Month: April 2012

Books to Reread

A book read once only may be considered disposable. A book intentionally read several times, especially with the endless supply of new books available, is a treasure, an alternate home for the reader’s brain. Rereading a book is like going to visit an old friend; you know what to expect and look forward to it.

Books that lend themselves to rereading tend to be on the long side and somewhat complex, with memorable, well-developed characters. The quality of the writing must be good, but does not necessarily have to be great. Above all, there must be something mysterious or unresolved that draws the reader back to the book. It may be only a desire to experience the story all over again, having possibly forgotten how it ends, or at least the steps by which the end is achieved. The combination of remembering just enough but not quite all recharges a book with interest and intrigue.

A sure sign of a good candidate for rereading is that you want to own a copy.

I have to admit that I do a lot of rereading. Combine that with my own writing (including this blog), a full time job and the demands of the garden may explain why I don’t read many new books, with the exception of the works in progress of fellow writers. In my work as a cataloguer I am surrounded by new books, so am generally aware of what’s hot and honoured, but I don’t always rush to read it.

Anyway, here are a few (a very few) of my favourite rereads:

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. I prefer it to War and Peace, incidentally, which I find overly burdened with History. Anna Karenina may in fact be the perfect novel — full of realistic characters and situations that a reader of our time can recognize and identify with. The central character’s story is a tragic one, but it is surrounded by many other stories that save it from becoming cheap melodrama. This is a big, rich, slice of life that I am eager to partake of every few years.

Titus Groan and Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake. These two books are set in a world so weird — grotesque, even — and full of imaginative detail, that the characters almost don’t matter. It’s Gormenghast itself that is the main “character,” but in fact the primary players — Fuchsia, Dr. Prunesquallor, Steerpike, the Countess, Keda and the Professors and others — are also finely drawn and unforgettable. The interesting thing to me is that Titus himself is invisible in the first book (because he is still an infant at its end) and somewhat annoying and irrelevant in the second one. While I find Gormenghast, his home and heritage, totally fascinating, all he can think of is escaping it forever. Once he does — in a third book, Titus Alone — I lose interest. After several false starts, I forced myself to read Titus Alone, but do not plan to read it again, ever.

The Girl in a Swing by Richard Adams. I hesitated a bit before including this one, because it isn’t a “classic,” by any means. But the fact is that I have read it many times, and still do not think I quite understand the narrator’s motivations. All right, he marries a woman whose past he knows nothing about, because he has fallen in love (and lust) with her. The early days of their marriage are a paradise of domestic bliss and scorching sex, and the new wife proves to be a catalyst for success in the narrator’s fine ceramics business. But her past catches up with her; her husband discovers that she has done a terrible deed, and… Well, I’m not sure. That’s why I reread this one, thinking that maybe this time I’ll figure it all out.

The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle. Here I mean a collection of all the original Sherlock Holmes stories. Read in one huge batch, they are wonderfully escapist. There are so many stories, involving so many details impossible to remember from one reading session to the next. A perfect reread, especially when Real Life is in a tiresome phase.

The Lost Oasis by Patrick Roscoe. This may be a kind of lost book, actually, because I’m not sure that it’s still in print. But it’s a perfect example of a story that seems to be moving toward one of a limited number of outcomes, none of which happens. I’m not actually sure what happens at the end. One thing I am sure of, is that the main character is the ultimate unreliable narrator. Imagine being toured around Europe and North Africa by someone that you find less and less trustworthy the more you listen to his stories about his troubled family and his attempts to reconnect with his missing brother and father. The trouble is that by the time you decide to call it quits, you’re in the Western Sahara and you haven’t got a clue.

Finally, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, all by J.R.R. Tolkien. These are among my most reliable rereads. Every couple of years, I pick up one of them, and when I’ve finished it I simply must go on to read the others. Yes, I know there are thousands (maybe zillions) of epic fantasies out there, but this is still one of the best. What gives it depth and richness is that Tolkien’s field was languages, and the stories grew out of that. Read in the order I give here, the tales grow darker. The Hobbit may be a simple story for children, but The Silmarillion, which is in effect the ancient history of Tolkien’s created world, has elements that bring to mind the bloodiest of Northern legends and seem to call for someone like Wagner to turn them into music dramas.

