Lumpito and the Painter from Spain

February 5th, 2014

Hello, friends. Two weeks ago, my children and I had the pleasure of discovering Monica Kulling and Dean Griffiths’s utterly charming picture-book, Lumpito and the Painter from Spain. (Disclosure: I am friendly with Monica and an admirer of her many other books.)

The story features a dachshund named Lump (pronounced “loomp”, meaning “rascal” in German) whose owner, David, takes him from Rome to the south of France to meet Pablo Picasso. Picasso nicknames the dog “Lumpito” and artist and dog get along so fabulously that Lump refuses to go home with David. Instead, he remains with Picasso.

Like many of Kulling’s other books, Lumpito and the Painter from Spain is based on a true story. Kulling tells us that Lump later appeared in some of Picasso’s work, notably his Las Meninas, after Velazquez. If you click on the link to wikipedia, you can see one of the Las Meninas paintings (there are 58 in total) with a small, long dog in the foreground. That’s Lump!

Something about the story seemed familiar. I wondered whether I’d actually heard it before, or whether it was simply too good a tale to remain untold in one form or another. And then I got distracted.

It took Nick to put things together. When I was 21, I travelled to France on my own. One of the few things I bothered to lug back with me was a gift for Nick: a copy of photographer David Douglas Duncan’s Viva Picasso.

Neither of us reads Italian and even as a second-hand copy, the book was fabulously expensive (for the 21-year-old me!). But it was so compelling that I couldn’t leave it. Besides, it was the photographs I loved; I still don’t know what the introductory text says.

Flash-forward to 2014. Nick read Lumpito and the Painter from Spain to our children, then pulled out Viva Picasso. And there it was: David Douglas Duncan’s intimate photographs of Picasso in Cannes, dancing with his children, eating lunch, showing off, holding forth, and, yes, playing with a sweet-looking little dachshund. We met Lumpito years ago, and never even knew it. Maybe we should have tried to read the Italian, after all.

I absolutely love these sorts of reflections and convergences. They give me the shivers, in the best possible way, and I’m so thrilled that Monica Kulling and Dean Griffiths triggered one with their beautifully told, vibrantly illustrated picture book. Thank you, Monica, for this window into art history. It’s an absolute delight.

What about you, friends? Have you heard any echoes across the years, recently or otherwise?

Bookmark and Share

Rivals in the City: the transatlantic edition

January 29th, 2014

Hello, friends. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, Rivals in the City will be published in the UK/World in June 2014. The gorgeous cover, designed by Walker Books, is here. And now I have a pub date for the US/Canadian (Candlewick Press) edition of Rivals in the City: February 2015. I am so thrilled to have a concrete date. I know it’s twelve months away, but I hope you’ll find it worth the wait. I hope to have some cover news to share with you soon, as well.

As for today’s main content, Nafiza of the Book Wars interviewed me recently. She wasted no time in asking the big questions: race, geographical identity, masculinity, Canadian identity, and how much of me goes into the character of Mary Quinn. It was a lovely interview for me, and I hope you enjoy it, too.

Bookmark and Share

Murder as a Fine Art

January 22nd, 2014

Hello, friends. It’s been a pretty unhealthy few weeks in my household. Nick is going into his 5th straight week of viral bleurgh (three separate viruses one after the other, we’re pretty sure) for which his lungs are taking a beating, and I strained my back last week before promptly coming down with a cold. Basically, he can’t breathe and I can’t move. We’re like the dangling punchline of a bad joke.

So it was with a powerful need for diversion that I opened David Morrell’s Murder as a Fine Art.

It was recommended to me by Toronto children’s author Monica Kulling, whose work I love. Monica said it reminded her of the Agency novels and I’m always simultaneously worried and intrigued when someone says that. I mean, Monica meant it in the nicest possible way, but good grief – what if it’s crap?

In this case, however, I needn’t have fretted. Murder as a Fine Art is a wide-ranging, tightly plotted book with an absolutely terrific premise: controversial essayist and notorious opium-addict Thomas de Quincey comes back to London at the age of 69, is drawn into a re-enactment of the most gruesome mass-murders England has ever seen, and solves them in the company of his clever, independent daughter, Emily, and two members of Scotland Yard.

