Books are a forest and it’s hard to see the trees, except the tall ones or the old ones. But when you enter the forest, it’s the new growth that emits the sunlight....

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

How environmental themes entered my writing

While at the University of Minnesota, I worked as a temporary with a book manuscript about global warming. That was in 1982 so I was incredulous as I read and typed. I know it sounded like scientific gobbledygook to a few friends when I told about it.

In 1983, when I began to write longer fiction, environment as a human concern began to creep into the plot. Living in a city made me nostalgic for the agricultural prairie landscape where I grew up and for the Minnesota forest and lake region where my grandparents lived. Nature issues became part of my plots, perhaps because I felt deprived of landscape when I was writing. But they were issues.

My first children’s novel, which I have not published, was set in a Northern Minnesota town where a paper company was the main industry. It was a mystery. Paper was a big concern then. How often did we hear how many trees were cut down for a ream of paper! Environment was a sideline in the book but when I wrote it, no one really anticipated how the computer industry would solve the paper problem. A successful environmental story has happened since the 1980’s and without societal agony.

Josiah's Apple Orchard was first drafted as a fantasy, though it was based on a real pick-your-own apple orchard. I re-wrote it with more reality during the farming crisis in the Midwest. The specialty apple orchard I’d visited as a child was sold with the fate of many farms in the 1980’s. Of course its apples were the best I’d had, and the farm was organic as farms used to be. Since the 1980's, the organic farm movement has grown and succeeded, specialty apples included. When a reviewer wrote that my book had a “surrealistic feel”, I was pleased that I had accomplished for that reader the parallel realities I wanted to evoke in a children's novel.

I grew up hearing loon calls in the Northern Minnesota summer, and also watching lake activities expanding. Maintaining the environment for loons, children wanting to protect a loon family in particular, was the theme of The Wide Awake Loons. In the second edition of the book, I added vignette illustrations of Northern Minnesota wildlife and lake scenes.

Claude: A Dog of the Sixties is about how a standard poodle really must be trained, because of that breed's curiosity and independent spirit. Although Claude didn’t have an environment theme, it dealt with the keeping of a pet in an environment appropriate for its well-being.

I wasn't through with the bird protection theme. When my brother worked in Anchorage and then in Ketchikan, I thought for a time of moving to South Alaska. While reading about this region, I came across information about the swan endangerment there that affected the entire North American continent's swan population. This was a successful environmental story, the protection laws for swans increasing their numbers after they had decreased dramatically. The Swan Bonnet is a historical novel about poaching and protecting swans.

Although I grew up in a meat packing town, I wasn't much of a meat eater and later, bought mostly chicken. In the early 1990's, I saw for the first time the new poultry farming, a farm factory that is, on a PBS documentary. Afterward I went to the supermarket, looked at the chicken, then realized the price of eggs, and refused to buy those products again unless they were marked at a Co-op. That was the power of a photograph. So when I drafted Tug of the Wishbone, this environmental issue developed once my protagonist became a photographer. 

Even though novels with environmental themes weren't handled much by the eastern publishers, having to do with demand, I'm sure, such as their difficulty in publishing real animal fiction for children as they did in the past, I hope you'll join me in those concerns for our planet, the home of every creature we know.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Vintage "American Austen" author discovered: Mary J. Holmes

Working with used books in a physical store, I finally read a novel of Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. - Elsie Venner. I savored its depiction of New England life so when I came across another book with Holmes on its spine, and one in bad condition, I started reading it. That book was titled Cousin Maude.

The title page was missing and after the first chapter, I said to myself, “This is like an American Jane Austen. How could the author of Elsie Venner and several more philosophical works write like this?” With internet help, I found that I was reading Mary J. Holmes, an author I had seen upstairs in our store, on shelves that were lower priced vintage. I didn’t know anything about Mary J. Holmes and had confused her with a religious author, Marjorie Holmes.

Mary J. Holmes was born Mary J. Hawes in 1825. From Massachusetts, she married Daniel Holmes who became a lawyer. They lived for a few years in Kentucky, which inspired some of her 39 novels, and then moved to New York State. She traveled extensively. Her novels were best-selling, I was surprised and ignorant to learn.

Cousin Maude was both delightful and funny. Another reason I was so puzzled at thinking Dr. Holmes had written the book was its doctor character, step-father to Maude. He was plumbed after he insisted on walking to the house of his second wife-to-be, for health but suspiciously because he refused to pay a carriage driver. The second wife died too and Maude's future was designated as domestic support to the doctor and his two children, which began the Austen-like social imbroglio concerning Maude and the doctor's daughter. I laughed many times while realizing that Mary J. Holmes had a keen sense of the barriers women experienced. And she also made the doctor's servants into vivid characters, including a black couple who were hoping someday to have a place of their own. But that wasn't the end of the doctor whose next venture topped the romance of the younger set.

