Friday 24 June 2016

7 Quick Takes 35: My Inner Chinchilla

1. It's been a hectic summer with family comings and goings, and I don't handle change well. One day, while in a spin about managing the fluctuating household, I remarked to my elder daughter how flustered I was by the constant change in routine, and she quipped, "You have an inner chinchilla." And, the more I thought about it, the more sense it made.

2. For a start, Chinchillas don't like changes in temperature. This made them about the worst pet to hit the British market back in the 80s. Bring a Peruvian animal thousands of miles to cold, damp houses. Great idea. I think they all caught colds and died. Me - I'm British, so I about die every Mississippi summer. I know when it's really heating up because I get lethargic for about two weeks, accompanied by a slow decline into depression. Honestly, there have been times when I got up, looked at the thermometer outside the kitchen door, and cried.
And apparently, chinchillas don't like high heat and humidity either, so they're with me on this.

3. In the wild, they hide in crevices in rocks and only socialize with other chinchillas.I completely empathize. Even a low-key, part time lecturing job got too stressful, so I'm working on building a home business that means I'll get to face people even more infrequently.

Go away. I'm a rock.

4. Chinchillas have a low stress level/ are highly strung. Absolutely me. For example, I have a phone phobia. I dread making calls of any kind. I can put off the simplest inquiry for weeks. I don't care what people say about email and texting making our communication impersonal - as far as I'm concerned, it's a godsend. If I have to think for more than five minutes about what to have for dinner, I start to panic. I feel sick just at the thought of flying. You get the idea.

5. Chinchillas are not recommended for young children. I feel that I'm pretty hopeless with young children. I can about handle my own, with lots of accompanying stress, because we breed little geeks, but ask me to help out at the church nursery, and I'd run the proverbial mile. I'm stumped by a preschooler who doesn't want to read Moby Dick , listen to Wordsworth, or do fraction problems.

"'I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er dale and hill...'
What? You want 'Mary had a little lamb'?
Sorry, don't know that one."

6. Chinchillas require gentle handling or they can bite. I'm sensitive, and one perceived negative comment  - to me or by me - can have me sleepless for nights. On the other hand, although I'm introverted and soft-spoken on the outside, inside I'm a seething mass of snark. This is probably what leads to #4.

7. And finally, most chinchillas are grey. I'm definitely getting there :)

Chinchillas of the world, unite. Actually, no. Go hide in your own crevice. But if you feel like popping out, check out This Ain't the Lyceum for more Seven Quick Takes.

Wednesday 15 June 2016

Off My Shelf: Orlando by Virginia Woolf

An occasional series where I share a review of a book I've had sitting on my shelf for a while and finally get around to reading/ rereading. I'm blackmailing myself to get through some of the backlog by posting about them!

Orlando is a re-read for me. I picked up a library copy several years ago, then bought a Folio Society edition last year. I should have started on one of my many unread books (Folio subscription addiction), but this one called to me, partly because it's short and my long reads keep getting interrupted at this time in life, but partly because the prose was playing in my head every time I glanced at the spine.

Vita Sackville-West
Vita Sackville-West
Orlando is Virginia Woolf's attempt to turn biography on its head. It's fiction, but is presented as non fiction, even including an index. Orlando's life itself refuses to conform to the template for all standard biographies. His story begins as a sixteen year-old nobleman in the Elizabethan age, and when it ends, she is thirty-six, and the year is 1928 (Woolf's present day). No, that wasn't a typo - Orlando wakes up part way through the book to discover he has become a woman.

Perhaps the only convention that Woolf aims for - and she even achieves that unconventionally - is to evoke the spirit of each age Orlando lives through. She explores the question of  how much we are an individual, and how much we are shaped by the world around us. Only in the Victorian period does Orlando feel out of sync with her life, which she remedies by taking a few minutes to find a husband and embrace the conventionality of the age.

Like Orlando, Woolf and her circle, the Bloomsbury Group, tended to bend and transgress societal boundaries. Although she and her husband had a deep love for one another, her life was coloured by an intense Sapphic affair with Vita Sackville-West, whose family owned the Knole estate in Kent. Orlando, of course, is Vita, not even thinly disguised - several photographs of 'Orlando' included in the book are of Vita.

Orlando is described as Woolf's love letter to Vita Sackville-West. While this is indisputably true, I also read it as a love letter to England. The anchor in Orlando's life is the great oak tree on his estate, whose roots, he feels, are the ribs that help anchor it - and him - to the earth. Although a prevailing theme of the novel is literature, its symbol is Orlando's poem "The Oak Tree", four hundred years in the making. The Spirit of the Age is found not only in the literary lights, but in the very atmosphere of the country, from the bold weather of Elizabeth's reign to the fertile, damp miasma of the Victorian age. Poetry, literature, life, love - Orlando never finds the answers to these questions, that bend and twist with each new century. Only the land remains a constant one can trust.

