A Goldfinch This Morning

goldfinch

MAY TRIGGER DEPRESSIVES.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/17/goldfinch-donna-tartt-review

I borrowed an e-book version of Donna’s Tartt’s The Goldfinch from the library. (Still pretty amazed I figured out how to do that, but a rent crisis made it necessary.) This morning, I arrived at 870/1427. In this passage, the protagonist Theo Decker, who suffered a terrible loss when he was 14, as well as a remarkable, if dodgy, gain, is now 26. He decides to wean himself off his drugs of choice, Oxycontin 80s, et al. These enable him to carry on a successful life, whereas alcohol, his father’s drug, or heroin would not. So he says. (This does not reflect the views of the writer who has trouble with 100 mgs of Sertraline.) The physical withdrawal is bad enough, but after that comes the DEPRESSION.

“This was a plunge encompassing sorrow and revulsion far beyond the personal: a sick, drenching nausea at all humanity and human endeavor from the dawn of time.” (863/1427- on my iPad). Theo goes on to enumerate all the futile actions we indulge in -playing, working, having babies, redecorating, reading restaurant reviews…

Elsewhere I have confessed to a black sense of humour. I embrace Beckett’s advice to a young writer, “despair young and never look back.” except I tend to apply it to life in general. So these few pages cheered me up and made me laugh.

My 80 yr-old-body had hobbled out of bed this morning with full awareness that today more strangers would file through my apartment. Eventually, one of them would buy the triplex. Very likely, they would then evict me. My place is the only unit renovated. The only available apartments are $200-800 more than mine. (We’re having a really big real estate boom in Toronto.) I try to remember that “in my father’s house there are many mansions”, but getting into those seems too radical altogether.

So I’ve been ruminating on divorce, recession, illness, housing bubbles that burst, and those that haven’t yet. But this despondent passage in Donna Tartt’s book was so beautifully written that I didn’t care.

Goldfinches, especially painted ones, do not have voices like nightingales or mockingbirds. They twitter as they swoop, parentheses of bright flashing light.

 

The Story of How Handwriting Evolved, and May Soon Die Off (From the NY Times)

THE HISTORY AND UNCERTAIN FUTURE OF HANDWRITING
By Anne Trubek
Illustrated. 177 pp. Bloomsbury. $26.

“I never saw a hotter argument on so unexciting a subject,” the Dutch scholar Erasmus declared in 1528 in his treatise “On Handwriting.” As Anne Trubek’s new book, “The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting,” demonstrates, 500 years later the debate simmers on. Trubek ­traces Western script from Sumerian cuneiform to the Roman alphabet and on through Carolingian minuscule, Spencerian and Palmer scripts. When an Ohio second grader joins in to whinge about achy pen-holding fingers, handwriting — and specifically cursive, now eradicated from the Common Core curriculum — becomes as hot a topic as in Erasmus’s day.

Yet Trubek’s intriguing history is something of a bait and switch. As a writer and professor at Oberlin College, where she offers a course called “Technologies of Writing: From Plato to the Digital Age,” she’s the expert reporters call when weighing the merits of teaching traditional penmanship — she’s skeptical — and her book is a eulogy, urging a long goodbye to handwriting as we know it and an embrace of a neurological metamorphosis already underway as we adapt to new technology. But her revelatory deep dive also shows just how much we stand to lose.

Of course, as Trubek points out, resisting this probable, if not certain, transformation is nothing new. “Unsurprisingly, the most vocal opponents of new technologies are those who dominated the old,” she writes. There’s Socrates, for instance, railing against the treachery of writing, which he thought inferior to oration and risky too, eroding the necessity of memory.

“Writing preserves only the thought of literate peoples,” Trubek points out, quoting the scholar Barry Powell, attentively exposing the politics of access in her subject. In ancient Egypt, as in so many cultures, only well-born boys learned writing, and whether used as a branding tool of church and state or as a signifier of privilege, script is never neutral. Ambitious 17th- and 18th-century clerks changed their fortunes by mastering difficult new hands, while aristocrats wrote sloppily “as if in open proclamation of scorn for the arts by which humbler people oftentimes got their bread,” Thomas De Quincey noted.

Perfecting penmanship became a Christian ideal in 19th-century ­America, one occasionally credited with disciplining the mind, initiating an era of ­pseudo-psychological graphology that lingers today. Handwriting’s sketchy scientific past makes good reading, but Trubek errs in underplaying the contemporary research that shows handwriting’s role in cognitive development. Studies show that a child drawing a letter freehand activates the neurological centers that reading and writing do in adults, while using a keyboard ­produces little effect. Children composing text by hand generate more words more quickly, and also express more ideas. Students who take class notes by hand better retain that information, and, fascinatingly, not only does the brain process capital letters and lowercase letters differently, but block printing, cursive and typing each elicit distinctive neurological patterns. It all seems more tantalizing and tangible than the “advantages ­unimaginable” Trubek believes the future holds. She calls the science behind the new studies “fuzzy” and judges their findings unconvincing. But while American public education has abandoned cursive, France surveyed the evidence and ­began teaching connected script even earlier, at age 6.

