Monday, July 30, 2007

There's more to Beatrix than bunnies

I rented the movie Miss Potter this weekend, and while I generally enjoyed it, I was disappointed that not one mention was made of her early scientific work. During her teens, she made scientifically accurate drawings of botanical specimens as well as the cute animals that made her famous. She was especially fascinated by lichens. A Swiss botanist, Simon Schwendener, had proposed that lichens were actually algae and fungi living together in a symbiotic relationship--an idea that was treated with contempt by most contemporary scientists.

But her careful study of lichens led Potter to share the Swiss botanists' conclusions. In his wonderful and entertaining book, Liaisons of Life: From Hornworts to Hippos, How the Unassuming Microbe has Driven Evolution, Tom Wakeford writes:

At first, Beatrix was unperturbed by this opposition. Her uncle, the chemist Sir Henry Roscoe, had confidence in her and her belief in Schwendenerism. He urged that she give a paper at a scientific society, such as the Linnaean. Housed behind a grand facade in London's West End, the Linnaean Society was an international forum for naturalists and evolutionary biologists, as it had been when Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace had announced their theories of evolution there earlier in the century. But while Roscoe could contribute to the society's proceedings, Beatrix was, like all women, barred. Although now in her late twenties and gaining a reputation for her acute observations of nature, she was not even allowed to attend the society's open meetings. Her uncle eventually won the right to read her paper at a meeting of the society himself, but the official record of the meeting has been lost. We can only imagine the mixture of smirks and tut-tuts that greeted her findings. Beatrix, already a shy and reclusive character, recorded in her diary her feelings of humiliation at her treatment. Worse was to follow.
Ridiculed for having the audacity to have such radical theories--and a woman, too!--Potter soon abandoned her scientific studies. Potter and Schwendener were right, of course, and by 1929 H. G. Wells and Julian Huxley wrote that "a lichen is no more a single organism than a dairy farm is a single organism."

Back to Miss Potter. I know that a movie can't tell every story, but I think that this aspect of Potter's life is important--not to mention fascinating--enough that it merited at least a scene or two.

Re-visioning the revision

After several a couple of spectacularly unsuccessful weeks spent trying to revise the novel to re-submit to my agent, I came to the realization that I was going about it all wrong. I had thought it would be a matter of massaging the manuscript a bit, inserting a few scenes, strengthening a couple of characters. All the while feeling discouraged, because I sensed that the manuscript was going to seem very jerry-rigged indeed.

And then I understood that it would have to be completely re-written. Completely. Oh, I'd have the same cast of characters, with a least one new one. But they'd have to change considerably, as would many of the defining scenes.

I spend a couple of days moping about this, until I realized that a complete re-write would be considerably easier than trying to rassle and hog-tie my current version into shape. Plus, I decided to use Scrivener, a terrific piece of software that bills itself as a project management tool for writers, to develop the new story. So far, it's working! Tra-la-la!

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Post-post Harry Potter blues and...there's more to life

OK, I haven't really earned that title yet, because I haven't gotten my hands on the book, so it's more like the post-post Harry Potter release blues. But I have to say that Friday night here in Champaign, Illinois was quite a happening place for someone who just came from Switzerland, where nothing much ever seemed to happen.

Yesterday, singer-songwriter Patty Larkin did an outdoor concert at the U.I. research park--a very nice space indeed, but oddly incongruous when you consider that Larkin and most of the other alt-music folks they have booked there are performing in an academic-corporate research park. But it was the kind of thing that reminds me of the strong sense of community here. You couldn't throw your voice without hitting someone you know. She was great, witty, a talented singer, but perhaps not in her finest voice because she had a cold.

Then I went home and cooled my heels for a couple of hours until it was time for the H.P. party. What fun--especially when we got to go home! I'm urging my son to finish his copy so that I can get my hands on it. And in the meantime, Caitlin bought an English language copy in Madrid this morning at 9:30 a.m. and finished it 12 hours later. She said that there was NO fanfare about the release in Madrid--a real disappointment to her. When she finished it, she said, she felt like someone had died. Not the characters in the book, of course (well, a bunch of them die, apparently), but this whole narrative that she and many of her friends had grown up reading. She said that one of the appeals of the series is not that it's the best YA fantasy series ever, but that there's this shared experience of reading something fun with your peers.

"Like the 'One Book' things you do for college, except you WANT to read it, right?" I asked.

"Exactly!" she said.

This warms my heart.


You're One Hundred Years of Solitude!

by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Lonely and struggling, you've been around for a very long time.
Conflict has filled most of your life and torn apart nearly everyone you know. Yet there
is something majestic and even epic about your presence in the world. You love life all
the more for having seen its decimation. After all, it takes a village.

