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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WW2 Bomber Tour and Swing Dance

         As a fan of Big Band music, I was happy to see the announcement for a WW2 Bomber Tour and Swing Dance last June, an event promising a retro evening of dinner and dancing to a 23 person orchestra in an airport hanger, just like they did back in the wartime.   Tickets were $75 per person, with the proceeds going to a children’s charity, but a bit too steep for most of my friends as it turned out.   While I have “medical/work” friends, (shop talk and free dinners from drug companies), “artistic” friends, (art galleries and theatre), “book” friends ( book clubs and literary talks) and “shopping” friends, I have no one who shares my love of history and museums.    My mother was not interested, she had already lived through that decade once she said and had no wish to revisit it.    My mother had worked in a war plant for two years (1942-1944), from the time she was 16 to 18 years old.   She remembers the young boys in her hometown volunteering for the war effort, and many did not come back.   At ninety, she does not like to go out at night, but she was interested in seeing the airplane as she is always looking for new subjects to paint.    So off we went to the local airport one sunny afternoon, along with a hundred guys, including a whole brigade of firemen on their lunch hour.   There may have been a few other women there, dragged along by their spouses, but certainly we were outnumbered.   My mother was not able to climb the stairs to tour the airplane but sat under one of the wings out of the sun and had an enjoyable chat with the pilot in charge, who was from Mesa Arizona but whose Canadian mother was from her hometown and had also worked in one of the war plants.   Although he had moved to the US when he was younger, his mom had died the previous year at age 89, so he was happy to reminisce about her Canadian roots.        

The Flying Legends of Victory Tour is organized by the Commemorative Air Force Air Base out of Arizona.   Their mission is to take antique bombers on tour around the country, to educate people so they do not forget this important part of aviation history, especially now that there are fewer WW2 veterans left and those remaining are well are up in years.   They tour all fifty states and Canada and you can sign up on their website to be notified if one is visiting your area next year.   The plane they were flying that day was a B17 bomber.  A four engine bomber, they were manufactured during WW2  – about 13,000 were made, about 5000 were lost during the war.  (see Wikepida for more info).   Those are not good odds, although the bomber developed the reputation of being able to bring their crews home safely despite being badly damaged.   There are only about ten surviving in the world which are fly-worthy, restored versions which had never seen action, including The Sentimental Journey on display.   The cost to tour the inside of the plane was only $5, so off I went, leaving mom visiting with her new friend. 

Bomber

Bomber

Before we start the tour, a bit about the crewman positions on the plane.  Here’s a link to a very excellent B17-Queen of the sky blog explaining the various crew positions and also a link to a Wikepedia article with more information than you might care to read.     I wish I had made notes at the time but it was over a year ago, and I scarcely remember what everyone did.  There was no official tour, but you could ask questions if you wished.   Of course, all my questions came later, like how they decided who got which position? 

This B-17 bomber, re-christened Sentimental Journey, had a picture of Betty Grable, a famous pin-up girl from the wartime, painted on the side.   This nose art, as it was called, was designed to boost morale and although the planes were often named after women, sweethearts or wives, other subjects included hometowns, states, cartoon characters, mascots or something designed to scare the enemy.       

Bomber

I climbed the six steep steps to the front of the plane, which gave you a view of the cockpit and the pilot seats, off limits of course.Bomber

They were in town for a whole week, with certain days set aside for touring, and others for flights.   The flights, ranging from $425 to $850 US, were all sold out, and well worth the money for flying fans because when would you ever get such an opportunity again.   I did see the plane overhead periodically during the week, flying low along the river, and once over the farmers market but by the time I grabbed the camera the photo-op was gone.   Even though you could hear its rumbling roar coming, I still wasn’t quick enough to capture it.   It made me stop and think about what an air raid must have been like, the planes upon you before you could seek shelter.    

Bomber

Behind the cockpit, the bomb bay doors were open below, and there was a bridge with ropes you had to walk across to get to the rest of the plane, but with my fear of heights, I decided I just couldn’t do it.   It was not for the claustrophobic either, as it was very tight quarters inside. 

Bomber

Bomber

I exited back down the stairs, and went in the back entrance (below) to tour the rest of the plane.

Bomber

First up after the bomb bay were three seats, two on one side and one on the other, for the navigator, the wireless operator and the bombardier, whose job it was to get the bombs dropped on target.   

Bomber

The next time you are on an airplane and tempted to complain about the seats, think about these.   Note the overall lack of insulation, it must have been cold as hell up there despite their flight suits.    I can’t imagine those poor kids (and they were mostly 18-25 year old’s), spending 12-14 hours in those tin cans, because that’s exactly what they were……pieces of steel held together by tons of rivets.      

Bomber

Next up was the ball turret position, and the turret jettison kit.   Pity the poor soul who got that position.   Located on the underside of the plane it was designed to prevent attack on the aircraft from below and was usually manned by smallest member of the crew. 

Bomber

The left waist gunner below.     I asked a guy to take my picture here but he missed and took the floor instead.   Note the spool of ammunition attached to the machine gun.   There’s a better picture in this article link

Bomber

The rear/tail gunner position was also bad……so exposed, but important for protecting the back of the plane.     

Bomber

For me, the most poignant part was reading the signatures written on the bomb bay doors.  Back on the ground, I looked underneath, where visiting WW2 veterans were encouraged to sign their names and list the number of missions and their crew members.   Here’s a sample, written on July 21 2014.  Earl Morrow, age 93 years old, but still able to remember everyone and their position, and his three crew members KIA killed in action – something you never forget.  The “Delores” was shot down over Germany after 17 missions, POW 5/45.    The doors were covered with signatures from the stops around the country.   I wish I had taken more pictures of these.  

Bomber

Bomber

Back to those rivets, while my mother was not a Rosie the Riveter, she worked on the inspection table at a die casting plant making aircraft engine parts – nose cones similar to the ones in this picture, but she says they were larger. 

Wallaceburg museum

 Her job as part of the inspection team was to check for holes in the unit, and check the threads for any defects.   About 3 in every 100 were sent back.   She left school at age 16 and was lucky to get hired so young, but an aunt had pulled her in.   Coming out of the Depression, money was not plentiful, but her parents and brother had decided to try and save enough to buy a farm.   They worked long shifts, sometimes up to 10 hours if it was busy, barely seeing each other for weeks.   Because of her young age, she was put on the inspection team.   She can’t remember her exact wage, but thinks it was less than $20 a week, or about $1000 per year.    She said some of the farm girls who came in from the countryside paid $35 every two weeks for room and board and their wages barely covered the cost.    She worked there for almost two years, with no time off for vacation, and when they had enough money saved for a down payment they bought a farm several hours away, right across the road from my dad’s farm, so essentially she married “the boy next door.”    The 100 acre farm cost $5000, but with the expense of buying a team of horses and other livestock and supplies, they had to take out a mortgage, but it was a start to a more prosperous life.   

