Wild Strawberries: Angela Thirkell’s Warped Downton Abbey


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Happy Halloween!

On the most magical day of the year, I’m sure many of you are bracing yourselves for the winter, preparing to write novels, or simply enjoying your pumpkin spice while wearing oversized hoodies (I am).

With a new novel to plan myself, I’m staying in today, but that doesn’t mean I’ll ignore the occasion; every Halloween I read The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, a tradition I created five years ago. It helps get me into the mood.

I won’t dwell on the spooky in this blog post. I’ve just finished a delightful novel called Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell. I can’t believe I haven’t heard of her before. I got it as an eBook this summer before my trip to Europe, but did not get to it until yesterday. I was not disappointed; short, sweet, and humorous, it had a springtime vibe that made me forget the chill outside.

I’ve never before read a book that made me laugh out loud. Certain scenes had me in tears. Poking fun at aristocrats with their dignified houses, Thirkell has a writing style that leaves you wanting more. She crafts characters you cannot hate, even if they behave in ridiculous ways. It made me think of Downton Abbey, especially scenes where the butler participates, except this butler is more keen to cause a fuss than Mr Carson would be.

I thought I was good at crafting characters; now I envy Thirkell, with her ease for giving each protagonist their color. There is the quirky Lady Emily Leslie, sixteen-year-old Martin who is spoiled and seems to know it, Lady Emily’s daughter, Agnes, who pulls off the “simple-minded” character–I felt like the characters had already existed, and Thirkell was commenting on the things they did, almost in a bored fashion.

After I finished Wild Strawberries, Goodreads told me it is the second book in a series; this means I will need to find the first one. I don’t know where Angela Thirkell has been all my life, but like Rosamunde Pilcher, she is a new voice that I’m glad to have found. They have different tones: Thirkell is humorous, Pilcher seemed rather melancholic, but both told tales that engrossed me.

If you like Downton Abbey, read Wild Strawberries. When I read the other books in the series, I’ll report on those as well.

Enjoy your Halloween, and I hope you get lots of candy!

The Empty House & Discovering Rosamunde Pilcher


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Thrift stores are exciting; one never knows what they will find. I’ve brought home things such as a teacup from Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation to a stuffed kangaroo. The clothes at thrift stores, at least in my experience, tend to be cozier; I’ve found my favorite sweaters there.

But what I find most enchanting about thrift shops are their books.

In thrift shops we find hardcover copies, most of them characterised by age and use. I have found poetry books in which passages were marked by the previous owner, little notes in the margins; it is a lovely sense of not reading alone. Also, thrift stores let us find novels that aren’t well-known; we rediscover the bestsellers of yesteryear.

I have felt tempted to weep at the books that exist but I will not have time to read. I am glad, though, that I discovered Rosamunde Pilcher in time to revel in her heartwarming stories. I will read as many of her books as I can; perhaps some brilliance will rub off on me. They have the feel of a warm cup of tea on an autumn afternoon.

The first book of Pilcher’s that I read was The Empty House. A powerful, clean romance, it gave me hope to follow Virginia’s journey as, after a tragedy, she found her own identity. She built herself from scratch, took back what was hers (including her children), and chose at last to live the life she’d dreamed of. She discovered what love is, and what it is not.

If you want a story that will make you feel good, The Empty House is a short read, and you will remember it. Not all books need to be long in order to make an impact.

It’s a lesson I learned this year: often the best stories are the ones that can be finished in a day. However, it will not be an ordinary day. If a story is good, if it has the author’s heart in it, the reader will never forget the day the book was read.

The Written World by Martin Puchner


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On the surface, The Written World looks to be a history book on the topic of literature. I discovered it was something deeper, far more delightful.

Author Martin Puchner has a love for books much like my own; this book is his journey to find the soul of literature, the source of her power, the reason she can change the world. Its reflective nature made it more powerful than a history book. Because the author included himself as the explorer, the journey feels romantic.

I have always had similar reverence for the power of reading. There is more to any book than symbols on a page; the classics, for example, have become immortal for a reason. Something about them reached into the soul of society; something about them survived, while other manuscripts vanished into history, only a few to be discovered later.

From this memoir, I gathered something I already knew: give someone the gift of literacy and they will never be helpless. Teach a child to read and you never know what they will achieve. They will discover topics that fascinate them; they’ll find their vocation, and perhaps go on to win Nobel prizes.

