A Summer with Robertson Davies

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I don’t know what happened this summer, but I have totally neglected my blog. To my followers … my apologies. Suddenly September … and a whole new frame of thought.

I listen to books on my iPod. Yes, I really read, but I can “read” so many additional books by listening to them while I garden, clean the house, walk for fitness, iron, drive my car, basically with any activity that does not have competing noises.

This summer has been the summer of reading Robertson Davies. I read two books by Davies in my university years: Fifth Business and The Manticore.  I can’t say I remember much of them, probably because they were sandwiched in with a pile of other books that I was under pressure to read for class. If you have taken any university courses in literature, you will remember the shock of moving from one book per semester in high school to one book, or two, per class in university. Bottom line, I didn’t really appreciate the works of Robertson Davies until now. I am on my fourth book and I will keep reading until I have read them all. Davies is a brilliant writer. He has become my favourite Canadian author and that is saying a lot: Margaret Laurence was always my number one Canadian writer and I do still love her writing. But Davies is definitely the “flavour of the summer.” He has such insights into Canadian culture; his language is strong without being complicated or overbearing; he is so knowledgeable in music, theatre, literature and art. How could I not be in awe of his work?

Davies noted in The Salterton Trilogy (and I am only paraphrasing) that Canadians have the opinion that not much gets accomplished in the summer months. Robertson, I am guilty of being Canadian. Thank goodness it’s September.

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My late mother-in-law said that she lived for the first sip of coffee in the morning. Although it didn’t make an impression on me then, in later life I find myself thinking the same. What is it about the ritual of coffee in the morning that is so addictive? Is it just ritual? A physiological addiction? Or perhaps a combination of the two? Truth be known, I do love my coffee in the morning although my chemist brother-in-law said that if coffee didn’t have its history, it would never pass the food and beverage criteria of the Canadian government’s Department of Health. I did an inventory of coffee-making machines in my kitchen and found four. I could French press it, grind fresh beans and filter it, make espresso or cappuccino with a the state-of-the-art electric machine, or grind beans in a little electric grinder and make espresso/cappuccino from the little stove top espresso maker. It’s surprising how many different methods there are for making coffee!

In “Tug-of-War,” I wove little Serbian customs into the story, including the making of coffee in chapter six, “A Close Call.” Serbians largely drink Turkish coffee, a hangover from the almost five centuries Serbia was ruled by the Ottoman Empire. Drinking Turkish coffee was just one of the many customs that became entrenched and lingered even after the Turks no longer ruled Serbia. The pot used to make Turkish coffee, a dzesva (pronounced “jez-vah”) is usually brass with a neck, a collar with a spout, and a longish handle. The coffee is made by bringing water to a boil in the dzesva, adding finely ground, powdered coffee to the pot and then allowing the mixture to boil up three times before setting the pot aside to let the powder gunk settle to the bottom. Serbians first add sugar to the water to sweeten the coffee, but Turks prefer to place a cube of sugar between the front teeth and sip the coffee through the cube. It is strong, flavourful coffee, usually served black, and only the plucky drink it without a little sugar.foam

The traditional tool for grinding the coffee in that part of the world is a machine that looks like a large wooden box with a hand-powered crank. It is an arduous task to grind the beans each morning, or so think North Americans. On one of her trips to Serbia, my late mother-in-law took gifts of electric coffee grinders that reduced the labour intensive, lengthy job of preparing the beans from ten minutes to a minute. Much to her surprise, on a subsequent visit, the family was still using their hand grinder! In response to her query, her brother said he enjoyed grinding the beans every morning. For him, preparing the beans wasn’t a chore. It was a pleasure. And her sister-in-law said the coffee from the electric grinder just didn’t taste the same.

I used to have a dzesva that one of my children borrowed. That would be the fifth tool for preparing coffee. Think I’m serious about my morning coffee?

