Don’t Explain

Sometimes the light at the end the tunnel leads to yet more mystery.
Sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel leads to yet more mystery.

As a child I was never drawn to read Nancy Drew mysteries. The whole whodunit genre left me cold. I was more interested in sob stories about brave dogs who died saving babies from burning houses, or tales of horses that somehow survived mistreatment and went on to win the Big Race.

Plain vanilla Fiction. That was my poison.

In truth, I thought the mystery genre lacked mystery. The implicit guarantee of a mystery novel is that the mystery will be solved, your questions will be answered. Monsieur Poirot will gather the suspects and explain everything in the final scene.

In real life, mysteries more often remain unfathomable. Even if the culprit is caught, the true motivation, the primal “why?” is rarely answered. But in a mystery novel, the author provides us with that satisfaction. For me the idea of this formula diminished my enthusiasm for the genre, in much the same way, I imagine, that the traditional romance formula repels some readers.

Not all mysteries are created equal, however, and a touch of mystery can be a potent ingredient in novels outside the genre boundary. I began to get a clue when I got caught up in Sherlock Holmes. I devoured Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s entire series like a box of Godiva chocolates. As fast as I’d finish one, I couldn’t resist digging into another. Later I dabbled in Agatha Christie, and few more modern authors whose works straddle the border between mystery and romance, and, in some cases, serious fiction.

But I was never really hooked until I found Kate Atkinson, whose work serves up the whole enchilada with extra hot sauce.

I began innocently enough, with “Human Croquet.” She had me at croquet, of course. As the plot wickets twisted and turned I followed giddily into the darkness, amazed and delighted to be led on by a writer so clearly in control of her craft and so deft in her character development.

For this is the real key to a successful mystery story, or any story really. Some readers rave about labyrinthine plots, or gory crimes, or whimsical humor, and all of these elements certainly help create a mood. But what brings us into a mystery, what makes us care who did it and whether or not they get caught, is the characters.

Atkinson’s characters are fully realized and believable. Love ’em or hate ’em, they are compelling and convincing. Her first novel, “Behind The Scenes at the Museum,” named the 1995 Whitbread Book of the Year, put her on the map and bestseller lists where she’s remained ever since. That book is a family saga that centers on the life of young Ruby Lennox and the mystery at the heart of the novel is layered with humor and pathos.

Once I read “Scenes” I realized there was no turning back. I swiftly plunged into “When Will There Be Good News?,” followed by “Started Early Took My Dog.” The pleasure in these books is compounded by Atkinson’s breadth of cultural references. The way she weaves Emily Dickenson into her work simply takes my breath away.

Currently I’m totally engrossed in “One Good Turn.” I’m in no hurry to get to the end. I’m savoring each page like a fine wine, enjoying the color, the aroma, the mood lifting thrill of the words, the comic turns, the subtle slight of hand. Eventually I’ll know what’s going on. For now, I’m happy to be lost in the mystery of it all.

A La Cartography

Some of the most interesting places can't be found on ordinary maps.
Some of the most interesting places can’t be found on ordinary maps.

My status as an antique has recently been upgraded to “living fossil” due to my persistent preference for paper maps.

My children don’t even bother to hide their condescending smiles when they see me rattling the pages of my trusty map books, while their fingers dance lightly over tiny touch pads to ascertain the best route to our destination.

I don’t mind. Inquiring minds may question whether or not zombies will rule the world come the apocalypse, but one thing is certain. Once the internet is felled by a meltdown of all the bright gadgetry of modern technology, we who folded our paper maps properly and kept them handy will still be able to navigate through the steaming wreckage of the dystopian landscape.

Probably. One can never predict the future with certainty. However, with a map, even an old, out-dated map, there is a probability that some of the landmarks and routes pictured on it remain.

Probability is the spice of life. A little bit adds zest to every venture.

Recently our local weather forecasters have been taxing their hard drives with attempts to calculate the probability of snow, ice and frigid conditions.  I saw a map today that included a “probability legend” to enable viewers to comprehend the weather data. I’m not all that interested in the data. Data comes and goes like the snow. But I love the term “probability legend.” It has a winsome inscrutability that I find irresistible.

I’ve always been a sucker for language that slips past the fortress of cold reason and stokes a cozy campfire of possibility beyond the walls of convention.

Thus, some of my favorite maps are of imaginary places. The first map I remember studying with delight was of “The Hundred Aker Wood” in A.A. Milne’s timeless Winnie the Pooh. Everything about that map appealed to me—its scale, the little drawings of trees and landmarks.

