Monday, July 28, 2014

A Day in Glenelg

 Excepted from my book, Gimme the Song O' the Pipes!  
Crazy American Lady Tours Historical Scotland

  7 October: Up and dressed in clean clothes, I leave Fooh by the window and walk up the small road as far as it goes, saying hi to cattle and a man who waves from his precious croft house. Then Fooh and I are off to send photos—this takes a long time from the UK to America. I get chatted up by a grungy guy who is staying at the hostel...precisely why I don’t stay at hostels—they smell like dirty hair. Fooh grins his Cheshire cat smile and says, 'A chat-up is better than no chat-up, any way you look at it.'
  Now it’s time for a fun trip. We head over the Skye bridge, through Lochalsh, east on A87, along Loch Duich, turn right at Shiel Bridge on the little road to Glenelg. The old road takes us up over the 1100-foot Mam Ratagan Pass, dropping down the other side to Glen More and Glenelg.
  Here are the Bernerra Barracks, completed by the Hanoverian government in 1723, after the 1715 Jacobite uprising. They are still quite intact but fenced off. What a shame, as they would provide an impressive exploration op and historical insight.
  We cruise through the settlement of Glenelg and continue on a tiny road to Gleann Beag, home to three somewhat preserved brochs. The first we explore is Dun Trodden.
30.  Dun Trodden.
It is a beautiful spot, with amazing views up the Glenn. Then a stop at Dun Telve, the larger and more complete one, which stands under a canopy of oak and sycamore trees.
  These squat and round or somewhat elliptical brochs are thought to be built by Iron Age farmers between the fourth century BCE and first century CE, though the many interpretations of origin include Pictish towers and Danish forts.
  The double walls take up as much space as the living areas and have stairs built between them, which lead to galleries.

31.  Stairs in Dun Trodden.

 They are reminiscent of castle keeps, which also have these thick walls with stairs, but brochs are so much smaller. It appears they had central hearths and probably roofs made of timber—or something lightweight. Fooh wonders if researchers have simply sat in the center of them to try to divine how people lived here, since there are so many opinions. The floors are uneven and lead some to believe the inhabitants did not live on the ground floor, but kept their livestock here. There is evidence of spaces for floor support beams in the walls.
  It’s time for tea, so we back-track to Glenelg. The ferry here still carries a few cars at a time across to Kylerhea, on Skye, during summer. Before the 1819 completion of the road to Lochalsh, this was an age-old watery passage to the Misty Isle. There is a camping ground on the shingle beach or you can stay at ye olde Glenelg Inn. I make the mistake of thinking this is the inn which lives on in Boswell and Johnson’s literary history, as an unforgettable lodging. Not so. In 1773, the only lodging inn was the Ferry Inn. It is now a self-catering house here, set above the narrows of Kyle Rhea. James Boswell writes in his 1773 Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides:
 As we passed the barracks at Bernea, I looked at them wishfully, as soldiers have always every thing in the best order: but there was only a serjeant and a few men there. We came on to the inn at Glenelg. There was no provender for our horses: so they were sent to grass, with a man to watch them. A maid shewed us up stairs into a room damp and dirty, with bare walls, a variety of bad smells, a coarse black greasy fir table, and forms of the same kind; and out of a wretched bed started a fellow from his sleep, like Edgar in King Lear, ‘Poor Tom’s a-cold’. [Footnote: It is amusing to observe the different images which this being presented to Dr Johnson and me. The Doctor, in his Journey, compares him to a Cyclops.]
   If you like this area of the world and want a bit of historical insight for appreciation, check out Boswell (and also Samuel Johnson’s version of their tour, Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland) for your enjoyment.
    We are in the Glenelg Inn pub on this late and (what’s new?) chilly afternoon. The building looks Elizabethan to me, but I am always wishful of these things. I find out it existed way back in 1875, at least, but burned to the ground in 1947. The east part of this inn is on the earlier stable block.

   I have never seen a pub so comfy—it takes me by surprise. A rock fireplace provides warmth, and fresh flowers in vases add beauty. Lots of books fill the reading corner. There are big candles and a slightly worn, warm red tartan rug, and Fooh entices the friendly cat over here to finish the cozy ambience. The only downside is the loud rock music the pretty bartender turns up...why doesn’t anyone around here listen to pipes or fiddle? ~

Sunday, July 20, 2014

If You're Stuck, Read a Book: Anthony Doerr and Elaine Ambrose

Tony Doerr with Bonnie Jemmett, of Salt Lake City, Utah.
 Bonnie wowed everyone at the retreat with her gift for 

quick response writing and her story and dialogue 
of an aged woman:
 "Not only has the world left you forsaken in its wake...
you are not who you once were and the question is, when will it be over?"
While trying not to hold my breath until my flight crosses the Atlantic back to Skye, I often walk downriver to the streetcar and head to Powell's Bookstore, claimed to be the largest independent new and used bookstore in the world. I think it may be considered the largest in general, at least, based on shelf space. 

