Month: November 2010

The Rigors of Winter Begin

Here on Canada’s west coast, the first snowfall always seems grossly unfair. “It’s not supposed to do that here!” we grumble, looking frantically for ice scrapers and snow shovels. This year’s first snowfall was kind of early — mid-morning on November 22. The interesting thing was that the temperature dropped significantly from 9 a.m. to after noon, from -2 Celsius to -5. This meant that the snow didn’t turn to slush in short order, even on well-travelled roads. It became ice instead and traffic chaos ensued. Now, four days later, the snow is pretty much gone, but its effects linger on.

I thought my garden was ready for winter. I had brought inside a few frost-tender plants I wanted to preserve, and wrapped up the pot containing the dahlia “Bishop of Llandaff.” Its ungainly overcoat is made of an old bath mat, toilet clothes — an absurd invention if ever there was one — and bubble wrap, topped with a couple of old car floor mats. This wrapping has saved the dahlia through several winters during which the temperature hit -8 C. On November 23 it flirted with -10 C, so I’m a bit apprehensive, but won’t know until spring whether the Bishop has survived.

Pot with Dahlia and Senecio wrapped for winter

That’s the thing about these cold-and-snow events — you often don’t know what damage they’ve done until months later, when plants that were teetering on the border of winter hardiness fail to come up. I leave dahlias, both potted and grown in the ground, out all winter, and they have survived for years. I used to half-bury pots with various perennials and shrubs in the vegetable garden, but got lazy and now just move the ones I suspect are especially tender close to the exterior walls of the house, where they may have a bit more shelter than in the open garden. Somehow I haven’t had any devastating losses — yet.

What is immediately distressing after the first snow is the decline in the aesthetics of the garden landscape. It’s one thing to see bare trees and cut down stalks replacing summer lushness, but that’s just the transition to the autumnal scene. The basic structure of the garden is still there. Until this week, leathery hellebores and stalwart ferns maintained spots of living green among the dormant perennials and fallen leaves. Today everything looks battered. Hellebore leaves lie flat on the ground, fern fronds are broken, making tent-like messes around the crowns of the plants, and blackened flags of Japanese anemone foliage stir feebly in the breeze.

Winter wreckage in the perennial border

As with most garden-related distress, the solution is to do some work — cut down anything that looks really ugly, like acanthus foliage turned to mush and the dessicated, broom-like stalks of Gaura. Saw down the mulleins that are way past their best, looking like pathetic scarecrows. Rake out the leaves packed in between perennial stalks by the wind. Pull out or straighten leaning stakes and cut down or tie up whatever it is that they were supporting.

Inevitably, moving around in the garden, doing whatever needs to be done, improves the gardener’s outlook. As you work among the plants, you see things that don’t look too bad, despite their seasonal decline. Once the worst offenses to the eye are dealt with, you even find a few sights worth admiring. As always, the gardener serves the garden, and vice versa.

Mixed border going into winter

Pot with Athyrium niponicum var. pictum by icy pond


Views on Book Reviewing

Yesterday I attended a panel discussion on book reviewing organized by a literary journal published in the city where I live.  At another recent event , a successful novelist said that one reason for his success was that before submitting his first novel to agents and publishers, he had done a lot of book reviewing, thereby gaining a measure of credibility with those folks. So what is it about reviewing, I wondered, and when I saw a notice of this panel discussion, I decided to go.

There was a distinctly academic flavour to the presenters, the organizers and even the audience, not surprising, perhaps, given that the literary journal organizing the event is situated at the local university. The first speaker, a professor of English literature, emphasized that a good reviewer takes in a writer’s entire oeuvre, not merely the book that is the focus of the review. He also noted that (given sufficient space in whatever publication the review would appear), a review could function as a critical evaluation of the author, or explore a larger literary topic as exemplified by the work being reviewed. Finally, he said, a review must be as crafted a piece of writing as any literary work.