My grandmother worked in the Brass factory, but married women had shorter hours, as this plaque explains.      

Wallaceburg museum  Wallaceburg museum

These pictures are from a museum in her hometown which we visited this past summer.   She had not been back in many years but was showing some art as part of a jury art show in the adjacent gallery.   The museum was just down the street from where she used to live, so we went to visit her childhood home, and the owner let her come inside.   I had knocked on the door as I didn’t want them to think there was some random stranger taking pictures of the outside of their house.   It was quite nicely renovated.   It sold for $1000 when they moved.   My mom remembers my grandmother sending her down the street with a dollar to pay the hydro bill at what is now the museum building.    And now eighty years later, she is showing her art there, which just goes to show life holds surprises, even when you are older.   Like most women of her generation she did not work outside the home after she married, so it’s nice she has this chance at a late in life career.    

The plane tour over, we stopped at the airport office and although I knew all 300 tickets had sold out quickly, just out of curiosity I asked if there were any tickets left for the dinner dance, and it turned out there were two cancellations, so we grabbed them for the following evening, my mother having now been enticed by the prospect of a nice meal and some big band music.  (When my parents were dating they used to go to dances at a venue on the lake, where Glenn Miller and other famous Big Band musicians played).  You were encouraged to dress in the style of the era, (and a few people did), but because it was so last minute, I ended up raiding my closet – thank god for that 80’s closet. (see The Vintage Corner)   I had made a quick trip to the vintage store looking for some evening gloves or a hat, something to make it more retro, but no luck.   It turned out the night was so hot and sultry, there was no need for gloves.   The first thing I noticed near the entrance to the airport hanger was a yellow dress on a mannequin, similar to mine, only mine was a Laura Ashley sundress with a fuller  skirt.   But I do think mine was nicer, yellow is not a color I wear well but the material was so lovely I had kept it, even though I hadn’t worn it in decades.  (I will admit, the waist was a bit tighter than I remembered).   

Bomber

They had made an effort to dress up the space with white tablecloths and chairs and army décor, but it was still an airplane hangar.   The smell of diesel lingered in the air because the side doors were closed to the evening breeze.      

Bomber

Here’s the orchestra setting up, The Toronto All Star Band, none of them over the age of twenty-five.   That surprised me, as I did not expect young musicians to be too interested in Big Band music, but I suppose a gig is a gig.    You could attend the dance itself for $25.    (Perhaps it was a good thing the airport hanger was so spacious, as last Sunday at the International Symphony Orchestra’s tribute to the Big Bands, we just about got blasted out of the back of the theatre, the music was so loud it drowned out the female vocalist, all those lovely Gershwin lyrics basically inaudible.   So this band in the corner was a nice comfortable distance from the tables, with the dance floor up front the way my mother remembered).   The buffet meal was excellent, well worth the price.   Unfortunately, our table mates were not exactly great dinner companions.   Three couples, who didn’t seem to know each other, two of the guys well on their way to being red-faced inebriated.  The guy beside me was a pilot from a nearby city, but that was the only information I got out of him.   His wife never said a thing all evening.    It’s annoying when you sit beside someone you don’t know at a dinner function and they can’t be bothered to make conversation.  I had introduced my mother as a local painter and said she had worked in a war plant – here is a living piece of WW2 history, in case you want to ask any questions.   No one was interested, except in another drink.   And while the music was excellent, no one danced.   I saw the same ten couples on the dance floor all evening.    After the dinner and speeches and silent auction, they opened the side airport hanger doors to let in some air, and a big gush of wind blew all the table decorations over.    There was lightening in the sky and a storm threatening, so we left after the second set.   My mother was tired by then, and wanted to beat the storm home, which we did, barely.   Before I left, I said, goodnight to my table mates and said, hey guys, don’t forget to ask your wives to dance.   You can bet those young WW2 soldiers did.    It may have been one of the last evenings of their too short lives, but I hope they danced.  Lest we forget. 

If you wish to read more about the airplanes of WW2  I can recommend two excellent books.    The first, Unbroken, by Lauren Hillenbrand, was made into a movie a few years ago, directed by Angelina Jolie, and is based on the true story of a plane crash in the Pacific, the pilot adrift on a raft for weeks, and then rescued and held in a Japanese POW camp.   The thing that struck me about the first part of this book, (his training and missions), was the poor condition of the planes.  They knew a high percentage of them would not even return from the first flight, and the chance of death was even greater when couldn’t parachute to dry land……but still they sent them up.   If they came back damaged, they’d repair them as best they could and send them out again.       

The second book, A Higher Call, by Adam Makos and Larry Alexander, is also a true story about a German flying ace who escorted a badly damaged B-17 Bomber (flown by a 21 year old US pilot on his first mission),  back across the English channel to a British airbase, instead of shooting him down.  Flash forward fifty years later, and the US captain sets out to find the German pilot who saved his life, they meet and become friends.   This too may sound like a Hollywood movie, but a similar thing happened to a local man here.   Late in life, he hunted down the POW’s from the German submarine crew his ship had captured in the Atlantic, and they held a reunion in 1992.   He said it was one of the highlights of his life….a reminder of how the world has changed……and how much it stays the same with war still raging.   Lest we forget.            

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Gothic Read for Halloween

Here’s a spooky book to read while handing out the Halloween candy….and a link to last years blog on decorations, Come In For A Spell

(I had not intended on doing a Halloween post other than this short book recomend, but the opportunity arose for A Visit with the Paranormal – so stay tuned for Fright Night at the Museum early next week). 

The Death of Mrs. Westaway

 

The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had  enjoyed British Crime Writer, Ruth Ware’s earlier books (In a Dark Dark Wood and The Woman in Cabin 10) but found this one very slow going at the start, to the point where I thought I might abandon it altogether, but I am glad I stuck with it because the ending was brilliant. The stage must be set, but I don’t know if we needed seventy or so pages to establish the protagonist as poor, cold and alone, and then the next seventy pages to establish the Gothic mansion as decrepit, cold, creepy and full of magpies…and well Gothic. I noticed she used the same descriptions over and over……her breath huffing in the frosty air……the cold draft at the window…..shivering in the rain etc……it made me long for a cuppa hot tea. But once the story got going, it took flight just like those menacing magpies…..and I couldn’t put it down. Even though I had guessed part of the ending half-way through, there was still a surprise twist.  Jolly well done.

