Thursday, September 30, 2010

Just Finished Reading . . .

I've been reading an old but interesting book called Writer's Britain: Landscape in Literature by Margaret Drabble. It was published in 1979 and I picked it up at a book sale. I won't review it because of its age, but it was certainly food for thought.

The book features many photographs, most in black and white but quite a few in color. The photographer was Jorge Lewinski. Some show sites, like Tintern Abbey, which are the setting for poetry, some show authors' homes, Sir Walter Scott's home for instance, and some show settings of novels, e.g. the scenes from Thomas Hardy novels. Scott's home was, I believe, the only place I had actually seen so I'm glad to have more of a mental picture of other literary spots in Britain.

One theme throughout the book was something I had never really given any thought to. It just never occurred to me that writers in general didn't focus on scenery as being interesting or romantic or a feature of a story until relatively recently in history. Woodsworth was one of the first to write poetry about a place in a romantic way and that surprised me, I guess because it's so common now. Many previous authors described waterfalls, for instance, with violent phrases and harsh words - crashing, splitting, tumbling, dangerous.

Most authors of prior times either described poor villages and farms from the disinterested or superior point of view of London elite, or as a practical matter living under the delusion that people lived in filth and stench from choice. And there were writers who wrote of the industrial north of England as though the machinery, etc. was beautiful, but most described such cities as eyesores. Most never spoke of the lives of the people stuck in wretched living conditions.

I'll look at English literature a little differently now, I think. Dickens is a great favorite of mine, partly because of the clever names of his characters but also because he wrote of the underclasses with empathy and honesty.

Landscape is such an important part of literature these days. We learn of characters not just by their home and family, but also the effect of their landscape on their character. That's half the fun of reading about people - I think of a book like The Kite Runner for example. It would be very dull without knowing what the boy's surroundings were like, as well as the culture in Afghanistan, don't you think?

Monday, September 27, 2010

A Lovely Sunday

We did something yesterday that we haven't done in so long I can't remember the last time. After a few hours of working on a project on our house, we cleaned up and went for a ride in the countryside. The foliage has just begun to be colorful enough to provoke ooh's and aah's, so riding along country roads through our mountain ridge was delightful.

When we got tired of riding, we drove on into Binghamton and then stopped at Appleby's for our favorite salad: pecan-crusted chicken salad. Topped off with iced tea for me and a soda for Dave, it was perfect. We order the half size which is just enough to make you full but not overly full.

I don't know why I'm writing about it except that for a workaholic like Dave and a Scrooge like me who doesn't like to buy gas, the day was such a rarity. Too often we just stay at home and watch football games on television instead of getting out. Since Dave can't walk far, our old habit of long walks on Sunday isn't a possibility anymore. We missed all the fairs and festivals this summer because of that too, although now we're getting a wheelchair, but anyway it was too hot and humid for us. We're the ones who used to complain about how old people get in a rut and don't do anything, and now that's our story.

Maybe the memory of the simple happiness of yesterday will be enough to make us find things we can do. A wheelchair will certainly make things easier. We tire easily so what we do won't be much and it won't be strenuous, but it'll be something we can handle. To begin with, we've signed up to go to a Parkinson's conference in Philadelphia in a couple months. We went last year and thoroughly enjoyed it; the other Parkinson's people have such a great attitude that they're a joy to be around and the information we get is so valuable. Now we're really looking forward to going again.

Also coming up is basketball season and we once again have season tickets for Binghamton University games. I can hardly wait for the games to begin.

Do you find yourself getting into a rut too?

Friday, September 24, 2010

Autumn Days at Home

I was sitting at my desk the other morning thinking how quiet the neighborhood was. During the night with the windows open and no fan noise, I heard coyotes howling for the first time in months. Then it was warm enough to have windows open early and I could hear one lonely bird in a backyard tree singing. That's all. Soon enough of course all the noise started: Dave grinding a metal guard he's building, our stone wall crew started up their equipment and yelling measurements to each other, and traffic. Next door they were planing wood or something. It was a normal day in the neighborhood.

All that noise started me thinking about how quiet it used to be 16 years ago when we moved here. At that time, even though our neighbors had a construction company on their property with a few employees, traffic was limited. Some days there wouldn't be even 20 vehicles go by, and at night only one or two. I did hear a carload of young people stop by our tree line one night. I don't think anyone was too sober; they were giggling and talking very loudly. Finally they went on; guess someone had to answer the call of nature.

