Friday, May 27, 2011

Some literary travels

Busy busy! But look what I found in the meantime.

Charlotte Bronte's traveling writing desk, on display at the NY Public Library.

Eighteen beautiful miles of books at Strand.

And a perfect reading perch in the Shenandoah's.

Next trip - up to Albany with a pilgrimage to Edith Wharton's home, "The Mount." (And if I'm lucky, maybe a side trip to check out some charming used bookstores.) So I'm reading House of Mirth and (time permitting) Age of Innocence to prepare myself. Turn-of-the-century gentility, here I come!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Into the great blue yonder - or New York

Tomorrow night we leave for a quick one-day trip (about 24 hours exactly) to NYC. My husband is there for work, I'm there for the free hotel room and the chance to do touristy things on a Wednesday. Of course, I'm already overbooking and being over-enthusiastic. In addition to doing two dinners and a breakfast with friends, I also want to tour the Metropolitan Museum of Art, visit the holy of holies Strand Bookstore, have scones at Alice's Tea Cup, have lunch at the vegetarian Candle Cafe, see the play Arcadia at the Barrymore Theatre, and swing by the New York Public Library's exhibit of treasures from its collection. Surely I can fit all that into a short day ... right? right? ::sigh:: Or maybe I'll stick with a literary walking tour of Greenwhich Village ... Hrm. If only I didn't need to be back at work on Thurs!!

Photo from Strand Bookstore.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Everyone's got a background

We had a vigorous discussion at my last writers group meeting, prompted by two long submissions group members had given us to work on. One, from a member I'll call Kelly, was the beginning of a very creative novel with all sorts of weird things going on. Well, in actuality, "going on" is not the right term, since 80 percent of the submission was background. Where the characters came from, how they met each other, what they thought about their various provenances, how they related with their parents. I found it frustrating. Just get on with the story, already!

To my surprise, not everyone in the critique group agreed. And Kelly seized upon the dissent to disregard the comments of those of us who felt there was too much background, not enough present story time. Well, I'm biased, but I'm pretty confident I was right that the story felt like it was stuck in sludge. But I guess she'll either find out the old-fashioned way (rejection - hey, we've all had our share) or prove me wrong.

But in the meantime, I've been paying attention to how published authors kick their stories off and how much background they incorporate. I finally read a novel that I enjoyed (after a bit of a dry spell) and although Khaled Hosseini starts A Thousand Splendid Suns at nearly the beginning of his character's life -- she's five -- the story itself starts right then. He's not looking back and giving us background on Mariam's childhood, he's throwing us into the tumult from the beginning. An extended quote:

"Mariam was five hears old the first time she heard the word harami.

It happened on a Thursday. It must have, because Mariam remembered that she had been restless and preoccupied that day, the way she was only on Thursdays, the day when Jalil visited her at the kolba. To pass the time until the moment that she would see him at last, crossing the knee-high grass in the clearing and waving, Mariam had climbed a chair and taken down her mother's Chinese tea set. The tea set was the sole relic that Mariam's mother, Nana, had of her own mother, who died with Nana was two. Nana cherished each blue-and-white porcelain piece, the graceful curve of the pot's spout, the hand-painted finches and chrysanthemums, the dragon on the sugar bowl, meant to ward off evil.

It was this last piece that slipped from Mariam's fingers, that fell to the wooden floorboards of the kolba and shattered."

Hosseini has started to feed out information about Mariam and her world, but we're already caught in dramatic action. No overbearing narration.

A note on the book, by the way. I wasn't enthusiastic about reading it and was doing so out of obligation to the person who lent it to me. If you've read The Kite Runner, you know Hosseini pulls no emotional punches. And a novel about women in Afghanistan? Sure to be heart-wrenching, right? Well, it is. My face was bathed in tears when I was finished. But, still, I really liked it. The story takes a while to really grab you but when it does, it's unforgettable.

Has anyone had a similar discussion in their writing group? I'd be really interested to know what other people are going through with this.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Tulips oh tulips!

So it turns out tulips aren't from Holland.* But once, almost four hundred years ago, they so seduced Dutchmen that for a few hot months, trading tulips was the fastest way to a quick buck and then, suddenly, the surest path to a quick ruin. I'm finishing up reading Tulipomania by Mike Dash, and it's fascinating. He details the "tulip boom" of 1636-1637 and the evolution of both commerce and horticulture that led to it. I picked up the book because it might, tangentially, be related to a future writing project of mine. But it has ended up having the unexpected result of making me fall in love with tulips!

Today, tulips are spring's bright but, well, common handmaid. Wide beds of red or yellow tulips pop up at spring's arrival, just after the hardy crocuses and the cheerful daffodils. In years past I had not thought much about tulips, but after learning about how much they were once valued I've started looking at them in a different light. The traders of the 17th century did not value all tulips the same, and they were likely almost as indifferent to the plain red varieties as I am today. But the more delicate, rarer types fired the lust of collectors and the greed of traders. The highest reliably-recorded price for a single bulb during the boom was 5,200 guilders. For some perspective: a typical middle-ranking merchant would earn 1,500 guilders a year, and seven years after the boom Rembrandt would rake in 1,600 guilders as his fee for his masterpiece, The Night Watch. After the bust, one trader tried to solicit a lawyer's help to recoup his losses, including 6,000 guilders paid for four pounds of Switser bulbs.

Nature conspired with my reading to bring us a beautiful crop of tulips here in the city, just as I was reading the book. So now I'm hooked on tulips. I even love the way they die -- with exuberance. Many of them just keep blooming, giving it all they've got, til they can't handle it anymore and just fall off. Such a great way to go.

It's past tulip season now but here are some photos I took last weekend.

I love the double tulips -- they're my favorite.

* Wild tulips are originally from the plains of central Asia.

Princess Nijma

Princess Nijma