A Bucket of Daffodils

I know winter in California is nothing to complain about. But it’s still my least favorite season. December brings Christmas, but then the lights and the cookies and the carols are done. January wears on, and sweaters get thin in the elbows. Windshield wipers fray. I start to long for spring. 

And then there are daffodils.

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My mom brought me a miniature bucket of them for my office the other day. Yellow and sprightly, they brighten the whole room. I remember studying abroad in England and admiring the hardy bulbs, the only things daring to bloom in a stubbornly cold April.

British poet William Wordsworth, whose cottage we visited, admired them too. They filled his quaint garden, where I sat and jotted notes nearly four years ago.

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He admired these flowers so much that one of his most famous poems is called “Daffodils.” It starts with these lines:

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

I only really understood what he meant when I saw the fields of daffodils that sprawl over the English countryside while spring is still clinging to winter.

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Maybe you need a cheerful sprig of yellow, a bucket of daffodils, in your life today. They’re flowers of hope. May they remind both of us that spring is coming.

Beautiful British Library Mania!

It’s Friday! I’d say it’s time for some beautiful libraries, wouldn’t you?

Let’s take an armchair trip to Britain to visit 5 beautiful libraries. (While the Republic of Ireland is not politically part of Britain, it is geographically part of the British Isles…it’s a long story, better expressed by a YouTube video than by me.)

1. The Bodleian Library, Oxford, England. No library tour would be complete without the Bodleian, which houses 11 million printed items in addition to thousands of other materials. It actually consists of many different library buildings as well as a subterranean storage labyrinth. (Mystery novel, anyone?) The fan ceiling is renowned as one of the most beautiful in England.

Photo credit: redjar

2. The Wren Library, Cambridge, England. A small gem, tucked away in Trinity College, this library was designed by Christopher Wren, one of England’s most famous architects. Containing first editions of works by Tennyson and Byron and the handwritten manuscript of Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne, the library also has a walking stick and lock of the hair of alumnus Sir Isaac Newton. Love the checkerboard floor, too–makes me think of Alice in Wonderland.

Photo credit: Photodesk.at

3. The Long Room, Dublin, Ireland. Two stories, marble busts of thinkers, and sliding ladders, oh my! Also located at a place called Trinity College (different from the Cambridge one), and sharing a building with the inimitable Book of Kells, they raised the barrel ceiling to accommodate more books! 200,000 of the college’s oldest, rarest books, to be exact…

4. The Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, Ireland. A little-known gem I discovered quite by accident, this library is resplendent more with inner than outer beauty. More than a simple collection of books, it’s a curiosity cabinet of antiquities from all over the world, including some incredibly old manuscripts. Imagine illuminated texts, an ancient copy of Augustine’s City of God, and fragments of Bible papyri from as early as AD 150–yes, people, that would be an almost 1900-year-old book. Er, scrap of a book.

5. The British Library, London, England. Last but not least, a classic among libraries. Along with the Library of Congress, the British Library is the second-largest library in the world. Yes, world. It’s a legal deposit and research library containing over 150 million items. Contemporary architecture (including a bench shaped like a folded-open book) pairs here with a mind-blowing collection of some of the world’s oldest manuscripts. Inside you’ll find everything from Beowulf to Jane Eyre, from Handel’s Messiah to the Magna Carta, from a Gutenberg Bible to Anne Boleyn’s copy of the New Testament. It’s the Louvre of libraries.

Oh, guess what? It’s a…

Bonus #6! The Strahov Monastery Library, Prague, Czech Republic.

This one may not be in Britain, but it sure belongs in a tour of the most beautiful libraries. Tucked away in a hilltop monastery in Prague, surrounded by whitewashed walls and the waving stems of yellow roses, is this little-known gem. After a climb up a steep hill, one is rewarded with this sight:

Globes, illuminated manuscripts, a book wheel, and a painted ceiling! It became an important point of inspiration for my novel. And made me think of this scene from Beauty and the Beast: 


Photo credit: Jessica Ta


Happy Friday! Which of these libraries (the Disney one included!) would you visit if you had the chance? 

