"It was imprudent of us, in the first place, to become authors. We could have become something regular, but we managed not to.
We were lucky, but we were also determined." Roy Blount Jr

"I don’t change the facts to enhance the drama. I think of it the other way round, the drama has got to fit the facts,
and it’s your job as a writer to find the shape in real life."
Hilary Mantel

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Reading Award Winners

I'm famously slow to read bestselling books, fiction or nonfiction. Not because I assume that what's popular can't also be good, or that there's too limited a choice among books that sell well. I'm not snobbish that way, though I'll cop to being something of a literary snob, just not as usually defined. What I am really is very demanding, it's the writer's curse to read and absorb differently from other readers, much of the time.

While my tastes are wide-ranging, I tend to read selectively and subjectively. Even more so lately. My habits are changing, in that I very often disregard certain titles that, not so very long ago, I would've rushed to the store to purchase in hardcover. These days I'll wait for the paperback. Or just not bother at all unless there's a truly compelling reason (it relates to my work, the time period in which I write, or it's a fave novelist's or historian's brand-new title.)

I've surprised myself lately in reading two, count 'em, two much lauded award-winning books. One is a novel, one a memoir.

Early this month I participated in NH Writer's Day, and our keynoter was Paul Harding. His novel Tinkers received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and he's sort of "local" in that he lives in Massachusetts, and his book was championed by a NH bookseller all the way to the Pulitzer committee. My conference role was to record his comments for the NH Writers Project newsletter, and I would be meeting him. So I bought and read his novel. I enjoyed it very much. Not only for the beautiful, evocative writing and interesting narrative choices, but because it's so grounded in the reality and nostalgia of rural New England.

He turned out to be a personable and amusing speaker and teacher, fully cognisant of his great (and unexpected) good fortune. And he signed my copy of his book, to be added to my little collection of signed Pulitzer works.

Paul's quote that spoke to me most that day was, "Your writing can only be as good as the best stuff you've read." I ought to stick it up there on the header, it's long been my own mantra. In fact, when I've taught writing, I've said much the same.

When purchasing Paul's book I also picked up Patti Smith's memoir of her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids. It's about as different from Tinkers as can be, the tale of two aspiring urban artists making their way together in a strange and changing culture. It won the National Book Award. It was a wonderful read, the kind that keeps me thinking and keeps me stirred up long after I reach the end.

I thought I knew a lot about Smith, being a casual fan of her music. I remember that she happened to be buying flowers at the Greenwich Village shop right next door to the restaurant where my cousin's wedding luncheon was taking place one sunny spring day. The Chap and I refer to that whenever we see her on telly or hear her name. (The late Geraldine Ferraro, a friend of the bride's family, was among us, so it was quite a day for celebrity-sighting.)

As an author, a lot of people I know are other authors. Most of them aren't household names.

When I totted up the award-winning or otherwise distinguished writers I've encountered, I was surprised. In addition to Paul (Pulitzer) and Patti (Pulitzer, Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres), there are Stephen Spender (C.B.E.), Clive Barnes (C.B.E.), Eudora Welty (Pulitzer, Presidential Medal of Freedom, National Medal of Arts, P.E.N. Short Story Award, Legion d'Honneur), Alfred Uhry (Pulitzer & Academy Award), Tennesee Williams (Tony Award, 2 Pulitzers, Presidential Medal of Freedom), Lanford Wilson (New York Critics Circle, Obie, Pulitzer, Theatre Hall of Fame), Elizabeth Hardwick (Guggenheim Fellow).

You'll note that lots of them are dead playwrights and poets, not novelists. These encounters took place when I was a student of theatre and verse.

I remember them all quite vividly. Eudora was truly special. Spender was really old and feeble. So was Tennesee Williams--this wasn't long before he died--and I'm fairly sure he was intoxicated or otherwise medicated and he looked and sounded terrible. His talk wasn't especially illuminating and yet--there before me was the great brain that had imagined so many iconic characters of the American drama. So I had to be impressed, even as I acknowledged disappointment.

It's a sad truth that most often, when meeting literary idols (where of Williams' stature or not), my most prevalent emotion was disappointment. Except for Eudora, and Paul Harding, and one other colleague I shan't name for fear of affronting the rest, they never lived up to what I imagined beforehand. With regular people, people I've previously only known online, and when introduced to friends of friends, the opposite is true. Why is that?

