Sunday, November 19, 2017

Reading. Sometimes It's Like Falling In Love

Many years ago when I was in my twenties, I quit a job I hated, left a life that wasn't making me happy, and moved home to New Brunswick to get myself back on track. I was determined to try to recapture all those things that had somehow fallen out of my life after years of living in the big city. And to focus on a career in teaching. Oh yeah... and I swore off men. Especially the kind of men I'd been meeting: good-looking, but unreliable, and overall too smooth by half. After a year down east, sufficiently refreshed, and retooled, so to speak, I moved back to the city. And in the first few weeks of teaching, I met Hubby. 

I didn't intend to meet anyone. I didn't, in fact, want anything to distract me from achieving my goals. But, after numerous lunches in the school staff room, and conversations over coffee, we had our first date in mid-December. Then a movie or two, a few dinners, several cross-country skiing dates and, by late January, the writing was on the wall. He was much more emphatic, more sure about things than me. I was more hesitant, less trusting. I guess I was a bit gun shy, slightly commitment phobic. We spent more and more time together. Talked on the phone for hours at night. I remember thinking that things were moving too swiftly. I wrote in my journal that the situation felt as if I was negotiating a steep set of stairs in high heels, one tentative step, then another, then catching my heel on something, and tumbling all the way to the bottom. I was tumbling all right. Unable to catch myself. And not sure anymore that I wanted to catch myself. Sometimes love is like falling downstairs... except less painful. Ha. 

And now, here is my point... sometimes reading is like falling in love. Really. Let me explain. 

You pick a book off the shelf on a casual visit to the library. You start reading, and suddenly you can't put it down. You don't intend to read until the wee hours, but you are so captivated by the characters, so desirous of finding out what happens next that you are... well... infatuated. The hours simply fly by; time has no meaning when you're reading a book like this. You can't spend enough time with your book. You think about it even when you're apart. 

See what I mean? Just like falling in love.

cover of Laura Lippman's book Butcher's Hill
Lippman's third Tess Monaghan novel
That's what it's been like for me lately. I've been caught up in a vortex of reading. Tumbling into one fictional world after another, unable to put my book down. Or turn out the light at night. Stuffing my book into my purse when I'm off to a doctor's appointment, pulling it out in the waiting room, annoyed when my name is finally called because my reading has been interrupted. Stopping for a coffee in between errands and pulling out my book for fifteen minutes or so. It seems as if I've spent most of the past few weeks with my nose happily stuck in a book.   

I've been catching up on a few older novels by writers I enjoy. Like Laura Lippman. I read my first Lippman book after her work was recommended by a former student, Sarah Weinman, who is now a book critic. Sarah is really smart, and a great writer herself. And she knows crime fiction. When we met for coffee a few years ago she told me that she has a masters degree in forensic science. Sarah's claim, in an article in 2013, that Lippman's stand-alone book And When She Was Good was the best crime novel of the year started me reading Lippman. 

I really enjoy Lippman's work. I think she's a great writer. Her characters are well drawn, and her plots are solid. I don't put her on the same level as Reginald Hill or Peter May.... but her books are a rollicking good read. And Butcher's Hill had me burning the midnight oil. If you want to read about some of the other writers in this genre whom Sarah recommends you can do so here and here.

man sitting behind a table stacked with books
Peter Robinson at a book signing in the UK   source
Then, when I returned the Lippman book to the library,  and was surfing the shelves, so to speak, I spied the new Peter Robinson on the "express" shelf. What a piece of luck. I love Robinson's Inspector Banks series. Except I guess he's Superintendent Banks now. And Sleeping in the Ground  is vintage Robinson, in my opinion. Apparently Robinson's been writing this series for thirty years now. 

Hubby and I also like the television series DCI Banks based on Robinson's books. And although I do have a hard time seeing actor Stephen Tomkinson without his Ballykissangel dog collar, we enjoy the show. Maybe as much for the Yorkshire scenery as anything. Critics seem to agree that although it's not anywhere near as good as other TV mystery series, like Poirot or Shetland , it's not bad. 

