Spring Has Finally Arrived

PeonyGood Sunday morning! If you live in the Pacific Northwest, you’re probably enjoying a gorgeous, sunny day right now. We finally made it through an unusually cold and prolonged rainy spring. Now the peonies are in bloom and I’m feeling inspired. So inspired, in fact, that I have made a change to my blogging life. If you’re a Gardening, Seattle Style subscriber, you may notice this mail came from the Karen K. Hugg website. That’s because I’ve streamlined GSS into this one, making for more frequent posts and richer content. I’ll be offering advice on gardening and posts about writing, motherhood, and Paris and Europe. If none of that interests you, you can always unsubscribe, I won’t be hurt, but if you stick with me, I’ll hopefully enrich your life.

For now, I have to say goodbye and get into the garden. I’m on a roll. I weeded the very back of my yard yesterday and today need to trim back several shrubs. I can’t wait to hear the sounds of birds chirping and lawn mowers buzzing. Feel that warm sun on my arms. How about you? What are you doing to enjoy this lovely day? Cheers.

 

My Escape to Italy with Donna Leon

Death at La FeniceWhat author do you turn to for predictability? For a story that’s not too unlike one the author wrote previously? Perhaps, it’s a fantasy series set in a particular world (a la George R.R. Martin) or a mystery series featuring the same protagonist (a la Agatha Christie). It might even be a literary author whose books, while featuring fresh characters and storylines, offer the same, quality writing and beautiful insights (like Barbara Kingsolver). For me, it’s the police procedurals of Donna Leon.

I’ve always read literary novels, the kind that are brimming with gorgeous, profound language but lack a substantive plot. These books are rewarding for what they are, in fact, in most ways, they taught me how to write with deeper meaning and still inspire, but when I discovered the crime genre works of Leon, I discovered an entirely new side of the novel. Leon’s books aren’t weak on sentences, but they aren’t there for the language and profound insights, they’re there for the story, all while featuring compelling plots and interesting characters and layered social commentary.

I’ve been working my way through her 25 novels about Commissario Guido Brunetti, a detective who solves crimes in Venice. When I read her first book, Death at La Fenice, I was struck by the serious, workaday style of her language, sort of like mine, and the deep love of a foreign city (in her case, Venice, in mine, Paris). I was immediately drawn to the practical, middle-aged detective with an intellectual wife and sweet kids whose personality shows quiet intelligence and fair reasoning. Secondary characters are colorful but not clownish, spawning my endearment. I thought it a kick that she often describes Brunetti’s lunch and dinner meals in great detail, so much so that there’s now a cookbook with recipes for the meals he eats.

The setting of watery Venice offers rich history and a portal to Italian life. I spent a long summer in Italy, just after college, and have fond memories of Venice. To go there via Leon’s imaginative stewardship delights me. That I can do it again and again through multiple books, delights me even more.

What’s most satisfying though is that Brunetti is never in intense danger. As I read in bed before sleep, I don’t stress that he might die. I’ve got enough stress as a mom of three kids with a job and house and pets and blah, blah, blah. Brunetti survives each case. Justice is only spotty in these stories, a commentary on the corruption of the Italian system, but Brunetti serves as its moral compass. The characters around him often don’t survive, of course, and some of the circumstances of the murders he solves are gruesome, but this is the nature of a crime novel.

And so, I’ve found a favorite author who I can return to again and again to counter the unpredictability of life. To remind me that, despite what hectic chaos I have to get through, I can always escape to live a brief life as an Italian on the trail of the truth amidst great art, deep history, dedicated religion, delicious food, and the warm sun.

Why I Set my Stories in Paris

115-1600_IMGAmerican cities have never interested me much. Though I was born in Chicago, have spent most of my adulthood in Seattle, and have visited most major U.S. cities, I’ve been less taken with American places than European ones. There’s nothing really wrong with American cities, Americans are friendly, hopeful people. They’re resourceful, they’re scrappy, they believe their lives will get better and better. But they’re not mysterious. History doesn’t matter as much as the future does. Just because you were born into a certain kind of family with a certain level of wealth or lack thereof doesn’t mean you can’t be someone different or richer later in life. Whether that’s true is debatable but Americans believe that. It’s ingrained in our spirit.

In Europe, the past matters. It’s not everything, but it means more to people than it does here. More of the architecture is ancient. Tradition is important. Because of the tiered school system, fewer people believe they can grow up to be whoever they want to be. But with this way of life comes reassurance. Comes less pressure. Of course, Europeans are also forward-thinking. Many people create new ideas, new art, new science every day. The culture changes with the times. Immigrants are drawn to it. And some cities are very modern, but most, simply because Europe is the birth of some ancient civilizations, have an old look and feel America can’t match. And because America was founded by intellectuals with a vision for a new kind of culture, a democracy free of royalty, its nature has always been to jettison the past in the name of what might lie ahead.

When I wrote my first novel, several years ago, I set it in Paris. I thought, “Well, I’m going to satisfy myself. I’m going to immerse myself in a story in a place that I want to dream constantly about. A place I always want to be.” I wrote that book, then rewrote it from scratch in graduate school, and then revised it a hundred times. The constant in all of it was Paris. I never got rid of that setting. I couldn’t. I love that city too much.

My current novel is set there as well. When I started this book, I asked myself some tough questions about why I was setting a book about horticulture there instead of in Seattle where the surrounding area is full of incredible, natural beauty. The answer was because the city of Seattle didn’t interest me. If there’s a city without a soul, it’s Seattle. And Seattle is changing so fast with so many people moving here, I barely know what Seattle people are like anymore. They’re not the granola, earthy types I knew in the early 1990s when I moved here. Things are corporate, people are educated, buildings (more and more being built every day), are aesthetically boring.

But I felt I knew the people of Paris. Not everyone of course. But I felt I could put my finger on the soul of Paris more than any other city. I’ve visited there several times. I worked in a French office. I commuted to work, schlepping every morning on the train, like everyone else. I mixed with residents of all ages. I lost the romantic vision I (as well as many Americans) had of it and learned firsthand the mundane side. Worked with French people in a suburban office. Lived in a tiny apartment. Spoke the language a bit.

It was an experience that never left me. The way I see Paris isn’t the way most people see it. The sheen has worn down. And of course, with its problems and complexity, that’s what Paris is. A large, multicultural city with great wealth and chronic poverty and unique traditions. It has a contradictory nature in some ways. But it’s not like in the movies. It’s just a city — but as far as cities go, it’s the most fascinating and beautiful one I know.

A Tribute to Natural Paris

115-1597_IMGPeople, like plants, are resilient. We suffer shock from our wounds, we go dormant and mourn, we heal and recover, and we continue to grow as best we can despite crippling circumstances. This is why I’ve been thinking about the natural beauty of Paris.

In the sprawling, public gardens like the Jardin des Plantes or Tuileries, you find mostly hedged boxwoods and cypress trees. These gardens are historic, formal, paying tribute to the royalty that once inhabited these places. But in the street medians and plazas, in the corner parks, beauty springs up and gives us its wild gifts. It’s in the courtyards hiding in the interiors of buildings, in a window box hanging from an iron railing, maybe even in an urn outside a restaurant. It’s in the Gothic points of Notre Dame poking out from the fluffy canopy of surrounding trees. Hence, a few photos from my last trip.

A garden along the old Roman wall

Chestnut tree in a courtyard

Empress trees in bloom at the Place de la Contrescarpe

Empress trees in bloom at the Place de la Contrescarpe

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A pocket garden at a cathedral

116-1661_IMGLooking out from the Promenade Plantee

Foliage along a building wall