Learning From My Three Favorite Novels

the ones on the shelf instead of the floor

the ones on the shelf instead of stacked on the floor

The novel writing book I’m reading by Donald Maass asked for the reader to pick their three favorite novels and intuit or look for why they’re favorites. I chose “Silent In The Grave” by Deanna Raybourn, “The Year Of Pleasures” by Elizabeth Berg” and “A Walk In The Woods” by Bill Bryson.
The character in the Raybourn book is very likable and honest with herself. It’s the descriptive quality of her relationship with people and things around her that I enjoy. She’s wealthy and the story takes place in Victorian times. Many Victorian novels seem bleak to me and while this one isn’t fluffy or frivolous, it is lighter. I love the sense of place and descriptions of clothes, furniture, homes and gloriously, food. It felt good to read of Lady Julia Grey’s relationship with some of her servants, which could be humorous but not in an over-the-top way.
The Berg book (which darn it, I loaned out and will have to obtain a new copy for myself) is about a favorite theme of mine–a mature woman whose old life is gone and the steps she takes to find her way into a new one. It’s what I liked about the film “Under The Tuscan Sun”, a favorite of mine. The book isn’t about drama and angst and suffering. It is subtle and the descriptions of the place and things and the interior journey all blend well together in a way that’s soothing and sensual to me.
Bryson’s book is the funniest book I’ve ever read and I laugh out loud until I have tears. Even though he’s a guy I can relate to the process of setting an incredibly unrealistic goal, forging ahead without proper conditioning and preparation and then the ensuing inner conflict of realizing he’s in way over his head. Again, there is a lot of description of the Appalachian Trail and his relationship to it.
As I read a little further in Haass’s Writing The Breakout Novel, he mentions how 19th century novels treated the landscape as a character in the story. Of course! The outdoors and nature are very alive to me. Setting and landscape can feel more important to me than the action part of the story, although I resent being jerked around and manipulated by the action part and for personal reasons I don’t tolerate tragedy and unfortunate endings well. (I avoid Oprah’s book selections.)
I love the Britflick series Midsomer Murders and it isn’t for the story. It’s for the amazingly gorgeous settings and the relationships.
Relationships between people and things and surroundings are interesting to me as well as relationships between people. In at least one of my posts here, I’ve mentioned that I like stuff. When meeting new people as potential friends, not only do I notice how they treat others but also the way the relate to their cars, electronics, clothes and the environment among other things.
I’ve also mentioned I like the show “Burn Notice” and it certainly isn’t for the story, blowing things up, etc. It’s for the character’s integrity and their relationships to each other. I would never read books about those stories, I think, because it’s a visual thing and the actors do a great job. Although I can appreciate the written descriptions in Robert B. Parker’s novels.
Since I tend to over-analyze and think things to death (oh, you’ve noticed?) I usually stay away from books making intellectual points (although I love the novel Ishmael) and go for more sensual stories.
I avoid books about illness and suffering with the exception of Stephen White’s books. He has a character with MS and he does an awesome job of portraying her as a complex, whole, interesting person who is so much more than her illness.
Now there, I’ve learned a little something about myself and what I look for in a book. And one thing I know for sure–as I’m learning to write, this is the approach that will more likely bringing me an enjoyable experience. I’m well aware that the craft part, very little of which I remember from high school (nope, didn’t take any courses in college on that) and grammar and such–well, I have a lot to learn and refresh there. It isn’t the place to begin for me. So much of my introduction to various things in life have been more of a turn-off and discouragement instead of an inspiration. I’m going to approach it from a direction that might work a lot better for me.

Brit Flicks and Fiction

Still awkwardly planning my next year’s goals, I appreciate the moments when I relax and read the new Charles Finch book, “A Stranger in Mayfair”. I’m wanting it to last. The Victorian protagonist recently attended a speech given by Queen Victoria and I was delighted that he’s in the process of reading Mrs. Gaskell’s “Cranford”.
My local library has the dvd production of “Cranford” which I very much enjoyed watching this summer. When you want to see something weirdly amusing, search YouTube for when the cat ate the lace.
My favorite film series of Elizabeth Gaskell’s work is “North and South” with the wonderful and talented Richard Armitage. I am a fan, something I rarely am of an actor.
Recently I received and watched the third and final season of “Clatterford”. In the UK it was called “Jam and Jerusalem.”
It’s by the same folks who did “Absolutley Fabulous” which I disliked.
Dawn French is amazing in it and it would be so lovely to visit with the Women’s Guild of Clatterford. The scenery is lovely, of course; it makes me laugh and sometimes tear up and the people look real. They live in interesting-looking homes, not all the glass and steel and neutral tones of so many US shows. There aren’t the skinny, air-brushed, slick, plastic looking actors either. It’s a little world that’s both cozy and refreshing to enter into for awhile.
There’s something about the English that helps me feel everything is all right.

