Monday, August 20, 2012

The Farm, the Storm, and Instagram

The best camera I have ever owned is not a camera, but my i-Phone.  Linked with the popular app Instagram, I've been able to take decent photographs, though I am a raw amateur when it comes to photography.   The following shots were taken on a small farm owned and operated  by my in-laws and they show what I love about life in rural Minnesota. This first shot is of the garden and trellis.  We visited on a day of perfect cloud-light, with big, puffy cumuli drifting past in a wash of cobalt blue.  The farm is a land of sky and wind.

This shot shows how the filters operate on Instagram, which isn't completely idiot proof.  While I would like to take the credit for having a "good eye," the truth is that this program makes the process simple.  With my first attempt, I didn't bring out the colors and angles quite right, which may have just been the sun bleaching out colors, but as the clouds passed over the sun the light came just right to allow this photo:

These cows are "belties" or Belted Galloways, the same Scottish breed I chose to feature in my novel, Little Wolves.  (If you look at these cows and think "yum!" you would be right.  The belties raised here are also hormone and antibiotic-free and you can purchase the beef directly from the farmer at:  Supporting local farmers benefits the environment and your family's health and pocketbook!)  What I know about farming and working the land comes from visiting here along with all the years my wife Melissa, an ordained Lutheran pastor, has spent serving rural congregations.  The second shot is of the barn, properly weather-beaten, dour and sturdy as an old man missing a few front teeth.  If you climb inside, up into the loft, you can touch the hand-hewn beams from a previous century, trace the marks of the awl, and know you are touching something elemental and true, life as it was, and perhaps life as it should be.

Oh, and the farm comes with wildlife, barn cats and snakes and frogs, plenty to keep the kids busy.

We loaded up on fresh tomatoes and cucumbers and sugar snap peas, a summer of abundance.  The vegetable and flower gardens provide only as a result of hours of hard work from my mother and father in-law.

These next shots show the difference between filtered and unfiltered.  While true purists will tag a photograph as "no filter" to show that it hasn't been doctored, my own take is that the filter more closely approximates what I'm seeing with naked eye.  If you look at the third shot of the rainbow, you'll see that I didn't use a filter and you'll notice the difference.  The light is washed out, right?  None of deeper blues of the sky, the storm, or even the flowers have been captured.  It's still pretty, but lacks the drama of the shots with the filter.

What a panoramic landscape the country offers.  Even driving home through this ominous cloudburst made me glad we visited the farm this weekend.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Genre and the Lit Life

The Night Circus is the best example of literary fantasy I've read in a long while, a hybrid book that stirs elements of steampunk, romance, and legends into a bubbling cauldron to make something exciting and new.  It’s like Water for Elephants, but with wizards instead of critters.

The word I thought of most often while reading it was “agon,” the classic Greek term for a contest between two forces which meet in a final climactic battle.  Morgenstern’s clever take on this story structure asks what would happen if protagonist and antagonist fell in love?  What if underneath, the forces were one and the same?

As I read through the reviews of friends on this site I find myself agreeing with some of the complaints.  Yes, the scene sets are sumptuous, with descriptions of dinners and spectacle that sometimes become wearying.  Erin Morgenstern excels in her use of imagery, all captured with a third person limited omniscience and told in present tense, which adds forward momentum to the plot.  Yes, some of the minor characters like Poppet and Widget become more interesting than the main characters.  Yes, the emotional landscape of the novel will leave some empty.

Professional reviewers also expressed mixed views.  The New York Times review was less than flattering:   Stacey D’Erasmo concludes the novel is bloodless, writing that “[m]agic without passion is pretty much a trip to Pier One: lots of shrink-wrapped candles. One wishes Morgenstern had spent less time on the special effects and more on the hauntingly unanswerable question that runs, more or less ignored, through these pages: Can children love who were never loved, only used as intellectual machines? What kind of magic reverses that spell? It’s not as pretty a spectacle, but that’s a story that grips the heart.”   Contrast her take with Ron Charles’ review in the WaPo, and you can see why readers will be divided about this book.    While he complains about “too much going on” Charles also notes how  [t]he author mingles a sense of adolescent delight with a mature chilliness that reflects the circus’s stunning black-and-white decor, and the abiding potential for violence gives the plot a subtle charge.”  His review positively glows.

Ultimately, after reflection, this is still a five star read in my mind, a book that does what good books should do:  transport a reader into another world.  It’s a book that works the oldest magic of all, enchanting the reader.  The Night Circus is a richly layered story, using Shakespeare’s Tempest and elements of Potter-esque fantasy to tap into the current zeitgeist.  How?

I liked this take from Christine Ziemba, who pointed out that “[a] quick answer lies in DNA. Human wiring brings along its appetites, and one of these happens to be a fascination with the unknown, with possibility beyond plausibility. It’s why we humans can fly now. It’s why our cities light up at night.”

In short, our dreams.  It’s fitting that the final section includes this quote from Prospero in The Tempest:  “We are such stuff/ as dreams are made on; and our little life/Is rounded with a sleep.”  This is why you should read this book.One of my favorite quotes from the novel captures for me what makes it such a charming, original and compelling read.  I’ll conclude with it.

“Stories have changed my dear boy,” the man in the grey suit says, his voice almost imperceptibly sad.  “There are no more battles between good and evil, no monsters to slay, no maidens in need of rescue.  Most maidens are perfectly capable or rescuing themselves in my experience, at least the ones worth something, in any case.  There are no longer simple tales with quests and beasts and happy endings. The quests lack clarity of goal or path.  The beasts take different forms and are difficult to recognize for what they are.  And there are never really endings, happy or otherwise.  Things keep going on, they overlap and blur, your story is part of your sister’s story is part of many other stories, and there is no telling where any of them may lead.  Good and evil are a good deal more complex than a princess and a dragon, or a wolf and a scarlet-clad little girl.  And is not the dragon the hero of his own story?  Is not the wolf simply acting as a wolf should act?  Though perhaps it is a singular wolf who goes to such lengths as to dress as a grandmother to toy with its prey.”