Saturday, March 18, 2017

Literary Highlights of Christ Church College, Oxford University

Christ Church College at Oxford, founded in 1546, has a rich literary history. The majestic front quad and fountain recall scenes from Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. The movie adaptation of Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass was filmed on this campus too.

Christ Church was also the model for Hogwarts' dining hall in Harry Potter, making this Oxford college the most popular tourist destination. Visits are limited to afternoons and there is an admission charge.

According to Oxford legend, the fireplace andirons inspired the trippy neck extending scene in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll was a lecturer of mathematics at Christ Church, which was his alma mater too.

The entrance to the dining hall (above) is nearly as grand as the adjacent cathedral. Christ Church is the only Oxford college with a cathedral, instead of a smaller chapel, and visitors can attend Evensong without paying admission. The colleges of Oxford University were originally founded as religious institutions.

On a rare clear day, the limestone glows as gold as the setting sun. Although Christ Church is one of the wealthiest colleges, it ran out of funding to complete the cloisters so the front quad is open to the rain. The arches on the walls show where the covered cloister would have been attached had their patron Cardinal Wolsey not lost favor with King Henry VIII.

Despite its posh history, the rainbow flag in back quad shows that the student body is open-minded now.

The back entrance leads to...

Merton Street, which has hardly changed since medieval times. You can see how living in Oxford inspired me to write a novel about an American at a British school. This is my magical home away from home.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

A Winter Walk in Maine vs. England

Between sabbaticals to Japan and England, my husband and I returned home for the holidays to see our family. We have a tradition of welcoming the New Year at Popham Beach. This three mile state park is a half an hour drive from our house in midcoast Maine.

The easiest place for a winter walk in Maine is a beach since the tide washes away the ice and snow.

Our family motto is: There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. L.L. Bean started in Maine for a good reason. My blue Bean coat is perfect for subfreezing, windy days and has lasted since college. The company is a big local employer, especially of African immigrants.

It was hard to say who was happier to be back at Popham: our daughter or our dog.

Dogs are only allowed at Popham State Park offseason. We had to leash Scout to keep her out of the frigid sea. For most of our walk, we had the beach to ourselves.

As a photographer, I'm drawn to the winter light and empty landscapes.

The days are short this far up north, but the colors are intense.

Sunset is my favorite time at the shore, despite the chill.

Even the dune grass seemed to shiver in the wind.

Only in winter do you see such dramatic sunsets.

We stayed until the sun had burnt down to embers.

A week after the Popham walk, Henry and I flew to England, where the temperature rarely drops below freezing. University Parks is a fifteen minute walk from our sabbatical home in Oxford.

The crocuses and snowdrops were at peak bloom on February 20th, two months earlier than Maine.

As much as I'm enjoying an early spring, I miss skiing out our back door and the winter light. Most days in England are overcast and often wet. Still, it's good writing weather so I'm making good progress on my novels. I brought waterproof layers and boots. A winter walk is always welcome.

Blogwatch: this post is part of Les @A Tidewater Gardener's annual Winter Walk Off.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Becoming Nicole by Amy Ellis Nutt

Jonas & Nicole Maines graduating from Waynflete School

Becoming Nicole is the true story of my daughter's friend Nikki told by a Pulitzer winning journalist. This moving biography of a transgender girl is as much about her dad's psychological evolution toward acceptance as her physical transformation into a woman. A science journalist for The Washington Post, Amy Ellis Nutt does an excellent job of explaining what it means to be transgender biologically and legally, but the personal story of this working class family brings the message home.

Nikki and her identical twin brother, Jonas, grew up in the university town of Orono in Maine. From age two Nikki identified as a girl, preferring traditionally female clothing and toys. Her mother and brother supported her choice, but her conservative Republican father was initially uncomfortable. He feared for the safety of his child and how others would judge them, causing tension at home.

