Love the Idea

Tolstoy

 

When writing about Anna Karenina recently, I remembered a passage from Sophia Tolstoy’s diaries. I only had to type a few words into Google, and voila, there it was. I copied it into my blog post, but something else stayed with me. What lingered was this:

“Yesterday L.N went to his table, pointed at his notebook and said “Oh how I long to finish this novel (Anna Karenina) and start something new. My ideas are quite clear now. If a work is to be really good there must be one fundamental idea in that one loves. I love the idea of family; in War and Peace I loved the idea of the people because of the 1812 war; and now I see clearly that in my next book I shall love the idea of the Russian peoples powers of expansion.”

His great novels had to do with being in love with an idea. Authors are commonly asked this question: How did you come up with the idea for your book? It speaks to the heart of the matter. We all have tons of ideas; we may even have notebooks full of concepts for novels. Once decided upon, our love for the idea must remain in the forefront of our minds for years.
Dadcropped
When my father died, I did not want him to go. I didn’t want to forget about him either. I wanted to cling to everything I could remember about him and keep it in my mind forever. It is this idea I am currently in love with, bringing my father back to life. Folly? Yes, no doubt. Can a person we loved appear as a character whom the reader can picture? Can I recreate a certain time in my life, 1961 to 1971, to be exact? Can my interpretation of the sixties rekindle memories for others? Can I bring readers into my story? As I have other family members I am missing now who have gone on to join my Dad, I am in love with remembering them too: I am in love with this idea of family, just as Tolstoy was when he wrote Anna Karenina.  Even though I am not in possession of his talent, not within a country mile of it, in fact, I still persist. Why? The answer is simple:  love. I have a love for my Dad, for my Mom, for my sister and brother, who are all up in heaven now. I have a love for my old neighborhood, for my old home, for my grandparents and aunts and uncles. I have a love for my city and my country. There is no end to my love. Being in love with an idea, can fill up a lot of pages. The one fundamental idea of my story can be boiled down to the old adage that blood is thicker than water.

 

Where does it come from, this love? Does it spring from the same wellspring of our most universal emotion, or is it more academic than that?

 

If you write a novel and get on a talk show, someone will ask you how you came up with the idea for your story. You will have to think back to that first spark and be able to elaborate. If your face lights up and your speech becomes more animated, so much the better. Enthusiasm is infectious: people see it and want to have that same feeling. Readers want to be in love with ideas too. When I gaze at the picture above, knowing I was the baby stuffed into the snowsuit, I see us all as a fun loving, keen and zestful bunch with good times, too numerous to count, just around the corner. When this picture was taken the Queen was beginning her reign and we were part of suburban life, in the post war years, in Toronto. The future looked bright and rosy back then. We were on the dawn of a new era, marked by hope. We all had our parts to play and we certainly played them.

 

How does this story end? Stay tuned…

What is Your Intention?

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “ A good intention clothes itself with power.”

In order to write a poem, a short story, or a novel the beginning is set by the intention. Writer’s are inevitably asked this question, “What prompted you to write this book?”

J.K Rowling, riding a train and looking out the window, had this thought: What if there was a wizard school? That one idea evolved into an empire. It made her a fortune and touched the lives of an entire generation.

She said that in her mind, she thought that the trick would be in getting it published, but after that it would be really big. She set her intention from that minute forward. Her thoughts came tumbling out, and she had nothing with which to write. As soon as she could get pen to paper though, her intention was very clear. She would write a book about a wizard school. She wrote as if on fire. An agent picked it right up, but eleven publishers turned it down. She did not despair because she focused on her intent. The rest is history.

The Irish have a saying about this topic. Throw your cap over the wall. You’ll have no choice but to go after it. The race to the moon, described in these terms, was achieved in record time.

Is it enough? Yes, if the focus is constant. A writer is essentially creating something out of nothing. It feels, at times in the dark nights of despair, that the nothing wants its nothingness back. Anything worth doing, is worth doing well.

Books have shaped my life; they have given meaning to my very existence. Sharing our stories, telling others about the beauty of North Idaho, about the people who came before us, unearthing great moments in history and bringing them to life, that has meaning.

