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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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….

   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Four Quotes and a Wedding

A month ago, Chomeuse with a Chou, knowing how much I love quotes, challenged me to a repeat of the Three Days Three Quotes Challenge.   The whole month of May was devoted to gardening and all things floral, so I set it aside to ponder while digging in the dirt.    And speaking of dirt, while viewing the Royal Wedding on Saturday, this Jane Austen quote came to mind as being particularly appropriate, because who doesn’t love a little gossip.    Jane Austen quote

While the royals would hardly be considered my neighbors, I do live in a commonwealth country, (which makes me common and them royal), and I remember learning God Save the Queen years ago in grade school, but otherwise the monarchy doesn’t mean much here in Canada anymore, other than the occasional royal visit, which are few and far between now as people complain about the wasted tax dollars.   (Imagine how you would feel if people were expected to give you a party but then complained about the cost – would you want to go?)   I am not a royal-watcher but I do have a bit of a soft spot for the Queen as she is the same age as my mum and she has been through so much in her sixty-year reign.    So, a few random observations about the wedding of Harry and Megs.

I thought the Queen looked lovely and spring-like in her lime green and purple ensemble – so kudos to whoever put that combination together, plus Prince Philip was looking dapper and quite spry too – no cane two months after hip surgery at 97!

I remember getting up at 5 am to watch Lady Diana’s fairy-tale wedding (and we all know how that turned out, poor girl), but on Saturday I slept in until 7:30 and woke up just as they were saying their vows, so I missed the grand entrance into the church but like fashionistas everywhere all I wanted was to see The Dress.  I think  it is the nicest royal wedding dress yet.   Lady Diana’s was lovely and fitting for a young girl of 21, full of frills and bows and puffy sleeves in the style of the time, but Meghan’s was classic and elegant, in an Audrey Hepburnish way.    It was covered, and form-fitting, but not too tight, and no cleavage, (I hate it when brides yank at their strapless gowns to pull them up), so everyone’s attention was on her face.   (Beyonce-lovers of the barely-there-strategically-placed-cut-out look should take note of what true elegance is).   The veil was exquisite with the additional feature of all that embroidery representing the 52 countries in the commonwealth.  Her hair was lovely too, a simple chignon, but those strands on the one side that she kept pushing back annoyed the heck out of me so I can imagine how she felt, plus they ruined the first kiss by dangling in her face.  Was it a windy day?  Was there a shortage of hairspray?  Or maybe they were supposed to be there, as in one of the official photographs they have pulled them out even more, perhaps a quick repair job?    Conversely, I did not at all like the dress she wore to the evening reception, some high-necked halter thing that looked saggy in front, but I did like that little Jag convertible, very James Bondish.  Imagine driving away to your reception in that little gem.

The bridesmaids and pages were cute, but there should be an age limit on that position.  That littlest toddler waddled up the aisle like she was still in diapers.  As for Charlotte, she has that royal wave down pat, but no child should be required to wear a hair wreath with flowers bigger than she is.   The Mulroney page boys were cute, even if they did photobomb the entrance pic with their missing-teeth grins.    One of my favorite pics was a silhouette of the twins holding up her train at the entrance to the church.

Meghan seemed to be a very composed, relaxed, happy bride, but wouldn’t you expect a bit of nerves on your big day?   I suppose if you were an actress you would be skilled at covering it up.   I recall Kate barely cracked a smile in the church on her wedding day, and looked pale and tired, (plus her and Wills barely glanced at each other so nervous were they), and Diana who was young and nervous (and searching for Camilla), also looked tired under her veil.    In contrast Megan was smiling and looked rested, like she’d had a good night’s sleep.  But perhaps that is the difference between an introvert and an extrovert.   An introvert doesn’t like being the center of attention, (especially when millions of people are watching), while an extrovert actually enjoys it, and as an actress she would be used to having all eyes upon her.   If she was nervous, it didn’t show.   She certainly has a lot of poise, which is admirable in a way.   But all that gaze-into-your eyes and smiling just seemed a wee bit much to me, (like roll playing to the camera), but maybe it just seemed excessive in  contrast to the rest of the royals and guests none of whom looked very excited.   Maybe it’s against protocol to smile on such a solemn dignified occasion?   When they panned the camera over the pews, all I saw was a bunch of blank stoic faces, probably thinking, let’s get this over with and on to the party, although even coming out of the church they didn’t seem like a very joyful crowd.   (This could just have been the Canadian telecast however, maybe others had a different point of view?)