In any case, it is a blast hanging out and looking at everything from (new and old) kid's books to (new and old) cookery, and I've discovered a treasury in the Japanese form, manga, which I'd never even known existed - how can that be? you may well ask...and Graphic Novels...Alison Bechdel's Are You My Mother is hysterical, and there is much more of her. My ignorance astounds even me.

I was disappointed when I missed the chance to make a reservation to see Diana Gabaldon. Though not an author I've read, after the first chapter of an Outlander book, she is very popular and successful as a writer and it's always fun to see one of those in the flesh. 

So - deep breath - when I saw that Anthony Doerr was going to make an appearance to promote his latest book, All the Light We Cannot See, at Powell's City of Books store in downtown Portland, I made sure I was there, tea and crumpet in hand. (For Doerr's bio, see bottom of page.) Silly me forgot my camera, but I cheated and used above photo I had taken previously.

Three years ago, I spent a day with Tony, at a beautiful cabin on the South Fork of the Payette River in Garden Valley, Idaho. Being the spoiled writer for the local county paper, I was invited to attend the informative and joyous week-end writer's retreat, Write by the River, hosted by humor writer Elaine Ambrose. 

Saturday afternoon's workshop with Tony Doerr kicked me into a different writing reality. He is the master of the non-cliche and he beat it into our heads, imploring the writers to "shake up your habits!" regarding cliches and to "convince your readers they are 'not reading but there'". 

An example of the latter, set by Tony himself, was described when he recently was asked, by Tweed's Magazine of Literature and Art, whether it was daunting to write as his blind, young female character and how she would experience the world around her (in All the Light We Cannot See).

The author replied,  "...I found it more challenging to try to render other aspects of her life: that she is French, that her father goes missing, how she would think and speak. That said, there were hours when I was working hard on Marie-Laure’s chapters and I’d look up from the desk and forget that I could see."

On the evening Tony appeared at Powell's, again he powered the room with his punchy and efficient mode of speech. He exhibited the intensity that I remembered - along with the dedication that we as writers have to have to create. He said, in answer to someone's query about when did he know he was a writer, "Everybody's a writer who goes to her desk every morning and works."                          

Now all of this is fine but to read his work is to find the beauty, the rhythm and grace that is formed at his desk...well, not just at his desk, but in every fiber of his intuition and investigation. All of the electricity, the travels to sites, the delving and searching of heart and mind and science and metaphysics and history and every aspect of life that can be inspected, contribute to the special stories he serves to the reader.

Anyway, it was gratifying to see his vibrant self again and to suck a little more wisdom from a teacher. He left us with a quote by poet, Wislawa Szymborska, from her Nobel Lecture in 1996:

Granted, in daily speech, where we don't stop to consider every word, we all use phrases like "the ordinary world," "ordinary life," "the ordinary course of events" ... But in the language of poetry, where every word is weighed, nothing is usual or normal. Not a single stone and not a single cloud above it. Not a single day and not a single night after it. And above all, not a single existence, not anyone's existence in this world.


Some Books to get high on...

Elaine Ambrose, at Millpark Publishing, has a knack for publishing solid, entertaining books and her own are always a tickle in the ribs. I haven't seen her latest, Midlife Cabernet – Life, Love & Laughter after Fifty, but I've read enough of her essays on the subject to know that this is something I have to pick up and actually read. The book has just grabbed the Silver Medal for Humor in the annual Independent Publisher Book Award (IPPY) competition that honors independent authors and publishers worldwide. More than 6,000 entries were judged in this year’s competition to recognize and reward independent spirit and creativity in publishing. 
   New Book by Idaho Author Wins National Humor Award           

Midlife Cabernet was published by Mill Park Publishing of Eagle, Idaho, USA, which Elaine founded to publish works by local women writers, and she donates proceeds to local charities. This is the company’s second IPPY award, and the author's other books also have won a national humor award from ForeWord Magazine and five awards from recent competitions sponsored by the Idaho Book Extravaganza.

Elaine says they are thrilled to receive another award to acknowledge quality books from Mill Park Publishing: “The success of Midlife Cabernet proves there are millions of middle-aged women who would rather laugh than break something, preferably while holding a bold Cabernet."

