The Blue Chair Blog

It's not just about the novel


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More writer events than you can shake a stick at

Yes, there are more literary adventures available than you might think down here in the state capital, which is after all a college town times three. Here’s what I’ve been able to take advantage of lately and I’m feeling SO fortunate.

At the end of September, I took up a week-long writing residency at Holly House, which is a retreat center for women “of all creative talents” on Arcadia Point in Mason County. Holly House is maintained by a small jewel of an organization, Hypatia-in-the-Woods. The cottage is a 40-minute drive from my house, but a whole world away. This is a solo operation and nature, nurture, beauty, and peace abound. I wrote, slept, read, walked and came home renewed and full of gratitude for the opportunity.

A few days later, Jess Walter, author of  Beautiful Ruins and some kick-ass short stories, spoke at Saint Martins University in Lacey. An SRO crowd filled the hall and Jess’s long-time friend Jim Lynch introduced him with love and laughter. I continue to be delighted that writers like Jess are showing up — right in my neighborhood! — to charm and inspire readers and writers. One of his messages to writers, echoed by Liz Gilbert (more on her shortly) is that you don’t necessarily need an MFA to be “A Writer” and that starting a writing career with $30,000 in debt is probably not a great idea. This is the second annual talk in SMU’s Les Bailey Writers Series and last year’s speaker Brian Doyle was also terrific.

It’s not a literary event per se, but whether it’s Spring or Fall, Olympia Arts Walk is an unmissable Olympia cultural phenomenon, so I didn’t miss it. There is always plenty of energy, lots to look at, and you are bound to run into someone (or many someones) you know.

Although Seattle is a little beyond local, I did head on up to the big city to see Elizabeth Gilbert in person last week. Her new book Big Magic has so many terrific things to say about creativity and living a big life. I’ve been listening to her practical and encouraging Magic Lessons podcasts for several weeks and got my hands on the book as soon as I got back from Holly House. God love her, she is OUT THERE on a few things but that’s kind of the point. She puts herself out there in a way that convinces you she’s fully alive and that she wants you to take every opportunity to be the same. My goodness, can that woman communicate — novels, podcasts, talks, photos, and her one-of-a-kind, worth-joining-for Facebook page.

The very next night, there was another cool local event, a book signing for my friend Russ Cahill’s novel of ancient Hawaii, Kolea. I never did get to talk to Russ because friends, friends-of-friends, and new fans were all lined up to get books signed. Now he’s off on a research trip to Yosemite for his next book, living the writing life.

Then the following evening (this is three nights in a row, folks), Timberland Regional Library (one of the best regional library systems imaginable) launched its new anthology, Timberland Writes Together, which builds on the success of its program Timberland Reads Together. No, I’m not one of the 15 writers included, but my friend Meagan’s story “Going Without” is in there. You can download or borrow the anthology from the library (of course), or buy it online, and discussions and panels centered on this project are scheduled in Thurston, Mason, Pacific, Grays Harbor, and Lewis Counties. I’m so impressed that TRL has taken this project on and fascinated to learn how much writing has been going on around here. Even more than I had suspected!

According to my calendar, more bookish adventures are waiting. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I got this post written and now it’s back to the WIP.

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Down memory lane into the Inns of Court

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Staple Inn Yard

Once upon a time, when I was a law student, I spent a few weeks on a study abroad course in London’s Inns of Court. A lot of American lawyers have a crush on the British legal system and wouldn’t mind if we got to wear wigs and gowns in court. This secret desire all started — or at least took on a life of it’s own — with Rumpole of the Bailey, in case you didn’t know. In Horace Rumpole, barrister and author John Mortimer created one of the indelible characters of the Twentieth Century. Mortimer’s stories are wonderful and the great Leo McKern will always embody Rumpole for me. He lives on, though, in radio plays recorded with Maurice Denham, later with Timothy West (and his wife Prunella Scales as Hilda Rumpole — She Who Must Be Obeyed), and most recently Benedict Cumberbatch as the young Rumpole. The stories, the radio plays, and the TV series are all quite entertaining and you should track them down if you can.

