Wednesday Night Supper: A Wee Downton Abbey Interlude

Our eldest purchased Netflix for our family as his Christmas gift to us and it’s been a well-used, much appreciated gift. We’ve watched movies together but we’ve also each chosen different shows or films that reflect our own interests. People had recommended Downton Abbey to me for the last few years and so I thought I’d give it a go. A month into the new year, I’m in season 4 already. And it’s not really possible for me as a writer to watch such a show, especially in such an immersive way, without thinking about it in a writerly way.

I’ve been wanting to talk about this show in some way and it struck me that it could be a very Wednesday night supper conversation–and probably is in some real life version of Ithaca. But a blog also struck me as a worthwhile place for this kind of discussion.

I’m intrigued by the wide appeal of this show. Watchers of this show–lovers of this show–go beyond the usual Jane Austen period drama swooning crowd to include a surprisingly wide audience. One factor in this, I think, is the ensemble nature of the show. The same could be said for Friends or Seinfeld. Viewers can likely find one character to root for, one to roll their eyes at, one to dislike in an ensemble. There’s also a sense of relationship between the characters in such shows that somehow draws the viewer in–I haven’t had a Downton dream yet but I had a recurring dream, back in the day, that I was an actor on the show Friends. When a writer creates relationships between characters somehow that allows the reader or viewer to feel included, to be on an inside track, to feel they are part of something. And perhaps they (we) are: without the audience and without feedback from the audience, is the act of storytelling ever completely accomplished? I don’t think so.

The dialogue on Downton is superb, both upstairs and downstairs. There’s achingly terrific subtext among repressed characters but there’s also lovely formal diction that achieves gracefulness in relationships, smoothing over potential awkwardnesses. I wonder whether it has any relationship to early 20th century communication patterns or not.

While the variety of storylines–each deliberately given similar weighting–functions somewhat like multiple narrators, the moral centre of the show seems to shift as the characters themselves change and grow (or don’t change and don’t grow). I would trace the shift from Lord Grantham to Bates to Lady Mary as the central point of view character in the show.

Sometimes I wish there were more writers (The show was conceived and is written by one writer). There have been storylines and minor characters that have exasperated me. E. M. Forster talked about ’round’ and ‘flat’ characters in his book Aspects of the Novel. A flat character is one that can be summed up in a sentence, while a round character can surprise us with change, growth or unexpected aspects to his or her personality. (Think for instance of the Cheerful Charlies). While not every Downton character is a fully realized rounded character, some of the flat characters are less credible than others, and their storylines seem to take away from the stronger elements. Sometimes rounded characters are given flat storylines too: while Lady Sybil’s growth as a nurse fit her character and showed her growth, her courtship with Branson was a one-note, less believable plot line.

Another interesting (to me) feature of Downton Abbey is its pacing. It moves through history extremely quickly, particularly in the first two seasons. (This for me was a reason there was no excuse for silly melodrama: there was plenty of real drama to choose from both in that period and also in the vast scope of time the author gives the characters). A full-length story can take place over the course of a single day–think James Joyce’s Ulysses or the television show 24–or can be a sweeping epic lasting centuries. The pacing of Downton Abbey includes what is not shown, which is often the emotional aftermath of a significant event. The viewer is allowed (or forced) to fill in his or her own blanks in such instances.

Finally, and related to pacing, is the issue of story arc. Actors and even the show’s creator have suggested that Downton Abbey likely has another couple seasons left in it, while viewers want it to go on forever and ever and ever. But I’m not sure we really do. Every story has an arc to it–where the action rises to a climax and then falls to a conclusion. You know the experience of watching a movie and knowing that the story is nearing its end. While there are sudden cliffhanger endings and what’s called in music a coda, for the most part, we’re actually more satisfied when a story has an ending to it, one that suits the story. It doesn’t mean every detail is wrapped up–better not to, I’d say–but the central issue of the story is resolved. For Downton Abbey, I think the question is the transition from the old world to the new, and I think when that story is told, the series will, or should, come to an end. I picked up some Jane Austen fan fiction this winter, which followed the grandchildren of Elizabeth and Darcy, thinking it would be nice, light reading. Gentle Reader, it was not. It was instead rather dull, trying to extend something beyond its natural lifespan. Yes, the reader wants to know more about the characters at the end of the book and the viewers at the end of a series, but that is the lovely legacy of a story, that we can continue to imagine what happens to these people who have somehow become very real to us.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this series too.

