Armchair Series – Writers

It’s a relief to wander the Internet in search of armchairs instead of news. An article  about Hillary Mantel’s writing room (with armchair pictured) appeared in The Guardian back in 2007, when she was “building her new novel about Thomas Cromwell.” Mantel says she writes “…in the main room of our flat, at the top of a former Victorian asylum in Surrey.” “If I feel travel would broaden the mind I take my laptop up a spiral staircase to a little room under the asylum clock.”

And the Wordsmith pointed out this recent interview with Penelope Lively who has a new book, “The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories.” She has an interesting thing to say about birthdays as we age. I love her novels and her memoir, “Dancing Fish and Ammonites,” which she described as a “view from old age.” She’s just finished a non-fiction book about gardening (I’m eager for that) – and she thinks about a new novel. “A writer writes,” Lively says – lucky for us.

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Maggie O’Farrell – Book Riches

Sometimes social media delivers a wondrous gift. A while ago Priya Parmer, who wrote “Vanessa And Her Sister” (the novel about Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf), posted on Instagram a photo of a small stack of books. I could make out one title and author, “This Must Be the Place” by Maggie O’Farrell.

Born in Northern Ireland and living in Edinburgh, O’Farrell has published seven novels set mostly in the U.K. Her characters – sufferer of eczema, journalist, linguist, reclusive movie star who disappears at the height of her career – are siblings, children, parents. Amongst themselves they grapple with secrets, loss, love, and tragedy. In “The Hand That First Held Mine,” O’Farrell guides parallel stories, separated in time, until they intersect.

Such a fine storyteller, she writes the kind of language I read for. Describing a café gone quiet: “A sack of coffee beans slumps, exhausted, against the counter. A bicycle skims past the window, the beam of its light veering over the dark street. The sky outside is mineshaft black, washed with orange. As if sensing the nighttime calm, the refrigerator obligingly shudders into silence.”

Later the sky goes from “mineshaft black” to “five-fathom blue,” and then “drains slowly into a milky gray.” I love how her observations, often piled up in lists, set scenes and capture the layers of grief or joy.

Describing a new mother after the baby feeds and falls asleep: “She looks about her, in the manner of a traveler who hasn’t seen their home for a long time. She is light-headed with the possibilities open to her. She could read a book, phone a friend, send an email, write a letter, do a sketch, make some soup, sort out her clothes, wash her hair, go for that walk, turn on the television, check her diary, mop the floor, clean the windows, fiddle about on the Internet. She could do anything.

But should she risk moving him?”

Houses – in the best books there are always houses (ones where the kitchen might hold a “kitchen dresser”). “She peeled up the rotten carpets and old, damp lino, scrubbed the boards and varnished them. She whitewashed the back of the house. She rubbed the windows with newspaper and vinegar until sunshine glowed through…. It seemed astonishing to her to own a patch of land, an arrangement of bricks, mortar and glass. It seemed an impossible swap: some money for a life like this.”

Given how often and well O’Farrell writes about children and parents, I enjoyed finding this piece about her “typical” writing day. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/dec/17/my-writing-day-maggie-o-farrell

I’ve read just two of her books so far, beginning with her most recent, so I’ve missed years of anticipating a new book – but now have treasures in reserve!

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Plants and People – “Lab Girl”

I read “Lab Girl” by Hope Jahren, a geochemist and geobiologist, because I was curious what she would say about plants. In her book’s three sections, titled in a way that applies to both plants and people, “Roots and Leaves, “Woods and Knots,” and “Flowers and Fruit,” Jahren alternates descriptions of plant biology with tales of her life.

She writes about her relationship with her parents, her education and career (using stable isotope measurements to analyze fossil forests), Bill (her singular lab partner), a professional life with male scientists, and eventually, a happy love story with her husband Clint.

As I read, absorbed mostly in Jahren’s personal chronicle, I remembered my mother who always declared people more interesting than plants. But the next day I awoke and looking at the trees out my window, thought about how long trees have been here (400 million years), and how we endanger them (50 billion cut down in the last 10 years), and about recent scientific inquiry exploring how trees communicate and recognize their relatives (!).

Jahren wrote this book before our government took a bad turn, but even so she says, “My job is about making sure there will be some evidence that someone cared about the great tragedy that unfolded during our age.” Now that we live in a mess, “guided” by the anti-science “leadership” of our country with non-defense-related research funding flatlined and “curiosity-driven research” (what a wonderful concept) threatened, it’s both grand and sad to read this so accessible book about science.

An engaging writer and a driven scientist, Jahren writes, “Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life. It has also convinced me that carefully writing everything down is the only real defense we have against forgetting something important that once was and is no more, including the spruce tree that should have outlived me but did not.”

In the epilogue, she encourages us to plant a tree this year if we own property or even if a renter with a yard. “Every day, you can look at your tree, watch what it does, and try to see the world from its perspective.”

“Lab Girl” makes one better at that worthy attempt.

