Monday, September 26, 2016

Things I Have Enjoyed This Month: The Getaway Edition

photo by me

All the delights of this month were crammed into three days of camping on a lake in the Adirondacks—three marvelously peaceful, refreshing, soul-restoring days spent simply gazing on beauty, and forgetting that stress and worries and deadlines ever existed. I learned for myself the truth that sometimes, you simply have to get away—and if it's back to nature, so much the better. So many things, both big and small, which filled my heart and which I don't want to forget:

~ The sweet, definitively-autumn scent of pine needles and sand and fallen leaves moistened by a pre-dawn rain shower

~ A glimpse of the Great Sacandaga Lake alongside the highway—brilliantly blue and sparkling and so huge I felt an inkling of what it must be like to see the Great Lakes or the ocean

~ Driving up through a hillside city amongst beautiful old Victorian houses; and through a quaint village on a river where every house seemed to have a front porch overlooking the water

~ Fresh air, fresh air, fresh air—breathing it, drinking it in, living in it from dawn till dark

~ Playing old songs softly on the harmonica by a campfire at night

~ Millions of stars like silver glitter against the midnight-black sky over the lake, and their streaked reflections in the water

~ White morning mist—so soft, and yet so impenetrable—obscuring the whole lake at dawn, and then slowly, slowly burning off and drifting away to reveal the trees and mountains shining in the sun again

~ Reading Coleridge and Tennyson by the lake shore

~ Tallying up the numbers of out-of-state license plates to pass the time on the highway—twenty-two states and two Canadian provinces. (Most: Massachusetts. Furthest away: Arizona.)

~ The delicate pattern of elm leaves lit up by campfire light against the dark forest roof

~ The lonesome cry of a loon (a Red-Crested Web-Footed Lake Loon, naturally)

~ The gnarled roots of pine and elm trees twining over rocks and through moss

~ The feel of coarse beach sand, like thousands of tiny rock crystals that strike sparks in the sun

~ Hilarity when someone (I will not name names) sat down on a styrofoam cooler (result: scratch one styrofoam cooler)

~ Tiny lights of other camps winking out through the dusk on the far shore of the lake

~ The small marvel of creation that is a duck: shimmering iridescent feathers on heads and wings, soft white ones inside their wings like the lining of a coat; their jet-ski landings on the water, their comic quacking and chirruping and conscientious preening

~ Tramping up a footpath with fragrant moldering leaves underfoot, between lichened boulders and moss-covered fallen trees

~ The glorious tapestry of autumn color spreading across the Adirondacks; the majestic shoulders of hills crowned with pines and glowing with red, rose, orange and gold

In short, if you want to see New York at its best, come in autumn and visit the Adirondacks.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Lost, Stolen or Strayed: Six Weeks of Summer

Like the dew on the mountain, like the foam on the river, like the bubble on the fountain...August disappeared. And then half of September. I had fondly hoped to have a good three or four chapters of Dearest Lieutenant written by this time, but as yet I haven't written a word and am floundering in the middle of a couple research books I just haven't had the time or energy to read properly.

Life just keeps getting in the way. Looking after a convalescent dog, and then beginning a daily program of dog-training. Closing the pool for the year. Celebrating my youngest sister's sixteenth birthday. Beta-reading for several different authors and sending in feedback (exciting, with the great stories I'm getting an early look at, but a little exhausting when you're scrambling for a deadline!). Preparing for a camping trip that ended up getting postponed...and then re-preparing for it at a later date. All normal and even enjoyable things (barring the injured dog), but they don't usually get crammed breathlessly into six weeks, without leaving you any breathing space.

At times I've felt terribly frustrated—I've had the dreadful feeling that I don't even deserve the title of "writer" any longer, given the complete absence of fresh new words put to paper in the last few months. I haven't written any actual new fiction since a rather slapdash CampNaNo in July, though I have done a little editing. I keep telling myself that next week...I'll finally have free time to sit down and do what work I choose without pressure. Next week...