The books, however, are another matter. No damning them with faint praise. I hustled home from the library, put the kettle on, and Sleeping in the Ground had me tumbling down a reading rabbit hole within a few pages. Good thing Hubby was making dinner that night. 

cover of Peter Robinson's newest Banks novel Sleeping in the Ground
Robinson's newest Banks novel
And speaking of love. Let's talk about Christopher Brookmyre's newest Jack Parlabane novel, Want You Gone. I love Brookmyre's writing. I haven't always loved his books. I found some of the early ones to be a bit glib, and and at the same time too heavy-handed with the dark humour, as if he were trying too hard. But lately. Well, lately as Lizzy Bennet says of Darcy "that is all to be forgot." Now it's true love. Literary love, that is. 

photo of Chris Brookmyre
Chris Brookmyre  source
I included Brookmyre in my best loved books of 2016 post last January. I rediscovered him when I started reading his Jasmine Sharp series. I love the Jasmine Sharp character; she seems almost a modern day re-imagining of P.D. James' Cordelia Gray. James' An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, which features Cordelia Gray, has to be one of my all time favourite mystery novels, as I'm sure I've said here before. 

So last week, I was excited to see that the newest Brookmyre was waiting for me at the library. My name had been on the list for months. I rushed to pick it up, and like with the Robinson book, was thereafter glued to the couch, intent on my book. For days. Rising only to attend the Vintage Clothing Show last weekend. Then to spend a day shopping with my sister early in the week. And there was skating and coffee with the girls on another day. Then shopping for new flooring with Hubby on Friday. And while all of those things were fun, I have to admit, a small part of me really wanted to be home with my book. 

Brookmyre's latest Jack Parlbane adventure is so much fun to read. There's a lovely engaging young character, named Samantha, who is a hacker extraordinaire. And Parlabane, of course, who is still trying to regain control of his life and his career in journalism. The relationship between the two characters, puts me in mind of Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander from Stieg Larsen's novels. Although Brookmyre's characters are much less damaged than Larsen's, and his plots are less violent. Parlabane and Sam also remind me a little of Kate Atkinson's character Jackson Brodie and his friendship with sixteen year old Reggie in When Will There Be Good News. Gosh, I loved that book too. 

cover of Chris Brookmyre's novel Want You Gone

There you have it. That's what I've been up to for the past while. Galloping through one book after another. Trying to NOT read all the time. Trying to NOT think about the current book I'm reading when I'm doing other things that need to be done. But that's love for you, folks. Keeps you awake at night. Occupies your every waking thought. Well, almost. You know, I may have to take a break from reading for a little while. Things have been getting way too serious between us. 

And speaking of serious relationships. When I told Hubby of the analogy I was making in my post, between reading and falling in love. And how I wrote in my journal when we were first dating that it felt like falling downstairs, he quipped: "I guess you could say I swept you off your feet." Ha. Good one. 

And then we laughed about the night he called me and sang an Elvis song. You have to know Hubby to understand how funny that was. He's quite reserved, and often serious. And I had no idea that he could sing like Elvis. So when I picked up the phone that night so many years ago, and heard this deep warbling voice sing, "Are you lonesome tonight. Do you miss me tonight?" I almost hung up. And then when I realized it was him, I fell over laughing. Even more so when he said that it was a good thing I recognized his voice after the first two lines because he didn't know the rest of the song. 

Have a listen to the real thing, if you want. 

I seem to be on a run of reading only mystery and crime novels lately. I do become infatuated with more serious books from time to time. But mystery novels were my first love. Ever since I was eight or nine and read my first Trixie Belden book. 

Now, that is definitely a serious long term relationship.

How about you folks? What books are you falling for these days?

This week I'm joining Thursday Favourite Things Link Party and Saturday Share Link-up

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Vintage Connections... Wearable and Otherwise

On Sunday an old friend and I attended the Ottawa Vintage Clothing Show. This is what I wore. Yep, I finally, finally mustered my courage and wore one of my vintage hats... out in public. I love vintage hats. But, I buy them, plan an outfit around them, and then at the last minute chicken out before I make it out the door. Not this time.

woman in black jacket and pants, on a lawn with river behind
On my way to the Vintage Clothing Show, in black and vintage.
My old hat looked great with the colours in the new scarf that I bought recently at Chatsworth House in the UK. And the green in the scarf is the exact shade of a Prada wool sweater I bought in New York last year. So, I'd say the outfit was a match made in heaven. 