A tension between style and substance pitted ornamentation against speed at the start. As Trubek tells it, the Sumerians’ first notations were solely bureaucratic, recording financial transactions in symbolic shorthand. By the medieval era, scribes went through 60 quills a day copying a single book for some three months, reaching perhaps the “apogee of handwriting in the West,” she writes. Though their work was “neither creative nor original,” occasionally a little ego spilled into the margins. “Now I’ve written the whole thing,” one monk scribbled. “For Christ’s sake, give me a drink.”

How we write is delicately connected to what we write and why. Trubek suggests relegating cursive to art class, but removing it to the realm of the exceptional limits our expectations of experiencing beauty in the day-to-day. Today’s second graders, including my own, will learn to type — one day, my daughter might even out-key Stella Willins, who banged out 264 words per minute in 1926. But we can’t quantify the value in an ability to forge a rare harmony between utility and beauty, the handsomely scripted grocery list, the love letter, the diary I write just for myself.

“We will lose something as we print and write in cursive less and less, but loss is inevitable,” Trubek concludes. Though one technology often supplants another, that doesn’t necessitate concession. Considering its rich significance, instead of hustling handwriting off to the graveyard, perhaps what’s called for is resurrection.

Ian McEwan: Nutshell (NY Times review)

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Ian McEwan Credit Urszula Soltys

With “Nutshell,” Ian McEwan has performed an incongruous magic trick, mashing up the premises of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and Amy Heckerling’s 1989 movie, “Look Who’s Talking,” to create a smart, funny and utterly captivating novel.

It’s a tale told by a talking fetus who’s a kind of Hamlet in utero — a baby-to-be (or not-to-be, as the case may be), who bears witness to an affair between his mother, Trudy, and his uncle Claude. This adulterous pair are plotting to kill the baby’s father, John. Can the narrator prevent this murder — or later exact some sort of revenge? What will happen to the narrator should his father be abruptly dispatched to heaven, and his mother found out and sent to jail? And what do these depressing developments portend about the world into which he is soon to be born?

Mr. McEwan’s narrator is one well-spoken, highbrow baby (a kind of less diabolical Stewie from “Family Guy”), who possesses all the verbal gifts of his creator (Mr. McEwan, not Trudy or John) and the sophistication of a 21st-century member of London’s chattering class — thanks to eavesdropping, from the womb, on the podcasts and “self-improving audiobooks” his mother is fond of. He is thrilled by Joyce’s “Ulysses,” prefers Keats to most modern poets (“Too much about the self, too glassily cool with regard to others”) and worries a lot about things like climate change and nuclear proliferation. Thanks to Trudy’s love of fine vintages, he’s also something of a wine connoisseur with a taste for Sancerre.

Like his 1998 novel, “Amsterdam,” “Nutshell” is a small tour de force that showcases all of Mr. McEwan’s narrative gifts of precision, authority and control, plus a new, Tom Stoppard-like delight in the sly gymnastics that words can be perform. The restrictions created by the narrator’s situation — stuck inside a maternal nutshell — seem to have stimulated a surge of inventiveness on Mr. McEwan’s part, as he mischievously concocts a monologue for his “almost child” that plays on “Hamlet,” even as it explores some of his own favorite themes (the corruption of innocence, the vulnerability of children and the sudden skid of ordinary life into horror), familiar to readers from such earlier works as “The Child in Time,” “The Children Act” and his 2002 masterwork, “Atonement.”

The narrator understands – or thinks he understands — the three legs of the adulterous triangle around him in very clear terms. John is a not-very-successful poet and small-time publisher — kindly, impoverished and eager to please, persuaded by his pregnant wife to move out of the ancestral manse because she needs a little “space.” Trudy is a manipulative green-eyed beauty who has fallen out of love with John and fallen in lust with his “priapic, satanic” younger brother, Claude — a dimwitted real estate developer and first-class dolt who “knows only clothes and cars.”

Photo

Credit Patricia Wall/The New York Times

As time passes, however, the narrator begins to wonder if things might not be a little more complicated than he first surmised. Has his father been having an affair with Elodie, a pretty young thing who writes poems about owls? And why does his dad seem to have so little regard for him, his soon-to-be-born son? For that matter, what does Trudy plan to do with him once he is born; will he simply be given away or put in foster care?