The novel is ferociously well researched, hits a number of great Victorian themes (rational dress, anti-Irish prejudice, the 1854 cholera outbreak, the Opium Wars) and sets out to have a good bit of deliberately cheeky fun, too. Morrell’s de Quincey has a distinct and instantly recognizable conversational voice, both elegant and incisive. And in Morrell’s vision, there’s nothing de Quincey can’t do, given sufficient incentive (and laudanum, which I’ve written about before.) In any fictionalized form, de Quincey would be a genius. But in this thriller, de Quincey - an elderly man in poor health, a drug addict of nearly five decades – can leap from moving carriages, outrun an elite group of soldiers in the fog, defend himself (with only a teaspoon) against an armed and highly trained killer, climb trees while handcuffed, disguise himself to elude professional spies, and mobilize an improvised army of beggars and prostitutes for the sake of “England”. It’s so audacious it makes you laugh, even while you indulge in the fantasy.

Things that might trouble a reader? Lots and lots of graphic violence, which is certainly not to everyone’s taste. Morrell also assumes that you know absolutely nothing about Victorian London and lays it all out for you in a straightforward way. (Sometimes this is jarring: the repeated mention of giving a poor child “a cookie” each week for learning to read the Bible, for example. It’s okay, editors! We’ll figure out that “a biscuit” is both a treat and a bribe.) I didn’t mind it, though.

And while I was treating my own back with heat, Tylenol and arnica gel, it was doubly good fun to read about the miraculous pain-relieving properties of laudanum. Nevertheless, I think I’ll stick with my trusty hot-water bottle.

How was your week, everyone? What are you reading?

Bookmark and Share

Mary Wollstonecraft

January 15th, 2014

Hello, friends. A couple of days ago, I finished reading Claire Tomalin’s The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft.

Mary Wollstonecraft, painted in 1797 by John Opie

This is Tomalin’s first book, it’s forty years old (originally published in 1974), and it remains the definitive biography of the first feminist. I read the revised edition of 1992, when it was re-issued to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Mary Wollstonecraft’s incendiary A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, but the revisions are light. And WOW, is good biography ever addictive. There are so many fine, thoughtful, glowing reviews of The Life and Death of MW and I don’t feel the need to add to them. But I wanted to highlight a few things that particularly stood out for me.

- One of Tomalin’s finest traits as a biographer is her measured, conscientious empathy with her subjects. She doesn’t take sides in a blind fashion, but remains alive to how each person in a situation may have felt. She even manages to be balanced in her treatment of Gilbert Imlay, who usually reads like a music-hall villain.

- Mary Wollstonecraft was a hothead and a completely unreasonable prima donna. It’s what enabled her to write such radical polemic, of course, but it makes for difficult reading. The peace-loving part of me wants to beg her to take a deep breath (or ten) before charging into a situation. Then again, what do I know about genius? Maybe it needs to trample a few victims in its course.

- This is hard to express without sounding gender-essentialist, but Tomalin’s very clear understanding of childbirth and breastfeeding really makes a difference to the elucidation of Wollstonecraft’s state of mind, at times. A biographer who didn’t grasp the medical and psychological complexities involved would be less effective at interpreting certain lines in the letters and in (Wollstonecraft’s husband) William Godwin’s diary.

- There is no getting over the bitter irony of Wollstonecraft’s dying from complications of childbirth (retained placenta, septicemia). Her death was excruciating and long-drawn-out. In a different time and place, it could have been averted entirely, either through effective birth control or better medical hygiene and technology.

- Wollstonecraft’s husband, friends, and fellow intellectuals sold short her intellectual legacy. I don’t think I realized how completely alone she stood, in her intellectual position, or just how unready the world was for her arguments. Even the other radical thinkers of her day seemed to think she’d gone too far, and then there were the so-called friends (notably Amelia Opie) who turned around and attacked her once she was no longer alive to defend herself. Wollstonecraft remained as isolated after death as she frequently was in life.

- Wollstonecraft was an unfavoured daughter, a governess, a mediocre schoolteacher, and a hack journalist; an emotional tyrant who lived more frequently in conflict than in peace. She was also a self-taught intellectual, an independent woman who earned her own living, an effective negotiator, a courageous and sturdy traveller, a loving mother, and a genius who knew nothing of compromise. We are lucky to have Tomalin’s portrait of her.

And now that I’ve read about Wollstonecraft’s life, I’m going to re-read A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. What are you reading right now?

Bookmark and Share


January 8th, 2014

Hello, friends. Here’s what my Christmas and New Year’s looked like:

I finished the substantive revisions for Rivals in the City! It’s 70,000 words. 21 chapters. I cut one significant character. Re-introduced another. Re-worked the plot. I think I rewrote about half the book, over the past couple of months.