Add the soundtrack from some classic Hitchcock….

   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Chestnut Wreath

fall tree

Autumn is very late this year – the trees are just starting their annual decorating.   I remember gazing out at this tree when I was in grade eight, as my desk was close to the window.   While the teacher would be droning on about some uninteresting subject, I would be rejoicing in the glorious fall colors.   We used to play soccer in the field after school, kicking the ball around under a canopy of orange and gold.   It is still standing, although the other trees are gone, made way for a parking lot.    I still get the pleasure of looking at it when I walk, I think of it as my tree, even though we are both a bit the worse for wear after forty plus years.   

Chestnut trees are also a fall favorite of mine.   My grandmother’s farm had chestnut trees in one of the fields and every Thanksgiving (Canadian, so mid-October), my little brother and I, brave but ready to run at the first sign of a big dumb cow, would gather them up and then use them to build fields for his barn set  – what fun we had lining them up as fences for his toy animals.  As a young girl who was horse-crazy, their glossy finish always reminded me of a chestnut mare or the sleek racehorses we would see at the fall fair.    We have two giant chestnut trees in front of our library so when you go inside to pick up your books, you’d better beware lest you be boinked on the head by a falling chestnut.    Last year one of the librarians displayed a chestnut wreath she had made on the checkout desk.  She emailed me the instructions, but I was too late, so this year I was prepared and gathered up several baskets after the first windstorm. 

chestnuts

 First I shellacked them with a coat of  acrylic varnish to maintain the shine, as they will dry out quickly.    I raided my mothers art cupboard and used a spray can, which was quick and easy but you might get a more even application by painting it on.   I did this a few days ahead of time to let it dry.  

acrylic finish

straw wreath

Next I took a ten inch straw wreath, (but any size would do, I started small to experiment, but hers was quite large and impressive), and wrapped it tightly with some nice decorating tape.   Make sure any loose ends are secured with straight pins, as you don’t want it unraveling after the glue is on. 

wreath supplies

Then using the trusty old glue gun, attach the chestnuts in any pattern you wish.  I must admit my first attempt was not perfect, as I have too much spacing between some of them.   When collecting it is better to find chestnuts of different sizes and some with flat bottoms for odd spaces.   The librarian had filled in the holes in between with Spanish moss, but after googling I found others have used small acorns to fill up the spaces.    I prefer mine having the pretty decorating tape showing through.   

chestnut wreath

It could be hung up with wire, but is fairly heavy so a table wreath with a candle in the middle is a nice option.   I decided to place mine on a wicker tray and added some bows in the corner and some fairy lights.  

chestnut wreath

You could use this for a centerpiece for American Thanksgiving, and then swap out the bows for something Christmasy.    These are not the kinds of chestnuts you roast on an open fire however, as these are horse chestnuts, which are toxic to humans and animals.   (The difference is in the shells, smoother vs spikier and the point). 

horse chestnuts

horse chestnuts

Total cost – around $10 – $4 for the straw wreath, $4 for the ribbon (with Michael’s coupon), glue sticks, chestnuts free for the taking.   All told it took me less than two hours to make, so this would be a nice idea for hosting a tea/craft afternoon.  

Since the weather is cooler now and more conductive to baking, I made Date Nut Loaf, using the recipe from my farm cooking bible. 

date nut loaf

This is a quick and nutritious tea bread – buy the bite sized dates to save time.

If you are interested in more fall decorating on the cheap, check out last years (unpublished) blog, Autumn Decor, for some dollar store finds. 

Book of the Day:

For more decorating ideas and recipes, see the Susan Branch book – Autumn from the Heart of the Home (published in 2004), for typical New England (Martha’s Vineyard) fare, or check out her website and sign up for her free monthly newsletters….they are always a cheerful read.  

Autumn from the Heart of the HomeAutumn from the Heart of the Home by Susan Branch

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As a big fan of anything Susan Branch, this book one of my favorites. I re-read it every year to get in the mood for the season, for the inspiration, the decorating tips and the yummy recipes.   Let the leaves fall….it’s time to get cozy.

 

The Farmer’s Market

           If you have ever dreamed of packing in city life and moving to the country then this book is for you.    Canadian author, Brent Preston turned fantasy into reality in this account of starting an organic vegetable farm and ten years of trial and error and back breaking labor before finally achieving a profitable outcome. 

The New Farm: Our Ten Years on the Front Lines of the Good Food RevolutionThe New Farm: Our Ten Years on the Front Lines of the Good Food Revolution by Brent Preston

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A must read manual for city dwellers and lovers of the organic food movement about a family who chose to leave the rat race and follow their dream of running a profitable organic vegetable farm. Dust off those fantaseeds and learn the gritty reality of where your food comes from.

           Although he might have started out with a simple plan in mind, by the end of the ten years he had mechanized his operations, hired agricultural co-op students for summer labor, perfected a delivery service and marketing campaign, and ended up specializing in just three crops, one of which was lettuce.   One of the things he did initially was to participate in the local farmer’s market every Saturday morning, but after a few years of this he packed it in.  If you think about it, never a weekend off for you or your kids, up at 4 am to load up the truck and then later in the day unloading the unsold produce.   Plus, while he said while he enjoyed the social aspect with the regular customers and the other vendors, there just wasn’t enough profit in it to continue.   Better to cater to the fancy restaurants who would pay premium for anything fresh and organic.   