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Wednesday Nights: Ithaca Falls

Last week I had the pleasure of attending three consecutive book clubs offered at Relish Cooking Studios in Waterloo. It was a pleasure listening to people engaging with my book and eating good soup. They made Daisy’s White Bean and Tarragon soup and, even three meals in a row, it was delicious. People asked great questions and had good insights into the book.

I wanted to show you the waterfall nearest Daisy’s house in Ithaca. The top of the waterfall and the cliffs around it are the level of Ithaca on which Cornell University is built. It’s one of about 19 waterfalls in the area. Ithaca’s slogan is: Ithaca is GORGES. (Say it aloud.) It truly is. The gorges-ness of the area comes from the retreat of the last ice-age, when mile-high glaciers retreated north, leaving the Finger Lakes behind. The rock, though, is older than that. What was left behind by the glaciers was once the bed of a sea that covered the region a mere half-billion years ago. Today it’s shale rock. I have a few pieces of it sitting on my desk today.

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And here’s nonprofessional videographer me at the falls: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GO86N5PXuhk&feature=youtu.be

This is shale:

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You can see the porous nature of the shale rock here:

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Here’s the munitions factory, still standing on the top of the cliff:

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Fracking Friday

Someone once said to me that people who are inherently conservative see that the world is at risk of losing valuable parts, while those who are inherently progressive see value in what’s possible ahead. I’ve been thinking this week about the fact that the state government of New York has actually banned fracking. I’ve been thinking about all the grassroots groups that banded together across New York State to say, “not this one!” and that it actually worked. In my book, Daisy says the problems caused by fracking were in no way inevitable, unless people simply let big business act out of a pure profit motive.

And that is not what happened. The health commissioner who made the report said that for him it came down to the fact that he would not want to live in a community where the ground had been fracked, would not want children playing there, would not want to drink that water.

One cute headline I saw suggested that other states and countries need to adopt a ‘New York State of Mind’ when it comes to fracking. Because, the less-than-cute reality is that the battle over fracking is not over. Not at all.

I’ve found two new books on fracking: I’m currently reading The End of Country by Seamus McGraw. It’s a memoir of a Pennsylvania farming family that got a knock on the door and an offer to get rich quick by selling drilling rights for fracking. It’s  a book that embraces the pluses and minuses of such a decision.

The other I have not read yet. Fractures is a novel about fracking, written by Lamar Herrin.

Finally, there’s a giveaway of a copy of Ithaca on GoodReads right now. Please enter and tell your friends. I’d also appreciate it, if you’ve read the book, if you’d post a review either on GoodReads or Amazon. Or just plain tell people about the book. Word of mouth and your recommendations are how people will find out about the book. Thank you so much!!

Wednesday Nights: Cayuga Lake

So here’s how it often goes: we go off blithely on a trip and I fall in love with the place. I go home and can’t get it out of my mind and so, since my family is most unreasonable and refuses to move to satisfy my new love for a place, I begin writing about that place. I find imaginary people to populate the place and they get to live there, even if I can’t.

And then, usually, I persuade the family that we need to go back to that place again. This time, my senses are on high alert. I end up scribbling notes in the margins of my calendar or on gas station receipts. I breathe deeply to identify smells. I drive around neighbourhoods to situate things. I justify the purchase of meals my characters would definitely have eaten. I take photographs through splattered windows of moving cars. I write more marginal notes.

I’m probably not the world’s best travel companion.

And then I go back and with the help of my sensory research, I write and write some more.

One of the best compliments my writing has ever received–and to be honest, I hear this quite often–is that people either want to visit or move to the places I’ve written about, or they do go to visit, or they feel like they’ve actually been there. A place is effectively a major character to me as a writer.

