The Skating Rink

             One of the best things to enjoy about winter is skating.   In fact, years ago you wouldn’t have been considered Canadian if you didn’t like skating, my generation having been raised on hockey and a daily dose of outdoor exercise.   If you were a true Canadian, you never missed watching Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday nights.   I admit I haven’t skated in years and thought to take it up again in retirement, but my last Bone Density test was not good, so I fear my skating days are over.   Watching the neighbors kids  through my kitchen window is the closest I have come to the sport lately, and although I might have been moaning about having to do the dishes by hand at least I had a pleasant scene to gaze upon, especially after school when the spotlights were glowing, and the flurries flying.    Still, I was wondering, what if I built my own skating rink?   I have such a big square rectangle of a back yard, that it seems a shame to waste it.    

Skating rink

       Now that the neighbors have moved, I seldom see any children playing outside in the winter or in the summer either.   When I first moved to this subdivision there were always games of street hockey after school, now everyone is inside on their video games.   I grew up skating on the farm.    There was a low spot behind the barn which made for an excellent skating rink when it was flooded.   Here is a picture my mother painted of it, complete with the family dogs.   My brothers and cousins would sometimes go to the pond at the back of the farm to play hockey, but it was a long way to walk, there and back, in the cold.  Hockey on the Pond - AMc

Although skating was one of my favorite winter activities, I was not thrilled about having to wear black skates.   They were hand-me-downs from my brother, but my mother probably figured it didn’t matter as who would see us, way out in the country,skating (me)

But even at age six I knew that black skates were for boys – girls wore white skates, for figure skating.    By the time the arena was built in town and free skating hours were held on Sundays, I had a pair of white skates as I simply refused to go otherwise.    The best thing about skating in the arena was the music blaring from the loudspeakers, but it was the sixties and we had the Beatles and other groovy tunes.    While cleaning out the basement a few years ago I found the diary I got for Christmas the year I was eleven.   We had a skating rink at school that January, courtesy of some long forgotten but dedicated teacher, and practically every day the entry is the same – “went skating at lunch hour”.   Re-reading the diary, I seem to have been obsessed with skating, but maybe I had nothing else to write about – our lives were simpler and more uneventful back then.   By the time the February thaw came I had given up on both the skating and the writing and the rest of the diary is just a series of blank pages.

The winters were colder too and longer, at least it seems so in retrospect.   I remember my cousin and I once skating over the fields when we were teenagers – there was such a hard crust of freezing rain and ice on top of the snow that the whole farm was our skating rink that weekend.      

My dad remembers a few years where the winter was so cold and the ice build up so thick that it was possible to skate on the river.   That would be  dangerous now, and probably was then too.   My mother lost a childhood friend, a teenage boy who fell through the ice.   She was to go with him and another friend that day, but she didn’t have any skates.   My dad saved up $5 in the Depression to buy his first pair of skates.      

Skating must be in my genes, as my maternal grandmother hailed from Holland, where she remembered skating on the canals in the winter.    Dutch Inheritance - AMcWhile every small town in Canada has an indoor skating arena, there are very seldom any outdoor rinks anymore, and by outdoor rinks I mean big community rinks, not just a small square of ice in someone’s backyard.    Occasionally someone’s attempt to build a backyard rink gets shut down because of zoning bylaws or neighbors complaining about the noise, but kudos to the brave dads who attempt it, as they are the ones standing out at midnight in the freezing cold flooding the thing every night.   

Being outside in the fresh air was always part of the fun, layering up with double socks and mittens and thick scarfs around our necks and faces…..and then coming in hours later with red cheeks and frozen fingers to warm up over hot chocolate.    Some winters are just not suitable, it’s too mild or rainy, or just not cold enough – you must have a consistent spell of below freezing weather….the old six weeks of winter thing.   We did not even get our first major snowstorm this year until January 19, so this has not been the best year for making ice, but we are now in for a prolonged spell of below freezing windchill weather, so why don’t we have more outdoor rinks?   I see parcels of empty land here and there around town and think now that would make an ideal skating rink.   It seems to me that it wouldn’t be that expensive to build a temporary ice rink, and think of the fun the kids could have.   We have splashpads now that cost $150,000 instead of swimming pools.   You can skate in an arena where ice time is rare and always scheduled, but there’s nowhere to play a pick-up game of shimmy.    Many larger cities have skating centres, like Nathan Phillips Square in downtown Toronto.   You can skate on the Rideau Canal in Ottawa, but the weather is much colder in our nation’s capital.   If I’m ever in New York in the wintertime I would risk falling and breaking a hip just to be able to skate at the Rockefeller Centre – but first I would make sure I have travel insurance!       

skating rink

Having a backyard rink would be fun for the adults too.    I’ve often thought a skating party would be nice idea for a New Years Eve party, for all ages – the music – the outdoor lights – a bonfire – hot drinks – good food.    Chili and potato soup, or lobster Newburg and champagne if you want something fancier.    I used to talk sports with one of my work colleagues, who was a real hockey fiend.    Every year I would joke, “Bob, do you think this is the year I will have a skating rink?“ and he would reply, “If you build it, we will come.”     

I still have my skates – they are in the basement somewhere.   Am I brave enough to take a spin?  I wish I had a rink outside my back door….  

Song of the Day:   Joni Mitchell – I Wish I Had a River

Beverage of the Day:  Hot Chocolate made with imported Valrhona French cocoa….at $20 a box it’s expensive but worth it and not at all bitter as dark chocolate can sometimes be. 

hot chocolate

Gourmet Hot Chocolate

Snow Day

          There’s nothing nicer than a snowstorm in January, especially when the early morning news is telling everyone to stay home and take a snow day, and the local radio station is listing the bus cancellations, and school and business closings.   There’s no second guessing, should I go out or not, when they start telling everyone to stay off the roads.   When I was working, I dreaded winter as I had a long commute – it might be bright and sunny when I left home but by the time I got to work in the snowbelt region it would be a raging blizzard.    If you didn’t go in, you were home safe but sorry as you would inevitably feel guilty about leaving your colleagues with a skeleton staff and/or a 24 hour shift.   When I worked in a small rural hospital if it was an exceptionally bad storm, the staff who lived in town would be collected by snowmobile – no need to stay home, we will come and get you!    Many a snowy night I drove home in whiteouts over unplowed country roads where I was the only fool on the road.   A friend of mine once ran into a pack of wild dogs/coyotes on her drive home – they must have been disoriented in the blizzard to have come so far out of the bush and refused to get off the road.  After I changed jobs, it was even worse, as there was no backup staff or plan.   I only remember my workplace being closed once due to snow and only then because my boss had wisely but reluctantly made the decision…..but that was the year we had a snowmageddon and the national guard was called in to deal with all the stranded cars on the highway, many of whom had been there for over 24 hours.   I did not even get a snow day as I was called in to cover a shift near where I lived for someone who couldn’t get in.   It always amazed me how busy we would be on those days, and how many people would be out and about during snowstorms, even when they were telling people to stay home.   Of course, there would be the expected increase in emergencies – car accidents, heart attacks, pneumonia and such, but then there would be the others.    I reached the conclusion that there are people who just do not like being stuck at home during a snowstorm, they must be out and about…to the grocery store for milk, the library to return books….any excuse will do.    Personally, now that I am retired, I am grateful for the opportunity to stay home when the weather out there is frightful. 

snow

Who doesn’t recall the excitement of an unexpected day off school when you were a child.   I think we remember them because they were so few and far between.    Last year there were about ten days when the buses didn’t run here and another five or so when the school was closed altogether.   Snow, fog, freezing rain, some of which never even materialized but the school board must make the decision at 5:30 in the morning and there are liability issues.   I remember one year our rural bus was cancelled for several days.  We made snow angels, built snow forts and snowmen, played fox and the goose in the pristine whiteness and had hot chocolate (the real stuff with cocoa and milk) when we came in from playing, and usually grilled cheese and tomato soup for lunch.       

My dad would plow out the lane-way with the front-end loader on the tractor but basically we were snowed in until the county roads were cleared, which was never a priority for the township.   My ancestors went to church in this old cutter when the roads were impassable.   

sleigh ride 3 (2) I guess you could say the one horse open sleigh was their backup plan!   (This picture is from the 1940’s when my dad still had the big Clydesdale horses).     

Wreath with snow

The month of January can be quite pleasant, once all the stress and merry-making of Christmas is over.   The days are quiet – it’s a good time for personal reflection, journal writing, and soup on the stove.    You don’t have to socialize if you don’t feel like it, you can read and watch movies and putter around the house with no agenda in mind.    You can bake and eat with no thought of exercising off those calories.   It’s much too cold and icy to go out, although you might be brave enough to shovel the driveway if no one volunteers to do it for you.  It’s a time of year to be savored.    All is white without, all is warm within.   You can go to bed at night and listen to the wind howl and be grateful for hearth and home. 

gingerbread house

While a snow storm can be a blessing in disguise, a forced stop to our constant whirlwind of activity, if the storm goes on too long cabin fever can set in.    I tend to feel a bit claustrophobic if the driveway and street aren’t plowed out after 24 hours.   I want to stay home but I like the idea that I can get out if I need to.    Of course, if the hydro or heat goes out or the pipes freeze that is a whole other story…..not fun at all.   And if the winter drags on too long into March that can be depressing indeed.  

So, what are the ingredients for a perfect snow day – comfortable clothes, but you don’t have to get dressed at all if you don’t want to, stay in your PJ’s.   A nice pair of thick socks is a requirement and you must have a stack of books or magazines.   I always have some books on reserve for just such days.

Snow pictures - AMc

A cozy chair in front of the fireplace or in front of a window where you can watch the snow softly falling is ideal.   Add some soft pillows and a comfy throw, plaid is perfect. 