I still find pleasure in novels that include well-wrought maps of imaginary places such as the stellar examples in George R.R. Martin’s epic A Song of Ice and Fire, which provide a superb landscape for a work of great imaginative scope.

One of the great things about maps is how they can be used to convey ideas beyond the geographic. There is a marvelous “Map of a Writer’s Mind” by Anne Emond, for instance, which offers a humorous look at the challenging terrain many writers know.

And let us not forget that most personal of maps, the human face, with its lines etched by time and experience. The map of my face includes not only the Frown Lines of Perpetual Worry and the Blemishes of Self-indulgent Folly, but also the Freckles of Summers Past, the Crowsfeet of Laughter, and the Pleated Lips of Kisses.

In our youth-mad culture there are those who try to erase the evidence of time on their personal maps. I would no more do that than I would erase an old letter from a dear friend. I’m grateful for every line.

They remind me who I am: a Probability Legend, if only in my own mind.

Star Stuck

Even paper stars entice us to look up.
Even paper stars entice us to look up.

Twinkle twinkle little star, how I wonder when I stopped wondering what you are.

I was nine years old when my mother gave me a copy of “Mary Poppins.” I loved it. But some parts of it stuck with me more than others. In particular I recall the chapter in which Mary Poppins takes the children to meet a wispy old lady who makes gingerbread stars. The key magical element was the gold foil stars covering the cookies that (spoiler alert) the old lady, with Mary’s help, pastes to the night sky.

Of course I knew it was make believe, but I liked the idea. The hard-edged modern world has little patience for such whimsy. We know too much now. Or think we do, anyway. Once those spectacular photos from the Hubble telescope started showing up on the Internet, putting to shame all of George Lucas’s special effects, not to mention Gene Roddenberry’s best efforts, it became obvious that the stars are far more complicated and numerous than was once thought.

Back in the days when the Greeks and Romans were giving names to the twinkling lights in the night sky, and in some cases imagining origin myths and personal narratives for all that glow, the chance of anyone going up there and assessing the actual content and dimensions of the stars was remote. Now satellites clutter the atmosphere, not only bouncing signals back and forth and observing our mundane activities here on Earth, but allowing us to watch the exploding swirling dance of distant galaxies.

It’s enough to make anyone’s head spin. And right now, what with the eggnog and the rum punch etc., I really don’t need any more confusion in my life. I used to enjoy the Christmas hoopla. But ever since the 12 days of Christmas turned into 12 weeks I’m too burned out on the whole marketing juggernaut to stop and smell the gingerbread.

I miss that simpler Mary Poppins sort of magic. I’d rather look up at the stars on a clear cold snowy evening than watch another sappy holiday special about the meaning of Christmas.

I think meaning is best when it’s homemade. Like gingerbread stars. And this holiday, I’ll be pasted.

Paint Me A Picture

Even in the rain the models in Renoir's "Boating Party" represent a sunny ideal.
Even in the rain the models in Renoir’s “Boating Party” represent a sunny ideal.

Among the many unintended consequences of the government shutdown here in D.C. has been the rise in attendance at the city’s privately run museums.

Art lovers looking for somewhere to get their gaze on have been flocking to places like the Corcoran Gallery (which has funding issues of its own), the Textile Museum (soon to be relocated on the GW campus) and the Phillips Collection near Dupont Circle.

The Phillips is perhaps the most beloved gallery in town, not least because it’s home to one of the world’s most beloved paintings, Renoir’s joyous celebration of all things French, “Luncheon of the Boating Party.” That this famous and priceless work can be seen in such an intimate and exquisite setting as the Phillips is one of the wonders of living in this Capitol city.

So much of D.C.’s tourist zone is writ large, in grand marble monuments and stern statues of famous men. It’s refreshing to step into a place devoted to a more private, personal artistic vision.

I’ve taken Renoir’s masterpiece for granted for years, like a beautiful world I can escape into whenever I need a dose of romantic optimism. But I will never look at it in quite the same way again, thanks to author Susan Vreeland, whose historical fiction novel I just finished reading. Vreeland has made a good career out of researching and imagining the stories behind some famous paintings. Her Girl in Hyacinth Blue, based on the painting by Johannes Vermeer, was a bestseller and established Vreeland as a meticulous and gifted storyteller.

