Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Shakespeare's Home and Gardens

Last June to research my novel “as u like it,” I visited Shakespeare’s home in Stratford-upon-Avon. I wasn’t the first writer to do so.  Many authors have scrawled their signatures like graffiti on the walls, as if they could tattoo their mild celebrity on his literary skin. 

Shakespeare’s name is immortal, marked on our creative conscience.  The visit to his home reminded me that he was a real person, the son of a possibly illiterate tanner/glover.  His house was still impressively large, especially for his time.

The gardens were small but lovely, featuring blooms he'd mentioned in his writing.  In the courtyard period-dressed actors performed scenes from his plays.  Mid June is a good time to visit, before the big summer crowds.  Only the Shakespeare museum and gift-shop were tacky-touristy. 

The portrait gallery was worth the trip in itself.  Hanging on the wall, was the most recently discovered (March 2009) painting of Shakespeare, perhaps the only to have been done during his lifetime.  His hair is rich auburn and his expression bemused. The portrait is by an unknown artist and shows mixed mastery from the well-rendered beard to the clumsy ear.  There was still an emotional liveliness to it, unusual for the period.  Shakespeare was in his 40's, close to me in age.  I stared into his eyes for close to an hour and felt a connection.  A reproduction is pinned above my desk (blog image from the

We found the perfect place for lunch: the As You Like It Café.  A good sign?  It didn’t even rain on us in the courtyard.  The café is conveniently on 20 Henley Street.

After lunch we walked across Henley Street to the Shakespeare Bookshop.  Heaven.  I could have spent hours browsing through all the books that ranged from academic volumes to manga Shakespeare.  There would be room on the bookshelf for my “as u like it” in the children’s/young adult section.  I didn’t see anything else like it there. 

I bought The Arden Dictionary of Shakespeare Quotations and Bill Bryson’s short and entertaining biography, aimed at a general audience. Bryson explains in his usual droll tone:
“To answer the obvious question, this book was written not so much because the world needs another book on Shakespeare, as because this series [of biographies] does.  The idea is a simple one: to see how much of Shakespeare we can know, really know, from the record.  Which is one reason, of course, it’s so slender.”

With many amusing anecdotes, Bryson places Shakespeare in his historical context and dismisses the naysayers who claimed the parochially schooled actor couldn’t have written those most literary plays and sonnets.  It’s a fun and easy read.  I absolutely loved it.

For those looking for a more scholarly biography of Shakespeare, I'd strongly recommend Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt at Harvard University.  I didn't include biographical material in my young adult novel, but both books added to my understanding and appreciation of Shakespeare's work.  Call it character research as the Bard is a presence in my contemporary novel. 

Shakespeare is so much more than his words on a page.  No visit to Stratford-upon-Avon is complete without watching a Royal Shakespeare Company performance.  Book ahead.  In June they were performing As You Like it.  A second good sign! 

Over the three years that I’ve lived in England, I’ve seen many RSC performances in London.  This is Shakespeare at its best with perfect elocution, emotional depth and attention to period detail.  Every single actor is strong, working together as an ensemble.  RSC alumni include Kenneth Branagh (I love his Shakespeare films,) Ralph Fiennes and Patrick Stewart.

As You Like It came to life on the stage with a strong Rosalind (Katy Stephens) and an amusingly melancholy Jaques.  They had been banished from court to the northern woods.   At the interval (intermission) an actor actually skinned a rabbit on stage.  Shakespeare’s Arden Forest is a fallen Eden:

“Here feel we not the penalty of Adam,
The seasons’ difference, as the icy fang
And churlish chiding of the winter’s wind,
Which when it bites and blows on my body….”

And yet in this harsh, adverse setting, the true meaning of life is found:

“Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.”

My pilgrimage to Shakespeare’s birthplace was well worth the journey.

Blog Watch: for the latest news on Shakespeare performances, books, movies, scholarships, blogs etc., check out The Shakespeare Post.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Snow Falling on Maples

We awoke to snow falling on golden maples.

Sticky flakes clung to not yet fallen leaves.

The roads of Bethel shimmered like black rivers.
The sky was church white.  Steeples disappeared into mist, pointing at nothingness.
The mountains obscured, the calendar forgotten.  There is a reason they are called the White Mountains.

No Snow Day for the children of Bethel.

Would teacher care for a frozen apple?

Over Columbus Day weekend, we had hiked up gilded summits.
The sun was warm, the breeze gentle.

A beaver pond reflected the sky, one blue square in autumn’s quilt.

"Busy beavers" napped in their den.  Did they know?