Take the Book Quiz
at the Blue Pyramid.

OK, One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of my favorite books ever. But I don't feel as conflicted as all that. And my love life...decimated? Not by a long shot!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Writing in the ER

There's an interesting interview with Chuck Palaniuk on a CBC show called The Hour. He said that he has written every one of his books in public: in airports, gyms and health clubs, in hospital emergency rooms. Here's what he said about writing in the ER (I transcribed it rather quickly, so it's not entirely word for word accurate):

Emergency rooms are filled with emotion. Every time you get to a really dramatic scene, you just look around and say, OK, that is what my character is doing with her hands. You have all of this physical business to choose from. Plus, you have people calling the taxi after their father has just died of cancer. You have this fantastic stressed language; you're steeping in this incredible stew of emotional reactions.

I think that's brilliant, if a little creepy. But that's what fiction writers do, isn't it? We observe others and we take what we can use: the crooked teeth that show when the homeless man smiles, the way a particular teenager moves as he slouches across the room. We're vultures and proud of it.

Listen to the interview if you have 11 minutes to spare. He tells a hysterically funny anecdote involving fake severed bloody arms about 3/4 of the way through.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The pre-post-Harry blues

I'm anticipating the last Harry Potter book, and already feeling sad about the fact that there will be no new H.P. adventures to look forward to. Not that this sets me apart from thousands of kids, adults, and the entire kidlit industry.

And so, a week before the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, readers are left to wonder...what next? The Champaign-Urbana News Gazette ran a long feature article in their "Living" section about Harry Potter. [Joan alert: there's a nice picture of Christine Jenkins and the first six H.P. books, and several quotes.] A sidebar listed the reading recommendations for Harry Potter lovers from local librarians and bookstore buyers. And here's what interested me. There were the usual recommendations, many of them excellent, for other fantasy books: MG, YA, and adult. But one recommendation, by Elaine Beardon, the children's librarian at the Urbana Free Library, caught my eye: My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George.

This is a book that I loved, loved, loved as a kid. It's interesting, though, that a nature adventure would be appear in a list of books that might appeal to Harry Potter fans. Although, if you think about it, a kid living by himself in the woods is pretty much a fantasy. Anyhow, the concept of being totally self-sufficient and in control of your own destiny is one of the most powerful YA themes.

It's not surprising that one of my other favorite books as a kid was The Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O'Dell. Man, how I wanted to be that girl. Only maybe with a few Harry Potter books to keep me entertained.

Which leads me to the NYT review of book 3 of Michelle Paver's Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series, Soul Eater. The reviewer references Harry Potter in the first two words of his review, suggesting that this is another offering that would appeal to fans of Harry Potter.

Interesting, again, because this book doesn't appear to be anything like the H.P. series--it's set 6,000 years ago in Northern Europe, at the end of the last Ice Age. It's almost as if reviewers who really like new books have to reference Harry Potter, however much of a stretch. That said, this sounds like a terrific series, and I have to say that I don't mind at all if the new fantasy trend is the historical/nature adventure.

Saturday, July 14, 2007


I learned a little lesson in tolerance this week. My parents came to visit a couple of days ago (and no, it's not what it seems, bear with me here), along with my daughter Alison and my good friends Ken and Joan and their extremely sweet and cute 11-week old son Walker. Which is to say, we had a pretty full driveway, and when I had to take my husband to the airport on Thursday morning, my parents' car was the only one that wasn't blocked. Which means that I had to drive a car with a "W '04" sticker in the window.

I wished I had remembered my funny nose/glasses/mustache disguise.

While I have learned to tolerate these foibles in my parents, I still find myself thinking unpleasant thoughts about other drivers of cars proclaiming their support for The Shrub. Now, I'll give those people the benefit of the doubt. I'll think, well, maybe they're just borrowing their parents' car.

And now that they're all gone, even the fleeting stomach virus that struck an unfortunate few of our full house, it's just my son and me. All of a sudden it seems very quiet. I tell myself that this means I'll be able to get lots of work done.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Dorothy, I don't think we're in Switzerland anymore

Top ten ways I can tell that I'm not in Geneva anymore:

10. The guy at passport control in Chicago is chatty and friendly in that Midwestern sort of way.
9. Among the piles of mail I find an expensive 4-color, heavy glossy stock catalog called "Simply Amish," featuring, among other things, a picture of a candlelit table set with wineglasses and beautiful coordinated dishes. Oh, the irony.
8. I have cat and dog hair on my clothes.
7. And on the floors as well.
6. I can do laundry whenever I please! (In our apartment building, tenants are assigned a 4-hour time slot in which they can do laundry, once a week. This is apparently very common in Switzerland.)
5. Stores are open on Sunday!
4. I strike up conversations with strangers.
3. The steepest incline on my running route is a short stretch on Russell street.
2. A good, farm-raised chicken doesn't cost you a wing and a leg.
1. Most importantly, I get to see my friends and family.

