Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Nature's cathedral

We had such a wonderful outing today thanks to an enthusiastic friend and guide. Our fabulous five hiked through an old growth hemlock forest, along the edge of a ravine through which ran a tea coloured stream. There were violets, there were lady slippers, there were waterfalls and moss covered rocks. Along the way we heard the silence punctuated by trickling of water or the song of warblers and vireos and often our exclamations of discovery- "Oh look!" There were sugar maples and red maples, red spruce and white spruce, pine and tamarack but the most impressive were the hemlocks, some of them old enough to have lived in my great great great grandfather's day, some of them downed nursery trees. We finished our walk at a heart shaped pond where the water mirrored the surrounding million shades of green, the surface occasionally shattered by white ripples when the breeze teased it . We sat devouring with appetite our packed lunch, our eyes drinking in the scene, satisfying both physical hunger and our cravings for beauty.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Book Choice

I'm still wandering down Scotland Street. Will the Peploe be found? Is it really a Peploe.? Will our heroine really fall for the unappealing character Bruce? Will Bertie manage to convince his mother that he really hates learning Italian and how to play the saxophone at the age of 5 and would rather play with trains? Will Bertie's mother drown in the floatariam as I hope?

Meanwhile our book circle members are choosing their books and I am collecting their entries to organise for our next season of meetings starting in Sept. I had to make my own choice too and the mention of Amy Tan in McCall Smith's preface made me think " Why not an Amy Tan book? I haven't read all of hers and I'd like to." So my choice will be Saving Fish from Drowning which will be out in paperback in Sept 2006. Sounds like just my kind of crazy book.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

A walk along Scotland St.

I am enjoying my sojourn so far in Edinburgh. There is a litle map in the front of the book. Don't you love that? I think AA Milne must have started it. Wasn't there a map of the 100 Acre Wood?
It makes one feel you know where you are. There are also illustrations by Iain McIntosh - simple pen and inks. They too give one a feeling of knowing the place.

I am getting to know the inhabitants, as did the readers of The Scotsman. Know and love. Here is what the author says in his preface: " I enjoyed writing this so much that I could not bear to say goodbye to the characters so that most generous paper the Scotsman, agreed to a second volume, which is still going strong, day after day, even as I write this introduction to volume one. In the somewhat demanding task of writing both of these volumes I have been sustained by the readers of the paper who urged me on and provided me with a wealth of suggestions and comments. I feel immensely priviledged to have been able to sustain a long fictional conversation with these readers. One reader in particular... wrote me regularly, sometimes every few days, with remarks on what was happening on 44 Scotland St. That correspondence was a delight to me and helped me along greatly in the lonely task of writing."

It occurred to me that my blog readers ( imaginary beings mostly but real in my mind) serve some of that role for me ( and when I get comments - whohoo!) And my writing circles provide some encouragement. But I digress. Back to the street.

The MC is Pat, a young person with a past, Bruce with his mirror, Domenica - a widow lady who has seen a few things, a misguided mother Irene and poor Bertie, her oh so special and driven son of 5. Those are some of the inhabitants of 44 but Pat works for Mathew, the un-arty art dealer. And there is Ronnie and Pete and Big Lou who Mathew meets regulary at Big Lou's coffee bar. Kinda like Tim's you know? So I am having fun with these folk and their quirks. A whole neighbourhood... just like the 100 acre wood.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

And now for something completely different...

Well, enough of Austen. And Fowler's amusing take on Austen.

So what tickles my fancy next? I looked at the stack of books at my bedside waiting their turn, lifted this one, turned that one over, picked another and looked at the first page, the preface, and said yes, this one! 44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith. All the other books sighed and shrank back into dusty oblivion in the corner, envious of the one brought into the light. What was in that preface that so appealed? Serendipity at work.