A cup of spiced tea is lovely to sip while you read…and if you get sleepy while reading, simply move over to the couch for a long winter’s nap.   But first throw something in the crock-pot so you can awaken to the delightful aroma of homemade stew.    If you feel like baking, chocolate chip cookies or brownies are always a good choice and much appreciated by the neighborhood snow shovelers.    I always enjoy watching the kids on the neighbor’s skating rink from my kitchen window while I do the dishes, twirling around in their colorful Nordic coats and scarfs like a real-life Gap ad.    Somehow the weather is seldom too bad for a game of ice hockey.  Sometimes there is even night skating under the spotlights, the flurries falling, the slam of the puck against the boards, he shoots, he scores.  After supper, it’s movie time – and popcorn and hot chocolate.  Later you can watch the storm highlights on the evening news and be glad you are not out in it – and so, to bed.   Tomorrow all will be sunny and bright like a winter wonderland…..and regular life will resume, refreshed by this quiet moment of winterlude.  

Quote of the Day:                           

Brew me a cup for a winter’s night.
For the wind howls loud and the furies fight;
Spice it with love and stir it with care,
And I’ll toast our bright eyes,
my sweetheart fair.     (Minna Antrim)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Song of the Day:  Snow – from White Christmas – Bing Crosby & Co.                                                                                                                                                                   

 

2019 Bucket List

 

Red Bucket        It is a universal truth that New Years resolutions tend to get broken, sooner or later, so most years I don’t even bother making them, thus saving myself some grief.   How much more pleasant to make a Bucket list of things you want to do, versus things you think you should do.    It’s all in the attitude….plus Oprah says if you write it down, it will happen….that fairy godmother vision board thing.

Add to My Library

     This was my sole New Years resolution last year, and I kept it…but as I love to read, it was no great hardship.     I had de-cluttered my house the year before and given away a lot of books I was no longer interested in, only keeping what I truly loved and found inspiring.    After discovering the bookoutlet website last spring I ordered from them four times over the course of the year, including 15 books at their Boxing Day sale, 13 of which I gave away as Christmas gifts.     Their sales are 30% off already bargain prices.    About half of these were books I had already read but wanted copies of because I wanted to re-read them someday, the other half were new.     Nothing makes me happier than a big box of books arriving in the mail.     And of course, the big Rotary book sale with 30,000 volumes is coming up next week so I can add to my stash.    Now I am in need of a new bookcase ….

book outlet

Start Writing Murder Mystery

This is a tough one, because Santa did not bring me a plot for Christmas as I requested….or even anything remotely resembling a plot outline, only a very vague idea and two rather sketchy characters, but I hope to have a first draft done by next December.    I know that is overly ambitious, but I am looking forward to it and hope it will be fun.   If it isn’t I’ll quit.  Maybe I won’t be able to write fiction, but I won’t know if I don’t try.    Of course, I will probably have to neglect my blog, but I don’t have many followers anyway and I had already said in my one-year blogging anniversary post that I was going to cut down to two posts per month and/or try to do shorter posts.    If I’m still blogging regularly, you will know it’s not going well.   On second thought, maybe it would be easier to start with something smaller….a short story….or maybe a Haiku poem?  

Agatha Christie books

Spend Money on Fun Stuff vs Things

I haven’t worked for two years and have no plans to go back to work, but I have continued to pay my insurance and license fees in case I decide I want to go back to work.   Does that make sense – no!   So last November in a fit of courage, I faxed in my resignation letter to the college, thus saving myself $2000 annually, which I decided I would spend on fun things I might not otherwise do or buy, like the Christmas musical theater tickets I passed up because they were too expensive.  It will be my fun bucket fund – kind of like an incentive/reward plan to make a big decision a bit more palpable.  After all it was my livelihood for 40 years, so it was not an easy decision to make.    Although every time I talk to my former work colleagues it gets easier.   I don’t want to spend the money on one big thing or trip which is over in a week, so I intend to sprinkle the year with smaller delights – mostly  experiences, not things….unless they are books of course.    I shall become a millennial….in spirit only (no plastic surgery planned).    

Walk Every Day for Thirty Minutes

Inspired by Linda, my blogging sister at Walking Writing Wit and Whimsy, I started walking again a few weeks before Christmas, after an incredibly long break.   Our winter hasn’t been too bad, so I’ve only missed a few days so far.   I have noticed I have more energy and sleep better.    Of course, Linda has a lovely park with fat friendly squirrels, Harry the Blue Heron, seven swans a swimming, ducks unlimited and cardinals and birds to look at while she is walking……and I just have my neighborhood.   Currently I have a lovely curbside view of discarded Christmas trees.    But as I walk with my IPod, it will give me thirty minutes of music as well, (I miss listening to music during my daily commute).   I don’t have any specific mileage goal in mind, just to walk when able, aiming for maybe 5 days a week…when it’s not too cold or too hot or raining.    Linda’s nature pictures are so lovely that I am reminded I need to buy a new camera too, as my current zoom lens is broken.       

Renovate Kitchen

This has been on my list for awhile.   I even emptied out the bottom cupboards a few years ago down to only the bare essentials, (which was still a lot of stuff), in preparation.    I know what I want in my head but hate the thought of tackling another project.    I have PTSD from some of the past renos…but it must be done…certainly it will be worth it…….if only to get the dishwasher fixed.    I went to Lowe’s in October and looked at cupboards, just plain beige cupboards with glass windows, and maybe a bead-board pattern for the bottom, which would suit my older style home, and there were rows and rows of them…..so much choice.   The guy told me to come back when I had some measurements…time to get the tape measure out.    I hope it turns out the way I envisioned it (I’m counting on you, vision board).  

Kitchen

I also need to stop wasting money on kitchen stuff.   I went into the dollar store last week for Yardley’s English Lavender Soap ($1.25/bar) and came out with a set of red Rachel Ray plates.     At $3 a plate who could resist and they would be useful for a Christmas buffet….once that dishwasher is fixed.    I do not need any more plates.  I have 4 sets of blue dishes now.   I could open a B&B or a tea shop with the amount of china I own.   

Paris salon

Host a Virtual Literary Salon

I already started this last week, (see intro The Literary Salon link), and the first book up for discussion is An Unwanted Guest (see blog link).   I read so many good books, it’s a shame not to share them.    

What’s on your Bucket List for this year?

 

 

 

 

 

The Literary Salon – An Unwanted Guest

An Unwanted Guest

This is the perfect book to curl up with by the fire, when the first big January snowstorm descends, perhaps with some mulled wine in hand to calm your nerves, for it is so well done you may feel like you have checked into the country inn yourself.     

The publishers  blurb:  When the storm hits, no one is getting away….

A remote lodge in upstate New York is the perfect getaway. . . until the bodies start piling up.  It’s winter in the Catskills and the weather outside is frightful. But Mitchell’s Inn is so delightful! The cozy lodge nestled deep in the woods is perfect for a relaxing–maybe even romantic–weekend away. The Inn boasts spacious old rooms with huge wood-burning fireplaces, a well-stocked wine cellar, and opportunities for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, or just curling up with a book and someone you love. So when the weather takes a turn for the worse, and a blizzard cuts off the electricity–and all contact with the outside world–the guests settle in for the long haul. The power’s down but they’ve got candles, blankets, and wood–a genuine rustic experience! Soon, though, a body turns up–surely an accident. When a second body appears, they start to panic. Then they find a third body. Within the snowed-in paradise, something–or someone–is picking off the guests one by one. They can’t leave, and with no cell service, there’s no prospect of getting the police in until the weather loosens its icy grip. The weekend getaway has turned deadly. For some couples, it’s their first time away. For others, it will be their last. And there’s nothing they can do about it but huddle down and hope they can survive the storm.

A bit about the Author:

SHARI LAPENA  is the internationally bestselling author of The Couple Next Door and A Stranger in the House. She was a lawyer and an English teacher before turning her hand to fiction.
She lives in Toronto.

 

 

My Goodreads review:

An Unwanted GuestAn Unwanted Guest by Shari Lapena

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Best to save this book for a dark and stormy night in January when a sudden snowstorm has descended and you are safe by the fire with a hot toddy. Absolutely loved it, so creepy and suspenseful I went around and checked all the locks before bed. It’s a simple premise, probably done before, a group of strangers snowed in at a country inn with no outside communication, and one by one they get picked off – by an unwanted guest. Vivid descriptions of the inn and the weather, a twist turning plot, and solid characterizations all make for a great read. A well developed story, from a psychological point of view – how well does anyone really know anyone else……psychopaths dwell among us.

Some thoughts:

It’s a deceptively simple premise for a murder mystery, take a group of people, in this case eleven, nine guests and two staff, and confine them to a space, a la Murder on the Orient Express, so you know the murderer must be among them.    Although this book generally received good reviews there was some criticism that it was too similar to Agatha Christie’s, And Then There Were None, which I have not read, having only ever read her Orient Express book.   But as a famous author recently proclaimed in one of his podcasts, all possible ideas have been done before anyway, what makes a book different is the authors unique spin on it.    At 290 pages it is a slim book, with the author giving us just enough information about the guests in the first few chapters to enable us to differentiate between them…..and then slowly revealing more background. 

‘The large diamond glittered when she picked up her champagne glass, her eyes sparkled when she looked at her fiance.  Everything about her was shiny and bright.  She has a bright shiny life, Lauren thinks.  Then she directs her attention to the man to whom she is engaged.  What does she think of him?  She thinks he is someone who collects bright, shiny things.’

By the end of the book five of them are dead and I still had no idea who did it until the last couple of pages, although I was a bit let down as there was no dramatic climax, just a slow unraveling, and one clue which I found rather cliche.    Perhaps all the clues have been done before too.     

