Mrs. Toad’s Wild Ride

The view from the Cuban restaurant on Isla Mujeres.

The view from the Cuban restaurant on Isla Mujeres.

 

By the time we woke up in the Marriott Courtyard at the Cancun Airport, Clod and Linda were winging their way home. We ate a leisurely breakfast, turned in the car and caught a cab to the Isla Mujeres ferry. The ferry terminal was a zoo. Being a Sunday, people were taking day trips to the island and people were lined up with kids and bags.

The island is visible from the mainland, separated by brilliant, brilliant turquoise water interspersed with purple and indigo where the water is deeper. It was a brief journey and when we landed at Isla Mujeres, it was a bit overwhelming. The ferry slip is right downtown, and the place was full of people, dogs, motorcycles, taxis, and many, many golf carts. You aren’t allowed to bring your car, and people get around in rented carts, mopeds or taxis–or on foot.

Cancun in the distance, across the blue, blue water.

Cancun in the distance, across the blue, blue water.

Every golf cart in the place was rented, so we took a taxi to our hotel, which was thankfully a good distance from the noisy central area. Chac Chi Suites is a small hotel, two stories built around a central area with a little pool. We have a nice kitchen area with table, which is kind of too bad, as they provide no utensils with which to cook an actual meal–not even a coffee maker. It’s a bit basic other than that, but the room is clean and there is an outside patio area overlooking a small street. We are across from a walled elementary school, and the next day, we could hear the kids at play. (A nice sound!)

Once we got settled, we headed down that street, around the corner, to Sergio’s, a Cuban restaurant, and had beer and the most wonderful guacamole, followed by yummy broiled shrimp cooked with lime and garlic. To get to the restaurant, you walk into what looks like someone’s yard, then just persevere through some non-restaurant-appearing areas until you emerge into a rickety, palm-thatched structure over the water. Sergio’s turned out to be a popular stop for boats, which just moored to the side and let the passengers off. But it didn’t seem touristy at all, the people were friendly and the food was cheap and delicious. And, other than walking to dinner at GreenVerde, that was our day.

The next day we walked a little further to Mango Cafe for an enormous and delicious breakfast. Our rented golf cart wouldn’t be ready for hours, so we hired a taxi to take us around the island to get our bearings. Isla is a long, skinny island, oriented north-south. There are several large lagoons, some fresh, some not, and these are occupied by crocodiles, but crocodile incidents appear to be vanishingly rare. Of course, you are advised not to swim in the lagoons.

First, we went to Punta Sur (South Point). At the extreme tip of the island, there is a tiny temple to Ixchel, the most important goddess in the Mayan pantheon. Ixchel, often portrayed with a water jar or a snake headdress, is the goddess of childbirth, medicine, rainbows, fertility, and possibly the moon. As with many other cultures, she is associated with a triad of goddesses, maiden, mother and crone, Ixchel being the crone and represented in ancient times as a fierce old woman with jaguar ears.

The path to the temple winds through a sculpture garden, with the ocean to either side.

The path to the temple winds through a sculpture garden, with the ocean to either side.

“During Lent of 1517 Francisco Hernandez de Cordova sailed from Cuba with three ships to procure slaves for the mines… (others say he sailed to discover new lands). He landed on the Isla de las Mujeres, to which he gave this name because the idols he found there, of the goddesses of the country, “Ixchel” and her daughters and daughter-in-law’s “Ixchebeliax”, “Ixhunie”, “Ixhunieta”, only vestured from the girdle down, and having the breast uncovered after the manner of the Indians. The building was of stone, such as to astonished them, and they found certain objects of gold which they took.”

—Excerpt from “Yucatan, Before and After the Conquest” written in 1566 by Friar Diego de Landa.

The temple is sadly battered by time and hurricanes. A century ago, it was more or less intact, but today it is a broken tooth at the end of a white path that winds through a sculpture garden. Walking down this path, the rough waters of the Caribbean dash against the rocky western shore of the island as the gentle waters of the sound rock against the east. Cancun is clearly visible on the distant shore.

On the left, the temple of Ixchel on Isla Mujeres today. On the right, what it looked like 100 years ago. Hurricanes have taken their toll over the past century.

On the left, the temple of Ixchel on Isla Mujeres today. On the right, what it looked like 100 years ago. Hurricanes have taken their toll over the past century.

 

The structure was used as a lighthouse. Its second floor had openings, and a fire was burned inside, allowing the light to shine out to sea. It is possible it was just a lighthouse after all, and the temple itself is at a different site.

There are an abundance of iguanas sunning themselves around the rocks on the point. Several modern statues have been erected of Ixchel and an enormous green iguana near the restaurants close to the point. Ixchel is represented as a ripe young woman with a coiled snake on her head.

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A modern representation of Ixchel. In ancient time she was represented by a fierce old woman with jaguar ears. The odd hat is a snake, representing great power.

Next we drove to Hacienda Mundaca. Fermin Anonio Mundaca y Marecheaga was a slaver, and some say a pirate who made a fortune selling Mayan slaves to Cuba. He retired to Isla and built a—for the time—splendid two-story house surrounded by gardens. Much of this he did in hopes of winning the heart of a local maiden, Martiniana (Prisca) Gomez Pantoja, known as La Triguena (the brunette, which may not have distinguished her much, actually). She was a tall, green-eyed beauty, and Mundaca was hopelessly in love with her. He dedicated much of his house and grounds to her, hoping she would marry him, but she married a much younger man (Mundaca was about 35 years older than she). Heartbroken, he slid into madness and died. He carved his own gravestone, which can be seen in the graveyard at the north end, but as he died in Merida, he is not actually buried in the Isla Mujeres graveyard.

Stairs to the upper story of the Hacienda Mendaca. SO glad they don't make stairs like this today.

Stairs to the upper story of the Hacienda Mendaca. SO glad they don’t make stairs like this today.

The estate looks as though someone in the past tried to restore it a bit and add things like caged animals as attractions. The cages are now empty. The house is in ruins, but you can see the two downstairs rooms. Visiting the upstairs would be taking your life in your hands. The staircase from the ground floor to the second floor is more a ladder than a staircase, and I am sure the upper story is unsafe. There are a few photos with labels in Spanish in the downstairs area. Ruins of several outbuildings surround the house at a distance. If you follow a dirt path into the woods, you will come to an eerily deserted garden, surrounding a well at the center. The circular area around the well is delineated with stone and concrete low walls, creating four pie-wedges of masonry. Each pie-wedge has areas for plantings and a seat where one can contemplate the beauty of the vanished garden. Mendaca carved some of the stones, calling himself a ship’s captain and a pilot, not a slaver or a pirate. A few plants struggle on, notably a bougainvillea blooming its meager little heart out. It is a deserted, peaceful and very melancholy place, especially considering it’s creator’s sad story. The incurious would never find this garden, as it is well concealed by the woods.