Otherwise nights were generally silent. I frequently heard an owl in a tree in our yard, and the coyotes or occasionally a deer chuffing to signal danger. And since we live in the country and people sometimes dump cats out here, we would hear fights and mating noises on occasion. I loved those quiet nights, slept better than I ever had in my life.

Then came the bluestone boom. All the quarries around here that had been closed for some time opened up again. Before dawn huge trucks would load stone and head out for New Jersey or Connecticut, even California. Quarrying is by nature noisy work and we were surrounded by them so the noise would bounce back and forth from mountaintop to mountaintop. All good things come to an end, of course, and finally the sales of bluestone faltered. Now many quarries are closed again, waiting for the next boom.

By that time traffic had picked up enormously, not just stone trucks, but commuters who used our road as a shortcut. Now there were sometimes 20 vehicles per hour rather than per day. Doesn't seem like much if you live in the city, but out here the only time we had been used to traffic was Friday evening and Sunday afternoon when weekenders came and went. And the traffic has steadily gotten faster. I don't walk on our road anymore - too dangerous.

We're having a bit of a quiet spell now for a while, but the seismic mappers have walked throughout the area and blown little charges and the helicopters have picked up their bundles of supplies. Now we await the first of the drilling operations. Then we'll really have noise 24/7 for a while. Things have changed so much since we moved here, but enormous change is coming. Wish us luck!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Fall Foliage in PA a Bust?

We took a little ride into Montrose, PA yesterday to go to the recycling center, the drug store and the grocery store. What a wild, romantic life we lead; I can hardly stand it. At least Montrose is a lovely little town with Federal and Victorian architecture, nice little shops, a town green, and friendly people. Oops, back to my point, and I do have a point by the way. I noticed something interesting as we road along the country roads.

We had a big hailstorm in the area (northeast PA) early last week. It lasted for 20 minutes in one little town about five miles from us and you could see tire tracks in the hail on the main street. We were in Binghamton, NY that afternoon and came home to a winter scene. Piles of hail here and there and, worst of all, a carpet of green leaves on the ground under all the trees.

Yesterday I noticed how bare a lot of trees are already. It looks like late fall instead of September. There is a little color in the mountains already but peak color is usually the middle of October here. I'm wondering if the lack of leaves on so many trees will ruin our fall foliage which is always so spectacularly beautiful.

Probably there are enough leaves left to make for a pretty October, but I'm guessing it won't be up to par. However, come to Pennsylvania in October anyway. Spectacular fall foliage or not, this is absolutely the best time of the whole year in Pennsylvania. We have warm days, chilly nights, pretty colors, pumpkin fields, and football. Can't beat it!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

I don't remember how I discovered Sarah Waters but I enjoyed her book The Little Stranger so much that I've been on the lookout for her other books ever since. I found Fingersmith at a book sale - apparently unread by whoever donated it but they really should have read it. It's quite long but I read the last two-thirds of the book practically in one session, excited and in a rush to get to the bottom of the mystery.

Fingersmith is a slang term for a thief which is what most of the characters in this story are. Believe me, there is no honor among these particular thieves. A group of them have formed a sort of family in the slums of London, and they come up with a plot to make a huge amount of money. Sue Trinder, who has been raised as a daughter by the "mother" of the family, is sent to an estate in the countryside to be a ladies maid to an orphan, Maud Lilly. Maud is 17 years old and has been living for years with her cruel uncle in isolation from the world. Upon reaching 18 she will be wealthy.

And so the plot proceeds and things go along very slowly and I thought the book was dragging unnecessarily. Then suddenly the action picked up and I was astonished at a huge twist in the narration. Waters had led me right down the garden path. That turned out to be only the first turn-around of many in the story. Waters lets the reader become complacent and then, bang, everything changes in a heartbeat. These twists surprised me right up to the end of the book; I was almost breathless when I reached the end. Yet each curve the story took made perfect sense in retrospect

The narration is done by Sue and Maud alternately so the reader gets bits and pieces as known by each girl which you must put together like a jigsaw puzzle. Both characters are fascinating; especially as the story moves along and you learn more about them.

Part of the book is set in a madhouse where conditions are cruel enough to give you nightmares for a long time. I couldn't imagine how Waters was going to get her characters out of all the messes they were in, but of course eventually it all gets worked out. This is well worth the time to read. If you buy it, I am an Amazon Associate.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Computers - Can't Live With Them or Without Them!