Does one ever tire of rereading specific books? Yes. Old favourites from long ago now languish on my shelves. It seems that once part of the formula breaks down, the intrigue is gone. Once the reader figures out the mystery, or remembers all the details, or (more likely) simply doesn’t care about it any more, the book remains closed forever.


Garden Nostalgia

A couple of days ago I finally deployed some really nice plant ID markers that I was given last Christmas. Since there were only 20, I decided to use them to mark plants I would hate to lose, but which are threatened by nearby tough, pushy plants. I walked around the various beds and made a list of possible subjects, then narrowed it down to 20 and made up the labels. Written on with pencil, they are reusable and correctable, which is a good thing.

Label for Gentiana acaulis

I couldn’t always remember the names of the plants, not well enough to write them out, anyway. It’s like names of people you know; they may be friends of many years’ standing, but you can’t spell their surnames correctly without looking them up. That is especially true of botanical Latin (and of course I had to use it to demonstrate to anyone that happens to see these labels that I know my stuff).

So I turned to a beat-up notebook in which I’ve written down garden notes for the past 20 years — mostly lists of things to do and helpful hints gleaned from various books, but also lists of plants purchased and seeds sown. And there’s that pile of old nursery catalogues, many of which contain long lists of Plants to Order, and packing slips showing which ones were actually ordered.

I found the information I needed, but the whole experience was a stroll through the garden’s history — list after list of plants, many of which are long gone to a better world. That Itea virginica purchased in June 1994, for example, perished after a few years of struggling along in my dry, sandy soil. Cosmos atrosanguineus, the chocolate cosmos (the flowers really do smell like chocolate), acquired with great excitement in 1998, is now long dead. At least it bloomed before it gave up, unlike a white fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium “Album”), which never settled in here. (The common purple variety comes up regularly all over one of my perennial beds). Another total failure was Rosa chinensis “Mutabilis,” which croaked while still in the pot it came in. I think I got a refund for that one, but I still regret it, because descriptions of it sound delightful. I see that I tried a couple of types of blue Corydalis — “Blue Panda” and something called “Dufu Temple Form,” which I vaguely recall as more purple than blue. They are now gone (but the ordinary yellow Corydalis lutea is firmly established and spreading). And finally, there are a few things I don’t even remember. Anemonella thalictroides? Something that has qualities of anemonies and of Thalictrum? It must have died neatly and quickly, leaving no trace in my memories. The saddest thing is that the nursery from which I bought most of these plants is gone too — either out of business or at least out of the retail trade. I still have copies of all their catalogues from 1994 to 2001. Looking at them, I remember my twice-yearly visits to the place, returning to my garden with new plants and new hopes.

On the plus side, many of the plants in my notes and listed in those old packing slips are still alive and thriving, or at least surviving. Euphorbia characias “Humpty Dumpty” is a big, fat thing in full bloom right now. The Dryopteris ferns I bought in 1994 are sending up fiddleheads yet again. Hosta tardiflora bloomed last October, and I hope will again in future Octobers, having survived being chomped by the deer that visited the garden a few weeks ago.

That’s the thing about gardening in the same place for many years. Plants come and go; some succeed, others fail, quickly or slowly, depending. Others do well and become part of the furniture of the garden, only to vanish suddenly in a hard freeze or a worse than normal drought, shocking the gardener who took them for granted. But if not for all those records — scribbled lists, packing slips, records of seeds planted — I would very likely have forgotten a lot of this stuff forever. Remembering those vanished plants (most of them, anyway) reminds me of how rich and complex the life of a garden is, even a small and modest one like mine.

The Movie in the Mind

What happens in your head when you read fiction? I see movies. They are sort of fragmented and compressed, and share some qualities with dreams, but I definitely see pictures. I see the characters and settings as described by the author and hear the conversations represented by the written dialogue.