My father had a book of poems reprinted that were written by his grandfather. When he gave me that book, I had a glimpse of another light, one that had fallen away in the busy post-war years. I knew the heart of a man I had not had the privilege to know except through his poems.

He helped set my path. I would not dare to presume I could do the same, but it has always been my intent. I want to share what I have gleaned with someone who will never meet me or see me, but will know something of me, nevertheless.

That is why I am given to writing.

The Literary Marriage

 

August 19th, 1978

Howard Nicholas Brinton marries Elizabeth Irene Smythe

 

Very early in our relationship my husband professed his intent to see me achieve my writing dreams. He told me that it would happen. There have been many times when I have asked him if he wasn’t perhaps deluded, or just plain wrong. These are joking comments from me because his steadfast belief has sustained me from start to finish.

Many writers have described unions where both parties are committed to the literary life. Female writers joke about needing a wife, one who types each draft, brings lunch in on a tray and does not say a word while the genius is at work. If early success yielded substantial financial success, that just might work, but for most of us, it is not that cut and dried.

 The ups and downs are all imaginary.

He asks, “How was your day?”

“A new character arrived!”

“That’s great!”

Or, “How was your day?”

“My novel is falling apart. I just wasted the last decade, no the last four decades, no my entire life. I should have gone to law school.”

“How was your day?”

“My agent called. The book is going to auction. There’s talk of a movie deal too. They think it will be perfect for Johnny Depp.”

I never stop thanking God for the gift of my imagination.

If you read copious volumes of writer’s diaries, you learn a great deal about their marriages.  Lucy Maud Montgomery had a terrible time of it, and I could all but cry for her as she listed her trials and tribulations. I wanted to whack her husband over the head with a hockey stick and said so aloud to my beloved as I waded through the volumes. She created a fine fictional husband for herself in the person of Gilbert Blythe. Ted Hughes, married to Sylvia Plath, is not held in very high esteem either. Leonard Wolf, married to Virginia, tried very hard, but as it was she who wrote the diaries, he did not fare very well either. What of Zelda Fitzgerald and the Hemingway wives? If you read The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain, you know what I mean.

I will state here and now that I owe everything to my husband. In changing times, I was afforded the choice to be home with my children, a decision I will never regret. In fact, I miss those days sorely. My husband has helped me with computer issues, printer foibles, discouraging setbacks and several lapses in confidence. Being a creative person himself he knows that the power of the imagination can leave artistic types rather unhinged from time to time.

Tolstoy had the secretarial sort of wife, and by all accounts, she did not exactly have the life of Riley. What would the marriage of two writers look like? I shudder to think.

“How was your day?”

“Chapter five is falling apart again. What about you?”

“Our accountant called. He said we should just pay off the mortgage with the last royalty check.”

Constant support and eternal optimism. That is what marriage has given me. Last night we watched back to back episodes of Downton Abbey.

“Should we really be watching last week’s show when we’ve seen it already?”

“Yes,” I answered. “We can discuss each developing storyline and then watch the new episode in silence.”

“Oh.”

Do we know of any really admirable literary marriages? Stephen King writes only for his wife. She does not read each developing page, but is given the privilege of being his first and most important reader. She is very independent according to him and has no trouble filling the hours where he is unavailable. He is not to be interrupted for any reason. She once slid a note under his study door to inform him of a plumbing emergency. He considers himself lucky, as do I.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From The Writer to the Reader

 

 

We are pleased to offer this wonderful piece of advice from one of the greatest American authors.

John Ernst Steinbeck

Feb. 27, 1902, Salinas, California

Dec. 20, 1968, New York, N.Y

 

“Man is the only kind of varmint sets his own trap, baits it, and then steps in it.” 

 

      Dear Writer:       Although it must be a thousand years ago that I sat in a class in story writing at Stanford, I remember the experience very clearly. I was bright-eyes and bushy-brained and prepared to absorb the secret formula for writing good short stories, even great short stories. This illusion was canceled very quickly. The only way to write a good short story, we were told, is to write a good short story. Only after it is written can it be taken apart to see how it was done. It is a most difficult form, as we were told, and the proof lies in how very few great short stories there are in the world.

