Thursday, January 31, 2019

The Amphitheatre from Thendele

The Drakensberg is a spectacular escarpment that runs for about 1000 kilometres along the eastern side of South Africa. The name was coined by early Dutch settlers as Dragon mountains, and from below it does look like an impressive mountains range guarding the interior. Indeed, the Zulu people call it Khahlamba – barrier of up-pointed spears. In fact, it isn’t a mountain range; it’s the dramatic drop from the high country (Highveld) of South Africa down to the lower regions.

Cross section of southern Africa
The creation of the escarpment dates back some 200 million years to when the tectonic plates cracked and separated, splitting the super continent of Gondwana into what would become the new continents of the world. Huge eruptions created a massive basalt layer over the much older sedimentary rocks and thrust the whole of southern Africa higher. Erosion moved the escarpment back more than 100 kilometers from the original fault line.

During the past 20 million years there has been further lifting of southern Africa, pushing the east higher with less elevation taking place in the south and west. This led to the central-eastern high country with elevations around 2,000 meters. The highest area is over 3,000 meters on the eastern side along the border of what is now the Kingdom of Lesotho.

One of the Cascades
The geological structure of the Drakensberg is unusual and unusually beautiful. Huge cliffs face the east and crevices and caves are common. These contain the rock art of the San people of the mountains, some over 50,000 years old.   The area was protected as a national park in 1916 and declared a World Heritage Site in 2000.

The highest mountain, Thabane Ntlenyene, towers at 3500 metres. Two French missionaries reached it in 1836 and called it Mont Aux Sources, the mountain of sources, because the massive Orange River and Vaal Rivers rise here and make their way to the west, while the Tugela and other smaller rivers head down the escarpment to the east with impressive waterfalls along the way.

A visitor at the Cascades

Guinea Fowls with seven shillings
Olive Woodpecker - new bird for me
Perhaps the most beautiful of all the wonderful scenic attractions of the Drakensberg is the Amphitheatre, a huge concave ridge surrounding the upper Tugela River. The river descends over a waterfall which is one of the highest in the world.

Tugela Falls 
We were able to spend a few days there on the route between Knysna and our bushveld place at Olifants River Game Reserve. First we climbed to the Highveld over the more gentle passes of the Cape, and then descended again into KwaZulu-Natal. The gods were kind and we had gorgeous clear weather in which to appreciate the sight from Thendele camp which faces into the Amphitheatre itself. It’s a hikers’ paradise, and even the least challenging walks provide beautiful views and interesting bird life along the small streams. I saw two species that I’d never seen before in the wild.

Afterwards, we climbed the escarpment again to the Highveld before descending through passes to the Lowveld of Mpumalanga and the African bush. I think the Royal Natal National Park may become a regular stop between Knysna at the Cape coast and Olifants River game reserve in the bushveld.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The Start of a Book Purge

Sujata Massey

A doctor once reassured that it's normal for a writer to be disorganized. Clutter goes hand in hand with creativity. That my excuse for my lifelong for tendency to fall victim to clutter. But looking at it doesn't make me feel calm.

Because of my issues, I find it escapist entertainment to read books and watch TV programs about cleaning and organizing. I recently binge-watched a great program on Netflix, Tidying Up With Marie Kondo. I'd already read her two books, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Spark Joy, although I've followed of her teachings so far is to declutter about thirty percent of my clothes. 

I’m charmed by Marie’s warmth and playful excitement when it comes to transforming chaos into serenity. Yet critics are attacking her for her ideas about book tidying. In truth, she does not advise a certain number of books for anyone, just as she won’t guide people on which items to discard from their drawers. But she does suggest paring down in a few different ways in order to make sure what we have are books that are used or that are physical embodiments of comfort and happiness.

I decided to see if Marie’s approach could help me with my book problem. I typically donate dozens or up to a hundred books every few years. Such book purges are often inspired by moving house. I only throw away a book if it’s damaged. When every town had several used bookstores, I'd find buyers for some of the haul. Used bookstores are so few and far between these days, so it's easier to donate. 

When I lived in Minnesota, I could drop off used books in good shape to be shipped to readers in Africa, part of a humanitarian effort our own Michael Stanley championed. In Maryland, the best option is to carry cartons of books to The Book Thing, a nonprofit located in an old industrial building a couple of miles away from my home. Every Saturday, The Book Thing attracts browsers who pick up whatever they’re drawn to. It's got the same vibe as used bookstores I remember from the old days, only instead of the books costing $1 to $10, they are completely free.

