Thursday, December 13, 2018

Tis the Time

I first wrote this in 2014 and posted it on both group blogs I belonged to then. I think they are still the right words. I have only added some personal photos at the end. Wishing lots of light as the nights grow longer and happy  holiday season to all.



Tis the Time

It’s not chance that holidays this time of year are celebrated with lights as the days get shorter and the sun seems to be shrinking. We went to Newgrange in Ireland a few years ago, one of the many ancient places where people who had only primitive tools and no written language were nevertheless able to build a place where the sun on winter solstice comes right through a tiny window. 

People join a lottery to be one of the very few allowed to sleep there that night and see the sun that morning. Sometimes the nature gods just don’t cooperate.

There has been an assumption that the lights are a form of sympathetic magic, that our long-ago ancestors feared the sun was going away for good and the lights would bring it back. Maybe not. Someone wrote recently that people who were capable of conceiving, and accomplishing, a project as large as Newgrange (or Stonehenge, or Chichen Itza) and siting it so perfectly on the right axis, were surely smart enough to remember, year to year, that the sun does come back. 

However, we don’t have to be a modern Druid, or even believe in any religion at all, to enjoy the candles or to hope for light instead of darkness tomorrow. And for the whole year. This year has been a dark one in many ways for our world. May next one be better.

Wishing everyone the joys of the season, a bright new year and the light of many candles. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The Great American Read

In the midst of dark times, with hatred and murder and natural disasters seeming to come from all sides, talking about books might seem frivolous. And then I think about 9/11.

I was right here in New York that day. I did not lose a loved one or a home but it will be part of me forever. In the following days, I repeatedly saw and heard this quoted: “In the middle of the journey of our life I found myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost.” That is the beginning of the Divine Comedy.

Seven centuries later, Dante’s words still live. Anyone remember the politics of Florence that sent him into exile?  No? I thought so.

In that spirit, I am writing about PBS's recent Great Books project, a nationwide conversation, via a television series, plus  online and live events, about the books we love. Famous and not famous people shared the titles that changed their lives and campaigned for their favorites to be selected as America’s most loved book.  Completing the package, Meredith Vieira warmly hosted and there were delightful, stylish, animated illustrations.

Some choices seem obvious. George RR Martin said, “If you are one of the six people who hasn’t read Lord of the Rings, what are you waiting for?” 

 And Gillian Flynn says she’s always liked to see what’s hiding under the rock. No surprise that her favorite is And Then There Were None. But others? 

George Washington’s favorite book, we are told, was Don Quixote, a satirical comedy. Not the first quality that comes to mind when thinking of our first president.

 And that quintessential New Yorker, Sarah Jessica Parker, urged us to vote for Things Fall Apart, the acclaimed novel of 1890’s Nigerian culture under pressure from colonialism. Would you have pegged Venus Williams favorite as the Chronicles  of Narnia?

Astrophysicist Neal DeGrasse Tyson says, “In childhood, now, and probably forever, Gulliver’s Travels.”  Think about that one and then enjoy the “Wow. I get it!” moment. A smart young girl from a tough neighborhood in Chicago talked movingly about how Hermione Granger got her through her childhood. 

 And a young woman with piercings (!)  said Pride and Prejudice’s heroine Elizabeth Bennet taught her, “Keep doing  you.”

Actress Ming NaWen’s love for The  Joy Luck Club might seem obvious, but she reminded us that  the stories of Chinese-American mothers and daughters crosses all boundaries.  Suave, middle-aged Harvard scholar and public tv host, Henry Louis Gates, Jr.  told us that “the perfect novel” was Their Eyes Were Watching God, the moving tale of an impoverished young African-American girl. It was funny when Shaquille O’Neal said, ”Vote for Alex Cross, or else!” but who would have guessed that Alex Cross’s creator, James Patterson loves A Hundred Years of Solitude?  (Come on. No one would have guessed that.)

Speaking straight from their hearts, the children of Brooklin, Maine, EB White’s home, discuss how Charlotte’s Web made an unlovable and scary creature, a spider, the hero, reminding us that there is more to friendship than appearance. We never outgrow that lesson, do we?