We were told Bär would have to wear the plastic "cone" to protect her stitches for only two weeks. Six and a half weeks later, she's still wearing it. (And boy, does that thing hurt when it whacks into your shins.) Her stitches healed well, but she is still prone to lick the area and badly irritate the surrounding skin—so the cone has to stay on whenever we can't keep a close eye on her. There were various other complications and setbacks along the way, such as when she had an adverse reaction to a medicine prescribed by the vet (incorrectly prescribed at that, we discovered afterwards).

We also had a session with a dog trainer, with an eye to preventing any more catastrophes in the future. You can't do anything about the behavior of neighbors' dogs, but you can train your own dog not to react to them—but it takes time, patience, and the right kind of training. My goodness, I could write reams about everything we learned during that training session. To put it in a nutshell, America as a country has a terrible track record when it comes to dog training—we treat dogs too much like humans, rather than learning to understand their pack mentality and establishing ourselves, the owners, as the dominant leaders of the pack. America has the highest rate of dog bites in the world, with the numbers going up every year—while in Germany or France, the trainer told us, you can go to an outdoor café and find that a third of the tables have dogs lying quietly beside their owners, minding their own business and ignoring each other.

So. Daily training exercises, including ten-minute walks three times a day. Did I mention that I've been trying to re-read The Brothers Karamazov since August too? Of course I head for Dostoevsky during hot, humid, high-stress months. No, I'm not crazy at all. I will admit, though, that the Brothers K. have been sitting neglected on the coffee table for the past several weeks, as I've had very little time for pleasure reading and only enough mental energy for something light and cheering (like an English murder mystery) when I do find a spare moment.

Next week...
photo by myself

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Agatha Christie Blogathon: The Secret of, Chimneys

The Secret of Chimneys (1925) and The Seven Dials Mystery (1929) are not your typical Agatha Christie novels. Published early in her career, they're probably best described as light-hearted spy thrillers—indeed they can almost be read as good-natured spoofs of the genre. Though both feature a murder or murders, their plots revolve much more around international intrigue and rely a good deal on fortuitous coincidences, and their chief joy is the witty banter between the characters.

Chimneys, one of the "stately homes of England," is fairly hopping with mysterious guests, secretive detectives, foreign Counts with unpronounceable names, sinister servants, secret passages, pompous politicians, Bright Young Things who relish every bit of the excitement, and naturally a stately butler who manages to remain unfazed by it all. In the midst of the maelstrom is the owner of Chimneys, the hapless Lord Caterham, a vague and mild-mannered peer who devoutly wishes that all of these top-secret diplomatic conferences and deaths by foul play didn't have to occur in his home. His daughter Lady Eileen Brent (known for some unfathomable reason as Bundle) is far more ready to get in on the action—a supporting character in The Secret of Chimneys, she's promoted to heroine in The Seven Dials Mystery.

The first book finds footloose adventurer Anthony Cade agreeing to deliver the manuscript of a defunct diplomat's memoirs to a London publisher—a job that takes on a much more lively aspect when it becomes clear that several different parties are out to get hold of the manuscript by hook or crook. Anthony winds up at Chimneys, where an important conference on the future of the (fictional) revolution-prone Balkan country of Herzoslovakia is disrupted by a murder. Nobody at Chimneys is quite what they seem, and everyone seems out to nab the manuscript or a famous missing jewel or both; and the process of straightening it all out is highly entertaining.

In The Seven Dials Mystery, the seemingly accidental death of a guest at Chimneys ("I don't like anyone who comes and dies in my house on purpose to annoy me," Lord Caterham complains) leads Bundle Brent into the investigation of what seems to be a secret society known as the Seven Dials, who are out to steal a valuable invention formula. A mostly new cast of characters are joined by a few old friends from the first book, including the pompous Cabinet Minister George Lomax and his young assistant, the not overly bright but eminently likeable Bill Eversleigh. The character of Superintendent Battle, who appears in both books, would later feature in three more Christie novels, including one of the best Poirot books, Cards on the Table.