Of course, it suffices that they read. The power is, in the end, to read.

Once upon a time, books were expensive to own. Only the wealthy could afford to build a library. Books are more accessible now, but do people recognize their value? It is not the same to download a file off of the Internet. Books were expensive back then because of their power; let us not lose sight of that power now that they can be obtained for free.

The prices of books have changed; their value remains the same. A book can still turn the world upside-down. It was worth reading a book about books to put this into perspective. It was worth reading The Written World so that I could understand my place as a writer. It opened my eyes to the great power I have: I can read, and in doing so, I can change my world.

The Charles Dickens Museum


I have a confession to make: I almost did not leave England. I can’t tell you what I would have done should I have stayed, being utterly unprepared for a move to a different country. Still, I cried on the night before we were to fly out. It had been lovely to walk the streets, take buses, and admire old buildings. I knew I was going to miss them, and I already do.

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I can’t say that, during this trip, I found the London I read of in books. I didn’t expect to, either. A lot of time has passed between now and the England of Charles Dickens. Buildings have been torn down or made into shops; skyscrapers have been built that he would likely have thought hideous.

Yet beneath all this change, this modernisation, something felt familiar.

I might have been a tourist with only distant relations to England (ancestors from Derbyshire) and I might not have known where anything was. Still, there was something about the air as I walked. In my heart I couldn’t help but think, Ah, this is familiar. I am where I ought to be.

What is this magic that made me feel as if I had been there before? I can only think it is the power of story. The novels I read paint a different place than that which I saw, but those words captured the soul of that city like a sponge. When you tell a story about a person, you’re speaking of the person, whether they change or not. The same is true for cities.

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I almost did not leave London. The only thought that got me into the plane out was the knowledge that I hadn’t the money to start over. I also did not want to make a rash decision blinded by the charm of tourism. However, I have every intention of going back, and perhaps the second time I will stay.

I was in love with England from the moment I stepped onto her soil.

Ten days in England was not enough to see all I wanted to, but it was possible to cover the basics. Buckingham Palace, the National Gallery, the Tower of London–it was all lovely. Having said that, my favorite place was the Charles Dickens museum.

You might call my love for his work an obsession. He had a grip with the English language that I cannot find with other authors; if you know of someone else whose work I might enjoy that much, I am open to suggestions.

We visited the Charles Dickens museum on our last day, with four hours to go before a rush to the airport. We rose earlier that morning and my mother asked me, “Do you want to see the Charles Dickens house?”

I had resigned myself to putting off my visit for the next trip; it was a sweet, unexpected surprise when she woke me to such an invitation. I dressed in a heartbeat and we called a taxi.

I felt chills as we wandered the museum, which is actually his house. It is encouraging as a writer to know that one of the greatest authors of all time had a desk to work at, a piano to play; he needed a bed to sleep on, and he had a library. His talent was great, but he was  human like me. I can be a successful author while being myself.

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A family photo with Dickens’ silhouette next to me–how charming!

There came a moment when I was alone in his library, and I told him, “Thank you for the stories.” Maybe he heard me; if not, at least I tried.

I think some of his inspiration rubbed off on me, because now that I am home I feel like writing again. I feel like publishing another book. I want to go back to being a writer.

Until the day comes when I can return to England, I will read more about her. There is so much to know. I will learn her literature and poetry, I will explore my roots, I will improve as a writer.

This trip to Europe has done wonders for me. I doubt I will have my house made into a museum like Dickens’, but I will at least have a reader or two. I will at least write again.

Walking the Unpaved Road


I know few people can travel for the sake of creativity. It isn’t the only way to overcome Writer’s Block, but it does work. I am blessed to have been able to visit lovely places and have new experiences.

It’s true that adventure, exploring the world, will do your creativity a wealth of good. Here in England, I have been brave enough to start a new novel.

There are many firsts in this novel. To start with, it’s inspired by what I see: old buildings, rides in the train, rainy weather. The first scene takes place in a train, albeit an older version. Secondly, I am not planning to make it a series. I don’t care about the length of the piece; what I want is a good story from beginning to end.

Leave your comfort zone and drink in what you see. I promise that eventually you will feel a new story growing in you, a flower pushing through hard dirt. It might take years for the seedling to see light, but if you’re patient enough, it’ll be something you love—something you want to write.