Although Nikki's friends accepted her, a classmate and his grandfather objected to Nikki using the girl's bathroom in their elementary school. Nikki and her family sued the school district, but the legal case took years to resolve. Suffering from bullying and stress, Nikki relocated with her mother and brother to Portland, the biggest city in Maine, but her father had to stay back in Orono (140 miles north) due to work.

Phuc Tran's senior advising group at Waynflete School: Gemma is second from left & Nikki is far right

Unhappy at her new public school, Nikki and her brother transferred to Waynflete, a progressive private school in Portland, Maine. All the bathrooms were switched to gender neutral before Nikki and a transgender boy started freshman year with my daughter; Gemma was in the same advising group with Nikki too. The community welcomed everyone. When Nikki won her court case to use the bathroom of her gender identity, she announced the victory at assembly and the whole school cheered for her. Nikki is now an activist for transgender rights and at college in Maine.

Freshman year pre-prom party at our house. Nikki is second and Gemma is third from the left.

Twins Jonas and Nicole Maines
I met Nikki and Jonas at prom time freshman year. Waynflete is so small that prom includes the entire high school, but like most schools, there are exclusive pre-prom parties. My daughter was upset when not all of her friends were invited to a fancy pre-prom party at a seaside mansion. At my suggestion, Gemma declined the invitation and hosted her own party at our house. Nikki came early with the girls to dress for prom and the boys came later for dinner. Everyone had lots of fun. I also enjoyed meeting Nikki's parents and hearing about their family's hard past and relief to be at Waynflete. Even so, Becoming Nicole taught me stuff I didn't know. I'm grateful for this book and for having Nikki and Jonas in my family's life.

I strongly recommend Becoming Nicole (2015) to everyone. Although the book was written for adults, the focus is on Nikki's childhood so it's a good read for tweens and teens too. Nutt does a fine job of making science, law, and politics easy to understand and fascinating. The writing was excellent and the content is appropriate for classroom use. This gorgeous book will make you cry - especially given Trump's reversal on transgender rights - but it will also leave you with hope.

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

My Favorite Country Walk to a Pub: The Bell Inn at Aldworth

One of my favorite country walks in England is a five mile loop around the Bell Inn at Aldworth. I know this part of Berkshire very well. My in-laws live in a neighboring village on the Oxfordshire side of the Thames. These rolling hills along the river are called the Goring Gap.

We usually park by a farm in Streatley and walk uphill to the Ridgeway. The Ridgeway is the oldest road in the UK, dating back to prehistoric times. Keep an eye out for horseback riders, tractors, and the occasional car. Our hardy son walked and ran 27 miles of the 87 mile Ridgeway the next day in the rain. The popular Ridgeway follows high ground to avoid the mud.

On any day of the year, England can easily be in the 50s and rainy. Luckily when our kids came to visit us for their February break, we had one dry day for our walk. Wellies (rubber boots) or hiking boots were still necessary for the footpaths on the way back to the carpark. A detailed Ordnance Survey map is a good idea too if you're walking a loop including footpaths.

Back home in New England, a blizzard was raging, but February is springtime in England. Instead of snow, there are blooming snowdrops.

About halfway through our walk, we stopped for lunch. The Bell Inn has been owned by the same family for 250 years and is located in the tiny village of Aldworth. The landlord is welcoming and has a good sense of humor. The Bell doesn't serve hot food beyond soup, but the Ploughman's Lunch (cheese, a warm bread roll, chutney, and salad) was delicious. Since it was midday, I had only a half pint of Arkells BBB.

Our teenage daughter was pleased to be legal in the UK but was too jet lagged for alcohol. Sixteen-year-olds can have beer, wine, or cider with a meal as long as they're accompanied by someone eighteen or older.

Although it was cozy inside by the fire, it can be crowded. We moved outside in the beer garden to enjoy the mild weather. Sunshine was good for the kids' jet lag too.

In the far corner of the beer garden is the secret exit to a footpath.

One of the best things about the UK is all the public footpaths crossing private lands and farms.