What was finally voted American’s most loved book?  You’ll have to go find it yourself and you can, right here:

But I recommend watching the whole series. It starts with what and why, and even, if. books matter. And it has answers.

 If you read books, share them, write them, talk about them, recommend them, you might change a life. And you never know when or why that magic shows up.  Does the book  reflect someone’s life and thus validates it?  Does it say you are not alone? Open a door to another life? Another world? Introduce a friend as real - or more real!-  than the ones in your real life? 

Books remain that light in the dark forest of our lives.

And if that light in the dark woods happens to come from a street lamp with a mythical creature standing under it ?  Well, go along for the adventure! In George RR Martin’s words, “What are you waiting for?”

Monday, September 17, 2018

Happy Birthday Little Women

Little Women is 150 years old this year. It's a much loved book, never out of print and filmed repeatedly,  but sometimes dismissed as "only" a children's book, a girls book, a family story. Among the gifted people who would disagree with that are Susan Sontag, Doris Lessing, JK Rowling , Gloria Steinem and at least two of the Ephron sisters. AND  Simone de Beauvoir.

It's been fun for a life-long fan like me to read the many thoughtful articles being published this summer.   (I’ll attach some links at the end)

Myself? I read Little Women for the first time when I was much too young and certainly didn’t understand a lot of it. Someone had brought it as a gift, so I picked it up and found I could read it. So I did. I was seven; it took me a month. And I was captivated forever.  For me, then,  the book was telling the story the way it happened, so I was never one of the legions of girls who were shocked that Jo did not marry Laurie.  I’m not entirely sure I understood there was even a person who was making it up. The sisters were real people to me, more real than anyone I knew. And I’m sure I thought I was the same age as Jo. The honest talk about how to live life, and grow as a person, was thrilling and inspiring.

   I read it again and again throughout my childhood, as well as all the other Alcott books. Of course I have known for a long time that the March family was – and was not- the Alcotts, and Jo was – and was not- Louisa. Their life in Concord was - and definitely was not  - the life of the Alcotts. It’s far more complicated and interesting than any child would understand. Ideas about why Little Women matters have changed over the decades, too, a fascinating window on changing times and changing ideas about girls.


Isn’t one of the definitions of a classic is that as you re-read it with more maturity, it too seems to deepen? That there is always more to find? I was lucky to grow up with the March girls.

 And a PS, for what it's worth, my favorite filmed Jo is Katherine Hepburn, but my favorite movie of Little Women overall is the 1994 version with Winona Ryder.  And I really do believe Alcott gave Jo the perfect life partner.

Some recent articles:

Thursday, August 9, 2018


This is a neighborhood gem, hidden enough so that I lived a few blocks away for years before I got to know it. It's a park, not huge and famous like  nearby Prospect Park, but not a little sliver of green slipped between two buildings, either. It is a full city block, which is room for a lot of variety

The side along the main avenue is a lively and popular playground. It has a special place in our family lore: our oldest grandchild, having just mastered walking, one day decided the action on the sidewalk along the avenue was more exciting than the park. With the confidence of a linebacker she walked right through the gates and made her way up the street. (No worries. We were right behind.)

But wait!  What is this behind the playground? An old stone house with large red shutters and a charming garden? Could it be what it seems, an actual farmhouse from the days of the Dutch in New York? Or is it a Disney-like reproduction? The answer is yes. And yes.

In fact, it was built in 1699 and stayed in the hands of Dutch descendants for more than two centuries. By the early 20th century it was buried under 15'of landfill. Eventually a movement began to rebuild the house using stones retrieved from the original site. And it became part of Washington Park. Why? Partly because this was the site of part of the  Battle of Brooklyn. Yes, Washington was right here.  The end result of the Battle was the loss of New York to the British. Let the park tell you:

Now the Old Stone House, its official name, is a small Revolutionary War museum  and location for all kinds of cultural activities from cider tastings to theater to gardening for children.

Come on Sunday and you will find a small, friendly farmer's market. too.  I even wrote a mystery story set there, "The Greenmarket Violinist."