Not all places capture my imagination in that way. It is potentially safe for you to invite me to visit you, without worrying that your home or town will be immortalized in prose. Sometimes I just go and enjoy myself as a civilian. I went somewhere years and years ago that is finding its way into the book I’m labouring on right now–and I’m kicking myself because I didn’t save the receipts from that trip, because at the time, I remember thinking that there was no way I could write about that place, that it was too foreign for me to find a foothold for a story. (Memo to self: save the receipts anyway!)

The more common experience I’ve had is that after writing and writing about a place, my third visit to the real place is marginally disappointing because (and this feels wrong to admit), I’ve come to both believe in and like the fictionalized version more than the real one. I don’t mean by that that the fictionalized one is idealized, but I come to have a sense of familiarity with it and thus a fondness for it that is missing in the real-life version. It’s always a surprise to me when that happens, though.

Here’s the second in my video series from our December visit to Ithaca. Rumo(u)r has it that if and when Cayuga Lake freezes over, classes at Cornell are cancelled. I like that idea. It is true that every summer, a group of Ithaca-area women participate in a swim across the width of Cayuga Lake as a breast cancer fundraiser. They call it Women Swimmin’. And the nearest of the Finger Lakes to Cayuga is under threat currently from another environmental hazard–a proposal to store methane, propane and butane in unlined salt caverns on the shores of the lake.

But here is the lake itself. Isn’t it lovely? And because I had never been here before in December, I didn’t know that it was a migration gathering point for lots and lots of geese. If only I’d had a receipt at hand to note that.

And here’s the lake in summer at sunset:

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Wednesday Nights: Daisy’s Neighbourhood

I should write neighborhood, since that is how Daisy would write it. I’ve finished posting all the soup recipes except one that I don’t want to reference publicly because it gives away a bit too much of the story. Message me privately if you want the soup recipe for chapter 9.

In mid-December, my husband and I traveled back to Ithaca, New York for me to do a book reading at a fabulous bookstore there (Buffalo Street Books). I realized I hadn’t been in Ithaca for nearly two years–although I had lived inside a fictional version of the city for much of that time. I wanted to make sure we went to the farmers’ market and that we ate well, but it was as we began driving along the length of Cayuga Lake that I suddenly had other ambitions. Chiefly, I wanted to show you in pictures and video more of this great place, to give you a look at the real version so you could compare it to the imaginary version you find in the book. And so I could too. We spent much of a happy afternoon driving around the city as amateur photographers and videographers. I’m hoping you’ll excuse the extreme and unflattering close-ups along the way.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to share different photos, short videos and words about the places behind the book.

I thought I’d start in Daisy’s neighbourhood. The second time we visited Ithaca, I spent a few hours figuring out exactly where Daisy would live, down to the right house. I knew she lived within walking distance of the downtown Commons and also of the market, and that they lived near Ithaca Falls and near the base of the shale cliffs on which Cornell University was built.

So here’s Daisy’s neighbo(u)rhood

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The last photo is the house I imagine to be Daisy’s. And finally, here’s the place where she decides to become an activist:

Look like anything you imagined?

Top 10 Books of 2014

I’m making a resolution this year to record all the books I read, even the fluffier ones. After working my way through the entire Agatha Christie oeuvre, I moved on to Ngaio Marsh last year and quite enjoyed her writing. I also read through the remaining P.D. James mysteries before and after her death.\

Mysteries don’t comprise the majority of my reading, however.  I did read more nonfiction books in 2014 than I usually do, but I have to confess that while I can’t stop myself from devouring a novel, reading nonfiction (unless it is told as a story, such as a memoir) takes me far more time and effort.

But now, with no further ado, here’s my countdown of the best books I read in 2014. (I should also say that while the top few were clearcut winners, there were a number of other books that could have made the list for sure.)