Besides, if you can't wear a vintage hat to a vintage clothing show...where can you wear it, eh?

woman in black jacket and pants, on a lawn with river behind
Hoping this hat stays on all day
The Ottawa Vintage Clothing Show is an annual event each November. And I hate to miss it. My friend and I had a wonderful time, this year. We chatted with the vendors, with each other, and with other shoppers, many of whom were decked out in their own vintage pieces. We each bought something, and then we decamped for a long and chatty lunch. Sigh. All in all a great day.

I love old things, jewellry, clothing, dishes, furniture. I think they tell us a story. And help us make a connection to the past. And that makes them special to me. That's why I'm writing this post. To talk about connections, and how some of the old things I own make me feel connected to the past, in particular to my family's past. I've been invited by my friend D.A. Wolf who writes the blog Daily Plate of Crazy, to join a group of bloggers who post monthly on a chosen theme. This month's theme is "connections." 

I'm pretty sure my love affair with old things, and the stories that go with them, began when I was a teenager, when my Mum married my stepfather and we moved to the farm. I remember rooting around for treasures in the cellar, behind the barn, or in the rafters above the old machine shed. Some of these things, like a fat crockery vase, and an old wooden chest, I've carted around with me ever since. From whatever apartment I lived in when I was single, to Hubby's and my home now. 

I particularly love old things that belonged to family. The ceramic cat that sits in my spare bedroom and which sat in my grandmother's house as far back as I can remember. The cup and saucer that my father bought for my mum when they were newly married. The black leather clutch which my aunt had specially made for my grandmother in the forties, which has my grandmother's initials on it, and which I still use for special evenings or occasions which call for dressing up. 

Years ago when I started shopping for antiques for Hubby's and my home, or for vintage jewellry, I learned a lot from my friend Mary as we browsed through country antique fairs. When an item interested her, she'd pick it up, carry it over to the merchant and say..."Tell me about this." I love that approach. It elicits all kinds of surprising detail and information about the item's value and provenance. And sometimes quirky stories about the object's history.

"Provenance" is a word usually reserved for rare and valuable antiques where the chain of ownership must be proven since it has an effect on the object's monetary value. To me it just means the story behind the object. 

Each and every item that my grandmother or my mother has passed on to me was accompanied by a story. Stories about dances my grandmother attended as a girl. Stories about my father and his and my mum's life together before I was born. None of my treasures is particularly rare or valuable, as far as I know... except to me. I know the "provenance" of them all. And knowing the story behind the object, gives it a greater value to me, and makes me feel connected to the original owner. 

My friend with whom I attended the Vintage Clothing Show on Sunday is currently down-sizing; she and her husband plan to sell the family home and move somewhere smaller. She has jewellry, and crystal, and china which she's had for years. Some of it belonged to her mother and grandmother. On Sunday she collected business cards from vendors who expressed an interest in buying some of her things. Because, she told me, her daughter and her daughter-in-law are not interested in owning any of her treasures. I'm told the same story by other friends. "Young people today don't want our old stuff," one friend said recently. 

Really? I don't understand that. Okay, maybe young couples don't want a complete silver tea service, or a set of china with twelve place-settings, but why not accept one piece of silver? A tea pot, maybe, to be lovingly polished and used on special occasions, knowing it belonged to someone who knew and loved you. I have a china sugar bowl which sits in my cupboard and which I use every day. It's chipped. But it belonged to my mother-in-law who died in 1991. It sat in her kitchen cupboard. And every day it reminds me of her. 

Maybe I'm just too sentimental. Maybe the children of my friends are simply not sentimental about family things. After all, they are just things. But I loved the fact that there were a lot of young people at the show on Sunday who seemed pretty excited about buying old things. It makes me happy to think that someone's grandma's fur stole will be loved again. 

And I'm equally happy that I have a couple of nieces who are sentimental, and who love old things as much as me. I know when the time comes some of my treasures with a story to tell will go to a good home. 

woman in black jacket and pants, sitting in front of a house
All ready to shop for vintage... in my vintage hat.

I was so pleased to be asked to be part of the monthly blog get-together "By Invitation Only." Thanks for asking me, D.A. 