The book was a treat, but what I also liked about it was the detailed New England setting and the skill of the novelist in bringing these nineteenth century scenes to life.

I had to try another of her novels, available as e-books. Gretchen was a later work and it began with a sense of mystery. The rich traveler Arthur comes back to his mansion mentally tormented, though he immediately makes plans to renovate rooms for the mysterious Gretchen, a lovely person who Arthur protests is “still a child.” Again, a male character is probed and with the same acerbity that points out the pathos of neglected women when American men could rise. Gretchen became a ridiculous suspense that made me turn the pages. Even though a baby appeared instead of her and mystified the entire community with scant evidence of a German nurse, the author's handling of Arthur still kept the mystery of Gretchen going. Arthur's escape into building and planning his grounds was fascinating. America was built quickly and this character with his vast railroad fortune shows the mania for replicating European buildings and terraces. The book has its romantic twists with the grown girl, raised by a modest family after she was rescued without any acknowledgement.

I really couldn't understand how Mary J. Holmes was forgotten as a novelist. I felt that Austen fans would enjoy her American parallels. But she isn't so finely crafted as Austen and, because she was prolific and so successful in her time, she was probably allowed to draw out scenes and digress with minor characters.

Now I'm reading Bessie's Fortune. This book has a more serious vein running through it, having to do with a terrible guilt and secret event that affects a family. The plot is different from the others in that there are connections to England and Wales. Mary J. Holmes spikes her humor here with polite barbs about lifestyle differences between her British and American relatives. Bessie's family is gentry and related to a Lady Jane but they are down on their money. Her parents are desperate enough to go to Monte Carlo, splendidly described. While they cling to respectability, they gamble with a young peer who has dressed as a woman so he won’t be recognized. It looks like Bessie will be sent to America to stay with her miserly aunt.

I noticed at Amazon that reviewers were liking Gretchen as much as I had. There are others who are reading this author because of her portrayal of women, class struggles, black characters, and slavery. Though she has been called sentimental, and outcomes can be heartwarming like Frances Hodgson Burnett, her American characters might be called Dickensian in their eccentric personalities. Her books are a trip to the America of the mid-1800's.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Violence and the Imagination

Back to thoughts on imagination, I was stirred to resume on the subjects of violence and gratuitous violence. An Australian woman, engaged to a Minneapolis man, was recently shot by a Minneapolis policeman after she reported what she thought was a sexual assault in her alleyway. The accompanying officer said she ran up to the car window of the officer who fired his gun at her. She worked as a yoga instructor.
This brought back my graduate school years in Minneapolis. The murder rate was worse per capita than New York City. Residents held night vigils because the police couldn’t control the situation. In my building one winter night, the back door window was smashed by a burglar.  A female tenant found the burglar in the laundry room and luckily fled upstairs unscathed. When the police came, they actually said, “Maybe he was cold.”
We tenants learned from each other about the neighborhood milieu while there was a lack of confidence in the police. In Minneapolis today, a foreign woman would probably still need the news and the coaching that women supplied. One instance of advice: A woman should stay put if she hears violence, and if she reports it, never to reveal her role. Besides, police attitudes during a crime wave could be corrosive.
Image Stuart Miles @
During this decade of my life, I had little interest in violence or crime as reading or entertainment. I preferred literature that reflected life as it is, usually with infrequent crimes. Good authors can show the mundane day as development and make that as interesting as the action parts. I tried to do that in Tug of the Wishbone where, in the second part, my character Maureen was neighbor to a Minneapolis woman whose mother was murdered.  My book followed another theme so loss from murder and loss from divorce were perceived.
Since high school, I wondered at gratuitous violence on television. I wrote a paper on television violence in college, inquiring whether it might encourage violence in society. There wasn’t a lot of research on the subject then.
Growing up in a southern Minnesota county, I knew of one murder. A teenager shot a teacher through her living room window. In recent years, the Mower County sheriff’s office requested additional staff because of the unprecedented numbers of gun permit applications.
Last year, I watched airings of a show I liked in the 1960’s – The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Clever plots, the humor of Napoleon Solo, the variety of locales all kept my attention. The same thing happened that happened when I was young. I tired of the torture scenes and the number of characters shot to death.
My second job after college was reporter for a suburban St. Paul newspaper. Every week in 1978, I visited the Maplewood police chief and every week, he had little to report except for domestic violence. Today, a reporter there would be much busier. A recent report numbers violent crime at 87 annually with 4 murders and 151 burglaries.
While sensationalism pervaded journalism, the rise in violence seems sensational in itself. What does it mean if sensationalism pervades creative writing where the sky is only the inner limit? And imaginations are used for sensationalism?
Image Stuart Miles @
It isn't that violence, a part of the human story, should not be portrayed. But when violence is described without attention to the victim and the pain it incurs, a story becomes only a partial reality. Although I had opinions about television violence, I wanted to watch many Alfred Hitchcock movies when the VHS's were available. Hitchcock gave a more complete reality to the crime setting. Instead of concentrating on police and criminals as star characters, he often gave attention to characters affected by the criminal and while they were oblivious of an ensuing crime. This went along with the definition of crime – that crime violates other people’s lives.
Some years ago, I read Ovid’s Metaphorphoses. He retold violent Greek legends and also a flood myth with pathos and conscience that, even though the stories were distant in time, conveyed their impact. Ovid was writing in Ancient Rome; I wondered how far he lived from the Colosseum. Oh, he was banished by Augustus while writing the Metamorphoses. Previously he wrote love and erotic poetry. I was stunned at the finale to the unfinished Metamorphoses. Ovid stated that the human race had become violent because a man killed an animal for food. He implored the Romans to become vegetarians.
Image Simon Howden @
Even if people don't associate the current crimes in America with the fabrications in our arts and entertainment industries, it certainly looks as if a parallel world of real crime has occurred.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Authors I Wish to Collect: Jane Austen & Mark Twain