           There is no doubt we are what we eat and organic food is in – food in it’s natural state.   Ask a person who has been lucky enough to live to be over ninety and chances are they grew up on a farm.   So farmers markets are booming because organic food is so popular, but are the farmers doing well?  I grew up on a farm, 100 acres, so I know how hard it is to make a living on one and how much work is involved.   We had a dairy farm with Holsteins  when I was a child and my dad had a small herd, three milking machines and a cream contract.   He got up at 4:30 am every day to milk the cows, then he would come in, shave and have breakfast (bacon and eggs and perked coffee), as we were getting up for school, by 7:30 he would have left for his other job, home at 4:30, early supper, then milk the cows again, and he would be in bed by ten or falling asleep while reading the paper.   On the weekends there were all the other chores to do.   Even back then you couldn’t quite make a living on a farm without a second job, and with a growing family, he finally switched to beef cattle instead and cash cropped corn, soybeans and wheat, and while that was a lot of work too, we were finally able to take a family vacation without being tied to the milking schedule.   Now farming is big business, a thousand acres or bust.  There was an article in the local paper recently about the International Plowing Match which listed a combine as worth $500,000, and a tractor with GPS the same.   My dad’s first tractor in 1948 cost $1000 and had a side seat upon which we kids would ride – heaven forbid, no one would let kids do that now.   My elderly grandfather who died in 1951, was against the new-fangled modern machinery, as they had to sell his beloved Clydesdale horses in order to buy it.  HorseThe last tractor my dad bought came equipped with air conditioning and a few years after he died, they had CD players, now they are steering themselves.   While farming may be mostly mechanized now, organic vegetable farming is still labor intensive, especially during the harvest.   It’s not a job many people want to do, and often the farmers must hire seasonal workers from Mexico or Jamaica to help out.

        September is the best time of year to visit a farmer’s market as it is bursting with the last of the summer produce and the early fall harvest.   While the peaches and berries may be almost done, the  plums, pears, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, new potatoes and onions are coming in.   

tomatoes

potatoes

Our local market is open Wednesdays in the summer and Saturdays year round.   Even in the winter, the inside of the old building is full of root vegetables and cheese and butcher shops, but in the nice weather the outside stalls see the most action.    They really need more space, but it’s been in the same place for eighty plus years and you don’t mess with tradition.   Located in an older residential part of town, there is one small parking lot and you have to drive round and round waiting for someone else to leave.  With about 50 spaces for 200 people it’s kind of like musical chairs for grownups.  Luckily, no one lingers long.   While you can get a pour over coffee with freshly roasted beans, there is no cafe to sit in or cooked food available.   We don’t see a lot of homeless people here but one day a woman with her cart piled high with all her worldly possessions asked me for some money, and with my hands full I shook my head no, but then after putting my produce in the car, I went to find her, and gave her ten dollars, which I suspected might go to drugs but who knows?   A friend of mine keeps Tim Horton’s coffee shop gift cards to hand out for this reason, but there is something so very sad about begging in front of a place with so much plenty.     

              Even in the winter I will visit about once a month, because there is still cheese, and apples and oranges to buy, but I’ve often wondered why they open at 6 am.   All the vendors are yawning by noon, or closing up early as they have been up since four loading their trucks.   Wouldn’t 8-2 be more civilized hours?   If they are supplying restaurants do they need to buy that early?    If I don’t get there by 11:30 (or  I’m still playing musical chairs), I may miss my favorite cheese stall or they might be out of Gouda.  

The cheese wars can be fierce.  There are two cheese vendors, right across from each other, and the Battle of The Gouda got so bad last year, they both decided not to post their prices.    They will glare across the aisle if they think you have abandoned camp, but if they have run out, what is the alternative?  My grandmother was Dutch, so I grew up on Gouda, the mild form, not the spicy seeded variety she bought from The European Shop.   

Dutch Inheritance - AMc

Dutch Inheritance

The market cheese is better than at the grocery store and they will give you a sample if you are undecided.   Even if you know you will like it, a sample will often tied you over if you got up early and missed breakfast.    Buying cheese at the market is also much cheaper than in the grocery store so I usually stock up on aged cheddar as well as the Gouda.    The one cheese vendor has recently retired and been bought out by the egg lady beside them, who I don’t think has gotten the hang of the weigh scale yet as she is very generous with her pounds, or kgs.   I don’t buy eggs from her though as I can’t stomach those brown eggs with the bright yellow yolks.   It reminds me of the eggs growing up on the farm, but I know free range chickens are all the rage and I am sure they are full of omega-3’s.    

I like to look at the flowers, the glads are out now, but I seldom buy as I have lots of flowers at home. 

glads

I have my own semi-successful potager, so I don’t feel the need to buy tomatoes, cucumbers or lettuce, but one whiff of the dill brings back memories of my mother canning dill pickles.    You can get a free bunch of dill with every large purchase. 

20180818_114916

dill

The early apples are starting to come in, which will soon mean spies and pies.  I can smell the cinnamon now.

apples

 My favorite time of year is when the summer fruits are available, the strawberries and peaches.   You can get a bushel of overripe fruit for ten dollars and make a whole batch of jam for what you might pay for two jars.    There is a jam vendor also, for when you run out, who also sells homemade fruit pies.  So definitely there is a cost savings, and the food is so much fresher and better tasting, not to mention not loaded with tons of preservatives and artificial ingredients. 

Not everything is better at the market though.   Sadly, it is home to the world’s worst bakery which sells the most tasteless bread ever baked, not to mention tarts with uncooked dough and a scant quarter inch of fruit filling.  The next time I walk pass, the owner asks if I want something so I venture a tactful complaint – I figure if no one tells him he can’t fix it.   He tells me he hired a new baker so I bought butter tarts this time.  Same thing.  I gave up.  There must be an art to making play-doh like that?    Butter tarts are a national institution in Canada but I have a fine recipe inherited from my mother.   We have much better bakeries in town but I suppose once a vendor has tenure in the building, it’s for life, and so many people don’t know what good pastry tastes like.   But the bread – there’s simply no excuse.    Bread is the staff of life, but so is good nutritious food.   If you ate today, thank a farmer!    

PS.   Happy (Canadian) Thanksgiving today! 

Wild Turkeys - AMc

Wild Turkeys

Beach Books Blog

Beach umbrella

With only a few weeks of summer left there’s still time to get some good beach reads in and often the best time for beach reading is September when the crowds have gone back to school and work.   Here’s my annual list with links to my Goodreads reviews plus a link to last summer’s Beach Blanket books, (a bonus if you are a library patron like me is there won’t be a waiting list for last years).

My number one favorite award of this year goes to The Perfect Couple – by Elin Hilderbrand……set on Nantucket it was the perfect beach book…..so engrossing you never want it to end and you won’t even notice the waves sweeping that dead body out to sea.

waves
The Perfect CoupleThe Perfect Couple by Elin Hilderbrand

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Perfect Beach Read. Her best book yet, the usual island fare with the added twist of a murder mystery. After a dead body is found floating in the water the morning of a fancy wedding all the guests and family members are suspects. Intricately plotted, the characters and descriptions are so real you will feel like you just spent a week on Nantucket. If you take this book to the beach you will not look up once it is so engrossing…..I could hardly put it down. I hope she does more murder mysteries…..looking forward to her new winter series.