As I think about this, I visualize people discovering my books, hopefully feeling like they got a steal on an immaculate coffee table cookbook or autographed mystery. The trouble is I have to get the books off my shelves first, and decide who gets to stay in the nest and who will be sent out to fly.

Marie advises gathering all the books into one place and then start sorting. But when we are talking about a couple thousand books on three floors, that sounds like hard physical labor. 

I like the expression “to pick low hanging fruit.” So I began with the long, built-in bookcase my husband built for our cookbooks in the butler's pantry. Cookbooks are unemotional handbooks not literary keepsakes--and we have more than three hundred. Yes, three hundred cookbooks owned by a couple who probably cook dinner four times a week!

Tony and I began buying cookbooks when we married in our twenties and were dreaming of a domestic future.If we tried to cook every recipe in this collection once, I am certain that we would die before we were done opening cookbooks. Morbid thoughts aside, I addressed the bookcase.

Most of my cookbooks feature cuisines of different countries. I’ve always rationalized storing them as authoritative resources I may turn to in the future, when I am cooking as often as Nigella Lawson (ha ha). Tony has his own favorite cooking tomes from his hometown of New Orleans, as well as Julia Child classics that I am keeping without question to preserve marital harmony. There are also a few easy cookbooks I received when I was a little girl that must be saved for future grandchildren. Jammed in between the books we often use are slick, trend-driven cookbooks that publicists sent to the Baltimore Evening Sun when I used to write their cookbook reviews, and dozens of cookbooks collected when I was in Japan and India that are part and parcel of the novels that I write. When I describe a Japanese rice gruel that is spoon-fed to the ill, or a caramelized onion dal served at a palace, the origins of these dishes are in my cookbooks.

I hardly ever cook Japanese food anymore, so I'm only saving two of those books. However, I continue to cook Indian food regularly, so most of these cookbooks, large and small, weathered this purge. But I thanked about twelve of them for their service and hope they find homes with Indian food lovers who shop at The Book Thing. They will be part of the donation of about one hundred cookbooks.

I can’t boast that my shelves look splendidly organized, but at least everything’s in the right section. I know to locate any Italian cookbooks on the far-right bottom shelf, the vegetarian cookbooks in the case's top shelf, and all fifteen Louisiana cookbooks stacked in a column running down the center. 

It took two to three hours to go through this book case, which is  not an inconsequential amount of time. Yet the hours spent sorting turned out to be a sentimental return to past journeys and meals. 

I came away feeling certain that that books are food ... and food is better when shared.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Seattle and Southern inspired fixin's

I'm so jealous of you, Annamaria - have always wanted to visit Karen Blixen's house and see the country! Good for you, even though it feels like home now,  please show more photos.
This weekend, instead of Nairobi and exciting animal rescue centers, I went to the midwinter ALA librarian convention in Seattle. That's Mt. Rainier from the plane. And I missed seeing Sujata by hours, sadly. It's been too long since I've seen you and caught up, Sujata.

Here is the Soho crew out for dinner. But it was exciting to sign my new book - the galleys and hold it in my hot little hand. It always feels like I sent a child - the manuscript - off to college in NYC and this child comes back smarter, sleeker, tighter and grown up.
And more exciting was having breakfast with my editor at Biscuit Bitch, trailer park to table, Southern inspired fixin's and Kickass espresso - quoting their website. True to their tagline the espresso barista was dancing.

Also exciting is that my editor, Juliet, pictured above, is now an author -  was there for her debut novel,  The Seven or Eight lives of Stella Fortuna. It was fascinating to have her run her panel talk by me since I always ask her to listen to mine. Shoe is on the other foot, now.  And it's an amazing book.
Ciao for now to all of us in all points over the globe because with us, it's truly murder is everywhere.
Cara - Tuesday

Monday, January 28, 2019

Africa 2019: First days

Annamaria in Africa

It's been a whirlwind first three days since my friend Nicoletta and I left Rome to fly, via Addis Ababa, to Nairobi, which--on my third visit in five years--is beginning to feel familiar to me.  

You know you are not in Kansas anymore when you see sights like this on the way into town from the airport.

