and immediately readied our room for us before I had even reached the door. George and I were ushered back to the examination room and his wheezing grew worse. He looked at me as if asking why in the hell I wasn’t doing something about it. I talked to him, telling him everything would be okay, and that whatever he had swallowed or done to himself would soon be fixed.

George’s vet appeared. He was blond and handsome and looked exactly like Bjorn Borg. He frowned and studied George, then he ran his hands over George’s body, felt his chest, listened to his heart. “He appears to have eaten something he shouldn’t have,” he said. “I’m going to take some X-rays to see if we can figure out exactly what that something is.”

When he left the room with George, I sank onto a chair and resisted the urge to put my head in my hands and cry. How much would this visit cost? The adoption fees at Foster Friends for Pets had been $40 each for George and Percy. That had included neutering and shots and a free month’s supply of Science Diet dry food. I had thought it was such a bargain.

I looked at the anatomical and skeletal charts on the walls. I looked at the pictures that hung next to them—photos of smiling dogs and neatly posing cats. Their expressions seemed to say the same thing: “We are so well behaved. We are so normal. We have all our lives. We are not at all expensive. The people at Santa Monica Vet love us because we never put ourselves or our human parents in mental, emotional, or financial peril.”

Dr. Borg returned momentarily and set George down on the examining table. “I’ll be back,” he said.

George and I waited. “I just want you to know,” I said to George, “that I am not talking to you.” George’s wheezing was quieter. He picked up one dirty paw, pulled a remnant of a pink foam toy ball out from between his toes, and ate it. I didn’t even attempt to stop him.

Dr. Borg came back into the room, tanned and pony-tailed, and waved his hand. “Come with me,” he said, “and bring him with you.”

I picked up George and followed Dr. Borg into the next room where he slid the X-ray into a machine on the wall. He flipped the switch and the fluorescent lights came on, illuminating George’s tiny skeleton. There were his ribs, his spine, his lungs, his heart, and a mass of other objects I couldn’t recognize.

“Oh,” I said. “He is so cute. Look how little everything is.”

Dr. Borg frowned at me and then at the X-ray. “He has apparently eaten a cat bell,” he said. I thought immediately of Percy’s favorite toy—a white fluffy blob stuffed with cotton and a thin tail. A tail that used to have a bell. Dr. Borg pointed to the cat bell, which sat, quite clearly, in the middle of George’s stomach.

“Wow,” I said. “It really is clear as… well, as a bell.”

George squirmed and I tightened my hold on him. Please be good, I thought. Please do not shame me more than you already have. Especially not in front of this man who looks just like Bjorn Borg.

Dr. Borg moved his pen pointer away from the bell and toward the strange, indiscernible mass. “I don’t, however, think the bell has done as much damage as the rubber bands.”

Rubber bands?!

“How many are in there?” I said. I tried to sound as if we were talking about something ordinary, like the weather.

“I can’t quite tell. But that’s not all.”

“It’s not?”

“No.” He pointed just left of the mass. “Paper.” He pointed again. “Paper clips.” And pointed again. “Thumbtacks.”

The entire contents of my home office supply drawer were inside George’s stomach.

“I am afraid,” Dr. Borg said, his voice grave, “that your cat is orally fixated.” He made it sound shameful and frightening. The way he said it made a shiver run down my spine. Orally fixated. By his tone, I knew I should be mortified for both George and myself.

The front desk staff let me borrow the phone. I stood at the counter, George under one arm, and dialed my mother, who lived in another state. “George has eaten a bell,” I said. “And some office supplies. The doctor said he is orally fixated.” I whispered this last part, terrified that someone might hear me.

“Is he all right?” My mother’s voice was concerned.

“He will be. They can remove the thumbtacks and the paper clips, but they can’t do a full-fledged operation because of the rubber bands, so they said he will have to pass the bell himself. His body will either absorb the other things or not.”

“How much is it going to cost?”

“Eight hundred and sixty-eight dollars.” It was an amount that I, a poor graduate student living on student loans, could not afford, and an amount that I knew my mom could not afford either.

On her end of the line, I heard a shuffling of papers. I waited. “Well,” she said finally, her voice bright and positive. “There’s not enough on the emergency Visa, but there should be enough on the Optima card. You just tell George this is an advance on his Christmas present.”

Eight hundred and sixty-eight dollars later, George was thumbtack- and paper clip-free, and officially the most expensive cat we’d ever had. The rubber bands, Dr. Borg said, would have to stay there unless they came out of their own accord. We just had to hope that they wouldn’t wrap around any vital organs. The bell was placed too precariously near those vital organs to be moved. Dr. Borg gave George some medicine which would “encourage him to pass the bell,” and told me to check George’s litter box periodically.

I took George home and cut every bell off every toy and took the pile of them outside to the apartment complex dumpster to throw them away. I didn’t trust George not to get them out of the trash. Afterward, I locked my office supplies in a closet.

That night, George and Percy and I curled up on the couch, George on one side, Percy on the other. Percy, even though he hated being held, loved to snuggle. George did not. But that night, he put his paw on my leg and sat with me while I watched a movie. “You’re welcome,” I said.

The next day, I stood in front of the bathroom mirror, head upside down, drying my hair with the blow dryer. Something shiny caught my eye. There, in the litter box at my feet, sat an eight hundred and sixty-eight dollar cat bell.