Finally. This very spot was - maybe - the original home to what was a soon-to-be famous baseball team. While there is some disagreement about exactly which team was here, and exactly where their headquarters actually  stood, the story goes that a man names Ebbets was involved - yes that Ebbets- and they eventually became known as the Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers. Yes, those Dodgers.

That's a lot of history for just one square block in Brooklyn. If you are in the neighborhood - it's called Park Slope - come  sit in the shade, listen to the children's laughter, take a quick look around the museum, admire the garden. You might hear some music or - if it's Sunday - buy a pastry. And listen for a few ghosts.

Details:  Washington Park/ JJ Byrne Playground/

Sunday, July 29, 2018

A Bright Light

I have been blogging about some fun, hidden gems of New York.  #3 will be here soon but today, this is on my mind.

“What would you do if 6, 579 people landed at your doorstep?” That is part of a trailer for the musical, Come From Away, which I saw last week. 

It’s the true story – several true stories, woven together -  of what happened on Sept 11, 2001, in Gander, Newfoundland, population 11,678.  This is the easternmost  bit of Canada, poking out into the Atlantic. In the early days of flight travel, it was the refueling point before trans-Atlantic flights and that is why it has a large, unused airport. As the people of Gander say, everyone came there then. Movie stars. Frank Sinatra. The Queen.

On September 11, 2001, 38 US-bound planes were diverted there.

 And then the  people of Gander and surrounding towns made a miracle.

They found shelter, food, clean clothes, showers – and medicines and diapers and animal care- for the stranded crews and passengers. Striking school bus drivers suspended the strike to  transport the stranded travelers from the airport.  The supermarket  opened its doors and said “Take what you need.” Hockey was cancelled and the mayor declared the rink a gigantic walk-in refrigerator for the accumulating food supplies. The SPCA said there must be animals  - there were pets and two rare bonobos!- on the planes and set up a shelter overnight.

 Over several days, prayers are shared. Jokes are told. Whiskey is drunk.  Lifelong friendships are made.

 The writers of the show have woven together a tapestry of true stories developing over time. Music and dance bring it to life.  There is humor, sadness, fear, and tragedy. Lives are changed forever.

In that dark moment in history, we meet people at their best. I can’t stop thinking about the show and would like to see it again. See it if you can. Bring tissues.

When the grateful exiles are able to head home, and they say thanks and offer money, the people of Gander only say, “You would have done it for us.”  Would we? In this dark time, I have to wonder.

Monday, June 25, 2018

HIdden Gem #2

This is the second in a blog series about hidden (or sort of hidden) gems in New York’s crowded list of places to visit. All right, the New-York Historical  Society is not exactly hidden. It's pretty famous. However, in a city packed with even more famous museums, it’s easy to overlook. I am here to promise it is fascinating and it is fun.

A major renovation several years ago added exhibits that are a wonderful introduction to New York, and it starts with the statues greeting visitors at the two entrances. Who can resist taking a photo shaking hands or having a friendly chat with these two giants of history? 

As you come in, you find scattered around the lobby are small exhibits, each one telling something about what makes New York its own, unique self. Here are just a few. Some of these bits of history are still meaningful.

But look down! They have cleverly inserted into the floor artifacts found -  down -  in the New York ground by archaeologists.  What a fun treasure hunt if you are visiting with children.  Actually it’s fun for adults too.  Don't tell!

There is a short free film bringing history to life. It changes from time to time:

Erica Donato, my historian protagonist , says, “History is happening every day.” And this museum is right on it, with exhibits of artifacts from current events.

I promised fun. An exhibit on fashionable shoes? Well, why not? New York is a world fashion center, built to a degree on the fashion business.

A large collection of toy trains is displayed in style at holidays.  The museum has all 435 original Audubon bird watercolors, and a whole gallery of dazzling Tiffany lamps. Stunning! A renowned library for avid historians.  A children’s museum.  A women’s history center.

And always, a few great changing exhibits that are worth a couple of hours. Last time I was there: Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms. You'd have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the history of the posters and the historic period beautifully explained. 



If I am in Manhattan with some extra time, I just drop in. There is always something special to see. And by the way? It is across Central Park West from that park, and across 77th St from the (very, very) renowned Museum of Natural History. So it’s easy to find. 