The basic rule given us was simple and heartbreaking. A story to be effective had to convey something from the writer to the reader, and the power of its offering was the measure of its excellence. Outside of that, there were no rules. A story could be about anything and could use any means and any technique at all – so long as it was effective. As a subhead to this rule, it seemed to be necessary for the writer to know what he wanted to say, in short, what he was talking about. As an exercise we were to try reducing the meat of our story to one sentence, for only then could we know it well enough to enlarge it to three- or six- or ten-thousand words.

So there went the magic formula, the secret ingredient. With no more than that, we were set on the desolate, lonely path of the writer. And we must have turned in some abysmally bad stories. If I had expected to be discovered in a full bloom of excellence, the grades given my efforts quickly disillusioned me. And if I felt unjustly criticized, the judgments of editors for many years afterward upheld my teacher’s side, not mine. The low grades on my college stories were echoed in the rejection slips, in the hundreds of rejection slips.

It seemed unfair. I could read a fine story and could even know how it was done. Why could I not then do it myself? Well, I couldn’t, and maybe it’s because no two stories dare be alike. Over the years I have written a great many stories and I still don’t know how to go about it except to write it and take my chances.

If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that makes a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story.

It is not so very hard to judge a story after it is written, but, after many years, to start a story still scares me to death. I will go so far as to say that the writer who not scared is happily unaware of the remote and tantalizing majesty of the medium.

I remember one last piece of advice given me. It was during the exuberance of the rich and frantic ’20s, and I was going out into that world to try and to be a writer.

I was told, “It’s going to take a long time, and you haven’t got any money. Maybe it would be better if you could go to Europe.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because in Europe poverty is a misfortune, but in America it is shameful. I wonder whether or not you can stand the shame of being poor.”

It wasn’t too long afterward that the depression came. Then everyone was poor and it was no shame anymore. And so I will never know whether or not I could have stood it. But surely my teacher was right about one thing. It took a long time – a very long time. And it is still going on, and it has never got easier.

She told me it wouldn’t.

 

 

1963

The Intelligent General Audience

 

 

Richard Flanagan, Man Booker International Prize Winner, 2014

 

In my way of thinking the intelligent general audience refers to just about everyone.  It is also the stated intention of the Man Booker Prize International’s committee of judges. Once a book is chosen as the winner, it will always deserve my interest, and in most cases, an immediate order from Amazon. The Best Food Ever Book Club is nearly always game to read the top pick of the esteemed judges. In short, the Booker Prize is a stamp of approval. It is designed by its very nature, to put great books into the scattered framework of our attention. How do we choose the books we read? If Amazon, or my local bookstore has failed to put a selection before me that is truly aligned with my tastes, I will turn to the experts and look at authors who have won prizes. As with Hollywood, it is a great boon to be nominated. It is a matter of course for me, if I have already read the Booker prize winner, to browse the short list and then the long one. Sometimes, after reading those great novels that nearly won, I find myself in passionate disagreement with the judges. It can be rather like Figure Skating contests; it has to be subjective to some degree, particularly when the field is ripe with excellence. If I were ever selected as a judge, it would be a happy day for me indeed. While others might complain about having to read so many books, I would proclaim, “I can’t do anything. I have to read!”

 

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan won the coveted award for 2014. Born in Tasmania in 1961, Flanagan spent twelve years crafting this masterful work. His writing is so vivid; his ability to put the reader right in the scene made for some grueling nights for our book club. The protagonist, Dorrigo Evans, once a captive of the Japanese army has the great misfortune to be enlisted to work on the Thai-Burma Death Railway. Their inhumane treatment of prisoners is regrettably, all too prevalent. Never before in my life have I read descriptions of atrocities with more turning of the head and knotting of the stomach. I found myself getting thoroughly depressed. Man’s inhumanity to man is nothing new to me but never before has it been described in a manner so profoundly real. Flanagan puts you in the sensibilities of the prisoners. You want to get away, but you cannot.

