Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Body Surfing by Anita Shreve

I skied to the sea. It was below freezing, but Casco Bay was not frozen. Wolfe’s Neck Park in Freeport is beautiful in all seasons. It was an odd day to come home to read a summer beach book, but Body Surfing by Anita Shreve was a Christmas present (thanks, Diane and Dave!)

Body Surfing is set in New Hampshire, a little farther south down the coast from Maine. It is the fourth novel Anita Shreve has set in the same house. The author has a summer house in Maine and often writes about WASPy New England families in troubled relationships.

Pettingill Farmhouse (c. 1810) Freeport

Fortune’s Rocks is the name of Shreve’s fictional seaside town, and the title of the first book in the loosely connected series. The first novel is set in the turn of the 19th century. In 2004 I was living in London, and Fortune’s Rocks had been left on a bookshelf like flotsam and jetsam. The historical novel is well written, but I could not stomach the story: a 15-year-old girl falls for a married middle aged doctor. It is true love with tragic consequences and too creepy for me.

Shreve jumps a century ahead in The Pilot’s Wife. The house is now occupied by a school teacher, a commercial pilot and their teenaged daughter. In the opening scene, we learn that the pilot died in an explosion flying to the US from London. I was especially interested in this novel because my plane to London in 1988 never made it to New York City. It exploded over Lockerbie. The Pilot’s Wife is a gripping page turner in which the widow uncovers startling secrets about her husband.

The final occupants of the doomed house are an architect and his wife who summer by the sea. They have hired a 29-year-old widow, Sydney Sklar, to tutor their “slow” eighteen-year-old daughter. The 30-something brothers vie for Sydney’s affections. It sounds like a sappy romance novel, only the characters aren’t who they seem to be. Given the house’s history, you know this isn’t going to be a sunny story despite the summer beachside setting. Body Surfing is not only the title but also the central metaphor.

Shreve is a master of character detail. Like in a mystery novel, everyday items reveal secret stories. For example Sydney snoops in her employers’ bedroom and is surprised to find a small full-sized bed where a king bed could easily fit. Shreve’s writing is full of evocative descriptions. You’ll hear the roar of the surf, taste the salt on your tongue and feel the itch of sand in your swimsuit. Shreve takes the reader for a ride.

Unfortunately the realism of the details are at odds with the outrageous situations. Fate is over-stacked for tragedy, especially in one house. It is still a fun plot line to have one house running through several books. The setting becomes a character into itself, and I liked the quirky home better than its occupants. I have yet to read Sea Glass, another novel set at the ill-fated beach house. It was a happy coincidence that I ended up reading three connected novels; they do not need to be read in sequence.

Skiing along the Harraseeket River, photo by my son

Another setting I like to revisit is Freeport for cross-country skiing. Yes, there is more to Freeport than outlet shops. Five minutes away from the bustling town center is Pettingill Farm. The 1810 farmhouse is set on 140 acres by the mouth of the Harraseeket River where it opens onto Casco Bay. It’s a salt-water farm, including the fields to the estuary mudflats for clamming. Sadly, the Freeport Historical Society does not allow dogs anymore, so Stella had to stay home.

ANOTHER snow day today.

Blog Watch: A Book a Week (in my sidebar) reviewed the four related Shreve novels here.

Blog Talk: For any of you locals, I’ll be giving a talk for the Five Rivers Arts Alliance on February 9th about using the internet to market art. I’ll be sharing my two-year experience of blogging. The Frontier is a fun café/theater in Brunswick. Stop by and say hi after the talk if you can come. Details:

FEBRUARY 9, 6pm. FIVE RIVERS ARTS ALLIANCE MEMBERS MEETING will address “E-Commerce for Artists” at Frontier, 14 Maine St, Brunswick. The event will feature Five Rivers members and artists who will show how they use their websites and blogs to promote and sell their work. Presenters include Bath painter Sarah Greenier, Brunswick author and artist Sarah Laurence, and glassblowers Terrill & Charlie Jenkins of Tandem Glass, Dresden. Free for Five Rivers members; $5 for non-members. To reserve a spot, please email

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Winter Work

How cold is cold? Since moving to Maine, my definition changed. It is often below zero F when I wake up (minus 18F last Friday!) A cold day is when it doesn’t make it into the double digits above zero. The sea water freezes. On Bailey Island you’ll find bright red starfish, purple periwinkle snails and tiny crustaceans in the summer tidal pools. Now all you’ll find is ice.

