“Warlight” by Michael Ondaatje

Everybody is busy with preparations for the Thanksgiving meal or important parts of it, hosting or traveling – and time is short. So I’ll quickly write of one book (and add a couple of the little watercolors).

“Warlight” joins Michael Ondaatje’s, “The English Patient” (way up on my list of favorite books ever), in making me reach for words like magical, murky, puzzling, beautiful, enthralling. The one word title “Warlight,” refers to the ambient light during a wartime blackout:

     We continued through the dark, quiet waters of the river, feeling we owned it, as far as  the estuary. We passed industrial buildings, their lights muted, faint as stars, as if we were  in a time capsule of the war years when blackouts and curfews were in effect, when there was just warlight and only blind barges were allowed to move along this stretch of river.

but it also describes Ondaatje’s prose and complex story – you don’t see with clear light, but see enough.

The novel begins in 1945 London at the war’s ending. Fourteen-year old Nathaniel and his older sister have been left in the care of an elusive character they call “The Moth,” while their parents leave for the Far East. Or do they? Set in 1959, the second part of the book tells of the attempts by Nathaniel (now grown and working in the Foreign Office) to unravel the mysteries of his mother’s wartime years.

I love to read Ondaatje for his way with words and sometimes puzzling words: “printless foot” and “nightingale floor,” his plots full of unrelated events (perhaps intertwined), and his intriguing characters. The children’s guardian, The Moth, is probably a thief, The Darter smuggles greyhounds on the River Thames, and Marsh Felon, a roof thatcher who broke his hip in a fall, now climbs the roofs of Oxford’s Trinity College by night (and may be connected to Nathaniel’s mother).

But see, I meant to be short and Marsh Felon is only just a part of this fine, totally engaging novel of spies, secrets, and memory.

 

I wish you such a good holiday of giving thanks – celebrating with family, friends, and food in abundance!

Tales of Two Lives Each: Rebecca Mead and Nell Stevens

A certain kind of book these days combines literary history and memoir, and investigates the importance of renowned novels from the past to readers today. Rebecca Mead did this in 2014 with “My Life in Middlemarch,” which intersperses her personal story with biographical details about George Eliot, and provides an enriching look at “Middlemarch.” Mead has read “Middlemarch” countless times over the years, finding treasures anew each time. I’ve read it just twice – and loved reading Mead’s book to help me make even more of it.

Mead, born in England, recently wrote in The New Yorker (“The Return of the Native”) that after decades in this country and becoming a citizen, she would return to the UK – to London. She writes about what America has meant to her since she came here, first as a graduate student, then a journalist, and describes the decision as “wrenching.” Her life reminds me of many English novel heroines, especially the ones who long to write – beginnings in a provincial town, hard-working student, Oxford, The New Yorker – an enviable trajectory fueled by love of books.

I’m a Rebecca Mead fan – always glad to see her byline. This article movingly sums up the last two decades – 9/11, Mead’s adventurous career, marriage and motherhood, the joy of Obama’s election and the despair of the more recent one – and I could feel her apprehensive excitement about the move to London (a friend, when I forwarded the article, said “I wish I also had a British citizenship.”) I’m happy for Mead – she will give her son the experience of a different culture and remove the ocean that’s separated her from her mother for so many years. And I’m eager for her to write about London as a local.

She left me a departing gift – a review of Nell Stevens’s “The Victorian and the Romantic: A Memoir, A Love Story, and Friendship Across Time.” It’s a book I might have missed about Elizabeth Gaskell, the 19th C novelist best known simply as Mrs. Gaskell, a favorite of mine.

Stevens’s book combines a time in her own life with that of a little-known part of Gaskell’s life (an unrequited but intense romance). Mead describes the result best: “…a gentle satire on the ways of academia… coupled with a painfully credible account of late-twenties love, freighted with all its unanswerable questions about the future.”

When I was an English major back in the days of text only (the novel itself contained all that needed knowing), to read about an author’s life was somehow illicit. Virginia Woolf wrote that “The cheapness of writing paper is, of course, the reason why women have succeeded as writers before they have succeeded in other professions,” and now I feel a frisson of excitement at peeking into the lives, houses and companions surrounding those women authors who penned such long-lasting books.

And it’s a great pleasure to have tales of those lives told alongside the contemporary lives of two masterful writers!

