Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Winter Islands in Snow: in Search of Winslow Homer

After visiting Winslow Homer's house/studio earlier this winter, I wanted to find his light. He often chose to paint under stormy skies, capturing a rough sea. That's a bit easier to do if your studio has a covered porch overlooking the water. I imagined this is how Winslow Homer would have seen my part of Maine.

On summer days I've often driven to Lookout Point to paint watercolors. My studio travels with me.

While painting, I've wondered what the islands would like under stormy skies and snow.

After a winter storm, I usually grab my skis and head into the woods. This time I took my camera and drove eight miles to the sea.

Allen's Seafood lobster shack was transformed under a frosting of snow.

The dock took on a level of abstraction, so quiet and empty, like a ghost town.

Even the trees seemed to shiver in the bitter cold.

The sea was nothing like I'd ever seen before: Arctic, forlorn. The wind was something else. I could barely hold the camera steady, bracing my feet against the ice. I had to take breaks to warm up in the car.

Then as suddenly as the storm had blown in, the sun broke through the clouds.

The stormy coast was now tamed, but I'm glad I saw it in the wild of winter. One day I shall paint this wintery scene too, but not on location! At this time of year, I'm writing in my office or reading by the fire. Winslow Homer is influencing my new novel too, insinuating his dramatic imagery upon the page. 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Popham Beach Reflections

In January I crave open spaces,

To walk beyond snow and ice,

Past tidal pools to the surf,

Where sea fragments sky,

And sun defies winter,

By casting golden shadows,

Inspiring contemplation and hope.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Winter Writing

This was the view out my window yesterday, following days of rain and thaw. Early January featured deep snow and subzero temperatures. Thanks to a polar vortex, all the USA was colder than normal. This wintery mix is not unusual for a Maine winter. Most days I ski or snowshoe with my dog and then warm my fingers at the laptop.

Fiction is the best escape. The young adult novel I'm writing takes place during the spring of senior year in coastal Maine. Every day brings more sunlight and revelations. While we were in England celebrating the holidays, I'd put aside my half drafted manuscript. The two week break made it easier to look at my work with fresh eyes. With time to reconsider, I realized that two secondary characters should be collapsed into one. It's working much better now, but one change creates a domino effect. I can't resist condensing, elaborating and polishing as I go along.

I much prefer revising to writing a first draft, but I have another 30K words, or more, to write before the first draft is complete. A contemporary YA novel is usually 60 to 80K words. There will be several more drafts before mine is ready to share with my agent in NYC. Maine is a good place to write a long book; bitter cold or icy days offer few distractions. The whiteness of a blank page is like fresh snow, waiting for me to leave my tracks. I'll keep writing and revising until the mist lifts.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt opens, literally, with a bang. A bomb explodes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York killing Theo's mother. In the carnage and smoke, 13-year-old Theo impulsively rescues her favorite painting. Theo becomes emotionally chained to his purloined Dutch masterpiece like the goldfinch is to its perch, unable to escape his dismal fate.

The Goldfinch has been called Dickensian and the best literary novel of 2012, but the central art crime plot borrows more from Dan Brown and noir fiction. From Charles Dickens we get a lovable orphan sucked into a tough world of crime by larger than life characters. At 770 pages, Tartt's novel certainly has Dickensian heft. The slow 19th century pace, however, is oddly grafted to a page-turner final act. The art crime sections reminded me of The Da Vinci Code. There were shoot out scenes and genre gangsters, but Theo and Boris, his best friend and partner in crime, were well developed characters.

Tartt is a master of character:
"He was a planet without an atmosphere." 
"He seemed disconnected and partly elsewhere, like an adult in the room with small children."
And a master of atmosphere. Read out loud and listen to the poetic rhythm:
"Darkness. Under the foggy corona of the street lamps, park benches slick with rain, drip drip drip, trees sodden and black." 
"Down narrow streets we wandered, damp alleys too narrow for cars, foggy little ochreous shops filled with old prints and dusty porcelains. Canal footbridge: brown water, lonely brown duck. Plastic cup half-submerged and bobbing."
There were marvelous, well-researched passages on art and antique furniture restoration but also a bit too much information on how to be an addict and still function. Theo's inebriated teen years in Las Vegas were like the camping scenes in the last Harry Potter: bleak and repetitive. The book could have been condensed by 100 pages.

Although the first half of the book follows Theo from ages 13 to 15, The Goldfinch is not a young adult novel. Teen alcoholism, prescription drug abuse, shop lifting, child abuse, neglect and malnutrition seem only to build character with few consequences or mental impairments. Bad choices lead to worse choices.

The Goldfinch is disturbing, but it makes you think. As soon as I finished, I flipped back to reread the finale. Everything came together so well, without too much resolution. Finally we got the introspection and learning missing from the earlier chapters.

Although I was gripped by the narrative, The Goldfinch isn't a book I'd recommend to everyone, especially impressionable young readers. I preferred Tartt's debut novel, A Secret History, which had tighter writing and wasn't so relentlessly dark. Her engaging books are well worth reading for their wonderful characters, evocative atmospheres and intellectual depth. The Goldfinch has been on the NYT bestseller list since its October release and is a big hit in the Netherlands too. If you've read it, I'd love to hear your reaction.

Reviewer's Disclosure: I bought a hardcover copy from Gulf of Maine Books without compensation. It was too heavy for travel so I also bought the ebook to finish in England. By coincidence, an exhibit of Dutch masters at the Frick, including the Goldfinch, opened on the book's release date and is up until January 19, 2014. I tried to see it when I was last in NYC, but the lines were too long.

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

A Winter Visit to Dartmoor National Park, England

Happy New Year! We just got back from England.

Eleven of us gathered at my in-laws' house in Goring-on-Thames to celebrate a green Christmas. After all the rain and flooding, it felt more like Thames-on-Goring. Luckily it dried up somewhat over the week.

Last weekend, we headed to Dartmoor in Devon. England is densely cultivated so this 368 square mile wild moor is quite special. It was my first visit to Dartmoor National Park, but it won't be my last.

We met
up with
old friends
for a pub lunch
and a walk
on the moors.

Our son (far right),
back from
his first term at
Middlebury College,
is an eager hiker,
as is his
younger sister.

My daughter led the way to the peak. We could see Bristol Bay glimmering on the horizon.

Ponies and sheep grazed in the open moors. Without a local guide, it would be easy to get lost.

Henry had been at Oxford University with Roddy, who now works in Devon as an ER doctor.

Roddy lives with his family in the house that was once his grandmother's. Henry's grandparents lived in Devon too, but on the coast. We love the West Country. A house party of old friends felt very P. G. Wodehouse, except we changed out of our hiking clothes into thick sweaters and jeans instead of dinner jackets and evening gowns. Roddy's wife prepared a delicious stew. As the candles burnt low, Roddy stuck new ones on the flaming stubs. We stayed up past midnight talking, laughing and drinking. Fortunately, nobody needed to drive anywhere.

In the morning I awoke to a light frost,

...followed by rare blue skies on our last day. I already miss England.

Back home in Maine, it was quite a shock to wake up to minus eight Fahrenheit (-22 C), 
but now it's warmed up to plus nineteen. Time to hit the ski trails. Enjoy the New Year!