The Ideal Bookshelf

I’m thrilled to welcome one of my favorite mystery authors, Sandra Parshall, as a guest on today’s blog. Her award winning series features veterinarian Rachel Goddard, a passionate, strong-willed character with hidden vulnerabilities. The writing is flawless, the characters three-dimensional and memorable, and whenever I’m in the midst of one of her books, I find myself haunted by the depths of the story, unable to get it out of my mind. If you are new to the series, you should read the books in order, beginning with HEAT OF THE MOON. Just be aware that you may not be able to put this book down.

Today Sandra offers some thoughts on the ideal bookshelf. Please join me in welcoming her to the blog.

Sandra ParshallWhile browsing the new books section of my neighborhood branch library, I came across a delightful book titled My Ideal Bookshelf , edited by Thessaly La Forge. For page after page, more than 100 writers, artists, filmmakers, and other creative people talk about the books that have meant the most to them — the books that would make up their “ideal bookshelf” and represent who they are.

Which books changed their lives? Which made them the people they are today? Which books are their beloved favorites, the ones they read again and again? Each entry is illustrated with a painting by Jane Mount of that person’s ideal bookshelf.

Naturally, I went for the writers first. Robert Crais is a prime example of someone whose life has been shaped by reading. When he was growing up in Baton Rouge, he read “everything I could get my hands on” and picked up The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler at age fifteen because “the cover had this really hot chick on it.” Reading that book was the beginning of his love for detective fiction and his fascination with Los Angeles. It helped to make him the writer he is today. Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, about a human born on Mars who is a loner hero, further influenced Crais’s writing and his outlook on life. Harlan Ellison’s The Glass Teat, a collection of his Los Angeles Free Press columns about the television industry, spurred Crais to leave Louisiana for Los Angeles and begin a career as a writer for Hill Street Blues, Cagney & Lacey, and Miami Vice.

 Francine Prose has a shelf filled with the works of Anton Chekov, who “saved my sanity, or what was left of my sanity” during a “messy time” in her life. Reading Chekhov is almost a religious experience for her, uplifting in the same way as gazing at great art.

Scott Spencer’s ideal bookshelf ranges from Enemies, a Love Story by Isaac Bashevis Singer at one end to A Burnt-Out Case by Graham Greene at the other, with the works of Alan Ginsberg, Ernest Hemingway, Philip Roth, John Cheever, Bruce Jaye Friedman, Vladimir Nabakov and Doris Lessing in between. The volume that represents his youthful ambitions, though, is Evergreen Review. When he was growing up on the working class south side of Chicago, that literary publication gave him a glimpse of a “dazzling bohemia that I would one day be a part of.”

As the essays in My Ideal Bookshelf prove, the written word can also have a profound effect on people who have never aspired to be writers themselves. Tony Hawk, a professional skateboarder, has found inspiration in books as varied as Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called “It”, about a shocking case of child abuse, and Endurance, Alfred Lansing’s account of the Shackleton expedition to Antarctica that kept a ship of explorers helplessly adrift in Earth’s harshest climate for six months. These books taught Hawk that the human spirit can triumph over adversity and turn life’s worst experiences into something positive.

My Ideal Bookshelf  is filled with such testimony to the power of books, and browsing only a handful is enough to restore the flagging spirit of any writer who doubts that sitting alone at the computer, tapping out words on a screen, is a worthwhile way to spend her time. Books can change lives, and by changing lives they can change the world. The beauty of being a writer is that you never know when a book, a paragraph, a sentence you’ve created will touch another human being’s heart. I was stunned when a woman told me that after reading my first novel, The Heat of the Moon, she understood her troubled relationships with her own mother and sister for the first time. Could any writer ask for more than that?

My own ideal bookshelf would be crammed with works that have affected me. I grew up in a poor family, a family of non-readers, so I can’t explain where I got my love of reading and writing. The public library saved my life by showing me a world beyond the dreary one I lived in and giving me hope that I could be part of that greater world someday. Like Crais, I read everything I could get my hands on, ranging from Dostoevsky to Graham Greene. The writers who most influenced me, though, were Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor, not because they wrote about exotic places but because they showed me that my own life contained the seeds of stories worth telling.

Poisoned Ground 300Today, I can hardly believe that after all the years of struggling to break into print, I am sliding my own sixth published novel onto a shelf with five that came before it. It might not measure up to the groaning shelves of authors with twenty, thirty, or more volumes to their credit, but it’s the book collection that makes me smile with pride.

What books would you place on your ideal bookshelf to represent your life and the person you’ve become?

*************

Sandra Parshall is the author of six Rachel Goddard mysteries, set in Virginia. Her 2006 debut, The Heat of the Moon, won the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. Her latest title is Poisoned Ground (March 2014). A longtime member of Sisters in Crime, she has served on the national board and managed the SinC members online community for many years. She lives in Northern Virginia with her husband, a veteran Washington journalist, and their cats Emma and Gabriel. Visit her website at http://www.sandraparshall.com.


 

 

Unusual Pets in Mysteries

Two of my favorite mystery writers feature unusual pets in their sure-to-please-animal-lovers stories. Last week I mentioned Clea Simon‘s great way with cats, but her “Pet-Noir” series with Pru Marlowe includes much more than your typical domestic fare.

