Thursday, March 26, 2009

John Daniel's New NonMystery

        Many mystery writers work in other forms as well, including nonfiction.  I've had three nonfiction books published: "The View From The Vue," recollections of life as a med student and intern at New York's Bellevue Hospital more than 40 years ago; "The Enchanted Ear, or Lured Into The Music Box Cosmos;" and the long-out of print "Genetic Engineering: Threat or Promise?"
        John Daniel is one of my favorite mystery writers; his sly, slightly-out of kilter sense of humor and ingenious, hectic plots made books such as "The Poet's Funeral" and "Vanity Fire" impossible to put down.  Now, John has produced something very different, but no less readable.
        The Ballad of Toby and Lark is subtitled A Cat Fantasy.  It's a short book, 53 pages, written in free verse, and accompanied by charming, engaging drawings by the author.  The story is that of Toby, a sixteen-year-old boy, in love with Lark, a gardener twice his age.  Unfortunately, because of their age difference, Lark's affection for Toby doesn't go beyond the maternal, and the object of the boy's affection decides to cohabit with Toby's handsome but nasty Uncle Pewter, a hunter.  Toby finds his way to Mistress Mangle, a kindly herbalist-witch who keeps a house full of cats.  The witch turns Toby into a handsome tomcat; as such, he returns to Lark's house, and she welcomes him as a pet.  Uncle Pewter, though, is less than enchanted, and tosses Toby-cat out on his ear, whereupon he trudges back to Mistress Mangle's.  The witch brings in Vixen, an attractive young woman-cat (and once a human woman), to concoct a scheme to take revenge on Toby's uncle, which is all the more satisfying because of how appropriate it is, considering Pewter's occupation.  But then, Toby has to made a choice: assume cat form permanently or go back to being a human.
        One could read this story as a little fairy tale for grownups, but that would be a mistake.  At first read, the tale reminded me of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, but where that book could offer only a fatuous pseudo-profundity beneath its surface, The Ballad of Toby and Lark plumbs interesting depths, some of them dark, even troubling.  Basic attitudes and preconceptions are called into question. 
        Moral and existential ambiguities are prominent in all of Daniel's fiction, and the author is very good at presenting dilemmas, while leaving interpretation and judgement to the reader.  The Ballad of Toby and Lark challenged me to consider the nature of love and sexuality, both in and of themselves, and in relation to each other.  I found myself thinking hard about interactions between people and non-human animals, and weighing the pros and cons of dangerous, devious actions with malice aforethought, committed against distasteful people. 
        Then, there are the characters themselves.  For example, Lark is not a lawyer or an accountant who enjoys gardening as a hobby; as portrayed, she's not even a farmer.  There is "...cheese from her goats, and from the bees, sweet honey, and sweet garden peas..." but we never see her producing these.  What, really, does she cultivate in that garden?
        There is no sense of geographic specificity about the setting, though various details project an image of antiquity, casting a feel of timelessness and universality upon the story.
        For a small investment of money and time, The Ballad of Toby and Lark yields high dividends in terms of enjoyment and stimulation of the imagination.  I recommend it highly, and part of that recommendation is that you read it slowly, and more than once.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Field's End Writers Conference, April 18

The Field's End Writers Conference is one of the premier events
in the Pacific Northwest. Tamara Sellman, Conference Director,
writes, "We're proud to announce that this year's conference is an
especially great value; we're offering additional workshops and
events while keeping registration at our 2008 rates ($150, or $130
per person for groups of five or more). We've also included more
offerings for poets and children's book writers."
You can read complete information about this excellent conference at

Saturday, March 7, 2009

I Thought I was Going To Hawaii

The sun was out and bright Tuesday afternoon. Since then, it has
looked like Seattle - gray, dark, with rain. At least it's in the 70s,
and the rain hasn't interfered with our trips, though last night, on the
way back from the volcano, it came down in sheets. After we'd got by,
some roads flooded out.
Wednesday, we went to Hilo, enjoyed the farmers market, and
Thursday, went to beautiful South Point, the southernmost point of the
US, saw people spearing fish, and whales leaping out of the water.
Yesterday, we went to Kileauea - really something to walk along the edge
of a steaming caldera, while steam rises from vents in the fields around
you. Today, we're in Kona, seeing how the other half vacations.
Now, if only the sun would come out.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

On the Beach

Rainy and 48 in Seattle this morning. 6 hours on a plane was no
walk in the park, but it's nice here on Hawaii, windy and cloudy, but in
the 70s. The airport at Kona is mostly outdoors, a real mindblower.
That object at the lower right of the picture is my shoe up on my beach


Monday, March 2, 2009

A Little Reflected Glory

        I just got word that Mirron Willis' reading of The King of Ragtime for Blackstone Audiobooks received AudioFile Magazine's Earphones Award, and I'm happy to bask in the reflection of Mr. Willis' glory.  The review said, in part, "Mirron Willis gives a virtuoso performance in Larry Karp's second immersion in the syncopated rhythms of ragtime...Willis never strikes a false note in Karp's well-researched period mystery. He fashions living human beings of all colors, textures, and dispositions with only his smooth, sultry voice.
     Here's a link to the entire review.
     Thanks, AudioFile.  Thanks, Mr. Willis.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

        That's probably the Number One question writers get asked.  The answer is, "Everywhere, all the time." 
        Last night I went to a concert at Kenyon Hall in West Seattle, where the terrific Cornucopia Concert Band played selections in honor of Black History Month.  There were rags, blues, popular melodies, show tunes. 
        One of the most prominent names from the list of musicians represented in the concert was James Reese Europe.  A century ago, he was composer, bandleader, arranger, promoter, labor organizer, one of the most important New York musical personalities of the time.  He was a key figure in getting the dance craze of the 'twenties going, composing tunes for headline dancers Irene and Vernon Castle.  He took ragtime and early jazz to France, thereby setting the stage for that country to be a post-war hotbed of jazz and related music.
         Unfortunately, Europe died far too young.  In May, 1919, an argument with his drummer led to the drummer's stabbing the conductor to death.  What might have been behind this murder?  Was it simply a case of an unstable percussionist being pushed just a little too far by his boss?  Or was there more?  There's a relatively-new book out, A Life in Ragtime: A Biography of James Reese Europe.  My daughter and son-in-law gave me a copy for Christmas, and it's now near the top of my TBR pile.  I think I'll move it up to Number One.  There might be a story there.