Since the footpath crosses through swards (Merriam Webster Dictionary retweeted this photo to illustrate the word of the day!) where livestock may be grazing, be sure to shut all gates.

The walk back to the carpark is a gentle path downhill, between the fields. After a reinvigorating week off, I'm happy to be back to work revising my young adult novel set in rural England.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Loose Ends List by Carrie Firestone

Canal boat in Oxford, England on a rare sunny day. 

The Loose Ends List by Carrie Firestone was my favorite debut young adult novel from 2016. The premise was original and meaningful: a dying grandmother takes her family on a luxurious world cruise to say goodbye. Gallow humor, a comically dysfunctional family, and a sweet romance offset the sad realism of terminal cancer. Somehow this novel about dying with dignity was one of the most life-affirming, feel-good stories I've ever read.

I was initially put off by the protagonist's crass language and her popular clique, but once the ship set sail (about fifty pages in), seventeen-year-old Maddie became a sympathetic character who struggles to support her beloved grandmother while dealing with her own fear of death. Widowed Gram surprises her WASPy family by inviting along the secret love of her life, a Jamaican American jazz musician. Despite the tragedy, it's a fun trip.

The diverse family also includes a gay uncle and his husband, a Jewish father, a frustrated suburban mother, a broody artistic brother, a great aunt with dementia, and a Barbie doll cousin. The family members alternate realistically between irritating and endearing. All characters were well developed, including the other families on the cruise. I especially loved the close friendship Maddie develops with a young mother and her baby.

Although the central relationship is between Maddie and her irreverent Gram (my favorite character), a fun romance offsets the grief. I appreciated how this novel tackled teen sexuality with a positive attitude, showing what a good relationship involves without sounding preachy. The love scenes felt believably real/awkward and avoided cliche. Best of all was how the novel explored terminal illness and death from a teen perspective without glossing over tragedy or becoming overly sentimental. The book coins its own catch-phrase: "snowglobe moment."

The around-the-world setting was entertaining. I won't reveal the secret itinerary since the journey has hidden meaning. The cultural details were well drawn and interesting, and despite the variety of settings, the narrative never felt choppy or superficial. I'm guessing that the author is well-traveled and grew up watching The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. Since I'd never go on a cruise due to seasickness, I enjoyed this virtual vacation. The narrative also fit my year of sabbatical travel.

The poignant voice was true to teens:
"Don't cry. Don't cry. Don't cry. It's harder to hold back than a sneeze, but I do it." 
"'My life has been fabulous because I never listened to my parents.' My grandmother is peer-pressuring me." 
"But if this trip has taught me anything, it's that the only thing guaranteed is this very moment."
Given the wide age range of characters, this YA novel would appeal to adults too, especially to families dealing with terminal illness. I read the ebook in Japan during the miserable month of November, and it was the best distraction. The story now helps me find the emotional strength to support my mother-in-law, who was diagnosed yesterday with terminal liver cancer after surviving breast cancer last year. For Hanukkah, I had bought the hardcover for my 19-year-old daughter, who is finding comfort in it too. Luckily her beloved granny is British and is therefore receiving excellent care from her Muslim oncologist and free medical insurance via the National Health Service. My children will be joining us in England next week. The granny-grandson Trans-Siberian Railway trip, planned to celebrate my son's graduation, is now only a dream. My mother-in-law will start chemo soon. We are grateful for this time together as a family.

Photo from School Library Journal: The Loose Ends List won a Best Undercover Award.

Carrie Firestone, author's photo
The undercover was so gorgeous I couldn't resist buying another hard copy of The Loose Ends List for myself at home. I'm sure to reference the book for inspiration while writing my own YA novels set abroad. I'd strongly recommend The Loose Ends List to readers ages 14 and up. You might want to read at home since you'll be sobbing and laughing, often on the same page. I'm eagerly awaiting the author's sophomore novel, The Unlikelies, due out in June. Brava, Carrie!

Included in my Best Contemporary YA Fiction of 2016 list.

Reviewer's Disclaimer: the author and I share a literary agent.

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