Victorian vs Smithfield Farms

Yesterday evening I watched the last segments of the British documentary, Victorian Farm. Alex did some beekeeping and collected the honey. Peter made ginger beer and Ruth got into straw plaiting.  When they advertised for harvest help, I learned that there was junk mail in Victorian England after the printing system made it possible to print flyers.

The hay crop was ruined and they barely got their wheat harvested in time. Ruth made cheese and got the necessary rennet for it from a calf’s stomach.  This way of life was going on in rural England around the time my grandmothers were born here in America.  Maybe I should write historical fiction about this time period—I’m so fascinated with it.

The baby farm animals were so cute. One of the archeologist’s, Peter, said he would miss the pigs the most. Princess, the mama, had given birth to nine piglets and eight of them made it. They were funny, especially when they were eating and had their heads in a bucket.

When I got online this morning, the first thing I saw was a video about an investigation that the humane society had secretly done at Smithfield Farms, the largest pork producer in the world. The pregnant sows were placed in gestation cages where they could barely move. They had sores from chewing on the metal bars and slowly went insane. It was horrible and sad to see the video footage.

I’m not a vegetarian. I eat meat for health reasons, almost all free-range, organic meat and pork is one of my least favorite meats. I certainly won’t be eating any for a long time now.

Sure we have lots of improvements over how things were done over one hundred years ago. There are more people to feed. Factory farms have gone to far though. Many of our systems need to change, of course, but food is so very basic.  Paula Deen is the face and spokesperson of this Virginia company.

The contrast between how Princess was raised and the sows in the cramped wire cages is shocking.

Nutmeg

There’s a mess in my kitchen that involved melted butter. I was preparing brussel sprouts for the slow cooker and then piled chicken thighs on top. The melted butter was mixed with Dijon mustard, soy sauce and black pepper. I think. Not remembering the exact measurements, just remembering how good it was when I fixed it a few weeks ago, it’s definitely a keeper recipe. I got it from Stephanie O’Dea’s blog. It lands in my inbox with slow cooker recipes, often using gluten-free ingredients. She’s written several cookbooks–I’ve just saved the posts with recipes I want to try, in a folder.

Rebuilding my health, after things I won’t go into, it’s good if I eat mostly organic veggies and some organic meat.  When you feel really, really tired it’s challenging to learn a new way of meal shopping and preparation.

I’ve been looking through the side dishes in the WordPress food blogs and found some interesting posts about turnips and beets. Filing the general information away in my head, I’m not able to provide links.

The one that caught my attention was turnips roasted with nutmeg. I decided to do both beets and turnips. Nutmeg is a spice I’ve never used in my years as a sporadic and rather sloppy cook. I was surprised how expensive it was. Running around doing lots of errands yesterday, I didn’t notice until I got home that I’d bought whole nutmeg. Dang.

Looking it up online, I learned that freshly grated nutmeg is far superior to using ground nutmeg. O.K. I looked at the graters and grinders too  and decided to pop on over to the gourmet cooking shop a few blocks away. Like almost everyone else, I am really keeping an eye on my finances. (We all know about that reality and we’re going to do our best here.)  Too expensive.

Later I ended up ordering one from Amazon and bought a book to make enough for free shipping and ended up spending more that if I’d just bought it at the shop. Now I need to wait also.  Well, I’m moving in the direction of better financial choices.

I can find some way to grate a whole nutmeg in the meantime or use lots of ginger instead. Ginger and turmeric are my favorites.

Nutmeg needs to be used sparingly.  Ingesting more than two tablespoons at a time gives it a hallucinogenic effect.  That isn’t at all what I’m intending while searching for ways to eat tasty, healthy vegetable dishes.

I’m continuing to really enjoy watching “Victorian Farm” on YouTube. Looking at the meals they’re eating puts me more  in a mood for old-fashioned  home-cooking.

The woman of the house is having a laborious time cleaning. The coal they cook with,  leaves dust everywhere. For cleaning metal, she used brick dust and vinegar. When she swept dust off the stairs she used saved, damp tea leaves so the dust would clump into balls instead of flying all over.

Women usually had three or four dresses at one time and made them last as long as they could. The woman in the series made a new dress for the May Day celebration and it took her over sixty hours.

