Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Acadia National Park Off Season

Bar Harbor, Maine

Over 2 million people visit Acadia National Park in a year; most come in the summer or for fall foliage. My photos from last week’s April break don’t just give an illusion of emptiness. Visit Acadia off season if you want to commune with nature in solitude and skip the entrance fee.

Otter Cliffs, Acadia National Park

Our first day was foggy with rain expected, so we kept to the coastal paths of Mt. Desert Island. You can actually see this view (above) from your car. Most visitors to Acadia don’t bother to step far beyond the Park Loop Road. They are missing a lot. The Rockefellers put in miles of carriage roads, perfect for mountain bikes or easy walking. I’ve heard that they are also great for cross country skiing.

Somes Sound from Mt. Acadia 

To escape the crowds and to get the best views,
climb a mountain.
The view from the bald peak of Acadia Mountain
is well worth the effort.
It is an effort.
My kids (above) are
not standing recklessly at the edge of a cliff.

Here's the trail (photo to left.)
This type of hiking is called scrambling.
Honestly, this is a teenager's idea of fun.
We encountered no one on this mountain, curiously!

Adjacent to Acadia Mountain is Mt. St. Sauveur.
It also has spectacular views without the scramble.
We hiked the two together in one day.
It was only 4 miles, but it took us 4 hours to do the loop trail.
Guess who slowed down the pace?
Other visits we’ve hiked Beech Mountain,
my favorite trail off the beaten path.
There are hikes for all abilities.

View from Mt. St. Sauveur of Greening, Sutton and the Cranberry Islands

After hiking, enjoy Bar Harbor. Ben and Bill’s Chocolate Emporium sells homemade fudge and ice cream, including lobster flavor. Eat pizza while watching a movie at  Reel Pizza. The newly opened Side Street Café has live music, cocktails and tasty veggie burgers and tapenade. For the more gourmet experience, try Mache Bistro, started by a former chef of Havana. Sadly, Havana with its delicious Cuban accented food is closed off season, like most of town. We stayed at the Graycote Inn, which is open year round and discounted off season. The innkeepers serve up a delicious two-course breakfast and homemade cookies with hot cider in the afternoon. Hiking builds an appetite!

Sherman's Book Store, established in 1886, is a must browse.

My vacation reading: Life of Pi by Yann Martel. If you are one of the few who haven't read this Man Booker Prize winning novel, it's about a 16-year-old boy stranded on a lifeboat with a tiger from his father's zoo. Pi must tame the tiger and his fear to survive. He turns to his knowledge of animals and his 3 faiths (Hinduism, Islam and Christianity!) My teenaged son loved it, but my tween daughter didn't. It was published as an adult book in 2001 and is often assigned at school. Adults would appreciate the philosophical nuances.

Life of Pi can be very gory, but I appreciated the realistic portrayal of animal behavior and respect for nature. Both Pi and the tiger are great characters and the writing is sublime. Critically, it didn't really hook me until the second part. Then it was hard to put down. Much of the backstory in the first part could have been woven in as flashbacks, but who am I to criticize a contemporary classic?

Closest to it: The Black Stallion by Walter Farley (a favorite from my childhood) and The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh (literary fiction, one of my favorites now.) 

Blog Watch: I've recently started following Steph Su Reads, written by a Swathmore College student who reviews young adult and middle grade literary fiction. Steph had a brilliant post on What's Missing in YA Lit? I'm encouraged because my YA novel covers a lot of that missing ground, although it isn't published yet. Author Beth Kephart encouraged Steph to submit this article to the NYT Books Section. It really is that good. 

    Wednesday, April 14, 2010

    Cliff Trail on Great Island, Maine

    Mud season is a great time to hike in Maine. The snow has finally melted by mid April, but the woods are not yet buzzing with insects and tourists. The Cliff Trail is an easy/moderate 2.3-mile loop trail on Great Island in Harpswell. The bare trees afford wonderful views of the water.

    To reach the nature sanctuary, drive along the Mountain Road (above) 
    to the Harpswell Town Offices. The trailhead is in the far left corner of the parking lot.

      Can you believe this is the view from the parking lot entrance? 
    The camera lens flattens the landscape.

    I painted the same view of Harpswell Sound, sitting in the marsh at mid-tide.  
    The price of a true perspective was paid in blood to the summer mosquitoes.

    The Cliff Trail passes tidal estuaries, marshes and thick woods 
    before climbing to the cliffs.

     Near the peak, there are signs warning you to hold onto children and to leash your dog. 
    Watch out! My friend’s dog once fell off the cliff and had to be rescued.

    The view is spectacular (first and above photo.)

    The bare rock summit is perfect for a picnic . . .

    . . . or to watch the Osprey. . .

    . . . build a nest on the island below.

    This magical kingdom has ice falls . . .

    . . . and fairy houses.

    My enchanted daughter watched the surf from Bailey Island
    (a 10 minute drive) after lunch at Cook's Lobster House.
    Harpswell is a collection of islands and a long neck of land,
    extending into the Atlantic Ocean from midcoast Maine.

    Blog Watch: 
    The Story Siren checked with publishers for 
    guidelines on posting book covers when you review a book.  
    It's a must read post for book bloggers. 