 

 

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Reading

We spent a week at Downtown Abbey in mid-January, a week of snowstorms, skiing for the young family – and much reading. Lady Baby told me when we arrived that she and her dad had begun to read “The Mountain of Adventure.”

I was excited, because from the fourth to the ninth grade I lived mostly in a cabin in the frigid interior of British Colombia, a long way from any place. Reading saved me. And I best remember English author Enid Blyton’s “Adventure” series about four children who, in the way of most memorable children’s books, have little parental interference and many exploits.

The children in the books stair step in age: the oldest, Philip, has a magic touch with animals, Dinah is clever, Jack loves birds, and Lucy Ann is littlest (but also brave). Whether you read or are read to, always there is a child to identify with. And Jack’s parrot, Kiki, looms large.

Long before I’d seen either seacoast or mountain valley, I had traveled them in this series. Even now, when in the mountains with our sons, we acknowledge a certain geography – a cave, a waterfall, tents pitched in the saddle of a mountain – as an “Adventure” book moment.

In this book the children are in Wales on their “hols,” and a planned trip with parents on donkeys into the mountains to the Vale of Butterflies, becomes a trip with just a Welsh guide and the children – a recipe for adventure.

Walking in mountain valleys is familiar to an Alaska child – Lady Baby and I talked about last summer, when we hiked together and dipped our feet in that “cold, cold creek.” She loves animals of all kinds and picnics and camping – tents and sleeping bags. She can easily imagine unfamiliar food like peaches in tins and “tongue sandwiches” eaten outdoors in all weather.

Her parents were rightly concerned about reading books where children encounter danger. As we kept reading, I told her that the kids are always safe at the end (she’s been known to reassure me about endings in picture books). And she said she’d looked already at the illustrations (a sprinkling of old-fashioned line drawings I love), and said, “Maybe the children get kidnapped. Let’s read.”

I admit to being as caught up as Lady Baby, a great escape from reality always. “Let’s read that book we are really into,” she’d say. And dear Baby Brother – perfect, chubby, smiling bundle, so good-natured – sat with us often to read.

When you are a smart five and read these books, Kiki is the greatest delight, using a human voice to make fun of various authority figures, screeching like a train or a lawn mower at just the right moment, and delivering giggle worthy commands, “wipe your feet” or “shut the door.” (And Kiki always plays a part in the children’s escape from danger.)

We had a good time with Englishisms like “high tea” and “jumper,” and vocabulary – did she know what a “sheer wall” is? “Like the climbing wall where I go with my dad.” But she really is a narrative absorber, just lets the words flow, getting the gist.

This isn’t exactly an “oh you must read this book” post. Even when we read them with our boys, the books (published in the 1940s and 50s) required editing. For Blyton’s sometimes troublesome identifying characteristics of antagonists, we substituted plain old “bad guys.”

This time I wondered if the girls would seem wimpy, but no. Dinah isn’t fond of the snakes or mice that often peek out from Phillips’s pockets, but she’s very resourceful. The other three all protect Lucy Ann – but because of her youth not because she’s a girl. And, anyway, I don’t think you could convince Lady Baby that girls can’t star in an adventure as well as boys.

The morning we left, Lady Baby told her mom the highlights, describing the inside of the mountain where the children find themselves, the baby goat who attaches itself to Phillip and comes along, and about Kiki.

What a joy to share walking and mountains and reading with this little person. So lucky.

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Kind and Dear

It’s January and cold – in Washington these days the thermometer rarely tops 32° and sinks to 22° – making me long for our usual winter 42° and appreciate house and heat.

This month I try to turn my attention to the house, clearing Christmas, which stops looking jolly and becomes clutter (except the tree, those lights are still so welcome). And January also invites more organizing, seeking comfort and cheer from order.

But in numerous ways I avoid those tasks. Although this year, I happily reboxed Christmas on January 6, energized after reading about the Irish tradition of “Women’s Little Christmas,” the old, but still observed celebration of the women (and surely now men), who worked so hard to make the holidays for their families.

A more typical stalling maneuver is to look at books about houses, including a Christmas present, Ben Pentreath’s “English Houses,” a beautiful book full of photos of loved houses that creak with tilted floors and worn Turkey rugs. Pentreath introduced a room new to me, the “snug,” a tiny room with books and fireplace looking just like the word. (I discovered while writing this that Pentreath writes a blog about his life in Dorset:    http://www.pentreath-hall.com/inspiration/).

And this January I miss “Red House West” – may it return soon! I did see a Pin from the blog’s proprietors of an imaginative under-the-stairs bed, cozily curtained off. And I began thinking about how certain house elements, sunny French windows, odd but comfy chairs, deep window sills, long pine tables make me stare at a photo and want to be there.

Leanne Shapton, an illustrator I admire, said she processes life by employing series and repetition in her work. Maira Kalman does that too. And an artist, Debbie George, I discovered while painting teacups last November, paints antique teacups and flowers one lovely image after another.

January lets such thoughts string together into a project. So, I’m going to look for little moments in rooms that make a difference – quirks, rumples, using houses I know or photos from books or the Internet. Done up doesn’t always do it, but personal often does.

