Illness and the Circus

w-amalunaI fell, almost immediately on our return from Europe, into the flu for a week, which has been followed by bronchitis.  I am getting better, day by day, but it’s been such an interruption of my life that March feels like it didn’t really happen and the beginning of April has already passed me by.  It was a little heart-rending to come from glorious Aberdeen, where the flowers were blooming everywhere and it looked like late spring, back to New York where my dandelions are still only green shoots. It is no wonder my body decided to have none of it and fall under the spell of the fever.

Because I work from a company where working from home is so easy, I rarely take an actual sick day when I’m not feeling well.  There’s a part of me that occasionally wishes to be sick enough that I can’t work, because I have this romantic idea about sick days that involves movies and blankets and knitting.  In reality, I was too sick to do any of those things.  Instead, I spent them sleeping and trying to sweat, while being too overheated for my brain to work at all.  I had such a shortness of breath that I couldn’t even sit up long enough at the piano to get more than a few bars of practice in.  I couldn’t write.  I couldn’t think.  Even having the cat sit on me was far too taxing, as his body generated too much heat.  The flu was so miserable that the inconveniences of bronchitis seem more irritating than concerning. I’ve finally made it over the hump and am down to a persistent cough that is getting a little better every day.  It also clears out the seats on the subway around me, which just goes to prove that there’s an upside to just about anything.

Yesterday I returned to yoga after a five week hiatus and, happily, did not cough through the entire class, so I think that things are finally back on track. I even managed to pull myself together enough to go to the Cirque du Soleil, as you just don’t waste a ticket that expensive, even if you’re half-dead.  I had managed to find our tickets on a discount, so we splashed out and had seats four rows from the stage.  It was worth it. They really do put on a good show, though we were a little disappointed after the last show that we saw with them.  This isn’t a comment on the new show Amaluna, which was very good, but a comment on how amazing the Wheel of Death is in their Zarkana show.  I have never been so entranced, so breathless, at any performance in my life as when we were watching the Wheel of Death performance. Amaluna had all the elements that we expect from the Cirque du Soleil — excellent comedic clowns, amazing trapeze acts, that trendy balance goddess act, stunning costuming, jugglers, balancers, gymnasts, acrobats and a healthy dose of music and humor. It just didn’t grab my attention in quite the same way that Zarkana did, but it was still an amazing and inspiring night out. Now I want to kill this bronchitis so that I can start my training as an acrobat.  Getting back to yoga is a good start — there was more than one move in the show that I recognized from the yoga studio.

Book Review: The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

The-Paris-Wife One of the inevitable things about reading books about historical figures is that you already know the ending before you begin. Anyone just a little familiar with Ernest Hemingway knows about his famous wife problems; his inability to stay committed to the woman he was already married to. So when we meet Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s first wife, we already can see the writing on the wall of their marriage.  We see it before she meets him, we see it the first time they dance together and we know that there is heartbreak to come. It’s a foreboding knowledge, which steeps its way into the events of the novel and makes us want to protect the characters from their futures.

There are times, particularly in the beginning of the novel, when McLain’s storytelling becomes more biography than fiction and the narrative loses itself in a collecting of facts. This is always a danger when an author takes on such a well-known topic — the facts must be accounted for, in a way that doesn’t contradict what the reader already knows. We meet many of the emerging American writers of the day; Sherwood Anderson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound. We meet their families, their lovers. We come to understand how they worked together to form a young artist, who still had much to prove. Hadley, by being his first wife, witnessed as the world came to know her Ernest, and her point of view brings us along on the journey of Hemingway’s artistic development.

I wanted very much to not like Ernest Hemingway. It is easy and natural for me to sympathize with Hadley Richardson, who supported Hemingway for years before he sold enough of his writing to support himself. Yet McLain charms us with a young Hemingway, who is enthusiastic, romantic and intense. As his peers are urging independence and freedom, Hemingway explains to Hadley that he needs her to steady him. We see, as he fights with his night terrors from his war injuries, that he clearly does. When we learn the similarities in their families, the domineering mothers and their fathers, both lost to suicide, we can understand how two young people from thousands of miles away from each other, before an age of email, text and telephone, were so inevitably drawn together. We can feel the strength of their love.