And goods like these in the outdoor market.

Saturday saw Nicoletta's first visit to the Karen Blixen Museum.  It was my third time but I saw little details that I hadn't noted before.  I know they will show up in future books.

 We've had great meals in the garden next to our hotel...

...And one with my dear friends from Samburu: Sarah and Michael--who brought us Maasai gifts and a banner showing their dedication to the cause Sarah champions among the girls of her tribe.

As I write this, we have just come back from spending the morning visiting an orphanage for elephants and rhinos left without mothers.  Sometimes due to poaching.  Sometimes because they were separated from the herd.  One baby elephant fell down a well at age three months and was rescued.

We spent the afternoon touring at the Nairobi National Museum, where I 
photographed, BADLY but legibly, the entire exhibition on the history of Kenya.

We have many adventures still to come.  Stay tuned.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

The Safest Way To Travel?

Zoë Sharp

Last Tuesday, January 22, a Piper PA-46 took off from Nantes in France. On board were the pilot, Dave Ibbotson, and Argentinian football (soccer) player, Emiliano Sala. Sala had just been transferred from FC Nantes to British Premier League club, Cardiff City.

Tragically, the plane disappeared from radar somewhere near the Channel Islands and a search of the area has so far revealed no trace of the aircraft or passengers. Investigations are still ongoing, but it seems another example of the dangers of private air travel.

Looking back over the years, we’ve lost a lot of famous names in private aircraft of one form or another. The very first could be claimed to be Charles Rolls, co-founder of Rolls-Royce, in 1910. He died when the Wright Flyer he was piloting broke up in mid-air.

Musicians seem a particularly hard hit profession when it comes to air accidents. When his tour bus broke down in Iowa in 1959, Buddy Holly decided to fly to Fargo, North Dakota. Holly, together with his guitarist Richie Valens, and JP ‘the Big Bopper’ Richardson, died when the plane crashed shortly after take-off.

Then there was Patsy Cline in 1963, Ricky Nelson in 1985, Reba McEntire’s whole band in 1991—McEntire herself was taking a later flight—and John Denver in 1997.

The sporting world has had its share of tragedies, too, not least of which is this latest crash. Motorcycle champion Steve Hislop died in a helicopter crash in 2003, as did Scottish World Champion rally driver, Colin McRae in 2007. In November 2017, baseball pitcher Roy Halladay died in a plane crash in the Gulf of Mexico.

Before you cancel your next holiday flight abroad, bear in mind the statistics. We are constantly told that flying is still one of the safest ways to travel. That you take a far greater risk every time you get into your car. 

Or do you?

Certainly, when I've been writing the Charlie Fox series, she's been in more than her share of crashes involving vehicles (can't call them 'accidents' when most were intentional) but she's only been in one helicopter which was actually shot down in flight. (As yet...)

Anyway, while commercial aviation has improved its safety rating over the past few decades, general aviation has remained static. The latest figure I could find for general aviation—counted as all domestic civilian flights—equates to 1.05 fatalities for every 100,000 hours flown. That was in 2013.

That same year in the US, there were two deaths in commercial plane accidents. Before that, fifty people were killed when a Colgan Air flight crashed in New York in 2009.

In 2013, figures show that 32,719 people were killed in traffic accidents. But, as traffic fatalities are calculated on the basis of per mile travelled, while those for air accidents are worked out on the number of hours, you have to do a bit of maths to equate the two. Cars equal 1.1 deaths per 100 million vehicle-miles. To work this out in a way that can be compared to flight, you have to assume an average speed, which is a hugely elastic thing to do. A fascinating article on the Live Science website from 2017 gave figures based on a 50mph average. But in NYC motorists apparently spend 91 hours a year battling gridlock, when their average speed is just 7.4mph. 

But, on the assumption of a 50mph average, the fatality rate for vehicles works out as 1.1 for every two million hours. And comparing general aviation in those terms shows 21 fatalities per two million hours. So, general aviation—that’s private, not regular commercial flights—is about 19 times more dangerous than going by car.

This year’s World Economic Forum is currently taking place in Davos, Switzerland. During the four-day summit, one of the major issues being addressed is how best to tackle climate change. Experts estimate there will be a record 1500 private aircraft flying in global leaders. I wonder how many of them might be persuaded to take alternative means of transport, if not for the good of the planet, then for their own safety?

