Saturday, September 19, 2009

Nature - or why I will never make a nature-poet which has never saddened me until now

I first studied writing, seriously, in the woods, surrounded on either side by lakes. My writing teachers were brilliant nature poets and essayists, they wrote the poetic twists and turns of streams and the complex balancing act that is man in nature, man outside nature, man against nature. We read everyone from Gary Snyder to Jim Harrison to Mary Oliver, all writers in their way firmly connected to a wild outdoor environment.

To be honest, I got my fill of nature-writing then and there. It was something that I remembered nostalgically, as a relic from my relatively happy and intensely creative schooldays, but a habit that I never picked up.

For one thing, I am terribly unobservant when it comes to the natural world, to the point where I have sometimes worried about how anyone so obviously unobservant can ever claim to be a writer. In the Alps, bravely soldiering up mountains, I missed eagles, marmots and interestingly-shaped clouds even when given minute directions ('you see that peak over there behind the fir tree... no?). Recently, I have been trying to rectify my abysmal knowledge of trees and flowers on the basis that specificity in writing is important when setting a scene and that the lovely heroine leaning against a silver birch twirling a crimson crysanthemum while waiting for her lover is a more evocative scene then, say, the girl sat under a tree holding a flower. I've made an effort to learn the leaves and bark of the basics - oaks, beeches, horse chestnut, the most confusing rowan and mountain ash. I am ashamed, however, to admit that so far I can only identify by cheating: if it has acorns, or prickly conker shells, I can manage, otherwise they mix themselves up in my head. I can give you a list of trees, and I can see a tree and know that it is familiar, but never do these two trains of thought end up on the same bit of track.

This has all come about because, after gleefully abandoning reading about nature throughout my undergraduate degree, I have plunged myself into a creative writing MA that starts off with three books about the natural world and the wider concept of wilderness and wildness. Beautifully written, intensely thoughtful and perceptive, this is personal creative nonfiction that seems to test all of my reading abilities. Normally a fast reader, even in study mode, it's taken me weeks to get through the first one and a half books. My mind drifts in the spaces between paragraphs, a philosophical point will send me off on a tangent that brings me back two or three pages later when I realise I haven't taken in a word. The effort of concentration has put me to sleep more than once. It is incredibly frustrating - today, I read a few pages of Robert Macfarlane's The Wild Places aloud to focus my thoughts and I was impressed by the sheer brilliance and rightness of the language, the description of Irish limestone as coated in pewter, the red berries against white snow in a Scottish forest. It is a beautiful book and Macfarlane has much wider messages about our relationship to nature and our very understanding of the wild places in the world. But I miss so much, seemingly inadvertently, me who can reel off characters and plots and family relationships from books I read years ago.

I think perhaps that it is because I feel an outsider in this world. I want desperately to understand this relationship with the natural world, this feeling of seeing it from the inside out. I go lightheaded in the outdoors - last weekend, dead-tired after endless days at work, I spent a few hours outside in unusually glorious English sunshine in my in-laws' garden a steep hill overflowing with colour and steps made of slate. I lay in the hammock, half-aware of bird song, with my sunglasses, reading Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a densely exuberant exploration of a year at the author's Virginia home. Dillard muses passionately on everything from the lifecycles of cicadas to the sheer fecundity of nature to the experience of patting a dog at a gas station. She writes with wonder and both an intensity of focus and a lightspeed zoom outwards looking at the natural world from all angles and all distances.

The sun often affects me strangely, and that afternoon I tried to absorb bits of Tinker Creek in a daze. I spent hours outdoors and I could not tell you what flowers I saw, what birds I heard, or really what words I read. I have a vision of it, vague, powerful and lightheaded with a sunstruck headache. I deeply admire this writing, this sort of depth of understanding, of seeing a tree and recognising it not just for its name but also for its mechanics and its cycle through the seasons. I blame, perhaps, my abysmal scientific education, but this all comes back to the same problem - the science I learned didn't stick.