Now, I've won awards myself. When my publisher was providing judging copies, I submitted myself for a peer-award, the RITA (current finalists recently announced.) My own scores were all over the map, so when I ceased getting the books I stopped entering. Every time I looked over the list of finalists, I found books I hadn't read or didn't care to read because they too closely aligned with genre requirements that chafed me. Perhaps there would be an outlier, one book that I'd actually read and truly loved, but which frankly looked like an example of "Which one of these is not like the others?" Once in a while that book would win the award and I would feel validated in my tastes.

I have some placques of my own on the wall, a shrine to the first phase of my career, although I'm seriously inclined to take them down to make more space for art. I was privileged to receive a couple of bestseller awards, a big ego-boost. Readers' choice awards were particularly meaningful. But I must admit that the critics' awards gave me the biggest tingle. As a sometime book reviewer myself, I can't help but respect the judgment that goes into selecting the best of the best of a big bunch of books read not for pleasure, but because it's your job.

I read the publishing trade press daily, I'm always aware of major book award recipients. I should challenge myself to go beyond mere awareness, and make an effort to read more of them. Based on recent experience, it would be beneficial and eye-opening.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Spring Preview

From Washington, DC the Chap and I travelled farther south to spend time with family and friends. And to admire the wonderful trees putting on a show during the annual Cherry Blossom Festival. We were in a city that boasts 300,000 Yoshino cherry trees, and they were at the peak of their bloom.

Another reason for being there was to dine on favourite Southern delicacies.

We visited the Music Hall of Fame. The R.E.M. display reminded us of our grad school days, when the boys played the local clubs.

Here are some props from the B-52's "Love Shack" video.

All around my friend's house are some outstanding camellia bushes--they were blooming, too.

One day we drove around the area in her convertible. Aren't we cool on a hot day? The temperature briefly spiked at 90 degrees!

We visited an English tea shop for lunch. The sandwiches are Coronation Chicken and Cucumber with Cream Cheese. Scrummy! The tea was Typhoo.

Another day we took a walk in my old neighbourhood. Here's a wall of wild wisteria growing in the woods.

I saw and spent quality time with so many loved ones on the entire trip--aunt & uncle, mother & father, brother, best girlfiend, best boy friend, best girlfriend's mom & dad & their lovely doggies.

The weather was uniformly wonderful in DC and GA. The floral displays south of Atlanta were truly breathtaking. Plants blooming included cherry trees, camellias, azaleas, dogwood, white and purple wisteria, forsythia, crabapple, tulips, iris, daffodils, pansies, and even a few precocious roses! Imagine my glee.

And imagine our dismay when we returned to NH this week in the midst of a snowstorm. That evening we drove clogged, unplowed roads in white-out conditions to collect Ruth and Jewel from the kennel. We got several inches overnight. The next day was super busy with meeting, out of town lunch, and so on.

There's still quite a bit of snow cover all round the Lodge. But enough of it has melted to leave a clear patch in the front garden, where a few snowdrops are blooming. It may not seem so, but spring is on her way to New Hampshire. We'll have to be patient a bit longer!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Big Cats, Meerkats, & More

I recently joined the other kiddies making their way from DuPont Circle to the National Zoo.

It was one of the best zoo days I've had...and I've had a lot of them, mostly at this one.

Asian otters. Their keeper was watching them as I came along, and she talked about their playfulness. They are smaller and daintier than the river otters we sometimes see in our little lake at home.

The elephant habitat is undergoing intensive renovations. I know they'll be glad when it's finished.

I have a weakness for meerkats.

The red panda.

The Great Pandas always draw a crowd.

The female was eating a popsicle.

The male had just been fed some fresh bamboo stalks.

And then the keepers tossed some stalks out for the female, and she hurried over.

It was the best Big Cat day of my life. The lions--male, females, and about 6 young cubs, were alert and very active. (Perhaps I've visited too often on hot summer days when they're lethargic.)

I shot this video, in which everyone performs--adults, cubs. They put on quite a show for me!

The tigers were in constant motion also.

They are supposed to be carnivores, but this one felt like a herbivore today.

The other tiger assumed a regal pose.

And then decided he wanted something.

Here's a live-action video the same movements as shown in the stills.

I'm sure I was quite a sight, juggling my digi-cam, camcorder, and camera phone. This is only a small selection of what I shot today.