The well at the center of the forgotten garden.

The well at the center of the forgotten garden.

The forgotten garden at Hacienda Mendaca.

The forgotten garden at Hacienda Mendaca.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Closer to the house, but a safe distance from it, is a large pond with rushes and water lilies growing in it. It also has a resident crocodile or two, but we didn’t see any. Unlike the rest of the estate, however, the stone wall around the pond looks in very good repair.

Then we embarked on a wild goose chase. A poster in the hotel office advertised an artisan craft fair on the esplanade. I wanted to see it and asked the driver, Francisco, to take us there. He obligingly took us to some shop at the north of the island, but that was obviously not the fair, so we drove back to the hotel, and I asked Francisco to go in and look at it. He then took us to the site in question, where there was no craft fair in sight. Well, no worries. On to Playa Norte, the top-rated beach on the island, for a cold beer and a gander. We weren’t going in the water, but it looked very inviting. It’s shallow, with a white sand bottom out quite far. The water is that heart-melting turquoise, and the sand is as soft and fine as sugar. By this time, we had driven all around the island, and felt well oriented.

We went back to the hotel and found that our golf cart was ready. Tom went to pick it up. Later that night we decided to go to a recommended restaurant called Villa Rolandi. We got into the golf cart, and thus commenced Mrs. Toad’s wild ride. I’ve never been in a golf cart before, and I felt like a turtle without its shell as we putt-putted down the busy main road in the dark, overtaken by taxis, mopeds, and other golf carts. Mexico has some of the most ferocious speed bumps I’ve ever seen, which is OK in a car, but the golf cart had absolutely no suspension, so each one was a bone-rattler. I heard my neck crack more than once as we jolted over these things, and I expected to be thrown out at any moment.

Mrs. Toad.

Mrs. Toad.

We finally arrived at Villa Rolandi, and I immediately felt grubby, underdressed and generally outclassed. We’ve been eating in pretty unpretentious places, with the exception of Hacienda Uxmal (but the quality of the food was the worst there of any place we ate). Villa Rolandi is a grand hotel with all the fixings. Nonetheless, we were ushered into the restaurant without a second glance and seated where we could hear the waves (though being night, we couldn’t see them), with an expansive view of the lights of Cancun shining across the dark sound.

The food was incredibly good. They brought us an interesting crispy flat bread with olives to start, then we had calamari and zucchini deep-fried to perfection. I ordered grilled octopus (pulpo), figuring I could not go wrong, and was not disappointed. Tom had a lovely filet mignon. I couldn’t finish the poor octopus, and followed insult to injury by having chocolate ice cream that I also couldn’t finish. We had a yummy Mexican Cabernet Sauvignon with our meal.

We got into a pleasant conversation with the couple next to us, as Tom recognized them from the hotel at Calakmul. They were from England, near Manchester. The man had at one time decided to visit every Mayan ruin in existence, and apparently had a good stab at it before giving up, but he still likes to visit the ones he missed earlier. I asked him why he wanted to do this, and the answer was because he wanted to, which is certainly a good enough reason. They were both retired educators. I explained what we were doing here, and they were kind enough to ask about “The Obsidian Mirror” and where to buy it.

On the way back, I rode in the back seat of our chariot–which also had a wobbly wheel. The speed bumps were just as vicious but somehow I felt marginally safer because there were support rails to cling to. I was awake for a long time after we finally went to bed at 11:45, and woke up many times during the night. I blame the chocolate ice cream and its theobromine. Sometimes, too much knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Because you can't have too many iguanas.

Because you can’t have too many iguanas.

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Frank Meets Dad: A Lie in 793 Words

Foreword

I wrote the following short-short story some time in the 90’s. I was managing a high tech public relations firm. Being a bunch of creative types, we had a writer’s club we called “The Jackhammer Society.” Once a week or so, we’d meet at lunch and share our fiction or poetry. (It was fun while it lasted–right, Laura Wigod?) I was going through some old files on my computer and re-read “Frank Meets Dad,” and found myself chuckling at it, so here it is. BTW, the story is a complete lie except that my father did once run for office, was defeated, and thus spared the world his career in politics.wildebeest-fight

Frank Meets Dad

Well, Frank threw the first punch, though it was my Dad who ended up in jail, not Sinatra.

Dad had his doubts about meeting Sinatra in the first place. This was in the late Sixties and Dad was running for political office in California. He wanted to be governor someday, and was trying to work his way up the political ranks. Dad got this invitation in the mail one day: “Mr. Frank Sinatra requests the pleasure of your attendance at a fund-raising dinner for the Republican National Committee.”

“I always liked the man’s voice. He’s a talented singer. But he’s a punk,” growled Dad, brooding over a second martini. “He’s got no business in politics. And he hangs around with the Mafia.” Dad went on for several more chapters about Mr. Sinatra’s flawed character, including injured photographers, discarded mistresses and his daughter’s singing career, which Dad thought was an example of the worst sort of nepotism.

“And he drinks too much,” Dad declared over his third or fourth martini.

But in the end, he went. He said it was because there would be important political connections at the party, but I think he went to meet Sinatra.

The party was held in Las Vegas, at The Sands. (“It would be,” said Dad. “The whole place is run by mafiosos.”) The cost was $1000 a plate, so Mom didn’t go. Dad was introduced to Sinatra after dinner as “a promising Republican candidate for the California State Legislature.” Sinatra was smoking a cigar, which he could do because it didn’t involve inhaling the smoke into his golden vocal chords. Dad had quit smoking cigarettes, and was therefore smoking a wicked little black cigarillo. Dad and Sinatra eyed each other through a blue curtain of smoke.

“Glad to meet you, Mr. Sinatra,” said Dad, extending his large, fine-boned hand. Sinatra smiled his cold smile and shook hands.

“Have a seat, Jack,” Sinatra said, waving towards a chair.

My father looked around and sat down. There were several large, dark-suited bouncer-types nearby, he noted with satisfaction. Probably Sinatra’s Mafia bodyguards.

“What’ll’ya have?” Sinatra said, snapping his fingers at the attentive waiter behind him.

“Vodka martini, twist of lemon, easy on the vermouth,” Dad said, never looking at the waiter.