The farm had lambs born–also piglets, chicks and ducklings. Almost nothing went to waste. They boiled a pigs head and ate the eyeballs along with everything else. It was mentioned that the work was so hard the historians participating in the documentary began to crave animal fat where as otherwise it wouldn’t sound appealing at all.

Most of my impressions of the Victorian age are from novels that are usually set in London instead of the country.  Anne Perry comes to mind–I’ve especially enjoyed her novels.  The poverty was grim and frightening but the upper classes had their restrictions and constraints also.

That was their mission, even if they didn’t articulate it, to explore and develop the outer world and get humanity to a place where it wasn’t all about survival. Now in many ways, we are needing to explore and develop the inner world more. People are at all ends of the spectrum on that one. It’s in a transition phase. I’m all for the inner-directed life but recognize that it’s dangerous and ineffective to neglect the material world.  All too often I seem to get de-railed into survival issues.

After watching the segments of this series, I’m really appreciating tap water, flush toilets, forced air heat and my electric range and lights.

Just Getting it Done

Christmas Tree 1944Today I wrote out most of my Christmas cards. It would be great if I felt more festive and less like I was doing something like tax preparation but I can’t always be in an optimum mood. Many people seem to have had a difficult year and many of my cards go to elderly relatives. I have two aunts in their mid-90’s, one in her 80’s and one in her 70’s. No e-cards for them.

I found my digital camera in a drawer where it’s been for awhile and am considering decorating a small tree and posting it here on my blog. Hopefully I won’t need to find the directions for getting the images loaded onto my computer. When I don’t do things often, it’s like I have never done them before. It would have been great if the instructions were kept with the camera. There may be instructions on my computer. Oh, to have more confidence in myself.

So in the meantime I found a photo from The Commons on flikr. This tree was the cover of a McCall’s homemaking magazine in 1944.

I watched the Christmas segments of the “Victorian Farm” after I finished with the cards. On Christmas eve Clumper, the Shire horse, pulled a wagon with the folks in it to the local church where they sang hymns. There were candles for lights and you could see the breath of the folks as they were singing.

The tree was put up at the last minute. The historians in this series had guests for Christmas dinner and Ina, the turkey, was served as the meat course. There was also cow’s tongue and other dishes that aren’t served today.

Before one of the men went pheasant hunting, he waterproofed his boots with a mixture of beeswax, tar and tallow. For chapped hands, the woman made a mixture of lard, honey, some oats, rosewater and a few other ingredients of the sort.

There are pregnant sheep and a pregnant pig and their babies are something to look forward to, although these are definitely not pets. They will likely share the same fate as Ina.

Half-heartedly I got other things done today. It rained again. I’m comfortable, just not perky and that’s O.K.

Victorian Farm

There’s a lovely view outside my window. It’s very foggy again and the downtown Christmas lighting is wispy looking. There was rarely any  fog during the first four winters that I’ve lived here.

It cleared up this afternoon and the sun shone weakly for awhile. The temperature was in the mid 40’s and I walked to Winco to get some snacks and eggnog. I got more wasabi almonds and jalapeno jelly.

Today I didn’t notice I hadn’t had coffee until about four in the afternoon. It’s been recommended that I quit using caffeine for awhile but it’s been my hold-out. So many other  things I’ve given up, even coffee for six months about fifteen years ago. I never felt normal and functional during that time.

What I did today was drink several cups of hot tea and I simply forgot about the coffee. I’ll experiment with that, drinking just enough coffee to avoid headaches.

Yesterday I learned of a fascinating British documentary/reality show called Victorian Farm. Three historians live for a year as the farmers of England did around 1885. They have assistance from other historians and locals but it is very laborious work. I’ve watched them sow wheat, make apple cider and construct a pig sty.

The woman made chutney and preserved other foods and sealed the crocks with pig bladders. It was recommended on laundry day that the farm wife rise at 2:00 a.m. instead of 6:00.

I’ve watched about seven of the thirty-six segments on YouTube. I looked for dvd’s on Amazon and it isn’t available  for U.S. region players.

I’m learning to blog by doing and am not quite ready to do links yet, although I looked at some instructions for inserting them. The videos can be found on YouTube as “Victorian Farm” and the segments are from  four to ten minutes in length.  There’s also a book available on Amazon that can ship in one to four months.

I live very modestly but those folks in 1885 might think I live like royalty. They worked from sun-up to sun-down, seven days a week. The two men and one woman wear clothes of the period as do the consultants and other experts brought in.