It's good to be home.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Au revoire, Geneve!

This is my last evening in Geneva, and is usually the case with such things, it is kind of bittersweet. We ended it the same way we began, back in January, with a wonderful dinner in a nearly deserted restaurant a few blocks away from our apartment. I had fantasized might become our regular neighborhood hangout. (It didn't, but it's not the restaurant's fault.) It was just one guy who served as host, waiter, and chef, with an assistant who did little more than bring him plates and olive oil at appropriate moments. And he gave us some Limoncetta on the house at the end of the meal. It's one of those things that made me--almost (see yesterday's entry)--feel wistful about leaving.

So in the tradition of bookending things, my last entry from Geneva will be about my (still) terrible French. David Sedaris wrote one of his hilarious/tragic essays about living in France in a recent New Yorker ("The Man in the Hut," June 4, 2007). I was pleased to learn that although he has been living in France much longer than I've been in Geneva, his French still sucks and he avoids conversation whenever possible.

He imagines that prison, being a total immersion kind of atmosphere, would be an excellent place to learn French:

"'d have your little conversations. In the cafeteria, in the recreation room or crafts center, if they have them in a French prison, and I imagine they do. 'Tell me, Jean-Claude, do you like the glaze I've applied to my shapely jug?'
Of the above, I can say, 'Tell me, Jean-Claude, do you like the...jug?' ... In French, such things have a way of biting you in the ass. I might have to say, 'Do you like the glaze the shapely jug accepted from me?' or 'Do you like the shapely jug in the glaze of which I earlier applied?'
For safety's sake, perhaps I'd be better off breaking the one sentence into three:
'Look at the shapely jug.'
'Do you like the glaze?'
'I did that.'"

Thanks, David. Now if only I could sell an article to the New Yorker about my nitwittery.

Next entry: Champaign!

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Light a sparkler for me!

Unfortunately, this is the year that the American International Club of Geneva cancelled what had been billed as the largest American Independence Day fireworks display outside of the U.S. Lackluster fundraising, I heard. I have always loved fireworks. I even watched them from the backyard the year I stayed home with my then ten days-old son. So I'll miss them this year, as well as the parade and potluck in the backyard of our friends' home after; with beer and BBQ pork butt cooked since early that morning; with exploding watermelons and coke and mentos geysers; with traded stories and expressions of amazement about our ever-taller children.

Sniffle. Next year.

Brilliant ad campaign

By the Swiss milk producers, as seen on a Geneva billboard:

Crow pose

Eagle pose

And, of course, headstand.

Using my handy Google (French to English) Translate This Page tool, I am able to provide you with the rationale behind this ad campaign:

Once more, untiring Lovely is the high-speed motorboat. Like many women currently, it discovers the benefits of yoga.
Lovely is addressed particularly to the women who, with the return of age, are more prone to the osteoporosis than the men.

Yoga and milk: many common points
At first sight, nothing seems to bring them closer communiun, and yet, yoga and milk present certain common points:

Both are daily sources of wellbeing and pleasure.

Both slacken. Milk because it contains tryptophan, an amino acid which is transformed into serotonin, our “hormone of happiness”.

Both strengthen our framework. Milk thanks to its calcium and yoga by the fact that it uses the bones, but without exaggeration. The muscular tension, the pressure and the tensions exerted carefully on the bones and the muscles at the time of the exercises of yoga have a stabilizing effect on the osseous structure. Scientific studies show that the practice of yoga increases the osseous density clearly. Thus 3 portions day labourers of milk and dairy products all the more reinforce the bones if they are associated the practice of yoga.

All the good things go by three

To meet our daily needs for calcium all in there fascinating pleasure, it is enough for us to consume 3 portions of milk and dairy products. This is why the new rule is stated as follows: 1 milk glass, 1 yoghourt and a piece of cheese each day… and three meetings of yoga per week.

What the above fails to mention is that the cheese is indeed delicious, but hardly low fat. (Not that I'd want it to be--low-fat cheese is pretty much a travesty if you ask me.) And you really have to search for skim or low-fat milk, or low-fat yogurt. And then of course there's fondue and raclette...yum. So if I'm looking a little pudgy when I return to Illinois--on Friday!!--you'll know why. But I have been doing yoga three times a week, in part because it slackens me.