“Whiskey, The Glenlivet, neat,” said Sinatra, keeping his eyes on Dad.

The Mafia-types moved in a little, so Dad stretched his considerable length out to show how relaxed he was.

Sinatra began a conversation about the state of the GOP in California, and asked what Dad was going to do about it if he won his Legislature seat in the next election. Dad started in talking about the issues –– by now he had it all down pretty smoothly. He got Sinatra interested, and soon they were arguing amiably about public education.

The topic soon changed from politics to guns and from guns to women. By the time they were both on their third shared round of drinks, they seemed like old friends. Dad was in the middle of trying to explain the fascinations of marlin fishing to Frank, when Sinatra pulled a cigar from the breast pocket of his silk suit and offered it to him.

“Don’t tell anybody. It’s Cuban,” Sinatra said, pantomiming someone looking around for government bugs.

Dad froze. “There’s no way you could get Cuban cigars without connections into Havana,” he said, and the ambient temperature dropped 100 degrees. He stood up, all six feet and five inches of him and towered over Sinatra.

“Anyone who traffics with an enemy of the government of the United States is an enemy of mine,” he declared, glaring down at Sinatra’s darkening face breathing single-malt whiskey fumes up at him.

Before the Mafia-types could move, Sinatra bounced up.

“Bastard!” he screamed. Although he was eight inches shorter, Sinatra threw a punch and connected with my father’s thin midriff. As Dad folded, the Mafia-types closed in and hustled him out of the room, where he was collected by the Las Vegas Sheriff’s Department.

They let him go the next morning. As a cop handed Dad his keys and wallet, he said, “Mr. Sinatra has generously decided not to press charges. Sir. I wouldn’t push it, if I was you. Sir.”

Dad was pretty peeved, but he wasn’t stupid. He let it drop (though we heard about it at home for the rest of his life). He ran for the Legislature and lost, and decided to quit politics. He said the system was broken. So that was that.

Oh, yes. After he lost the election, Dad took his collection of Sinatra LP’s out to the skeet range and systematically used them all for target practice. It wasn’t fair, but he shot all the Dean Martin LP’s too.

 

The Home of My Heart

This is me, aged maybe 12, dressed up in old-timey clothes in the front hall of 16 Campbell. I can't remember why.

This is me, aged maybe 12, dressed up in old-timey clothes in the front hall of 16 Campbell. I can’t remember why.

My daughter went online a few weeks ago to look up the house I grew up in, a house she remembers with affection. It had been sold, and there were about 20 recent photographs of the house on one of the realty sites.

I scrolled slowly through the photos online, remembering, and I suddenly realized that I loved that house—still, after many decades of living in other houses—as though it were a human being. I hadn’t realized you could love a house with such warmth and tenderness, but this was no ordinary house. I’m going to call it 16 Campbell from now on because she deserves a name, and because that is how we all refer to her. Yes, I realize I am anthropomorphizing wildly here, and I am probably also being sappily sentimental. So be it.

I remember moving into 16 Campbell at the age of four and a half. It had been built by an architect renowned in my small Southern California hometown during its Victorian heyday as a resort for East Coast families seeking relief from icy winters. My parents bought it on the G.I. Bill from an elderly widow who was running it as a boarding house for other elderly widows. It was a white, Dutch Colonial-style house, shingle-sided, two-storied, crumbling gently atop a hill like a dowager duchess who has fallen on hard times.

Few, if any improvements had been made to the house since her debutante days. Because she had been intended as a vacation home, the floors were made of pine planks instead of hardwood, and us kids, running around barefoot all day, got many a splinter in our feet. My parents eventually got hardwood installed downstairs, but upstairs it was still wear shoes or expect tears. Plaster was crumbling, there were wasps in the attic, the curtains were tattered, and the kitchen was resolutely inconvenient.

Not that we kids cared. We soon came to know every inch of that house. It sat over a rarity in California: a basement. The basement was just a hole dug into the hard red dirt with no foundation, and it was both scary and fascinating. It could be reached either by an old-fashioned storm door from the outside, or via stairs that led down from the mudroom. The basement was full of arcane things. There was an electric reducing device that consisted of a huge steel box lined inside with light bulbs. A person was supposed to sit inside this box, and I suppose the heat of all those light bulbs made him or her sweat and thus “lose weight.” We were given strict orders not to touch this device, but it was a constant temptation until my parents had it removed.

There were also many trunks full of old clothes, letters, diaries and junk. One trunk held costumes from earlier eras, including fake moustaches and dried-up vials of “spirit gum” to apply them, a beaded silk cloche with the beads dropping off, a hoop skirt, a genuine Apache woman’s dress and beaded leather moccasins. Later, much later, we discovered a Civil War folding map table down there.

But that was not what made me love 16 Campbell. It was the house itself. Not everything that happened in that house was safe or pleasant, but the house felt protective and comforting. I played in the mud against its flank like a puppy rolling against the warm furry sides of its mother. I lay in bed, watching the patterns of leaves cast against the wall by the vines over my window, feeling safe. Whether I was building grass forts in the empty back lot or creating fairy feasts and leaving them in the roots of the gnarled pepper trees, or reading in the golden light that came through the living room’s bay window in the late afternoon, I felt the house’s protective presence around me. There was no part of the house that didn’t welcome me, and there were so many places to hide and be by myself when I didn’t want to be found.

None of us siblings really wanted to sell 16 Campbell when my parents died because we all had the same attachment to the house. But we had either built lives elsewhere and/or didn’t want the expense of restoring the property, which had declined as our parents had aged. Poring over the new photos, I saw the old lady had been completely rejuvenated. Her trim had been stripped to the gleaming grain of the wood. The awkwardly modernish light fixtures installed by my parents had been replaced with period reproductions. The pool area had been gracefully incorporated into the exterior spaces. There was a pergola, looking like an original fixture of the grounds, where once there had been an ancient rose garden. There was a greenhouse and paths along the hill once completely covered with myrtle and brush. A neat white metal fence surrounded the yard, replacing the drunkenly leaning wire fence covered with Lady Banksia roses.

The old girl was looking grand indeed. She sparkled with fresh paint and wallpaper, and her hardwood floors shone. Every room was bright, clean and spacious­. Even the kitchen, cramped and badly designed despite my parents’ best efforts to update it, now looked like an Architectural Digest layout.

16 Campbell was no longer the ramshackle old house where I had grown up, but that didn’t matter. I was glad she had been loved and cared for—as glad as I would be for any human being whose health and youth had been restored. She was the home of my heart, and I will always love her.