The story shifts between Dorrigo’s love affair with his uncle’s young wife. It was another case of being captive, but this time by desire. As he recalls various times with young Amy, he also continually fails to let us forget who she is and how flawed he must be to have gotten himself involved with her in the first place. He can’t avoid thoughts and memories of their time together any more than he can get away from his captors. This is not a story of straight up redemption. We wish it to veer in that direction, but perhaps Flanagan wanted to paint a more realistic picture. In reading about the book on the Man Booker Prize International’s website, I learned that Flanagan’s father had been a worker on the infamous narrow road. He survived his experience and died on the day his son finished the novel which was twelve years in the making.  The writing is very vivid. The prize speaks volumes, as always.

From Page 22:

“Looking back down the railway pegs, Dorrigo Evans saw that there was around them so much that was incomprehensible, incommunicable, unintelligible, undivinable, indescribable. Simple facts explained the pegs. But they conveyed nothing. What is a line, he wondered, the Line? A line was something that proceeded from one point to another-from reality to unreality, from life to hell- ‘breadthless length’, as he recalled from Euclid describing it in schoolboy geometry. A length without breadth, a life without meaning, the procession from life to death. A journey to hell.”

The Washington Post:

“Nothing since Cormac McCarthy’s The Road has shaken me like this.”

The Irish Times:

“Homeric… Flanagan’s feel for language, history’s persistent undercurrent, and subtle detail sets his fiction apart. There isn’t a false note in this book.”

For much of the country, 2015 has begun with bitter cold and day after day of epic snow. Out west, we seem to veer from snow to rain. While I prefer snow, what I love most about winter is that it is so conducive to my great loves: writing, reading, skiing and fine dining. It is my hope that whatever the choice may be, the intelligent general audience finds a warm hearth, a cozy nook and a stack of books to enjoy this winter.

 

 

Sleep Tips for Writers

 

                                                             Dr. Hugh Smythe

 

Where do you rest your weary head? An unsettled mind will wake you up in the middle of the night. What do you do then? Get up? Stare at the ceiling? Go to another room? Read? Turn on the computer and abandon hope of any decent rest? I know, you are thinking, all of the above.

 

Have any significant contributions been made to the science of sleep? Yes. My uncle, the late Dr. Hugh Smythe and his friend, Robert F. Clark, created the shaped pillow. Dr. Smythe used his knowledge of medicine to study how mankind has dealt with sleep through the ages. With his electric carving knife and some foam padding he went to work to invent a better pillow.

 

Do you toss and turn and punch your pillow? Do yourself a favor and get a new one that supports your head and neck. As writers we cannot afford to block any ideas that may flow in the night. You will not be sorry, I promise you.

 

When writing My American Eden, I took a trip to Plymouth to see what how colonials lived in the mid 1600′s. Floored by the short beds, I asked the guide, sitting at her spinning wheel, to explain why people did not lie flat. Pneumonia, the old man’s friend, was the answer. Fearing death in the night had weary farmers sitting up. Noting the pillow, as was my training from my uncle, I saw that they used round and quite firm bolsters. The sheets were made of linen, hence where we get the term bed-linens, and it looked altogether Spartan to my jaundiced eye.

 

The expression, sleep on it, has always made good sense to me. Our brains are over-stimulated, and that condition gets worse by the minute. Sleep specialists always advise not to watch television as an aide to insomnia, as it only makes the condition worse. A long walk, in the fresh air, followed by a healthy diet, during the day, restricting processed foods and refined sugar, dining early, and other good habits really do help. Yet so many nights I am wide awake at an ungodly hour. Warm milk with turmeric and cinnamon, a tip I learned from watching Dr. Oz works wonders. Years ago, I used to refrain from getting up and would lie in bed driving myself crazy running through a litany or worries. Now I get up and read until my eyes are tired, or I listen to sleep tapes I found on YouTube. If I find that I am at a loss for words during the day, and thus am awake and trying to sort out whether a chapter in my novel should stay or get the ax, I often find the answer in the morning. Stephen King was on a vacation in London when he he awoke in the morning with a story in his head. He told his wife he had to write, asked the hotel manager to set him up with a desk and wrote Carrie. The rest is history.