Each scene is a separate little film, ranging from (to mix a metaphor) a sketch to a fully-realized, detailed picture, depending on the amount of description furnished by the author. If the scenes all take place in a single building, city or some other discrete place, but without a description of the place as a whole, I have only the vaguest notion of how the various rooms, streets, squares, hills, water bodies, etc. fit together. They just float around separately. This is one of the reasons for the dreamlike feel of mind-movies. But unless an idea of the big picture is necessary in order to follow the plot, it really doesn’t matter.

If the big picture is necessary, there is often a map supplied to help the reader. Maps are great, but they have a peculiar compressing effect. I see the events happening right on the map itself, tiny but vivid, and have to zoom in.

Fictional people can be both shadowy and vivid at the same time — not so much sets of multiple physical characteristics as conglomerations of mannerisms superimposed on physical types. The writer doesn’t need to give detailed descriptions of a character, as though for a police file; a picture emerges as I see the person moving around and hear them speaking.

An interesting thing is that reading any piece of written narrative unreels a mind-movie. It doesn’t matter if it’s fiction or nonfiction, well or badly-written, exciting or boring.

Some pieces of writing leave colourful, vivid impressions in my mind. H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath is one; Richard Adams’s Maia is another, along with Tolkien’s Middle-Earth books. All of these involve a good deal of description, because they are set in fictional worlds created by their authors. That got me thinking about description in writing.

Edgar Allan Poe’s story “Landor’s Cottage” is almost pure description. The narrator, wandering the countryside, becomes lost and comes upon a cottage in a valley. That’s pretty much all that happens; 95% of the piece is a detailed description of the house and its setting. Recently I tried reading it again, having remembered it from my first reading at least 40 years ago. I remembered the mental picture I saw when I read the piece, even to details such as the grassy road that leads to the place, with carefully arranged stones at the sides, and the great tulip tree that is a dominant feature of the site. Clearly, all this description made a lasting impression on me. But was “Landor’s Cottage” a riveting read the second time? No. About half way through, I got bored and started skimming.

So now I have a theory — whatever part of the brain makes those mind-movies can’t cope with too much of any one element. I have said in an earlier post that I find long action sequences boring. Most writers believe that too much description and long stretches of dialogue unrelieved by action (the infamous “talking heads”) are to be avoided. Yes, yes and yes.

It’s best to mix up the elements. A bit of action, a bit of dialogue (possibly interlayered with the action), brief, vivid bits of description, and a very small amount of narrator’s commentary (or none; the author should know whether it’s needed). That will keep the movie-maker in the brain happy, and the reader reading.

How To Make A Bed

I spent part of this beautiful spring day making a bed — a slender flower bed, that is, curved like a sickle moon around a fat magnolia bush.  It will be the new home for ten or eleven young plants of Meconopsis “Lingholm.”  Or at least grown from seeds obtained from my single plant of “Lingholm.”  If all goes well — and with Meconopsis you can never assume that it will — I may have a vista of blue next spring, with luck while there are still a few dark pink blooms on the magnolia.

New Bed for Blue Poppies

That’s the why. As to the how, I have a method developed in the process of making much bigger beds, stripping acres (not really, but that’s how it felt) of sod. Why do people never think, when they allow garden space to run to lawn, about how hard it is to remove the wretched grass.  Because it’s hard work, even in light, sandy, stone-free soil such as mine.

First you outline the area to be stripped, using string or a hose or lime or whatever works for you. Then you cut the sod with an edging tool, to make sure the line is straight. Then the work begins. Plunge a stout, square-nosed spade into the earth the full depth of the blade, cutting out about an 8″ x 8″ square or a 6″ x 10″ rectangle.  Then slide the spade horizontally about 3 or 4 inches below the surface, cutting the grass and most of its roots away from the block of soil. Set the turf aside and dig out the soil, putting it into a big bucket or piling it on a tarp. Once the hole is a foot or so deep (and of course deeper is better) lay the sod in the bottom, grass side down. Then move on to the next square or rectangle and repeat, except this time put the removed soil into the first hole. Repeat and repeat and repeat until the job is done. Dump the soil saved from the first hole into the last one.

