November 30th, 2013Posted by Nancy
Because I can happily blather on about our trip…
I realized I’d been remiss in not providing a link (mostly because WordPress appears to have changed something and I haven’t figured out why the link function doesn’t work anymore). Until I figure it out, here’s the info, old-school: www.flipkey.com/marcilhacsurcele-cottage-rentals/p250972/ Or just google “Marcilhac stone gite” and you’ll find it. I’m a huge convert to renting either apartments or cottages when travelling. This was a beautiful spot and we really appreciated the excellent book and music collection. Our contact there was friendly and helpful and we felt very at home.
More shots of the area:
The mill is still grinding flour for sale. There’s a canoe and kayak rental spot about 5 minutes walk away and we did a two-hour paddle on the last morning. It was lots of fun – until we went down the glissande and fried my husband’s iphone when we got a tad wet.
There are only two restaurants in town and one was never open. The guest book said “You have to eat at ”Restaurant des Touristes” so we made a reservation (in a town of 200 people, yes, indeed you need to make a reservation) for lunch. Madame only makes enough food for the committed guests and we saw her turn away a few customers. It’s the Marcilhac version of a Paris tasting menu – you get whatever Madame has made that day. The tourists sit beneath the arbour at tables with tablecloths and the locals drink pastis in the bar area on the other side. The food was excellent (I don’t like cauliflower but her breaded ones were to die for), the service friendly, and the scene enjoyable (a group of Brits drove in to town for lunch in their vintage Bentleys). We had such a great time we went back again later in the week.
There was a ruined abbey two minutes from our door. Every town should have one.
Posted in Travel · Uncategorized
November 24th, 2013Posted by Nancy
I’m a rotten traveller. I get horribly stressed about missing flights and trains, I agonize over picking places to stay or eat, and I generally spend a good portion of any trip in a state of subdued anxiety. As a result, I was inordinately proud of myself for taking two trips to France, one in 2010 and one in 2013. In the division of labour in our travel world, I arrange the transport, lodging and restaurant reservations and my husband organizes cars, bikes, and what we’ll do each day. Once I’ve decided where to stay, I also spent a lot of time reading books about the region. This year, we spent a week in Southwestern France, north of Toulouse. One of the most surprisingly things I discovered was that this was part of the ancient kingdom of Aquitaine, of Eleanor fame. I’d managed to read numerous historical novels without actually processing the fact the Aquitaine was so far south (maybe I shouldn’t admit that).
One of the books that came up again and again in my research was The Lost Upland by W.S. Merwin. I never managed to find a copy before we went, but the gite we rented in the little town of Marcilhac sur Célé (pop. 200 or so) was well stocked with all the classic books about the region. I was able to read The Lost Upland in an area just south of the land that inspired it.
The book is a collection of three long stories, set in rural France after World War II, as the forces of modernization, depopulation and change begin to erode a way of life that had gone on for generations. Merwin won the Pultizer Prize for poetry and his writing is both concrete - deeply rooted in a place he had once lived – and lyrical. The reader learns a lot of the history and nature of the area but this information flows naturally from and into the exploration of the characters at the heart of each story. Merwin’s skilful and subtle revelation of the venality of one of the characters in “Foie Gras” left me in awe. “Shepherds” has the feel of autobiography but it’s also a story about the war and the resistance, about sheep and their herders, about neighbours and villages and about change that brings both a better life and a poorer one. The last long novella, “Blackbird’s Summer”, is about passing on a legacy that can never really be inherited.
Through all the stories runs the love of a land both beautiful and hard and a people used to being isolated and independent. The hills and plateaus (the causses) here are ancient, were ancient when the Romans came, marching over the hidden caves decorated in charcoal and ochre by artists 20,000 years dead. Merwin’s descriptions enriched my own visions of the place as we walked over the causse or got lost on the narrow lanes, our car’s GPS unable to find us below the limestone cliffs. (Will it spoil the romance if I say that the iphone always worked for that, even if the only place to make calls was the town square?)
“By the second year the brambles were gone from the garden. They had been piled in the gaps in the walls and filled them, to the delight of the mice. Down the middle of the garden, only an inch or so below the surface, I had found the limestone ridge, part of the a fault, a spine of the cause. It was shattered like a fallen column, and there was a good soil in the crevices. I filled them with thymes and herbs, more savory, rosemary, oregano, tarragon. The garden changed and filled but was the same place. Month after month that corner of the causse fed me. I worked there hearing the upland talking to itself, feeling the air pass over it. In the spring and early summer the birds were present all day and the nightingales sang until noon. The cuckoo changed its song twice in that season. The strawberries ripened in the shadow of the north and east walls. In early summer I could stand at the end of the day and look over the wall of the garden, up the lane which the sun, setting in the oak woods beyond the house and the long pasture, was flooding with dazzling yellow light, and could turn and look the other way, under the walnut tree and see the sky already the color of a plum, and across the cut, by the ruined house on the far ridge of oak trees, the full moon rising.”