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Hare Court, Inner Temple

Getting back to the heady days of my own “mini-pupillage,”  I went to receptions and dinners in venerable old buildings, spent time in a barristers’ chambers in Gray’s Inn, observed a murder trial at the Old Bailey from the courtroom floor level instead of the gallery, and rubbed elbows with policemen, lawyers, defendants, and court personnel. I felt awfully lucky to have the experience but except for poking my nose whenever I can into Temple Church, which is one of my very favorite places in London, I haven’t really been back.

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Gardens in The Temple

Walking down from Bloomsbury, we threaded our way through Staple Inn (once an Inn of Chancery, now home to the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries) and the four Inns of Court:  Grays Inn, Lincoln’s Inn, and the Middle and Inner Temples, eventually coming out on the Embankment. Since it was Saturday, pretty much everything was shut up. We eventually found our way into Middle Temple and through to the Inner Temple. Athough the church was closed, we could still hear the organ being practiced. On the positive side, the Inns were all blissfully peaceful and at this time of year the gardens were in their glory.

Read about Dickens, the Inns of Chancery, and the Inns of Court here.


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Dipping a toe into Oxford

Film Truck Under the Bridge of Sighs

Film Truck Under the Bridge of Sighs

I am quite sure that the impulse to make a day trip to Oxford came not only from an interest in history and tradition but also from any number of books, movies, and television shows, including Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy, which is near and dear to my heart, and the venerable Inspector Morse TV series, but perhaps especially its follow-on series Lewis (known as Inspector Lewis here in the States). I’m so glad there is to be a ninth series  — it will be broadcast in the UK in October and I hope soon after in the US — and can’t wait to find out whether it includes any places I’ve now seen with my own eyes.

We traveled there on a breezy morning via the Oxford Tube, which is really a bus and which I can recommend if you have plenty of time and/or someone interesting with whom to pass the time of day, as I did. Our comfy bus was a double decker and we sat right in front for great views. The bus drops you in the High Street and you can easily walk to just about anything you would want to see in a day. It’s also a lot cheaper than taking the train.

In the time we had, we were able to wander through the streets, peer into colleges, take a short but excellent tour of the Bodleian Library, and have a bite to eat and a browse at Blackwell’s Bookshop. It was a short, sweet visit — enough to whet my appetite for more and I dearly hope to return sometime next year.

Oxford really does beggar my vocabulary of descriptive words, so here are a few photos. By the way, all my photos from this trip were take with an iPhone 5s. I still love an SLR camera, but you can’t beat this for traveling light, though you might need some sort of supplemental battery pack.

NB: In some cases I’ve used location data to caption these pictures and I’m not certain that all of the descriptions are accurate. Please let me know of any errors.

 


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My Bloomsbury

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Queen Square Park

Just as I returned home toward the end of July, BBC2 began broadcasting Life in Squares, about the Bloomsbury Set — Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell and all that — of whom it was said they “lived in squares, painted in circles, and loved in triangles.” Very amusing, I’m sure.  That particular set is gone but Bloomsbury is still known for its garden squares, literary associations, and its cultural, educational and health-care institutions. Over the years I’ve stayed in quite a few different areas of London — Swiss Cottage, Ebury Street, Bayswater, Earls Court, Sloane Square and several hotels in Bloomsbury, to which I keep returning.  By way of contrast, last fall I stayed in a lovely hotel in Sloane Square but didn’t really enjoy the area — too upscale for me, I suppose. Bloomsbury (click for a walking tour) is comfortable, vibrant, multicultural, and wears its academic connections like a pair of old slippers. It’s slightly scruffy in places, but who cares? If I am within a stone’s throw of Russell Square and the British Museum, with the British Library not too far away, I feel perfectly at home.