He was followed by a freelance writer and editor who succinctly described the responsibilities of a reviewer to the publication for which they are writing, to the readers of that publication and to the author of the work being reviewed. Self-interest is not absent from these considerations — the author whose work you trash may appear on a committee evaluating your grant application.

Another panel member, speaking strictly from the perspective of reviewing poetry, noted that critics are failing poets these days, not the other way around. Reviews are full of received phrases that sound intelligent but are empty of meaning. Certain words, such as “meditative” are overused.

Finally, a publisher stated that the dearth of reviews is worse than badly written or “unhelpful” ones. The biggest problem today is the decline of book pages in newspapers and magazines, due largely to the undervaluing of the arts in today’s commercially-minded society. There are fewer reviews because there are few reviewers willing to write for peanuts. Reviewers should focus their energies on lesser-known authors, rather than reviewing books already on the best-seller lists. The internet should be used to start conversations among writers and readers.

It was interesting that not one of these folks said the word “Amazon” until a question from the audience prompted it. Everyone acknowledged that for many readers, Amazon is a primary source of reviews. They are not always used in order to make a purchasing decision, either (although someone pointed out that you need to have spent $25 with Amazon before you can post a review — the opposite of reviewing for pay). Some readers (myself included) go to Amazon after having read a book, to seek the opinions of other readers. Does anyone else out there think that this book is an overrated piece of trash? Or — does anyone else love this book as much as I do?

By the end of the session, a consensus emerged that the literary conversation should include both amateur and professional reviewers, perhaps juxtaposed as in the Rotten Tomatoes movie review site.  The truth is, there is no shortage of book reviews, ratings and rankings on the internet — sites such as Goodreads and LibraryThing and individual blogs abound. Anyone can review a book any way they like, even without a degree in English Literature. A trend is emerging here, similar to the rise of the “indie author,” as Smashwords founder Mark Coker calls the folks who publish ebooks on his site. Incidentally, readers of Smashwords ebooks can post reviews to the site. Anyone can publish on the internet and anyone can review too. Maybe we’ve gone from a relatively polite conversation to a buzzing cacophony.  Is this good? It’s probably too early to tell, and maybe it doesn’t matter.

Write, publish, read, review!  What’s holding you back?

Find out more here


The Last Dance of the Garden Year

This giant pile of leaves will be compost by next summer. Having raked and  piled them, I don’t need to do much more besides rearrange the heap after it settles a bit, and (most important) poke several holes right through it once the leaves start to decompose and pack down. The holes will allow air and water into the middle of the pile, to keep the breakdown process going.

Damp leaves are much easier to handle than dry ones, which fly around and slither down the pile. Raking and leaf management are much easier after a rain. When you build the heap, sprinkle a little soil or finished compost between layers of leaves, which should be from six inches to one foot thick.

My leaves come from the trees I am always complaining about in this blog — three big Norway maples, one giant red maple (just over the fence in my neighbour’s yard), a weeping birch and a tree of heaven (or, as I think of it, tree from hell). During the gardening year, deadheads, old stalks and other debris of the perennial border and vegetable patch go into the heap, as well as a comparatively minute amount of vegetable kitchen scraps. One might think, looking at this leaf pile, and at the crumbly, black compost that I distribute around the garden every spring, that trees are the thing to have if you want compost. It is true that leaf-based compost is free of weed seeds and evil root fragments that can propagate weeds to spots that don’t have them. But you have to remember that trees suck both water and nutrients from the soil, so if you don’t have trees you don’t need as much compost or anything else to feed your gardens. Nature’s budget usually balances.

Which is why some people would argue that you really don’t need to rake leaves at all. If you leave them alone, they will eventually break down and release their nutrients, as they do in forests. No need to rake, pile or distribute compost. This lazy approach is preferable to stuffing leaves into orange plastic bags and putting them out for garbage collection, a practice that does mess with the natural nutrient budget. Whatever was extracted from your soil to grow those leaves will need to be replenished somehow, to grow lawn or petunias or tomatoes next summer. The fertilizer bag is the consequence of the leaf bag.