10 – My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead. Almost everyone has a favourite book, one to which they return again and again throughout their lives. What’s fascinating is that often the book can seem to change: we notice different aspects of the book at different times in our lives and it speaks to us differently. For New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead, the seminal book of her life is George Eliot’s Middlemarch. This book is a hybrid of memoir, biography and explication of the plot and themes of Middlemarch, with parallels being drawn by Mead between her own life and that of both Eliot and her characters. Mead writes beautifully and intelligently. She shifts well between herself, Eliot’s story and the book so that while the stories do not stay chronological, they are relatively easy to follow and offer quiet insights very much reminiscent of Eliot’s own writing. The strongest element of the three levels of narrative is likely Eliot’s own life and Mead’s attempts to track down places that mattered in Eliot’s life. Mead is careful in what she reveals about herself: this is not a self-indulgent memoir.  Rather, it is a pleasure for a bookish type to gain insight both into Eliot’s life and writing and to consider how the books we love read us as much as we read them.

9 – The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd – I almost forgot about this book when it came to rounding up the year but this was an important book and a beautiful one. I gave it to my thirteen-year old daughter when I finished it, because I thought it would be good for her to read the fictionalized but true story of early nineteenth century abolitionist and suffragette Sarah Grimke and the paralleled story of her family’s slave Handful. This story in some ways reminded me of The Book of Negroes but extended out in different ways. Sue Monk Kidd is one of the writers I’d like to be when I grow up.

8 – The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon. I once judged a middle school poetry contest and had a challenging time deciding between a good poem and a mediocre poem with one image that flashed with brilliance. In the end, I went with the flash of brilliance. This book is something like that: while it is flawed and does not entirely realize its ambitious premise, I include it here because it utterly fascinated me. The book is a literary-technological thriller told by two narrators, both of whom work at the fictional North American Dictionary of the English Language. It begins as the chief editor disappears—both from his life and from the dictionary he was in the process of editing. One of the narrators is his daughter and assistant who is sometimes called Alice. The book is clearly intended for logophiles—people who love language and thinking about it—and we are intended to be alerted by the name Alice that we and our narrators are about to go down the rabbit hole. The Word Exchange forces the reader to examine what humans voluntarily give away to technology and what the consequences might be. The epidemic that sweeps throughout the book is word flu: what one character calls “communicable incommunication.”

7 – State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. During the first extreme cold snap of last winter’s polar vortex, my family and I went away to stay for several nights at a yurt on Lake Huron. We skated and hiked but also spent a lot of time indoors, eating, playing games and reading. State of Wonder was the book I brought with me, and it had the remarkable ability to transport me to a steamy South American jungle even as I huddled in my sleeping bag and listened to Arctic winds ripping at the canvas walls of the yurt. This is a book that is both beautiful and compelling, with lushness and tough moral questions. It is not a brand new book – it was published in 2011 and was shortlisted for the 2012 Orange Prize—but it is not one to be overlooked.

6 – Girl Runner by Carrie Snyder. Full disclosure: I know Carrie a little. Some of our children go to school together and she lives a few blocks away from me. But this is not a case of a prophet in her own hometown not being recognized. At the same time, Carrie is being recognized more widely, as Girl Runner will be in publication in a wide variety of languages and countries around the world. And deservedly so. This book follows fictional 1928 Olympian Aganetha Smart throughout her life until her present-day nursing home experience at the age of 104. This was not the book I thought it would be, but it had me at the very first page and rarely let me go. Probably the highest praise I can give to this book is that I believed it—I believed it utterly and completely, as if it were a factual story being told to me. After I read it, I found myself recalling a number of scenes that were clear as my own memories.

5 – Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities and Other Inscrutable Geographies by Alastair Bonnett. I read this book during a few days at a cottage in the Laurentians where we were surrounded by dynamite blasting of a new road directly behind our cottage and neighbours who were 98% Hasidic Jews from New Jersey who did not make eye contact with us. It was itself a sort of unruly place. I didn’t think I was enjoying the book as I read it—it was most definitely not the book I thought it would be when I read the premise which suggested that the reader would enjoy fun armchair journeys to enchanted places. But this book has had remarkable staying power for me—it has transformed the way I see spaces and I have referred to it on a number of occasions. It is a book that can be dipped into at any point, and is written by a professor of social geography who is the former editor of “an avant-garde psycho-geographical magazine.” While Unruly Places is divided into sections—such as Dead Cities and Floating Islands—each chapter is quite short, introducing the reader to a likely-unknown-to-them place in the world that is either unmapped or hidden in plain sight. Most of the places are quite fascinating, demonstrating the vast socio-geographic diversity of our world—and showing that even in an era of Google mapping and GPS, there are still unknown spaces all around us.