When I got home, I promptly managed to find a copy of the book.
Posted in Books · Travel
October 14th, 2013Posted by Nancy
If Andre Norton’s Witch World series opened my eyes to the idea of fantasy fiction that was not aimed at young adults, Tanith Lee’s The Birthgrave blasted apart everything I had thought a narrating hero had to be. This is one of the few books I can actually remember buying. My family was on vacation in Ottawa and I went to a large book store downtown looking for something to read. I was attracted to the cover, to the fact that it was published by DAW, and, most of all, by the fact that the author was female. At sixteen, I was devouring any book I could find by a female author, because I was already a feminist and because I wanted to see how my own ambitions to write could be realized.
The nameless narrator of The Birthgrave was unlike any hero I had ever experienced. She was damaged and dangerous, immensely powerful and yet as helpless as any other woman in a male-dominated world, resourceful and still fatally attracted to the very men who would make sure she never achieved her goal. The world through which she moved was brutal, unforgiving, beautiful, and decadent. The book is a strange sort of coming-of-age tale as the narrator tries to discover who she is and find the jade she believes will lift her curse. Along the way, she encounters bandits, barbarians, war, fallen cities, and natural disaster. She’s not always easy to like. She is sometimes cruel and ruthless and prey to her own foolish illusions and inexplicable desires – but she is utterly unforgettable.
The story contains some incredible set-pieces: the chariot race in Ankurum, the black city of Ezlann, the hero’s confrontation with Vazkor under the ruined city. Most of all, there is Lee’s prose. It is like her hero: cold, sure, passionate, and bleak by turns. It is beautiful and strange and sent me rushing out to devour anything else she had written. While I don’t love all of Lee’s work, there are books I return to over and over again and her short fiction is among the best I’ve read. The heroine of The Birthgrave influenced the characters who later appeared in my short story “A Terrible Beauty is Born” and about whom I threaten to write a novel about if I can ever figure out all the damned plot.
Tanith Lee was in her early twenties when she wrote the book, I was sixteen when I read it and I suspect we were both in the grip of adolescent power fantasy. But that’s not always a bad thing.
Posted in Books · Influences
September 22nd, 2013Posted by Nancy
I’m talking about Andre Norton and the fact that I might not be the writer I am without her influence. Probably any number of writers would say the same thing, especially female ones, especially female ones of my generation.
Oddly enough, I read none of her YA fiction growing up. The first book of hers I ever read was Witch World, the first of her Estcarp series, which was clearly not YA. Reading it was one of those moments when the sky lights up and the angels sing and, much less dramatically, you think “THIS is what I want to do.” The next book I had that with was Tanith Lee’s The Birthgrave, which I’ll write about in a later post.
The characters in Witch World were adults, with adult concerns of survival, politics, justice, freedom, morality and the places where you were forced to make the hard choices. Though it was from a male point of view, there were two key female characters who were both strong and flawed in their own ways. It presented a society run by women that was not utopia and whose rulers were not always wiser – if usually less venal – than the more traditional lands that surrounded them. There was no explicit sex but there was the straightforward acceptance of both desire and sexual violence.
The basic structure of the story (reluctant allies, male and female, who had to battle their own preconceptions as well as an enemy and evil force) was one that Norton would use over and over, with varying degrees of success. My personal favorites are Witch World, Year of the Unicorn, The Crystal Gryphon, and the collection Spell of the Witch World, each of which I have read more times than I can count. Of her SF novels, Forerunner Foray and Dread Companion are on the “bathtub book” list, though the second is only nominally SF and much more a story about the perils of entering the faerie realm.
Witch World came out in 1963 at a time when female writers routinely hid their gender (Norton’s real name is Alice Mary) and it was rare to have women as main characters with equal agency, power and will as men. Though a “romantic” ending is the usual conclusion, it rarely has anything in common with conventional romance novels. The key to Norton’s romances is the meeting of equals who are tested by fire to emerge with a deep bond based on their acceptance of each other’s individuality.
When it came time to write what was my second go at a ”real” novel (the first was heavily influenced by Alan Dean Foster’s Bloodhype), it was Norton’s model that I ended up emulating. There are certainly worse ways to learn to write.