 

Nothing changed my sleep problem as significantly as a visit to this website: www.shapeofsleep.com.

Having purchased memory foam shaped pillows in department stores I have long been sold on this concept, but the real deal is much much better.

 

 

“Through human history, people would sit on soft pillows during the day but set them aside at night in favour of neck support pillows. Ancient Egyptians, Chinese, Japanese, Polynesians and Africans all used neck supports made from a variety of relatively unyielding materials, including: wood, ceramics, leather, alabaster and ivory. The bolster used widely in Europe is mechanically similar.”

www.shapeof sleep.com

 

Good health to ye.

Pull and Bloody Pull

 

Monday, December 8, 2014

Pull and Bloody Pull

Boys in the Boat

Many great accounts filtered down to me regarding Daniel James Brown’s account of Boys in the Boat. When a book is recommended that highly, it rarely disappoints. That goes double for this amazing re-telling of the 1936 Berlin Olympics and the lads from Washington.
One of the members of the Best Food Ever Book Cub, posed this interesting question: “What made the boat speed through the water faster than any other boat? Coaching? Pocock’s design and cedar cut from the B.C. coast? Determination, competitiveness, and will? The Fates?” These are all great questions, and I know the discussion will be very lively as we look for answers.
It is my personal belief that champions are born, and champions are also made. What kept me turning the pages of this book that topped the New York Times bestseller list, is the recreation of a time and a place. A quest plot drives the action as we are literally pulling for every member of the crew. From hard working circumstances and the depths of the depression, these young men prepare to make themselves champions. The coaching is superb. There are words of inspiration for us to read and tuck away in our minds, on our blackboards, and in our diaries.
“One of the first admonitions of a good rowing coach, after the fundamentals are over, is “pull your own weight,” and the young oarsmen does just that when he finds out that the boat goes better when he does. There is certainly a social implication here.” George Yeoman Pocock P. 149
Reading of all the various obstacles overcome by the crew members, the grueling conditions in which they trained, the brute strength they were able to call upon when needed, makes this book an inspiring read. How I wished I had a rowing machine in my basement, or that I could get out on those glassy early mornings in my kayak or my canoe once again. I longed to feel my back muscles stinging, and I wanted to watch whirlpools in the water. I longed to glide along driven by my own steam. There is something so satisfying and immediate about the whole mode of travel that I wanted to feel all that beauty again.
Certainly the boys from Washington had an inner toughness that we long to see again. I can remember that in my youth the hockey players who worked in gravel pits and on farms in Ontario, gaining strength while putting food on the table for their families. Can true grit be found in a gym? I am sure it can, but I have always wondered if overcoming adversity as a child adds to what goes into the  making of a champion.
“Harmony, balance, and rhythm. They’re the three things that stay with you your whole life. Without them, civilization is out of whack. And that’s why an oarsman, when he goes out in life, he can fight it. That’s what he gets from rowing.” George Yeoman Pocock P.357
If you have a reader on your Christmas list, or like me, you give books to everyone, Boys in the Boat will be a highly valued addition to any library.

 

Subtext: What Lies Beneath

 

 

The greatest dialogue in plays, films, or books, manages to impart that which is said and that which has been left unsaid. The elephant in the room, as it were, will keep everyone guessing. A literal definition of subtext describes a message which is not stated directly, but can be inferred. It pertains to the hidden, less obvious meaning perhaps archly delivered by some of our greatest actors.

How is it done? Isn’t dialogue hard enough without adding this to the mix? The answer is yes.

Studying the book entitled,Writing Subtext: What Lies Beneath, by Linda Seger I have gained some insight as to how a writer can manage to achieve this. If the audience is let in on a secret, there will be much that can be read into the simplest of statements. A daughter may pretend to like the suitor her father picked out for her, but if we know that she secretly loves someone else, there will be a subtext to all she says. If a mother only wants what is best for her son, but does not want a daughter-in-law who is above her in social standing, she may seem to be welcoming this newcomer, but we will read into her attempts to be friendly. In some cases, such as the world of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the whole of Denmark can be slightly rotten. If the road to power is suspect, the dialogue will be full of subtext. Obviously, Shakespeare was a master at this skill. He would even have a character walk downstage and let the audience in on a few secrets. A sudden windfall, an unlikely suitor, a change of leadership, or even a new invention, can put all known truths under a new microscope. Perhaps everyone is trying to make an adjustment, but no one wants to. There you will see subtext.