I never read Girl. In general I’m not a huge fan of historical fiction, which usually feels a bit neither-this-nor-that to me. I like my fiction fictional, all the way through. But I understand how readers who long to know more about beloved artists could be attracted to a fictionalized account.

I read Vreeland’s Luncheon of the Boating Party not because I was curious about Renoir, the man. I was curious about the people in the painting. The scene is so relaxed and carefree, the models all look like people who would be fun to hang out with. And this is what makes Vreeland’s Luncheon a success. The story doesn’t simply dwell on the Renoir’s struggle to raise the money to buy his paints and pay for the models and the tremendous amount of food that was consumed during the eight sessions of posing. Nor does it focus entirely on the thematic and philosophic issues that were dividing the up and coming artists of that time in France, when the sense of “la vie moderne” was challenging the old constructs of French society and art.

At one point in the novel Renoir says, “I despise the idea that paintings are investments.” I’d be curious to know if this is an actual quote Vreeland found in a letter or diary. One wonders what Renoir would think of the modern marketing of art.

What makes the novel live and breathe are the portraits Vreeland paints with words of the models themselves and how they interact with each other, and, most of all, how their affection for Renoir and his for them produces the magical chemistry that you can see in the painting. A thousand little brushstrokes coalesce to give an unforgettable impression of a joyous afternoon.

It looks like the sort of party to which we’d all like to be invited. Thanks to Renoir we can at least imagine ourselves there. And thanks to Vreeland, we know the names of all the guests.

Kith and Kindle

A young woman begins a journey that takes her far, far from the beaten path in The Greening.
A young woman begins a journey that takes her far, far from the beaten path in The Greening.

My new book, The Greening:At The Root, is now available on Kindle.

I don’t own a Kindle myself, yet. But I’m beginning to see the light. Though no electronic gadget will ever supplant my love of genuine page-turning, there’s no denying that e-books are, if not the way of the future, at least the way of the moment.

So, for those of you who like to travel light and still pack a whole library in your carry-on, you can now find another one of my books on the endless virtual shelf.


This Is Your Life

Every rainbow is a small miracle.

Karen Thompson Walker’s debut novel The Age Of Miracles takes off from a simple premise, the sort of “what if?” that has inspired science fiction writers for decades. What if the Earth’s rotation slowed? What if, gradually, but unmistakably, the sunlit days grew longer, the dark nights correspondingly longer, and cooler?

From this seed of possibility any number of mutant futures could be imagined. In these days, when young adult dystopian fiction is the leading edge of publishing trends, such a plot could have been milked for a franchise by a writer less concerned with exploring the subtleties of human nature under stress. But Walker, a deft and capable plot spinner, is also a thoughtful and caring observer of the paradox of human existence. Just because we know we’re doomed doesn’t mean we have to believe it.

Through the eyes of the 11-year-old narrator Julia, a lonely girl in Southern California, we see the hairline cracks in society widen as the days lengthen to 30 hours, 50 hours and beyond. When the government steps in to try to impose order on a world which no longer runs on clock time, the divisions between schools of thought lead to irreparable fractures in families and communities. However, no government can impose order on the natural world, and as the food supply and all living things including plant life are imperiled by the slowing, a miasma of gloom settles over much of the world.

But of course, to a lonely girl with a crush on a boy, all the world’s problems are mere background. Up to a point.

Walker’s brilliance shines in the way she shows her young protagonist coming to terms as she navigates not only the ordinary uncertainties of adolescence, but the terrifying new normal of loss.

For a while as I was reading the book I almost lost heart. I usually get my fill of depressing ideas reading the daily news. But I stuck with Walker, hoping she might have some miracle planned for the ending. And even though she didn’t give me the candy-coated over-the-rainbow finish I might have chosen, she left me with a lot to think about.

As her sensitive and warm-hearted heroine recounts the tale from her perspective as an adult, the story is saturated with the sense of “if we’d known then what we know now,”  a common enough phenomenon among those who’ve experienced the bittersweet sensation of 20-20 hindsight. By pointing out the amazing beauty of the world which vanished during her lifetime, Julia reminds the reader that that same amazing world is still here now. We might even still have a chance to save it if we don’t kill each other off first.

Many of us live in a state of constant expectation, looking for miracles or waiting for them on the horizon of some afterlife. But in the meantime we overlook the everyday miracles with which this planet is blessed. Sunrise daily, starlight, trees and birdsong, breezes and butterflies, babies of all kinds. Music.