I always like to check out the authors background, and an English major with a law degree is a lethal combination –  grammar and details.   I hope she sells the movie rights because I’m already casting it in my head.    Her first novel was published in 2007, and her second, Happiness Economics, was shortlisted for the Stephen Leacock Medal of Humor in 2011.    Just how does one switch from writing humor to murder, but I suspect there is more money in murder mysteries.   This is her third mystery and best so far.   Her two previous books had simple plot ideas as well.    In the Couple Next Door, a couple is invited to dinner at the townhouse next door, but when the babysitter cancels at the last minute, they decide to go anyway and rig up the baby monitor and one of them goes home hourly to check, except when the evening is over, the baby is gone.   In A Stranger in the House, a newly married couple find they don’t know much about each other’s background at all.    As a Canadian writer she has a Canadian agent, and while not as well known as Claire MacIntosh or Ruth Ware, I think she is well on her way, and certainly an inspiration for those of us still struggling to find a plot.   How hard can it be to write such a simple thing…..it turns out very hard indeed.   

(See introduction to The Literary Salon link). 

Song of the Day:

 

The Literary Salon

I’ve always wanted to own a bookstore and host a literary salon at night for all my witty and talented friends.    A literary salon is different from a book club, as people can just drop in, like a cocktail party.   In Paris in the Roaring Twenties salons were frequented by intellectuals, writers, artists and the celebrities du jour (Hemingway, Picasso, Fitzgerald & Co), with the sole purpose of providing stimulating conversation, amusing repartee and a lively exchanges of ideas…..plus free booze.   With a book club, you can have all of those too, but you are there to focus on the book…..hopefully.  

My experience with book clubs has been poor.  Attempting to infiltrate a library book club proved a disaster as the tightly-knit group had been together for over a decade and there always seemed to one or two members who squashed any opinion which didn’t agree with theirs, or worse monopolized the discussion.  The group was so large (18-25), as to be unwieldy, with some (myself included), being too intimidated to speak up, despite the best efforts of the moderator to make sure everyone had a say.  The structure was rigid, with a list of questions to cover in a set period of time.   Also, there was no food, or even coffee and it was late afternoon, which tended to interfere with my nap time.   I then thought of hosting my own more informal book club evenings with a smaller group of literary friends, perhaps once a season with food, like Southern cooking for The Help….pass the pecan pie please.   A group of local women self-published a book about their book club theme nights, complete with menus and lots of bevies, but they were rich and prone to extravagant weekend getaways, plus the hostess had to buy everyone a copy of the next book.      

What is the difference between a book club and a famous literary salon like the ones Hemingway attended, other than better food and more chic clothing?

Paris salon

Hard to imagine Hemingway at a book club.   Do men do book clubs – possibly in big cities, but not in my neck of the woods.   Only in the movies, like The Jane Austen Book Club, where they may have an ulterior motive ie. a crush on one of the members.   But they might be tempted to drop in on a literary salon if alcohol was provided.   Most afternoon book clubs tend to be female affairs  with tea in china cups and fancy sandwiches and cookies, or evening wine and cheese and gossip….but first we must discuss the book with a list of questions to cover.    Literary salons tend to be more free ranging affairs with small groups of individuals, male and female, congregating and discussions covering any number of topics…..and of course gossip!   It would be nice to combine the best of both worlds, good conversation, good food and drink and a relaxed atmosphere (one where you can hang out in your PJ’s).   Of course, if you are hosting a literary salon, having a Paris address helps, but since WordPress is our blogging home, that will have to suffice.     

So starting in January, I would like to present my new virtual Literary Salon.  We will open with the murder mystery, An Unwanted Guest, by Shari Lapena  (see link).   It’s the perfect book for a blizzard, so button up your overcoat, you don’t want to get chilled.     Please feel free to drop by anytime…..   

Postscript –  Bring Your Own Beverage – a Bloody Mary might be suitable for our first selection. 

Cue some jazzy twenties cocktail music:

 

 

 

 

Bacardi Rum Pum Pum Cake

rum cake      If you want a simple but delicious desert to take to a holiday buffet or help ring in the New Year, then a Bacardi rum cake is a great choice.   This cake is really something to celebrate, but for any non-drinkers you can burn off most of the alcohol in the glaze if you wish.   The recipe originated in the 1970’s but I saw a revised version in one of The Pioneer Woman cookbooks, which inspired me to try it out last year.   Although I remember it as a popular magazine advertisement from the Bacardi Rum Company years ago, I did not cook or even bake back then.    My only experience with a booze-laden dessert was during a late-night visit to a high school friend’s house over Christmas break.   She was of Italian descent and served us some kind of soggy boozy cake which was an Italian tradition.   After an evening of bar-hopping that was probably the last thing we needed, but we had strong espresso with it, as we sat around their ornate dining room table at 1 am  laughing and catching up and trying not to wake her sleeping parents.   (I don’t remember parents staying up worrying back then when their kids went out, certainly mine never did, but those were more innocent times when bad things didn’t seem to happen as often as they do now.  My parents never even locked their doors in the country and I often had to step over the sleeping dog when I got home).   I’m not sure what kind of fancy liquor was in that cake but it was very strong, so the memory has stayed with me…..plus the fact that I occasionally drive past her house, but they have long since moved and I lost touch.    This recipe is not as strong, or as soggy but has just the right amount of rum flavor.   It keeps well too, although I stored mine in the fridge in a covered container.   It was just as moist a week later when there were only one or two pieces left and the New Year’s resolutions had kicked in.      

Ingredients:

Batter:
  • 1 cup walnuts or pecans, coarsely chopped
  • 1 package yellow cake mix with pudding in the mix
  • 4 large eggs
  • ½ cup cold water
  • ½ cup vegetable oil
  • ½ cup light or dark rum
Glaze:
  • ½ cup unsalted butter
  • ¼ cup water
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • ½ cup light or dark rum
Instructions
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Prepare one 9 or 10 inch fluted tube pan; generously grease the pan with shortening and dust with flour.
Batter:
  1. Sprinkle the nuts over the bottom of the prepared pan.
  2. In a large bowl with an electric mixer, combine cake mix, eggs, water, vegetable oil, and rum; beat until thoroughly mixed. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula so the mixture blends evenly. Spoon the batter over the nuts and smooth the surface with the back of a large spoon.
  3. Bake: Bake 1 hour or until a long toothpick, wooden skewer, or cake tester inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Remove from oven and place pan on a wire cooling rack to cool for 10 or 15 minutes.    Poke holes in the bottom of the cake and spoon the glaze over it.   Be generous.  Let it sit for 10-15 minutes to soak in.   Remove the cake from the pan and place the cake on the wire cooling rack to finish cooling.   Drizzle the rest of the glaze over the top.
Glaze:
  1. In a small heavy saucepan over low heat, melt the butter. Stir in water and sugar; bring to a boil and boil for 5 minutes stirring constantly so mixture does not burn. Remove from heat. Stir in the rum.
  2. Use a long toothpick or skewer to poke multiple small holes in the bottom of the cake.    Spoon the still warm glaze over the cake and allow to soak in. Remove the cake from the pan and repeat the process on the top part (which will have the nuts), until all the glaze is used up.

Rum sauce

It can be impossible to find a cake mix with pudding anymore, so  newer versions of this recipe call for using one 3 oz package of vanilla pudding mix and a regular yellow cake mix. Cake mix

 Although the original recipe does not call for drizzling the glaze over both the top and bottom of the cake, I did both, as I wanted it nice and flavorful.   You do want it to soak in well so make lots of holes and let it sit for awhile before you remove it from the pan and repeat with the top. rum cake

I used a long two pronged fork to make the holes.   I could not find my Bundt cake pan (did I still own a Bundt pan?) so I just used a plain round Angel Food cake tin.   I also used butter instead of oil, a personal preference, and half brown sugar and half regular sugar for the glaze.   (Someday I may learn to follow a recipe exactly!)   The Pioneer Woman recipe called for 1/2 cup brown sugar mixed with 1/2 cup chopped nuts and sprinkled in the bottom of the pan, so I tried that this year and prefer the plain nuts version as it was too sweet and made the topping hard so that when I tried to poke holes in it with a nut pick,  it started to crack, so I ended up just drizzling the remainder of the glaze over the top.   Live and learn….a domestic goddess, I am not.

rum cake

I added the rum while it was still boiling to burn off most of the alcohol.   Of course you don’t have to use Bacardi brand rum…..any rum will do, but I do think a dark rum makes a nicer sauce.   When I went out for a walk and came back in, the kitchen still smelled rummy.  The batter tasted pretty rummy too, if you are the daring type who likes to taste raw batter.   I stored the cake in a covered container in the fridge and it kept well.   If it gets a bit dried out, microwaving it for about 15 seconds, makes it even better.   In fact, served warm with coffee, it’s a nice way to ring in the New Year with family and friends.   

Postscript:  see last years blog Here We Come A’ Wassailing for more New Years entertaining ideas. 

 

 

A Christmas Carol as Applied to Modern Life

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol remains one of my favorite books and I try and read it at least once during the Christmas season.   It is a short book you can finish in a couple of nights, with a cup of tea when you are worn out from shopping, and it always reminds me of the true spirit of the season.   (see last years blog for the inspiration behind the book).     Although it was first published, with great fanfare, in 1843, more than 170 years ago, I was struck by how relevant the story is and how timeless the descriptions are even today in our modern world.   Dickens was always as a wordy fellow…but ah…the food, the fun, the family dynamics…

The Weather

Let’s begin, as the book does, with the weather….

Once upon a time — of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve — old Scrooge sat busy in his counting-house. It was cold, bleak, biting weather: foggy withal: and he could hear the people in the court outside, go wheezing up and down, beating their hands upon their breasts, and stamping their feet upon the pavement stones to warm them. The city clocks had only just gone three, but it was quite dark already — it had not been light all day” and a few pages later, “Foggier yet, and colder! Piercing, searching, biting cold.”

As I write this, it is just the sort of foggy night that Dickens describes, a night which calls for Rudolph to be on standby.   December is a damp bone chilling cold as opposed to January which is just bitter cold.   The book of course is set in England where such damp chilly weather is common but it is as good a description as any for setting out the gloomy atmosphere of the first chapter, Marley’s Ghost.