And then, as we follow them through the five years of their marriage, I found myself identifying with what it is like to be newly married, to compromise with your new life where you must now always consider the desires of someone else. And then, as we follow the Hemingways to Paris and Pamplona, we see the effects of fame and success on them, as Ernest Hemingway graduates from the advice of his mentors and becomes a successful artist in his own right, his success eclipsing theirs with the very novel that he is revising as his first marriage dissolves.

The Paris Wife is a must-read for Hemingway fans, because it is true and honest. Although we can never truly know — and maybe we shouldn’t know — what happened between Hadley Richardson and Ernest Hemingway, McLain paints a picture so vivid that it’s easy to forget that we don’t.

Les Grandes Vacances

yellowflower

Spring

The suitcases that we have been living out of for the last two weeks are large and blue, made of the durable canvas that all suitcases seem to be constructed from. We bought them for our wedding two years ago, when I was stuffing dresses and suits and cuff links and fashion tape into them. It is like visiting with an old friend to pull them out again. We have gotten good at schlepping them from the backs of cars and onto conveyor belts at airports and very good at ignoring the comments of the airline personnel when they see the size of the larger one.

Just how much does that weigh?

Enough. It weighs enough.

We are in our third country since we left home and are once again walking on the left hand side of the sidewalk instead of the right, enjoying tea and biscuits instead of stroopwafel and frites. This has been a trip that has been jam packed with visiting friends and family, but we’ve managed to do a little touring with just the two of us, which is not something we’ve had much opportunity to do over the last six years. We never took a honeymoon, largely because we could never agree on where to go. This trip has been a good lesson in that it doesn’t really matter where we go — it is about the adventure, the unwrapping of new places. It is about being outside of our comfort zone, together, and exploring.

It has been a long time since traveling gave me this sense of freedom and playfulness. I bought a new bag, a Harris Tweed, which has just enough room for my notebooks and my camera — the essentials for making art on the go. It straps across my torso and just putting it on makes me feel like an adventurer. I have been taking time to take photographs, to stop and really look at the world around me, to see, to comment, to describe. When I made our arrangements, I was sure to book in extra time; a night here, a few hours there with no objectives, because I knew that what I needed most was hours without obligations.

My Beloved

My Fellow Adventurer…and Secret Agent

We have been visiting with my in-laws, who have been very kindly hosting us and feeding us ridiculous quantities of food and tea. I have been basking in their company, in hearing the old family stories, in seeing the family traits that they share with my husband. My Beloved is a natural born storyteller and I have heard most of the stories before, but they’re good enough that you can listen to them again and again. With the others here, I’ve been hearing them from different angles, different perspectives, and there has been so much laughter and love. It has been a really great thing to be immersed in, this tapestry of history that weaves this family together.

tiny car

Europe

Tomorrow we return to the real world, the busy city of skyscrapers and ambition, the place that hosts our lives. I am glad to be going home, because it is the place that has the cats, but I am also glad to be taking the memories of the last two weeks with me. I am coming home inspired and ready to go, with ideas and art on the forebrain, I’ll be glad to no longer be living out of our suitcases, but I’m so grateful to be reminded why it’s important that we do sometimes, because being out of the normal parameters of our lives puts them in context. And it might be a little while before we take to the skies again, but that doesn’t mean I can’t start dreaming about it.

Do You Want to Read a Book a Week?

I read a Huffington Post article this week by Julien Smith on the subject of reading fifty-two books in a year. I thought that much of his advice was practical and sound — chop your reading up into manageable doses and do it daily, preferably early in the day before other things take over.  This is good advice for any habit – it’s precisely what writers are told to do if we want to be serious about our writing.  Even something enjoyable becomes very easy to procrastinate in the face of work and life pressures.  I really am into this book, but I need to also go to the post office, pay my bills, take care of the cat or the kid or the spouse.  Etc., etc.  By making reading your first priority, you make certain it happens before the rest of your life can take over. While I laughed at Smith’s comment that he would start his day by going to a coffee shop and reading his daily forty pages — no matter how long it took — because I know very few people with that kind of luxury in their mornings, I have to admit that his approach is sound.