Free compost aside, there are other benefits to leaf-raking, similar to those of edging (see Setting the Edge, Oct. 25). A few brightly-coloured leaves decorate the garden. Loads of brown leaves make it look sad and neglected, and are apt to smother plants or cause rot. Raking reveals the edges between beds and lawns, an instantaneous visual improvement. Like edging, it can induce a meditative state. There is an artfulness to it as well — you have to develop a repertoire of techniques to tease leaves out from perennial beds without damage, move them down narrow garden paths, and herd huge masses of them to their final resting place. Big piles of leaves acquire a nearly liquid quality and can be moved quite quickly with authoritative strokes of the rake. (Don’t even think of using a leaf-blower, an abomination of noise and fossil fuel consumption).

Finally, raking leaves is good exercise for the upper body. It’s a kind of dance — the last tango of the garden year.


Almost finished compost


Happy Birthday, Herbert West!

I’ll bet most people don’t know that today, November 7, is Herbert West’s birthday, except for folks who have read my novel The Friendship of Mortals.  A fictional character created by one author may acquire additional traits at the hands of other creators, or even a whole life-story.

Herbert West, the mad scientist obsessed with bringing the dead back to life, was an invention of H.P. Lovecraft, in his series of stories written for the pulp magazine Home Brew in 1922. The only thing H.P.L. tells us about this character’s appearance is that he is “a small, slender, spectacled youth with delicate features, yellow hair, pale blue eyes, and a soft voice.” We learn little more about West in the course of the six stories beyond his views on life, death and the non-existence of the soul.

I suspect that most people would be more likely to recognize Herbert West in the form he acquired in the 1985 movie Re-Animator and its sequels, where he was creepily portrayed by the actor Jeffrey Combs. In this manifestation, West is “spectacled,” all right, but his hair is black. As with H.P.L.’s original, we know nothing about his background or origins, only that he is an amoral quasi-scientist who will let nothing get in his way when it comes to injecting syringe-fulls of his glowing yellow-green reagent into really fresh corpses.

Wikipedia lists a whole gang of Herbert West spinoffs, in movies, comic books, video games and at least one musical.  Then there’s my Herbert West. He was born in Boston on November 7, 1886 (or, if you prefer, in my basement writing room on November 7, 2000), the son of an undertaker-turned-gangster called Hiram West. Herbert is the youngest of Hiram’s three sons. Unlike his brothers, he takes after their mother, Anna Derby West, and is indeed short, slight and blond. He wears gold-rimmed spectacles, but his eyes are grey, not blue. In addition to his research, he’s fond of cooking (specializing in Italian dishes). He’s a snappy dresser, likes fast cars and can throw a knife as well as wield a scalpel. And yes, when we first meet him, he is convinced that life is a mechanical process and the soul does not exist. But that changes.

I present Herbert West through the eyes of my narrator, librarian Charles Milburn. He’s a couple of years younger than West, an orphan whose old Bostonian family had come down in the world. Where West is devoid of a conscience, Charles is overburdened with one. But that doesn’t stop him from becoming West’s assistant and following him down the road to various trials and tribulations.

If you want to take that road with Herbert and Charles, you should read my novel. It’s available as an e-book at

Speaking of Re-Animator, I watched it for the first time last night. Somehow it seemed appropriate to do so on the eve of the tenth anniversary of my starting to write the first of my three Herbert West novels.  What did I think of it?  Well, first I must admit that the comedy-horror splatterfest isn’t the sort of movie I enjoy. I prefer more plot and dialogue and less gore and guts. In fact, when it comes to horror, I prefer books to movies. Books are really mind-movies, and they can be a lot more horrifying than anything served up on the screen.

