Sunday, February 28, 2010

Samson's Revenge

Yes, yes, it's been weeks since I blogged. There was this manuscript, see, and this stuff and that stuff. The manuscript has now returned in copy-edited form for me to read through again in a hurry and yet I am blogging, which makes me a saint.

Also, the power's been out for three days. Also, I am bereaved. Twice.

Thursday night, which featured winds in the 80 mph range, dropped trees all over the Blue Hill Peninsula, including on my now-probably-totaled 2002 Subaru Impreza.

I was happy to see the tree go, frankly, since it was one of the scraggly, sun-blocking ones that we wanted to cut down anyway. I objected only to its sense of direction. The damage doesn't look that bad in the photo, but the frame's badly bent and it's such an old car that I doubt the insurance company will want to repair it. Also, I'm not sure the frame isn't thoroughly compromised.

Speaking of sainthood, my car sacrificed itself that Rob's might live. His car was parked next to mine, and didn't get a scratch on it. Last night, our friend John Wilkinson commemorated the occasion with this cardboard tribute to automotive unselfishness.

Far worse, however, is the loss of Delilah's head.

When we were first clearing this land for our house, Rob cut down a key couple of trees and opened up a vista that looked to us like a cathedral of spruces. We made sure we sited windows in the house so we could admire the view. After we'd lived here a while the cathedral's two spires (photo below left) became known to us as Samson and Delilah, names that seemed even more appropriate when a northeast gale gave Samson a haircut. (His pointy top fell off but grew back even bushier--he's the one on the left. Delilah apparently had broken off once earlier in her life, and had become appropriately two-faced.)

We were up all night during the storm--Rob got called out as a firefighter and couldn't get in to town because the road was blocked, so he was going to drive around this side of the blockage all by himself checking for downed wires. I didn't like the idea of him running around alone when the world was coming to an end, so I went with him.

As a result, we were beat and bleary-eyed when Friday dawned and we got our first glimpse of the new Delilah, cut off at the tree line (photo at right.)

Instead of looking like a cathedral, the woods now look like they're flipping us the bird. Which they probably are.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

February Book Review: WOLF HALL

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@Barrie Summy

We're getting lovely, unexpected snow today, and I'm in a great mood because I can take credit for it. I need to go to Bangor one afternoon this week, and it would be best for my revision schedule if I went today. But nobody expected the snow and nobody's plowed and now I have to go tomorrow. If you live in coastal Maine and you're a snow lover, you're welcome. If you live in coastal Maine and snow doesn't thrill you, how about a good book?

Don't forget to click the icon to find more of this month's Book Review Club entries. I understand we have a new member, a seventh grader! Welcome, Cassandra!

Wolf Hall
By Hilary Mantel
Henry Holt & Co., 2009

Up to now, most books and movies have portrayed Sir Thomas More as a saint (which he actually became, three centuries after his death) and Thomas Cromwell, his successor in Henry VIII’s esteem, as a scheming meany. Hilary Mantel’s WOLF HALL nearly reverses those portrayals—although “turns them inside out” would be a better way of putting it.

Winner of the United Kingdom’s prestigious Man Booker Prize for 2009, this is an entrancing, exquisitely written book, but odd. A blacksmith’s son who rises to be Henry’s closest counselor, Cromwell is, in fact, a schemer--and we’re so deep inside his head that we understand and applaud every maneuver. Mantel achieves this with a technical maneuver of her own that sidles back and forth between genius and gimmickry.

It’s all in a pronoun. Cromwell’s tale is written third person, but the narrator seldom uses his name. Cromwell is “he,” almost always, and the reader frequently has to stop and unravel which pronoun refers to which human.

Opening the book at random, one finds the following paragraph on page 214, when a lieutenant of Cardinal Woolsey’s is reporting to Cromwell on the prelate’s downfall: “Cavendish waits. He waits for him to erupt in fury? But he puts his fingers together, joined as if he were praying. He thinks, Anne arranged this, and it must have given her an intense and secret pleasure….” By this point, the reader is astute enough to know that the “he” with his fingers together is Cromwell, not Cavendish. Earlier in the book, the reader had to stop herself from throwing the blasted thing across the room.

The gimmick works. It probably will never work again for another character or another author, and good luck if you want to try it. I don’t have a firm grip on why it succeeds, but here’s my stab at a theory: If this were written first person, we’d be completely in Cromwell’s thrall, relaxed in the knowledge we were seeing everything and everyone through his eyes. Replacing the intimate pronoun “I” with this almost-intimate “he” throws us off balance—whose perspective is this, exactly? We are one with this guy, completely inside his head…so who’s narrating? Who’s “he” this time—better read that paragraph again.

We’re alive, nervous, on our toes…just as Cromwell had to be to survive in a Tudor court that Mantel seems to know as well as her back yard.

The book’s approach to time is uneasy, too. We meet Cromwell in childhood, recovering from yet another beating by his brutish father. We see him run away to the Continent and then, in the next chapter…boom, he’s an adult, with a wife and kids, Cardinal Woolsey’s right hand. He’s grown into a skilled politician, a bit of an idealist—how did that happen, and how come we didn’t get to see it? We feel gypped.

