Monday, May 25, 2015

Biodiversity in NYC



You may think I am going to sing again praises to my city about its cultural diversity—that 150 languages are spoken in the borough of Queens alone, that sort of wonder.  Not this time.  It’s a holiday weekend here in the US—Memorial Day, the one that officially kicks of the summer season.  So I think it’s time to focus on the great outdoors and wildlife.  In Manhattan, where I am confined today, that means Central Park.



Don’t laugh.



First of all, the park’s very existence of makes a huge difference.  Even if we do not live near it, even if we seldom go there, we inhabitants of the concrete are always, on some level, aware of its openness.   Somehow that knowledge gives the city a more benign feel.  Evidently, Central Park also does more for us than that lovely psychological favor.  Experts say it would cost more than $3 trillion to purify our air and water by any other means than the natural ones the city’s parks provide.


Then there are the marvelous facts about the park’s living organisms.  Central Park, as you may know, is not a gorgeous preservation of a natural part of Manhattan Island.  What was originally there was bulldozed and replaced with a designed pleasure-land for people to enjoy.   In addition to the residents of the zoo, it harbors 896 species: 393 plants, 102 invertebrates, 78 varieties of moths, ten of spiders, nine of dragonflies, three of turtles, two species of frogs, and seven of mammals (not counting picnickers, ice cream vendors, softball players, opera singers, or actors of Shakespeare)!

American elms alive and well!


The gorgeous American elm tree is just about extinct elsewhere, killed off by Dutch elm disease.  Yet, a lovely large stand survives in Central Park.

Years ago, the Scott Seed Company, looking for the strongest variety of lawn grass, found a unique species in Central Park.  Where else?



My favorite study of diversity in the park is the one of the microbes in the soil.  Those tiny critters determine the chemistry and health of dirt.  Studies throughout the world over the past couple of decades counted the number of different microbes in soil in different places.  For a long time, no one thought research that question in Central Park.  When they did—last year—guess what they found.  170,000 different kinds—as much diversity as there is anywhere else.   And apparently, about 2000 of them are unique to our gorgeous green rectangle.








Living in and around the 174 species of Central Park’s trees are hundreds of varieties of birds.  Depending on the time of year, you might see starlings, mourning doves, mallards, robins, waxwings—I could go on and on.   One group found 46 species in a single day.


Night heron in Central Park



Of the birds of the park and the city in general, my absolute favorite is the red-tail hawk.  Raptors need high places for nesting and a supply of prey free from agricultural chemicals.   There are several mating pairs that come to Manhattan to hatch and raise their babies.  It’s a thrill for me to see them circling in the skies overhead.  If you want to learn more about them you can read at the Audubon website and see the babies here:





Too cute, huh?


Annamaria – Memorial Day 2015

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Coffee Jelly in the Ancient City

Next month (really, in less than two weeks...) I head for Japan for a research trip.

My son (for blogging purposes, "The Sophomore") has been living and studying in Kyoto for the last three months, and will be joining me on my travels.

Ironically, I've spent the last three months receiving odd and unexpected previews of things to come, which arrive by text message--usually in the middle of the night.

Sometimes, the messages make the historian in me smile, because they come with explanations about the significance of the object shown:

Imperial palace gardens, Kyoto, Japan
Toured the Imperial palace grounds in Kyoto--they're open to the public a couple of days a year, and we happened to be here. Since the Imperial family wasn't in residence, even more of the gardens are open. Check out the bridge!

Other times, the texts look more like this:

WAFFURU DESU!

(My Starbucks doesn't serve waffles, and now I feel gypped. And hungry for waffles.)

I've received pictures of everything from ancient fortresses:

Originally constructed by Oda Nobunaga - one of the oldest castle keeps in Japan
To cherry blossoms along the Kamo River:

Sakura in bloom, by the river, Kyoto, Japan.

And even the Sea of Japan:

Cliffs along the sea of Japan

I have traveled along, via text, to enlightened places:

Past this gate is a place of training. Only those who seek the wisdom of the Bodhisattvas may enter.


The gate which bears the plaque above.

This image actually made me burst into tears--of joy, at seeing my son in front of one of my all-time favorite Japanese landmarks:

The Sophomore at the Golden Pavilion: Kinkakuji

This accidental travelogue of my son's adventures has not only prepared me for my own trip to Japan, but led me to think about why I write fiction set in a "foreign" time and place. Through stories, we offer a window to the other--a glimpse of our differences, and also... our similarities.

At its root, mystery offers a look at the universal struggle between good and evil, right and wrong--the heroic qualities of a detective who places his (or her) own safety aside to bring justice to those who cannot speak for themselves. We can drop those themes into any place, and any time, and they resonate as true, because as humans we share good and evil across all aspects of time, and space, and culture.