The Workplace

Of course Scrooge’s miserly treatment of his clerk Bob Cratchit is central to the story, but who among us hasn’t had a Scrooge for a boss, without the heartwarming ending.    And poor Martha late on Christmas Day again.    

“Why, bless your heart alive, my dear, how late you are!” said Mrs. Cratchit, kissing her a dozen times, and taking off her shawl and bonnet for her with officious zeal.  `We’d a deal of work to finish up last night,’ replied the girl,’ and had to clear away this morning, mother.’   

And a few pages later, ‘Martha, who was a poor apprentice at a milliner’s, then told them what kind of work she had to do, and how many hours she worked at a stretch, and how she meant to lie abed to-morrow morning for a good long rest; to-morrow being a holiday she passed at home.’

If you haven’t arrived home late on Christmas Eve, exhausted from the demands of too much last minute work (much of it unnecessary and poorly planned – folks, Christmas comes the same day every year, no need to be standing in a lineup at 6 pm on Christmas Eve buying a present or box of chocolates), in order to have one day off, two if you are fortunate like Martha – then count yourself lucky.   I try not to go near the stores in December, certainly never the week before Christmas, as I pity the poor retail workers.  No matter what kind of work you do, there may be many days in the countdown to Christmas where you might wish to borrow that torch the Spirit of Christmas Present sprinkled in order to re-establish goodwill. 

‘And it was a very uncommon kind of torch, for once or twice when there were angry words between some dinner-carriers who had jostled each other, he shed a few drops of water on them from it, and their good humour was restored directly. For they said, it was a shame to quarrel upon Christmas Day. And so it was. God love it, so it was.’

Count yourself even luckier if your work doesn’t follow you home…..I recall one Christmas night spend huddled in the back bedroom with all the coats piled on the bed, the only quiet place in the house, on the phone trying to solve a work problem and thus save myself a drive over dark snowy roads.  How many of us are often simply too exhausted to enjoy Christmas, although too little sleep never seems to affect the children, who just get more and more wound up from the excitement of it all!   Of course, work can be a refugee if you are experiencing an overdose of family dynamics  – one year I went in for a few hours on Boxing Day just to get away from all the drama, (popping out to the Boxing Day sales works too, or taking the dog for a walk).  

But then we often have to pay for our merry-making with a backlog of work, as did poor Bob Cratchit, being caught late for work the next day, a full eighteen and a half minutes behind his time.   

`It’s only once a year, sir,’ pleaded Bob, appearing from the Tank. `It shall not be repeated. I was making rather merry yesterday, sir.’

Although I doubt bosses today would be inclined to invite you out for a bowl of Smoking Bishop, which brings us to the Christmas work party.  

The Office Party

Was there ever a better office party than the one old Fezziwig put on for his staff, including his two young apprentices Scrooge and Wilkins, and how they admired him for it.   

A Christmas Carol

‘Clear away…..the floor was swept and watered, the lamps were trimmed, fuel was heaped upon the fire; and the warehouse was as snug, and warm, and dry, and bright a ball-room, as you would desire to see upon a winter’s night.

In came a fiddler with a music-book…..and made an orchestra of it…..In came Mrs Fezziwig, one vast substantial smile. In came the three Miss Fezziwigs, beaming and lovable. In came the six young followers whose hearts they broke. In came all the young men and women employed in the business. In came the housemaid, with her cousin, the baker. In came the cook, with her brother’s particular friend, the milkman. In came the boy from over the way, who was suspected of not having board enough from his master; trying to hide himself behind the girl from next door but one, who was proved to have had her ears pulled by her mistress. In they all came, one after another; some shyly, some boldly, some gracefully, some awkwardly, some pushing, some pulling; in they all came, anyhow and everyhow. Away they all went, twenty couples at once; hands half round and back again the other way; down the middle and up again; round and round in various stages of affectionate grouping; old top couple always turning up in the wrong place; new top couple starting off again, as soon as they got there; all top couples at last, and not a bottom one to help them. When this result was brought about, old Fezziwig, clapping his hands to stop the dance, cried out,’ Well done.’ 

There were more dances, and there were forfeits, and more dances, and there was cake, and there was negus, and there was a great piece of Cold Roast, and there was a great piece of Cold Boiled, and there were mince-pies, and plenty of beer. But the great effect of the evening came after the Roast and Boiled, when the fiddler struck up Sir Roger de Coverley. Then old Fezziwig stood out to dance with Mrs Fezziwig. Top couple, too; with a good stiff piece of work cut out for them; three or four and twenty pair of partners; people who were not to be trifled with; people who would dance, and had no notion of walking.

When the clock struck eleven, this domestic ball broke up. Mr and Mrs Fezziwig took their stations, one on either side of the door, and shaking hands with every person individually as he or she went out, wished him or her a Merry Christmas. When everybody had retired but the two prentices, they did the same to them; and thus the cheerful voices died away, and the lads were left to their beds; which were under a counter in the back-shop.’

We will leave the lads signing the praises of their boss who had spent but a few pounds of his money but who ‘has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count them up: what then. The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.’

Well, I can’t say that I’ve ever had that good a time at a work party, which was likely to have been a more sedate affair, usually dinner at a restaurant,  but maybe the key here is “plenty of beer” and “negus” (a beverage made of wine and hot water, with sugar, nutmeg and lemon).    From my recollection, there was sometimes more fun to be had in getting ready for an evening out than in the event itself, which brings us to the clothes….

The Fashions

Even the poorest church mouse likes to dress up at Christmas.   Who can forget, 

‘Mrs Cratchit, dressed out but poorly in a twice-turned gown, but brave in ribbons, which are cheap and make a goodly show for sixpence; and she laid the cloth, assisted by Belinda Cratchit, second of her daughters, also brave in ribbons;

and those girls sallying forth for a party,

‘and there a group of handsome girls, all hooded and fur-booted, and all chattering at once, tripped lightly off to some near neighbour’s house; where, woe upon the single man who saw them enter — artful witches, well they knew it — in a glow.’

What man hasn’t at some point been bewitched by a woman in a velvet dress and a bit of glitter?   I even remember wearing velvet dresses and fur trimmed coats and hats to attend Christmas Eve services…..now I might don a casual pair of velveteen pants and a dressy top to stay home, but I know the fashion magazines are still full of dressy evening wear.  

The Food

While the Cratchit’s dinner of goose and stuffing is legendary, we seldom dine on goose anymore, but we still like to comment about how this year’s turkey rates.  

A Christmas Carol

‘Such a bustle ensued that you might have thought a goose the rarest of all birds; a feathered phenomenon, to which a black swan was a matter of course — and in truth it was something very like it in that house. Mrs Cratchit made the gravy (ready beforehand in a little saucepan) hissing hot; Master Peter mashed the potatoes with incredible vigour; Miss Belinda sweetened up the apple-sauce; Martha dusted the hot plates; Bob took Tiny Tim beside him in a tiny corner at the table; the two young Cratchits set chairs for everybody, not forgetting themselves, and mounting guard upon their posts, crammed spoons into their mouths, lest they should shriek for goose before their turn came to be helped. At last the dishes were set on, and grace was said. It was succeeded by a breathless pause, as Mrs Cratchit, looking slowly all along the carving-knife, prepared to plunge it in the breast; but when she did, and when the long expected gush of stuffing issued forth, one murmur of delight arose all round the board, and even Tiny Tim, excited by the two young Cratchits, beat on the table with the handle of his knife, and feebly cried Hurrah.

Christmas on the Farm

Christmas Dinner on the Farm – 1920

There never was such a goose. Bob said he didn’t believe there ever was such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration. Eked out by apple-sauce and mashed potatoes, it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family; indeed, as Mrs Cratchit said with great delight (surveying one small atom of a bone upon the dish), they hadn’t ate it all at last. Yet every one had had enough, and the youngest Cratchits in particular, were steeped in sage and onion to the eyebrows.

And then there is the famous turkey scene where Scrooge awakes on Christmas morning and yells down to the boy in the street.  

‘ Do you know whether they’ve sold the prize Turkey that was hanging up there — Not the little prize Turkey: the big one.’

`I’ll send it to Bob Cratchit’s.’ whispered Scrooge, rubbing his hands, and splitting with a laugh. `He shan’t know who sends it. It’s twice the size of Tiny Tim. ‘

Dickens descriptions of the marketplace are also marvelous to behold, as fruit was a rarer commodity than it is today, with oranges being an annual Christmas treat. 

A Christmas Carol

The poulterers’ shops were still half open, and the fruiterers’ were radiant in their glory. There were great, round, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts……there were pears and apples, clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes, made, in the shopkeepers’ benevolence to dangle from conspicuous hooks, that people’s mouths might water gratis as they passed; there were piles of filberts, mossy and brown…..there were Norfolk Biffins, squab and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons, and, in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner….

The Grocers, oh the Grocers, nearly closed, with perhaps two shutters down, or one; but through those gaps such glimpses……the blended scents of tea and coffee were so grateful to the nose, or even that the raisins were so plentiful and rare, the almonds so extremely white, the sticks of cinnamon so long and straight, the other spices so delicious, the candied fruits so caked and spotted with molten sugar as to make the coldest lookers-on feel faint and subsequently bilious. Nor was it that the figs were moist and pulpy, or that the French plums blushed in modest tartness from their highly-decorated boxes, or that everything was good to eat and in its Christmas dress; but the customers were all so hurried and so eager in the hopeful promise of the day, that they tumbled up against each other at the door, crashing their wicker baskets wildly, and left their purchases upon the counter, and came running back to fetch them, and committed hundreds of the like mistakes, in the best humour possible;’ 

Then there is the bounty at the foot of the Ghost of Christmas Present when he makes his first appearance:

Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam.’

I always thought it would be interesting to make a twelfth-night cake, which brings us to dessert.