Jane Austen? Why I go so far as to say that any library is a good library that does not contain a volume by Jane Austen.

I heard that quote from Mark Twain on MPR a few weeks ago. I thought, Twain and Austen have something in common. In more than twelve years of searching for collectible books, I have never found a copy of either of these authors from before 1900.  I’ve sold Twain in 1920’s editions but no Austen from before 1950. The conclusion is that if anyone has an old edition of Jane Austen, they are not letting go of it.

I scrolled through all of Austen’s editions from before 1900 on Abebooks. Yes, if I ever come across an edition from before 1920, the book is rare. An author I would like to collect just isn’t usually found. And Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn from before 1900?  Very few available.

Twain was an outspoken man about classic literature but his dislike of Jane Austen, which I don’t think is fair, reminded me of a feud in my college English department. I did student work there and heard a few of the frays. A professor that women warned was a misogynist believed that Austen had no place in a college English course. One of my favorite professors taught Austen, attended conferences on her, wrote papers on her, and avidly defended her place in the English department. My typical luck, I had been assigned to the chauvinist professor’s freshman composition course. Following advice, I took it as one of my few Pass/Fail's. I was to pass but after my final paper, he kept returning it to my mailbox with the note that if I didn't fix the errors, I would fail. I looked and looked, knowing it was probably the footnotes, until finally, I found a period missing there. I corrected it and passed the course. No kidding, he was hard on Jane Austen too.

My Jane Austen wishlist: (click on the book to see the listing)



Austen wrote a novel like no one else in her time, crafting her work with the elegance that was within her boundaries. Women then had to marry to have any kind of life, and she had a mission, wanting good matches for life. Her renewed popularity in the early 2000’s was at first puzzling. I thought it might be due to contemporary work situations and the enforced levels of communication between men and women. If there is interest in the modern workplaces, it usually has to occur within a careful framework.

I’ve relished stories about workplaces, from classics such as “Bartleby the Scrivener” and “The Catbird Seat” to our time. The workplace often has humor inherent which seems to be from personalities clicking and conflicting.

My adult novel Tug of the Wishbone has a number of scenes from work in it. I think they gave the book some balance from the relationship and interior sections. Maureen’s personal quest and her camera work led to many descriptive scenes. Finally, I had to do some cutting on the book. I had a goal after I researched women’s novels. I did not dare to sprawl like Charlotte Bronte. My goal was the length of an Austen novel which I accomplished, just about. In contemporary terms, I admired Penelope Fitzgerald’s well-crafted snug novels. Some of my cuts were offbeat scenarios and anecdotes about places and people of a region, part of a photographer’s viewpoint, but ideas for another kind of story, essay, or memoir.