Though recommended by the tipsy authors, I never filled a glass while reading this book and my favorite chair was my morning throne, with the sun or cloud cover lighting the pages—but for a couple of weeks, this was my reveille, because my soul rises to meetings with intriguing women and intelligent literature, and I got my daily dosage each time I re-opened Drinking with Dead Women Writers.

 Elaine Ambrose and AK Turner must be commended for the concept and title—and who knows how many books never make it past the edge of the shelf because of uninspiring covers. This book looks great and feels good in the hands.

Whether contrived or not, all of AK Turner’s stories are written in the present, while Ambrose meets her spectres at a time already locked into the past. These playful rendezvous take the reader alternately across the mist of time. Turner successfully plays with our suspension of disbelief, because we want desperately to believe that Virginia Woolf is here with us, hair still wet as though she just arrived from her dip in the river. Her women are in the flesh. We are at the table when Dorothy Parker tells Turner to drink up, and we feel woozy after the second bottle is gone.

Elaine Ambrose passes through that mist away from us and keeps her writers where they rightfully belong—dead and buried—they are shades who beckon her to a contemporary meeting place but we get the story after the curtain has closed again behind her. When Edna St. Vincent Millay tossed the cork over the banister, we could all appreciate it as we would a bard’s tale—but we didn’t get to smell the cork. When Ambrose sweated and drank margaritas with Erma Bombeck in the Old Town Tortilla Factory, the reader enjoys one funny woman with another as through an open window to a dream. Was it yesterday that Louisa May Alcott ranted about toy mice wearing Civil War costumes? Seventy-five years ago? Ambrose keeps her dead women at bay from us—she is allowed intimacy and shares it with us, but we are distanced and we have no illusions about the dead being dead. This is delightful fantasy.

Ambrose’s humor and Turner’s straight man-with-a-prod quips keep the chortles coming, and I could only holler for more. So I bought Drinking With Dead Drunks. Ho - boy...have fun with this one.


Books by Elaine Ambrose and Millpark Publishing can be found on or 

Anthony Doerr is the author of The Shell CollectorAbout GraceFour Seasons in RomeMemory Wall, and the New York Times bestselling novel, All the Light We Cannot See. Doerr’s fiction has won four O. Henry Prizes and has been anthologized in The Best American Short StoriesThe Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, and The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Fiction. He has won the Barnes & Noble Discover Prize, the Rome Prize, the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an NEA Fellowship, the National Magazine Award for Fiction, three Pushcart Prizes, the Pacific Northwest Book Award, three Ohioana Book Awards, the 2010 Story Prize, which is considered the most prestigious prize in the U.S. for a collection of short stories, and the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award, which is the largest prize in the world for a single short story.  His books have twice been a New York Times Notable Book, an American Library Association Book of the Year, and made lots of other year end “Best Of” lists. In 2007, the British literary magazine, Granta, placed Doerr on its list of 21 Best Young American novelists.

Monday, July 14, 2014

In this excerpt from my favorite memoir (mine), 
Gimme the Song O' the Pipes!
I continue the saga of my first holiday cottage on Skye.

Wot a fine tea, he says,
Oy’ll sit me down to sup!
Milady never bats a lash
But titters behind her cup.