She Finds Sea Glass by the Sea Shore

treasures

I have always been astonished to find that no matter how obscure a subject, it is covered in agonizing detail somewhere on the internet. People who get interested in something tend to obsessively compile data, and the internet gives us a place to store it where other people can benefit from their obsession.

But I was still surprised to find out that sea glass is a “thing.” Since childhood, I had always regarded sea glass as a delightful side benefit of walking on beaches; suddenly you come across a jewel lying on the sand. I’m not talking about broken beer bottles here, though many have started out this way, but the softly abraded and frosted fragments of well-worn sea glass.

This past winter, El Nino raged up and down the California coast, sending monster waves to dig sand off the beaches, exposing stones, flinging trees and driftwood up onto the beaches, and—exposing tons of sea glass. After a storm, my daughter Kerry went hunting for sea glass, and showed up hours later with an enormous bag of the stuff—white, clear, blue, aqua, brown, amber, and many shades of green. As she began sorting through it, she also began searching the internet for information. It turns out that people have written entire books on the subject, identifying and categorizing different kinds of sea glass by origin, color, composition, original usage, and on and on and on. There’s one man who is an expert in sea glass bottles, and he can tell you where they were made, by whom, and how they were used from pieces of glass.

Incredibly rare to find an intact scent bottle.

Incredibly rare to find an intact scent bottle.

One of the most surprising things we discovered was “UV glass”; glass that contains uranium, resulting in a yellowy-green, light-catching material called “Vaseline glass.” (Not because it was used as containers for Vaseline, but because the glass has a greenish, somewhat oily look.) Under a black light, UV glass glows a brilliant and spooky green. One of the more unusual pieces my daughter found was a glass rod used in making millefiori jewelry that had a star-shaped central core made of UV glass. They stopped using uranium in glass around WWII, presumably because the element was needed for nuclear arms. Everything I’ve read about it indicates that there’s not enough uranium in UV glass to be dangerous, but I don’t think I’ll make any jewelry out of it, just the same.

UV, or "Vaseline" glass with uranium.

UV, or “Vaseline” glass with uranium.

So it turns out that collecting sea glass is a huge thing where I live. The sea glass in-crowd knows the best beaches, the best times of day, the best times of the year, the best weather, the best searching techniques. My daughter encountered another woman just before daylight on the beach, holding a flashlight on a stick to catch the reflection from the glass before the sun came up. Serious sea glassers wear wet suits and use sand crab rakes, normally used to dredge up these little crustaceans for bait, to dig up the glass in the wave zone. This can be a dangerous endeavor on the Northern California coast, which is prone to riptides and sneaker waves. This past winter, a man died at Davenport Beach, his favorite sea glass spot.

Davenport is where the hard-core crowd goes. It’s a public beach, but there is a certain cadre of sea glass seekers that act like it’s Westside Story and they’re the Sharks. I will call them Glassholes. On my first visit, I saw a man digging a large hole on the beach. I wandered over and picked up a quartz pebble he had unearthed—obviously nothing he was interested in.

“I didn’t dig that up for you,” he said. So charming.

“I didn’t imagine that you did,” I said.

“Go find your own hole!”

“It’s a public beach,” I pointed out, whereupon he roared, “Fuck you!” Such a gentleman.

Another lovely Glasshole wrote a manifesto and published it on Facebook instructing amateur “toe-dippers” to stay out of the way of the real people, stay out of the water, and a bunch of other things that I don’t think have been officially sanctioned by the California Coastal Commission.

So why are the Glassholes so hostile and aggressive? Apparently, the tiny town of Davenport (it has like, three streets) was once home to an art glass factory, which threw all  its rejects into the ocean. So it is possible to find stunning pieces of multicolored glass, rare colors and shapes in the Davenport waves. Many of the sea glassers turn these pieces into jewelry, sun-catchers, and other crafty things to sell. Does this excuse  Glassholery? By no means, but I don’t think they care what I think. (By the way, there are also some lovely and generous people who hunt for sea glass as Davenport, and I do not mean to include them in the Glasshole category.) [Post-publication note: Kerry says the glass studio is still there. The glass reached the ocean due to a flood that swept three dumpsters’ worth of art glass rejects into the sea.]

I won’t be returning to Davenport, though it has nothing to do with the Glassholes. In winter, which is the best season to find glass, so much sand has been scoured away from the beach that getting to the water requires descending a 12-foot sandstone cliff. Then, of course, you have to climb up the cliff to get out. I did it, but I’d rather not these days. I am not the agile creature I used to be. (Stop that sniggering, family!)

Sea glass millefiori rod with UV star.

It’s fun finding a special piece like a marble. The reason there are sea glass marbles is not because children play marbles at the beach, it’s because ships used barrels of marbles as ballast, jettisoning the marbles as necessary into the ocean. I have heard of people who have found thousands of them—I have found four.

Sea marble.

Sea marble.

When looking for sea glass, I can walk for miles without noticing that I am exercising. And it’s fun to go through the day’s catch with a black light to see if it will spark that spooky green glow, like the fuel rod in the intro to “The Simpsons.” I love the feeling of triumph when I find a rare color or a particularly well-worn and perfect piece. I used to hunt for shells, but I have actually found more sea glass than whole shells on these shores. Apparently, once a shell is abandoned by its owner, the rocks just beat the shit out of it. Finding an unbroken shell of any species is cause for rejoicing.

This bottle bottom says "FORBID."

This bottle bottom says “FORBID.”

At some point, when I get my jewelry workshop set up again, I will try setting my better pieces. But I will never be the avid collector my daughter has become. Many a weekend, when I am still fast asleep, Kerry is down at the beach, looking for glass. I’d rather have breakfast, so I guess I am not a true fanatic.