 

November Thoughts

It’s Election Day – but you know that and you will vote or already have – now we just cross our fingers and hope that things will change for the better. Writing about the good, drawing pictures about the colorful can seem trivial in the face of political gloom. But the wordsmith told me that the last post, with all the fall imagery, helped to “ease her mind” – so I’ll take that to heart and just keep going.

I associate November – darkening days, blustery weather, our turning inward – with drawing some series in the early mornings. Thinking I like book suggestions this time of year (as I stockpile my favorite gift-giving solution), I’m torn between wanting to revisit books I’ve read (since last I wrote about books), and wanting to make little watercolors to keep me looking around.

So I begin with the last of the autumn color on my morning walk – always such a lovely walk – a privilege – even on this worried morning!

 

Pumpkin Time

We returned to a splendid and sunny October. Leaves turned gold and red and orange as they drifted on the wind, skittered along sidewalks and roads, and came to rest in crunchy heaps. Days shorten, but orange twinkle lights and illuminated pumpkin lanterns glow in dark of evening.

Real pumpkins appear everywhere! They decorate front porches and steps and perch on fenceposts. Hundreds of pumpkins, destined to be jack-o’-lanterns, created an enormous tilted mountain (diminished daily), outside the grocery store – every possible size and shape of orange pumpkin and also an oddball, Halloween-y variety, gnarly with dark green lumps. At Bloedel Reserve, a whole host of elaborately shaped squashes and gourds sit on tree branches and cluster at tree bases.

And at our house – a bounty of pumpkins and squash from those few little plants! After waiting for the stems to turn brown and leaves to collapse, I harvested, and now sugar snap pumpkins (to stretch the pie season) and delicata squash (for the Thanksgiving table) line up on a slatted bench in our unheated garage.

I exchanged squash for tart apples, from the tree of a gardener I met on my walk, left some on friends’ doorsteps and car hoods, and gave pumpkins to my neighbors who also make pie.

And best of all – I sent pumpkins north and pumpkins south to three little people excited about the season! (I’ve heard we have in the family a fairy with glittery pink wings, Batman, and, this one I can’t wait to see, a drivable piece of heavy equipment.)

Enjoy the visiting goblins and superheroes tomorrow – and maybe some pumpkin pie!

Ireland Part Three – Last Days on the Dingle Peninsula

Dingle tips uphill from a busy marina on a large protected harbor with just a narrow opening to Dingle Bay. Once known for smugglers, Dingle is now popular with tourists for seafood, still-spoken Gaelic, and lively pubs with Irish music.

On our day there, we made wet trips (the storm hadn’t finished with us) to and from our guesthouse to see the town, to do laundry, and to purchase practical Irish wool hats (and a dear fisherman’s knit sweater for Baby brother). The Bob received a thorough bike shop repair of its front wheel. Cold wind and rain discouraged a walk to the harbor entrance, but Lady B and I visited the local aquarium. I’m always curious to see her take on things, what will puzzle her, what will engage – penguins being the highlight here.

The next morning we woke to glorious and welcome sunshine! The van dropped us at the beginning of Ventry Beach, with its miles of broad, hard-packed sand. The little people ran and ran, chasing each other, and pausing to examine beach discoveries. Narrow metal bridges lifted us out of a marshy area, and just before the trail headed inland, we stopped to eat our sandwiches.

After crossing the busy main road (road encounters are few but sometimes scary), we climbed uphill for the rest of the day, skirting the side of Eagle Mountain and approaching Slea Head. We negotiated a narrow, rutted path, climbing up and down and around rocks and over stiles (a tough go for the Bob’s handler). Contained by stone fences outlining a patchwork of fields on the hillside, sheep kept us company.

Sweet Baby walked and talked the whole seven miles, pretending to be teacher or nurse, helping and encouraging student or patient (her mom and me) over rocks, close to sheep, and informing us that the farmer had given permission for this trespass.

As we rose above the coast, the views grew ever more spectacular. We were so lucky with the sunshine, clouds hovered at the horizon, but the day stayed dry and clear, and we could see the beauty of this part of Ireland. Gorgeous vistas of sea, sky, and distant mountains spread out behind, beside, and in front of us, and, one after another, the largest Blasket Islands come dramatically into view.