Good advice.  Life is all about choices.

I particularly liked what Julien Smith had to say on his own blog about why you should want to read so widely.  He writes that:

The other thing is that books contain pretty much all the knowledge and wisdom in the whole world– not just for today, but for all of history. It’s in an imperfect form right now, what with books being out of print and all the problems of limited distribution, etc., but over time, that’ll be solved. So I see books as direct conduits to the past, and the most reliable way that we have to receive important information from other people, living or dead.

In the colonial days of the U.S., when there were no such things as painters, architects and doctors, if you needed to know how to do one of those things, you ordered a book from Europe.  Then you waited for months for your book to arrive on a boat, if you were lucky.  Then you tried to turn the knowledge from the book into your new house.  One of the most successful people at this was Thomas Jefferson, who is considered one of the first architects in the U.S.

He built Monticello, from knowledge he picked up entirely in books.

westfront_pond

Well played, Tom, well played.

That has always been the magic of books for me, because I am so curious about so many different things.  No matter what the topic, you can go find a book to tell you about it, which is much easier than finding someone with accurate knowledge that is also willing to teach.  If you read multiple genres, even fiction genres, you’ll pick up all sorts of bits of knowledge about how the world works.  You’ll also develop a reputation for being smart, when you’re just repeating things that you read in books. Your prowess at Jeopardy will be the toast of the neighborhood, too.

At ten weeks into the year, I have six novels under my belt and a good start on Louise Eldrich’s Love Medicine, P.S.  One of them was George R. R. Martin, which directly countermand’s Smith’s suggestion to cheat.  I have to disagree with him — trying to read a book every single week means eliminating longer works from your selection.  If I were to take his challenge, I would rework it from reading a book a week to reading something every day off the Internet. Spend time reading widely, taking in different types of books and knowledge.  The world is big and the time in which we have to know it is limited…but books sure do help a lot.

Book Review: To Dance with Dragons

A Dance with Dragons hb f I have reached a sad point in my life, which is to say that I have finally caught up with George R. R. Martin’s writing in The Song of Ice and Fire series.  I was disappointed with the previous novel in the series, A Feast for Crows, because it only told the story of half of the characters in the series and finished by leaving several of the important characters in limbo.  A Dance of Dragons had the same format, but it was the second half of the story that A Feast for Crows began, so it was vastly more satisfying.

In A Dance of Dragons, Martin moves forward the stories of Tyrion Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow.  Jon is maturing as Lord Commander and balancing the armies of the wildlings and Stannis Baratheon, while also trying to draw the support of the Night Watch as he challenges their long held traditions of keeping the wildlings to the north of the wall.  Meanwhile, Tyrion is doing his best to survive in the Free Cities, where he has become a political pawn that is being moved towards Daenerys. It quickly became clear that she is become a nexus of the action, but also that this is not the novel where the central action will begin.

The beginning of the novel has jarring moments if you read it directly after A Feast for Crows, because some scenes are repeated in order to orient the reader to the fact that the action of the two novels are occurring simultaneously.  Yet we are launched into Tyrion’s story, as Tyrion finds himself shipped to Magister Illyrio, who we first met when we were introduced to Daenerys in A Game of Thrones.  Tyrion is still coming to terms with his fall from power and the murders of his father and Shae, while trying to figure out how to make a new life for himself.  In the beginning of the novel, he is moving in a wine-dulled haze through the world of the characters around him, but through Martin’s imaginative misadventures, we see him emerging back into the witty and brilliant planner that made him such a successful King’s Hand.  After a full novel without him, Tyrion’s return alone would have made To Dance with Dragons a satisfying read.