Photo by Mika Hiltunen via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Mika Hiltunen via Wikimedia Commons

My favorite non-cat regular in this series has to be Frank the Ferret, who lives in the local deputy’s desk drawer and has considerably more smarts than his rather dimwitted keeper. Many the clue’s been passed from Frank to Pru, who has the rather unusual talent of being able to tune into animals’ thoughts. Since Frank is so much smarter than the deputy, we may safely assume that he’s actually happy with his living arrangements. If he weren’t, Pru would sense it, and happily assist with his break-out.

Sandra Parshall‘s Rachel Goddard mysteries are somewhat darker, but veterinarian heroine Rachel and her boyfriend, local sheriff Tom Bridger, still always manage to see that justice prevails. Between them, Rachel and Tom have the usual cat and dog pets (see the recent “interview” given by Tom’s dog, Billy Bob in Dru’s Book Musings), but the member of their household who stands out the most in my mind  is Cicero the parrot.

photo by Selvejp via Wikimedia Commons

photo by Selvejp via Wikimedia Commons

In a recent book, Cicero saved the day when his alarmed squacks alerted Rachel to a nighttime fire in her house set by the villain du jour. Cicero’s narrow escape added to the reader’s anxieties (and to Rachel’s as well). Every book seems to feature at least a cameo appearance by Cicero, who has quite the personality.

What other unusual animal characters do you know of that have appeared in mysteries (or any other fiction, for that matter)? I’d like to know!

Clea Simon’s most recent release is GREY HOWL in the Dulcie Schwartz series, with a new Pru Marlowe soon to follow. Look for her interview here on the blog the first week of April.

The latest book in Sandra Parshall’s Rachel Goddard series is POISONED GROUND. Root for Rachel as she confronts a no-good developer! If you haven’t read this series, you’ll enjoy it the most if you start at the beginning with the page-turning novel of suspense that explores the dark past of Rachel’s family background: Heat of the Moon. And look for Sandra’s guest appearance here on the blog next week.

Veterinarians

I’m thrilled to welcome one of my favorite mystery authors, Sandra Parshall, as a guest on today’s blog. Her award winning series features veterinarian Rachel Goddard, a passionate, strong-willed character with hidden vulnerabilities. The writing is flawless, the characters three-dimensional and memorable, and whenever I’m in the midst of one of her books, I find myself haunted by the depths of the story, unable to get it out of my mind. If you are new to the series, you should read the books in order, beginning with HEAT OF THE MOON. Just be aware that you may not be able to put this book down.

Today Sandra offers some thoughts on her main character’s profession of veterinarian. Please join me in welcoming her to the blog.

I’m always amused when a reader or interviewer asks if I’m a veterinarian.

Me? Perish the thought.

The work of a veterinarian like my protagonist, Dr. Rachel Goddard, requires a type of emotional strength I will never possess. A good vet is a marvel to me – and by “good” I mean one who is both skillful and gentle, compassionate with pet owners but tough about doing what’s best for the animal. I imagine it’s not unlike being a pediatrician for very young children who can’t communicate verbally. But a vet carries a burden that no pediatrician does: he or she frequently must make the recommendation that it’s time to bring a painless end to the patient’s suffering.

I couldn’t do it. I can’t imagine myself euthanizing an animal – or working with sick animals day after day. Taking care of healthy pets during routine visits for checkups and vaccines is no picnic either. People go into veterinary medicine because they love animals, then spend their whole careers being hissed at, growled at, scratched and occasionally bitten by their terrified, I-don’t-want-to-be-here! patients

Rachel is made of stronger stuff than I am, and I admire her for it. She cares deeply about her patients, but she does what is necessary to heal them, end their pain, or see to their basic medical needs. I didn’t base Rachel on a particular person, but she shares her gentle approach to caring for animals with our real-life female vet.

When I started writing about Rachel – in The Heat of the Moon (2006) – we’d already had a couple of female vets for our cats, and the friend who volunteered to help me get the animal medicine details right was a woman vet, but I still thought I was clever to choose an unusual occupation for my protagonist. Before long, though, I realized my fiction was following a real-life trend. In 2009, for the first time, women outnumbered men in the veterinary profession, and that majority has continued to grow. Today nearly 80% of veterinary students are female. Vet colleges are now actively working to recruit more male students to maintain diversity.

What explains the shift? A lot of veterinarians might say it’s because their profession doesn’t pay as well as other branches of medicine, and men aren’t as willing as women to accept an average salary of $70,000 to $80,000 after investing the time and money to complete their training. If a man loves animals and wants to work with them, though, the prospect of a middling income won’t stop him any more than it will stop a woman. The change in vet college enrollment may simply be a reflection of the general shift in education: since 2000, women students have outnumbered men in U.S. colleges.


The new female majority is changing the profession. Women will always be the ones who have the babies, and this basic fact of human existence must be taken into account. Flexible schedules and part-time employment have become more common for vets who are mothers. Some prejudice against women still exists, of course, both among pet owners and male owners of veterinary clinics, but the sheer number of women in the profession should eventually eliminate any lingering bias.

I admire anyone, male or female, who chooses to work for the benefit of animals. I hope my respect for veterinarians shows in my portrayal of Rachel. I get a kick out of writing her because she’s so much stronger and smarter than I am, and through her I can vicariously do some of the things I’m too much of a wuss to do in real life.

Sandra Parshall is the author of the Agatha Award-winning Rachel Goddard mystery series. The fifth in the series, BLEEDING THROUGH, will be published September 4.

Visit Sandra at her website, http://www.sandraparshall.com, and join her each Wednesday at http://www.poesdeadlydaughters.blogspot.com.

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