The last of the migrating birds are heading south.

The leaves are long gone, and the skies turn cold blue. Sunsets bring a warm glow.

The air burns like liquor in your throat. Your lungs constrict. It reminds me of flying in an un-pressurized plane over Mt. Denali’s glacier in Alaska. It could be colder.

To keep warm, you have to move. I ski the dog from my backdoor into the woods. We abandon the front door and hire someone to plow our driveway. The kids desert the tree house and hollow a snow fort in the driveway pile. Only the mudroom deck and short walkway need shoveling.

On the streets the plowed snow banks grow too high. A truck-come-snow blower munches the banks and spits snow into a dump truck. A mini plow carves out the sidewalks. Snow removal is never the incapacitating problem it is in Boston or in NYC. Winter is easier if harsher in Maine. Luckily my commute is only steps away.

My home office couldn’t be better. My brother, the architect, designed the space for me around my dream desk. The Shaker style is native to Maine although the cherry desk was made in Vermont. I have a separate computer stand, but I like to edit my novel drafts on paper with a pen.

The two other important writing tools are a cup of tea and a dog. My favorite mug is one of two that matches a now broken tea pot that was a wedding gift (Elizabeth at About New York has a post on favorite tea mugs.) I drink PG Tips in the morning and Red Bush in the afternoon. The chair is an antique that my husband received for his 21st birthday. He shipped it over to the USA when he moved here from London. It made the passage safely, but I stole it.

The drawings on the walls are mine. I used to work from live models in charcoal and in oil before I moved to Maine. Now I paint watercolors from nature in the summer. My studio is the great outdoors. One day I’d like to get back to oil painting, using the watercolors as on-site sketches.

Cedar Beach, Bailey Island in July

There is no room for an easel, but otherwise my office accommodates my dual careers. I store my art supplies and books in deep shelves. It’s not custom cabinetry. Look closer. It’s more affordable kitchen cabinetry with a cherry veneer backing to make it look like an office. I like that my space is small enough that I can’t clutter it with piles of junk. It forces me to store only the stuff that I’m currently using. The desktop is usually covered with manuscript drafts and stacks of books.

Working at home, it really helps to have space to spread out without having to clear up. I can close the door to the kitchen and forget my household chores. My office gets the morning light and is on its own heat zone so the rest of the house can stay cool. From my window I can greet visitors. It’s my command and control center. I’m lucky to have a space to call my own.

Even with a warm office, “winter work” starts to sound like an oxymoron. There are snow days and sick days. My first full work week in January, my daughter was home with Strep. Sometimes the work is just surviving winter, or at least the coldest days. As the days get longer, my energy increases. The bright sun, the cloudless blue skies and the pure white snow are almost worth the chill. If I don’t have time to write, I at least think about new chapters. I’m still making progress.

Best cure for winter blues was the inauguration of our new president yesterday.  Barack Obama offered hope but no quick cures.  His sincerity and eloquence were a welcome change.  I can't imagine there were many dry eyes.  Obama will be working hard this winter in his new office.  

Blog Watch: Authors Patricia Wood, Cynthia Lord and Jane Green have all blogged about their workspaces. Pat used to write in the galley before claiming her own space on board her sailboat.   Despite having a home office, Jane prefers to write her novels at the public library or in coffee shops. Cindy also used to write in a library, at Bowdoin College, before she got an office shed.  Blogger Bee Drunken shows her antique desk in her sidebar.

What is your work/blog space like?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is being called a "Great American Novel." I imagined the setting of northern Wisconsin would not be that different from Maine.