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Breakfast at 49 Cafe

If you travel in from Heathrow on the Piccadilly Line, you alight at Russell Square Tube station. Follow the Way Out signs, climb a short flight of stairs with your suitcase, wait impatiently for the cattle-car style lift, pop your Oyster card on the reader, walk across Bernard Street to Marchmont Street and there you are. For starters, have you seen the movie Pride? It follows events that actually occurred during the 1984 miners strike, when a group of gay and lesbian activists provided dedicated, direct support to some Welsh miners and their families. The two groups ended up making a deep and long lasting connection that is recounted in the film with humor, sensitivity, outrage, and yes, pride.  The first time I saw it, I immediately recognized  Gay’s the Word on Marchmont Street, a Bloomsbury bookstore that was a sort of headquarters for Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners.  It’s still there, a little bit of modern history where you can wander in and browse, or buy a T shirt. Anyway, the film deserves to be better known and more seen and I recommend it whole-heartedly. Also on Marchmont, there is a terrific place for breakfast at No. 49, helpfully named the 49 Cafe (lovely food, lovely staff), and Judd Books, which specializes in second-hand academic books and carries much else besides. North Sea Fish Restaurant and Takeaway (deservedly highly rated for fish and chips) is around the corner on Leigh Street. And Brunswick Centre, a shopping complex adjacent to the Tube station, will have everything you could possibly need and quite a few things you don’t.

There is a nice cafe, with outdoor seating, in the north corner of Russell Square, and one of only 13 remaining cabman’s shelters is on the west corner. When the weather is mild, I love to sit on bench or at the cafe with a book or notebook, people watch, and read or write, and day dream.

I’ve only skimmed the surface of what Bloomsbury has to offer. If you have a favorite London neighborhood, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

 


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We interrupt this program for a book review

I’m smack in the middle of rolling out several posts about my recent travels, but I just finished my friend Russ Cahill‘s new book and wanted to post a brief review.

Kolea by Russell Cahill

Kolea

In the tradition of epic story telling, Kolea takes the reader on a sweeping and dangerous journey among the Hawaiian Islands and eastward across the Pacific. Russ Cahill’s first novel demonstrates his deep understanding of Hawaiian culture and history as well as his knowledge and appreciation of native people of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. In particular, his descriptions of designing, building, sailing and navigating the great canoes are fascinating.

Because I’m a friend of the author (and grateful to be mentioned in acknowledgements), I’m only providing a brief review of Kolea, but I encourage you to read it. It’s available in paperback and on Kindle at Amazon,  and also online in paperback from Barnes & Noble. If you are in the South Puget Sound area, you should be able to pick it up at Orca Books.

Next Monday, I’ll take you on a visit to my favorite neighborhood in London. Stay tuned!


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Northern light, blue skies

Here are a few photos from around Drøbak and Oslo. Chalkboard signs are ubiquitous in cities and Melkesjokolade is ubiquitious in Norway. I come from berry country; fresh Norwegian strawberries will meet or beat ours. And the waffles I get when I’m in Drøbak can’t be bettered anywhere.

On July 22, I flew to London from Oslo, leaving behind not only family and friends in Drøbak but the pure Norwegian light and lucid blue skies. I miss the people, light, and color still.  A few odds and ends posted for you. Soon, I’ll write about London and Oxford. With photos, of course!


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Modern art in Oslo

I’ve been wanting to visit the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art ever since it moved into it’s new location on Oslo’s waterfront. Between this place and Ekeberg Park, Oslo’s access to modern art is off the charts, especially in proportion to her size.  There was one rainy day during my time in Norway, so off we went.  Besides the impressive permanent collection of modern art, there was an exhibit of works collected by the explorer Erling Kagge’s called Love Story. The Astrup Fearnley’s location on the peninsula of Tjuvholmen is dramatic, and the two museum buildings provide a soaring backdrop for the art. I liked a lot of what I saw, was challenged by some pieces, and thought a few were in the category of you’re-pulling-my-leg. That’s modern art for you, but in particular I am still haunted by Damien Hirst’s Eulogy, constructed with butterfly wings, and to which no picture can do justice.