And I can start with this little poem that William Morris had embroidered around the top of his four-poster bed:

     The wind’s on the wold

     And the night is a-cold

     And Thames runs chill

     Twixt mead and hill,

     But kind and dear

     Is the old house here,

     And my heart is warm

     Midst winter’s harm…

That’s the idea!

wm-morris-bed

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Secrets and the Novels of Tana French

In the last few years TV detective series have often filled our evenings – “The Fall,” The Killing,” “Jack Taylor,” “Happy Valley.” There is something silent about these procedurals – you have to guess what’s going on in the minds of complicated detectives with craggy or beautiful, always expressive faces.

But we get inner narration by observant detectives in Tana French’s “The Dublin Murder Squad Mysteries.” These books are mysteries for sure, but even more they tell of place (Ireland) and the doings of complex characters.

In the first book, “In The Woods,” murder detective, Rob Ryan, investigates a crime that takes place near the woods where, when he was 12, he was traumatized and his two best friends disappeared forever. Memories and secrets from that mystery impinge on the present.

The woods are central, “I remembered, too, the three of us finding a secret garden, somewhere in the heart of the wood. Behind some hidden wall or doorway, it had been. Fruit trees run wild, apple, cherry pear: broken marble fountains, trickles of water still bubbling along tracks green with moss and worn deep into the stone; great ivy-draped statues in every corner feet wild with weeds, arms and heads cracked away and scattered among long grass and Queen Anne’s lace. Gray dawn light, the swish of our feet and dew on our bare legs.”

Characters appear in one book and float into the next (six so far). Cassie Maddox, Rob’s partner, becomes the protagonist of the second book, “The Likeness.” She goes undercover to join a group of students living in an old house – the house nearly a character in the book. Years later Cassie still dreams of it: “The house is always empty. The bedrooms are bare and bright, only my footsteps echoing off the floorboards, circling up through the sun and the dust motes to the high ceilings. Smell of wild hyacinths, drifting through the wide-open windows, and of beeswax polish. Chips of white paint flaking off the window sashes and a tendril of ivy swaying in over the sill. Wood doves, lazy somewhere outside.”

And it’s Ireland – where wind blows “rain-spatter in your face…,” the economic bubble has burst, but the language is still rich. French gives us bucolic rural settings and Dublin’s police headquarters, all modern garish office spaces inside, and then outside: “…old, ornate red brick and marble with battlements and turrets and worn carvings of saints in unexpected places. In winter, on foggy evenings, crossing the cobblestones is like walking through Dickens – hazy old streetlamps throwing odd-angled shadows, bells pealing in the cathedrals nearby, every footstep ricocheting into darkness….”

Coincidences and narratives of friendships that mightn’t ring true for every reader occur in these books, but I’ll accept those improbabilities in exchange for the descriptions and the action. And it’s rare to have books both so literate and so deliciously moreish.

Here is winter reading!

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Reading – Winter or Summer

Once, in a conversation with our English friends, our older son described himself as an Anglophile. I was silently tickled. His love differs from mine – he knows British history. He’s a fine resource, if inclined, to sort out Edwards and Henrys and their places in the whole scheme. And like his dad, he’s read so much about Churchill and the history of World War II that he’s a great back up for my literary approach.

Most times when reading I just succumb to this English prejudice. The wordsmith shares this bent, and has a particular fondness for the period just before the First World War. So for anyone who might share our proclivity, here are a couple of books from this winter.

Helen Simonson doesn’t live in the UK anymore, but she grew up in Rye in Sussex, and she returns there in “The Summer Before the War,” the Edwardian summer before war rumor became reality. At first I had doubts about this book because of the seemingly inconsequential village doings: the activities of a forward thinking aunt, her two nephews, and a new schoolteacher. But the very ordinariness of those summer days and predictable, if limited, lives are exactly what’s shattered by the awful reality of war. By the end of the book I appreciated the structure and cared about the characters.

Louis de Bernières’s “The Dust That Falls From Dreams” is an even larger family saga. It’s a lovely fat book that follows four sisters from one family, and the five brothers who live on either side of their large county house south of London. An inseparable group, the nine are young when the book opens and tight in the way of childhood friends.

And then the war happens and affects them all, whether they go as soldiers or nurses or stay on the home front. And when de Bernières brings them home afterwards, they’re changed, and they return to an altered world. Both the wordsmith and I found ourselves stalling toward the end, not wanting to part from this group of characters and the privilege of reading their lives.

Cross the channel quickly and fast forward to the Second World War and an American author for a third possibility. Mrs. Hughes recommended “The Nightingale” by Kristin Hannah as a great book for a long airplane trip. And it is. Set mostly in occupied France, with romance and adventurous crossings of the Pyrenees, it’s the story of two sisters and the war’s impact on their lives – a tale of German occupation and French resistance. Sometimes scary and sometimes sad, it’s a very satisfying page-turner.

All these books are so readable, so engaging. So perfect for summer.

Frances lap sitting