Next time, a gem from right down my street in Brooklyn.



Thursday, June 7, 2018

HIdden Gem #1

I live in New York. Everyone knows about the world famous landmarks like the Bronx Zoo, the Brooklyn Bridge and Broadway, so I thought it would be fun to write and post  a few blogs about some more hidden yet fascinating places.   I am starting at the subway stop called “81st St- Museum of Natural History.”

 “What? Come on!" You are saying that, aren't you?  Anyone who has ever visited New York or even thought of visiting knows about the museum. Who can resist the dinosaurs? Or the great blue whale? Who hasn’t seen Night at the Museum? Or Splash?

Ah, but we are not visiting the museum here. We are visiting the subway station.

You emerge from your train and are greeted by huge and dazzling wall mosaics  of wild animals.  That’s suitable for this stop, of course, a bow to its main attraction.

Look again. Behind each one, there is another, shadowy, gray, and you soon realize it is a prehistoric ancestor. An inspired combination of art and science is at work here.  Have fun identifying  the living species and its forebear.

Look up and you may discover tree dwellers

Look down and you will discover ocean dwellers.   Keep your eyes open for insects too.

And if you go down a level, perhaps to catch a train going back to where you started, you will be greeted by a look at whole other world.

Welcome to my favorite subway station.  And look here in a two weeks for Hidden Gem #2.

Thursday, May 3, 2018


  Last week,I was at Malice Domestic, the large and lively annual fan convention devoted to the traditional mystery. I was on a panel about research. It was great fun, moderated by the always intelligent and good-natured Cathy Pickens. We didn’t come close to discussing all the astute questions she had sent us beforehand but they have kept me thinking.  So here are a few more stories from the mystery writing trenches.

Do you have an example of how research informed or altered the course of your story?  Why, yes, as it happens I do. Brooklyn Secrets is about Brownsville, one of the lowest income and highest crime-rate neighborhoods in New York. It is about hard times growing up there now, in the days of gangs and drugs, and hard times growing up in the 1920/30s when it was famously the home of the brutal mob enforcers nicknamed Murder Inc. As I was reading up on the bad old days, I stumbled across an article by the grandson of Meyer Lansky, one of the founders and bosses of the whole organized crime system. The author maintained his grandad was a fine gentlemen who admired Lincoln and Gandhi, quoted his take on various actors who had portrayed him, and called his gangster colleagues "the boys.” It would have been funny if it had not been so bizarre. A new fictional character, somewhat comical and definitely strange, became part of my story.

Has anyone ever called you on an error? Yes,embarrassingly. I wrote a description of what my heroine sees as she is driving across of the Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan. It is a breathtaking sight: skyscrapers, boats, other bridges, the whole harbor all the way to the ocean.  

 Only someone wrote to tell me you can’t see the ocean from that bridge! I checked. I had combined that view with the one from the Verrazano Bridge somewhat to the south. There you see the Atlantic spread out in all its majesty

 Have you ever encountered a fact that you knew you couldn’t use because it sounded too unbelievable? Why? Well, I haven’t found a way to use it yet. Mystery Writers of America local chapter arranged a private tour of Woodlawn, a beautiful historic cemetery in the Bronx. Having recently published Brooklyn Graves, partly about Green-Wood, a similar landmark in Brooklyn, naturally I went along. Do you think cremation ashes are always kept in a dignified urn or scattered at a scenic spot special to the deceased?

 We learned that they can also be incorporated into jewelry that a mourner can wear (Keeping the loved one close?) and into bullets. Yes. Bullets. Seriously. There has to be a way to get that into a story, right?

I have also encountered facts that were fascinating but would not fit into the book I was then writing. (I tried) Yet they were too good to ignore: did you know selling the Brooklyn Bridge actually happened? Many times? So they became short stories. You can find “Legends of Brooklyn” in the anthology Where Crime Never Sleeps: Murder NY Style #4,  and “Girls With Tools” in the Stories tab of my webpage or the anthology Bound by Mystery. And I’m holding onto a few more good ones. For someday.