Please check out the other posts on DA's blog here

Now... I should probably go and dream up some outfits to go with my other vintage hats. I don't know folks; some of my hats are pretty ... well... out there. To wear them in public, I'd probably have to "screw my courage to the sticking place" to quote Lady Macbeth. 

Then again, there's always next year's Vintage Clothing Show. 

Also linking up this week with: Visible Monday#IwillwearwhatIlike, Style Me Wednesday,  Thursday Favourite ThingsPassion 4 FashionFun Fashion FridaySaturday Share Link-Up

Friday, November 10, 2017

Mired in the Mud ... Thoughts on Poetry and Fiction and War

If you've been reading my blog for a while, you'll know that I usually write something about Remembrance Day in November. 

For many years, I taught at a school named for John McCrae, who wrote the famous poem "In Flanders Fields," so observing Remembrance Day was a big deal for us, teaching students about the meaning of Remembrance Day and at the same time showcasing student art, and music, and creative writing. Now that I'm retired, I'm no longer involved in helping my writing students to research and write about what this day means.Trying to help them scale down the melodrama, and the overt hero worship, to look at the reality of what the men and women who fought in wars, or were affected by war, endured. Helping them to uncover facts, and to write sensitively, and respectfully of our history in times of war.

Lest We Forget mural and monument
Photo of the monument at John McCrae Secondary School courtesy of Arlene Angel-Blair
But even though I'm no longer teaching, I've been thinking this past week of my abiding love for the poetry and fiction of the World War I era. That's partly because it's Remembrance Day, and partly because on a day-tour in England recently we visited the grave of one of my favourite World War I poets, Siegfried Sassoon. That was really special.

woman in churchyard beside a gravestone
Beside Siegfried Sassoon's grave in St Andrew's Churchyard, Mells, Somerset, England
I originally wrote this post back in June 2014, which was, of course, the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. I love the poetry and the fiction that depicts this era, and wanted to commemorate the anniversary by talking about some of my favourite writers and their work. So on a sunny June day when I might have been out on my bike, or relaxing on the deck with a book, I was glued to my computer, absorbed by my research, totally immersed, one might even say mired, in the stories and the poetry of the First World War. 

Reading about writers like Rupert Brooke, seen in the picture below. Brooke died in 1915. His poem "The Soldier" is his most famous work, and the lines "If I should die, think only this of me/ That there's some corner of a foreign field/ That is forever England" became, in a way, his epitaph. They're lovely words, patriotic, inspiring. But though Brooke was lauded as a war hero, he died aboard ship on his way to battle, not in it. Of blood poisoning from an insect bite. He is buried in an olive grove on the Greek island of Skyros. 

In the early years of the war Rupert Brooke was IT... the soldier poet, described by some as the "golden haired God of poetry." Apparently all of England mourned his death (source.)

I have a card I bought in London years ago that has a famous quote from Brooke's poem  "Old Vicarage, Grantchester," written before the war: "Stands the church clock at ten to three/ And is there honey still for tea?" I love those lines. Brooke is said to have captured in his work the mood of a pre-war world: peaceful, idealistic, confident in the old ways and the old values of heroism and honour. 

two men and two women sitting on the grass, pre WWI era
Noel Oliver, Maitland Radford, Virginia Woolf, Rupert Brooke. source
That's Brooke above on the far right. Gorgeous, eh? Virginia Woolf certainly thought so; that's her sitting beside him. This shot seems to capture the world that would soon be gone. That old romantic, idealistic one. 

As WWI progressed, Brooke's poetry...written by someone who was able to see death in battle as valiant and romantic because he had never actually been in battle, had never even seen the trenches... was criticized as "foolish and naive." Poor Rupert, forever captured on the page as the guy who got it wrong. Not his fault, really. If he had made it to Gallipoli (where he was headed when he died) and survived the battle, most assuredly he would have changed his tune. 