A character at odds with the culture about which the audience is familiar will provide many a laugh as the poor fellow bumbles along, unaware of his missteps. Subtext is an essential tool in the comedian’s toolkit. In a tragedy, the very elements left unsaid, can be the ones propelling everyone to their doom.

While thinking about this topic, my thoughts lead me straight to a much- loved play, namely, The Importance of Being Ernest. Oscar Wilde states it flat out in Act 1, Scene 1. Two characters, Algernon and Jack, have a discussion while waiting for guests to arrive for tea. Discussing names Jack says,

 

“Well, my name is Ernest in town and Jack in the country.”

 

Algernon:

“I have always suspected you of being a confirmed Bunburyist; and I am quite sure of it now.”

 

Jack:

“Bunburyist? What do you mean Bunburyist?”

 

Algernon:

“I’ll reveal to you the meaning of that incomparable expression as soon as you are kind enough to inform me why you are Ernest in town and Jack in the country.”

“The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious and modern literature a complete impossibility.”

 

By the time the guests arrive, we have learned that both Bunbury and the Jack/ Ernest situation, are used as an excuse. When in town Ernest must leave at once as his brother Jack is in a pickle. When in the country, it is Ernest who calls him away, thereby providing the perfect excuse to escape social functions to which he is less than enthusiastic. Bunbury provides a similar ruse. Through the remaining scenes of this immortal play, all references to these characters are loaded with subtext.

Characters sometimes do not know themselves. Their most basic drives and instincts may be covered up by social convention, or self-delusion. The stage may be full of actors whose roles are at cross purposes. Therein lies the subtext.

 

 

After 100 Years

 

In Flanders Fields

The famous poem written by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, penned as a memorial for his slain friend, Alexis Helmer, pictured above, captures the essence of sacrifice. The chilling poem grew to symbolize World War One itself. School children in Canada were tasked with memorizing it, and reciting it at the eleventh hour, on the eleventh day, of the eleventh month. This year, as we remember the fallen, we know that they are all together now; there are no living survivors of what is often called, ‘The Great War.’
It was supposed to be the war to end all wars. As my great grandfather was a committed pacifist, we can only surmise how difficult it must have been for him to see his only son go off to war. Fortunately, we have access to the letter he wrote expressing his thoughts:
The World Office,
Tuesday 1st February, 1916
My dear boy, I suppose you find it hard to think of yourself twenty-one years ago, but the dear little chap who used to love me so much and put his arms around my neck, and climb up on my knee, and play ball and do all the other little things which you won’t think anything of until you have children of your own, are all on my mind. Well dearie, you are a man now and your own master as I have always tried to have you be. I may not have done as well by you as I hoped, but you are all I could wish in the main things, clean, truthful, brave and generous. I think you will have enough regard for the old days to keep these things in your heart all your life.
You are going on a high quest now, not for yourself but for all the world. I have never bothered you much with religion, but I want you to feel that you are at all times in the care of the Master and that He will be with you in times of difficulty or danger. Even though you stand in the shadow of death you need fear no evil for He will be with you if your heart is turned to Him.
The war has interfered with many plans I had for you. You are going to England but not as I expected. I do not know what another year may bring, but we are all in the hands of the Eternal. I hope you won’t think of this as a sermon or a screed. It is just a loving word from your old Daddy to wish you all the best things in the world, and to kiss you goodbye as you go away and leave all the old times behind forever. Don’t forget, no one will ever love you better than I do. It makes me all the sorrier that I have such a poor way of showing it.
God bless you dear, now and always.
Love, my dear boy, Your loving Daddy
By the grace of God my grandfather lived and came home to raise a family. A recent book, released in Canada last week, depicted many of his experiences in the war. He was at all four major battles: Ypres, the Somme, Passchendale, and Vimy Ridge. He was also a fly boy, and in this book, I saw a photo of him in his leather coat, leather hat and goggles. At one point, his plane was shot down and even though he was wounded, he managed to land it in an obliging field. He said it fell in circles as a leaf comes down from a tree.
His gunner tapped him on the shoulder and asked, “What is going to happen?”
He said, “You and I have had a lot of arguments about religion Wardsy, and in about forty seconds, we will find out who is right.”
Conn Smythe in flight gear.