    Note: next week is my kids' spring vacation 
    so I'm taking a blog vacation.
    Next post: Wednesday April 28.

    Wednesday, April 7, 2010

    The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters: interview and review

    The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters is a haunted house story told by a man of science who doesn’t believe in ghosts. The reader is left to believe or not, based on evidence that unhinges other characters. Set in post World War II rural England, class boundaries are crumbling like the mansion’s foundation.

    Dr. Faraday’s mother was once a nanny at Hundreds Hall. He had visited the grand estate as a child and had broken off a decorative acorn from the molding. Even as a boy, he wanted to possess something above him. Now a village doctor, he returns on a medical visit and finds the once stately mansion in poor repair.

    The Ayres family cannot afford to maintain Hundreds Hall, although they still employ two domestic servants. The house was occupied by British forces and then left to neglect. The Ayres son was crippled as a wartime pilot; the mother is an aging widow, and the daughter, Caroline, is too plain to marry well. In desperation, they turn to lonely Dr. Farraday for emotional support.

    The old aristocratic order is what is truly haunting the narrative. Caroline’s hands are ruined from helping out in the kitchen and on the farm, although she doesn’t mind. Ironically, it is Dr. Farraday who is disgusted by Caroline’s lack of upper class grace as much as he admires her strength.

    Sarah Water’s attention to social class and to the subtle nuances of character bring to mind Evelyn Waugh or a dark P.G. Wodehouse. Her writing is beautiful and understated; it fits the era. If you enjoy visiting National Trust Houses or just like an old fashioned ghost story, you’ll love this multi-layered novel.

    Like Dr. Farraday, you’ll fall in love with Hundreds Hall:

    “I recall most vividly the house itself, which struck me as an absolute mansion. I remember its lovely ageing details: the worn red brick, the cockled window glass, the weathered sandstone edgings. They made it look blurred and slightly uncertain – like an ice, I thought, just beginning to melt in the sun.”

    [ice = popsicle in American]

    British book blogger dovegreyreader called The Little Stranger one of the best books of 2009. It was short listed for the Man Booker Prize. Sarah Waters blends a scholar’s knowledge of period detail with a novelist’s eye for drama. The narrative drags a bit in the middle, but keep reading. The story builds gradually and will haunt you even after you finish.

    My Interview of Sarah Waters
    author photo by Charlie Hopkins

    Why did you choose the 1940's as the time period for The Little Stranger?

    My previous book, The Night Watch, was also set in the 1940s: I finished that novel still really interested in the period; still with things I wanted to explore. In particular, I was fascinated by what had happened to the British class system in the 1940s. It was a time of huge change - a time of new opportunities for the working classes, but a scary time for conservative people, who saw old British hierarchies slipping away. It was that tension and turmoil that I wanted to dramatise. A haunted house story struck me as a good way to do it.

    Was Hundreds Hall based on a real house(s), and how did you build it?

    Hundreds Hall isn't based on any actual house, but while I was writing the book I tried to visit as many grand old country houses as I could, and I think Hundreds is in some ways a collage of bits of them all. I collected images, too, and drew plans, until I had quite a strong visual sense of the house. I tried to bring it to life for the reader by thinking about detail - the worn bricks, the uneven old window-glass, the scents of the house, the feel of light and shadow inside it - things like that.

    Did writing in a male voice present new challenges?

    Yes and no. I definitely had to make an effort now and then, to think about how a man would react, the kinds of things he might notice, etc. But then, you always have to do that with a character, regardless of their gender. You always have to make an imaginative leap into your narrator's mind - that's part of your job. So, ultimately, writing a male voice didn't feel as much of an issue as I had expected.

    Do you believe in ghosts/paranormal phenomena?

    Well, I don't disbelieve in them. I've never had a supernatural experience myself, but I love the idea of the paranormal - I think it makes life more interesting. I'm always fascinated to hear other people's stories; and I really enjoyed writing the spooky scenes in The Little Stranger. I'd like to write another ghost story some time - perhaps one with a contemporary setting. That would be a good challenge.

    Was there a special book that made you want to become a novelist too?

    Philippa Gregory's first novel, Wideacre, made a huge impact on me when I first read it, about fifteen years ago. It's a really brilliant novel - wildly melodramatic, but also fantastically clever about history, women and power. It got me thinking about historical fiction and what the genre can achieve; that prompted me to return to university and do a PhD, which in turn led to me starting to write historical novels of my own.

    What is the best writing advice that you have received?

    When I was writing my first novel, Tipping the Velvet, I got a bit stuck. My friend Sally, to console me, said: "Look, it would be a miracle if you just sat down and wrote a perfect novel, from start to finish" - and I realised that she was right. No-one is capable of writing a perfect first draft; most of writing is actually rewriting. A book needs energy, time, and above all patience. I still remember Sally's comment when I get stuck, and it still reassures me.

    Reviewer's Disclaimer and Photos: my agent, Jean Naggar, sold the U.S. rights for The Little Stranger. I bought the book without compensation.  Photos are of Rousham House and Gardens and of the St. Martin Church, Bladon where Winston Churchill was buried.  I took the photos during my sabbatical in England.

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