2009, 6 October: After an evening in this finger and nose-numbing cottage, with me protesting (and now understanding) the many webpage comments about 'romantic fireplace', I and Fooh, my English-bear traveling buddy, lie in bed waiting for the heat to come on - to no avail. I fuss with the radiator and become a bit perturbed at my host. I figure she’s aced my heating privileges so I leave her a note.
  In ‘town’, I do a little laundry—this may become a habit like going to the bathroom every time I see one, in case the opportunity doesn’t arise again. While waiting, I pick up a book on early crofters and the Clearances. 
   There is a long history in Britain, behind the Clearances. In Tudor times, this concept was begun to depopulate rural England, for ‘better’ use of the land. In the Highlands, the clans still expected to have homes and land to work, provided by the chief. After the last Jacobite uprising in 1746, clans were ‘discouraged’ and families were displaced by sheep and cattle-raising land owners, for higher income. By the nineteenth century, the Clearances had become even more brutal, and emigration was forced. The Highlanders have never really recovered from this tragic upheaval of their family life and existence here.
   A sign on the road seen several times - 'Spinners Having Fun Spinning' - finally entreats me to turn into the old pier road at Broadford. I discover Teohandspuns and the beautiful yarns of my dreams and must have a bunch of some mixed chocolate-colored, curly Wensleydale yarn...the most beautiful I’ve seen. Owner Teo will wash the lanolin from it, so I am to pick it up Friday.
  Contrary to information from locals, I discover an internet cafe on the end of the town road. For £2.5 for thirty minutes, I plug in. (Note: this cafe is no longer open.)
   Okay, time to begin celebrating my sixty-first early. A drive down the Sleat Peninsula takes us to Kinloch Lodge, home and business of famous Scottish cook, Claire Macdonald. She is married to Godfrey Macdonald, High Chief of Clan Donald.
Old World tea and service is available at Kinloch Lodge. 
   The buildings sit on Loch na Dal, surrounded by trees and hills. With Fooh in my small pack, I open the front door to what resembles a mansion-like croft house, to be met by an older woman who says, ‘How mae I help yoo?’ I say I’d like tea, so she leads me into a cozy front sitting room, with five people sitting around the inviting coal fire. I settle in on the love-seat against the wall behind them and take up writing in my journal.
  On the table is a menu listing afternoon tea as £15, which puts it around $25 without tip; Fooh says, 'Go for it.' He has a nose for the delectable sweets that are hiding around the corner.
  After sitting here for twenty minutes or so, an older gentleman (older than me!), has come back into the room and gently says to me, ‘I apologize for you being tucked away from the fire; would you like to join us?’ in an impeccable British dialect—no Scots in this room. So, being uncharacteristically hungry for human communication, I accept readily and settle into the plump overstuffed sofa next to the fire. I am drawn into the conversation immediately.
  The man and his wife are waiting for longtime friends from England; the wife of the expected guests has no clue she and her hubby are meeting these people here. They seem to be upper crust, she more quiet, he sociably adept. Next to me on the overstuffed sofa is a heavy-set guy in his twenties; on chairs next to him are two ladies, with the dialect I have come to recognize as Welsh.
  Their tea starts to arrive, along with goodies on three-tiered servers. I hungrily inspect my neighbors’ offerings with no reserve, while they do the same openly and remark about each lovely morsel – a mini chocolate cake, fruit tartlets, tiny cups of chocolate and smoked salmon tea sandwiches. My tea arrives; I pig out with, yes, characteristic piggishness and Fooh devours the little sandwiches.
  I beg clarification from my companions: A-ber-ge-VEN-ny is the proper pronunciation of that town in Wales. I certainly wouldn’t want to be guided about by anyone on a tour, but it is helpful to have someone to ask these things, and getting the correct pronunciations is so much fun and important to me. It always makes for conversation, as when Sally in Lacock made fun of me for the way I said ‘Sal-is-berry’.
   Lots of laughter abounds. I am chatting away to the young man next to me and not paying proper attention to the way he is being addressed. Thus, I embarrass myself, when I refer to him as ‘he’ when talking to his mother, who doesn’t miss a beat when she corrects me: ‘She.’ Oh my gawd. We all just keep talking and the moment passes. Oick!
  The expected couple finally arrives and I love watching the exuberant joy of friends meeting friends. What fun talking to someone humorous, intelligent and friendly, as these folks are. Just what the doctor ordered.
  Thus nurtured emotionally, I decide to break my protest against the lack of heat provided in my cottage and nurture my chilly little body. I head to the Co-op. The guy at the internet cafe had instructed me on how to build a coal fire. I decide not to use firelighters but buy the cheapest local newspaper. I get a laugh from my friendly cashier who nods and says, 'Aye, bum fodder for kindling—smart lass!'
  There is a note from my host, who sends her student to bleed my bedroom radiator. I tell her I’m impressed. When my host shows up, I whine about being surprised by the added expense of heating the house, since I paid for a week’s utilities. She says the rent is very low, but understands that I am one person, so it does seem higher for me and out she goes to her shed to get me a generous bucket of wood.
  She informs me she’s leaving on Thursday for the States, to stay with friends for a month. Harumph. Not even a neighbor for my last three mornings. I think my disappointment comes from her being an interesting musician and I had so looked forward to some serious chat. This is surely why she doesn’t offer bed and breakfast,to avoid these cozy natters, and certainly, couples staying here would usually prefer being left to themselves. The cottage is perfect for that but I would not choose self-catering again. No point in hiding out alone when there are so many Scots to be had in conversation, not to mention the international set who come and go in a B&B.
  Once alone, I crumple my newly discovered ‘bum fodder’, lay down sticks of wood and coal on top and voila! We are in a cozy room. What a difference warmth makes in a cold, damp Hebridean abode. With rain outside and dinner cooking, we are in bliss. Now I recognize the little fireplace for what it’s worth—quaint and precious in appearance and a life-giving vitality in the cottage.

29.  Ahhh, yes!