You see this afternoon I was at my writing circle (one of two I attend) and was chagrined that I had nothing new written for it ( somehow the "rock" theme just didn't get my creative juices oozing). But, as something to read, I brought a chapter of my book in progress, or I should say from one of my two books in progress. The piece I brought was not from my NANOWRIMO effort but from my "Betty Story" an unfinished murder mystery (who killed Rev. Kevin by incinerating him in his own car in his driveway and how will Janet help her friend wacky friend Betty, the minister's wife, find the killer?) I read them Ch. 4 where Betty who has done a scarper "phones home" after cycling all the way to Bah Habah, Maine, a piece which I hope I had not read them before. But what, you are saying, has all this got to do with 44 Scotland Street. Get to the bleedin' point. Right! This is what I read in McCall Smith's preface that grabbed me:

"Most books start with an idea in the author's head. This book started with a conversation that I had in California, at a party held by the novelist, Amy Tan, whose generostiy to me has been remarkable." [ Interested already as I like Amy Tan's books and Stephen King who wrote a great book on writing -as well as some great books- writes about Amy Tan and she seems like a neat lady, so I continued reading] McCall continues: " At this party I found myself talking to Armistead Maupin, the author of Tales of the City. Maupin had revived the idea of a serialised novel with his extremely popular serial in The San Francisco Chronicle. [ And I said to myself hmm what an intersting name Armistead, I must look him up- so I kept reading]

" When I returned to Scotland I was asked by the Herald to write an article about my California trip. In this article I mentioned my conversation with Maupin and remarked what a pity it was that newspapers no longer ran serialised novels. This tradition, of course, had been very important in the nineteenth century, with the works of Dickens being perhaps the best known examples of serialised fiction. But there were others, of course, including Flaubert's Madame Bovary, which nearly landed its author in prison. [Interesting] McCall Smith then goes on to describe how the editorial staff of the Scotsman decided to "accept the challenge which I had unwittingly put down" and at a lunch with him said said "You're on".

McCall Smith goes on to say " At that stage I had not really thought out the implications of writing a novel in daily instalments; this was a considerable departure from the weekly or monthly approach which had been adopted by previous serial novelists." [and I am thinking - doing that is just like Nanowrimo 'cause you have to write so much a day - only it has to be good enough to publish !!!] " However, such was the air of optimism at the lunch that I agreed." McCall Smith said. " The experience proved to be both hugely enjoyable and very instructive. "
[And I said to myself - what did he learn and how did he do it?]

"The structure of a daily serial has to be different from that of a normal novel. One has to have at least one development in each instalment and end with a sense that something more may happen. One also has to understand that the readership is a newspaper readership which has its own special characteristics. The real challenge in wriitng a novel that is to be serialised... is to keep the momentum of the narrative going without becoming too staccato in tone... Above all a serial novel must be entertaining. This does not mean that one cannot deal with serious topics, or make an appeal to the finer emotions of the reader, but one has to keep a light touch."

So I hope to learn something about writing - about how to continue my Betty story- and besides I like McCall Smith's writing, so there. I will be exploring 44 Scotland Street.

Friday, May 12, 2006


We met the other day in an idyllic setting to discuss The Jane Austen Book Club. One of the discussions was a bit of a revelation to me, in that it articulated something which I immediately recognized as something I had felt but not brought to the surface of my thinking. It came about because one of the members said " We tend to see Austen as a bit of a period piece...the costumes, the history." [which is what the movies emphasise] and I realised when she said this that yes, this masks the reality of the books for us. When Austen wrote and people read her the historical window is not what they would see. The readers of Austen's day would see only the stories, the gossipy situations, the irony, the tongue in cheek humour etc. Austen's books were much more like Fowler's book than they seem on the surface.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Prudie and Mansfield Park

My book club meets tomorrow and I am no where near finished my book by book, chapter by chapter analysis. Ah well. But I can at least do Prudie. She is sorely tempted, isn't she? Her wonderful, sensitive, romantic and caring husband seems dull, uninteresting, too familiar.

" What was wrong with a solid kind of guy? Did you want a marriage full of surprises, or did you want a guy you could depend on?" But later ... " Prudie had thought that was what she wanted. Someone with no pretense...But just occasionally she felt more lucky in her marriage than contented with it. She could imagine something better."