Admittedly, Woolf is not for the casual reader. But if you are serious about literature, enjoy quirky novels, and a good dose of poetry - or you're an Anglophile or bibliophile - Orlando is worth a read.


Friday 10 June 2016

7 Quick Takes 33: A Tale of the Pen and the Spirit

Or, a would-be novelist's tale of vanity and woe.

Or, why I'm changing my blog name.

1. Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, in a neighbourhood where a single man in possession of a fortune - call him Ishmael - must be in want of a wife...

Rewind the purple prose.

That is to say, a long time ago, I had aspirations to write novels, inspired mainly by being homesick, bored, and unemployed in Mississippi. Because of the homesickness, I started writing very British themes, including a reimagining of an Arthurian legend. In the rounds and rounds of submissions (back in the days when you actually had to send letters), one got misdirected due to a printing error in a directory, and I got a call from England from a gentleman who had set up his own press to help small-time and local authors. He wanted to publish the novel, and was willing to put the money up front and have me pay back my own share from profits. It seemed like a good gamble.

In anticipation of literary fame, I bought web hosting and a domain name and decided to use it for a blog. I called it The Pen and the Spirit because I was going to write about writing and spiritual matters. Original, I know - but I'm terrible at titles. I found a stained-glass style picture of a man with a quill, which fitted nicely. I must have had lots of that stuff called time, because I ran it as two blogs that no one read.

2. Meanwhile, the novelist's career wasn't panning out. The publisher sent the book to the press before I'd finished the final edits - and it came back with a glaring typo on the back blurb. I wasn't sure enough of myself to demand he make the printer redo the run, so there it was. Friends and family bought it, and said some nice things, but the publicity promised turned out to be minimal. Gradually, I got rid of my author's copies, and just have one tucked at the back of my shelf. No, I'm not revealing the title. Surprisingly, it wasn't that catchy.

3. So, the blog lapsed. But I didn't give up writing. I joined an online critique group, and started submitting again. Eventually, a combination of rising enthusiasm and free blogs from Google enticed me to begin blogging anew. I called the new blog... The Pen and the Spirit because I couldn't think of a better name, even though it was only going to be about writing. To be precise, about neglected classics and releases from small presses and independent/self-publishers. I enjoyed researching and sharing about quirky reads and authors. I even got a handful of followers.

4. Then, I landed an agent who "loved" my medieval mystery. I signed a contract and got to tell everyone that I had a literary agent. Except she was the only one who turned out to love the book, because she didn't manage to sell it. We went back and forth on what to do next, and I started a twentieth century cozy mystery inspired by Edith Nesbit's characters, but I got stuck revising it.

5. My life was being consumed by an ambition - publishing - that never came to fruition. Eventually, sanity intervened. I decided to take a break, perhaps for good. Not writing for several months was cathartic. I was free of the stress I'd invented for myself. But then, a trip to Dorset and the home of Lawrence of Arabia set a story going in my head. I banged it out for a year. This time, I had a plan. I was going to edit it, try to get a local publisher, and if that didn't work, then self-publish. At least it would be out there...

6. ... but I got unexpectedly pregnant. For me, this means 24-hour nausea and vomiting for several months. I couldn't edit a word, and when I did start to feel better, I knew it was no use preparing a manuscript for publication when I'd have a baby and no time to promote it.

So, once my days no longer began with an intimate look at the toilet bowl, I set myself the small goal of blogging again, and linking to Seven Quick Takes twice a month. And I renamed the blog... The Pen and the Spirit, because I still couldn't come up with anything else. Did I mention I suck at titles?

7. Now, a little over a year later, and with a little wisdom gathered from reading other Seven Quick Takes linkups, our family came to the conclusion that everything had to go out of the window to save our sanity - even the job that actually paid money. I finally admitted to myself that what I'm actually best at doing is helping others to write better, one-on-one. I decided, once the aforementioned sanity is somewhat restored, to slowly build up a writing services business. But now I really needed a new name to convey me and my business and be a 'brand' across all 'platforms' (see, I've got the lingo). And... another thing that Seven Quick Takes has done for me is honed my titling (is that a verb?). After some vague meditation, inspiration struck: The Runcible Pen. It fits. It's quirky, a little old fashioned, but with a sense of dedication to the craft of writing. At least, that's what it said to me. I tried it out on my daughters, and they didn't quite say "meh", but almost. But I'm stubborn, so I paid for the domain name so that no one else could get rich off it. And here we are.

L--d! said my mother, what is this story all about?--
A COCK and a BULL, said Yorick--And one of the best of its kind, I ever heard.

For Quick Takes from people who probably have fewer novels under the bed, skip on over to Kelly's at This Ain't the Lyceum.