The Dessert

Who can forget that famous pudding…

‘But now, the plates being changed by Miss Belinda, Mrs Cratchit left the room alone — too nervous to bear witnesses — to take the pudding up and bring it in.

Hallo. A great deal of steam. The pudding was out of the copper…..In half a minute Mrs Cratchit entered — flushed, but smiling proudly — with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.

Oh, a wonderful pudding. Bob Cratchit said, and calmly too, that he regarded it as the greatest success achieved by Mrs Cratchit since their marriage. Mrs Cratchit said that now the weight was off her mind, she would confess she had had her doubts about the quantity of flour. Everybody had something to say about it, but nobody said or thought it was at all a small pudding for a large family. It would have been flat heresy to do so. Any Cratchit would have blushed to hint at such a thing.’   

While Christmas pudding may not be as popular as it once was, it is still a part of many Christmas traditions, in my case a store-bought version from The British Shop, although the rum sauce is homemade. 

The Table:

While the Cratchits may have toasted their Christmas punch from a meager collection of glassware and tumblers,  Scrooge’s nephew Fred laid out a more prosperous spread.   Who can remember the anxiety of cooking their first Christmas dinner,

‘They were looking at the table (which was spread out in great array); for these young housekeepers are always nervous on such points, and like to see that everything is right.’

and the satisfaction of pulling it off successfully.

`”Here, he takes it into his head to dislike us, and he won’t come and dine with us. What’s the consequence. He don’t lose much of a dinner.’

`Indeed, I think he loses a very good dinner,’ interrupted Scrooge’s niece. Everybody else said the same, and they must be allowed to have been competent judges, because they had just had dinner; and, with the dessert upon the table, were clustered round the fire, by lamplight.

`Well. I’m very glad to hear it,’ said Scrooge’s nephew, `because I haven’t great faith in these young housekeepers. What do you say, Topper.’

Topper had clearly got his eye upon one of Scrooge’s niece’s sisters, for he answered that a bachelor was a wretched outcast, who had no right to express an opinion on the subject. Whereat Scrooge’s niece’s sister — the plump one with the lace tucker: not the one with the roses — blushed.’

The Decorating

‘It was his own room. There was no doubt about that. But it had undergone a surprising transformation. The walls and ceiling were so hung with living green, that it looked a perfect grove; from every part of which, bright gleaming berries glistened. The crisp leaves of holly, mistletoe, and ivy reflected back the light, as if so many little mirrors had been scattered there; and such a mighty blaze went roaring up the chimney, as that dull petrification of a hearth had never known in Scrooge’s time, or Marley’s, or for many and many a winter season gone.’

Proof that a little decorating can make any room more cheerful, and don’t we all love to decorate when there are so many lovely new things to be found each year.        

The Presents

While there weren’t many presents exchanged in 1843, there is one scene in the book where they are mentioned, 

‘But now a knocking at the door was heard, and such a rush immediately ensued that she with laughing face and plundered dress was borne towards it the centre of a flushed and boisterous group, just in time to greet the father, who came home attended by a man laden with Christmas toys and presents. Then the shouting and the struggling, and the onslaught that was made on the defenceless porter. The scaling him with chairs for ladders to dive into his pockets, despoil him of brown-paper parcels, hold on tight by his cravat, hug him round his neck, pommel his back, and kick his legs in irrepressible affection. The shouts of wonder and delight with which the development of every package was received. The terrible announcement that the baby had been taken in the act of putting a doll’s frying-pan into his mouth, and was more than suspected of having swallowed a fictitious turkey, glued on a wooden platter. The immense relief of finding this a false alarm. The joy, and gratitude, and ecstasy. They are all indescribable alike. It is enough that by degrees the children and their emotions got out of the parlour, and by one stair at a time, up to the top of the house; where they went to bed, and so subsided.’

The Music

There is music throughout the book, from the Fezziwig’s ball, to Tiny Tim’s plaintive fireside song, to nephew Fred’s party, as well as scenes of the miners and sailors singing on Christmas Eve with a pint in hand.   And it’s nice to know that God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman is still being heard today. 

‘The owner of one scant young nose, gnawed and mumbled by the hungry cold as bones are gnawed by dogs, stooped down at Scrooge’s keyhole to regale him with a Christmas carol: but at the first sound of

`God bless you, merry gentleman! May nothing you dismay!’

Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action, that the singer fled in terror.’

The Church Service

And how did little Tim behave”asked Mrs Cratchit…..”As good as gold,’ said Bob,’ and better.  Somehow he gets thoughtful, sitting by himself so much, and thinks the strangest things you ever heard. He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.’

While attendance at church may be dwindling, many people still make the effort to attend Christmas Eve services or watch midnight mass at the Vatican on TV.     

The Hustle and Bustle

‘He went to church, and walked about the streets, and watched the people hurrying to and fro, and patted children on the head, and questioned beggars, and looked down into the kitchens of houses, and up to the windows, and found that everything could yield him pleasure.’

Some people actually enjoy the hustle and bustle of the days leading up to Christmas, while others prefer to avoid it altogether…..but the reformed Scrooge was like a child reveling in all the festivities for the first time. 

The Company Coming

“By this time it was getting dark, and snowing pretty heavily; and as Scrooge and the Spirit went along the streets, the brightness of the roaring fires in kitchens, parlours, and all sorts of rooms, was wonderful. Here, the flickering of the blaze showed preparations for a cozy dinner, with hot plates baking through and through before the fire, and deep red curtains, ready to be drawn to shut out cold and darkness. There all the children of the house were running out into the snow to meet their married sisters, brothers, cousins, uncles, aunts, and be the first to greet them. Here again were shadows on the window-blind of guests assembling; …..But, if you had judged from the numbers of people on their way to friendly gatherings, you might have thought that no one was at home to give them welcome when they got there, instead of every house expecting company, and piling up its fires half-chimney high.’

Christmas Day doesn’t officially start until your company has arrived, which is especially a relief if the weather has been snowy and the roads bad.  

The Fun

Nothing beats the description of nephew Fred’s party for sheer fun and games. 

‘But they didn’t devote the whole evening to music. After a while they played at forfeits; for it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child himself. Stop. There was first a game at blind-man’s buff. Of course there was. And I no more believe Topper was really blind than I believe he had eyes in his boots. My opinion is, that it was a done thing between him and Scrooge’s nephew; and that the Ghost of Christmas Present knew it. The way he went after that plump sister in the lace tucker was an outrage on the credulity of human nature.’  

A Christmas Carol

Scrooge himself remarks, in the final chapter, that it was a wonderful party,

`It’s I. Your uncle Scrooge. I have come to dinner. Will you let me in, Fred.’   Let him in. It is a mercy he didn’t shake his arm off. He was at home in five minutes. Nothing could be heartier. His niece looked just the same. So did Topper when he came. So did the plump sister when she came. So did every one when they came. Wonderful party, wonderful games, wonderful unanimity, wonderful happiness.

The Family Dynamics

As Tolstoy remarked, “All happy families are alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in it’s own way.”     Although Dickens family appeared to be a large and happy one (he had ten children), his own childhood was not a carefree one, with a stint in a black-making factory and a father in debtors prison, and in his later years he was separated from his wife due to rumors of an affair with a young actress, plus he was frequently debt-ridden – it was a far from perfect life.    Still, A Christmas Carol was written early in his career and you don’t want to spoil a perfectly happy book with tales of dysfunctional families, no matter how often they may exist in real life.   If you have a happy fun-filled family like Fred or are poor but content like the Cratchits, consider yourself blessed.

“They were not a handsome family; they were not well dressed; their shoes were far from being water-proof; their clothes were scanty; and Peter might have known, and very likely did, the inside of a pawnbroker’s. But, they were happy, grateful, pleased with one another, and contented with the time; and when they faded, and looked happier yet in the bright sprinklings of the Spirit’s torch at parting, Scrooge had his eye upon them, and especially on Tiny Tim, until the last.’

The key phrase here is pleased with one another…and contented with their  own company.    Sadly, some families are not content with each other’s company…or they were at one time but have fallen apart.   I wonder if this is due to modern times, families no longer live close by, it takes more of an effort to get together and social media seems to have promoted the expressing of hostile opinions which years ago people may have kept to themselves for civility’s sake.   If divorce, money quarrels or BB (Bad Behavior) have torn apart your once happy family celebrations then it’s best to accept it, and realize that a) no one can take those happy memories away from you and b) be grateful you are not the person exhibiting the Bad Behavior who most likely is a desperately unhappy soul otherwise why would they act the way they do.    Scrooge was nasty and cruel because he was miserable.   If the same people exhibit BB year after year or if the thought of spending even a few hours with Drama Queen Debbie, Mean Tease Tony or Narcissistic Nina, is ruining your Christmas once again then it may be time to wish them well and move on.   Some things cannot be mended.   Real Life is not always like a Hallmark movie.    The only reason the theme of the book works is that Scrooge is WILLING and ABLE to change.  He wants to be a better person, a nicer kinder man.   Sadly, some people lack the ability or desire, be it because of alcohol or drug abuse, mental illness, self-centeredness or just a general lack of self-awareness, to express goodwill towards others. 

A Christmas Carol

      Most people want a bit of a crowd around at Christmas, the more the merrier.   But if you find yourself alone at Christmas, remember that many people in the world share this as a sad time, as 40% of the population now lives alone, many of them older people who have lost love ones.  Keep busy, and concentrate on the parts of Christmas you enjoy – the lights, the music, the decorations, the food, the movies, the company of good friends – there is much to love about Christmas.   If you are grieving and just can’t face the pressure of trying to act festive, it is perfectly okay to skip Christmas this year.   Stay home or travel someplace new, a friend of mine went to Paris.  Far better to be home alone with a good book for company, as the young Scrooge was in his schooldays, than to suffer through another round of socializing which may only end up making you feel worse.