Yet, Martin also gives us Jon Snow and Daenerys Targeren, who are two young people that are maturing as rulers.  They are both faced with conflicting factions of people that they need to make operate well together, with their own deaths as the price of failure.  It is a compelling narrative, though readers who are easily turned off by politics in fantasy novels may struggle.  There are many scenes devoted to political meetings and the military threat of both the Yunkai’i and the Others.  We sit in the throne room of Daenerys and follow Jon as he walks the line between Stannis Baratheon, the wildlings and the Night Watch.  There is very little time spent on the north side of the Wall, so we lose the mysticism that we saw in the previous novels.  We know the Others are a gathering threat, but we are less aware of them than we are of the Yunkai’i, who line up at  Mereen’s gates and blockade the harbor.

Perhaps the most haunting narrative of the novel is that of iron born, who operate as minor characters in this novel, but are narrating the happenings of the War of the Five Kings from their placement.  Given the amount of page time that they received in A Feast of Crows, it is not surprising that Martin put them in a less pivotal role in To Dance with Dragons, but both Asha and Theon become important pawns in the North. Theon’s narrative relieves the potential of the novel to turn into endless political meetings.  Martin’s great strength is showing the humanity of these strong personalities that dare to play the game of thrones.

Certainly this was another adventure novel of the same quality that Martin always puts out, with the excellent characterization that we are used to seeing from him.  Although the larger story arc is left incomplete, the subplots that the novel narrates are compelling enough to make it a page turner.  Although the novel was titled A Dance with Dragons, and we do see more of the dragons and the Targaryens than we have since A Clash of Kings, the novel still feels misnamed.  The story of Westeros is inching forward in Winterfell, while Daenerys keeps learning painful lessons about the sacrifices required of a dragon queen.  Winter has finally arrived and I, for one, can’t wait to see what that means.

The Snowy Wilds

We have taken advantage of the long weekend and have shot up to rural Vermont with some friends for a weekend of skiing.  I say skiing with some hesitancy there, as I have not left the house since we arrived two days ago, but instead have been spending my time enjoying the glistening carpet of snow that covers everything with the nerve to be outside.  I have never seen snow like this before and the triangular piles on top of every fence post just look like tiny wild snowmen to me.  Outside, on a deck that we can’t access for the three feet of snow blocking the door, I can just see the tip of what looks like a vacuum cleaner that someone left outside.  There is so much snow that it spills from the second story porches onto the ground until you cannot tell where one floor ends and the next begins.

This seems like a place where winter means waiting; it is a long deep breath where you must force yourself to rest.  To do anything else, to fight through these insurmountable acres of snow, is unnatural.

vermonthorseThere is a horse on the property, which I can see from the bedroom window, and I have risen from my seat every few hours to see if she has dared to stamp out more of the snow from her paddock, but she does not seem to want to move far from the comfort of roof and trough.  I can empathize with this, as I have barely moved myself and have not been too sorry for the vertigo that pushes skiing out of my reach.  I have been happy enough to sit in the farmhouse and admire the filet crochet curtains, the snowshoes on the walls, the hanging quilts that make you reach out and draw a finger along the curled white lines of the quilting.  There are no fewer than four stuffed deer heads mounted low on the walls, which disturbed when we first arrived, but are now beginning to feel like old friends.  With everyone out of the house and over at the mountain, there is a silence here that is deep and restful.

I have been taking care of writing obligations with deadlines on them, which is work that does not fill me with much joy.  I have been pushing through so that I can get back to reading and editing and writing creatively, which has been difficult to find time for in the last month.  A frustrating state of affairs.  The deadlines have been met now, which means the next forty-eight hours are entirely mine to remind myself how to do the things that I love best to do.  With the peace of the last two days, my brain is recharged and I am ready to go.  I don’t think I will want to go home.

 

Christmas Again?

I received the coolest mail today.

redpen-sized

This is a beta copy of a novel, which Julie Christine has been blogging about over the past year at Chalk the Sun.  She has been kind enough to send it to me as a beta reader — complete with red pen! I have several deadlines to meet this weekend before I can dig into it, but I couldn’t help but eagerly scan the first page and admire the professional presentation.  It was with deep regret that I put it down again so that I can do all the things that I must do first.

I have done a lot of peer review of short stories in the classroom, but I have never been in a position before to give feedback on a mature novel that is being seriously developed for publication.  I truly could not be more excited. Are there any more exciting words than Chapter One?