“Nutshell” cleverly takes its title from a line in “Hamlet”: “Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space — were it not that I have bad dreams.” And the novel is brightly studded with allusions not just to “Hamlet” but also to “Macbeth,” “Lolita,” “A Tale of Two Cities,” Montaigne’s essays, Dante, Nietzsche and Kafka. Mr. McEwan’s little homunculus is, by turns, earnest, mocking, sarcastic, searching and irreverent, especially when his mother has had several glasses of wine and he’s reeling from a contact high. He worries about being contaminated by Claude’s sperm when his uncle is having sex with Trudy. And he tries giving his mother a strong kick when he wants to remind her of his existence.

When he isn’t trying to piece together Trudy and Claude’s nefarious plans, the narrator spends a lot of time musing about the state of the world outside “the bouncy castle” that is his temporary home. How can commentators declare that it’s “dusk in the second Age of Reason,” he wonders, when there are “commonplace miracles that would make a manual laborer the envy of Caesar Augustus: pain-free dentistry, electric light, instant contact with people we love, with the best music the world has known, with the cuisine of a dozen cultures”?

On the other hand, “Europa’s secular dreams of union” are threatening to dissolve “before the old hatreds, small-scale nationalism, financial disaster, discord.” While poverty and war are “driving millions from their homes, an ancient epic in new form, vast movements of people, like engorged rivers in spring, Danubes, Rhines and Rhones of angry or desolate or hopeful people, crammed at borders against the razor-wire gates, drowning in thousands to share in the fortunes of the West.”

It’s preposterous, of course, that a fetus should be thinking such earthshaking thoughts, but Mr. McEwan writes here with such assurance and élan that the reader never for a moment questions his sleight of hand. At the same time, his unborn Hamlet’s soliloquy leaves us with a snapshot of part of London that’s as resonant as the portrait of the post-9/11 world he created in his “Mrs. Dalloway”-inspired novel “Saturday,” a snapshot of how a slice of the privileged West lives — and worries — today.

Getting the Hawk off the Ground: editing a mystery

db exp:hatThis is the 4th in a series of posts about writing my mystery Hour of the Hawk. See links to the others.

https://115journals.com/2015/04/06/writer-unblocked/

https://115journals.com/2015/11/03/getting-the-hawk-off-the-ground-writing-a-mystery/

https://115journals.com/2015/11/07/getting-the-hawk-off-the-ground-editing-con/

At a certain point in the editing process, I began working on a more authentic voice. In Hour of the Hawk, I was using a first person narrator telling the story in the past tense. Past tense lends distance. First person doesn’t. Because my narrator, Joanna Hunter, had a history similar to mine, one of my first revisions had been aimed at eliminating quirks and ways of speaking that were more me than her because, of course, we were different people. I liked the new, sparer, less elliptical, more direct voice. Then I got the bad news. The voice was not authentic, which is to say, uninteresting. “A lot of it was only mediocre,” said Critic A.

So glad I keep my kitchen knives sharpened to a gleaming edge!

My authentic self was fascinating, she added, and so, therefore, was Joanna’s. Where was my effervescent personality, my wicked sense of humour? I needed to let things fly. Characters hooked readers and made them read on. And I needed to love all my characters, even the irresponsible guy who put honey in a tire swing to attract bears, and ended up getting killed by one.

I wrote the beginning again. I sent it off by email. “Not working yet,” replied Critic A. I went back to work. Several weeks later, I knew enough about Tom Braddock to write a book on him alone. He had a Chumash great grandmother and a college football career, as well as three kids, and an articulate, wife who worked at a Bakersfield hospital. Most of all, I liked him. He passed muster.

But Critic A had more to tell me. I needed to create a relationship with my reader. Joanna, for example, knew what it means to age. A person could be spiritual and loving but also skeptical and cynical. That reminded me of one of my favourite sayings: Samuel Beckett’s advice to a young writer, “Despair young and never look back.” I find that hilarious, especially with a glass of Guinness. (My biological grandfather was Irish, I have just discovered.) The notes I jotted down from that long distance conversation also include the words,”dangerously compassionate”. Don’t ask me.

So I went to see Phillipa C. on Dundas W. in Toronto and arranged for her to take a series of portraits. I brought along props. I thought I would be painfully self-conscious. I wasn’t. I have done enough acting to know how to slip into a character. When I saw them a few days later, I learned more about Joanna.

I knew she wore jeans and a cowboy hat. I’d forgotten the leather jacket. I knew she was the survivor of a dangerous family and had cop phobia. (Does knowing about a crime make you guilty?) I knew she had a rock and roll side, a toughness she could trot out driving on dark desert highways. She was capable of salty language and had once been taken to the principal by a senior student. Poor fellow had aggravated her while she was on top of a ladder adjusting a bulb high in a TV studio. Joanna also saw the world through the prism Shakespeare’s plays and the St. James Bible. Her heart had been broken more than once in a been down so long it looks like up to me sort of way. And she caught glimpses of the future from time to time, and could keep track of dead people. I went back and added this point of view in brief reflections throughout the action.