The next day, our last on the Dingle Peninsula, we toured the Blasket Center – a stunning modern building with exhibits giving a glimpse of a vanished way of life. Long isolated from the rest of Ireland by wild ocean and distance, the culture and language of old Ireland survived on the Blaskets for far longer than on the mainland. In good weather you can visit the islands now, but residents had all left by the 1950s.

We walked another great beach in the afternoon and built a structure of stones to leave behind. We ended the day in the wrong pub for pickup, but another cozy, fire-warmed, inviting space.

I’m grateful for all these days and our intrepid family! You could spend much longer in this way, way west of Ireland where only the wild Atlantic lies beyond the shore. You could hope for the Camp to Inch route with clear skies, for Dingle days without rain and wind, and sail to the Blaskets on favorable seas. And for sure you could eat more delicious vegetable soup in pubs along the way (in any weather)!

Ireland Part Two – The Epic Bit

The morning brought gray skies, and we tucked rain gear and lunches into our packs – hopeful we wouldn’t need the former and sure we’d find a lovely setting for the latter.

The day’s route wasn’t long – by the end we’d walked just under eight miles – but the first hill was described as “steepy.” Steepy indeed! Straight up for an hour or so along a little used, narrow road, bordered by hedgerows full of crocosmia and tall shrubs of fuchsia. Blackberries slowed Sweet Baby, as she stopped to pick and eat. Beyond the hedgerows, dotted with grazing sheep, lay fields divided by stone fences.

Scattered raindrops and strengthening wind, beginning to shake the fuchsia blossoms, should have been a warning, but focused on the rigors of uphill, we reached the top before realizing the weather had turned.

Exposed, no longer protected by the hedgerows, rain and wind hit us. With a broad open valley ahead, lunch turned into a sandwich gobbled while donning extra layers. Trying to wrap plastic bags around packs, my hands quickly grew stiff with cold. Baby Brother and Sweet Baby loaded up into their packs, and to buffer the wind, their moms tucked blankets behind the dads’ heads.

One step in front of another, heads down, we spread out in smaller groups along the valley road, ruts rapidly turning to puddles. Bedraggled sheep regarded us stoically.

Water ran down our faces, as fat, soaking raindrops borne on a lashing wind drenched us. The Alaskans, Lady B in the Bob, soon pulled ahead, tiny dots disappearing into the distance. The Sweet Bride and I trudged along together. When I fretted about the trail boss bringing up the rear with his dad and Sweet Baby (long out of sight), she assured me, “don’t worry, he can handle it.”

The thin wool hiking skirt I wore above soggy leggings was soaked but still warm to my knees. But a layer of nylon pants added when we stopped, now funneled rain directly into my boots. Pushed by my hood and drenched, my hat kept rolling down and covering my eyes. None of our rain jackets provided any barrier to this deluge.

At first we skirted puddles, then just plowed through, stopping no option. (It must be so beautiful in that valley on a clear day, but now mist muffled the mountains to either side. I’d imagined a walk where I thought about my ancestors tending sheep or farms along this way long ago – instead I thought about their endurance!) Pages from the route booklet, quickly turning to pulp in my pocket, indicated a “forest” a little more than a mile ahead.

At the forest – just a small plantation of conifers – not the sheltering stand of trees we’d hoped for, we caught up with the Lady B and her family, brought to a stop after the Bob’s front tire exploded. Lady B allowed as how she could walk, and her dad could push the Bob on its back wheels.

And so she did. The wind lessened a little as we headed down, but the rain still poured. At a bend in the road, we crossed a river on a little bridge by a farm and headed up a narrow trail (tough going for the Bob), and suddenly we could make out the coastline of Dingle Bay!

But we rounded a bend and found the trail become a watercourse, rushing with strong current steeply downhill. Always intrepid, the Sweet Bride, plunged right through, and Mrs. Hughes as well – while lifting Lady B across. Mr. Carson came back to guide me.

And then we were down! The wind picked up again by the sea, and rain teemed as we crossed a road to see waves crashing on the sandy expanse of Inch Beach – and the welcome shelter of Sammy’s Pub and Restaurant.