And now, I am very tired. I’ll catch you all next week, okay?

Bookmark and Share

Sugar Plums

January 1st, 2014

Hello, friends, and happy new year!

This is the sugar maple in my garden, still coated in ice from the recent ice storm. I haven’t spent much time looking ahead to the new year, just yet; instead, I find myself unwilling to let go of the extraordinary beauty that’s surrounded us for the past couple of weeks.

Here’s a picture of our local bit of waterfront path:

Another thing I’m unwilling to let go is my happiest food discovery of the holiday season: sugar plums. All I knew about sugar plums until recently was that line from Clement C. Moore’s “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”, and the dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Then I got a recipe for sugar plums from my son’s former preschool teacher, Bonnie. They are absolutely lovely (Bonnie is, too). Sugar plums are also absurdly quick to make (no baking) and inherently dairy- and gluten-free, if that’s important to you.

So on the first day of 2014, let’s think about sugar plums, shall we? I hope your year ahead is as rich, flavourful, and surprising as these sugar plums.

Sugar Plums

2 cups whole almonds, toasted
1⁄4 cup honey
2 tsp. grated orange zest
1 1⁄2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1⁄2 tsp. ground allspice
1⁄2 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
1 cup finely chopped dried apricots
1 cup finely chopped pitted dates
1 cup confectioners’ sugar or shredded coconut

Finely chop the almonds. Combine honey, orange zest, cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg in a medium mixing bowl. Add almonds, apricots, and dates and mix well. (I did this all in the food processor. Also, I used hazelnuts because I had some lying around and hazelnuts seem deeply festive, to me.)

Pinch off rounded teaspoon-size pieces of the mixture and roll into balls. Roll balls in sugar, then refrigerate in single layers between sheets of waxed paper in airtight containers for up to 1 month. Their flavor improves after ripening for several days. (I skipped the coating because I dislike the taste of icing sugar and didn’t have superfine coconut. They were definitely sweet enough on their own.)

Bookmark and Share

After the Ice Storm

December 25th, 2013

Hello, friends. We made it! The Ice Storm of 2013 is over and it wasn’t nearly as severe or debilitating as some of us expected. In my neighbourhood, we lost power four times over three days, but never for more than a few hours. Really, it was just enough to give us a taste of pre-electric life before we had to do anything hardcore like melt snow for bath water.

A few observations:

- I am so very grateful to live in a place with strong infrastructure. An ice-laden branch from a neighbour’s tree fell on a power line at 3am, and there was a team out there with a bucket truck just five hours later, fixing everything. On a Sunday morning. The next time I see some Utilities Kingston workers in a coffee shop, I’m going to buy them all drinks.

- I am also deeply grateful for excellent neighbours. An hour after the power went out, we had a call from a neighbour offering us shelter, food, and company. Later that evening, a pair of friends went door-to-door in our area, checking to make sure that everyone was okay and asking if there were any frail or elderly people who needed special help.

- Doing without electricity for a couple of hours at a time was an adventure! There were some logistical considerations (“Let’s try to cook tomorrow’s food before we lose power again.” and “Let’s bathe the children now, so if the power goes out we have enough daylight to finish the job.”) and creeping around with flashlights. I had a shower by candlelight!

- You can’t bend a beam of light. After my delightful shower, I was walking down the hall holding my candles, feeling very adequately lit, when I tripped on a fallen sweater. What I learned: when you hold candles above waist height, anything below knee level is lost in utter darkness. (My friend Violette Malan experienced the first ice storm, in 1997, and she learned this same lesson in the kitchen: on that first evening without power, she had a pile of candles and felt ready to make dinner, but she couldn’t see anything in the kitchen drawers. This, she says, is why old kitchens had open presses (shelves) for utensil storage.)

- Candlelight favours small rooms with low, white ceilings. I now understand why rooms in old houses are so often small: unless people were extravagantly wealthy, they could never have lit them adequately.

- Similarly, reading after dark was an activity for the affluent. Wax candles and books were both very expensive, and you need several candles to read comfortably.

- Much as I love (and am obsessed with) the Victorian era, I am firmly a creature of the present. I love hot water on demand, bright lights, and refrigerators. However, this tiny sample of pre-electric life has made me curious. At some point, I’d like to try an extended unplugged experience. Have any of you tried this?