Here’s another good domestic drama.   I had grown tired of Joanna Trollope lately but this one definitely held my attention.   
An Unsuitable MatchAn Unsuitable Match by Joanna Trollope

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A thought provoking novel about late-in-life marriages, complete with spoiled millennials, an attractive but penniless suitor, and a divorced people-pleasing protagonist who attempts to keep everyone happy but herself. It’s an intriguing premise, and like the title, a totally unsuitable match. If the book had ended any other way I might have been tempted to boycott all her future books. Fortunately, although love is blind, with age comes wisdom. I used to be a big fan of Joanna Trollope but have found her books lately to be a bit of a struggle, I couldn’t even read The Soldier’s Wife, but this restores her to what she does best, a nice Jane Austen-like drama about the tangle of family relationships.

Who doesn’t love a good murder mystery?     Mary Higgins Clarke never disappoints.   Can be read in one sunny afternoon.  

I've Got My Eyes on YouI’ve Got My Eyes on You by Mary Higgins Clark

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not as suspenseful as her usual, I guessed who did it and why about a third of the way through, but it was still a good read from the  Queen of Mystery.    She is still churning them out at age 91 but lately I have been preferring her Under Suspicion (fall) series with Alafair Burke.

For a more in depth psychological thriller, Clare MacIntosh is a good choice.    While I enjoyed her spring release LET ME LIE  it wasn’t as good as I SEE YOU, which I read last October and which had me deleting all the personal pictures on my social media accounts.  
I See YouI See You by Clare Mackintosh

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A murder mystery thriller perfect for reading on Halloween night in those lulls between handing out the candy…..ok maybe not such a good idea. Guaranteed to have you double checking all the locks before you go to bed, and I personally ended up deleting all personal pictures from social media. I liked the fact that the characters were flawed, which made the ending so much more delicious – a real treat.

You’re at a cottage and it’s raining so you browse the bookshelves for gems other people might have left behind.    SLEEPING MURDER,  Agatha Christie’s last book written in 1976, is the reason why they call her the original Queen of Mystery.   (80 books, over 1 billion sold).   Miss Marple may be a bit dated and the descriptions tame by today’s standards, but it’s still a masterful plot.   While I had never read much AG, other than Murder on the Orient Express where I already knew the ending, this kept me enthralled on a rainy afternoon and I finished it the next day at the beach in brilliant sunshine.

Beach Book

These are all by female writers, so here’s one for the guys.     A thought-provoking read about the origins of the universe and the future of artificial intelligence.     Dan Brown always tells a good story – book contains the usual steady stream of chase scenes where Professor Langdon is on the run from the bad guys and accompanied by a beautiful much younger woman.   Dream on Dan.
Origin (Robert Langdon, #5)Origin by Dan Brown

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A good read – Professor Langdon is back, the usual cloak and dagger, church versus science, fast paced suspenseful affair. But why does he always seem to be running from danger, in every chapter, usually with an attractive much younger female? I guess it makes for good movie rights. The book got off to a great start, but then kind of sagged in the middle, but I had guessed the ending by then. The plot line was simpler than some of his other books, but I learned some interesting facts about artificial intelligence and the big bang theory – see title.

Lighthouse

A Canadian find and locale.   The Lightkeeper’s Daughters by Jean E. Pendziwol  (plural – not be be confused with similar titled books).     I can’t remember how I stumbled upon this book, but it was mesmerizing.   A five star read.   Good for a trip to a cabin in the northern wilderness.  
The Lightkeeper's DaughtersThe Lightkeeper’s Daughters by Jean E. Pendziwol

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In her acknowledgements, this first time author thanks her writing group for encouraging her to take the giant leap to send her work out there. I’m so glad she didn’t keep the manuscript in her sock drawer because this is a marvelous book, by far the best novel I have read in awhile. Somewhat reminiscent of The Light Between Oceans, but with an Ontario locale as the lighthouse island is set in northern Lake Superior. The author who lives in Thunder Bay, grew up sailing in the area, and has done extensive research to keep the story authentic for the time period – it is set in the 1930-40’s. It is a beautifully crafted book, wonderfully plotted, well written, good characterization, with a perfectly satisfying ending. Why doesn’t something like this win the Giller prize? The author also thanks a ninety-four year old light-keeper’s wife who said wistfully after reading the book that she felt like she was back on the island. That was how I felt too – totally immersed in this other world, and really like the author acknowledged, there is no greater compliment than that for a writer.

So put your toes in the sand, open a cold drink and start reading.    Don’t forget to wear sunscreen.

Toes in the sand

On Books and Reading

           I am writing this in the waiting room of the Eye Institute watching the computer board for my mother’s cataract surgery to be finished.   Hospital technology has advanced to the state that you can now track the patient’s journey from pre-op to OR to recovery room, and then a volunteer will come and kindly escort you to your loved one’s bedside.    I suppose it saves the nurses time not having to answer all those pesky questions.   My mother has a particularly dense cataract which has been interfering with her ability to paint.   (Most of the paintings on the website are hers, she is also under The Artist on the main menu).   Claude Monet had the same problem in his later years, as his vision loss progressed his colors became more muted.  (If you look at this paintings after the surgery the blue green colors are so vibrant).   As a painter her eyes are important to her, as painting is her passion, while mine is reading.   Both our hobbies are dependent on clear vision.    A cataract is easily fixable, but some other eye conditions such as macular degeneration, are not.  I hope someday medicine will have progressed to the point where they will be able to implant stem cells into eyes and restore vision.   What a miracle that would be for those facing vision loss.    You hear a lot of tragic stories in the waiting rooms of eye clinics like these, but these doctors, they are the unsung heroes.

           Not being able to read would be the worst nightmare for me.   I know there are audio books but I want a book in my hand.   I don’t remember ever not being able to read, although I have a vague recollection of taking one of those Dick-Jane-and-Sally-see-Spot-run books to my mother and proudly showing her I could read by myself.   The letters made sense, they were words!  It was a momentous discovery.

           I read vicariously and from an early age.   I started school in a rural one room school house, and as there were only three of us in grade one, I listened in while the very frazzled teacher taught the older grades.   It seems archaic now but I suppose it isn’t much different than home schooling, all ages together.   Our farm was within walking distance of the school but after it  closed in grade two (it was archaic even then), my parents drove us into town to the Catholic school until the bus service was started a few years later.   One of my earliest recollections is sitting at the dining room table while my mother helped my older siblings with their homework.  I  would sit and soak it all in.  To me learning was fun, a whole new adventure.     