By now Critics C and D had finished reading the book. They were satisfied. Not about to sort through it again for such gems. Critic B plays golf a lot, and Critic A was now deeply into her own writing. I wait on tenterhooks. In December, we will be together in Pine Mountain Club, and we will sit down to sort our book out.

Meanwhile, Critic A/Writer B had a small breakdown on the phone because she couldn’t find her authentic voice. I thought of her horizontally stripped stockings and her three print  outfits. I thought of her exuberant dancing in hiking boots on the golf green. Only children dared enter her orbit. I said try zany. Then discovering that Roget regarded that as an insult, I came up with a list: joyful, full of life, eccentric, empathetic, outside the box, dangerously unpredictable, aggressive, digressive, diverting, out of left field, hippy, unexpected, nuclear powered love and empathy generator which heals on contact.

From what she’s read to me, she’s getting on better now.

Getting the Hawk off the Ground: editing con.

red tailed hawkThis post is one of a series of posts about my experience writing and editing my mystery, Hour of the Hawk, which may interest and help other writers and mystery readers. The previous two are linked below.

https://115journals.com/2015/11/03/getting-the-hawk-off-the-ground-writing-a-mystery/

https://115journals.com/2015/04/06/writer-unblocked/

When you go on-line for advice on how to edit your novel, you are advised that you need a professional editor – by professional editors, of course. They say this is essential if you are going to self-publish. Been there. Done that. Paid for formatting in both Kindle and Smashwords by 52 Novels and for a cover design by Stewart A. Williams. Still haven’t made back the costs, so I’m glad I didn’t add another $500 for an editor.

It’s my fault Never Tell didn’t sell. It was a memoir about an abusive childhood , and, although it has a bouncy, resilient narrative voice, I lost heart trying to market it. Of course, I went the self-publishing route after a valiant effort to find an agent. Here I am again.

The Book Butchers also advise  that you do your own edit before you hire an editor, and let you download free advice: 25 Self-Editing Tips for Indie Writers. As we know, you have to give away your work to build a market these days. They say you can save money by getting your book into better shape before you submit it to them – if you have the nerve, given their name. Plus you save them the bane of my teaching life, correcting grammar errors.I found their ideas useful.

I downloaded Stein on Writing ($9.99) onto my iPad,and found his editing advice more helpful. By now I was taking multiple trips through my manuscript as I followed instructions. I also signed up for thecreativepenn.com. Joanna Penn advised a three step edit: a structural edit, a line edit for word choice, grammar and sentence structure and a proof reading edit handled by someone else. There were a number of other e-books I considered, but I figured the basics had been covered.

I have a friend who is a great proof reader, but she can’t do my book because a bear cub was harmed in its making. Off-stage,I hasten to add. We don’t witness the cub’s death by game warden, nor do we witness its mother’s revenge, which, while somewhat misguided, is fatal. I told her it is fiction, but she remembered that such a thing actually happened in the mountains where I was staying and that made it real enough for her. As I said last time, I taught English. Critic A learned from me. Critic B also taught English. Critic C can cover a page with red ink. I trust the real proof reader at the end of the line will find only typos. Or not.

In my next post, later today, I will go back to the topic of editing for narrative voice.

NeverTellCover-3

 

 

 

Writer Unblocked

wildanimalfightclub.com

wildanimalfightclub.com

https://115journals.com/2014/09/17/square-one-writers-block/

I wrote the blog above last summer after several people suggested I write a mystery. In it I lament my inability to get started. The post is about writer’s block. When I complained to those urging me that I couldn’t come up with an idea, they started brainstorming. Between us, we came up with a series of crimes, involving eco-terrorism, acts of protest or revenge against those who mistreat the environment. I brought the notes home with me when I returned home to Toronto in November. First, I had to catch up on a whole bunch of things after being away for six months – see the doctor and the dentist, that sort of thing. Then my brother visited from Brussels for several weeks and I was immersed in family. All the while I was thinking. By the beginning of January, I was ready to begin.