This week’s Word of the Week is altiloquent, meaning loud, elevated, pompous of high-flown speech or writing. From the Latin altus meaning high and loquens, having the power of speech.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

The Many Battles of Us


I know it’s difficult to imagine a nation more at war with itself than us.  Notice I used a small caps “us,” because this is not directed at Capital/Capitol US. 

That’s not to suggest the US faces any less political firestorms than other places, but rather to emphasize how so many “us” citizenries around the world are immersed in crises wrought upon them by elected leaders pursuing polarizing “us against them” political agendas.

It enough to makes one want to scream, “yUK yEU!” 

[My apologies to all immersed in Brexit, but I just couldn’t help myself.]

And what, you may ask, leads me to raise this topic today?

Simple: This past Thursday, the Greek Parliament ratified a June 12, 2018 agreement approved by Greece’s Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, and Prime Minister Zoran Zaev of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).  That agreement—called the Prespa Agreement after the lake venue where it was signed—had been previously ratified by the FYROM Parliament, meaning the Greek Parliament’s vote put the agreement into effect, bringing to a close a quarter of a century of negotiations by UN mediator Matthew Nimetz (no relation to US Admiral/Aircraft carrier Nimitz). 

Prime Ministers Zaev and Tsipras
 By far, its most incendiary issue has been—and likely will remain—allowing FYROM to change its name to the Republic of North Macedonia. Largely over that issue alone, Greece had blocked its northern neighbor’s entry into NATO and the EU. As part of the Prespa Agreement, Greece shall no longer oppose its admission to those bodies.

More that sixty percent of Greeks opposed ratification of the agreement and violent demonstrations surrounded Parliament’s consideration of it.  Greece’s left wing ruling party SYRIZA lost the support of its right wing coalition partner over its decision to ratify the name change. 

Feelings run deep over this galvanizing issue, for the name Macedonia is sacred to Greeks, and a historic distrust of their Balkan neighbor’s intentions hovers large. 

 The official position of the Hellenic Republic’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the FYROM name issue is spelled out in detail here.  But, the essence of the dispute can be gleaned from this excerpt taken from that document:

The issue of the name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is not just a dispute over historical facts or symbols….

The name issue arose in 1991, when the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia seceded from Yugoslavia and declared its independence under the name “Republic of Macedonia.”

Historically, the term “Macedonia,” which is a Greek word, refers to the Kingdom and culture of the ancient Macedonians, who belong to the Hellenic nation and are unquestionably part of Greek historical and cultural heritage.

Geographically, the term “Macedonia” refers to a wider region extending into the current territory of various Balkan countries, with the largest part of the region being in Greece and smaller sections in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Bulgaria and Albania. The core of what was ancient Macedonia lies within contemporary Greek borders, comprises the northern portion of the Greek state, and is called Macedonia. Some 2.5 million Greeks reside in this region today and they and their forebears have considered and called themselves Macedonians through the centuries.

The roots of the name issue go back to the mid-1940s, when, in the aftermath of the Second World War, Commander in Chief Tito separated from Serbia the region that had been known until that time as Vardar Banovina … renaming it, initially, the “People’s Republic of Macedonia,”, and later, the “Socialist Republic of Macedonia.” At the same time, he started to cultivate the idea of a separate and discrete “Macedonian nation.”

Tito of course had many reasons for making these moves, the main one being to lay the foundations for future Yugoslavian territorial claims in the wider region of Macedonia and secure an opening on the Aegean. Tito’s intentions in the wider Macedonian region had been confirmed as early as 1944, when he declared publicly that his goal was to reunify “all the sections of Macedonia that were broken up in 1912 and 1913 by the Balkan imperialists”….

Against this historical background, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia declared its independence in 1991, basing its existence as an independent state on the artificial and spurious notion of the “Macedonian nation,” which was cultivated systematically through the falsification of history and the exploitation of ancient Macedonia purely for reasons of political expediency.

I think you get the point—there’s a bad-blood history here.

And here’s the Hellenic Foreign Ministry’s official position on the name change: 

Greece is firm in its sincere will to achieve a viable solution of the issue of the name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The Greek government has proposed a realistic and viable settlement framework that is aimed at the finding of a definitive solution to the issue of the name. Our position is clear: a compound name with a geographical qualifier before the word “Macedonia,” which will be used in relation to everyone (erga omnes), for all uses domestic and international. 