The zoo isn't just for gazing at animals. It's also an education centre. Today's "Meet the Small Mammal" forum featured a porcupine with a prehensile tail (I was able to touch some quills--they were off the animal, not on it, presented to me in a little plastic bag by the staff person. The focus of the information shared is largely about conservation as well as lifestyle and habitat.

My mother and grandparents used to take me to the Zoo when I was little. I've never stopped going there and I don't think I'll ever be too old to enjoy it!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A Blogger & A House

Yesterday I had the immense pleasure of having lunch with book blogger Thomas of My Porch. He very kindly took time out from his workday to chat with me about reading, blogging, home-owning, dog parenting, and travels. Needless to say, it was not a short meet-up! It was great fun, he's as delightful in person as on his blog, and I do look forward to repeating the experience. Thanks, Thomas!

It's clear from previous posts that I've had a lifelong connection to this city. For the past 10 years I've been privileged to have a pied-a-terre here as well, thanks to my husband. When here, we take up residence in a historic house that is also a museum, library, and headquarters for a hereditary organisation. It's also right across the street from my grandfather's club, where he would take me to Sunday lunch and point out all the important people--political and artistic.

Here's the front of "our" house.

The Tapestry Hall.

One of the dining rooms.

The lady of the house. One day, I hope to write her story...she fascinates me.

One of the many wall tapestries in the dining room.

The bedrooms are on the upper floors. There's a large open sitting area overlooking Massachusetts Avenue, now a tv viewing room with open bar. And a balcony.

This is the view from my bedroom, the garden at the back of the house.

We pick and choose which suite we want. We've stayed in this one before. Here's part of our private sitting room.

And another part. (It's extremely large.)

The walls on our floor are covered with portraits from many eras, including the 17th century.

This cherubic clock is in our foyer.

Each morning I make use of this amazing shower, installed for the gentleman of the house (we chose his bedroom suite.) It has vertical and horizontal shower heads, and a "Needle Spray" setting--water jets out from pinholes in all the pipes.

Descending a staircase to the ground level.

We're upstairs people, but I find the kitchen quite fascinating in its size and has wonderful amenities--like these floor-to-ceiling kitchen cabinets. No lack of storage space here!

So concludes a little tour of my home-away-from home, US category. If only I could bring the dogs along, it would be perfection. But perhaps they enjoy having a vacation from us! Their accommodations aren't quite as fine as ours, but mighty fine for canines.

Revisiting my Youth

Things seen & done recently...

But first, more spring flora from this winter-weary New Englander! Spotted on the White House grounds.

I spent a day re-visiting galleries and museums I've known all my life. I've been wandering round Washington, my mother's hometown, home to my grandparents for much of my life, and my own childhood playground.

This oft-reproduced work hangs in the National Gallery. When I was little my mother framed a copy of it and placed it in my bedroom--because I was so constant a reader.

All my life I've loved watching copyists.

I had two cameras with me yesterday, one of the Chap's and my newest one, which was perfect for this panoramic shot.

After lunch (see the posting above this one) I wandered across the mall to the National Scupture Collection. This metallic tree reminds me of the birches at the Lodge.

I had a sharp moment of nostalgia when I walked past the very spot where my grandfather would drop me off to visit the Smithsonian museums. While he attended meetings or lunch with some judge or official, I would wander the rooms of the "Nation's Attic," i.e. the American History Museum. I was about 9, 10, 11, and spent hours gazing upon artifacts until it was time for him to pick me up.

Many of the same items are still there--the doll house, the Star-Spangled Banner. I gave them only a cursory glance and devoted myself to newer additions.

Julia Child's kitchen.

The First Lady's inaugural gown. (The Chap happens to be attending an event with her today.)

I'd had a soup and salad lunch but we had reservations at our French haunt and I needed to work up an appetite. So I decided to stroll back to our house instead of taking the Metro. My route took me to the Washington Monument.

I continued to the White House.

I can never decide whether I prefer this view or the other one. One my way round to the opposite side, I studied the media farm, where the WH press corps do their stand-ups for their respective networks or news organisations.

The People's House.

I walked all the way up Massachusetts Avenue to our house--which I have yet to show. All in all I walked something over 2 & 1/2 miles. So I was actually hungry by the time we sat down to dinner with my aunt and uncle!