I'm back on my computer after a frustrating time of it. I had clicked on something on Facebook that in retrospect I found suspicious. So, I changed my password for FB and my e-mail, then just shut down the computer. I'm not that swift about these things. I know you young'uns will be shocked but computers didn't exist when I was young back in the Middle Ages.

Anyway, yesterday I couldn't get the internet light to come on on my modem. Even I know that can't be right, so I tried every trick I knew and/or could find to try to fix it myself. Got cross and had a headache so I finally gave up in disgust.

This morning I gave up and called tech support. About 5 min. later the light was on and I was browsing! It's a miracle! If that tech support guy had been here, I would have kissed him. Good luck for him that he wasn't here, eh?

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Field of Blood by Denise Mina

Last time I went to the library I looked for a book by Denise Mina. I had read about this Scottish writer and that her books are set in Scotland. That put her on my "must" list. Sure enough, this is set in Glasgow where Mina lives, but it involves an Irish Catholic girl, her extended family, and her Irish Catholic fiance.

Patricia "Paddy" Meehan is a girl after my own heart. She's so human, so ordinary, yet so extraordinary that I felt like I had known her forever. I could relate to her feelings of being fat and dumb and that her life was preordained so that her dreams would never come true. In short, she's her own worst enemy and she's like the girl next door. Paddy works as a copyboy/gofer at a newspaper in Glasgow but dreams of being a star reporter, slim, sophisticated, with her own apartment and men falling at her feet, but being single and loving it.

The original Paddy Meehan was a real petty ante criminal who was railroaded into a life sentence for murder. He's no relation but everyone loves to make the connection and tease her about it. The beginning of the novel sort of jumps back and forth from one Paddy to the other and I was a bit irritated at that device, but after a while I was so hooked that it didn't really matter.

The story involves the murder of a child and the attempted railroading of two young boys for the murder. One of them actually did kill the boy but they were forced into it. The other accused is her fiance's cousin and Paddy is determined to clear his name. At times I wanted to smack some sense into her and buck up her faltering ego, but then I understood that she was simply very human and doing her best in awful circumstances. At one point her family and fiance shun her, and then it was them I wanted to smack.

As she follows clues and withstands the jeers of reporters and her family, you can't help but become fond of Paddy. Her character is the best thing about this book and it's why I recommend it.

I'm an Amazon Associate.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Review: Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Vanora Bennett

This book is a library find. I had read a review of it, wrote it down, but then proceeded to forget why I wanted to read it. Turns out, it's the first historical novel from the era of Henry VIII that I've read in years, but I'm sure glad I did.

The story is an embellishment on the true story of a young woman who had been raised as a ward of Sir Thomas More, author of Utopia, and the entire More family during the reign of Henry VIII until shortly before the arrest and execution of Sir Thomas More. It begins when More is a highly favored office holder under the king, but becomes more interesting as the king wants to annul his first marriage and marry Anne Boleyn, both because he's besotted with her and because he needs a son and heir. More is a devout Roman Catholic who views Anne Boleyn as an evil seductress and he will have nothing to do with the king's plans. This of course puts him and his entire family in extreme danger.

Meanwhile, the More children were, unlike most children of wealthy families, very well educated, even the girls. Meg is particularly bright and has a gift for medicine. She loves and eventually marries the man who had been their tutor, John Clement, a physician. In this story he is supposedly one of the princes who actually were murdered in the Tower of London; having been spirited away with his brother to be raised secretly in the countryside. Right, well I guess it makes a better novel this way. Another supposition is that Meg is in reality More's illegitimate daughter.

A large part of the story is based on the true story that Hans Holbein lived with the family for months and painted a portrait of the family. The painting actually exists. What didn't happen? The story has him falling in love with Meg. Again, it's a good story. Holbein is one of the best characters in the book, although my favorite was Meg. She is smart, brave, a questioner, and passionate. It seems like Bennett couldn't really get a handle on Sir Thomas More, but that's understandable because he was such a complex man.

More's book Utopia figures in this novel too, and it dawned on me that I had never read it, although I do own it. So now I'm finally reading a book that was a neglected part of my own education and I'm enjoying it - partly because I have a better picture of the time and the people. All in all, I'm happy to have read Portrait of an Unknown Woman and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical novels.