Yet we do choose to drop them in places and cultures other than our own because of the beauty we find in the exotic, the lure of the "other" -- the details that inspire the writer's imagination as well as the reader's.

Next month, I head for Japan to find more inspiration to share through stories, blogs, and photographs. I'm excited to see the things I've written about and studied for so many years. I'm also glad my son's unexpected texts brought the point so sharply into focus. It helps me see not only Japan, but also my fellow MIE bloggers' lands, with new and curious eyes.

And, just in case that got too deep... I'll close with the most recent set of photos and messages from my son (unaltered, and exactly as sent last night):

Coffee jelly...comes with cream.


Coffee jelly (with cream added)


Coffee jelly...is Delicious!
Coffee jelly (was delicious).

Consider it a preview of delicious things to come....

-- Susan, on Sunday--whose next installment will come to you from Japan.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

A Bit of Inspiration For Greek Times


I thought I’d share with you the only feel good news story I could find in the Greek newspapers this week. Just about everything else addresses the country’s threatening to explode financial crisis, how it’s being handled (or mishandled), and an interview in this weekend’s The New York Times Sunday Magazine with Greece’s Minister of Finance which—like the Minister himself—is generating a lot of heat.

Just looks painted.

“Greece’s Last Film Poster Painter Soldiers On,” is a story written by Sophie Makris appearing in Greece’s Ekathimerini newspaper reporting on how a life can be well-lived even through the most difficult of times.   Here it is, in its inspirational entirety:


Far from the limelight of Cannes, Greece's last painter of film posters toils away in a little garden studio to deliver his latest commission.

Vassilis Dimitriou is 80 years old, works alone and knows his days on the job are numbered -- his left hand trembles from the early onset of Parkinson's disease.

But Dimitriou, a survivor of Greece's wartime occupation by the Nazis, remains determined to fight his lonely battle against digital printing for as long as he can.


For him, it's an art that truly comes from the heart.

For more than 65 years, the diminutive, beret-sporting artist has depicted all the big names, but some he pays extra attention to.

"For instance I have drawn Clint Eastwood 50 times. If I close my eyes now I can start drawing Clint Eastwood," he adds.

During the 1960s when cinema was at its peak in Greece, Dimitriou would be commissioned to paint up to 10 posters a week.

Nowadays, only one cinema in Athens, the Athinaion near the center, has held onto the tradition.


"Painting is a medium that makes it more intimate when everything is becoming more plastic," says the hall's co-owner Virginia Axioti.

"The laminated billboards are something you use one day and throw away the next. We are not of this mentality, we like tradition, we like keeping this connection between the arts," she adds.

"Music, painting, dance, cinema for me are one," Axioti says.

Born in the working-class district of Kypseli [of Athens] in 1935, Dimitriou apprenticed beside a Czech poster-painter and later developed his own style.

In his heydey he had two assistants as well as his wife to lend a hand, and could turn out a poster a day for a dozen cinemas in Athens.

Today, a commission takes three days.


His most recent work includes "Cymbeline," starring Ethan Hawke and Milla Jovovich, followed by the remake of "Fantastic Four" that will hit cinemas in the summer.

On the busy highway in front of the cinema, thousands of commuters pass every day with only a cursory glance at the Athinaion's marquee.

But it was not the case a few decades ago, when film posters could inflame passions.


"Early in the sixties, I had produced a rather risque poster for the times that had the main actress wearing a bikini," Dimitriou recalls.

"The owner had to call me in because a group of angry harpies had gathered in front of the cinema. I had to bring out my brushes to cover the lady up a little," he says.

A few years later, the opposite happened -- Dimitriou was summoned to "undress" Sophia Loren, whose chest was deemed to have been excessively covered.

"When I descended from my ladder, several men had gathered to applaud," he says.

A child of Athens's traumatic occupation by Nazi German forces during World War II, during which thousands died of starvation, Dimitriou still remembers going hungry most of the time.

"My mother kept on saying, 'our children are going to die,'" he says.

Like most children his age, he would climb a tree adjoining his neighborhood's open-air cinema to steal looks at the films being shown.

One night, cinema employees dragged him down and he fell inside the cinema courtyard, a story that would play out similarly to the plot of Italian classic "Cinema Paradiso."

"It was my opportunity. The projectionist offered to let me watch the films for free if I helped him with the booth," he says.

"Later on, the manager saw some of my sketches and told me to seek an apprenticeship."

The painter says he is determined to stick to his art for years to come. "I feel I can always do better," he says. But Dimitriou no longer goes to the movies.

He says he misses the era "when one would dress up to go to the cinema, and later meet in the foyer for a drink at the intermission."


Don’t we all.