The guests:  Amal Clooney.   If you are that tall, you don’t need sky high heels, even if you do have bored-looking George to cling to if you feel off balance, but no one should ever wear mustard yellow, so pass on the mustard unless you’re at a barbecue.    And why oh why did they keep showing Harry’s old girlfriend – she’s jolly well relieved she didn’t sign up for all that pomp and circumstance.    Oprah, that dress was too tight, and too pink, and that hat way too extravagant.   I didn’t recognize anyone else, but I am not a big TV watcher, and have never seen a single episode of Suits even though it was filmed in Toronto.

Meghan’s mother did well to survive all the attention with dignity and style.  She looked nice in her soft green but should have had a better hat.    She must be commended for raising such a strong, confident daughter, (and Lady Diana likewise.  I hope she was looking down with love on Harry’s special day).   Hers was the only face I saw which showed any true emotion, as she was fighting back tears several times.   Hey, it’s a wedding, it’s okay to get weepy, although Harry apparently wiped a few tears away too.   I felt sorry for her being the only member of her family in attendance, as anyone who has ever gone to the wedding of a friend or colleague and known absolutely no one can sympathize.   I just hope they didn’t stick her at the singles table.    I felt bad about what the media did to Meghan’s dad before the wedding, but have to wonder, if she’s been going out with Harry for two years, and engaged for six months, and if the news reports are correct that her father had never even met Harry, well that should tell you something.   But what would a wedding be without some family dynamics or someone from either side disapproving?   Wedding drama always reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Pride and Prejudice. Jane Austen Quote

Although single, Jane Austen had many quotes on the marital state, being the astute observer of human nature that she was.    She was a great defender of marrying for love, which was not a common theme in her time, as women were in need of financial support and expected to marry well to have advantages in life, (ie a carriage instead of a Jag).   Although it must be said, no one really knows what goes on in a marriage except the couple, as a seemingly  ill-suited match might be perfectly happy, while a perfect looking marriage might be hell.    

Hats –  the day was full of women of all ages in silly hats – if you are going to wear a hat, make it a hat, not a six-inch fascinator.    But Kate’s and Camilla’s hats were too elaborate and must have been strategically designed to hide their faces during the service.   They were even looking down when the vows were being said.    Perhaps they were in shock over the sermon, (does love require a 15 minute sermon, or did the happy couple know he was going to go on and on), and that gospel song I haven’t heard in decades and would rather forget.    As Meghan apparently attended a Catholic high school, (where she wore a navy and white uniform similar in ugliness to mine), I’m not sure what religion she is, if any?   If that was a nod to her heritage that’s fine, but it did leave me wondering.   I did however love the wide-brimmed hat she wore at her first post-wedding appearance – very chic.  I have faith in her choice of hats.   Except for the Queen, (I loved the purple sprigs on her matching hat), the rest of you ladies are hereby sentenced to watch reruns of Downton Abbey – take notes – not a bad hat to be seen in all six seasons.