We already live in an age of miracles.

Recipe for a “Great Dark Birthday Cake”

In the eyes of a child even a small pond can seem an ocean.
In the eyes of a child even a small pond can seem an ocean.

Shuffle the deck of time and space.
Stir in a cup of memory, a teaspoon of hope.
Add two cups of terror,
one stick of courage and a teaspoon of tears.
Beat in two or three hearts.
Bake in moonlight until shimmering with stars.

And there you have it. A recipe for an adult novel by Neil Gaiman.

In the last thirty years the dean of darkly romantic graphic comics and adult fairytales has proven that he can write about anything. Love, torture, family dynamics, urban decay, pastoral bliss, you name it. And all with the lyrical touch of a natural bard.

In his latest novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, touted as his first “adult” novel after years of putting out works mainly for young readers, Gaiman returns to his strong suit. The Ocean is a mythic tale of childhood fear that reinterprets the trope of the evil nanny, setting it in terms of interdimensional magic and horror.

Gaiman so vividly captures the sense of peril that lurks beneath the supposedly carefree time of childhood that I found I couldn’t read it just before going to bed. I made time for daylight reading in order to finish it the first time. Then I had to go back and reread the last two chapters to run my mental fingers over the scar. It’s not a story I’ll forget.

But most of all I want to remember the ending. Gaiman writes with a poetic lyricism that makes me stop every few pages to savor a line, an image: “The cloudless sky was splashed with stars beyond all counting.”

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is probably not a book for young readers. But anyone who has survived being young can relate to the seven-year-old protagonist’s struggle to understand what is happening and to find a way to stop the threat to himself and his family.

Gaiman balances the darkness in his novels with an almost palpable sense of security. As the little boy recalls being in the home of the wise woman who helps him: “I felt safe. It was as if the essence of grandmotherliness had been condensed into that one place, that one time.”

Not every child is granted such a gift of emotional safety. We live in world where monsters prey upon children every day. The world changes constantly; still it hasn’t changed enough.

Gaiman reminds us that there is work to do, but he does more than that. He sprinkles stardust to light the path out of darkness. He invites us to explore “patterns and gates and paths beyond the real.”

But you might want to bring a flashlight.

Hook, Line and Thinker

At the salmon ladder at the Ballard Locks in Seattle a ranger explains the salmon life cycle. Photo by Bill Harper

Much as I admire Melville, I’ve never been passionate about fishing.

But I do think there’s something at once mystical and primal about the attempt to catch a creature you can’t quite see.

However, when I recently watched the film version of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, I wasn’t motivated by any high-minded appreciation of the spiritual dimensions of the sport of fly fishing. I saw that Emily Blunt was in the cast. That was enough for me.

It didn’t hurt that Ewan McGregor was also in the film, playing a socially challenged Scottish fisheries expert. I went into it expecting a modestly entertaining film and was pleasantly surprised. I even learned a bit about salmon, a thing I wouldn’t have thought possible after my years in Seattle.

The somewhat far-fetched plot revolves around a project financed by a fabulously wealthy Yemeni sheikh whose dream it is to make salmon fishing possible in the Yemen.

If you are like me, your knowledge of the exact location of the Yemen is sketchy at best. But if you guess that it’s mostly hot and dry, that’s close enough to be getting on with the movie version. The film ripples along, bubbling smoothly over the bureaucratic and logistic hurdles of the proposed project, and casting a wry light on the cynical political posturing that goes on far from the salmon beds.

I enjoyed the movie so much that I promptly went out and read a copy of the novel by Paul Torday on which the film was loosely based. Operative word: loosely.

The first half of the novel is more or less faithfully followed in the screen version. Yet as the plot becomes more complex, and the shadows lengthen, the novel winds up with a significantly different outcome. Not altogether bad. But not the soft-focus, convenient dramatic turning point, uplifting emotional payoff that typifies the usual indie rom-com. Instead, the novel ends with an air of possibility. It’s like a Zen exercise in faith.

The charismatic Sheikh Muhammad whose philosophical conversation is reminiscent of the cryptic stylings of Yoda, remains the calm center in spite of  the gathering storm of media nonsense. Among the many truisms he utters is: “Without faith there is no hope and no love. Faith comes before hope, and before love.”

I thought about that one for a long time after I closed the book. I’d like to think that inside every devoted fisherman there is that element of faith that precedes love. But then, maybe that’s just the fisher in me dreaming of salmon in the desert.