Mercifully, they managed to land and as they scrambled out of the plane, they saw a man waiving to them frantically. Feeling they were about to be rescued, they headed for him only to learn to their horror that it was a German. He pointed his gun at my grandfather’s chest and pulled the trigger, twice at point blank range. Luckily, the soldier missed and my grandfather later told us that it was the force of his wrath and will that somehow steered the bullets into his coat, passing him by completely. After this brush with death, he was taken prisoner and later escaped. Eventually captured, he had to spend the rest of the war in solitary confinement.
To read of all these tales so many years later, to learn of the horrific carnage, and see photo’s of his old friends and teammates from home, many of whom did not return, makes me so cognizant of the merest thread separating us all from life and death.
We have not lost sight of all the brave Canadians who died so far away from home. We pause in silence this Armistice Day, at eleven am on 11/11/ to remember all the fallen on all sides, and pray, as always, for a real, lasting and enduring peace.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks still bravely singing fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead: Short days ago,
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved: and now we lie
In Flanders fields!

Take up our quarrel with the foe
To you, from failing hands, we throw
The torch: be yours to hold it high
If ye break faith with us who die,
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields


Binge-Watching Olive Kitteridge on HBO

 

HBO has released a brilliant rendition of Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. Years ago, The Best Food Ever Book Club chose Strout’s novel as our February selection. The discussion was varied and intense. While this is not unusual, the character of Olive was argued over through most of the dinner. The novel, structured on a collection of short stories, is a character driven book. It is not without drama and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009. Set in the small town of Crosby, Maine, it would classify as a place driven story. Yet, it is the characters who really make up the narrative, and the way Olive is drawn first by Strout, and then played brilliantly by Frances McDormand is amazing. How do I love seeing a great adaptation of a story I could imagine as well as if I were in the room.
Olive is a math teacher. Her role as a wife, mother and teacher gives her a sense of authority that is at best a bad habit, and at worst a distinct flaw. Her blunt, sharp-tongued, and caustic responses wound everyone  around her. I know she can’t help it. How do I know this? There have been people just like her in my midst. Olive is also nurturing; she is an avid gardener, and she cares for those if she knows who are suffering from mental illness. She spots a young man, one of her former students, on the verge of suicide. We learn her father died by his own hand. She is tough and hard-boiled, but not all the way down to her core and that is where the story keeps emerging. When we see her disapproving and judgmental expressions, we know she will let fly. Sometimes her acidity takes us by surprise. You are always on your guard around people like her. They keep you on edge. It seems that the minute you start to get comfortable, or are gaining confidence they will cut you off at the pass. It is complacency she fears the most.
Henry, her husband, played fantastically by Richard Jenkins, is the kindest and most genteel of men. How does he put up with her we wonder? We grow to learn that when the chips are down, and I mean flat down to the bottom, Olive will be in your corner. She is like the tough old nurse all the young ones fear, but when you are in a pickle, she will pull you through. There is humor in how Olive negotiates through the town, and through the years.
The costumes, scenery and sets are just as I pictured them. Weathered shingles, porches done in a dark green stain, plaid shirts on women and men, a family dining at a wooden table in the kitchen. If I were ever teaching a creative writing class in creating characters, or an acting class in depicting characters, this book, Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout would be an excellent place to start. HBO has produced an outstanding adaptation, and this character driven story will be an American classic.
It was dreary here on Windy Bay today. A back strain restricted my activities. Binge-watching the show through the afternoon turned into a rare delight.