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WHAT THE WALRUS SAID--Our Authors' Blog--

CALIBAN RISING

This Caribbean island looks serene, but don't kid yourself

Lately I worry a lot about who to kill off.

Don’t call the police—I’m talking about characters in the thriller I’m currently writing.

I don’t mind offing bad guys, because they fully deserve it. Every one of them, believe me. It’s the good characters who trouble me, imaginary people I’ve come to like and respect.

I’m writing this novel, so I suppose I’m Zeus, and I get to decide who dies and who lives. However, the truth is that the story itself is king of the gods, with its own wishes and demands and requirements. Authors are soothsayers. All we can do, really, is divine what the story wants and do its bidding.

For instance, this novel started as a pure thriller, set on a Caribbean island, but I’m about midway through now and—all on its own—it’s taken on a faint sci-fi tinge, although nothing that couldn’t actually happen in the world today. Let’s just hope it doesn’t.

Caliban Rising is the novel’s title. So far, at least. Even in titles, the story will have its way, so we’ll see.

Anyway, back to the question of good characters dying. For some reason, in our real world, we’ve lately had a rash of people we know dying. People not yet in their fullness of years. Brain cancers, heart attacks, prostate cancer, rare disorders with unpronounceable names….

I suppose that what determines who dies too young is not goodness, not badness. It’s just how our story wants to be told.

--Richard  Read More 
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Conestoga Wagons

Western Movies Didn't Get It Quite Right


Conestoga wagon—the iconic wagon of the pioneer west!

Actually, no.

We photographed this Conestoga wagon at the Shelburne (Vt.) Museum, one of the nearly 200 sleighs, coaches, and wagons in its “Horse-Drawn Vehicle Collection,” housed in a vast barn shaped, appropriately, like a horseshoe.

If your ancestors made the westward migration, they probably rode in a “prairie schooner,” a smaller, lighter wagon. Conestogas were too big and heavy to lumber across the roadless Great Plains. They were called “ships of commerce.” They were the Mack Trucks of the 18th and 19th centuries. Few, if any, crossed the Mississippi River.

Each Conestoga wagon, drawn by teams of horses, mules, or oxen, hauled up to six tons of cargo. Each had a rear-mounted feed box, for the animals, sort of a pre-industrial gas tank. Conestogas transported goods extensively in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, often forming long wagon trains. Conestogas’ floors curved upward, so the cargo wouldn’t fall out.

Incidentally, people didn’t ride in Conestogas, only cargo did. People walked alongside, although the wagons did have a wooden plank mounted on one side. It was to accommodate sore feet, and it was called “the lazy seat.”

We frequently visit the Shelburne Museum—39 historic buildings on 45 acres, exhibiting everything from duck decoys to impressionistic paintings. Among other things, it takes you time-travelling back into the past, when much transportation depended on hooves.

It wasn’t just those American pioneers, heading for California, either. Richard’s great-grandmother rode a covered wagon, not so different from the Conestoga, but that was across the Russian steppes.

--Joyce & Richard  Read More 
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Lady of Leaves and Flowers

A LIVING SCULPTURE

She is roughly 30 feet high. She is a living sculpture, made of plants.

Based on Chinese myth, she was one of 50 such giant foliage-and-flower sculptures we saw at the Mosaicultures Internationales Exhibit at the Montreal Botanical Gardens--galloping horses, parading lemurs with their tails up, a shepherd with dog and flock, pandas frolicking, waterfowl taking flight….

This summer, 2017, the Mosaicultures will be back, this time at Gatineau, Quebec (across the river from Ottawa), as MosaiCanada 150, celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday. See it if you can. These stunning sculptures are all made from living plants, but they aren’t topiary, which is shaped shrubs.

It is a highly complex form of art. The artists--from all over the world--must design and build frameworks for the sculptures, blend the colors, and plan for the maintenance of each plant they use.

It lifts your spirits.

—Joyce
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WHAT? SOMEBODY KILLED ROGER ACKROYD?

Edmund Wilson, Literary Critic

Edmund Wilson, the eminent literary critic, said detective stories are junk.

Ouch—I've just published a mystery novel, "Spider's Web in the Green Mountains." More to the point, I’m a long-time mystery reader.

It was 1945 when Wilson huffed about detective stories. I just looked it up. That was when books still mattered, and literary critics, like Edmund Wilson, actually could be eminent. So attention must be paid.

Wilson cited an Agatha Christie novel, "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd," and posed a zingy question: “Who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd?” He also said that “…the reading of detective stories is simply a kind of vice that, for silliness and minor harmfulness, resides somewhere between smoking and crossword puzzles.”

Actually, I also don’t care who killed Roger Ackroyd. Mostly, I’m in it for the adventure. In real life, I get edgy crossing a city street—I like virtual adventure, in which somebody else dodges .45 slugs.

I’m also drawn by the mystery ambience, the sense that, beneath the mundane, run strong currents, deep and dark.

Stories hinging on unlikely tangles are popular, but I’m more simple-minded. I like my stories straight up—Hey, that could really happen!

I wonder, too, if the mystery genre hasn’t evolved since Wilson’s day, when he complained the characters were “all simply names on a page.” Some modern mysteries seem less Roger Ackroyd and more Raskolnikov.

Besides, one of our greatest poets liked mysteries. So, I’m with you, William Butler Yeats.

--Richard  Read More 

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GASPODE, STREET DOG

First of Terry Pratchett's 41 "Discworld" novels, where Gaspode eventually appears



I often think about Gaspode, the terrier-like street dog in Terry Pratchett’s brilliantly funny “Discworld” novels.

It’s because Gaspode is so disreputably clever at making his way in his world, which is similar to our world, except that it is flat and rests on four elephants standing on the shell of a vast turtle, swimming in nothingness. Discworld’s dwarfs and trolls despise each other, and its humans disdain all minorities, especially vampires and werewolves. Slums are super-slummy. And a filthy little dog gets no lunch unless he wangles it.

Gaspode has a wangling edge: one night he slept beside Unseen University’s High Energy Magic building, and magical seepage upped his IQ and enabled him to speak. Nobody suspects a dog can talk, so people believe they’re hearing their own thoughts—“Oh, look at that poor little orphan doggie! I should give him half my sandwich!”

Gaspode appears in seven of Sir Terry’s 41 Discworld novels. He’s a lot like Homer’s hero, Odysseus, the only Greek among Troy’s besiegers who demonstrably has a brain.

Besides, Gaspode looks just like our friend Murdock, the west highland terrier who occasionally stays with us, when his buddy Eric is traveling. Also, whether your world’s round or flat, amusement is good.

–Richard  Read More 
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