Posted in Books · Influences · Uncategorized
September 2nd, 2013Posted by Nancy
Like just about every SF fan of a certain age, I was a huge Star Trek fan as a child. I didn’t watch it on the first run but probably in the first years of the reruns, when I was 10 or 11. While I never wrote Star Trek fan fiction (which is not to say I’ve never written fan fiction, but that’s another post…) my best friend and I did spend many long happy hours playing Star Trek in her basement. Her father worked at IBM and so had all these lovely computer bits that could be put along the arms of chairs and on desks to provide control panels.
Looking back on it, what most interests me is that we were already feminist enough to know that the depiction of women in the show was unsatisfying. We had no interest in playing nurses or yeomen or even communications officers. And don’t even get me started on that horrible episode where the crazy woman stole Kirk’s body so she could be captain. Bah. No, if we were going to play Star Trek, we were going to get the good parts. I was always the Captain (which is really quite surprising, if you know me, as I am not very leader-like at all) and the BF was always the Science Officer. We invented a ship with a mostly female crew and we had adventures. Of course, we did cross paths with the Enterprise and have interesting … um .. interactions with Kirk and Spock but it was always a given that whatever fuzzily romantic scenarios our pre-teen brains could supply, our first loyalties were to our ship and to each other. No doubt there was something Mary Sue-ish in our characters but there was something surprisingly mature as well. It was a given that my character would never give her up her ship for a man, any more than Kirk would give up his for a woman.
As we moved through various interests (comics, the Six Million Dollar Man – more on that one later – and, god help us, Roller Derby) this basic pattern repeated itself. We were the heroes and we were friends. The romantic element of our adventures with the various imaginary love interests was a big part of it but in the end, our characters always rode off into the metaphorical sunset together.
Posted in Influences
August 12th, 2013Posted by Nancy
Stocking up on horror and dark fantasy books, of course.
The good people at ChiZine are having a sale, so now’s your chance to get books by Michael Rowe, David Nickle and more at 40% off.
What are you waiting for? Buy something!
Posted in Books · Events
August 12th, 2013Posted by Nancy
Apparently, the gorgeous photos from the Gloomth shoot that I linked to the other day are accompanied by a selection of “spirit photographs” created by the House of Pomegranates team. Even lovelier and spookier.
Posted in Art · Fashion
August 5th, 2013Posted by Nancy
Go check out my friend David Keyes’ photo shoot for Taeden Hall’s clothing line Gloometh, inspired by their collaboration on an edition of Carmilla. It is, as they say, to die for.
Posted in Uncategorized
August 5th, 2013Posted by Nancy
Some conversations last weekend reminded me of the impact certain comic books had on my imagination, so that’s the topic of this week’s post.
When I lived in small-town Ontario during grade 8 and 9 (living in small-town Ontario was not exactly a success for me, though I made a great friend there), one of my monthly rituals was to ride my bike to Sam’s Variety store with my hoarded allowance and buy a couple of comic books. These served the dual purpose of both reading and providing figures I could trace in order to design my own characters and costumes, because I couldn’t draw to save my life.
This period coincided with a sudden flurry of comics featuring female heroes, which suited my already feminist sensibilities. Among the series I followed were The Cat and Shanna the She-Devil, which both came out in short-lived series in 1972, and the Avengers (which I admit was partly due to the Scarlet Witch/Vision storyline running at that time). I also dabbled in the occasional Wonder Woman and other comics if it looked as if there would be interesting female characters.
I never really considered creating my own comics, partially because of aforementioned lack of drawing ability and partially because my imagination was already not quite that concrete. While I’m writing, I can mentally see some things in great detail, some things in “long shot” and some things not at all. I don’t see my characters’ faces, for example, but I know what it feels like when one of them looks at another. The option always exists to do the script only, of course, and that’s something I’d love to pursue for some projects, but my real love is words and the personal, internal images and emotions those conjure for me.
I kept some of those comics for years until one move too many meant they disappeared.
And I learned the Shelley poem Ozymandias from an issue of the Avengers, so who says comics don’t teach you anything? I couldn’t find a legible version to post, so go to the link to check it out. It’s one of the most memorable pages of comic art I’ve ever seen. The poem is below.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away
Posted in Influences · Uncategorized
July 7th, 2013Posted by Nancy
Yes, I went on vacation to London, Paris and the Lot Valley and you will now be subjected to a couple of pictures.
Westminster Abbey Gargoyle
The ruined abbey in Marcilhac sur Cele
Posted in Uncategorized