Photography by Kerry Keenan Gil

Meow Wolf: It’s Fucking Awesome


I had an adventure today. I visited the Meow Wolf Collective in Santa Fe, NM. I knew it was a huge experiential art installation but I had no idea what to expect. It was like a mad mashup of Disneyland, something Tim Burton might have done, Rivendell, a children’s museum, Harry Potter, the Twilight Zone, Salvadore Dali, and a Ray Bradbury story. And yet, I have fallen woefully short of describing it with any accuracy.
The centerpiece of the experience is a recreation of a Victorian house, but it isn’t made to look like a haunted house or anything. It’s a full-sized, two-story house contained in what used to be a bowling alley. It is surrounded by many other exhibits, but let’s start here. Inside the house, each room appears fairly normal, bar the dim lighting. But there is always something odd, weird or just strange about every room. Open the closet door in an upstairs bedroom and there is a corridor leading to a cavern adorned with stalactites and crystals with a glowing mammoth skeleton seemingly embedded in the rock. The medicine cabinet in the bathroom has glass vials full of herbs, while the prescription bottles have hilarious instructions for use. The floor tiles wave underfoot.
In one room, an artist is painting a canvas. In the kitchen, open the refrigerator door to find a passage to made-up destinations, directions to which are provided by a hologram. (Yes, you can go to these destinations.) The art on the walls is sometimes mundane, and sometimes seriously strange or even disturbing.
Surrounding the house are ramps and Rivendell-like vines, flowers, and glowing…things. You can walk across a bridge from the balcony of the house to a recreation of Baba Yaga’s chicken-footed cottage. There is a tunnel of video screens, a room full of crustaceans, tree fungi that glow and make drum noises when you pat them. There’s a light harp made of laser beams that plays notes when the beams are interrupted. There’s a room with a 15-foot-high rabbit with glowing eyes that reminded me of “Donny Darko.” Every surface is textured, painted, glowing, or interesting in some way.
One of the things I most appreciated about Meow Wolf was its complete lack of the sneering negativity so often expressed by modern art. The experience was positive, exciting, surprising, intriguing, and sometimes puzzling, and it made me extremely happy. Meow Wolf received seed funding from G.R.R. Martin, author of “Game of Thrones'” who lives in Santa Fe. I would love to see other such experiential art installations in other cities that have an innovative and creative spirit.
By the way, Meow Wolf is fantastic for kids. They can touch and explore and discover to their hearts’ content. There is also an art exploration area exclusively for children.
After all this specific description, I feel I have completely failed to describe Meow Wolf. Here’s some pictures–I’m sure they’ll give you a better idea. Maybe. Go there. You will not be disappointed.




Warning: This Post Contains Shameless Self-Promotion

New Cover

Recently I finished editing the first draft of “Fire in the Ocean,” the sequel to “The Obsidian Mirror.” I sent it off to my alpha readers and editor, and I can finally relax and think about something else for a while.

Such as promoting “The Obsidian Mirror.” While I was in the throes of writing the sequel, I did next to nothing about promoting my published work. A writer’s work is never done, I guess.

Why should you read “The Obsidian Mirror”? Short answer: because it’s a fun read. I read largely for entertainment. I like books that take you away and let you live someone else’s life for a while. I wrote “Obsidian” to be that kind of book: a diversion, a book I would love reading myself. It’s probably not a coincidence that the second publisher of the book is Diversion Books—they specialize in just that kind of novel.

Another reason to read “Obsidian” is because it is based on the mythologies and folklore of the Americas, which makes it a bit different. The idea occurred to me after finishing one of Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” novels. I loved the book, but started wondering why so much fantasy is based on proto-European, pre-Industrial Age tropes such as elves, faeries, dragons, and caped adventurers. The Americas have thousands of mythologies, folk tales and traditions that are largely ignored by fantasy writers.

I began writing “The Obsidian Mirror” as a kind of personal experiment. Meso-American gods and Coyote the Trickster, an Inuit ice demon and a mannegishi named Fred are some of the characters. What I did not anticipate is that I would fall in love with my characters and be driven to finish the book. Having done that, I felt compelled to get it published.

I don’t have much to brag about. I’m not a best-selling author. I have won no prestigious awards for my fiction writing. But I do have one thing that gives me modest bragging rights.

I have heard authors talk about receiving hundreds of rejection slips. One writer said he had a drawer filled with 450 rejection slips for his novel. That didn’t happen with “The Obsidian Mirror.” I approached perhaps 10 publishers and/or agents before AEC Stellar agreed to publish the book. When AEC Stellar bit the dust, I approached about five publishers before Diversion Books picked it up, re-published it and agreed to publish the sequel.

So I may not have sold a million copies, but I never had any problem finding a publisher. As a matter of fact, years after I originally submitted the manuscript to their slush pile, Baen Books got back to me and said they were interested in it. The early bird gets the book, Baen.

So why am I proud of this? Because I have some independent assessments that people will enjoy reading my novel. Add to that, the several four- and five-star reviews on Amazon, and you might conclude that you would enjoy it, too. To make it super-easy for you to find the book, here it is: http://amzn.to/1MQBvkd

I did warn you.

 

 

Authors with Feet of Clay and the Wings of Angels

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This is what White meant by a “mad, marigold eye.”

Most of the books I read are fiction. I’m a writer, I love stories­—it’s natural. And while I have read much of the world’s greatest English literature (I always score well on that annual list the BBC publishes of the 100 best books in the English language), the vast majority of what I read is brain candy. Fluff. Genre books.

Mind you, I am in no way putting these books down. I read them. I pay good money for them. I like them. I write them.

But once in a while, I pick up something that breaks this pattern. Last week, I re-read “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” by Thomas Hardy, and found it lyrical, funny, and tragic all at once. (In marked contrast to my experience of reading it in high school Honors English class.) This week, I finished reading a book loaned to me by my oldest friend, “H is for Hawk” by Helen Macdonald. There was no question this was going to be an excellent book, as it is a New York Times bestseller and winner of the prestigious Samuel Johnson Prize.

However, the book was, on the surface, about training a goshawk. I probably wouldn’t have read it if my friend hadn’t said, “There’s a lot in there about T.H. White, and I know how much you like him.”

Macdonald describes T.H. White as “an unpopular author,” which shocked me, but I suppose she is right; I just have difficulty accepting that an author whose writing is so beautiful could have fallen from favor. White is the author of two of my favorite works, “The Once and Future King,” (actually five books), an epic fantasy about King Arthur, and “Mistress Masham’s Respose,” one of my childhood favorites about a lonely little girl who stumbles upon a lost colony of Lilliputians (literal Lilliputians, brought to England by Gulliver).

White’s writing is so incandescently lovely that it makes me weep. His descriptions of the English rural countryside are so evocative that as a child, I felt I knew that landscape intimately, though I had never been within five thousand miles of the place. And I remembered one powerful scene in “The Sword in the Stone” (the first of the books of “The Once and Future King), in which the young Arthur is changed by Merlin into a small hunting hawk and placed in the mews of Sir Ector’s castle. Arthur is subjected to an ordeal by the other hawks; he must stand within striking distance of Colonel Cully, a mad old goshawk, until the hawk bells are rung three times by the other birds. If he survives, he is admitted into their company. That scene is only one of many White crafted to show how Merlin educated Arthur into kingship, but it stuck with me, particularly the description of Cully’s “mad, marigold eye.”