Why Independent Bookstores?

Though I’ve been a book addict since before I could read and much of my childhood was spent haunting Barnes and Nobles or public libraries, it wasn’t until college that I really discovered independent bookstores.

Here are my top 3 reasons to choose an independent bookstore:

1. Cheaper books

Many independent bookshops stock used as well as new books. As any economist can tell you, when the price of a commodity falls, demand for it rises, because people can afford to buy more of it. Cheaper books=more books on my shelf. Where’s the problem?

2. Charm

Far from the mass-produced commerciality of chain bookstores, with their hygienic, matching stacks of flash-in-the-pan bestsellers, independent bookstores have the allure of individuality and eccentricity. Don’t get me wrong–I love a good multi-story Barnes and Noble with a digitized inventory system (I spent two college summers working in one), or in Britain, a big, clean Blackwell’s or Waterstones. But from the sign over the door to the entrance display of books to the cat in the window, no two used bookstores are exactly alike.

3. Adventure

Chain bookstores have the feel of business parks; independent bookstores are more like house parties with literary friends. You step in and run into someone you know (“Mr. Wordsworth! It’s been too long!”), make some small talk, and pretty soon they’re introducing you to their friends and their friends’ friends (Eco, Joyce, Zusak, I take down on my To-Read list). Next thing you know, you’re exchanging business cards and promising to keep in touch and walking out with a dreamy smile and a stack of “finds” you didn’t know existed an hour ago. (This is why I often leave my credit card in the car when I enter a bookstore.) It reminds me of the movie Midnight in Paris, where if you step into the magic car at midnight, you might be whisked off to sit in Gertrude Stein’s living room and watch Hemingway argue with Fitzgerald. Sometimes I’m so overwhelmed by the collective wisdom and camaraderie that I get teary in front of the fiction section.

Image courtesy of stock.xchng and kaeska

So, to shed some light on these little-known gems (and to give myself an excuse to visit more of them), I’m starting a blog series profiling various independent bookstores, especially those that include used books. Some will be local to my area, some farther afield. While there won’t be a new one every week (I wish), this series will be recurrent as I discover more bookstores. If you read about one you’ve visited, feel free to post your experience with it in the comments section. If there’s one that strikes your fancy, go visit (and let me know how it goes)! Or, best of all, if you have recommendations for bookstores I should cover, I’d be only too happy to hear about them 🙂

Next week: a trio of bookstores on Pacific Avenue in Santa Cruz…

On This Day…

Ever look at your calendar and remember what you were doing on this day, one or two or three years ago?

Three years ago (well, April 25), I found myself in church. In western Ireland.

With only about 10 regular attendees, there were more people buried in the churchyard than alive inside the service. It was rather quiet. 

Aftewards, some friends and I went horseback riding! I hadn’t been on a horse since I was eight years old (when veterinarian topped my list of career choices).

This horse was named Rua (Gaelic for “red”). As we neared the hilltop, she bolted. Bouncing around, as in control as a sack of flour, I clutched the English saddle, watching my life flash before my eyes…and arrived at this incredible vista of clear sea and sky (with the Blasket Islands visible across the bay).

Having survived our adventure, we limped off, saddle-sore, to reward ourselves with…

…the world’s most amazing chocolate cake! Murphy’s is an Irish ice cream/sweets shop that makes absolutely the best chocolate cake in the world. If you’re ever in Ireland, find some. It’s an especially good way to forget about being saddle-sore. 
I still miss Ireland some days. Especially when I think about what I was doing on this day two years ago: editing my senior project in college. 
With scissors. Helps rustle up the necessary ruthlessness. No better way to visualize transposals or deletions. I also think I killed an entire rainforest’s worth of post-it notes. But I graduated!
One year ago, I was…

…at my desk, finishing the second draft of my novel. I’m now partway through the fourth draft, which (I hope) will be the last. Maybe this novel will see the light of day before I start getting a senior discount on my office supplies. 
And today, I am here, typing up this blog post:
Freelance life may not often take me across the world on exciting adventures. I don’t often find myself bolting up hills on a runaway horse or violently editing a story with scissors. It’s not every day I get to celebrate the accomplishment of a completed novel draft. But my imagination doesn’t starve. And that is a blessing.
What do you see when you look back at this day in past years?