Siegfried Sassoon sang an entirely different tune from Rupert Brooke. Sassoon did see the trenches, in France. He was exceedingly brave in battle, becoming known as "Mad Jack" due to his apparent lack of fear under fire. Sassoon did not, however, remain  unscathed. He was invalided out of battle three times, once for dysentery, once when shot by a sniper, and a final time when he was shot in the head. Still he miraculously survived. 

officer in WWI uniform
Siegfried Sassoon  source
But each time Sassoon returned to England he was more and more disenchanted, and angry about the war. In 1917 he wrote his famous "Declaration Against the War" which vilifies the powers that continued to "prolong the sufferings of the troops" in a war he believed to be "evil and unjust." He accused the political powers at home of "callous complacency," "deception" and as having "not sufficient imagination to realize" the agonies that the soldiers endured. It's these callous, complacent leaders who are described in his poem "Base Details." He describes the "Majors at the Base" as "Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel" all the while sending "glum heroes up the line to death." You can read all about Sassoon and his poetry here.

Sassoon's anger and public denunciation of the war was, to say the least, embarrassing for the military. What to do about a decorated war hero who says such, well, unheroic things? 

So, Sassoon was committed for a time to the Craiglockhart War Hospital,  and treated for "neurasthenia," a controversial condition that involved a "collapse of the nervous system" (Wikipedia.) A symptom of which must have been the publishing of  inconvenient truths. 

Now here is the best part of this story. 

While at Craiglockhart, Sassoon befriended a young poet soldier named Wilfred Owen, pictured below, who was recovering from shell shock. Through their friendship and Sassoon's mentoring of Owen as a writer, Owen would go on to become the best known poet of his era. 

picture of smiling WWI soldier
Wilfred Owen
It's Owen who truly captures in his poetry the darkness, the foulness, of the soldier's existence in battle. His poem "Dulce Et Decorum Est," which means "It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country", decries the hypocrisy of that sentiment, and those who used the "old lie" of honour and glory to deceive "children ardent for some desperate glory." Owen's imagery is vivid as he describes the soldiers who "marched asleep/... blood shod.../drunk with fatigue." And his tone is bitter, as he recalls a man choking and dying after a gas attack: "the white eyes writhing in his face/...the blood/...gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, /Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud/ Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues." Phew. That's pretty powerful stuff.

But my favourite poem by Wilfred Owen has to be "Anthem for Doomed Youth." Its opening line "What passing bells for those who die as cattle" is, like "Dulce Et Decorum Est," both bitter and vivid. But seriously, if you want to really experience this poem, listen to Sean Bean read it...

Oh my. That's beautiful. 

And what's even more powerful, ironic, and sad ... is that, for a brief time at Craiglockhart, Owen wrote feverishly about his experiences in war and then, when he was deemed fit for duty, he went back to the front. And died on November 4, 1918, seven days before the war ended.

You can read Owen's biography and his work here. And one writer's journey to see where Owen died, and how, here

If poetry is not your thing there are some wonderful novels about WW I. My favourites include the Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker.  I love that she writes about the real life friendship between Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, and the older poet's mentoring of the younger. Much of Barker's first novel, Regeneration, deals with the two poets and their time at Craiglockhart. It's an amazing, beautifully written book. Really... you should read it. And then read the other two in the trilogy.  


I also love Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks. This book moves back and forth between the life of a soldier before and during the war, and his granddaughter many years later. It's a book about love, passion, sorrow, longing and a desire to understand the past... alongside the mud and horror of trench warfare. 

cover of Sebastian Faulk's book Birdsong 

Or, if you like mystery novels, especially well written, clever, erudite mystery novels and you want to read about World War I, try this novel by Reginald Hill. Hill is perhaps my favourite mystery writer. His books are smart and funny and engrossing. This one in particular, I love. Because there's not only the present day mystery, but also a secondary plot where Peter Pascoe unravels the mystery of his grandfather's death during World War I.  

cover of Reginald Hill's book The Wood Beyond

I'm not sure why I'm so enamored of the poetry and fiction written during and about World War I. Part of it is that I love the stories of these men and women who died or were forever changed by their experiences in the mud and the hell that was the First World War. Part of it is the sheer beauty and power of the language used by good writers to describe something almost indescribable, something that those of us who have not experienced it can never really understand. And part of it is that I think it's important that we try to understand. 

I mean more than a hundred years on....what's really changed? 

It's funny that even though I wrote most of this post three years ago, today, in revising it and checking sources etc, I've found myself caught up again in the stories of these writers, and the stories they tell in their work. Once again, even though it's a freezing November day this time, with a wind chill of -15°C, I'm mired in the mud of WWI... all over again.