Mr. Carson unloaded Baby Brother, stuffed a bar in his pocket, and ran back up the mountain to help the others (arriving just as they reached the washed out trail). The rest of us, thrilled to be out of the storm, commiserated about our new understanding of “soaked to the skin,” ate chocolate chip cookies and carrot cake from Sammy’s large pastry case, drank hot chocolate and pots of tea – and dripped. Mrs. Hughes discovered her waterproof backpack nicely held a puddle of water at the bottom. My cell phone in a small plastic bag stayed dry, but the big garbage bags on the packs proved worthless.

Unexpectedly, Peter Galvin showed up with a pile of dry towels – soon followed by the van for our ride to Dingle. It must be a spectacular drive from Inch to Dingle – wild ocean and layers of mountains in the distance – but invisible this day as the van’s windows fogged from our damp.

The landlady of the guesthouse in Dingle greeted me, disheveled guest, with understandable irritation, “One really shouldn’t be about in this weather,” but her showers were lovely and hot.

At dinner, out of the Dingle rain and warm in a busy pub, revisiting the day (the coldest he’d ever been according to the trail boss who broke mountain rules with a cotton shirt), I learned that Sweet Baby and Baby Brother, cozy in their packs, slept nearly all the way through the tempest. His mom told us Baby Brother sighed and said: “This is nice!” as she placed the protecting blanket. Sweet Baby, when she woke, chatted, made numerous unfillable requests to see her mom or to get down and walk, and cautioned Papa Jim on the steep downhills. Lady B slogged through puddles and mud – resolute.

It was a memorable day!

Ireland Part One – Arrival

My mother’s parents came separately from Ireland to America in the late 1800s (part of the huge emigration caused by the potato famine). My great-grandmother, Kate Barton (only 14 when she left), met and married Thomas Scanlon here. Although unknown to each other in Ireland, both came from the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry, from hamlets near a short spit of land in Dingle Bay called Inch.

When I read about the beauty of the Dingle Peninsula, I began to dream of another family walk. Wonderful Ireland Walking Holidays, the company we used to walk on the Wicklow Way last year, offers a route along the Dingle Way (a 100-mile long-distance trail around the peninsula, linking footpaths, beach traverses, and small roads). Peter Galvin, the helpful owner of Wonderful Ireland, tailored a route for us, selecting portions negotiable by the Bob stroller.

We all arrived in Cork on the south coast of Ireland on the same blustery day – the Alaskans via Reykjavik, Dublin, and a tough, three-hour bus ride. The rest of us touched down at Heathrow and flew on to Cork.

By evening, as the first rain in Ireland for months settled over the city, we ate together at a pizza place in the old part of Cork. The reunited cousins were so glad to see one another, and Baby Brother spotted the first of many pieces of heavy equipment – luckily internationally available to please this two-year old. For a jet-lagged crew, spirits were remarkably high.

The morning brought an uproarious breakfast – if you are six and three and two, a repeated silly phrase brings noisy peals of laughter – in this case occasioned by Sweet Baby renaming her grandfather “Papa Jammy.” (So much fun to hear all that laughter.)

A perfect place to recover for a day, Cork is friendly and unpretentious. The historical part of the city sits on an island formed by two strands of the River Lee, and we walked a circle to see local landmarks. We learned about the history of Cork at a small museum, and at the 17th Century Elizabeth Fort, the youngest three were eager to scale the ramparts (but taken aback by realistic models of heads on pikes). We looked in at the English Market (full of local produce and meat), found a good playground and bookstore, and retreated from rain to a Mexican comfort dinner next to the hotel.

The next day in spite of valiant efforts, we missed our scheduled train from Cork to Tralee. As frequently happens in Ireland, helpful people (train staff in this case) pitched in to help with the baggage and direct us to an alternate train. On the train we ate lunches, played UNO, and saw the first of a multitude of sheep, many vacas, and an occasional crane truck or excavator. In Tralee, a van, pulling a trailer (suitcases, strollers, and backpacks in duffle bags) picked us up, and delivered us to Camp Village on the north coast of the peninsula.

For dinner, we walked uphill to Ashes pub – a 200-year old building welcoming with a real fireplace ablaze, cozy lighting, lots of locals, good beer and food. I asked our server about the names Barton and Scanlon, and she said, “Oh, you’re in Scanlonland around here!”

In the morning we would begin by walking up and over to cross the interior of the peninsula to Inch Beach!