4 – Hardwiring Happiness by Rick Hanson. I almost never read self-help books (although every time I do, I find them surprisingly insightful) but I heard Dr. Hanson interviewed on the radio and thought his book sounded very worthwhile. And it was. Hanson’s basic premise is that we tend to ruminate over negative events in our lives and gloss over the good stuff, but that the deliberate cultivation of attention on good things can actually change our brains and our experience of the world. He suggests a wide variety of specific techniques for doing this, all of which I have found personally helpful. This is definitely a book to seek out.

3 – What Necessity Knows by Lily Dougall. Ever since I was in university, I’ve been a huge fan of early Canadian female writers, such as Susanna Moodie, Sara Jeannette Duncan, and Catharine Parr Traill. One of my university roommates went on to study the writings of 19th century writer Lily Dougall, who wrote both theological books and fiction but somehow despite my love of this era, I never tried Lily Dougall until I came across her early novel What Necessity Knows at a used book sale where I could fill a box. Recognizing the name, I added the book to my pile and then one day when I had nothing else to read, I picked it up—and was hooked. Unlike many early Canadian female writers who emigrated from Britain, Dougall was born in Montreal to a family connected with Redpath Sugar. What Necessity Knows is set in an area of Quebec I love and while it has melodramatic elements to it, its psychological insights can stand well with George Eliot’s. This is the only book of Dougall’s to be reissued, which is a shame. Scanned versions of other Dougall novels can be downloaded but the quality is less than perfect.

2 – Count Me In by Emily White. Count Me In technically shouldn’t be considered a 2014 book because it was only published at the beginning of January 2015, but I read an advanced reading copy in December 2014 and I really hope this book finds a wide readership so I’m including it on this year’s list. What made this book so particularly good for me was that before I read it, I didn’t know anyone else who shared my interest and concern with the subject matter of the book. White showed me that she and I were not even the only two—that there are whole schools of study concerned with the subject, which is belonging. The previous author of Lonely: Learning to Live with Solitude, White writes Count Me In after the end of a relationship and moving back to Toronto. Although she has a circle of longstanding close friends and strong social ties to acquaintances, White found herself struggling with a sense of belonging in a wider community and place. She writes: “we’d lost a good deal of public life and had been left with lives that were strictly private. But we were never designed for strictly private lives…friends and family reinforce parts of who we are…but we need bigger and less personal worlds to reveal everything we might be.” White undertakes an 18-month experiment to develop “a specific and practical plan that would help me restore a larger, more public sense of connection and make it a reality in the here and now.” The book is the result of this experimentation, a combination of theory and practice, trial and error, memoir and story. While there were elements of the experiment I would never, ever try myself, the book gave me a road map and permission to explore these questions in my own life. I highly recommend it to you.

1 – All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I wish I could simply tell you that the first Anthony Doerr novel has at last been published and that you, like me, would swoon at the thought, but although Anthony Doerr has been my Literary Boyfriend (unknown to him) for several years now (starting when I read his fabulous short story collection, Memory Wall), 2014 was the year that everyone else discovered him, with the publication of All the Light We Cannot See. This book was number one or two on many lists in 2014. The book is a complex one, alternating between the stories of two young people before, during and after the Second World War—Marie Laure, the blind daughter of a French museum lock master, and Werner, a German orphan who is fascinated by radios. He spent ten years writing this book and his passion and labour are rewarded in this novel. Doerr’s great gifts are language and world building, but also extraordinary curiosity and kindness. My own kindness is to share my Literary Boyfriend and his brilliant book with you.