Around her are the raging hormones of her students ( and her own) She has very "unAustenish" thoughts about Trey Norton ( but of course these were exactly Austen thoughts as Austen's characters are similarly beseiged and in MP Maria succumbs!) She has the glimpse of an affair between two colleagues one of them married. "Prudie's own feelings on adultery were taken from the French". She dislikes the character of Edmund for not being more forgiving of his sister who commits adultery.
The rehearsal for Brigadoon ( about love) in Prudie's chapter mirrors the rehearsal of " Lovers Vows" in MP - the play itself is never performed. There is the whole courtship problem of the student players which mirrors relationship flirtations in MP.

Then there is the theme of change. There is the computer trouble which Prudie has which must be handled by her young neighbour Cameron with all his talk about DSL and bandwidth. She sees all the young students and is not really part of their world. Then there is the death of her mother ( which she dreams about) Jane showing her through an estate ( like MP-heaven) and in one room she has put her mother - the island in the distance - the great sea change of her mother's death.

Prudie's mother made her care more for unreality than reality, living in imagination more than in the actual. I am not sure how this relates particularly to Mansfield Park, except it perhaps explains Prudie's love of Austen's fictional world. Perhaps the others in my book group will have a better idea.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Mansfield Park

I have been away but I have been reading. I finished The Austen Book Club and read Mansfield Park; it is the one Austen book I had never read! This was a good time to make up this deficiency. It is perhaps the most moralistic of Austen's creations, but also the most profound, especially in its writing, I think.

The main theme as always is courtship. How different types "choose" their partners. In MP there are a number of possible partnerships in the pot which Austen stirs vigorously.

But in addition, Mansfield Park is about temptation and about change. The place of the title is in a sense the main character; it is everything that is good and right ( like heaven) and the characters who will inherit the kingdom ( the Park) are the righteous. Fanny Price has been described as the most unlikeable of all heroines in English literature. She isn't bright or witty, she seems passive and inactive. She is a goody two shoes. She is humble and diffident, worried and unsure of herself, fearful for the soul of others. She has a very strong sense of the correct thing, the kind thing, of decorous behaviour, moral behavior. She is a lover of peace and order. But as the book opens the influences around her attempt to divert her inner compass. This is symbolised in great part by the theatrics where her cousins and their guests try to get her to act in the play when she doesn't wish to. The play, titled Lovers Vows, we are led to believe, is very unsuitable, and she worries not only about her own reputation but about those of the other participants.

The other characters in the book are much more interesting ( as are things that are not good for us). Her cousins and their friends are well bred, well educated, well heeled, and they are witty, bright, sophisticated, fashionable, active. But they are also unkind, unthinking, self indulgent, irresponsible, and guilty enough in the end to let the kingdom slip through their fingers. Well, except for Edmund (about to be ordained) who is almost as dull as Fanny and who marries her in the end, but not before he is sorely tempted by the more fascinating Miss Mary Crawford.

What most impresses me about this book is the discipline of the author. It must have been extremely hard for Austen to make her main character so uninteresting. But that is the whole point. It is often dull to do the right thing, it is often unexciting and unappreciated, and painful indeed to do the right thing. Fanny seemed passive externally but internally she is on the boil-always grappling with her conscience.

So that's the temptation part. The other main theme is about change. Change is also exciting, novel, what people crave. But Austen, writing on the verge of the industrial revoluation which she saw would destroy the country life she saw as a sensitive social ecosystem which deserved to endure, emphasizes the emptiness of modernists love of change for change sake, of tossing out the baby with the bathwater. Mansfield Park stands for tradititon, for manners, for order and peace, for a rural community where personal connections and mutual responsiblities ruled. The urban infiltrators into this society (the Crawfords) brought with them an citified insensitivity, a contempt for the unsophisticated, an authority based on wealth and power, which compared poorly ( in Austen's view) to country society where conflicts were tempered by personal interchange and affections.

But the unrighteous are cast out and the meek inherit the earth - the poor mousey Fanny Price inherits Mansfield Park.
Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie of Romania.
Dorothy Parker, Not So Deep as a Well (1937)