- Finally, is there anything more beautiful than a world enveloped in a thick layer of ice? Here are some shots from our walk this morning.

Dead flowers on a bush in our garden.

Storm clouds over Lake Ontario, and some very cold-looking pigeons on the beach!

Our local waterfront path

How was your week? Did you get hit with heavy weather? Do tell me! And finally, if you’re celebrating it, Merry Christmas! I hope it’s warm and peaceful, wherever you are.

Bookmark and Share

Rivals in the City!

December 18th, 2013

Hello, friends! My wish came true: this week, just in time for the holidays, I got permission to share with you the UK/World cover for Rivals in the City. The artwork is by David McDougall at Walker Books and I love it, I love it, I love it. I hope you do, too!

And here’s the back-cover description:

Convicted fraudster Henry Thorold is dying in prison, and the Agency asks Mary to take on one last case: to watch for the return of his estranged wife. Mrs Thorold is an accomplished criminal and will surely want to settle scores with Mary’s fiancé, James. With the additional complications of family and conflicting loyalties, the stakes for all involved are higher than ever.

This is the British edition and it’s scheduled to be published in June 2014. I am tremendously excited about this, and will update about the US/Canadian cover and pub date as soon as I can.

Happy December holidays, everyone! I hope you have splendid celebrations.

Bookmark and Share

Self-imposed exile

December 11th, 2013

Hello, friends. I’m deep into the editorial revisions (my editors’ comments on and suggested changes to the manuscript) for Rivals in the City, and I thought I’d show you my most recent work space. As some of you know, I tend to work in various spots around the house (following the sunshine from room to room), or else at a local coffee shop. Since the first of the month, however, I’ve had a new lair:

It’s a long story but basically, the children have now pushed me right out of the house into what we call the shed. (It’s not a shed, really. We have a normal shed that contains a lawnmower and too many bikes.) Still, perversely, we call this bigger one “the shed”.

A couple of years ago, it was a damp, decaying, mouse-and-squirrel-infested site of horror – a nightmare shed. Then we had it rebuilt, insulated, properly wired, and equipped with a little electric heater. Now, it’s less a shed and more of a quiet, cozy extra room in the garden. And it’s at this table that I’ve been working on my revisions.

It’s strange publishing a photo of a space that you know extremely well. The photograph makes me see the place anew, and I’m startled by how much stuff there is: I knew about Nick’s road bike and the stroller, of course, but now I’m suddenly self-conscious about the dusty mason jars, my dad’s old amplifier, the unused laundry drying rack, the bags of wood pellets, &etc. But here it is, my small island of calm in a noisy, hectic, blustering month. And I love it.

How about you? Where do you write, revise, edit, dream?

Bookmark and Share

Thank you, Calgary!

December 4th, 2013

Hello, friends. I arrived back in Kingston late on Friday night, simultaneously exhausted, thrilled be home, and full of euphoria. Carrie Kitchen, the Youth Services Librarian at the Calgary Public Library, did an absolutely splendid job organizing my visit, and it was a genuine pleasure to spend time with her and her very welcoming colleagues, especially Courtney Novotny and Anne Hill. Thank you, librarians!

I feel privileged to have met so many bright-eyed readers. We had some really lively conversations about books, and they asked absolutely terrific questions. I’ve always enjoyed book festivals and talking to fans, but I had a bit of a revelation this trip about how much I truly love talking about books with young people. It’s the best.

The technological highlight of my trip was definitely this Automated Materials Handling System that I saw in action at the Crowfoot Branch.

Newly returned books enter through that small hatch at the left of the picture and glide along the green conveyor belt. The machine then sorts each book by genre and branch, pushing it off the conveyor belt at just the right moment so it falls into the correct bin! I could have watched this machine for hours, I really could.

As for my travel reading, I ended up bringing this at the last moment: William Leith’s Bits of Me Are Falling Apart.

I first started it a few years ago, but gave it up after a couple of chapters. I loved Leith’s first book, The Hungry Years, but for some reason I found this one diffuse, self-indulgent, and (completely) paranoid. And then I guess I aged into it because this time around, I really, really liked it. As in, I woke up in the middle of the night with jet lag and read it for two hours. It’s funny and prickly and random and pessimistic and then, suddenly, intensely focused. Everything comes together. And while it’s mostly a tragi-comedy (it’s about reaching middle age, after all, and the end of one’s biological destiny), Leith manages to make that okay, too.

That was my week. How was yours?

Bookmark and Share