‘The Spirit touched him on the arm, and pointed to his younger self, intent upon his reading. Suddenly a man, in foreign garments: wonderfully real and distinct to look at: stood outside the window, with an axe stuck in his belt, and leading by the bridle an ass laden with wood.

`Why, it’s Ali Baba.’ Scrooge exclaimed in ecstasy. `It’s dear old honest Ali Baba. Yes, yes, I know. One Christmas time, when yonder solitary child was left here all alone, he did come, for the first time, just like that. 

To hear Scrooge expending all the earnestness of his nature on such subjects, in a most extraordinary voice between laughing and crying; and to see his heightened and excited face; would have been a surprise to his business friends in the city, indeed.

`There’s the Parrot.’ cried Scrooge. `Green body and yellow tail, with a thing like a lettuce growing out of the top of his head; there he is. Poor Robin Crusoe, he called him, when he came home again after sailing round the island. `Poor Robin Crusoe, where have you been, Robin Crusoe.’

The Theme 

Was there ever a better message of goodwill towards men?

‘These held the hot stuff from the jug, however, as well as golden goblets would have done; and Bob served it out with beaming looks, while the chestnuts on the fire sputtered and cracked noisily. Then Bob proposed:

`A Merry Christmas to us all, my dears. God bless us.’

Which all the family re-echoed.

`God bless us every one.’ said Tiny Tim, the last of all.’

A Christmas Carol

My favorite part of the 1951 movie is the scene at the end where a hesitant Scrooge, with a bit of encouragement from the maid, opens the door to his nephew’s parlour.   He is ready, and his transformation and redemption are complete.     

‘He passed the door a dozen times, before he had the courage to go up and knock. But he made a dash, and did it:

`Is your master at home, my dear.’ said Scrooge to the girl. Nice girl. Very.

`Yes, sir.’

`Where is he, my love.’ said Scrooge.

`He’s in the dining-room, sir, along with mistress. I’ll show you up-stairs, if you please.’

`Thank you. He knows me,’ said Scrooge, with his hand already on the dining-room lock. `I’ll go in here, my dear.’

A Christmas Carol

And so we come to the perfect ending…  

Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.

He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!

A Christmas Carol

(Post script:  The illustrations are by John Worsley from my 1985 edition) 

Toys of Yesteryear

        “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo March famously, in the opening sentence of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.   Statistics say that the average child in the developed world owns over 200 toys but only plays with 12 of them on an average day, and only 3% of the world’s children live in the US but they own 40% of the world’s toys.    Certainly we have become a nation of excessive consumption of toys as well as every thing else, but it wasn’t always this way.   Last summer while visiting a local library branch I snapped some pictures of a museum display on Early Toys which I found quite interesting and would like to share….if only to give you pause to think before you buy someone yet another stuffed animal.  (Guilty as charged – but those Panda Bears are so cute).        

Toyland

Early toys simply reflected everyday life and activities.   It was generally accepted that children were attracted to toys along gender lines.  

Toyland

Toyland

Dolls were always popular and were often homemade.

Toyland

Toyland

My mother grew up in the during the 1930’s Depression when times were hard.   Her few dolls were cheap versions with stuffed bodies and porcelain heads and she never had a really nice one, although some of the richer kids in town did.   One of her friends never even had a doll.   She remembers getting a toy tea set one year and they would always receive an orange (which they never had any other time of year), a popcorn ball, some hard candy and candy canes which would be placed on a chair on Christmas morning.   Her brother got a baseball and bat or a hockey stick and puck, and one year a steel car (my dad had the same model so it was probably the Hot Wheels car of the time).    They never had a Christmas tree until the 1940’s – just once in her childhood and then they had nothing to put on it except red crepe paper and a string of popcorn.   I know this sounds like Little House on the Prairie, but there were no Christmas lights until later.     

If you didn’t have money for a real doll there were paper dolls, and I remember playing with these a bit in the 1960’s.    It was fun to change their clothes about but then we played with our Barbie dolls until we were ten or older as most of the fun was in the fashion, including sewing their little outfits. 

Toyland

Toys for boys gave them skills needed for adult life such as building things.    

Toyland

Toyland

Toyland

When my older brother was about ten he got a train set for Christmas.  My dad had nailed the track to a big sheet of plywood and after the supper was cleared it was placed on the long dining room table and all the guys in the family, including the adults, had great fun watching that little train chugging round and round the track, the engine breathing a plume of smoke.  

Books were popular for both boys and girls, and were always one of my favorite childhood Christmas presents.    I was thrilled to get a new Trixie Belden (girl detective) or a classic like Little Women, and could usually be found reading it on Christmas night while everyone was playing euchre and card games with my grandparents and eating Pot of Gold chocolates and chips and drinking Coke.  We never had those (junk food) treats other than on holidays or occasionally on Saturday nights when Hockey Night in Canada was on.   Toyland

Toyland

Even if you didn’t grow up in the Depression era like my parents, children didn’t have as many toys back then because they had to help out with the chores both inside and outside the house.   

Toyland

My dad said when he was growing up, Christmas was just a big meal and going to church.  It was not about presents, because people couldn’t afford them.   His best present was a pair of ice skates he got when he was 13.  He had saved towards the $5 to buy them.   This was in 1939 when the Depression was ending, which was also the first time he saw a movie,  A Christmas Carol, with his brother and sister.   He said they were scared to death, and I remember finding the Ghost of Christmas Past quite frightening when I was a child.   It was always on Christmas Eve and I would go to bed before the scary part came on.   I don’t think his skates looked like this ancient pair – I don’t know how they were attached but my mother says her roller skates had straps to fit over the shoes.

Toyland skates

Skates were always a favorite in Canada, but compare this rusty pair with today’s modern technology of molded boots and super sharp blades which could easily cost several hundred dollars.   While we may have fond memories of skating on outdoor ponds when we were children, will today’s kids have the same fond memories of their video games and electronic gadgets?   They may still have story hour at the library, but I have noticed even the tiniest 4 or 5 year olds are eager to get their allotted time on the children’s computer.

Toyland

But what if you have no toys?   It is a sad fact that half the world is living in poverty.

Toyland

My dad recalled making mud pies in the Depression…..and I remember my younger brother and I lining up the chestnuts we had gathered at Thanksgiving as fields and fences for his farm animal set.   My dad made him a wooden barn one year –  it was painted white with a green retractable roof.  I crept down to the basement a few nights before Christmas while Santa was at work sawing the wood – fortunately the paint was dry by Christmas morning.   Playing is instinctual in a young child, and children are ingenious for inventing games out of what is at hand, which is why you see children in refugee camps playing games with improvised materials such as a pile of rags wound tightly to make a soccer ball.    (see link to last years blog on The Good Samaritan Shoebox Project which sends toys to impoverished countries).   

Who can forget the excitement of lying awake on Christmas Eve and wondering what Santa would bring.   We all have our favorite presents that we remember as a child….and sometimes the worst, like those bunny suit pajamas poor Ralphie got in the 1983 movie A Christmas Story. 

Xmas presents (3)

I don’t remember making a Christmas list as a child.   Our parents just bought us things they thought we would like, but can that really be a toy ironing set in that box, as ironing is now my absolutely most hated household chore?    My best ever present was my Skipper doll when I was nine and had to go in hospital after Christmas to get my tonsils out….looking back it was probably a bribe of sorts.   Skipper was Barbie’s younger sister and she had bendable knees.   She came with at least twelve different accessorized outfits which I credit with my ability to coordinate any outfit today (see skills needed in later life).   I can still remember the thrill I felt when I opened that stack of individual boxes of tiny clothes and accessories.   I already had Midge (Barbie’s best friend), who my mother had convinced me was far superior to my older sisters Barbie, in the same way that Chatty Cathy (she talked when you pulled the string on her back), was superior to her boring ballerina doll who never said a word, (lesson learned, it is better to be different and unique and to speak out than to just look pretty).    While money was not as plentiful then, especially compared to today’s standards, and we never got toys other times of the year, my parents always made sure we had a good Christmas, (although I have never quite forgiven my mother for those pixie haircuts her French hairdresser talked her into when all the other girls in the class had long hair and curls).  

How many toys are too many toys?  Can a child really appreciate anything if they have such an excess of stuff.    I once spent a Christmas in a house where the entire living room floor was covered with so many presents it took the better part of the day to unwrap them all and a ten year old whined because they didn’t get the one present they wanted.   It was sold out by mid-November, every parent’s nightmare, a sad phenomena which started with the Cabbage Patch Kids in the eighties and recently those $80 Hatchimals which this year are gathering dust on the store shelves.   It is far better to give a child the one toy they really want than a pile of stuff they don’t, but perhaps that is a teachable moment too?  

 I long for the days when toy shopping was as easy as buying a playdoh set (which is fun for grownups too), but I haven’t toy shopped in years.   This year as I have some little ones to buy for (as in younger than two and more likely to play with the box), I discovered to my disappointment that Tickle Me Elmo does not laugh as much as he used to…..two laughs and that’s it?   He used to laugh so long and hard it made you laugh….we had one in the ER department for prn use if a child was crying inconsolably.   No doubt they have modified this feature for the sake of the parents sanity, but as he was on sale for half price ($20) I bought him anyway….plus some books….you can’t go wrong with books.   If you think a child might have too much and doesn’t need more of the same, a small present to open and money for the education fund might be appreciated……someday.     

Sometimes it is fun to buy toys for the grownups too, as Charles Dickens said in A Christmas Carol, “for it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child Himself.”  Last year I started someone on an animated Christmas village with an ice rink, thinking she could use it in her waiting room, (I remember the fish aquarium which kept me entertained as a child while waiting to see the doctor), but I don’t believe it ever made it to her office. Toyland

This year I have been on the hunt for a musical carousel, with no luck, as they are all too big or like this one some of the horses are going backwards? Toyland

The Facebook blog where I happened upon the statistic about the number of toys children own, was encouraging parents to buy experiences, family outings, lessons etc instead of things which is a great idea as long as it is something the child really wants as opposed to the parents wanting to re-live or replace something they missed in their own childhood.    Hopefully in the end what a child will remember most is not the toys so much, but the time spent with family.