I read both of these books for the first time years ago, and have always had a soft spot for them despite their being much lighter fare than Christie's top whodunits. But just recently, something else began to dawn on me about the Chimneys books.

I have a feeling that the establishment of Chimneys may be a nod to Blandings Castle.

If you know P.G. Wodehouse, you probably know Blandings Castle—that stately pile where guests are also hardly ever what they claim to be, and quite often spend the book vying with each other in attempts to pinch something, whether it be a diamond necklace or an Egyptian scarab—always with Lord Emsworth's secretary, the Efficient Rupert Baxter, highly suspicious and hot on their trail. Where prowlers run rampant in the halls at midnight, and the lord of the manor usually has absolutely no idea what is going on.  The more I look at it, the more I can't help believing that Christie's Chimneys is a cheeky hat-tip to Blandings. First you have the proprietor: the similarity between mild, vague Lord Caterham and the even vaguer Lord Emsworth, both of whom frequently have trouble following a conversation, cannot be denied. Take this conversation from Wodehouse's Leave it to Psmith (1923):

"He threw a flower-pot at me," said Baxter, and vanished moodily.

Lord Emsworth stared at the open window, then turned to Eve for enlightenment.

"Why did Baxter throw a flower-pot at McTodd?" he said. "And," he went on, ventilating an even deeper question, "where the deuce did he get a flower-pot? There are no flower-pots in the library."

Eve, on her side, was also seeking information.

"Did you say his name was McTodd, Lord Emsworth?"

"No, no. Baxter. That was Baxter, my secretary."

"No, I mean the one who met me at the station."

"Baxter did not meet you at the station. The man who met you at the station," said Lord Emsworth, speaking slowly, for women are so apt to get things muddled, "was McTodd. He's staying here...And," said Lord Emsworth with not a little heat, "I strongly object to Baxter throwing flower-pots at him. I won't have Baxter throwing flower-pots at my guests," he said firmly; for Lord Emsworth, though occasionally a little vague, was keenly alive to the ancient traditions of his family regarding hospitality.

And, in one of the best scenes from The Seven Dials Mystery, a conversation with Lord Caterham:

"I haven't been to London," said Bundle. "I ran over a man."  

"Only I didn't really. He was shot."

"How could he have been?"

"I don't know how he could have been, but he was."

"But why did you shoot him?"

"I didn't shoot him."

"You shouldn't shoot people," said Lord Caterham in a tone of mild remonstrance. "You shouldn't really. I daresay some of them richly deserve it—but all the same it will lead to trouble."

"I tell you I didn't shoot him."

"Well, who did?"

"Nobody knows," said Bundle.

"Nonsense," said Lord Caterham. "A man can't be shot and run over without anyone having done it."

"He wasn't run over," said Bundle.

"I thought you said he was."

"I said I thought I had."

"A tyre burst, I suppose," said Lord Caterham. "That does sound like a shot. It says so in detective stories."

Both establishments, of course, have their stately and unflappable butler. Even more telling, both have a despotic Scottish head gardener who strikes terror into the hearts of employers—at Blandings a McAllister, at Chimneys a McDonald. Blandings is located near the town of Market Blandings, and Chimneys near Market Basing (a town name Christie would re-use in many books).

But the crowning touch is that in The Seven Dials Mystery, Christie gives Sir Oswald Coote, temporary tenant of Chimneys, a secretary called Rupert Bateman—a serious-minded young man who can provide eminently practical advice in any situation. If Rupert Bateman isn't based off Rupert Baxter, I'll eat my hat. He's even referred to outright as "the efficient Mr. Rupert Bateman," in Chapter 20. And the scene in Chapter 27, with Bateman dogging the steps of Jimmy Thesiger during a midnight country-house prowl and insisting on verifying his story of why he's creeping about in the middle of the night, is Efficient Baxter to the very life.