Macdonald had read “The Goshawk,” as well as much of White’s other work, and knew more about him as a person than I did. She was obsessed with hawks and hawking from an early age, read medieval books on hawking, hung out with austringers (people who train hawks), flew them herself. She had always been intrigued by the idea of training a goshawk—maybe because White had attempted to do this himself as a young man, and failed, ultimately losing his hawk to the wild.

Different people respond to grief in different ways. When Macdonald’s beloved father died, she decided that she would acquire and train a young goshawk. Perhaps White’s account of his epic battle with his goshawk was at the bottom of it; she needed a battle to take her mind off sorrow.

Macdonald interweaves her story of acquiring and training Mabel, her goshawk, with accounts from White’s life and work. Her writing is nearly as luminous as White’s, evoking the landscape, the life of the young hawk, the tragedy of White’s life tied up with the tragedy of her father’s death.

All I can say is that the reader descends into madness with the writer and emerges with her, not unscathed. Macdonald emerges with the scars of Mabel’s talons in her flesh, but the wounds of her father’s death healed.

However, I was left with more knowledge—and less—than I wanted about T.H. White. I know that some people want to know everything there is to know about favorite authors. Not me. I much prefer to listen to the author’s voice through his or her work, and accept that as the reality the author meant for me to experience. I fell in love with many an author, only to find on reading a biography that the adored one had feet of clay and was only a weak human being after all. Like the rest of us.

For example, my mother, sister and I loved Gerald Durrell, the British author of “My Family and Other Animals” and other books detailing his love for animals and adventures as an animal collector for zoos, and later, for his own zoo on the island of Jersey. He was a funny and evocative writer and once wrote me a personal note when I sent him a letter at age 10 asking about how he became a naturalist. I was delighted to find his biography some years after his death. But when I read it, I discovered that he (like most of his talented family) was a hopeless alcoholic with a violent temper who died of liver disease. I was happier with the sunny, charming animal lover of Durrell’s books.

I had always seen White as sort of a God-like figure, someone full of age and wisdom and kindness who saw the foibles of mankind with a clear and compassionate eye. He may have been so, but he was also an alcoholic who despised himself for his homosexuality and sadism. He grew up in a family so deranged that when his mother lavished affection on her pet dogs, his father had them shot. He thought his father would shoot him some day, and his mother was cold and remote. Then, of course, they sent him to an English boarding school, where the milk of human kindness was not only spared, but completely missing.

White became a schoolmaster at another prestigious public school, but it is notable that although his sexual fantasies focused on beating adolescent boys, he never did so. He eventually fled to a cottage in the woods and decided to raise a young goshawk in the medieval manner, opening a pitched battle between man and bird. This experience informed much of his later writings, but “The Goshawk” wasn’t published until much later, because White knew how badly he had failed in training his hawk.

I am considering whether or not to read an autobiography of White. I’m not disappointed in him, more sorry that he endured so much pain. I think it’s incredibly brave that he tried so hard not to inflict pain because he knew he enjoyed doing so. I will definitely seek out and read more of White’s work. Human nature may be sad and disappointing at times, but I have never been disappointed in the writing of Terrance Hanbury White.

Oh, and I’ll also read anything else Helen Macdonald decides to write.

The Vengeance of El Niño

It’s been a while since I have shared what I am working on. I blogged extensively about my research visit to Hawai‘i in January of 2015, but I’ve been on radio silence about work ever since.

Part of that is because if I say too much about the story, why would you want to read it when it is published? Another issue is providing detail about a story that might very well change so drastically in the writing process that it becomes unrecognizable.

I did mention that it has been much easier writing with a plot outline than without one. And that was certainly true until I wrote up to the intended climax of the story—and discovered that it wasn’t actually the climax after all and I needed to extend the story (for which no plot outline yet existed).

Part of the problem was that I hit the putative climax at about 65,000 words into the story. That means that I would have wrapped it up in about 75,000 words, which is a bit light for a novel like this. “The Obsidian Mirror” was about 100,000 words, and I am aiming for a similar length for this novel.

So I hit a rough patch as I floundered around trying to figure out what comes next in the story. I hesitate to call it “writer’s block” because I wasn’t blocked. I knew where the story was going, I was just missing a piece. Sort of like Indiana Jones crawling across a rope bridge across a steep chasm and there’s ten or fifteen planks missing in the middle. And crocodiles (my publishing contract and deadline) waiting below.

And then there was getting sick. Then the holidays. El Niño came for a visit last week and flooded the basement, soaking our family photos, my oil paintings, family historiana, and a lot of other stuff. I spent this past week gently prying apart photographs and arranging them on every available surface to dry, turning them over, grouping them, and tossing the ruined ones away. I did no writing at all.

Among the things I found was a packet of letters, all dated around 1879. They were written by someone named Carrie to her cousin, William Smith of Roxbury, NY. (Mr. Smith was one of my ancestors, which is how I came by the letters, but I haven’t looked him up to determine exactly what the relationship is.) They were written in a delicate copperplate hand, very legible, the India ink still clear and sharp despite their age and the complete saturation of the paper.

I reluctantly decided I would have to throw them out. There were so many of them, and my priority was rescuing my thousands of family photos before they stuck irretrievably together. I read a few of the letters and they were fairly mundane, though written with clear affection for the recipient. I felt guilty. They had been kept perfectly for 110 years, and I was the one who trashed them.

However, I found a poignant little poem in Carrie’s spidery copperplate. Here it is:

You I will remember

And in this heart of mine

A cherished spot remains for you

Untill (sic) the end of time.

 

Remember I

When this you spy

And think of me that is very shy.

 

Remember me

When this you see

And think of me that thinks of thee.

 

Remember Carrie

Where ‘ere you tarry.

And think of me

That will never marry.

 

The last stanza was enclosed in brackets. What do you think? I don’t mean Carrie’s gifts as a poet, which are slight, but the heart of it. I think Carrie was in love with William. I have at least saved her poem, which must have cost this shy woman a great deal to share with her adored cousin.

That much of Carrie I am keeping, safe for now.

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Carrie’s Poem

Getting back to my current book, I am firm on the title of “Fire in the Ocean.” It is set in Hawai‘i, which was built—and is still being built—by fire in the ocean: volcanoes. It also touches on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where billions of tons of particulate plastic are swirling around out there like peas and carrots in alphabet soup. Hawai‘i is smack dab in the middle of it. The slow dissolution of chemicals from the plastics is another form of “fire in the ocean,” poisoning sea life. And, of course, Pele, the goddess of volcanic fire, is a featured character in the book. Those of you who followed my blog from Hawai‘i know why I couldn’t leave Pele out of the story.