My dog was kitted out in orange,
not to be mistaken for a deer,
although that season hasn’t begun.
Rifle shots echoed across the valley.
It must be time to hunt something.

Many of the leaves hadn’t turned.
Even the early red maples still showed green veins.
We had been treated to a lingering summer.
August had stretched into September, and September into October.
Late summer and early winter: what have you done with autumn?

We drove downriver to the rainy coast.
Snow melted in our wake like a dream.

Blog Watch: This post is part of The Fall Color Project @The Home Garden.  Dave will be posting links to peak fall foliage.  Eternal autumn!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Up a Mountain

Rainbow from my back door

I only just got home. We spent the long weekend through Tuesday hiking in the White Mountains of Maine, like we did last year.  Look for a leaf peeping post next week, once I weed through the photos.

Good news: my watercolor sold in the first minute of the 10X10 Art Show. There were long lines outside all 3 venues. Plenty more paintings are still up and available for purchase through the end of the month to benefit Arts Are Elementary.

Blog Watch:
  • Check out the kitty fixing a printer @troutbirder.  I’ve been having computer problems, does she do house calls?
  • On the funny animal theme, Cheffie Mom@Dishing with Debbie has frogs in her toilet.  Life just hopped up: Debbie also landed a newspaper column.  Congratulations, Debbie!
  • Each Little World posted a link to a site, the Book Depository, that allows you to order a book printed in the UK and will ship to anyplace in the world for free.  I haven’t checked it out myself. 
  • Bid a sad farewell and thank you to David@authorblog.  His “Post of the Day” was like my “Blog Watch.”  He shall be missed in the blogger community as he’s brought so many of us together.  David is quitting blogging to write more novels.  Good luck, David!
Google Blogger Posting Tip:
If you switch to the updated editor, as I recommended 2 weeks ago, you might also need to upgrade your template.  My “Minima” template was cropping my photos.  Switching to “Minima Stretch” kept a similar look but with full frame images.   The other cool feature is the reader can stretch or condense the post width.  You can preview a new template without changing your current settings:
  1. Dashboard
  2. Layout
  3. Choose New Template
  4. Minima Stretch
  5. preview template

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

But Not For Long by Michelle Wildgen: Review & Interview

But Not For Long by Michelle Wildgen is a most sensual novel; it engages all the senses, especially taste.  Food plays a central role in the lives of three characters who live and dine together at a “sustainable food” co-op. It is also a story of this Great Recession, played out in a liberal university town in heartland USA.  Gas stations are shutting and charity is strained.  The story unravels over a three day blackout, a time of “almost festive frustration.”

Middle-aged Hal works for a non-profit that brings donated meals to elderly shut-ins.  He grew up hunting deer in the woods but is now a vegetarian.  His hippy-like existence and buying organic leaves him with few savings.  After his mother dies, Hal lavishes attention on an elderly woman, whom he doesn’t even like.  He fears he will be even worse off in his old age than this client, but taking extra time to help her might cost him his job.

Hal’s bisexual housemate, Karin, is as wholesome as fresh milk.  She grew up in a trailer park and now writes a column on small farms for a dairy industry journal (once again the food motif.)  She avoids makeup to win over the farmers but doesn’t know how to milk a cow.  Karin does know a lot about artisan cheese.  The descriptions will make your mouth water.  There is humor too:

“Karin liked her farmer’s hands filthy, her cows named, and her cheese wrapped in limp chestnut leaves.  Anything else was unnatural.”

The newest housemate, Greta,  is more complicated and abrasive.  She’s a fundraiser for a private college and thinks in monetary terms.  As for the food connection, Greta wines and dines wealthy alumni in hopes of landing large donations.  An aging beauty, Greta dresses in silk for work, and her idea of loosening up is not shaving her armpits on weekends.  She is the least likely person to find in this bohemian community.  Ironically, Hal is attracted to Greta and the luxury she represents. 

In the opening scene, a dock has been cut loose, stranding a dog (the real Morrison St. dock by Michelle Wildgen is pictured above.) An empty chair indicates the owner may have drowned earlier.  The dog swims toward shore but struggles to stay afloat.  Who will play hero?  This narrative device is a great way to test the three main characters.  The story launches with momentum and a feeling of unease.  The cut raft is a central metaphor of how adrift the three housemates are in life.

The narrative tension increases when Greta’s alcoholic husband shows up dangerously inebriated on their front porch.  He is the reason Greta is living in the co-op.  What are the housemates to do?