So whether your Christmas morning is a sea of wrapping paper or a more modest affair like the Cratchits, we should be reminded of the rest of the opening scene of Little Women, because that is what Christmas is all about. 

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

“It’s so dreadful to be poor!” sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.

“I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all,” added little Amy, with an injured sniff.

“We’ve got Father and Mother, and each other,” said Beth contentedly from her corner.

Toyland

My mother’s Christmas Angel Doll

PS.  What was your favorite Christmas present growing up?

 

 

The Bestseller Code

The Bestseller Books

 A Review of Three Writing Manuals           

      “What if there was an algorithm that could reveal the secret DNA of bestsellers, regardless of their genre?     Thanks to authors Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers such an algorithm exists, and the results bring fresh insight into how fiction works and why we read.”    

      This jacket blurb of The Bestseller Code – Anatomy of the Bestseller Novel promises to unlock all the secrets.  

The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of a Blockbuster NovelThe Bestseller Code: Anatomy of a Blockbuster Novel by Jodie Archer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As a scientific person I found the computer analysis of the DNA which makes a book a bestseller very interesting, but I’m not sure you can distill the magic of writing down to such generic common denominators. Still this was a worthwhile read, especially considering the growing field of AI. Plus we all like to read about books like The Help being rejected multiple times, as it gives us hope….

Although this book was published in 2016 it only recently came to my attention, through another blogger’s review.  As I had half-jokingly written in my One Year Blogging Anniversary of my wish to write a murder mystery, I thought reading this book might give me some tips as to what might sell in the unpredictable world of publishing.    Normally I do my book reviews on Goodreads, but as there are many writers on WordPress who may secretly be harboring the wish to write a novel or are actively pursuing that goal, this book might be of interest to some.   I made notes, as it was a library book and had to be returned prior to posting this.           

Some points and random notes:    (The observations in brackets are mine)

Pg 3    In the US about 50-55,000 works of fiction are published every year.   Of these, about 200-250 make the New York Time bestseller list.    That’s less than half a percent.     (The odds are slim).

Pg 3.   The sudden and seemingly blessed success of books like the Dragon Tattoo Trilogy, 50 Shades of Gray, The Help, Gone Girl and The DaVinci Code is considered as lucky as winning the lottery.   But is it really?    After feeding 20,000 books into a computer program and developing an algorithm, the authors feel they can predict with a fair degree of accuracy which ones will make the bestseller list due to certain common characteristics.  

Pg. 27 you have about 350 pages to take us somewhere and back.     Journeying is the main thing, as is the theme/topic of human closeness/connection.  (The Goldfinch was awful, 600 pages of nothing.   So was All the Light We Cannot See.   But Gone with the Wind was wonderful at over 1,000).  

The average age of the heroine is 28???   (With Mary Higgins Clark it is usually 32, although lately they have aged a bit with her.    I’m not sure age matters that much as long as you have sympathy for the character.   I never thought I would read a Young Adult novel but Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games was totally captivating.    I loved the middle-aged protagonist in The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, but those four sixtyish women in Frances Mayes new novel, Women in Sunlight, annoyed me to such an extent that I would not recommend the book to anyone….yes, four main characters that I could not keep straight and not one likable.   Tuscany was the best part of the book by far).   

 There was a chapter devoted to themes and topics, what sells best, crime/legal thrillers/romance etc, and getting the right topics in the right proportions.    The computer model picked Danielle Steel and John Grisham as the two names who did this best.   (But then how to explain the success of Orphan Train, Water for Elephants, The Help, all diverse topics indeed.    The Help was rejected 60 times, mostly because editors thought the topic, black maids in the South in the 1950’s, would not be of interest to anyone.   I remember someone reading Water for Elephants in the lunch room at work and saying what a really good book it was and thinking they were crazy, who would want to read a novel about the circus during the depression?  After I read it, I thought it quite wonderful).

Pg 67 – The most common topic among bestselling writers was human closeness and human connection, which crosses all genres.    (perhaps self-evident as books do tend to be about people?)

Pg 89 – There are seven different types of plot-lines with sample charts of peaks and valleys.   You must hook your reader within the first 40 pages or they will nod off forever.   (I persisted through 150 opening pages about thet the poor and lonely protagonist in Ruth Ware’s latest The Death of Mrs. Westaway and was glad I stuck it out, as the last half was well worth it.   Some novels are slow going at the beginning).

Pg 115   The compute algorithm could detect with great accuracy whether a book was written by a female or male, even those such as JK Rowling writing under aliases. 

Pg 121   Opening sentences must be gripping and create an authentic preferably active voice, but a comparison of the opening sentence of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice with a Jackie Collins novel???   (I think not.  It is a truth universally acknowledged that one is classy and one is trashy.   But then the authors appear to have an obsession with the success of Fifty Shades of Gray/Garbage).  

Pg 136     Sentences do not need decorating with additional clauses.   Verbs prefer not to be followed with a string of really very pretty lovely little words ending in ly.     (Oh no…my nemesis….sighs sadly).   The sentences of the bestseller are not gaudy Christmas trees, carrying the weight of lights and baubles and tinsel and angels and stars.  Better the plain fir tree brought into simple relief.  (But wouldn’t that be like imitating Hemingway who famously never used a word you needed to look up in a dictionary and ignoring Dickens whose verbose descriptions ran on forever?)

Pg. 148   There was a  chapter on the dark heroine or the Girl phenomena – The Dragon Girl, Gone Girl, The Girl on the train.  The Girl is not your average heroine.  What is their popularity saying about our society?   (These are strong women, but are they nice?  Is this anything new – Scarlet O’Hara was not nice either – she was strong, selfish and determined.   Frail Melanie Wilkes was the nice one, but where did it get her in the end – she died young).

Pg. 194   In the final chapter, the computer picked the one novel 100% most likely to succeed.  (I will not spoil it for you, but it was not a book or an author I was familiar with, nor do I have any desire to read based on subject matter, but it was somewhat ironic).  

Pg. 209 In the epilogue there was a discussion about whether we will ever see a machine-written novel.    As far back as 1952 they tried to set up a program for a computer to write a love letter by feeding it common words used in such, but it was a complete failure, (and sounded like one of those spam comments I occasionally receive on WordPress – “It is lovely worth sufficient for me.  In my view, if all siteowners and bloggers made excellent content as you probably did, the web will probably be much more helpful than ever before.  I can help make very pretty….”    Poor Mr. SpamBot is not going to get anywhere using all those adjectives that end in ly!)   

To sum up, while this was a worthwhile and interesting read, but other than a few tidbits, I don’t think there was any major earth-shattering advice or analysis offered.    It was based on what was popular at the moment, but tastes change.   Some books endure, and others don’t.   I believe most writers write about what they find interesting, which is what makes the book world so diverse and unpredictable….and magical.   While common denominators may predict a winning formula for what sells, you can’t sell your soul either trying to imitate them.   I do read some of the authors on the bestseller lists, Jodi Picoult, John Grisham, Kate Morton, Elin Hilderbrand, (all of their latest  books have been great), but not others such as James Patterson and never ever Danielle Steele or Gray Garbager.   I don’t care how much money they make.    An analogy would be, while there may be a large market for reality TV shows, how many times do we tune in because that is all there seems to be on TV?   Shouldn’t we strive for something unique, something better than the norm no matter how well it sells….or just be content with more of the same…luckily as both readers and writers we get to decide.   

Perhaps we should turn to Jane Austen, who has endured over the centuries, for some writerly inspiration.  

The Jane Austen Writers’ Club: Inspiration and Advice from the World’s Best-loved NovelistThe Jane Austen Writers’ Club: Inspiration and Advice from the World’s Best-loved Novelist by Rebecca Smith

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was an entertaining guide to writing by a five times great niece of Jane Austen who has also been writer-in-residence at the Jane Austen House Museum, and so is well qualified to write about her methods, characterization and plotting. There were some useful tips such as writing an autobiographical sketch on each character, but I found the extensive quoting of large swaths of JA’s novels (sometimes for pages and pages), to be irksome, and in truth I skimmed most of it only ever having read P&P and Emma. There were lots of exercises suitable to a classroom setting. In truth, a book only for true Janeites, who know the novels inside out.

Last spring, I picked up The Jane Austen’s Writer’s Manual, by Rebecca Smith, at a discount store.   Written by a many-times great descendant of Jane Austen, it too had some interesting points, but as it quoted extensively from her seven novels, (at least half the book consisted of pages of direct quotations), I found myself just skimming it.     Jane Austen had many years between the first drafts of her novels and the finished products, long enough to perfect them into the polished gems they were.   One of the most useful pieces of advice in this book was to write an autobiography of each of the characters before you start.    But then what about writers who don’t write with any plot-line in mind, and just let the story and characters evolve?    Sometimes characters have a mind of their own and may take you places you might never even have thought of.    Plan the ending scene before you begin.   I believe Jane did this, but as all six of her completed novels end with weddings, the happy endings readers have been longing for, that’s not much of a stretch.   Much of the book was devoted to writing exercises as the author holds writing workshops at the Jane Austen House Museum.   This book is probably more for true Janeites, of which I am not, having only ever read P&P and Emma a long time ago.   I find her life more fascinating than her books, as is sometimes the case with writers.     

The Best Advice Manual: 
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and LifeBird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

Rating: 5 of 5 stars

Although I read this book well over twenty years ago, it remains the best book on writing that I have ever read. Time to re-read it again, plus I loved the inspiration for the title. When you are overwhelmed, that’s what you need to do, take it bird by bird…..or rather page by page.

