Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Rousham: a secret garden

Rousham gardens are worth a short daytrip from Oxford. In the mid 18th century, William Kent landscaped the grounds, and they have changed very little since. The 17th century house is still owned by the original family but only open to the public by private arrangement. It is “unspoiled” meaning no commercial development or tea room.

Children under 15 aren’t allowed which is a shame because I would have loved it the more at my daughter’s age of ten. The severe manor and walled gardens covered with blooming vines reminded me of The Secret Garden. Well trimmed hedges were hollowed out to hidden tunnels, too low for an adult to stand.

The countryside was green and lush with winding trails along the Cherwell River that runs from Oxford. Daffodils were growing as thick as the dandelions in my yard back in Maine. The English are so much more careful with their gardens. Even wildness is a well planned illusion.

The property had many follies, architectural curiosities built for admiring the grounds without getting damp. Some even had fireplaces, and all had benches. It felt like a setting for a Masterpiece Theater costume drama.

Whimsical was the word that came to mind. A narrow aqueduct shunted water downhill but not for irrigation in this wet country. Instead it fed in and out of a bathing pool. How my son would have loved sending a toy sailboat down the channel!

Everywhere I looked, there was something blooming. The primroses grew in more colors than I’d ever seen, and there were bulbs sprouting effusively. The viburnum smelled fragrant.

The yew hedges by a medieval church were cut into the oddest shapes, like spinning tops. I learned from the gardeners on my Oxford Newcomers’ Club tour that the poisonous yews were often planted around churches to keep the cattle out of the graveyards.

Organic vegetable gardens were kept fertile with pigeon droppings. The estate had a fresh supply from its 1685 dove cot. The birds would have been served for meals.

Walking the grounds builds an appetite. We stopped at The Boat Inn at Thrupp on the drive south to Oxford. The food was nothing special, but I did like the old pub atmosphere. True to its name, the pub was situated on the Oxford Canal that runs 78 miles to Coventry. Canal boats were tied up for lunch.

The English gardening spirit showed itself in window boxes adorning tiny row houses along the canal road.

It did look like high spring, but appearances can be deceiving. After an unusually mild winter, even by English standards, we had our first snowstorm on Saturday. It was impressive even by New England standards, but it didn't stick. I couldn’t walk into the wind with horizontal hail and monster flakes. Then Easter Sunday brought more snow, making daffodils swoon. It felt exhilarating to experience winter, only this is spring!

Snow makes me think of Maine. Tonight is the community straw vote on the new elementary school back home in Brunswick. It’s at 6:30pm at the junior high school. I’ll post the results later. My grassroots involvement in this project motivated me to write a novel (S.A.D.) on school politics. Only my story is totally fictional and looks at Intelligent Design vs. Evolution instead of school size and grade configuration. It still has that quirky small town flavor of local politics with plenty of romance and drama just for fun.

Next week (April 2nd) my husband will be guest-blogging here about his rail trip to Scotland with our son. Our thirteen-year-old has 4 weeks holiday that doesn’t totally overlap with his sister’s 2 weeks. I’m not quite sure how Henry and I will manage to keep working on our books, but I’m too engrossed with S.A.D. revisions to stop.

As a working mom, I much prefer the American system of one long summer break and one-week breaks during the school year. Tag team parenting, grandparents and separate vacations will tide us over. Some vacation days with the kids will be fun too. Part of my work in England is experiencing it. Not a bad job!

Unofficial Brunswick Straw Poll Results:
253 yes's vs. 45 no's for a new elementary school!
The final townwide referendum vote is June 10th.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

London Art and Gardens

Once a year Henry and I enjoy a long weekend of couple time. We became engaged in London so it was only natural to return. Our children enjoy grandparent time too.

The Cranley Hotel in Chelsea offers Old World style at an affordable price for London. It’s a triple townhouse with a grand parlor and only two rooms per floor off each set of stairs, enclosed by a foyer door. It’s quiet and peaceful even though the Gloucester Road tube (subway) station is only 5 minutes walk away as are the many shops and restaurants on the Old Brompton and Fulham Roads. Dim-T does delicious dim sum across from The Gloucester Road Bookshop.

On the night we arrived, we took a taxi to but walked back from our favorite Indian restaurant, Chutney Mary’s. The food is always original and delicious and the atmosphere intimate and romantic. The Star of India is well reviewed and just around the corner from the hotel, but the food and atmosphere was nowhere near as good. My standards are high because Indian food is fabulous in London.