          I always loved books.   My maternal grandmother immigrated from Holland so English was a second language for her.   Her verbal English was good, her reading not so much, and I, a precarious four-year-old, would correct her if she strayed too far from the story-line or the ending wasn’t the way it normally was.    When the teacher assigned a short story to read in the grade five reader, (a Stephen Leacock tale about Mother’s Day),  I took the reader home and read the whole book.   I read the usual children’s books, Black Beauty, Heidi, Pippi Longstocking, The Five Little Peppers and How they Grew, a series called the Borrowers which involved tiny people living in a big house, and the rare treat of a Jack and Jill magazine once when I was in the hospital for tonsils, which was full of puzzles and activities.  Around age ten I went through a Trixie Belden girl detective phase, (no Nancy Drew for me, it was the sixties, who would wear a twinset even if they did get to drive a convertible).  Trixie Belden  Living on a farm with few playmates, I read for entertainment.   It was something to do in the summer, and as I was not good at sports and hated the heat, you could usually find me on a blanket in the shade of a tree reading.  As a middle child I was accustomed to being on the periphery, but I could always be found somewhere with my nose in a book.  When the library opened my mother would take myself and my younger brother every Saturday (after his hockey game and penny candy treats), and I would stock up on books for the following week.   The library was one of the few air conditioned buildings in town and I still remember the blast of cool air that hit you when you entered the vestibule, and the musty smell of books.   The librarian would often comment on my choices, because while our little library stocked picture books for kids and adult fiction, the selection for Young Adults, if that genre even existed, was limited…. perhaps only L.M. Montgomery (I read the whole Anne series) and Louisa May Alcott (like many girls Jo was my heroine).   And so I read the classics, Dickens, the Brontes, my mother’s copy of Gone With the Wind, what ever I could get my hands on.    Occasionally, when I would come across a Young Adult book, I would find it fascinating reading about teens my own age.  Several of those books stand out clearly in my mind, although I can’t recall the titles, one in particular about a young girl going to work at a summer resort.  I’m picturing bonfires on the beach right now.   If you lived an isolated life without a driver’s license, those literary ventures into a normal teenage world (parties, boys, jobs), can seem memorable.  Once I was in high school I discovered Seventeen magazine (50 cents an issue), and it became my fashion bible, and then later Mademoiselle and Glamour.  Although I read it for the clothes, magazines used to publish short stories back then and I read my mother’s Good Housekeeping and Redbook magazines for that reason as well as her condensed Reader’s Digest books.   

Seventeen Magazine

Vintage June 1970 Seventeen Magazine – from farmhouse attic

 I was one of the few students who didn’t groan about doing book reports, because it gave you an excuse to read a book.   I would read on the bus ride home, although often I would get all my homework done then too. 

       During my university and early work years, I hardly read at all, only scientific stuff – it was hard to keep up with the sheer volume of information, between work terms and school.  I only picked up reading again as a hobby at around age thirty, and then it was mostly vacation/beach reading. Throughout my working years I read at least a couple of books a month, mostly before bed instead of watching TV, or after I got home if I was working evenings and needed to wind down.  (There are entire decades of TV I have missed, although lately I have developed a taste for anything Masterpiece).   I am still an avid reader but now that I am retired, it’s more like one per week, and reading has crept into the daytime hours.   Reading outside on the swing in the summer is pure bliss.    I used to have a hammock where I read but the trees had to be cut down due to ash-bore disease. 

           My taste in books runs to more mainstream with a few eclectic choices.  I tend to haunt the best seller and new release lists, and recommendations from friends with similar tastes.   I avoid the Danielle Steele romance genre (romance is okay if it’s part of the story, but not the whole point), sci-fi fantasy, most Canadian prize-winners (too weird), and the majority of Oprah’s book club selections.    I don’t like too light and fluffy but I don’t want depressing either.   I enjoy fact as well as fiction, lately my choices have ranged from First They Killed My Father, a Cambodian refugee memoir, Quiet, a fascinating must-read for introverts, to The Sleep Solution (see Counting Sheep blog), and I still love a good medical book such as Five Days at Memorial, a tale of evacuating a hospital post Katrina.  

        I often try to work a book I particularly enjoyed into my blogs if it suits the theme, and sometimes it serves as the inspiration.   Lately I have been reading a lot of mystery thrillers and a few months ago I discovered the bookoutlet website, wandered into the travel section and never left, (see April Paris and Italy blogs). book outlet  I have my favorite authors, Jodi Piccoult, Cathy Kelly, Elin Hildebrand, John Grisham, Mary Higgins Clark, Clare MacIntosh, and often pre-order from the library so I can be number one on the list.    The bookoutlet is a discount website (both US and Canadian sites), for remaindered or overstock books with very cheap prices.  Recently I ordered eleven books for $102, (free shipping over $45), which came Canada Post.  There’s nothing like getting a big box of books in the mail – and isn’t there something wonderful about opening a brand new book and inhaling the scent of newly cut paper.  book outlet

 There have been a few times in my life when I have been too stressed to read – I could not concentrate on the words on the page, but luckily those were few and far between.   Reading can be a distraction, a solace, a balm for over-stressed minds, a portal to another universe, when this one is too hard to bear.   That is why one of the most often requested items in a refuge camp is a book.  It passes the time and takes you away to some other universe, if only for a few quiet hours.    

                A book journal is a lovely way to keep track of your reads, although I am not always diligent about recording the authors and the dates.

Old Book Journal

Old Book Journal

  The editor of the New York Times Book Review, Pamela Paul, wrote a book about her book journal (My Life with Bob – my Book of Books – click here for my review).   I used to keep my own BOB/book journal but lately I have been recording my reads on my Good-reads profile.    It you aren’t familiar with it, Good-reads is like a candy store for bookaholics.  To quote L.M. Montgomery, “I am simply a book drunkard,” with no wish to recover.   

           Recently I found a new book journal with a lovely lavender cover on a remainder table, a bargain at $2.99.   A lavender pen would be just the thing for writing in it.   There is something about holding a book in your hand… New Book Journal 

Quotes of the Day:  “I opened up two wonderful gifts this morning – my eyes.”