Although it’s been twenty years, the best advice manual I have ever read on writing, was Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.    I have a copy somewhere down on the basement bookshelves…..I should re-read it, but that would be procrastinating…..  

Best to just get on with it then……

So, we need a 28 year old Girl Detective who is vacationing in Provence when she sees a man walking up the lane of her rented farmhouse.   There has been a dead body discovered in the nearby sunflower fields.   (see April in Paris Part Two blog for the muse of this story).    It is Monsieur Darcie Leduc, une inspector with the French police force, (but much more Mr.Darcy-like than Hercules Peroit with his ridiculous mustache and undiagnosed OCD).   

Opening sentence:    “Paige Protagonist was tired of thinking for everyone.   She had come to Provence to rest, mind body and soul, and intended not to think of a single thing for the next two weeks.    Let them solve all their own problems back home – she would not be there.   She would be here on this lovely terrace with a glass of wine in hand, looking out over the lavender fields…..and wondering who was that man walking up the lane to the farmhouse.”      

Um……would a 28year old be tired of thinking for everyone….no…..best to make her older….and that “lovely” adjective has got to go.     I think I’ll rest now.   I don’t want to overdo it….a little at a time…..page by page….

PS.  On Cyber-Monday I was browsing on the http://www.bookoutlet.com site for books about Provence when I noticed that this story has been done before, several times, and the proof is in the remainder bin, but alas, as John Grisham said in a recent writing workshop podcast, everything has been done before.    I hope Santa brings me a nice plot-line and some characters for Christmas as I have no idea where to go from here…..  

Song of the Day:   Paperback Writer – the Beatles

  

   

Bronte Country

Heathcliff is dead……again.    This is the third time I have tried to grow heather, but alas, it was not meant to be.   I have resigned myself to the fact that you can not grow heather in North America, there is a reason it is only to be found in abundance on the windswept moors of the UK.    Here is a photo of  Heathcliff (the-Plant-formerly-known-as-Heather), from last June, all healthy and blooming and alive.  

Heather  And here is a picture of him in September at his funeral.    

Heather

 I arranged a few red maple leaves around his skeletal remains, for a more poetic look, otherwise he might have been mistaken for a stringy birds nest which had fallen to the ground.    I had planted him in the same kind of poor rocky soil I imagined on the moors, and basically neglected him for the rest of the summer.   Heather likes full sun, (see care sheet), but the days were cloudy and melancholy and he took up drinking and drowned his roots in sorrow, (kind of like Branwell).    I must console myself though, that while we were not meant to be, he died young at the end of the rainiest season ever.   It was nothing personal, he just did not like our Canadian soil or climate.     

Heather

While doing some postmortem research, I discovered too late that heather likes well-drained acidic soil, and mine is clay and clumpy, so once again I had been lured in by a pot of pretty flowers.   I had thought they were more hardy souls (like lavender), who would grow anywhere.   Apparently there are many different types, and this  Better Homes and Gardens article says anyone can grow heather and heaths……well perhaps not the truly heartbroken gardener like myself who may never fully recover.         

Heather 

I have occasionally seen heather for sale in nurseries here in early spring, sometimes with pinkish flowers.   One July I bought some half-dead half-price specimens from the bargain bin.   I knew when I bought them they were probably beyond CPR, but they were only a dollar.   I planted them one week and dug them up the next.   My other futile attempt involved a specimen which the nursery clerk told me was the only heather they stocked.   It lived one short season, spread out a bit, produced 2 or 3 purplish blooms, then died off never to be seen again.   I knew it was not real heather because the foliage was too soft.    A friend who used to visit Scotland regularly, brought me back a piece of heather once as a souvenir – lucky for him the plant police did not catch him as smuggling plants is generally against the law.   I was surprised by how coarse it was.    I had expected from the pictures that it would be softer to the touch.

The moors must be beautiful in the summer and early fall, with all that heather blooming and the sky a bright blue, very Wuthering Heightish.  

Bronte Heather

Before Heathcliff, my only exposure to heather was from the window of an  tour bus in a downpour.   I was in Ireland in September where it rained every day – so why did my poor heather not survive?    The Irish heather (which was near a bog where they were cutting turf), was not nearly as stunning as the English heather in Downton Abby, the last episode of Season Five where they pack up the whole household and go grouse hunting at a castle on the moors and Mary and Edith meet their future husbands.    (You see, heather does inspire romance).   That was a beautifully filmed scene and inspired my mother to paint a picture called The Moors, which she included in her last art exhibit, (but then she has been known to paint shipwrecks from Poldark too).

The Moors - AMc

The Moors

 Victoria magazine is one of my favorite sources for inspiration, and in this past September issue they had a feature on Exploring the Bronte Legacy and the village of Haworth where they lived.  (September is always the British issue and there was also a Susan Branch picnic party in the Lake District for any Beatrice Potter fans). 

Victoria Bronte

Here are some of the pages, including the famous heather.

Bronte

We have Emily to thank for the popularity of heather, as we will forever associate it with her descriptions of the moorland in Wuthering Heights, as this quote attests,  “I have fled my country and gone to the heather.”   Although I have never been to England, I hope some day to put those words into action, as a literary tour is definitely on my bucket list. 

No wonder the Bronte sisters wrote such wonderful books, having that lovely vista to gaze at during their daily constitutional on the moors.  (Although no matter the scenery, I find that after a particularly fruitful writing session, a little walk can be beneficial for mulling things over).

Below, the steep cobblestoned streets of the small village of Haworth.

Bronte

Here’s the dining room table where they wrote their works of art and paced and plotted how to find a publisher, and no doubt discussed what to do about Branwell. Bronte

 The magazine article mentioned the 2017 PBS movie, To Walk Invisible, the story of the Bronte’s, which I watched and was somewhat disappointed in, although it is certainly worthwhile for any Bronte fan.   In truth I found the movie as dark and dreary as the moors must be on an overcast winter’s day.  There did not seem to be much joy in that household, but maybe I am confusing their rather bleak existence with that of the moors.     

I thought Charlotte and Anne well-cast, Emily miscast, and Branwell just plain annoying.   The movie ends with them walking on the moors after Branwell’s death, so it is not as depressing as if they had ended it later after they had all died.   But then their story is not a happy one.   I wonder if they would have traded their fame for more happiness and a longer life.   

This year is the bicentenary of Emily’s birth in 1818.   Here is Emily’s small and cozy room with a wonderful window view, as befitting a genius at work.  

Bronte

Emily remains the most puzzling one, so reclusive, yet the creator of such a  stormy and passionate tale.   No doubt she drew inspiration from her beloved moors but perhaps it’s very wildness was a reaction to their isolated existence.   She had a lot of time to think and imagine.   Her novel was considered dark and disturbing and somewhat shocking at the time, while Charlotte’s more conservative Jane Eyre was the more popular.    In the movie there was a scene where Emily was talking about where she got the idea for Wuthering Heights, but she spoke so quickly I could not follow, and I have since tried to research it to no avail.  Although googling did reveal plenty of theories about Asperger’s syndrome, as it seems popular these days to slap anyone the least bit anti-social with that label (think Doc Marten).     There are plenty of books about Charlotte, (see postscript), but not so many about Emily or Anne (who I think of as the forgotten middle child).    After seeing disheveled, weak, whiny immature Branwell it seems unlikely he could have been the muse for such a strong character as Heathcliff.    (But would any sane woman want a Heathcliff in real life?  All that anger and rage and jealousy just creates a whole lot of drama and angst, and wasn’t he a bit too possessive?  Somewhat stalkerish?  Better to marry someone more stable and level-headed if you want a happy home life, but I suppose if a wild passionate affair is your aim, then Heathcliff is your man).    

The movie contained nothing new, if you have already read such bio’s before, including the usual dose of family dynamics.   The ending was well done, three bright suns who were expected to dim their literary lights and walk invisible, in order to prevent embarrassment for the male heir of whom much had been expected, but little produced.   As for the issue of addiction so rampant in our modern world, that too is an age old question.  Their clergyman father could not decide whether to give in and supply his feckless son with drinking/opium money or just say no – the parent’s universal dilemma, to be an enabler or an enforcer of tough love?    In the end, it didn’t matter anyway –  TB won out.   Tuberculosis caused by a drafty old parsonage and those windblown moors.   Unfortunately, he took his two sisters with him.    

I have to admit the part I found most disappointing in the movie was the cinematography of the moors.   They must have filmed the outdoor scenes in  winter for there was no heather to be seen, just a bleak and brown landscape and overcast skies.   Perhaps they didn’t  have a choice, or more likely they wanted that gloomy depressing atmosphere, for it all looked as dull and dreary as a November day.           

Now that we are in late November, the weather has grown chilly and darkness descends early, and tonight the winds are howling and there is sleet against the windowpane.   The perfect night to settle in by the fire with a cup of tea, and re-read Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte’s masterpiece.  Although, I noticed that her name is not even on the cover of my 1984 copy, one of those classic editions with the fancy gold edging that are hard to find anymore.    

Wuthering Heights

I must confess, it has been a long time since that high school book report, and I cannot recall much of the story, other than it was a sad tale with a layered multi-generational plot.   But I do remember the descriptive imagery of those famous windswept moors, and the tragic ending of Cathy and Heathcliff, two star-crossed lovers who were never meant to be, but who remain immortalized forever between a marble and gilt cover.        

Postscript:   Most likely Charlotte, Anne or Emily never dreamt at the time that their books would still be bestsellers over 150 years later.    I wonder how those classics would fit into the Best Seller Code, which I will be blogging about next week. 

Postscript:  A goodreads review of  Charlotte Bronte: A Fiery Heart 

Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery HeartCharlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart by Claire Harman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This latest 2016 biography of Charlotte Bronte is well worth the read, even if I do wonder why Charlotte always gets all the attention. I enjoyed it so much, I bought a bargain bin copy. A good choice for fans, both old and new.

Bronte Country - AMc

Bronte Country