And thus, with the addition of the “geographical qualifier” NORTH to Macedonia, advocates of the name change hope their fellow Greeks’ long held suspicions and distrust of their neighbor will fade.

But it remains a lightening rod issue, around which much anger rages, making it an irresistible draw for office seekers in this year’s Greek national elections—especially for those who’d rather not address their nation’s economic concerns.

Sky News

 The looming question is how will this archetypal polarizing “them” issue be used for perceived political gain, and at what cost to the nation’s “us.” 

Stay tuned.


Friday, January 25, 2019

The Scary Standalone

I should have listened to Michael Stanley. I recall him/ them/ one of them, or maybe both of them shaking their heads, saying, we should never have attempted a standalone.

I am better at taking pics while out walking the dog.


That might be a fabricated memory of mine but  the purpose of a fabricated memory is to make you feel slightly less foolish when you follow the same path to the hellish frustration, the inferno of the unknown character, of the new setting, the new genre  , the  flibberty gibbet, why did I even think I could do this school of writing.  Better writers than me have had the thought of doing a standalone after writing a series. It’s a good thought, it’s a happy thought, how difficult can it be?

Creative genius? Tick

Writing ability? Tick

Fingers and keyboard? Tick

Alcohol ? Tick

Faithful hound ? Tick

What could go wrong?


But that little thought you had in the back of your head should stay there and never try to break out onto the page. There, with its lack of parameters and free range prose, the standalone becomes an evil little beastie that easily bites the hand that writes it.

Then I recalled – and I think this is a true memory, Michael Stanley saying something about having to take their main character and talk to her, giving her a story and finding out how she would react to any situation.  It’s a far cry from the well-known characters of the series zipping and dashing around, solving the mystery, they are like old friends. The standalone is like walking into a party where you know nobody. Or walking on stage, to act in a play where everybody knows the script and you don’t – and you are the lead actor.

Oh dear.

So I finished my standalone. As it’s not a police procedural, it was very easy to write (badly). The characters walked about and did stuff. A few dogs appeared, somebody died, there was a lot of weather, and some snazzy dialogue.

And it was s**t.

I really had made a huge boo boo.


It’s not easy writing the standalone.

So I went into a bad mood and did some tweaking. And then tweaked again, not really changing any big concepts in the book, just making sure that character didn’t disappear off the scene for forty pages when they should have been doing something important.

And did I mention, I have an unreliable narrator … oh that’s hard. It’s difficult to distinguish between crap writing and an unreliable narrator. I kept having visions of a reader getting to the end,  and throwing the book out the window. Or getting to chapter four, and throwing the book in the fire. Or the editor saying, ‘why are we giving her money for this complete pooh.’

Even an unreliable narrator needs to be reliably unreliable. If you see what I mean.

Doing my talk last week I even let the audience into a little secret; I had invented an entire new genre.

A psychological thriller that was neither psychological nor thrilling.

They laughed, but I was being serious.

I was being an unreliable narrator. But unreliably so.

I was so worried I gave it to a good friend to copy edit. Not something I have ever done before. I was behind, hurried, stressed and my heart was being mental. He read it, corrected all the typos and handed it back, I could tell he only said he enjoyed it because a) he’s a good friend
                                                       b) He is quite scared of me.


And I could tell that he really thought it was pooh.

I delivered it two weeks ago, and kept waking up in the morning at 3 am thinking, Why did I do that? 
I mean why??

In publishing terns there was a lot riding on this book, for reasons that I don’t really understand. Let’s just say, it would be good if it was considered good or even vaguely acceptable. I have two books being published in June. And this was going to be one of them. Hopefully.

The email came back. On Tuesday.

Drum roll.

Here’s a quote “You’ve set yourself an ambitious narrative structure in the respect that you have two intriguing narrative voices neither of whom the reader can quite trust – but obviously you’re an extremely clever writer who knows exactly what you’re doing and in my view you absolutely succeed in pulling it off. Having read through the novel twice now, I don’t think there’s anything I can suggest editorially that can improve it. It’s wonderfully, subtly done.”

I slinked away with a huge glass of Prosecco…


Caro Ramsay. Or am I?
25 01 2019