I don't want to sell myself too short. When I stand on one of the Dartmoor tors (that expanse of moorland wilderness is something for another entry, the openess that I miss crammed in between hedgerows, that ability to breathe that you don't always know you've lost) or smell the salt of the sea when the waves hit the side of my train to work in the morning, I want desperately to write it, to capture the feeling of that breath, that wildness, what it means to be a person in that world. I want that Anne Hathaway rose-covered cottage in the country, I get absurdly excited when my tomato plants bear fruit. But I find an allure to nature mainly as setting, almost a persistent anthropomorphic backdrop, as the Yorkshire moors are to Heathcliff and Cathy or, conversely, to little Mary Lennox with her secret garden. I think, for me, it's the natural world as metaphor and as atmosphere that interests me most, and it depresses me that I can't seem to appreciate a world without characters.

Jay Griffith's Wild is proving the easiest read for me although it's possibly the most complex of the three in many ways. It's because, sad as it is to admit it, it's scattered throughout with people that I can latch onto, people as reference points for the wild, and people are something I feel I can understand.

*Notice the abandon with which this entry is written however - perhaps a bit of this joy in the world, this intense way of seeing, this unselfconscious wonder has started to rub off after all.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Pasta e Fagioli - or soup is the ultimate comfort food in the rain

Rain has returned to England after that unusually glorious June. Although there was sunshine in the afternoon yesterday, it felt very much a temporary reprieve.

It was therefore time for a comforting homemade soup. I am not an experienced gardener but Simon and I have gone a bit wild with growing vegetables in pots on our small patio and we had home-grown courgette (zucchini), purple French beans (were they meant to be purple?), tiny mutated carrots that looked like curled-up shellfish, and young ruby chard that could all be chopped and simmered with store-bought onion, garlic, tinned tomatoes, basil and oregano. Near the end, I added a tin of cannellini beans and a big scoop of (gluten-free) macaroni.

Serve with a dollop of pesto, lots and lots of grated parmesan, bread (real or not) and a glass of white wine. I dressed for dinner and Simon wore a suit as he'd just come in from his first day in his new job.

Pasta and bean soup has always been one of my favourites since I used to beg my mom to buy Progresso Macaroni and Bean at the one shop that carried it. I used to sit at the kitchen table with my book, a big bowl of steaming soup, and potato chips (crisps to the Brits.)

When I was a young teenager, I saw Rachael Ray make her own version on 30-Minute Meals and it was one of the first dishes I cooked (successfully) for my family. My current recipe is still based on hers.

I loved it so much that I wrote a story called Sapphire Skies Over Milan with 'Pasta e Fagioli' as it's called by the Italians as a central theme. This story got me a first place win at A.R.T.S. and $3000. Until recently, you could still find it on the NFAA website, but I can't find it now. (As a side note, in searching for it, I was slightly concerned by this newsletter which lists a student winning a short story contest the year after with a story of exactly the same name! Am I paranoid to find this a little suspicious?)

Anyway, a taste of the summer harvest and a comfort in the rain. Could you get any better?

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Rowan 44 - or here goes the overdraft

I have succumbed. I tried not to, for about half an hour, because the resolve to be very frugal in this short month of February was still new and the water and phone bills were still fresh frightening numbers in my mind. Christmas was expensive, the overdraft has not yet recovered and there are things like food and train fares still to buy.

But I fell in love, so I have bought this:

I know that the strange dread-locked girl in loose intarsia oddly-coloured garb may put you off. When you look more closely and find out that this is actually a knitting magazine and it cost me £10.95 (+£3 shipping), you may sigh and close your browser window and refuse to grace the pages of my blog with your presence again.

Before you do, however, please please hear me out. The magazine has over 60 patterns in it, so it’s actually not bad value for money (although of course they are counting on you having to buy the exorbitantly priced but exquisitely beautiful yarn to actually complete the projects.) Not only that, but Rowan magazines are always divided into 3 different ‘stories’ and the Renaissance story (yes, bizarre colourful hippy dread-locked girl) is just one of them.