One morning, I sat down at the computer and bought Microsoft Office. I had found that Pages wasn’t what I wanted, but I had had an older version of Microsoft Word on an earlier computer and knew I would like it. Having done so, I thought, “You can’t waste that money,” and just started writing. The upshot has been that I have neglected this blog. Fortunately, readers have not and the stats have remained what they were when I was posting at least once a week. I thank Eleanor Catton and her book The Luminaries for that in large measure. Readers have helpfully corrected and added to the time line I posted so long ago that they now are closer to the material than I am.

https://115journals.com/2014/04/05/deconstructing-the-luminaries-a-timeline/

I have over 70,000 words of the mystery written and probably 30,000 more to write. I set it in same sort of the mountain village I spent the summer in in Kern County, California as well as in Bakersfield and Los Angeles. So the setting is in part high desert in a time of drought, which gives scope for ecological angst. It is also home to a newly flourishing flock of giant birds, the reintroduced Californian condor. At the same time, the area is threatened by development, particularly on one of the biggest ranches in North America and ground zero for the endangered condor. Although much of the area is set aside as Los Padres National Forest, the Angeles National Forest and a privately owned wild wolf conservation area, where bears, cougars, deer and mountain lions roam, there is also hunting. A recent regulation prohibits the use of lead shot because the condors, scavengers, die after eating unclaimed creatures killed with lead shot. Since there has been almost no precipitation for over three years, the forest is tinder dry and yet bright sparks (pardon the pun) are still lighting campfires and starting wildfire.

We had come up with six possible crimes and, drawing on my personal history, I created a group of ecological activists, who seem to be responsible as one event succeeds another.

In the beginning, the narration is third person, but soon switches to first person, the narrator, Joanna, a woman of my age -78 – who is more or less stuck in the mountain village with not much to do, except speculate about the ‘crime wave’. She has a companion, who is even older and who has a gift for befriending everyone she meets and the curiosity to gather information.

(Excerpt:

Chapter One: Too Many Bears

The bear came down from the mountain in late afternoon. She wasn’t hungry. She had eaten well, but she was missing the cub.

 She turned at the bottom along the well-worn path, picking up the scent of honey in the distance, and closer up, traces of many other bears, including the cub. The cub was old enough to manage on her own now and there would be a new cub in late winter. She was almost there when another darker smell stopped her in her tracks. Blood. Bear blood. She took it in. Not just any bear blood, the cub’s blood.)

The first ‘crime’ is committed by a vengeful bear, a bear that shouldn’t be there and may have had a human accomplice.

I haven’t settled on a title. At first I saved it under the heading Bear Mountain Mystery. Now it’s Murder at the Center of the World, which is what the Chumash Indians called the place. Bear Mountain -not its real name- the center of the center and the highest point was where everything was in balance. The bear comes from there and seems intent on restoring balance on the lower slopes.

A good deal of the action, however, occurs in Bakersfield, or Bako, as it is fondly known. The Kern County Sheriff’s Dept is headquartered there and the nearest hospitals. The Bakersfield farmland is part of the Central Valley and produces an astonishing amount of food consumed by North Americans. It also produces Valley Fever spores, that live in desert soil and are released by development. In addition, farmers are draining the aquifers, as irrigation is being cutback by drought regulations. The land is actually sinking in places.

The most surprising thing about writing this is the interesting characters that emerge effortlessly. The main detective, Al Guevara, is not at all the good old boy I expected. His belly doesn’t hang over his belt, he has a sense of humor, he is unusually forthcoming, he is married to a defense lawyer, has five children and has trouble making ends meet. Another surprise was a romance novelist, Arta Dietzen, a best seller in your local drugstore, who is writing her way through the alphabet, beginning with Love at the Aswan Dam. Joanna can’t read these books, but finds herself admiring the writer.

This is not the first book I have written. My memoir Never Tell, an e-book, has a link on my blog’s home page or http://nevertell.ca/.

Here is another except. This part depicts Arta Dietzen at a public meeting which is about the proposed new Condor Ranch Village, which she supports, but which ecologists oppose.

Good evening,” said Arta and she was speaking directly to me, warmly, just short of taking me in her arms. Of course, everyone else was having the same intimate experience. “I’m soo glad you could take some time out of your busy lives to support me here. Thank God for PVR’s.” And we all laughed a little too long.

“Now first thing, I know I’m going to disappoint you. I promised y’all that Oliver my good friend Oliver Warren, the CEO of Condor Ranch, would be here. He isn’t. Just wait till I get my hands on that no-good, low-life critter.” She screwed up her face and hunched over so that she looked like the bad witch in The Wizard of Oz.

Whoops of laughter. Howls of laughter. Tears of laughter. The audience had been well and truly salted with supporters.

She straightened up, did a resigned face and said, “He has sent Roger, dear Roger in his stead, like Abraham sacrificing Isaac. I only hope God and this audience will appreciate his willingness and not demand his head. I give you Roger Smith, Public Relations Officer for Condor Mountain Village. I’m just a shill, a poster girl if you will.” She withdrew to the seat in front of the podium that had been reserved for her.