Mr. Darcy – Harry was Harry, a decent chap, red and scruffy as usual.   (I know grizzly beards are in style, but could he have shaved on his wedding day?  His bride was perfection, while he looked ungroomed, pardon the pun).  Appearances aside, they seem well suited as a couple.   What impressed me was the fact they had gone to Botswana, (must be one of the 52 commonwealth countries), for a three week vacation early in their relationship.  Perhaps they just wanted to be alone, but any couple who can safari together can probably live together.   But who knows maybe it was glam camping.  But then she will be glam living.   (Perhaps she was very smiley at a future of not having to work, clean house, do laundry etc.  There’s something to be said for having servants, not to mention an unlimited clothing allowance).   Plus, if you can handle a herd of wildebeests on safari, you can probably handle the paparazzi.    I’m sure she knows what she’s getting into and has the poise and confidence to handle it.    I wish them all the best in their married life.   As Jane said, they have as good a chance as anyone.Jane Austen quote

The weather gods certainly smiled on them – it was a picture-perfect day for a wedding, and there’s nothing like some sunshine to light up the mood of the waiting crowds.    Even the horses were in high spirits.    I noticed they were  having a really hard time controlling some of them in the carriage procession.    I’ve often wondered who cleans up the streets afterwards?   Maybe they don’t feed them beforehand and they were hungry and galloping towards the stables…Rhubarb scones

Speaking of food, I made tea and rhubarb scones in honor of the occasion while watching the two hour recap in the evening, but the recipe was not the best, so I won’t post it.   I should have known better, as it did not have any butter just cream, and the oven temp said 400, which in my oven should be 350, so they turned out burnt on the bottom and soggy in the middle and  rather tasteless overall.  But they were certainly edible with some strawberry jam, and it gave me a chance to use my new blue teapot.    As my grandmother used to say, “there’s a lid for every teapot.”   I think I’ll stop now, as I have exceeded my three quotes. Blue Teapot

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

 

Enchanted April

“To those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine.  Small medieval Italian castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be let furnished for the month of April. Necessary servants remain.  Z, Box 1000, The Times.”

Despite being written almost a hundred years ago the book, The Enchanted April, is just as enchanting today.   Four very different women, all unknown to each in dreary post WW1 Britain, answer an ad for an Italian villa.   Two are married but taken for granted by their husbands, one is single and beautiful but tired of grabby men, and one is a widow facing a sad lonely old age.  They have nothing in common other than they are starved for beauty and love, and for the fresh air and sunshine of the Italian coast.

Italian Villa - AMc - 2015

Italian Villa – 2015

I watched the movie first, before I read the book, which is what I would recommend.   The movie is from 1992 and while film quality has improved tremendously since then, it is still a lovely period drama, (and if I’m ever reincarnated I want to come back with straight black bobbed hair). 

My Good-reads review:

The Enchanted AprilThe Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I absolutely loved this book, but I had watched the movie first. A timeless tale with a lovely story line and such vivid descriptions of flowers, gardens and beautiful countryside that you almost felt like you were there.
I ordered the book because it is one of those timeless classics you simply have to own.   It was a bestseller in it’s day, 1923, and was based on a month long trip the author, Elizabeth von Arnim, made with her husband to the village of Portofino, Italy, which soon became a famous tourist destination because of the success of the book.  They stayed at the Castello Brown, (now a museum), which is where the movie was filmed seventy years later.

It’s such a charming story, that it might inspire you to grab three of your girlfriends and go off on your own Italian adventure.   Who wouldn’t want to live la dolce vita?

Tuscan Villa - AMc - 2015

Tuscan Villa –  2015

Of course in the book the villa came complete with all the necessary servants, so hiring a chef to do the cooking would be the sensible thing to do.  (You could invite Amal for tea, she’s British and may be in need of a cuppa and a break from the bambinos).   Isn’t that part of the attraction of period pieces, there was always someone to prepare the meals, wash the dishes, care for the children…..and look after the garden.

It’s not surprising that there were such lovely descriptions of the flowers and grounds in the book, as the author’s first bestseller was Elizabeth and Her German Garden in 1898.   I have not read that one yet, as I plan on reading it outside on the deck whenever it gets warm enough, as inspiration for gardening season.   But I did read her book, The Solitary Summer, last summer which I enjoyed also, which concerned her need for solitude and beauty in the countryside with her April, May and June babies.  Her first best seller was published anonymously, and the subsequent ones as by the author of Elizabeth and Her German Garden.   Because these books are old and often out of print they are best ordered online.