My favorite quote has always been by Vincent Van Gogh—

Normality is a paved road: It’s comfortable to walk, but no flowers grow on it.

I am fascinated by Van Gogh and his very sad story. I did not expect I’d be able to see some of his work in person.

Today we visited the National Gallery in London; I saw wonderful works, including his famous paintings of the chair and the sunflowers. I obtained a copy of his letters. I want to know how he saw the world, and connect with him a bit.

Museums give me chills. It’s a shame we went too late and were not able to see all the paintings, but I am happy with what I ran into. It’s possible we might return before we leave England, but if not, I have art books at home.

Reading about art isn’t the same; books are still magical.

I am not the same person I was when I left home. When a dream comes true, something in you feels brighter. You are like the flower pushing through the dirt, except the flower has bloomed. Eventually it’ll wilt and drop seeds for new flowers, new dreams. I have grown and I know it.

If you can travel, do.

My Own Account of London


When I first started reading books, I discovered their ability to transport the reader to different places. Between covers I have been to many locations, a good percentage of which are not real…but many that do exist somewhere on this planet. Of these I have enjoyed glimpsing between the lines.

How strange to think I am visiting these places. France? England? These were lands I knew because I read of them. For years I devoured written accounts from authors, fiction and nonfiction.

I’ve seen different versions of England, from Dickens to Rowling. Many French authors—classic and contemporary—have taken me to Paris. What a blessing to be going. I will have a chance to see these countries from my own angle; I will be able to tell readers of my own version.

I will have accounts of my own. My feet will tread cities ancient, sidewalks that have seen revolution and change. I’ll encounter buildings immortalized in beloved novels. I will have a chance to visit the graves of great authors, pray in old cathedrals, see castles.

a glimpse of a Peruvian street

As I packed, I listened to The Four Seasons and La Vie en Rose, letting the beauty of song mingle with my excitement. I have chosen Pride and Prejudice to read on the plane from San Francisco to Paris. I have daydreamed.

Oh! the stories I will write. My craft will be changed permanently. I will gather magic wandering these places so old but new to me. The stories growing in me! They might be novels or short stories, but whatever they are, they’ll be the most poignant tales of my life.

I had always thought that, if I were to see these places, I would be old and gray. No, I am blessed to see them with the energy of youth. Thanks to my mother for helping my dream come true so much earlier than I imagined. She is without a doubt the greatest and I love her.

Oh, the poems I will write. I am ready to meet the muses who helped build these great cities. I won’t have enough time to see all I want to, but there will be pictures, and the memories will stay. I won’t forget a moment of this visit—not a smell, taste, sound, flavor—I cannot forget.

How’s the Weather?


Cold air stings my face. I think about conversations we have with taxi drivers about the most cliche of subjects, the weather. Is it not the topic that makes us all scoff? But when you’re from a different hemisphere, the weather becomes interesting.

We hear people in Peru talk of how cold it is outside, and it makes us smile. I think of our winters at home where the streets are coated with layers of snow and it’s difficult to crawl out of bed.

I find the Peruvian winter, at least in Lima, like the colder months of autumn—minus pumpkin spice fever. It’s a pleasant time when you can walk around with a scarf and think of carving pumpkins…but you don’t see any.

It’s disconcerting to feel this temperature and not see a pumpkin patch. You don’t think about such details at home, things so mundane as a pile of fat pumpkins in front of the grocery store.

Friends, you learn unexpected when you travel; apparently, pumpkins are a bigger part of my life than I thought.

When we describe winter at home, people smile and seem to give thanks they do not live somewhere so frosty. It’s as if, all of a sudden, the weather isn’t so cold.

They then ask where we live. Idaho, we respond, to confusion. Where is that? Did you say Ohio? Iowa? Where is Idaho? It’s up northwest. Is it near Arizona? Is it near Canada? Yes, it’s near Canada.

Sometimes, after these vague directions, the person gets an idea of where we are. Sometimes they remember having heard of Idaho at some point. Most of the time we leave the taxi feeling like tourists from Wonderland or Oz.

The taxi driver zooms away picturing us as living in a place like Monet’s Snow at Argenteuil. Sometimes Boise does look like that.