Wandering Bards

Okay. Before you read any further, stop! And click on this link
That’s a recording of my most influential college professor, Dr. Luke Reinsma, reading the Prologue of The Canterbury Tales–in Middle English. 
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote…
That cadence takes me back to cozy firesides in the British Isles, where I was studying abroad three years ago. (Three years! How is that possible?) 
Assigned to read The Canterbury Tales in Middle English for our Medieval Literature class, most of my classmates and I felt overwhelmed. Middle English is similar enough to modern English that it can mostly be understood–but it takes a lot of effort. Medieval non-comprehension set in. Frustration set in. 
And so Dr. Reinsma began hosting semi-weekly reading sessions. His background is in medieval literature, and he reads fluently in Middle English. And so we students would sprawl all over hostel couches, chairs, benches, carpets (sometimes beside an English fireside so quaint it looked like a painting) and listen to The Professor read. 

It’s amazing what reading aloud can do for your appreciation of books. One of my earliest memories of literature is hiding under the couch cushions when my parents got to the part about Black Riders in The Fellowship of the Ring. It was a rite of passage when I got to take a turn in intoning the passages of Little House on the Prairie. And even in college, as an adult living in another country for three months, having The Professor read aloud took me back to that childhood place. 
A human voice reading does not just transmit information–it conveys experience, wisdom, and a passion for life. We learn from being read to, but it’s much more than an academic exercise. The vocal rhythms whisk us back to a time when wandering bards passed down ancient traditions–history, legend, theology–through oral song and story. 
To read aloud from a book proclaims your investment, both in the book and in the person being read to. Now that I am an adult, reading aloud to my students is one of my favorite parts of our lessons–getting to use my voice and presence to bring alive the literature I believe in. It’s a manifestation of care through quality time, combined with the wisdom and learning contained in the book itself. 
Though The Canterbury Tales may never be my favorite work of literature, listening to the recording of it today brought tears to my eyes. Much more than a homework assignment, reading aloud became a memory. 
Do you ever read aloud? Have any special memories of someone reading to you? 

Imagine

Lately, my lunchtime reading (out of the enormous stack) has been the book Imagine by Jonah Lehrer. It’s a fascinating investigation into the conditions under which creativity occurs. While the book has attracted some bad press recently, the main messages ring true with my own experience.

I’ve been thinking a lot about creativity lately, because my novel is chugging slowly toward completion. I’m now in the midst of a 4th (and hopefully final!) draft of this 4 1/2-year project, so fostering the conditions under which creativity can blossom is a major preoccupation. While I may not be as scientific about it as Jonah Lehrer, I do have a few favorite ingredients for effective creative work.

First ingredient: chocolate. Chocolate makes everything better. Especially if it also has coffee in it!

Second ingredient: post-it notes. Definitely multicolored (although I’ve heard rumor that the yellow ones are the stickiest). I’m currently using them to color-code my revision notes: pink for introduction, green for body, blue for conclusion, yellow for characters. I use so many that I should probably buy stock in the post-it note company.

Third ingredient: English tea. Yesterday I even got lucky and found a scone to go with it. Tea, scone, post-its, favorite pen, and double-spaced manuscript. Perfect recipe for a productive novel-writing afternoon. 

I must have picked up this habit while I was in Britain. I never even liked black tea until I drank it in a window seat overlooking the rugged Welsh countryside. With a book, of course. (That’s Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia, if you’re curious.)