“Oh for a book, and a cozy nook, Oh for a quiet hour.”                                                                                                

What was your favorite childhood book?  What are you reading now?   What is the best book you read last year?  Please leave a comment if you wish.  

 

The Potager

garden square

        A potager is a French term for a kitchen garden.    Because of my intention to take a break from all things floral, (see the Danger Zone blog), I decided my gardening project for this year would be a vegetable garden.  Flowers are pretty to look at but hopefully this will be a more productive endeavor, with the end result being healthier meals to enjoy plus the added fun of growing my own food.   Who doesn’t like the convenience of a salad freshly picked from their own garden? 

salad on plate

Mandarin salad with raspberry vinaigrette

             My first foray into vegetable gardening was last summer as I had bought a raised garden bed and started with some romaine lettuce and two strawberry plants, lettuce and strawberry plants

 

plus twelve tomato plants, obviously way too many for such a small space, as a Tomato Jungle (see Sept blog) quickly ensued. 

tomato jungleSo needing more space, last fall I bought three more raised garden beds at the New England Arbor Charity sale (75% off, $25 each) and after dumping seventy bags of $1 dirt and compost into them, they were the regular price.  Never underestimate how much dirt a 4X4 square can hold, or how quickly it can settle.  garden squares and lilacs I placed them in the sunniest spot in my yard, but the aroma of lilacs in the back corner is an added perk. 

               I am not completely unfamiliar with gardens.   Growing up on a farm (the homeplace), we always had a large vegetable garden.   It was a way of life back then, as anyone whoever spent the hot summer months canning and preserving can testify, plus it was a healthy and cheap way to feed a family.  The farm garden was always planted in the cornfield closest to the house for easy access, spread out among the rows of corn, so as not to waste precious corn acreage.   It was never planted until the first of June when the danger of a late frost was over.   Sometimes we would help my dad plant it, he dug the holes, and we put the seeds in and covered them up with dirt, but other than that I don’t remember it being any work, it just grew.   We didn’t weed or water it as it was in the cornfield, mother nature did the rest.    It had the usual garden staples, tomatoes, cucumbers, yellow beans, sweet corn, squash plus pumpkins for Halloween.    The beans and tomatoes were canned, and my mother made dill pickles with the cucumbers.   Many a hot August day, in the years before air conditioning, I would wake and go downstairs to find rows of inverted mason jars covered with tea towels on the kitchen counter-top, as my mom would have been up early to can in the cool of the morning.  Later they would be moved to pantry shelves in the basement.   I don’t remember eating the canned goods, (as a child I was a picky eater), but I  recall my parents having the stewed tomatoes with onions and a fried steak, and we would always have the sweet corn in August, slathered with butter.  So, I had great ambitions for my little white squares and visions of a bountiful harvest. 

Garden squares

       Last year I had bought two ever-bearing strawberry plants and had berries right up until October, (what a wonderful idea, why didn’t someone think of that sooner), that is if the birds didn’t get them first.   So this year I bought two more, but covered them up with garden netting.   A few days ago, a big black ugly starling lured by the sight of all those green berries, managed to get under the netting, and in a mad flapping panic tried to get out through the chicken wire.   I undid the top netting, but the stupid bird still couldn’t find it’s way out, so I turned the garden hose on it and sprayed it (gently, on shower not jet) towards the opening.   Bet it doesn’t try that again!   (I could understand a little brown sparrow or a hummingbird getting in but a starling the size of a crow?  It must have been part of the Cirque du Soleil acrobat team).  

 Into the same bed, went some romaine and red leaf lettuce.  Lately I have been buying red leaf lettuce at the grocery store, but it is also nice to mix the two.  The romaine I grew last summer was the best I had ever tasted, or maybe it just seemed that way as I grew it myself.    Because I had these in early before the holiday weekend, they are almost ready for picking. lettuceHopefully, they will regrow after, but I intend to fill in two of the other squares with some more in a few weeks to stagger the crop. 

Into the second square went the tomato plants, big fat Beefsteak for sandwiches and smaller Roma for salads.   I gave up on those tasteless little cherry tomatoes, you can buy those year round in the store, but a big fat home-grown tomato has a distinctive taste and aroma and is a truly wonderful thing.Tomatoes

Into the third square went two rows of carrots, because they are good for your eyesight, one orange, and one multi-coloured.   I imagine they will look pretty curled on a salad like in the food magazines.  carrots

I am hoping these bunnies aren’t high jump Olympic champions in fence hopping. 

bunny and garden square

Somebunny is waiting for me to plant the carrots.

Also, into that square went three seed potatoes, barely breaking ground now but at least they made it. Potato Plant  My dad never grew potatoes, perhaps lingering ancestral memories of the  Irish potato famine, so I have no experience with growing potatoes.  Maybe I will get enough for a potato salad?  

Into the fourth square went my Acorn squash for Thanksgiving, (not butternut as most people prefer), plus one cucumber plant designed for small gardens, so hopefully it won’t sprawl too much.

I did not plant any radishes, because my memories of the farm were the radishes were always way too hot and/or tough depending on the rainfall, nor butter beans as you can buy those in the store cheap and they are often tough as well.   My mother often planted gladioli and zinnias in her farm garden, but I have had zero luck with zinnias, although I do have glads planted along the back fence.   What I planted seemed like enough for a first-time endeavor – I am looking forward to the harvest.   (Next week I will tell you about a new way to cook all your nutritious produce, in my blog, Under Pressure, Instant-Pot for Beginners).  

Lately, I have been neglecting my book recommends.   This book, In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan, plus his first book, An Omnivore’s Dilemma really changed how I think about food and eating.   Perhaps a bit out of date now, with the current popularity of the high protein Paleo diets, but it made me really stop and think twice before eating any processed food.   Much better to eat food in as natural a state as possible, and for those who don’t want to grow their own food, the farmer’s markets are now open!   

  In Defense of Food: An Eater's ManifestoIn Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Simple words that changed my eating habits ten years ago when I first read this book, or at least made me stop and think first. Don’t eat anything your Grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. Also wise words. This book provides an interesting history and peek into the multi-million dollar processed food industry – what started out as an attempt in the fifties to make food better and healthier and last longer, has backfired so that we now have transfats, plasticizers and softeners in our bread and fast food burgers which never decompose. Certainly an eye-opener – you may never eat the same way again.