Wroblewski’s first novel is astonishingly well crafted but not a quick read. The language is lovely and full of evocative images that pull you into the slow paced narrative. This is a book that I started in the fall only to put aside for the long winter nights. It’s the perfect read by the fire. Don’t expect a page turner until the final chapters.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is a modern Hamlet. The novel it most closely resembles is Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, which reinterpreted King Lear on a farm in Iowa. I enjoy modern takes on Shakespeare, but the downsides are that the suspense is ruined and the book can only fall short of the master.

What is Hamlet without his soliloquies? Perhaps Wroblewski’s decision to make his protagonist mute sprang from this concern. Edgar communicates through sign language which is cleverly portrayed as dialogue without quotation marks. Edgar is a well developed character who is restricted at crucial times by his disability but not overcome by it normally. He is in no way pathetic, but rather an active, strong character.

In a clear nod to Hamlet, Edgar’s mother is Trudy (ie Gertrude from Hamlet) and his diabolical uncle is Claude (ie Claudius.) Wroblewski’s Claude is too evil, almost a cartoon character, and impossible to understand.

My dog with my fourteen-year-old son

Hamlet had Ophelia and friends, but Edgar has only dogs for companionship. His family breeds most unusual dogs that can communicate like no others. Thankfully the dogs don’t talk, and they still act like real dogs or perhaps wolves. Where Wroblewski is at his best is describing rural life and the bond between dog and man. He’s a bit of a modern James Herriot:

She [Trudy] believed in training – that there was nothing in a dog’s character that couldn’t be adapted to useful work. Not changed, but accommodated and, ultimately, transformed. That was what people didn’t understand. Unless they had worked long and hard at it, most people thought training meant forcing their will on a dog. Or that training required some magical gift. Both ideas were wrong. Real training meant watching, listening, diverting a dog’s exuberance, not suppressing it. You couldn’t change a river into a sea, but you could trace a new channel for it to follow.

Edgar Sawtelle is a dog lover’s book but requires a mature reader. Despite having a fourteen-year-old boy as a protagonist, this novel is not young adult fiction. Teenagers live in a world of their peers and passions, but Edgar lives only for his parents and their dogs. We learn that his schoolmates like him and can understand him well enough, so why doesn’t he have any friends at all? Why doesn’t his mother have any girlfriends either?

The isolation of the Sawtelle family makes the story more of a parable. The quality of the writing makes it read like a classic. It should be savored over many nights. You will feel sad when you reach the ending, realizing you have to bid goodbye to Edgar and his wonderful dogs.

You will want to follow them into the woods.

If you crave more Shakespeare, rent the television series Slings and Arrows. It’s a dark comedy about a struggling theater company in Canada. The acting is fabulous and the wry humor brings to mind the best English comedies. In the first season a Hollywood blockbuster star is called in to play Hamlet. It’s laugh out loud funny. Thanks, Charlotte, for the recommendation.

Preview for Slings and Arrows (adult content)

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Tides and Islands

At low tide you can walk across a sandbar to an island off Popham Beach. The view from the rocky peak would be glorious except for one little problem. What is wrong with this picture?

Let me zoom in and enhance the blues. Now can you see?

Our friends from NYC were dressed for the weather but not for a swim.

The waves were coming in fast. The wide sandbar from minutes ago was gone.

Boulders sunk into islands.

My dog charged ahead into the water. She wasn’t swimming . . . yet.

Maybe it was the adrenaline or the time lag of seasonal change, but the water didn’t feel too cold until we got out, dripping to our knees. It was a “warm” day but still close to freezing.

After one year abroad in England, we had forgotten four rules about Maine:
  1. Only cross in an ebbing tide (ie when the water is going out, not coming in.)
  2. Do not assume that the beach and the tides will be the same from year to year.
  3. You can’t always get there from here.
  4. Don’t be an effing idiot.

This year the tide has gone crazy, and the beach has been eroding faster than ever. Had we been much slower, we would have had to wait until after nightfall for the next low tide. Cell phones rarely work on this remote beach in Phippsburg.

Our footprints were washing away. Amazingly Marika didn’t hold a grudge.

My remorse was tainted by inspiration. As the others fretted over wet feet and then laughed, I was skipping one book ahead. What would happen if I sent two characters out to that island, and they couldn’t come back? Novel writing is risky business.

View of Morse Mt. from Popham Beach