November 19, 2012

Tribute to a spy princess

When Ada Blackjack returned from the Arctic, the only survivor of an ill-fated expedition, she was uncomfortable being called a hero. “Brave?” Ada would say whenever people would praise her courage. “I don’t know about that. But I would never give up hope while I’m still alive.”

A number of real-life female spies inspired Velva Jean’s harrowing and heroic journey as a secret agent in Becoming Clementine. One of them was a beautiful and courageous Indian princess named Noor Inayat Khan.

On November 8, seven decades after her death, a statue was unveiled in London. The statue bears tribute to the courageous Princess Khan– Britain’s only female Muslim war heroine– who was the first woman radio operator dropped into France by the SOE.

She was the descendant of Tipu Sultan, the 18th century ruler of Mysore. Her father was Indian, her mother American. Noor Inayat Khan grew up in luxury and comfort, playing the harp and writing stories. She later studied child psychology at the Sorbonne.

At the end of 1940, she and her family fled France (escaping to England by boat) before the government surrendered to Germany. Khan joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force as a wireless operator, and was recruited by the SOE in 1942. She was sent back to Paris a year later. There, under the codename Madeleine, she sent vital messages to London while trying to evade the Germans. In October 1943, she was arrested and tortured, but she refused to talk. In September 1944, at Dachau, she was executed by the SS. She was thirty.

England’s Princess Royal dedicated the statue at Gordons Square not far from the house where Noor was living when she left on her last mission. Sir David Richards, the Chief of Defence Staff, said at the November 8 ceremony, “We owe our freedom to women like Noor Inayat Khan.”

In an era when most women were expected to stay at home and tend to the house and the children, women like Noor Inayat Khan were ahead of their time. Standing in Gordons Square, Princess Anne said she hoped the new statue will “remind people to ask: Who was she? Why is she here? And what can we achieve in her memory?”

Noor, like the thousands of other women who spied in World War II, simply did what she had to do in a terrible time under extraordinary circumstances. She would probably have shared Ada Blackjack’s discomfort at being called brave. Her last word, as the German firing squad raised their weapons, was simple and unyielding: Liberte.

November 16, 2012

Lulu helps me research

This is the first week back at my desk in a month’s time. Now that I’ve been to Ireland for vacation and to North Carolina for the Southern leg of my book tour, I’m happily at home with my computer gathering ideas for the next story.

As many of you know, Lulu is my self-appointed Head Literary Cat– of my three wonderful kitties, she is easily the bossiest, and, after all, the two of us are always velcro-ed together.

Yesterday, I paused a documentary I was getting ready to watch because the phone rang. When I took the call, Lulu pushed a button on my keyboard and the video began playing again, and then she settled in to watch. As you can see, she was riveted. (She is deeply interested in social issues.)

November 13, 2012

My mom is a rock star

“I want my epitaph to testify that I have been a loving mother, wife, daughter, sister, aunt, and friend; and I have taught, written, and lived with joy.”  — Penelope Niven

I’m the twenty-second great-granddaughter of Geoffrey Chaucer, long heralded as the “Father of English Literature,” so I like to think being a writer was predestined. But I know where to give thanks. The person who has influenced me most is, without a doubt, my mom, Penelope Niven.

She is the author of numerous award-winning and critically acclaimed biographies: Carl Sandburg: A Biography, Edward Steichen: A Biography, and Voices and Silences, co-authored with the actor James Earl Jones. She has also penned a memoir, Swimming Lessons, and a book for children– Carl Sandburg: Adventures of a Poet— which was awarded an International Reading Association Prize “for exceptionally distinguished literature.”

As she says, she is a writer of lives.

She has been awarded two honorary doctorates, three fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Thornton Wilder Visiting Fellowship at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, among other honors. She received the North Carolina Award in Literature, the highest honor the state bestows on an author.

Her latest book, Thornton Wilder: A Life, was released October 30 by HarperCollins. It’s the first biography of the novelist and playwright (best known for Our Town and The Matchmaker, which inspired Hello, Dolly) since 1983, and it is also the first to be based on “thousands of pages of letters, journals, manuscripts, and other documentary evidence of Wilder’s life, work, and times.”

For the past twelve years, Mom has worked with unprecedented access to Wilder’s papers, including his family’s private journals and records. Edward Albee calls the result “a splendid and long needed work.” At 848 pages, it’s a big book, but its 2.2 pound weight doesn’t begin to encompass or represent all Mom went through personally to produce it– not only the long, arduous hours bent over papers and sorting through materials, the outlining and structuring and writing and editing and footnoting, but the time she spent contending with life stuff that inevitably causes challenges along the way of any writer’s journey.

My mother isn’t just a distinguished and celebrated writer. She is the most inspiring, brilliant, beautiful, insightful, wise, warm and funny person I know. She is the one who taught me I could be or do anything. She is the one who taught me the importance of story, and how to see the story in everything. She is the one who taught me grace, good manners, humor, compassion, joy, the importance of being silly, and resilience. She is my hero.

So join me in celebrating my mom, Penelope Niven. Buy the book (or books), listen to her latest interview on NPR’s “Weekend Edition,” watch her on the PBS series American Masters in the film The Day Carl Sandburg Died, and read the recent front page rave from The New York Times.

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