On Saturday we had a tasty lunch of Vietnamese spring rolls, Japanese dumplings and noodles and Thai curried vegetables. We chose Tampopo because of its name, a favorite Japanese movie which celebrates the sensuality and humor of good food.

March in England means rain so we hurried off to Regent’s Park before it got too damp. I had to see the spring carpet of daffodils. The light rain had scared away most people, so we could enjoy the cherry blossoms in peace. The only sound was the fountain and soon the rain stopped. It rarely rains all day or that hard. Flowers last so long in the greenhouse mist that is the English spring.

The Broad Avenue Gardens in Regent’s Park are a changing palette of pure artistry. The flowers bloom in a succession of contrasting hues and complementary shapes. The bright colors relieve the symmetry of the plantings. Living in London, I had loved wandering these gardens weekly. They are at their best in April with everything blooming and few tourists, but the summer roses in Queen Mary’s Gardens (also in Regent’s Park) are worth seeing too.

After the gardens, my favorite destination is Tate Modern. We got off at the Embankment tube station to see the view of Westminster from the Golden Jubilee Bridge. The London Eye provides a broader perspective, especially for kids, but we appreciated not having to do that this weekend. If you want to ride the London Eye, best to book on-line to avoid waiting on one. From there it’s a pleasant stroll along the Thames’s south bank to Tate Modern.

Tate Modern is a national art museum housed in a former power station. General admission is free although donations are welcome. The almost Fascist architecture is austere and uninviting from the outside, but the Turbine Hall provides an enormous interior space for art installations. The best exhibit I’ve seen was by Danish artist Olafur Eliasson in 2004. His setting sun was off the African savannah seen from an Asian temple.

Sometimes art is awe inspiring. The Weather Project was actually all done with smoke and mirrors. It’s truly only half a sun reflected on the ceiling, but it felt so natural and whole. People lay on the floor for the best view or in adulation. Spiritual.

Note how different the same space looks with the current installation by Doris Salcedo. I took both photos from the above bridge. Our first thought upon entering the hall on Saturday was “Uh, oh the museum is breaking up.” There were caution signs along a huge crack that split the floor from the entrance to the end of the cavernous space. The next question was “Is this art?”

I suspended judgment and turned to the other viewers. Half of the fun of Tate installations is watching people interact with the art, especially the young. The children loved the crack: leaping over it, peering inside and balancing along the edge. It made me think of games I played growing up on NYC sidewalks (pavement). Even grownups were acting like children exploring.

Intrigued, I leaned over to take a closer look. My camera found images that reminded me of the end of winter when ice cracks. Inside was a Grand Canyon of complexity and surprising beauty. Maybe beauty wasn’t the right word because there was something chilling, almost repugnant, in the chasm laced with wire. I thought about the Mexican border and other fences that keep out immigrants. What was the crack saying?

I was close to the truth. Salcedo called her installation Shibboleth. The gallery pamphlet explained: The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “a word used as a test for detecting people from another district or country by their pronunciation; a word or sound very difficult for foreigners to pronounce.” In a Biblical story, the Gileadites used the word to trap and slay the fleeing Ephraimites who could not pronounce the “sh” sound. Shibboleth was a token of power over other people.

Salcedo’s installation evoked separation and subjugation. She has written of how modernity is “exclusively European” thus marginalizing others. A native of Bogotá, Columbia, her work focuses on colonial and imperial history. I know a little of Bogotá as my college roommate and her family have relocated there for a year to teach in an international school. Deborah Sabin is blogging about it occasionally. Deb has spent her life defying shibboleths.

Henry and I viewed the rest of the impressive modern art collection, including a dimly lit room of burgundy Rothko’s, but it was hard to appreciate it after the Shibboleth. Art can be beautiful like a garden or a sunrise, but it can also be ugly like a crack.

End Links:

This post was part of the Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day as the garden photos were taken on March 15, 2008. Check out the link to view what else was blooming around the world on that day.

Here's an MP4 film of Doris Salcedo walking you through her exhibition.

I’ve added a contact e-mail for the Serengeti school charity to the end of my Tanzania Safari Post. Educational aid helps mend the crack between developed and under developed nations.

This article is a joke (click title to view):

And this one is serious?
Saturday's Telegraph reported a change in literary taste after an organ transplant.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

What is Women's Fiction?