Jeff—Saturday


Friday, May 22, 2015

Carry On Curry

                                  

It was the Bristol Crimefest last weekend, if you hadn’t noticed….
It seems to be a techno-island for folk like me i.e. someone who needs a laptop to get on the internet but are far too mean to pay the fees the hotel charge –it would cost the national debt of a small Caribbean island just to check the inbox. In previous years HWMBI (he who must be ignored) has always rigged up a signal through the moby. But the rooms at the back of the hotel are devoid of signal so I found myself out of email, out of blog, out of my safety zone.

It can prove useful though when folk are looking for you….

We arrived lunchtime Thursday, having joined the Scotties at Glasgow airport. There then was a small invasion.
                                            
I saw my old editor from Penguin, a lovely human being who was a bit concerned that her author on a panel had criticised two other authors. She is very polite my editor, and well brought up. I didn’t think the guy was criticizing at all. He was just making the point (as I often do) that there is a bigger suspicion of disbelief in those novels that are set nowhere in the space time continuum (my words). You know the books where the characters hang in the ageless ether, never growing old with Peter Pan children. The author said ageing and a sense of time passing was needed for development of the character. My good friend Alex Grey writes in a time vacuum – well not literally she writes in her loft  but you get what I mean. Her detective is ageless and I thought when she wrote the book based on a terrorist plot at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games (2014) that she would then have to nail him as an adult of x age in that year, and make him and his missus a year older at the next book. But she didn’t and didn’t want to.

Must get a bit groundhoggy after a while.

My detective has two kids, they have to grow older as the books progress so he has a ‘life’ outwith the crime. He started with a young stroppy teenager and he is now worrying about university fees and driving lessons.

On the Thursday night we were caught up in the tour de force that is Stan the man. Stan the man is like a badly behaved collie, hyper active, highly intelligent and everywhere at once. Stan took the  Scotties;  Doug, Craig, Mason/Gavin (same person) and ‘Alex the American’ out for dinner. It was out of character for HWMBI to tag along. He has a very low tolerance of crime writers. He has suffered too many moments of creative angst and yearns for the solidarity of his beloved databases. 
                                          
                                             
                                                  Mason looking mean...

He thinks Alex is ‘normal’ as they have deep chats about the American civil war.  By the end of the evening HWMBI was observing Stan the man, thinking about a whole new PhD on human sanity while  affirming his view that folk who hang around crime writers go ‘a wee bit nuts’.

                                         


So Stan the man leads us out the hotel to forage for food. He jumps in the front seat of a taxi and says ‘take us to the best curry house in town boy!’ We pile in the back, poor Alex had to fold up under the seats. And the journey went on and on and on and on. After twenty minutes HWMBI was following the progress, or the lack of it on his Sav Nav.

                                  

I was thinking, OK I have seen this film. Nobody knows where we are. We are going to be abducted. Never seen again. The driver, Des The Demonic, had locked the cab doors. We were doomed to be picked off one by one….

                                       

The restaurant was empty. It was  only six pm. Stan told us all he had learned about Des the Demonic. The extension on his house, his dry rot, his flat abroad, his inside leg measurement.

                                    

We ate. The food was fab. 

                                 

                                 

 Stan still had a pint to drink as we left, Des was coming back to get us, so Stan just paid for the glass and took the pint of lager with him, balancing it – with great skill I must say - on any appropriate surface  in the taxi, including the roof.

                                                  
                                                       Craig Robertson..

HWMBI had jumped ship by this time (then there were six). He  walked back … ostensibly to give Alex a seat, but really he couldn’t take any more nonsense from the rest of us and was starting to quote Epicurius. He said he could walk it easily according to his sat nav. Bristol’s one way system is horrific.

                                      
                                                  Doug Skelton

Des the demonic took us to a speakeasy. A dirty, graffitoed metal door up a close. Interesting social commentary point. To me that was drug dealer alley. To the others it was trendy urban chic.

                                                   
                                                          I often borrow this look!


Use the phone said Des to Stan who was balancing his pint of the bonnet of the cab. Stan picked up the phone, nothing. Alex, being American, knew to pick up the phone and say the word ‘speakeasy’….   It’s like open sesame really, and the doors slid open, a small bony hand reaching round the side like nosferatu going up the stairs.

                                           
                                                   Alex being glam and wistful

 Not being a drinker I bailed out.
And then there were five.
I was back at the hotel four minutes later and met HWMBI going up the steps!
I was moderating a panel the following morning and was on a panel in the afternoon. I put a lot of work in to moderating, trying to read two books of each of the panellists and make notes. I stride up and down the hotel room practising my intro, my exit, my wee bits of paper  handwritten as I emailed it to myself and had no access to email. So I do all that – then when I am actually sitting there and speaking to the audience I forget everything and fly by the seat of my pants and it all takes on a magic of its own.