If you have to deal with rocks or roots, the job will be harder. If your soil is too wet, it’s best to wait, especially if it’s clay. The worst things I encountered in sod-stripping were big white grubs, ugly and startling. I would do a little Grub Dance every time I came across one.

I am glad to report that I encountered no grubs in this latest sod-stripping job, but I didn’t manage to execute the method as I described it above perfectly. Magnolia roots were the problem; although not nearly as formidable as Norway maple roots, they did make it impossible to cut nice straight-sided holes. Therefore I was able to bury only about half the sod. The rest is stacked up next to one of my compost heaps. Sod can be used in a number of ways — transplanted into a spot where you want grass, stacked up to form a temporary barrier (think of sod houses!), or simply allowed to break down until it can be composted.

After the sod removal job was done, I added a wheelbarrow full of mixed peat moss and compost to the new bed and dug it in. I’ll let the whole thing settle for a few weeks, and then will plant the blue poppies, hoping for the best. By rights I should have done this digging last fall, as I’m sure Henry Mitchell would have advised. I also hope that I did no harm to the magnolia by removing a few small roots. I’m thinking of this as “root pruning,” which sounds relatively harmless.

On a less hopeful note, the buck with the injured leg came back a couple of days ago. Bad leg notwithstanding, he managed to snack his way through a lot of stuff. Casualties so far: all bergenia flowers (he didn’t eat the leaves, fortunately), most of the tulips, an astilbe, some small hostas that were just sprouting out, ditto epimediums. Daylilies and thalictrum were nibbled, as were scillas and Centranthus. I am hoping (gardeners do that a lot, I’ve noticed) that most of these plants will recover. The question is what else will the creature eat? He seems to have decided that my place is the best snack bar on the street.

Stubs of Deer-Eaten Tulips

Music and Writing

Music can be a great catalyst for writing. Some writers find music a companion for a long writing project. Many of Stephen King’s novels resound with rock; Peter Straub often works jazz into his stories.

Things get a little complicated when the music actually turns up explicitly within the piece of writing. Sometimes it’s OK, as in the King and Straub examples. But what if there is a chronological problem? What happens when someone finds inspiration in lush 19th century romantic music for their historical romance set in Renaissance Italy? Unless the plot involves time travel, the music must remain invisible, with only its passion and the other emotions it provokes manifesting themselves in the written work.

When I was writing The Friendship of Mortals, I listened to J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, the Allegri Miserere, and Loreena McKennitt’s album, The Mask and the Mirror. The setting of this novel is early 20th century New England, specifically H.P. Lovecraft’s fictional city of Arkham. So it was OK to have my principal characters attend a concert which included parts of the Goldberg Variations (although I’m not sure that this work was as well-known or as often performed then as it is now, especially in a version for string trio). It was OK for one of my characters to remember hearing the Allegri Miserere in a church service.  But McKennitt’s setting of St. John of the Cross’s poem “The Dark Night of the Soul” must lurk unseen, despite its huge influence on the book.

The second book of the Herbert West Trilogy, Islands of the Gulf, was directed entirely toward a conclusion inspired by Thomas Tallis’s Spem in Alium. Listening to that great musical storm, I had a vision of that scene, and then had to create a series of events that would put my protagonist (Herbert West/Francis Dexter) into that situation. But Spem in Alium does not appear in the story, strangely enough. For some reason I did not even consider that.

The concluding book of the trilogy, Hunting the Phoenix, includes some musical shenanigans (Shostakovich, no less!), but is not imbued with music. Its narrator, Alma Halsey, is not really a music lover, unlike Charles Milburn, the voice of The Friendship of Mortals.

My fourth novel, Winter Journeys, is actually about a musical work, specifically Franz Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise. Writing this was somewhat risky because although I love music, I am not a musician and my perspective is that of an outsider.

And in case you are wondering, the second volume of Islands of the Gulf and Hunting the Phoenix will be available on Smashwords later this year.