It is the Nostalgia ‘story’ that convinced me I needed this magazine (more of a book really, if we’re going to be honest.) All of the patterns in this ‘story’ are named after 30’s and 40’s movie stars with an elegant vintage style. I know that Rowan is costly but I love it because their designs are actually incredibly stylish and wearable, clothes I would actually pay good money for in a shop. And that’s really the only sort of project that I’m willing to spend my money and my hard-earned free time working on. I want to make something that I’ll be proud to wear – and proud to say I made.

I’ve already ordered the yarn for my first project (the book hasn’t even come yet), the Bacall shrug because it looks fairly simple, and only requires a few balls of yarn:

I’m doing it in Rowan Kid Classic (as recommended by the pattern) in Crystal, a discontinued silvery grey that I’ve managed to find a few balls of on the internet. I’ve not got a good yarn shop nearby (oh, I miss my John Lewis haberdashery section in Norwich – I used to spend hours there) and as this colour is discontinued, I probably wouldn’t have been able to look at a sample anyway. I’m hoping that it will go with my black Jane Norman dress with the silver beading, and possibly my red dress as well. I should also be able to wear it over black tops to work, but we’ll have to see how it actually fits when it’s done.

If all goes well, I think I may try this one next, the Grable Sweater, and I may go all out and do the Lamarr gloves as well because I think they’re so pretty:

I’m not a fan of the colour in this picture, particularly on me, but I’m thinking it might turn out quite nicely in a dark red like this:

Finally, if I find that I can manage those, I may take the plunge with the Fontaine jacket, which is the one I really want, knitted on tiny needles with complex shaping, really a labour of love that I’m not sure I’m ready for. This picture doesn’t do it justice:

Loads of other projects I’d like to try, although possibly not for myself. This collection reminds me so strongly of my sister that we may partner up to do a sisterly project for her, and one of these sweaters would be lovely for my mother-in-law. But first things first… my husband needs to finish his studies and start work this summer before I can really contemplate any massive Rowan wool expenditure.

Wish me luck! There, knitting done for the time being – but expect a report in a week or so when I’ve got my yarn and my book and have taken a stab at the Bacall. Now, off to watch some Cary Grant (the real one, not a sweater), keep working on the never-ending but excellent for TV-watching blanket, and avoiding writing with a rubbish cold.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Review: House of Many Ways - or why I adore Diana Wynne Jones but not this book...

Among my birthday presents were a whole horde of children's books - beautiful editions of favourites from my childhood and new children's fantasy novels that I've been wanting to read (all in the name of research, I tell people - so not true.) Here's my take on one of those.

House of Many Ways, by Diana Wynne Jones

What you have to understand first of all, is that I idolise Diana Wynne Jones. There are more prestigious authors I admire, there are, even in her field of children's fantasy, writers better known (J.K. Rowling) and more respected (Philip Pullman.) But if I could be any writer and take on their whole writing legacy (good and bad, she's been writing for more than 30 years), it would be her.

When I first discovered A Tale of Time City at the age of 11, I read it straight through (in those days I always read books in one sitting) and then turned back to the beginning and read it aloud to my brother and sister. Somewhere in my family's crawlspace there may be, embarrassingly, a stack of cassette tapes that I recorded of the first book and a half of the Dalemark Quartet (Cart and Cwidder and Drowned Ammet). Every time I made a mistake, I carefully rewound and started over.

I like her because she writes characters who feel like my close personal friends - or people that as a child, I wanted to be my close personal friends. I like that, like me, she is primarily a standalone writer in a genre full of hefty ten-book chronological sequences. Her most famous 'series', the Chrestomanci novels, can be read in almost any order and on their own, most of them tenuously linked only by the enigmatic enchanter Chrestomanci and the same set of fantasy worlds. And the writing! The exquisite understated visuals of The Lives of Christopher Chant are pretty unbeatable.