Just Begin

Every culture has its own orientation for humour and idiomatic expressions.  For example, where English-speakers say, “ I have a frog in my throat,” for a sore throat or raspy voice, the French say, “I have a cat in my throat, “J’ai un chat dans la gorge.

Tug-of-War” is focused on the Serbian culture during WWII and in the book I have interwoven some of the Serbian traditions, like the custom of taking bread and salt the first time you visit someone’s home. In terms of language, the Serbs have a quaint saying that loosely translates as, “When it comes to eating, like scratching, you have only to begin.” This expression is not used in the book, but it pairs perfectly with the illustration included in this post and offers a great parallel for literature: when it comes to writing, you have only to begin.

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That Big Red Star

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If you love children’s books, you’ve come to the right place! — the welcome statement of the CCBC

Last fall I submitted “Tug-of-War” to the Children’s Book Centre for their consideration and review for the 2015 spring publication of “Best Books for Kids and Teens.” I was thrilled to receive an email in May informing me that, not only had my book been selected for inclusion in the catalogue, it had been starred signifying exceptional caliber.

The Canadian Children’s Book Centre (CCBC) is a national, not-for-profit organization, founded in 1976 dedicated to encouraging, promoting and supporting the reading, writing, illustrating and publishing of Canadian books for young readers. With book collections and extensive resources in five cities across Canada, the CCBC is a treasure-trove for anyone interested in Canadian books for young readers. Their programs, publications, and resources help teachers, librarians, booksellers and parents select the very best for young readers.

This inclusion in the CCBC catalogue, with a glowing red star, is a huge measure of success for me! I am not expecting to become rich from writing – few authors do. So if the book is not going to at least pay its way, I’ll take the recognition from wherever it comes as my recompense and smile all the way to the bank … of happiness.

How do you make money writing books?

 

 

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Allow Yourself to be a Beginner

Allow yourself to be a beginner. No one starts off being excellent.

This is true of any skill in life, isn’t it? Playing a musical instrument, learning a sport, becoming a medical doctor, learning to read … all take practice over time. And yet, sometimes we are too impatient to allow ourselves to be beginners. I want my first book to be a best seller! Just because I have been writing different genres of literature for years, I think this first novel should start at the top.

I see this same impatience in others when I teach skiing. You think you can slip your feet into some boots, click the boots into some ski bindings, ride the lift, and descend in a controlled manner making directional changes from the top? Skiing is harder than it looks. You have to learn to balance while moving and engage the right body parts to manipulate the skis and many of the skills are counter-intuitive. Often have I seen a beginner look up longingly from the baby hill to the steepest pitch and ask if he can ski there today. He wants to start at top.

I appreciate Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Criticism” in which he talks about a little learning being a dangerous thing. Skiing is a prime example of that! Pope goes on to make an analogy between learning and climbing a mountain: just when you think you have reached the pinnacle, that you have learned it all, “alps on alps appear.” There is no end to learning.

We should allow ourselves to be beginners. No one starts at the top.

(May 30, 2015 Serena Williams: “No one can be number one without an incredible work effort.”)

Focusing on the wrong thing

I showed the students in my (supply) grade six class the photos in the Globe and Mail, of the refugees from Myanmar and I read some of the details to them. My comment to them was this: when I think I have a problem, I remember situations like this. Then I KNOW I don’t have a real crisis.

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“We all have problems.The way we solve them is what makes us different.” ~Unknown

 

Sometimes I find myself looking at friends and family with wonder because I find most of the time people tend to make themselves really unhappy by focusing on the negatives that they have in their lives. I also find myself unconsciously pointing out all the positives they have in their lives and people look at me horrified like I’m cold. I’m not cold but maybe I could be accused of being too blunt sometimes but never cold or uncaring.
If people were willing enough to admit it, they would say honestly that their lives are not in constant turmoil. There is no way bad things are always happening to people. I find that it tends to be a specific period of time where everything is negative. In this I will try to list what I…

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