Mark Twain might not have known of Jane Austen’s juvenilia.  I thought it hilarious and theorized that she was inspired by Henry Fielding. One of her characters planned an elopement during a wild carriage ride, another demanded a Blifel-like suitor to guarantee an extravagant floral conservatory and novelty carriage, another posed suggestively in acrobatics at a costume party where the rich host, dressed as the sun, sat a hallway away. The teenage Jane had the spirit of a Tom Sawyer. I imagined her clergyman father disciplining her to write an acceptable piece of fiction. I also thought that if she lived today, she might actually have become part of comedy team and never written a novel. After all, she went to a most popular social scene at Bath, and with freedom, might not have made it back to her father’s parsonage.

While I believe that Huckleberry Finn is an incredibly great book if only Twain didn’t write in dialect so much, I had to consider Twain’s female characters - Tom Sawyer’s aunt and the morbid female poet in Huck Finn, both satirized for their gullibility and sentimentality. In fact, American women poets of the nineteenth century often wrote memorial poems for funerals. Many American lives have been described in poetic form, I found in books by nineteenth century American women poets.

Maybe someday I will come across a collectible Jane Austen novel for my changing library. To think that Mark Twain would approve of my shelves because I haven’t run across Jane Austen much, and only editions like Barnes & Noble.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Authors I collect: D. H. Lawrence

Working at a used book and antiques store, my first collection was D. H. Lawrence. I bought First Editions before I set up an internet store. I was convinced that D. H. Lawrence would surmount other authors of the Twentieth Century, despite other opinions. I still feel that he was the Shakespeare of that period because of his prolific output and his “scope” as Shakespeare would put it, producing vivid books set in Mexico, the American Southwest, Australia, and Italy.

Image courtesy of dan at

He influenced me, along with other authors, while I wrote adult short stories and the book that became Tug of the Wishbone. I first read The Rainbow when my mother was reading it for a course. As a teenager, I opened the novel during summer vacation and was swept into the earthy English farm setting. Ursula Brangwen’s ill-fated romance wasn’t so satisfactory then. But the novel fascinated me for portraying a family history where characters were as human as people in my era.

When I picked up the book decades later, I remembered it as fulfilling its title. The Rainbow was number 43 in The Guardian’s 2015 list of 100 Best Novels of the Twentieth Century.

I’d also read Sons and Lovers and then, at college, hearing girls who were not English majors recommending Women in Love with rhapsodic adjectives , continued Ursula’s story. There aren’t many scenes that outdid the turnaround of her love luck for me – when she threw Birkin’s rings at him in the car and wretchedly complained about men being bullies. 

We lived in a world of psychology, and to me, Lawrence had the ability to show how people liberated from conventions had emerging psychologies to examine.

Books I was thrilled to find in First Edition were The Captain's Doll: Three Novelettes and Aaron's Rod. As The Rainbow was banned in England, D. H. Lawrence was published in plain bindings and, as you can see from my recent Aaron's Rod, the binding and paper were not sturdy.


The Captain's Doll must have been based on Lawrence's wife Frieda, with whom he did a lot of steep walking when they lived in Italy. I found it ironic how he could evoke the suspense of love approaching commitment during pages of walking after he was banned for sexual content. I'd never been kept reading such an interlude since a Tolstoy story (“The Snowstorm”) about a carriage ride during a blizzard which roared on for pages.

Aaron's Rod 1922 Secker edition

Aaron's Rod is about a flute player. Somehow Lawrence had divined the interior of a flute player without being a musician himself. That was especially displayed when Aaron was separated from his flute in Italy, the flute being stolen. Aaron had reluctantly walked out on his family to play the flute without Lawrence imposing any moral to his novel.

"The business of art is to reveal the relation between man
 and his environment." - D. H. Lawrence

Luckily I had read most of the First Editions I acquired. I had doubted The Plumed Serpent, Lawrence’s writings about the American Southwest, and found the same thing. Lawrence wrote about Mayan mythology mixed with Catholicism as if he had lived in Mexico for years rather than the time he spent there. His Southwest was a picture of it. If Lawrence hadn't written fiction, he might well have been famous as a poet. When I open to a poem of his, I'm struck by that and by the poem. Poem-A-Day, an emailing from the American Academy of Poets, has included poems of his lately, and they don't seem to age.

Pansies (poetry)  1929

Love Among the Haystacks and Other Stories 1930

I had relished Lawrence's short stories about England, and then found out that some wealthy people sued him for portraying them, they claimed. This was some sort of lesson. One of my first short stories was written for a high school creative writing course, the first at my high school. My story told why a school official had a scar on his forehead. Before writing it, I had been caught in the hall during class time. My punishment was to sit all day outside our tough vice principal's office. My classmates enjoyed the story but when a creative writing journal was published, my story wasn't in it, only my poetry. I still believe that fiction in good hands isn’t about specific people. 