But we learn that time is fluid, as we follow Cromwell’s thoughts back and forth along the arc of his life, seldom with anything as cut-and-dried as a flashback.

As the pages turn, we begin to understand Cromwell’s genius and where it came from. We watch his idealism die with Woolsey, watch him become Henry’s right hand instead, a councilor admired by some, feared by many, respected by all. He moves like a snake, we see that, but he’s kind to his friends and family. He mourns his wife and daughters, loves his dog. He’s a man of wit and taste. Really, he deserves his own pronoun—it’s a shame he has to share that “he” with anyone else.

Oh, and Thomas More? He’s a prig and a miser, mean to his wife. He rather enjoys burning heretics. He engineers his own downfall and execution partly by acting on a strongly held principal, but also by being a jerk. In other words, a perfect saint.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Love Your Library

Ah, small town library love. I refer, of course, to Friend Memorial Public Library, my little town's beating heart. Katharine and E.B. White adopted it when they moved here in the late 1930s and turned it into a tiny gem that continues to gleam today.

Big doings the next couple of weeks, and even those reading From Away can participate.

In the photo, librarian/restaurateur Nancy Randall and Library Director Stephanie Atwater are making valentines for posting around the library honoring donors' loved ones. ($5 a pop. Cheaper than chocolate!)

But more to the point, there's a silent auction of all sorts of goodies, half of them available on line. The items up for bid are like a snapshot of what it's like to live around here, put into perspective here by auction co-chair Pat Fowler:

A good public library is one of the most basic elements of a good community. What is happening this month at Friend Memorial Library in the small town of Brooklin shows this clearly. It’s one of the most active libraries in the state for communities under 1,000 population, circulating more items than any other and offering a wide range of programs and services. But such a resource must be funded, and Friend Memorial Library depends on its community as it serves it. Some funding comes from the Town, some from the library’s endowment, some from annual donations. And about ten percent of the library’s budget comes from one annual event: the Love Your Library Celebration around Valentine’s Day.

Over the past couple of weeks donations have been pouring into the library, starting with personal donations of $5 or more, which are represented by handmade valentines hanging in the library all this month. Local people have also contributed more than 160 articles to the library’s two concurrent auctions—one online and the other a silent auction in the library itself. Bidding at both auctions will continue until February 13th.

In addition to a personal tour of the farm where Charlotte’s Web was written by E. B. White, there are day sails (with yummy foods) on such boats as the trawler Ellie Belle, the Concordia Starlight, and the motorsailer Burma. There is an exquisite doll created by Pamela Johnson, completely hand-made from delicate antique fabrics, wool from Pam’s sheep, tiny jet buttons, even including hand-knit mittens and stockings and a basket handwoven from dainty cranberry vines. Bidders can vie for a cocktail party with appetizers by Diane Bianco, or for barbecue treats with music supplied by the Brooklin Town Band—or a boules picnic with expert coach Andre Strong and a French picnic. There is elegant jewelry by local craftspeople: beadwork by Sihaya Hopkins at Blossom Studio and Julie Reed at The Big Sheep, handstrung gemstones from Elaine Daniels, an enameled pendant by Dottie Hayes, sterling earrings by Jeanette Ware. And wearable art: a felted hat by Sue Wright, a delicate hand knit shawl of silk and merino yarns, or a child’s 4th of July sweater (with blue sailboats on a red background) knit by Pam Steele. Prefer to do it yourself? Bid on hand-dyed yard from String Theory, knitting lessons from Sue Wright, a class in rug hooking with Ken Carpenter.

There are plenty of smaller, very practical items: an oil change at Affordable Performance Auto, 50 gallons of heating oil, a half cord of stovewood delivered to your door, 3 hours of housecleaning, a haircut at Verde, chair caning for the broken seat in that kitchen chair of your grandmother’s. Bidders can try for a day or a week of child care at Cheryl Roy’s, or a day of dog care at Creature Camp.

Is your garden your passion? Consider a dozen perennial plants, or a new bed of hostas or dalilies, or a consultation with Julie Wang of Blue Poppy Gardens, or 3 hours of garden work with Holbrook Williams, land management consultation by Cathy Rees at Arbutus Ecological Services, a certificate from Mainescape. Hungry? Bid on chocolates from Black Dinah, a cooking class with Terence Janericco, cheese platter from Bucks Harbor Market, blueberries and pork chops, homemade apple pies (or make the pie yourself using a polished stone pastry board from The Granite Shop), breads by Brooklin Bread Company, clams, oysters, lobsters, a share in Penobscot East Resource Center’s shrimp fishery.

Enjoy tickets to a production by the New Surry Theater, concerts at the Kneisel Hall Chamber Festival, or a meal at a local restaurant. Many local merchants have donated gift certificates: The Cave, Brooklin General Store, The Lookout, etc.

According to Library Director Stephanie Atwater, several dozen people are working on this event, 160 donated to the auction, and more than 200 so far donating money for valentines. “That’s pretty amazing for a town of about 800 people,” she said.