 

 

 

Why You Should Read All 8 Outlander Novels: pt 2

outlander series pictureThis post is supposed to convince you to read The Outlander, the first book in Diana Gabaldon’s 8-book Outlander series. (A 9th book is in the offing.)

I say “supposed to” because looking back over the plot outline (see The Outlandish Companion by Gabaldon) and reading comment strings, I realize I have a difficult task before me.

The difficulty is not the vivid sex scenes. Those are quite lovely, as you will remember if you saw “The Wedding” episode of Starz series last summer. The difficulty is corporal punishment and what some call spousal abuse.

Now Gabaldon is quite clear that flogging is a BAD thing. Jamie Fraser’s scarred back is evidence of just how bad, although it takes a few books to document how it got that way. Spanking is another matter. Jamie says that his father punished him by application of a switch and look how well he turned out. Of course young Jamie was never punished unjustly and, although he found it hard to sit down for a few days, he didn’t resent his father. In fact, the “beating” was a great relief to his guilty conscience. So – when Claire Beauchamp puts herself and Jamie’s men in danger – and indeed her actions are very ill-advised- he spanks her.

Ever since the book was published in 1991, readers have been arguing about that. Personally, I found the argument interesting, but creepy. I decided that Gabaldon was just taking her inner sadomasochist out for a walk, and then I got on with reading. Yes, from time to time, she seems to skirt into the true romance territory of rape fantasy.

The obvious answer to the offended crowd is “Stop reading. Put the book down. Walk away. Give it to Goodwill with your next box of used clothes. Someone out there wants it.”

The Outlander has a great idea. Claire Randall, neé Beauchamp, is having a second honeymoon with her husband Frank in the Scottish Highlands in 1946. They have been separated during  the war because she was a nurse treating front-line wounded, and he was an intelligence officer in London. They hope to get pregnant now. Frank has come to research the Randall family’s genealogy. Claire is taking the opportunity to study local flora. Not only is she trained in western medicine, she has an interest in herbal treatment. She also has an unusual background. Orphaned as a child, she grew up with her uncle on archeology digs in Egypt. Important preparation for life in the HIghlands two and a half centuries ago.

Returning to their Inverness Bed and Breakfast, one rainy night in April 1946, Frank sees a figure in a kilt watching Claire at their window. Is this Claire’s wartime lover or a perhaps, a ghost?

On the Feast of Beltane, May 1st, she and Frank go to the nearby circle of standing stones to secretly witness, a dance by an equally secret group of local women, welcoming the sunrise. Claire returns the next day to get a sample of a certain blue flower, inadvertently touches one of the stones and gets sucked through time to 1743.

Of course it takes her a while to figure out that she has not simply fallen into the middle of a movie shoot, complete with kilted Highlanders and Frank’s red-coated look-alike. One of her first clues is that the look-alike tries to rape her. She is rescued by a kilted savage. In no time at all, she is treating a wounded Scot, despite the fact that the Scots can’t understand why an English woman is wandering around the highland moor in her shift.

Surely she must be an English spy.

Soon she finds herself revisiting -previsiting- historic ruins which she and Frank visited -will visit- only now the Castle Leoch is standing whole and invulnerable. Her only hope is to somehow escape and get back to the Stones and to Frank. Meanwhile, she finds herself practicing 18th century medicine. The time comes, during her attempt to get back, that the only way to avoid falling into Black Jack Randall’s clutches – he really is Frank’s remote forefather – is to marry Jamie Fraser, red-headed, six feet tall, commanding but reduced to menial labor because of an English warrant. It’s not really bigamy after all. Frank isn’t born yet, and if Claire isn’t careful, he may never be.

If that isn’t intriguing enough, Claire gets to stand on the edge of Loch Ness and see the legendary Water Horse. This is the beginning of her reputation as the White Lady, which comes in handy in the next book, Dragonfly in Amber.

Trivia question: who gave Claire a dragonfly in amber as a wedding gift?

If I could travel back in time, I would choose the 18th century to go to. It was not as old-fashioned as the 19th. Modern thinkers would feel at home there as rationalism and the scientific age began and early democracy was born. Claire finds it a challenge to be an independent minded woman then, cf wife spanking. She finds herself in a warrior society in a violent time, and does not take orders easily, cf marrying Jamie. Like most strong women in male dominated societies, however, she finds ways to take charge.

Okay, so you have to be a certain kind of reader, a bit rough and ready – for a good story, a good long story with a terrific idea and characters that grow. So does Gabaldon’s skill.