Perhaps there is something about being in such a lovely setting that inspires love.  In the book their husbands became more appreciative, although no one runs off and has an affair, (it was a more decorous time), well only the single one.    I remember reading once in a book on Italy about a medical condition called, Stendhal’s Syndrome, which is an emotional reaction to too much loveliness.   A handful of tourists are treated for this every year in Florence, having been overwhelmed by an excess of beauty.    Finally a medical condition we can all aspire too!   Of course we don’t have to go to Italy to experience beauty in our lives – it is all around us, we just have to pay attention.   Is it possible to surround yourself with an excess of loveliness, especially in a world which so often seems full of evil, hate, and ugliness?   Perhaps not, but  it is an admirable goal to  choose to focus on what is lovely in the world, and so much better for your health!   Buona giornata!

Quote of the Day:   “It is their manners as a whole, their natural ways, bonhomie, the great art of being happy which is here practiced with this added charm, that the good people do not know that it is an art, the most difficult of all.”  (Stendhal on Italy)

Song of the Day:  April Love by Pat Boone

Postscript:   This week I received a copy of Frances Mayes newly released novel, Women in Sunlight, which sounds like it could be a remake of Enchanted April, albeit with older characters.  Certainly, the writer of Under the Tuscan Sun is well qualified to write about Italy, but I will reserve judgement until after I have read it.    Edited to add:  Not recommended at all – a big disappointment).

April in Paris – Part Two

Paris – the City of Love.  How many romantic movies begin and end there, complete with visions of strolling along the Seine beneath the chestnut trees with our amour.  Continuing our Parisian theme (see April in Paris – Part One) with some bibliotherapy for the Francophile may I present a book that is simply enchante.     A Paris Year – by Janice MacLeod      (My Good-reads review below)

A Paris Year: My Day-to-Day Adventures in the Most Romantic City in the WorldA Paris Year: My Day-to-Day Adventures in the Most Romantic City in the World by Janice Macleod

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Janice MacLeod’s first book, Paris Letters, chronicled her Paris adventures after she quit her job, sold everything she owned and moved to the City of Light.   This sequel, A Paris Year, is more like a personal journal of her year there, full of photos and illustrations, (she is a watercolor artist).   The cover alone is gorgeous, and the pages are a visual treat.  While there, she acquired a French husband who just nodded when she told him she was making a pretty book about Paris, and that’s exactly what it is. Should be required reading for anyone contemplating a trip to Paris, so they know what to expect, and for the rest of us who only dream.  A charming, thoroughly enjoyable book.

I noticed this book in the bookstore because of it’s beautiful cover, (one of the author’s watercolor paintings),

A Paris Year - Janice MacLeod
A Paris Year – Janice MacLeod

but at $35 Cdn plus tax, decided to order it through the library instead, but I enjoyed it so much I bought it.  Although I had read her earlier book Paris Letters it didn’t grab my attention the way this one did.  Perhaps because I thought the ending was too pat, in a we-must-have-a-happy-ending for the book way (there is a wedding picture of her and her French husband on the last page), but then I felt the same way about Eat Pray Love, and look how that turned out, despite a subsequent book on staying Committed.   It is wise to be skeptical of a relationship where two people don’t speak the same language and don’t seem to have anything in common (ah yes, but love is not always wise, and as in the song says, is for the very young), but frankly as an older more cynical person I was worried about her.   An exception would be Colin Firth in Love Actually, who learned Portuguese so he could communicate with his new love, but I think we might all learn The King’s Speech if Colin Firth was involved.   There is an admirable degree of bravery in wanting a different life and doing something about it, but when you are older you realize there doesn’t always have to be a guy at the end for it to be  a happy ending.   Just once I would like one of these memoir travel type books to end with the author just sitting Under the Tuscan sun, gazing contentedly at the gorgeous view…..and if the gorgeous view happened to include your own Colin Firth that would be okay too!   (I think I shall write it myself – “Our middle-aged (but well preserved due to French beauty secret), heroine-in-waiting is sitting on the terrace of her French villa on a soft summer evening, a glass of chilled Chablis in hand, contemplating the calming rows of lavender waving in the evening breeze and thinking how lucky she is to be here in the lovely light of Provence…. 