I am back on the job writing. El Niño is paying another visit, but we have pumps going and sandbags. All my rescued photos are safe and dry now and my oil paintings are drying out in the bathtub. Good time to write!

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“The Burden” This is one of my oil paintings, now residing in my bathtub. It won a first prize somewhere obscure.

Imaginary Friends Versus Imaginary Sparkles

 

Rainbow of lights

When I was little, I wanted an imaginary friend. I had a Little Golden Book about a lamb who had an imaginary friend, and I thought this would be very handy when I was stuck playing by myself. But try as I might, I never did develop a convincing invisible companion.

My daughter and son both had imaginary friends. Kerry, around the age of three, had a husband named Jonah and 10 kids, most of whom were named Stinky, but one was named Salty. They lived in San Francisco for a while, then they moved to San Jose and Jonah opened a sandwich shop. Jonah suffered an unfortunate death from pneumonia when Kerry developed a crush on a three-year-old named Brian. At the age of two, Sean had Dahlilly. Dahlilly was a very tall angel with orange wings and hair and blue eyes. His favorite food was Chicken McNuggets. Dahlilly eventually turned into a Tyrannosaurus Rex, and disappeared soon after, presumably due to personality disorder.

I may not have had an imaginary friend, but I did have imaginary sparkles. Like many kids, I was afraid of the dark, so I kept my door open halfway so that the hall light would dispel the monsters. When the sparkles began I was about six years old. I was lying in bed when I noticed some sort of dust drifting slowly and gently through the half-open bedroom door and spreading throughout my darkened room. In the light from the hallway, they looked like dust motes in a sunbeam. As these motes floated into the darker areas of my room, they looked like infinitesimal points of colored light. Soon, my room was filled with tiny sparkles swimming lazily around my room on unseen currents of air. They were as silent as the stars.

I was alarmed. I had never seen this before, I had never heard anyone talk about anything like this, and I was seriously frightened. I ran downstairs to see my parents, who, predictably, told me I had been having a nightmare.

It was not a nightmare; I had been wide awake. But even at the tender age of six, I intuitively knew that insisting otherwise was a waste of my time. So I trudged back upstairs to my bedroom to face whatever fate awaited me, and was relieved to find that the sparkles had disappeared.

As soon as I went to bed and turned out the light, they drifted in again, tumbling in slow motion and twinkling like incredibly tiny Christmas tree lights—thousands upon thousands of them filling my entire room. That night, I hid my head under the covers, which was my best and only defense against the unknown.

The sparkles came back every night after that. I decided they were benign and friendly things. Maybe it was fairy dust, or the sand that the sandman brought. Or perhaps the sparkles were fairies themselves. I didn’t understand what they were, but I grew to welcome them and looked forward to seeing them every night. The cloud of little lights felt like a magical protection. I never mentioned them to my parents again. I think I casually asked one or two friends if they saw sparkles at night to see if I was the only one. I was the only one.

My parents sent me to boarding school when I was 14. I wondered if the sparkles would follow me to the school. They didn’t. When I came home for Thanksgiving, no sparkles drifted into my room, that night or any other.

I missed them. Perhaps I had outgrown my need for their magical defense. Perhaps it was a function of change in a growing brain. I don’t know.

I suppose the sparkles were a recurring hallucination. Perhaps they were a way to cope with growing up in a difficult family situation. However imaginary they may have been, they were real to me, a mystical defense, a security blanket, a pretty light show that soothed me to sleep.

I still wish the sparkles would come back. They were better than any old imaginary friend.

 

 

 

 

The Dead Authors Society

A disturbing number of my favorite authors have died recently, and it’s bugging me. I’m talking about the kind of writer whose prose delights you, for whatever reason. Maybe reading a certain author’s work feels like sinking into a warm bath, comforting and deep. Or thrills you with action. Or galvanizes you into action. Or makes you feel as though you are traveling through faerie realms. You own all of their books and re-read them from time to time, just for the pleasure of the visit.

I decided to share some of my favorite deceased writers with you. If our tastes are similar, maybe you’ll like them, too. A caveat: Not all of these authors are great prose artists. But they all have a special, um, je ne sais quois.

Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett

Sir Terry Pratchett. If you’ve been reading this blog, you already know I’m in sackcloth and ashes over Pratchett’s untimely demise from Alzheimer’s earlier this year. If not, or if you’re a glutton for punishment, you can read my tribute to Sir Terry or my review of his last Discworld book, The Shepherd’s Crown.

 

 

 

 

L.A. Meyer. Louis Meyer authored the young adult “Bloody Jack” series. I have actually never “read” one of these, but I own all of them as audiobooks. This is because the narrator for all of them, Katherine Kellgren, is absolutely brilliant. She perfectly captures the heroine’s Cockney cockiness, her bounce, optimism, kindness, and impulsiveness. Bloody

L.A. Meyer Photo Credit: Bangor Daily News

L.A. Meyer
Photo Credit: Bangor Daily News

Jack starts life in the late 18th century as Mary Jacqueline Faber, daughter of a respectable couple fallen on hard times. Her parents die and she is coldly ejected into the streets of London at age 8. She falls in with a gang of street children, and after observing that life in the streets was a short-term proposition for most kids, she disguises herself as a boy and signs on as a cabin boy with a naval ship. Her ensuing adventures are grand and hilarious to boot. Kellgren does an amazing range of male and female voices and accents. The only one she just can’t do is Scots. Fortunately, there’s only one significant Scottish character, and he’s only in the first few books.

Meyer created a memorable, lovable, and downright addictive character in Jacky Faber. The other major characters are also well delineated and engaging. He manages to sneak in a good bit of history in the process of entertaining us.

L.A. Meyer died in 2014 from Hodgkin’s lymphoma. But he finished his series before he set sail into the great beyond. I’m listening to the final book now with a mixture of enjoyment and sadness that this is the last I’ll see of Bloody Jack.