 

The Danger Zone

May really is the merriest month, and if you are a gardener, no matter what zone you live in, it can also be the most dangerous time of year.   The garden centers are starting to bring in their flats of summer annuals and hanging baskets. Hanging Baskets

Visit any nursery anywhere and everything is a riot of color.  The petunias are looking all perky and pretty in their spring finery,

Pink Petunias
Pink petunias

their vivid colors saying buy me, buy me….but beware!   They require commitment….lots of commitment.     This year I intend to save myself a summer of watering and weeding and fertilizing and deadheading and just say no.  I will not succumb,  I will be strong.

I am at the point in my gardening life where taking care of plants has become burdensome.  I enjoyed it when I was working, although I did not always have the time and my flowers suffered for it.   It was a respite to dig in dirt on my days off, a mindless occupation which did not require too much thought.    One year I had eleven hanging baskets, (what was I thinking), and twenty rose and hydrangea bushes I was trying to get started, but it was too hot to water at ten in the morning when I got up, and it was dark when I returned home from work.   But that was also the year my plants looked their best, because I gave up and hired someone in the neighborhood to water them.

geraniums
Pink Geraniums in September

It finally got too expensive, (it was a drought year), but I must admit it was a joy to have hanging baskets still vibrant in late September, instead of raggedy, dried out and dead by the end of July.

Paradoxically, now that I am retired and have more time, I am starting to consider gardening a chore and I don’t think I am alone in this.  A few years ago I found an abandoned garden cart at the side of the road, (which I brought home and spray painted lime green to hide the sunflower yellow).

Green cart
Rescued lime green wrought iron cart

My idea was to get some of the pots up off the ground and out of reach of the bunnies which had multiplied like crazy that year.   The homeowner told me to take it, it was free.   She even delivered it so desperate was she to get it out of her sight.   Having to water all those pots was just too much trouble when they were busy travelling all summer.   I didn’t understand at the time, (a few pots?) but now I do.

At this stage in my gardening life I’d much rather read about gardening than do it.    I’m ready to leave the pretty plants to someone else, not to mention the sweat and hard work, and live vicariously through someone else’s planting adventures.   This gardening book Elizabeth and her German Garden, was first published in 1898 but is still timeless today.    (see Enchanted April blog for more about the author).
Elizabeth and Her German GardenElizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A bestseller when it was first released in 1898, this book remains a gardening classic. Of course back then there were the necessary servants and gardeners to do all the hard work, still it remains an entertaining read, and proof that the love of gardening never changes.

 Luckily, most of the things in my yard, are easy care – roses and hydrangeas and peonies and lilacs.   I like all the old-fashioned flowers our grandmothers had.  I have mostly pinks, (double pink Knock-Out roses around both front and back decks), some lavenders (French and English and Rose of Sharon) and a few blues (hydrangeas if the soil cooperates and some struggling delphiniums).    I like the look of an English garden with tall waving blooms, (so Downton Abbeyish),  but have not had much success with this scheme.  Phlox, not good, lupines, disappeared, foxglove awaiting judgement.  This year I intend to buy flower seedlings at the farmer’s market as I realized last year they had a better selection and were much cheaper than the nurseries.

Plants can be divided into high maintenance (those that whine please deadhead me, fertilize me, give me a drink), and low maintenance, (those that can take care of themselves).   Lavender is as low maintenance as it gets, (it loves drought), plus it’s cheap and smells wonderful.

Lavender in a Blue Pot
Lavender in a blue pot

Lavender

Heather is also supposed to be a hardy plant, so after spying some flowering on a neighbors lawn while out for an early spring walk, I purchased a ten dollar pot and plopped it in the ground. HeatherOdds are it will end up neglected but I’m having visions of Heathcliff and the moors next spring…..Heather

The other reason for not buying as much this year is the price – it just gets too expensive, so I will be haunting the plant sales.   When the horticultural society holds its annual plant sale for two dollars, I’ll be there.  I’ll even get out of bed early before the best ones are gone.   (Well I was there by noon and got six pots of purple and yellow iris, a few bluebells and a twig they said was a Rose of Sharon which I suspect might already be dead, but all for a grand total of six dollars, everything is half price after noon, another reason not to get out of bed).

Impatiens have fallen out of favor here due to a widespread blight, but they have now come out with a hardier strain, so last year I did my own hanging baskets with a flat from a popup nursery and the end result was cheap and cheerful.

The only seeds I usually plant are blue morning glories along the back fence, Morning Glory with beewhich almost always put on a glorious show, although they can be very late in the year, (see A Glorious September Morning blog), and this year I’m going to try wildflowers again. Wildflower seed packets

Although I don’t expect it will look like the meadow on the front of the seed packet, I did have some luck one year and it was an inexpensive solution for a poorly drained back corner.   Last year I put in glads for the first time, and dug up the bulbs in the fall, but they were pulpy looking when I took them out of storage, so they will need to be replaced.  

Glads and Impatiens
Gladioli and Impatiens

But I plan on limiting myself to four baskets of geraniums from the garden centers, two for the front urns, and two for the back deck, no more…..fingers crossed.

Geraniums
Pink geraniums

My only splurge will be a yellow with pink centre hibiscus bush, because it looks so exotic like the tropics, and my neighbor got one last year but I always seem to be behind on the garden trends.  Yellow Hibiscus 

One year I bought a bougainvillea plant,

Bougainvillea Plant
Bougainvillea on it’s best behavior

lured by it’s vivid pinkness, but I do not live in the right zone for tropical plants.   It overwintered indoors fine the first year, and even bloomed in February but then it got all spindly and shed until it was moved south to the garbage bin.

So goodbye, farewell, annuals at the garden centre. nursery flowers petunias

I hope you find a good home somewhere else….stay strong!

nursery flowers mixed

Progress report to date:   8 hollyhocks at farmers market $3 total, horticultural society plant sale iris & twig $6, one pot of campanula because it looked so purple but when I went to plant it the entire head of flowers fell off ($5 wasted),Campanula bellflower

six pots of lavender ($3.50 each to replace the ones which didn’t survive our harsh winter),Lavender

and my regular bright pink geraniums ($14) which came in a pink pot this year.  Why didn’t someone think of matching colored pots sooner instead of those boring taupe things?Pink Geranium

The Resistance: a Pink Knock-Out Rose Tree which at $99 is difficult to justify as I already have lots of $20 rose bushes, but there is a bare spot in one corner….. 

Knock Out Rose Tree

 The Debate:  this years hibiscus flavor – Fiesta?   Maybe if it goes on sale….

Postscript:  The best gardener of all, and the cheapest, is good old Mother Nature! Cherry Blossoms