Claude Monet, Snow at Argenteuil

Traveling, you learn that the weather isn’t simple after all. What Peru lacks in snow is made up for with humidity. The hostel where we’ve been staying for three weeks is next to the ocean; if you open the window and lean outside, you smell it.

We breathe in seawater, and though it does not feel terribly cold on the outside, the body becomes cold. I had bronchitis the first week here. At home, I have never had such a bad cold, even in years when the snow has been terrifying. Perhaps it’s not impossible, but it’s never happened to me.

Travel helps you learn about the place where you live; you unearth gems of your tradition, habits you didn’t know had gotten under your skin, like choosing pumpkins when the weather is cool. Life is a painting, and you have to look for the contrasts.

Colors of Travel


What have I learned visiting a different hemisphere for two weeks? I could go on about the cliches. In a different country we discover new cultures, cities, customs. We encounter things of the past, ruins and cathedrals built centuries ago, structures with such detail few today can mimic them.

To be honest, I haven’t seen this trip with the eyes of a tourist. Cultures, cities, customs–these are things anyone can learn when they visit a different country. They can be learned online, as well, through a quick Google search.

“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” -Gustave Flaubert

What do we learn about ourselves? Every human spirit is a castle with undiscovered rooms. Doors must be opened, and when they are, the traveler will find in themselves a stranger. If travel is done correctly, we should not be able to recognize ourselves.

We are all made of divine colors visible to ourselves and God. He is all-knowing, so the heavenly shades cannot surprise Him; the same cannot be said for ourselves. We become frightened running into a contrast we consider too bold, or a shade too soft for our comfort. It’s like asking a stranger what they are doing inside of our skin.

Edgar Degas, The Rehearsal

When forced to relearn things such as how to cross the street, you face the patterns of your soul. There is nothing so foreign to us as the gradients that make us. See how they merge so mysteriously! Ask yourself, What is going on here? Why does the person in the looking-glass resemble me but not feel like me? It is thrilling and terrifying.

After two weeks in Peru (and another because of the hurricane), I looked in the mirror. What I saw resembled the person who had gone to the airport, but she was not the same. She could smile and mean it. She liked the light in her eyes, and could converse with strangers in a different language.

Her soul was foreign, but it was her.

Other things came as a surprise, such as how I like pastels. In the past I was faithful to forest colors or shades of blue, but now I am drawn to lavender, yellow, shades that remind me of the ballerinas in an Edgar Degas painting. I do not like loud shades of pink, but soft ones, those that could almost be called white. You see it if you know how to look.

Is it color I like in myself, or what the color reminds me of? In Degas paintings I see color in motion, coming alive. That flash of yellow is doing a pirouette, the pink is securing a bow; they are alive and breathing. I believe that travel done correctly makes you see your own colors.

How sweet to feel colors in me that promise I am alive, a painting like every other soul. Travel done right uncovers them so that life is never the same.

Dwelling-Place of Storm


I am a poet,
Keeper of flowers
Dwelling-place of storm.

My emotions
Manifest in
Terrifying form.

I can destroy you
With my words,
Feeling no remorse,

Or I can calm you,
Fighting battles
For you at the source.

I’ve learned there is
No middle ground:
Believe me, I tried.

I am a dwelling-place
Of storm;
Friend, I never lied.

Hundred-Acre Grave


Yesterday, the blue and gray
Skies rolling overhead,
Sighing, seemed to me to say
The rivers had turned red.

Treading gentle on the grass,
I sought peace but found none.
April, she had come to pass,
Her faithful weeping done.

Musical, the ancient trees
Groaned with the bluegray sky.
Their duet, a mournful sound,
Spoke of a world awry.

One persistent hummingbird
Called, as if I could save
Her home from the fate I heard,
A hundred-acre grave.

As I trekked an ancient trail,
Trees around me died.
Had April seen her tears fail,
Longer she’d have cried.

Poetry


Bottle up your pain
In an old, glass jar.
Let it sit there for a day
‘Til it’s black as tar.

Fall down on the grass,
Find a feather there.
Take your bottle; feel the sun
Shine down on your hair.

Use the feather, trace
Feelings in the dirt.
It would be a shame to waste the
Art found in your hurt.

If a leaf falls down,
Take to it with ink.
Rinse your newly emptied jar;
Just don’t stain the sink.

Finally, you’ll breathe;
Pressure, it will fade.
This is how the realest sort
Of poetry is made.