As the daffodils and fruit trees are in full bloom, I realize our year in England is going faster than expected. It really takes six months to get settled in a new location, especially abroad. Last time we relocated to England for only half a year, and it felt like we left prematurely after too much work settling in and not enough payback. We were thrilled to get an opportunity to return for my husband’s sabbatical from Bowdoin College. Henry’s English; I’m American, and our children are dual citizens. We are both writers.

In Oxford Henry and I are gathering material and writing books. His book is on the politics of public television in the US, UK and Japan. My books are women’s fiction and set in the USA and England. The time here is for research. Free from the many distractions at home, we can focus on our writing. It has been very productive and fun time too.

My books might appeal to readers of all ages and genders, but marketing categories exist in publishing. Women writing for mostly female audiences about relationships and contemporary issues are pigeon-holed as “women’s fiction,” not to be confused with romance novels or its younger, urban sister chick lit. The central plot in romance is always love between a man and a woman, usually with a happy ending.

In women's fiction, key relationships include friends and family as well as lovers. Career is important too. Chick lit, a sub-category of women's fiction, tends to be set in London or NYC and features single women in their 20's and 30's with close friends looking for love, shopping and job satisfaction. Women's fiction can span all ages in various settings and may tackle substantive issues. The protagonist is a strong woman making realistic trade-offs in the modern world. Most of the editors and agents are female too. Is the term women’s fiction offensive, such as “lady doctor,” or does it celebrate the female voice?

In my so called genre of women’s fiction, I’ve enjoyed reading Michelle Wildgen’s You’re Not You. It’s a story about a young woman caring for a charming middle aged woman in a wheelchair. It explores attitudes towards the disabled including sexuality. Nothing is taboo, and the honest perspective is refreshing. Wildgen writes incredibly well even if the opening is a bit off-putting. Keep going; it’s well worth it. You’re Not You is a literary gem.

I’m juggling writing 3 women’s fiction novels: MOOSE CROSSING is looking for a publisher, S.A.D. is in revision and NOT CRICKET (A MATCH FOR EVE) is gathering material. Having more than one project going on at a time means I don’t get stuck with down time. While editors and my agent are reading manuscripts, I can work on the next project. Despite recent growth in women's fiction, there are no sure bets in publishing except for Jodi Picoult. Serious writers know to keep writing. The process is hurry up and wait: writing, revising and then waiting for feedback.

Writing takes a certain personality. You have to be creative, but it’s just as important to be self-motivated, disciplined, comfortable working alone and able to set and meet personal deadlines or you’ll never finish. Given how hard it is to break into publishing, a writer has to be good at taking criticism and rejection and be willing to learn from it.

A novelist also needs to get out there and live life to have experiences worth sharing. Friendships with other writers help break the solitude, ease the stress and celebrate the benchmarks like completing a manuscript and finding an agent. You have to find your colleagues.

I’ve joined an informal writing group organized by the women’s fiction author Miranda Glover. That’s been a big plus as I’ve missed my writer friends back in Maine: Charlotte Agell, Maria Padian and Cynthia Lord. Just as I’ve learned about American publishing from those seasoned authors, I've gained insights into the world of English publishing from my new writing group. It’s a smaller market than in the USA and less dependent on agents although they still play an important role.

I’m also learning about contemporary English fiction by reading. David Mitchell showcases his breadth in the dizzying Cloud Atlas. Every well crafted story is interlocking. The collection spans the full gamut of genre writing from historical fiction, to suspense thriller, to science fiction. It's almost a parody of shifting voice and form including: a journal, letters, a manuscript, a screenplay, a deposition and an almost unintelligible myth. Cloud Atlas was short listed for the Booker Prize. It should have won.

My husband, our teenaged son and I loved Mitchell's Black Swan Green which is literary fiction/young adult crossover, but he is hard to categorize. It seems like few have heard of Mitchell in England even though his work is so English and current. His novels got more of a buzz in the USA. The protagonists of 2 of his Cloud Atlas stories are strong women, but his work would never be labeled women’s fiction. How come when a man writes a novel, it's just called fiction?

Primroses in January from the land of eternal spring.

Here’s a male author/blogger’s perspective on gender issues in publishing: C.W. Gortner’s "Gender wars in books?"