Provence Lavender Farm - AMC - 2017
Provence Lavender Farm – 2017

…when suddenly she observes a man walking up the lane.”   The End.  

Is it a) a lost tourist  b) the vin delivery garcon  c) a uniformed police detective or d) Mr. Darcy.    The answer is e) all of the above.   Stay tuned for the sequel, Murder in Provence, wherein our lovely heroine meets Inspector Darcie LeDuc, who is investigating a series of murders involving art thieves, wine merchants and lost tourists, with plenty of dead bodies sprinkled in the lavender fields and vineyards.  Will she be next?)      

But I digress (badly), enough about fairy tale endings, forever after and just for the moment.   I am glad it all worked out for them because they are now living in the Canadian Rocky Mountains.  (link to her website Paris Letters Press)  She has a very nice website and also paints and writes a monthly personal letter on Paris which she sends out via snail mail, a business which enabled her to finance her stay there.   In the About section she says her first book was about her move to Paris, but her second is about being an artist in Paris, which is one of the reasons I liked it so much.   It was just like being there – there were lots of photographs and quirky journal entries about her cafe observations and day to day life in the city.   Plus her paintings were charming, but then I am partial to watercolors.    

A Paris Year - Janice MacLeod

A page from A Paris Year – Janice MacLeod

 It is a lovely book visually speaking, an illustrated journal on good quality paper with a beautiful cover, in the same vein as the Susan Branch books on Martha’s Vineyard and England.  (if you are not familiar with Susan Branch check her out, her blogs are so inspirational and she is currently blogging on her trip to Cornwall and England).   I suspect that type of book, which is basically a hard cover blog, is expensive for a publishing company to produce which could be why Susan Branch now publishes her own.    Anyway, both are good reads for armchair travelers.

I split this blog into two, because someone told me my blogs are too long, and the April Love section seemed like it deserved it’s own topic.   Does anyone remember the fragrance, Evening in Paris?   One of the most popular fragrances in the fifties,  it was a light floral fragrance in a blue cobalt bottle (you can still find some of the bottles on e-bay), evoking images of l’heure bleue in the city of love.   I have a visual image of my mother wearing her Jackie Kennedy-like sapphire blue dress and beads, dabbing perfume behind her ears, and then bending down to give us red lipstick kisses on our arms, on the rare occasions she went out in the evening.   Somehow spraying perfume doesn’t have the same degree of glamour.   Last year while cleaning out my mother’s house I came across a bottle of French perfume stashed below the bathroom sink.

Vintage French Perfume

Vintage French Perfume – Chat Noir

My mother says it was a gift from my father in the early years of their marriage, which would make it over 60 years old.   When I opened it, it still had the sweet smell she remembered, as it had been kept in a cloth bag, in a dark spot, the way you should store expensive perfume.  A perfume can evoke an era, a love story, a moment in time.   It reminded me of Bogie’s promise to Bacall, we’ll always have Paris.   Here’s to romance – may you always have a small piece of Paris in your heart to reminisce about on starry nights.  

Van Gogh Sketchbook

Postscript:   In my university days I wore Je Reviens, and later in my 20’s and 30’s Ombre Rose, then I mostly abandoned perfume because so many places, work and social, have no-scent laws now.   My bottle of Ombre Rose from three years ago is still half full.   Do you wear perfume, and do you have a favorite scent, or a scent that reminds you of a certain time in your life?