This aside, I have to admit that Re-Animator is a credible adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s “Herbert West, Reanimator” stories. It pretty much ignores three of the six segments, concentrating on the fate of the unfortunate Dean Halsey. The disembodied head, a feature of the World War I section of the original, is also given a starring role. The mayhem in the Miskatonic morgue toward the end of the movie is also a pretty good take on H.P.L.’s ‘Tomb Legions.” But the final scene, to me, was more reminiscent of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary (another good treatment of the bring-them-back-to-life theme), than anything by H.P.L.

Show or Tell?

One of the fundamental bits of wisdom writers are reminded of over and over again is, “Show, don’t tell.”  Don’t write, “The sun was so hot that my feet felt like they were burning when I walked on the sand barefoot.”  Instead, write, “My bare feet sizzled on the hot sand.”

No arguments there; the second example even has the undisputed writerly virtue of being shorter. That’s another maxim that today’s writers should carve on their hearts:  the shorter, the better.  But I’ve already dealt with it here (Writing Short, Writing Long, Sept. 19). Today’s question is whether showing is always better than telling.

My opinion? It depends. It depends on what you are showing or telling, and what its purpose is in the context of the work you are creating. Let’s say it’s a novel. There are almost as many approaches to writing novels as there are novelists (or maybe it just seems that way), but most novels consist of scenes involving action or dialogue or both, connected with sections of narrative. The trick is to get the right balance between the length and number of fully-realized scenes and instances of narrative.

Let’s look at an example. Here is a paragraph from my novel, The Friendship of Mortals.

West was right, in a way. Our involvement with the corpse of John Hocks was never brought home to us by any of the conventional authorities, although we had (I thought) left such a trail of evidence that any competent investigator should have found it necessary to question one or both of us. Our grave-digging tools, for example, stayed in the woods near Hangman’s Brook for several days before I remembered them. West retrieved them that night, but anyone could have found them in the meantime.

This is definitely telling. What would showing look like?

A few days after Hocks disappeared, I called on West after work. Fortunately, he was at home.

“Hello Charles, what brings you here?”  He did not invite me past his front hall, but seemed quite prepared to hold a conversation standing by his coat-rack and half a dozen pairs of polished boots.

“I’ve just been thinking — ”

“A bad habit,” West interrupted. “At least when it’s really fretting that one is doing. Well, what’s on your mind?”

“Those tools we used to dig up Hocks. The spades and pry-bar. And the rope we hauled him out of the grave with. They’re all still out there, aren’t they?”

“Unless they sprouted legs and departed the scene, I imagine they’re where we left them, in the woods. What of it?” His tone was light and mocking, despite the quick frown of  annoyance that preceded it.

“Anyone could find them, that’s what. The police, for example. They should have searched those woods already.”

“You give the Arkham police far too much credit, Charles. They don’t exert themselves any more than they have to, certainly not on behalf of a drowned farm laborer from Maine whose corpse has gone missing. I doubt if it even occurred to them to set foot in the woods.” He executed a kind of side-step that brought him close to the door and which I took as a hint that I should be going.

“I just think it’s something we should take care of, that’s all. A loose end.” And one that the instigator of the plan should have thought of. But I did not say this.

“All right, Charles,” West said, opening the door and letting in a flood of thick, yellow afternoon sunlight, “I’ll dash out there tonight and retrieve the tools. Does that put your mind at ease?”

If I had expected him to admit that he had made a mistake, I would have been disappointed.

The original paragraph was only a connector between two scenes that were more important to the plot of the novel. Turning it into a fully realized scene does not add anything to the story and would only slow down its forward movement.

Specifics aside, if every part of a novel was written out fully this way, it would inevitably swell to gargantuan proportions. On the other hand, a pure “showing” approach could be a series of discrete scenes with no connecting narrative. The writer would have to make sure that the chronological jumps would not confuse or disconcert the reader. Done well, such an approach can be elegant and successful.

But done well, any writing can be called successful (aesthetically, if not commercially).  Take, for instance, Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite francaise, successful by any measure. It has huge stretches of telling, relatively few of showing. And yet, those long sections of narrative are compelling. They create a movie in the reader’s mind. In the end, that’s what good writing does, whether by showing, telling or both.