To read But Not For Long is a literary treat, but it requires patience.  The author loves descriptive detail, and the pace suffers from too much back story and exposition.  Yet these pictures Wildgen paints with words are well worth seeing.  In one plotline, Karin visits a young farmer who has lost her husband and fears for the farm’s future.  The images are ominous: an empty beehive of abandoned honey and a dark cave full of ripening cheese.   Still, the fields are full of wildflowers, lavender and clover.  The book begs analysis and slow reading.  Satire makes it fun.

Michelle Wildgen is a master of metaphor and a champion of character.  Irony rules.  She has a message too: modern life is divorced from the sensual, earthiness of life and community.  Eat local farm food and chew with care.  Savor it.

Photo of Michelle Wildgen by Kate Huntington

My Interview of Michelle Wildgen

In addition to being an author, Michelle Wildgen is senior editor of the literary magazine Tin House. She has recently moved from NYC back to Wisconsin where both of her novels are set.  Wildgen is a frequent farmer market shopper.

Sarah Laurence: The economic malaise in But Not For Long feels so current.  I recall that you were writing this novel back in spring of 2008, when I reviewed You’re Not You, your first novel.  Did you change the narrative in response to last year’s stock market crash or was this a coincidence? 

Michelle Wildgen: Let’s see—I was about to say I didn’t revise it in response at all, but come to think of it, it was last fall that I was adding some last pieces about Hal and his nonprofit’s crisis, which does stem from economic fallout, so that facet was at least partially in response. But at the same time, the entire book and its fears about the general infrastructure, the faltering natural world, and the nagging fear that the people supposedly in charge are not really paying attention, was already in place well before that—for the book as well as for quite a few people, I’d guess.

SL: But Not For Long appears to reference indirectly the nonfiction book The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan and also the Slow Food Movement.  What was your inspiration?

MW: In researching co-ops, I found that many were organized according to some principle, and I thought this might be a good one for my co-op. Once I follow that thread it often takes me somewhere interesting, as with the sections at the cheesemaker’s farm, which are some of my favorites. I wouldn’t say either book or organization was a direct inspiration, though absolutely I drew on both for research, because the ideas felt appropriate to this world and pique my interest.

SL: Food, especially from local organic farms, features in both of your novels.  You are also a food writer.  Where did you develop this passion?

MW: I just started cooking in high school because I had read a few recipes or descriptions of dishes that I’d never had; I wanted to taste them, so I learned how to make them. This was before grocery stores improved so much, and I remember arguing with my mother over what a “shitake” was and whether the Acme Click would have one.

Food appeals to me in the same way literature does—in some ingrained way I respond to this, want to know it and experience it in as many ways as I can. It just gives me pleasure to write about food, talk about food, look at photos of food. I’m really very greedy.

SL: Family background haunts the characters in But Not For Long.  What was your family and hometown like?

MW: It’s a curse for a writer in some ways, especially a food-obsessed writer who suspects she really should have been Italian, but I grew up smack in the middle of the middle class in a perfectly pleasant suburb in northeastern Ohio. There wasn’t a lot of drama. And actually that may be part of why I often like to write about people and families whose lives don’t look crazily turned upside down—instead I tend to write about mundane life just as it starts to slip off the edges.

SL: Name some of your favorite novelists.

MW: I love Alice Munro, Antonya Nelson, Laurie Colwin, Lorrie Moore, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, off the top of my head.

SL: What is the best writing advice you’ve received?

MW: Once my teacher, Mary Morris, was just baffled by all of us grad students fretting over making changes to our stories—Because what if it didn’t make it better?—and she said, So what? You save a new copy and number them—Deathless Prose No. 1, Deathless Prose No. 2—and you try out different versions. You don’t like it, you go back. It’s mortifying that I had to have this explained to me, but it totally freed me up, and if you dig around my computer you’ll see endless folders of Novel 1, Novel 2, Novel 20….

SL: What is your next book project?

MW: I know it will be a novel, but I’m still in the pondering stages and it’s hard to say what shape it will take. Things may change, but at the moment I’m thinking I would love to stay funny and satirical, something sharp but light.

But Not For Long by Michelle Wildgen
will be released on October 13, 2009.

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@Barrie Summy

Blog Watch: Through blogging we share our triumphs and our losses.  Congratulations to Donna @ The Doll Sweet Journal on the birth of her baby boy!  My thoughts are with Barrie Summy from our book review club and with Jane Green. Both lost a dear friend recently.

Note: I'll be offline this morning while my new computer is being serviced (missing/corrupted fonts.)