 

 

Why You Should Read the 8 Outlander novels – pt 1

GabaldonDiana Gabaldon published her 8th Outlander novel –Written in My Own Heart’s Blood -in the summer of 2014 and the first 8 episodes of the first novel The Outlander appeared on Starz. I had never heard of Gabaldon and disliked historical romances, but watching the series hooked me. Between August and November, I downloaded all 8 novels on my iPad, one after the other and spent weeks immersed in the 18th century. My response was not always positive. https://115journals.com/2014/10/10/diana-gabaldon-outlandish-outlander/

So why do I recommend that you read them all?

I had the impression as I read the last one that it was the best of the lot and it would be hard to understand it if you hadn’t read the others. You could buy Gabaldon’s The Outlandish Companion, the most expensive of her books on iTunes and get plot summaries of the first four, really detailed summaries. They come in handy if you have read them, but have forgotten why Jamie feels responsible when Stephen Bonnet turns out to be a cad, but I don’t recommend reading them instead of the books because you’d miss all the fun.

Above all else, Gabaldon is an exuberant writer. She is exuberant about sex as you have already discovered if you watched the series. The episode called “The Wedding” was not one you would have wanted to watch with your parents or your children. There was more naked flesh per hour than has ever been seen outside of porn. Her main characters Claire, from the 20th century, and Jamie, from the 18th, not only have great sex in every possible location and position, across 35 years, they genuinely adore each other in sickness and in health and deathly injury and post traumatic stress, in grief, in long separation, in loss and in wealth. All this, despite the fact that each presumes the other dead at times and Claire is in her early 60’s in the 8th book, Written in My Own Heart’s Blood.

Gabaldon does all her own research, which is extensive particularly with regard to military history, medicine in both relevant centuries, sailing ships and whore houses, among others. She says that she doesn’t do drafts and that her editor doesn’t interfere, but lets her write a book as long as she wants. (I’m curious what he does do.) Reviewers do not always agree that these are positives. Bethany of Postcards from Purgatory, for example, sees the last book as one of the worst along with The Fiery Cross, the 5th book. http://postcardsfrompurgatory.com/2014/07/04/final-thoughts-on-diana-gabaldons-written-in-my-own-hearts-blood-by-bethany/  Others describe it as Gabaldon’s best. That makes me feel better, but I’m a notorious softie. When I’m hooked by a book, I have no critical judgement.

Those who don’t like Written in My Own Heart’s Blood complain about the tedious battle scenes. Like the 7th book, An Echo in the Bone, the 8th is set mostly during the American Revolution, including obscure battles that give the author leeway to invent. Jamie was expected to fight on the British side because he had been given a large land grant by the British authorities, but, of course, he is a Scot through and through and not much given to supporting King George. Both Claire and the reviewers complain that they didn’t pay close enough attention in history class. I was caught up in the sheer improvisation of the battles. No one seemed to know what they were doing, they just ad libbed. In the end, they often couldn’t even tell who had won.

While I couldn’t always tell what was going on either as the battle lines changed, I was intrigued by descriptions of swordplay, the use of guns and mortar, the fate of the horses and one particular donkey.

The lines seemed to be very permeable. Jamie was welcomed into the British camp when his relative was dying and, at one point Lord John, a high ranking officer in the British army masquerades as a rebel soldier -with one eye.

The Brianna/Roger story line is particularly suspenseful, involving the search for Jem across two centuries. Suppose you tried to travel through time and ended up in the wrong era.

I enjoyed the book on a more general level because it is full of joi de vivre, of life affirming energy even in its darkest moments when Claire and the unobservant reader think that Jamie is lost. I like the idea of the large family and their loyalty to each other as they muddle through life. And war. Then, of course, there is Gabaldon’s usual quota of comic scenes, one in which William discovers who his real father is by laying eyes on him, and another when Claire’s two 18th century husbands face off against each other. Mostly, I love the books because they are full of love.

Initially, the 8th book was supposed to be the last, but no longer. That’s a good thing because there are still a number of loose ends. Call this sloppy, as some reviewers do, or just another advantage of reading an exuberant, prolific writer.

I intend to write several more posts on why you should read all eight novels, giving highlights of each book in turn.

Gabaldon on Forgiving the Rapist

drums of autumn

Okay, now I’m taking moral advice from a romance novel and me a philosophy major!

The novel in question is Diane Gabaldon’s Drums of Autumn, the fourth in her Outlander series and the subject in question is forgiveness, specifically forgiveness for a rapist.

I’m nearing the end of this book and shamefully already plotting to order the fifth on my iPad. I used to have such refined tastes in reading. This book is not just a bodice ripper. It’s a skirt ripper and a shift ripper. Drawers or underwear are just removed and so require no mending. Mending is a big deal in the 18th century. Clothes are frequently reduced to rags and then replaced miraculously by a rich and generous, usually new-found relative. (How come I never find mine?)

But enough levity, now to the serious moral question.