There are always concerns. A panellist who might take over. One who might not talk. One who is a grumpy wee shit. Why do they think it makes them look clever? They just look stupid.  Be grumpy and  entertaining  if you wish but  grumpy and monosyllabic is an insult to those who have paid money to  listen to you. And it is a listening experience for the audience, so why not speak????
My American and my Norwegian panellists had got side tracked by the sign to the green room and were sitting on a sofa outside the loos … well so they told me. I think they might have been avoiding me!

The Norwegian was the one I was worried about, Hans Olaf Lahlum. Would he understand me? He is a politician, he might talk crap the way all politicians do. His novels are complex and deep, touching on very serious issues, but I wanted the panel to be light.  I felt I had to touch on the occupation of Norway in WW2, it was no laughing matter. And in the green room he was a little ‘odd’.
But on the panel he was a star! An absolute star, funny, witty. He made the serious points without labouring them. All the panellists were great - every stick I threw the panel they picked it up and ran with it…. it was very funny!

Highlights…. When I asked if their detective ever refuses to do something that they as the writers request them to do. Hans said that it was only at page 210 that the character had revealed to him, the writer, that he was a homosexual. What the character did to reveal that to his own creator is on page 211, I presume. 

I asked them to read out the worst review they had ever had… again generous to be mocked among others but cathartic, we have all been there.

 Ruth had the worst review. ‘Not even good enough for the charity shop!’

                                                     
                                                           
                                                                 Stan Not Stan.

Oh one more thing. Stan the man’s name is not Stan. He just gets called that. He is from Edinburgh. That says it all.

Caro 22 05 2015 































Thursday, May 21, 2015

Phoenix


The history of wine making in the Cape goes back to the earliest settler days.  Jan van Riebeeck landed in 1652 on what became the Cape of Good Hope with the aim of providing fresh produce for ships of the Dutch East India Company on their way to and from the Indies.  Ostensibly because wine was supposed to help scurvy, but perhaps for a quiet tipple on the side, he planted the first vineyard three years later.  And on the 2nd of February 1659, he was able to proclaim: “Today, praise be to God, wine was pressed from Cape grapes for the first time.”  By all accounts the wine was pretty foul - not too surprising given the level of expertise around.

Van Riebeeck was succeeded twenty years later by Simon van der Stel, an interesting if contentious character, who did know about wine and saw the opportunity for a guilder or two to come his way.  The Cape peninsular has a climate not too different from that of southern Europe with winter rainfall and moderate temperatures.  The soils were also appropriate, so once the Cape had some experienced winemakers, it wasn’t too difficult to find good places to produce wine.  One of the best turned out to be Constantia, which in those days was close to Cape Town - and is now largely a wealthy suburb of Cape Town but still boasts a few iconic wine estates.

The wines that made Constantia famous came later when Hendrik Cloete moved from Stellenbosch (named after van der Stel) and bought a portion of the Constantia estate in 1777.  He planted new vines and specialized in a wine made from grapes ripened almost to raisins on the vine, matured in vats, and fortified to help it survive the trip to Europe and long life in the cellar. The wine was called simply Constantia and it held its own against all the choice sweet wines of Europe with the rich and famous of the day.  Jane Austin recommended it in Sense and Sensibility for “its healing powers on the disappointed heart” and I’m sure that did no harm to sales. Napoleon developed a taste for it, and polished off a bottle a day on Elba.  There is even a rumor that it was used to poison him when he refused all other sustenance.


At the end of 1817 the estate was divided into Groot and Klein Constantia (“Big” and “Little”) and Johan Gerhard Cloete built himself an imposing manor house on the latter in 1822.  The wine continued to sell out in every vintage.  All this came to an end in 1865 when phylloxera devastated the vineyards and winemaking ceased.  Still, a few bottles survive to this day.  A wine-writer friend of mine was fortunate to taste one some years ago and pronounced it still luscious after 200 years.


In 1979 Duggie Jooste bought Klein Constantia and embarked on an ambitious experiment – to try to recreate the historic Constantia wine.  It was to be a sweet desert wine in the late harvest style with the berries hand-selected.  The venture was a stunning success and celebrated in the name – Vin de Constance – and in copies of the old Constantia hand-made bottles which the estate uses for the modern wine.  The wine rapidly reestablished its pride of place as South Africa’s best respected dessert wine – at least of the non-botrytis style.


The estate changed hands again in 2011, so time will tell if the new owners keep the traditions and the quality.  Hopefully, the Phoenix will keep on flying.  In the meanwhile the wine has rocketed back to the sort of prices that require you to be rich and famous! $50 for half a liter is regarded as cheap in South Africa, and you’ll pay in the $80 range overseas.  Still, it’s worth trying.  And you can imagine you are sharing the bottle with Bismark or Napoleon or King George...


Michael - Thursday