I sold my D. H. Lawrence collection and now only have another copy of Aaron's Rod and another copy of Lawrence's poetry for young people. The books tempted me to read them again, a problem when a book dealer wants to sell their books in the best of condition. I suppose there will be another decade like the 60’s when D. H. Lawrence is the rage again, according to my opinion of him, and when the prices for his early editions will rise and I will regret selling my collection.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Real Photographs and Chicken Substitute Dishes

 A question I often have at grocery delis: What is this dish?

This is a chicken dish that I made with tempeh. From a Betty Crocker International cookbook, the recipe is Caribbean, like Jambalaya except that it includes green olives. How was it? It was OK. Tempeh is made of soybeans but soybeans don't taste much like chicken.

I bought chicken at the Whole Foods Co-op for years, and still would buy their poultry products. One year as I became more vegetarian, I decided to try meat substitutes in dishes I liked.

Backtracking into the early 1990's, I saw on PBS television how some farmers were keeping chickens in warehouses and often caged. The next time I went to the supermarket, I looked at the chicken and eggs I had been buying and walked away.

For me, it was easier to adjust the meat in my diet than for many other people. As a child, I was goaded to eat meat. There were only a few meats I liked while I cleaned up the family wooden salad bowl after everyone had taken their share. I loved tomatoes, spinach, and cheddar cheese. My mother said she craved tomatoes when she was pregnant with me.

After college, I could eat what I wanted. I remember a Minneapolis cheese market and buying fish. Vegetarianism then was an eccentric choice. I had understood that I should eat meat at least three times a week but eventually, I ate it when I wanted. Sometimes that was after days or weeks however surprisingly, I savored meat when I ate it after a hiatus. If meat lost its freshness or I felt obligated to eat it, I used to throw it out the way I once fed it to the dog under the table.

My experience in the early 1990's proved to me that a photograph can change a person's diet. In my novel, Tug of the Wishbone, this becomes a plot element in a woman photographer’s story.

At the Co-op, I wondered about the tempeh dishes in the deli. I liked tofu but ate it as traditional oriental stir-fry and sometimes vegetarian stir-fry. The next picture is of shepherd's pie made with tempeh. This was pretty good, like a ground chicken or turkey although it lacked the meat flavor. I used LightLife Organic Garden Veggie Tempeh for this.

About the time I knew that tempeh couldn’t really replace chicken, a new “fake” chicken came into the Co-op grocery. I had to try it.  Yes, it was much better in the Caribbean recipe. The Tofurky Slow Roasted Chick'n (its ingredients are on its page) separates into bite-size pieces or shreds. It doesn’t really do for recipes that use pieces of chicken. I thought it worked for Chicken Tetrazzini although the flavor is zestier than chicken, belying its non-meat processing. One serving of this product contains 27 grams of protein. The average adult needs around 40 grams of protein a day.

I felt this chicken substitute was good as a lunch or casual supper choice. For me, it was very acceptable in a cock-a-leekie soup, and in chicken salad for sandwiches, then in a Chinese stir-fry with mushrooms, snow peas, and water chestnuts. It also tasted fine to me in chicken quesadillas - chicken and cheese fried in a tamale “sandwich.”

Cock-a-leekie soup with farro 
Quesadillas with guacamole

Here I made it into a pot pie. I’m picky about mashed potatoes in that I like them piping hot, so I look for recipes where the mashed potatoes are cooked in the oven. This recipe, from a Reader’s Digest cookbook, was surprisingly tasty. The chicken gravy has a little wine in it and some yogurt added to the thickened broth at the last. It uses zucchini rather than peas. Trying it with the chicken substitute, I thought this had the best chance of fooling an unwary person that they were eating chicken.

Another recipe I tried, where the chicken substitute was blended into strong flavors, was a chicken biriyani, made with red cabbage and apples. This is a variation on a basic Indian dish, and attracted me to attempt cooking Indian-style. I hardly noticed that the chicken was a non-meat substitute, perhaps because of the Indian spice base.

While writing Tug of the Wishbone, I researched poultry and today’s farming. For someone who grew up in an agricultural region when most animal products were free range and organic, it was important to have current information. I accepted the inflation of prices for those products.

So far, I don't think chicken substitutes would satisfy meat eaters. Vegetarian delis and new vegetarian recipes might work better so that there isn’t an expectation of meat texture and flavor. I might show what I did with beef and sausage substitute “meat.”