Jamie, now in his 40s and living in 1760s North Carolina has a heart-to-heart discussion with a time-traveling woman on the subject of rape and whether vengeance or forgiveness is the appropriate response.

Both have some experience of rape as a good many of Gabaldon’s readers do, no doubt. Either she does or she has done good research. Since we are dealing here with the Highland clan warrior culture, killing the assailant is presented as an option. Those of us reared in the Christian tradition, even if lapsed, don’t leap to that as the answer, but hang on, Jamie is Catholic. Maybe it’s more a personal response.

This series is long and over the years, Jamie has discovered that time takes its own revenge and forgiveness is the better option.

Here is where the Gabaldon’s insight comes in: Jamie says that it is an on-going process that has to be renewed each day. I have noticed that myself and forgiveness comes harder some days.

Some days the whole terrible episode gets re-experienced in vivid detail, as it does for Jamie after that conversation, as it may well do for some readers after they read this part of the book.

On such a day, you can feel raw, as if you have no protective skin. No use even aiming for forgiveness then. Best to sit on a porch swing listening to the pine trees purr, watch the flitting birds, raise your eyes to the mountain ridge. Do something peaceful and healing wherever you are. Forgive yourself for hurting.

 

Diana Gabaldon – outlandish outlander

outlander

(Some extremely sensitive souls may find vague events mentioned to be spoilers.)

Sorry about that title.

I shouldn’t be so picky. The first 3 books in Gabaldon’s Outlander (Outlander, Dragonfly in Amber and Voyager) series have gone with me through a difficult month. I never lacked for something to read as we waited for appointments nor a distraction from whatever unpleasantness was at hand. I was reminded of a day of colonoscopy prep during which I watched most of the BBC’s series, Henry VIII. I was more or less unaware of the quarts of vileness I had to consume and its results, despite the dubious history and the inflamed sex scenes of the show.

Usually I don’t read romances, historical or otherwise, well not since I was 16. You may have heard that Diana Gabaldon fought long and hard to have her novels reclassified. You may have heard that she says they are not romances. I say, there are bodices and they get ripped. In the second book Dragonfly in Amber, Claire is sitting in the doctor’s lounge at the Boston hospital where she is on staff and she picks up a romance novel to pass the time. Just to prove her contention, Gabaldon includes passages from that book – in italics. So? I was not struck by any great difference. Call me a naive reader if you will, but I made my living teaching English literature.

Gabaldon had a superb idea. At the end of the second world war, Claire, a former combat nurse visiting Inverness with her historian husband, is drawn through a cleft in a circle of standing stones and finds herself in Scotland of 1743, indeed in the middle of a skirmish between highlanders and redcoats. One of the less savoury redcoats looks exactly like her husband, back in 1945. Claire remembers her history – in April 1745, the highland clans will be wiped out by the English army at the battle of Culloden and in the pillage and famine of its aftermath.

It is one of the most tragic events in British history.

What I want, I suppose, is a certain amount of gravitas, but what I get is a series of coincidences that would make Dickens blush and awful event following on the heals of awful event. Jamie, Claire’s 18th century husband, is about to be tortured and raped to death when Claire is thrust out of the prison’s back door and attacked by wolves. Pirates show up to steal the treasure on the very day Jamie tries to claim it. Three different ships, travelling separately, after 3 months crossing the Atlantic, fetch up on the same West Indian island more or less the same day.  A return after 20 year’s absence is crowned by 2 murders and a devastating fire that destroys a livelihood.

My reading partner who is slightly ahead of me keeps asking,”What shark is she jumping today?” “Oh today’s it’s the slave”, I reply.

A rollicking tale, no doubt about it. Reading online comments, I learn that in the most recent book, In My Heart’s Blood, Claire at age 62, by one reader’s calculation, is still working the way she did at 48. And of course still having sex, graphically, although by now constant readers must be able to imagine every possible move.

Be assured, though, that the author is still telling us that Jamie is strong, broad-chested, tall, with flaming hair, streaked with gold, amber and  possibly platinum by now. Whether he is still a proponent of wifely obedience and corporal punishment, I don’t know. I hear that he doubts his ability to lead an army, despite the fact that he has been leading large bodies of men for decades.

Fewer adjectives, we cry.

How does she do that, anyway? Does she sit in Scottish glades taking notes of light qualities? Or among Caribbean mangroves?

I don’t scorn Gabaldon’s abilities. I just wish she would listen to her editor. Of course she doesn’t have to. Her readers love the purplish prose. Probably the light fuzzy hairs on their arms really do shiver upright.

So why don’t I just put down Voyager and pick Crime and Punishment, do some serious reading? That’s what I hate the most about Gabaldon’s writing. I can’t stop. I’m addicted.