Of course, I don’t take pictures of the long hours I spend slouched in my office chair, or the late nights when I have to push up my eyelids to keep them open. The ones pictured here are the nicer moments. But they’re important to the creative process. Says Lehrer:

“This sort of mental relaxation makes it easier to daydream and pay attention to insights; we’re less focused on what’s right in front of us and more aware of the possibilities simmering in our imaginations.”

I’ll buy that.

What are the ingredients of your creative process? 

Snapshots of Cambridge

Two years ago this week, I was in Cambridge, England. As an American college student, watching my British counterparts study, ride their bicycles to class, and play cricket at the park, I almost felt like I was looking in a distorted mirror. But after 9 days of living, walking, and studying in this medieval college town, it almost began to feel like native habitat. I can’t give you a Lonely Planet guidebook description. So I’ll just share a series of snapshots that characterize the journey there. 
Two structures characterize Cambridge: the tall, Gothic spires of the colleges and cathedrals…and the spokes of bicycle wheels. The medieval streets make driving a health hazard, not to mention an insurance nightmare. So everyone bikes. Little baskets and all. Even in skirts. Knowing my world-class klutz skills, I decided to forgo this traditional mode of transportation and let my good ol’ feet carry me….

…to every bookstore in sight. The bookstores in Cambridge are absolutely world-class. There are some fine new shops–Heffer’s and Waterstone’s, not to mention the home office of Cambridge University Press. But better still are the used and antiquarian bookstores. “Old books” in the U.S. reach maybe 50, 60, even 100 years old. But when the Brits say “antiquarian,” they mean it. I found a crumbling copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress from the early 1800s in a discount bin because the spine cover was falling off. The early 1800s! One of these days I’d like to about bookbinding and fix it up. If you’re ever in Cambridge, go check out G. David Booksellers (where I drooled at a two-volume leather-bound set of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary that cost 2500 pounds) and The Haunted Bookshop (absolutely dripping charm, with a head-bumping spiral staircase!) 

The May flowers in Cambridge are also jaw-dropping. Many of them I had no names for, but I did recognize fields of many-colored tulips and walls covered with wisteria, like this one. 

When the Cambridge boys aren’t riding their bicycles to class, they make a little extra pocket money by punting: pushing tourists down the shallow river using flat-bottomed boats and ten-foot poles. They expertly steer their passengers down the river, pointing out all the sights along the way. Our group decided to be economical and do the punting ourselves. Our group was also 90% female. I gave tried punting for about 10 minutes before almost falling in and calling it quits. Those poles are a lot heavier than they look!  
Possibly the funniest moment in Cambridge: a mother duck and her brood of ducklings decided to cross the street, plunging headlong into traffic. Shopkeepers and pedestrians from both sides of the road darted after them, stopping traffic to “make way for ducklings.” It was rather adorable: a whole street of cars and people frozen in motion as a little family of ducks waddled across the road.

Most fabulous teatime: The Orchard. About three miles (on foot) outside of Cambridge, we sipped Lady Grey tea and nibbled scones and clotted cream at outdoor picnic tables under trees frosted with apple blossoms. The sun even decided to grace us with her presence for part of the afternoon. Sweaters came off; some of our group closed their eyes and tanned; some opened books of poetry; some blew streams of bubbles from plastic wands into the air.  

And last, but not least, the King’s College Chapel choir. We attended services at King’s one Sunday morning under the grand fan ceiling, sitting on carved wooden benches with a Rubens painting at the far end of the nave. And then the boys’ choir began to sing. If I hadn’t been looking right at them, I would have sworn it was an adult choir including both men and women. But listen to them! Surrounded by candles in that vast Gothic space, they sound like a choir of angels.

This concludes Episode Three of our Armchair Travel Guide to Britain. Have you been to Cambridge? England? Did you have experiences that you positively have to share?