A mosaic sun brightens the cloudiest days at the Takoma Park Community Center.

There’s a gentle mist falling outside on this cool September day. It’s not the steady rain the garden needs, barely enough to soften the air, lower the temperatures, and dampen the birdbath. But it’s a soothing kind of benediction after the bright sun and insistent breeze of the last few days. The tiny drops hardly make a sound as they fall.

It was a quiet summer here in D.C.. After last summer’s record-breaking heat and dramatic derecho it’s been kind of a surprise to have so few crashing thunderstorms. Perhaps Mother Nature felt She’d made her point last year.

The memorable moments of each season, each year, hold our attention only until the Next Thing comes along. We are creatures of limited attention spans, and easily diverted by shiny spectacle and the continuous rain of catastrophic events around the world. The work of repairing and renewing is constant. Some lament the loss of what cannot be restored. Others see new possibilities in every change.

The ability to rebound after loss or injury is one of humankind’s most encouraging qualities. I love it when people don’t fold in the face of adversity, or stop learning after they leave school, or stop caring after their hearts get broken.

Sometimes beauty is born from wreckage.

Not long after I moved to Seattle I read Stephanie Kallos’s wonderful novel “Broken For You.” The story, with its Seattle setting and compelling characters, deals with the difficulty of recovering from tragedy, a common enough theme in much literature, but the way Kallos used the medium of mosaic art as a metaphor for transformative healing really spoke to me. All my life I’ve been drawn to mosaic works, especially those which breathe life and beauty into otherwise drab surfaces.

In Philadelphia, for instance, whole blocks have been transformed by the quirky thought-provoking mosaic murals of artist Isaiah Zagar. Using broken bits of mirror, ceramic and glass to create uplifting designs in formerly neglected inner city neighborhoods, Zagar was a pioneer in the field of public art made by and for the people, unsubsidized by government or corporate sponsors.

Such gifts of beauty, produced by the patient process of putting together tiny pieces of color to make something hopeful and inspiring, help us to heal  and deal with the continual barrage of violence that threatens our world. It can be a little overwhelming sometimes—the hurricanes, the floods, the crazed gunmen. The instinct to run and hide is strong, and perhaps vital to our continued existence.

But just as vital is the instinct to pick up the pieces and rebuild, to reach out to the hurt and lost and help find the way to a brighter day. Humanity is a big puzzle. Sometimes it’s hard to know where you fit in. Sometimes you have to step back to see the big picture. And other times you just have to start by picking up a little piece and doing what you can where you are.

Pull yourself together and brighten the corner you're in.

The Font and the Fury

Bookstore cats are a breed apart.

While recovering from another losing battle between me and the Microsoft Word system that rules my computer I recently read Robin Sloan’s  Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, a literary pick-me-up about book lovers, computers, and the curious obsessives who thrive in the shadows of secret libraries.

What’s not to love, right?

Mr. Penumbra’s, as the name suggests, explores the uneasy interface between old school wisdom keepers and the new technocracy, with its wide open, full-throttle approach to problem solving. The story unfolds somewhere between genres, being neither a conventional mystery, nor a whiz-bang thriller. Some critics have compared it to recent novels such as Erin Morgenstern’s delightfully atmospheric The Night Circus and Neal Stephenson’s weighty Reamde. Yet, although the plot includes a hint of romance and a suggestion of immortal aspiration, it’s more Encyclopedia Brown than Thursday Next. The geek protagonist is a Leonard, not a Sheldon.

In truth, the soul of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore has less to do with technological or magical wizardry than it has to do with the clunky magnetism of age-old fonts.

That’s right. I said fonts. And this is where the Word Warrior in me lifted her shield and sword and embraced the cause.

A good book is a fine thing, but a great font is a rare and precious tool. Unfortunately the Word version on my computer thinks it knows what’s best for me when it comes to fonts. Anyone who has tried to format a document using Microsoft Word has probably grappled with the maddening “helpfulness” of its system. Sometimes, in my dark moments, I long for a typewriter. But then, I never did learn to type, so the computer is really a much better tool for me. If only Word wouldn’t keep second-guessing what I’m trying to do.

Ah well. As they say,  if uppity technology is your problem, you don’t have problems.

However, if you, like me, find yourself in need of a lift after a vexing session with your computer, you could do worse than dip into the pages of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.

And, bonus happy points: the cover glows in the dark. Oh yeah. That’s technology anyone can love.