The Bloody Jack series in chronological order:

  • Bloody Jack: Being an Account of the Curious Adventures of Mary “Jacky” Faber, Ship’s Boy (2002)
  • The Curse of the Blue Tattoo: Being an Account of the Misadventures of Jacky Faber, Midshipman and Fine Lady (2004)
  • Under the Jolly Roger: Being an Account of the Further Nautical Adventures of Jacky Faber (2005)
  • In the Belly of the Bloodhound: Being an Account of a Particularly Peculiar Adventure in the Life of Jacky Faber (2006)
  • Mississippi Jack: Being an Account of the Further Waterborne Adventures of Jacky Faber, Midshipman, Fine Lady, and the Lily of the West (2007)
  • My Bonny Light Horseman: Being an Account of the Further Adventures of Jacky Faber, in Love and War (2008)
  • Rapture of the Deep: Being an Account of the Further Adventures of Jacky Faber, Soldier, Sailor, Mermaid, Spy (2009)
  • The Wake of the Lorelei Lee: Being an Account of the Adventures of Jacky Faber, on her Way to Botany Bay (2010)
  • The Mark of the Golden Dragon: Being an Account of the Further Adventures of Jacky Faber, Jewel of the East, Vexation of the West, and Pearl of the South China Sea (2011)
  • Viva Jacquelina! Being an Account of the Further Adventures of Jacky Faber Over the Hills and Far Away (2012)
  • Boston Jacky: Being an Account of the Further Adventures of Jacky Faber, Taking Care of Business (2013)
  • Wild Rover No More: Being the Last Recorded Account of the Life and Times of Jacky Faber (2014)

Source: Wikipedia

Elizabeth Peters

Elizabeth Peters

Elizabeth Peters. Elizabeth Peters’ real name was Barbara Mertz. She wrote mysteries under the name Elizabeth Peters and supernatural/gothics under the name Barbara Michaels. She was an Egyptologist by education and wrote books about the everyday life of ancient Egyptians under her own name. She died in 2013.

As Elizabeth Peters, she had several series, but my absolute favorite is the Amelia Peabody series. Amelia Peabody is a wealthy English spinster of Victorian times who decides to travel. Intrigued as many Victorians were with the mysteries of ancient Egypt, she winds up in Cairo, encounters a nasty, rude male archeologist and a few murders. She winds up saving the day with British aplomb, a stiff upper lip, and a sharp umbrella. Amelia tells her own stories, and her prose is delightful to anyone who has read much Victorian literature. Here are some selections of Amelia’s wisdom:

  • “Men always have some high-sounding excuse for indulging themselves.”
  • “Abstinence, as I have often observed, has a deleterious effect on disposition.”
  • “Godly persons are more vulnerable than most to the machinations of the ungodly.”
  • “I do not scruple to employ mendacity and a fictitious appearance of female incompetence when the occasion demands it.”

Source: http://ameliapeabody.com/fromamelia.htm

Amelia waxes positively purple over her husband, Emerson, and there are references to his “sapphirine eyes” and “manly physique” that are clearly intended for us to giggle over.

The characters in this series age and change over time. The stories are informed by the geopolitical realities of each era, as Amelia moves from Britain’s Age of Empire to the wars and disruptions of the early 20th century. Here are the Amelia Peabody books in chronological order:

  • Crocodile on the Sandbank
  • The Curse of the Pharaohs
  • The Mummy Case
  • Lion in the Valley
  • Deeds of the Disturber
  • The Last Camel Died at Noon
  • The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog
  • The Hippopotamus Pool
  • Seeing a Large Cat
  • The Ape Who Guards the Balance
  • Guardian of the Horizon
  • A River in the Sky
  • The Falcon at the Portal
  • The Painted Queen

Source: Wikipedia

The author knew an enormous amount about ancient Egypt and the history of Egyptology, and this background made the books fascinating on yet another level beyond the delights of the characters and the murder mystery plots.

In all honesty, not every book in the series is brilliant, but I never cared. Spending time with Amelia was worth a little disappointment once in a while.

Mary Stewart Photo Credit: Australian Consolidated Press

Mary Stewart
Photo Credit: Australian Consolidated Press

Mary Stewart. To tell you the truth, I only just looked her up to see if she were still among us—and she is not. She died in 2014 at the age of 97. Born Mary Florence Elinor Rainbow (Yes! Really!), she authored a number of thrillers with romantic subplots that made them perhaps more appealing to women than to men. Her POV character was always female. My mother and I started reading these in the 1960s and thoroughly enjoyed them. I have never liked romances, but the intelligence and eruditeness of Stewart’s writing engaged me. A few from this era that I particularly enjoyed are “Madam, Will You Talk?,” “The Moonspinners,” “This Rough Magic,” and “The Ivy Tree.”

Then she jumped genres in 1973 with the publication of the “The Crystal Cave,” the first book of what became her “Merlin Trilogy,” beautifully written and researched historical fantasies. “The Crystal Cave” was followed by “The Hollow Hills” and “The Last Enchantment.” Having always been an Arthurian enthusiast, I devoured them. Related books include “The Wicked Day” and “The Prince and the Pilgrim.” The trilogy made her an internationally famous best-selling author and she won many awards and honors for it.

So then, as far as I can tell, she went on to write little romances about rose-covered cottages in the forest and whatnot. I have read these but don’t recommend them.

Bryce Courtnay

Bryce Courtnay

Bryce Courtnay. Bryce Courtnay was a South African advertising executive who emigrated to Australia and decided to write a book. “The Power of One,” was published in 1989, and Courtnay quickly became one of Australia’s best-selling authors. He died in 2012 of gastric cancer.

Courtnay primarily wrote historical fiction, mostly set in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, though his last novel, “Jack of Diamonds,” was set in the U.S. and Canada. He seems to catch the feel and taste of each era and locale he writes about. His stories can contain pretty dark material, but somehow you feel that it comes right in the end—mostly, anyway. His characters feel like real people, even the most bizarre ones. In “Brother Fish,” he has a German immigrant housewife living on a New Jersey farm during WWII who poisons her lumpish husband and takes a young lover­—and you completely sympathize.

Among Courtnay’s best is his “Potato Factory” trilogy, in which he follows the fictionalized family of the real-life model for Dickens’ Fagin, Ikey Solomon. “The Potato Factory” takes place in Victorian times as Ikey and his horrible bawd of a wife are deported to the prison colony of Australia. “Tommo & Hawk” follows the lives of Ikey’s adopted sons. “Solomon’s Song” takes the family into the WWI generation. Each book is dense, rich, complex and a treat to the senses as Courtney makes his stories come alive. There is something for everyone: action, tragedy, revenge, mystery, murder, love, beauty, friendship and horror.

Well, that’s it for dead authors—for now, anyway. I just wanted to say a thank you to these writers for taking me to places I have never been to meet people only they have imagined. They have given me so much enjoyment over the years, and perhaps as long as people read their work, they will never truly die.