She is an expert plotter, one of the best, and I am still surprised by her endings even after reading her books many times. As an aspiring child writer, I wrote to Diana Wynne Jones once, asking whether she plotted her books out ahead of time, or worked them out as she went along (I expected the former a la J.K. Rowling, one owes much to DWJ, but hoped for the latter as reassurance for my own haphazard methods.) I received this response:

"No, I certainly do not plan every book out in advance. This leaves no loose space for unexpected things to happen in, and I love to be surprised by things suddenly happening at me when I'm writing. What I do, is to know the beginning and (usually) the end, and something pretty vivid and intriguing in the middle, and then let the book do what IT wants to do. Things can get pretty wild two-thirds of the way through. But just after that, I see the pattern the plot makes. Have you noticed, as a writer, that most stories, if they are right, make a pattern you can almost draw as a diagram? (For instance, the one I have just finished the first draft of makes a design like the caduceus - Mercury's wand with snakes wrapped round it - starting off in loose loops that get tighter and tighter). When I see this pattern, it is quite easy to pull the plot into line. But I think that, because the plot has usually surprised ME, it tends to surprise other people too."

Yes, Diana, I like that. Still, it's hard to believe when looking at something like Witch Week which comes so perfectly full circle, or Fire and Hemlock, not my favourite but a beautiful rendition of Tam Lin and the tricky device of one person living too parallel lives. Howl's Moving Castle is a fractured fairy tale romp that somehow maintains a seriously compelling core, and The Ogre Downstairs, one of her earliest, is one of the most natural and sympathetic step-family stories I've read.

Lately, Diana Wynne Jones has been writing sequels, culminating with her most recent, House of Many Ways, the second sequel to Howl's Moving Castle, one of my favourites. The thing is, if it was anyone else, I would probably enjoy these books. But, for me, her past work (and really I mean almost all of it) has set the bar too high.

House of Many Ways has a good plot, some great devices (Howl disguised as a sickeningly sweet golden-haired child comes to mind) and some truly funny moments. DWJ has always had a wry English sense of humour and it's used to good effect in this novel. Unfortunately, what usually makes the humour so compelling, so necessary, are the deeply serious undertones that always come along with it, and those undertones are entirely missing from House of Many Ways. Even worse, the humour often feels forced, and the story is a little silly. Worst of all, the main character, Charmain (really, Diana? Charmain?) is self-absorbed and unappealing, the minor characters are caricatures, and the villains are hardly there. It is really only the returning characters (Howl, Sophie and Calcifer - who don't take over the story which is a good thing) and the quality of the writing (which, as always, is seamless) that make this a worthwhile read.

Her last few books have fallen flat for me in much the same way. Some of them are very nicely plotted, but the depth of message and of character seems to have waned a bit, replaced with some nice writing, a dose of humour, and some sharp clever devices. With her, though, I expect something more.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


On election night, I stayed up till 2am (GMT) until enough electoral votes had stacked up on the TV counter that I could allow myself to sleep. Four hours later, I dragged myself out of bed for work and switched on the television, just to make sure. The BBC coverage was joyous, and I sat on the sofa watching the Chicago celebrations and blinked tears out of my eyes.

I didn't realise until that moment how much I actually cared, how important this election really was to me. I was genuinely proud of my country, for the first time in five years living abroad. I had been carrying around that heavy weight of disappointment and frustration for so long that I didn't entirely realise it was there until it was gone.

When I came to the UK, I found myself suddenly having to constantly defend my country, a country whose current politics I had never supported or believed in. Still, it was the generalities accepted as fact that bothered me so much ("all Americans are fat", "90% of Americans don't have passports", "all Americans are racist fundamentalist Christians".) There was usually, of course, a "well, obviously you're not like that, Amelia..." which always seemed to me to be missing the point. But I had nothing to throw back at them - until now.

Now, I don't even have to do the defending. America has done it all by itself. I was particularly pleased that Obama's speech acknowledged the place that America has in the world, and its effect on the global stage - not just "we are the most powerful country in the world so other countries need to do what we say" but "we are the most powerful country in the world so we have greater responsibilities to the rest of the world."

Obama said: "For the world has changed, and we must change with it." It's about time.