On Politics: I’ve been following the neck-and-neck American primaries with fascination and the electoral problems in Kenya with concern. Here’s a provocative NYT op-ed that linked the two:
“Tribalism Here, and There”

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Bodleian Library Rules

Enter the chambers below the Bodleian Library, and you will understand why kings chose to rule from Oxford. The oak-paneled room (above), called the Convocation/Congregation House, housed the governing bodies of Oxford University for centuries. The university chancellor sat upon the throne like a king.

During the 17th century, King Charles I and then King Charles II sat upon the thrown like a chancellor and convened parliament in this miniature Westminster. The proportions between the benches are the exact same ratio in both: the length of an arm with a sword and six inches spare.

Before modern plumbing, the building was not heated because of the books that reside in the library above it. Due to the damp and to periodic flooding of the Thames/Isis, libraries were never on the ground floor. The Convocation House and the Bodleian Library were additions to the Divinity School. The earliest colleges were founded for mostly religious studies.

The Divinity School was built in the 15th century to house university lectures and examinations. Prior to that, the university had used St. Mary’s, a church. Observe the intricate masonry and you will understand why it took sixty years to complete the task.

Does this glorious space looks familiar? The Divinity School was the infirmary in a Harry Potter movie, and the Bodleian Library was the Hogwarts Library. I suppose they waived the no photography in the library rule for J.K. Rowling.

The first 3 walls of the Divinity School were beautifully executed, but then the master builder died. The new builder cut some corners, or rather he didn’t cut them with much finesse. The second master builder was on a tighter budget and schedule.

The Bishop of Kemp was not pleased and raised funds so that the ceiling could be constructed in lavish detail. The initials and the coats of arms of the many benefactors were carved into the ceiling. There are 450 carvings but some are decorative, even humorous, including a naked jester scaling an arch.

Kemp was such a good fund raiser that a second floor was added to the Divinity School to house the university library (it had been in St. Mary’s). Sadly the entire library collection was destroyed during the English Reformation.

The University library collection was restored by Sir Thomas Bodley who had been a fellow at Merton College before becoming a diplomat. In his travels, Bodley collected 3-4 thousand books. He donated his collection to the library and urged friends to do the same. Bodley refurbished the space, and the Bodleian Library was opened in 1602 as a reference library. Even kings weren’t allowed to take out books. The old books were large, leather bound and wood-backed. Not light reads.

An architect could tell you that there would be trouble adding such a heavy addition, but Oxford has never (even today) offered a degree in architecture. That field was considered a trade. The airy Divinity School was not originally designed for a second floor let alone wood-backed books inside solid oak bookcases.

Christopher Wren was an Oxford graduate and former professor of Astronomy. He had trained to become an architect after university. Wren came to his alma mater’s rescue and saved the building. He also added a door so that the growing student body could proceed from the Divinity School to the Sheldonian Theatre for degree ceremonies.

You can see, but not touch, the 16th century books in the Arts End of the Bodleian. The most valuable tombs are chained to the oak bookcases. The wood beamed ceiling is carved with Latin mottos. Gold-framed oil paintings of the college founders hang on the walls. It is dark despite the large windows and the addition of electricity. The space smells appealingly of ancient paper and history.

Over time the Bodleian has expanded into a quad with a wrap-around second floor reading room. Most of the books are now stored in the basement levels in closed stacks with climate control. Readers used to drop book requests down tubes to librarians, but now it’s computerized. A mid 20th century pneumatic system, like a scene from Wallace and Gromit , brings the books up from the lower levels to the readers. The gears grind and books are raised and lowered in metal cases. It was fun to watch. In the reading room a huge bell rings at closing time. In the past, closing time was at the whim of the harassed librarian.

Today there are 8 million books in the Bodleian. “The Bod” is a copyright library (like the American Library of Congress) for all British publications after 1900. There are another 5-6 million books in the other 100 libraries at Oxford. Most of those are at the colleges or the departments and are lending libraries.

To ensure the safety of the priceless Bodleian collection, a reader must take an oath in his or her native tongue:

I hereby undertake not to remove from the Library, nor to mark, deface, or injure in any way, any volume, document or other object belonging to it or in its custody; not to bring into the Library, or kindle therein, any fire or flame, and not to smoke in the Library; and I promise to obey all rules of the Library.

My tour was courtesy of the Oxford Newcomers Club led by the knowledgeable Marie Ruiz.

For a laugh, read the Onion's "Area Eccentric Reads Entire Book."