I think it's worth noting that decades later, Christie would dedicate her 1969 novel Hallowe'en Party "To P. G. Wodehouse—whose books and stories have brightened my life for many years. Also, to show my pleasure in his having been kind enough to tell me he enjoyed my books."

This post is an entry for the Agatha Christie Blogathon, hosted by Christina Wehner and Little Bits of Classics. Don't forget to check out all the other posts in the blogathon!

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Slight Blog Break

I'm going to take a brief hiatus from blogging for the next week/week and a half. I have several different deadlines to meet and will probably be away for a few days, so I just need every bit of extra time—and brainpower—I can scrape up! I'm planning on participating in the Agatha Christie Blogathon on September 18th, so I should definitely be back in the blogging business then, if not before.

See you then!

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Summer Reading Recap

A hectic month may sadly disrupt my writing productivity, but reading is one thing that never entirely goes away. In fact, I'm even more inclined to reach for a good book as comfort or refreshment during a rocky day or week. For instance, the day after Bär got hurt, when we'd been up till two in the morning the night before and it was all we could do to make meals and keep our eyes open, my own method of coping with the exhaustion and left-over stress was to devour A Shilling For Candles by Josephine Tey in the course of the afternoon. And yes, I thoroughly enjoyed it and I actually remember what it was about. All the rest of that week, pretty much all I did in my spare time was read. Books are such a blessing. 

My summer reading list (as usual) ended up being a starting-point: over the past three months, the number of books I've read that weren't on the list actually exceeds the number that were on it. Here's my original list, updated with some review links:

Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp
Escape the Night by Mignon G. Eberhart
The Ivy Tree by Mary Stewart
Storming by K.M. Weiland
Where There's a Will by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope
Moccasin Trail by Eloise Jarvis McGraw
Greenwillow by B.J. Chute
Tales of the South Pacific by James Michener
Conagher by Louis L'Amour
The Great K&A Train Robbery by Paul Leicester Ford
When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
Seventeen by Booth Tarkington

I finished everything on here except the titles struck out (though I'm still working on When Books Went to War). Greenwillow was an inadvertent casualty: my library system discarded their only copy before I could request it! There always seems to be at least one book on my list each year that I can't manage to get hold of during the summer. I didn't finish Tales of the South Pacific, and never started Romeo and Juliet. Shakespearean tragedy was one thing I did not feel up to. But meanwhile, since the beginning of June I've also logged this variety of titles (not counting research books, which are a topic for another day), which range from okay to good to very good to great:

Good-Bye, My Lady by James H. Street - good
Picture Miss Seeton by Heron Carvic - very good (hilariously so)
Back Home by Eugene Wood - good
A Branch of Silver, A Branch of Gold by Anne Elisabeth Stengl - very good
Before Lunch by Angela Thirkell - okay
Greyfriars Bobby by Eleanor Atkinson - great!
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen - re-read, naturally great
Information Received by E.R. Punshon - okay
Five Magic Spindles by multiple authors - very good
Cotillion by Georgette Heyer - okay
Rest and Be Thankful by Helen MacInnes - very good (I'll review it someday, I promise!)
A Shilling For Candles by Josephine Tey - very good
Max Carrados by Ernest Bramah - okay to good
Shirley by Charlotte Brontë - re-read, quite good
The Weight of the Crown by Fred M. White - okay to good
Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy Sayers - great!
Traitor's Masque by Kenley Davidson - great!

drawing a deep breath at the end of August, I can only repeat: thank heaven for good books.


Friday, August 26, 2016

August Snippets

Somewhere amidst the natural disarrangement of schedules that comes with a week of family vacation, and the added complication of nursing an injured dog, I did manage to complete my main goal for August: editing the first draft of The Mountain of the Wolf. (And now I can stop referring to it as "the first draft of" and be glad of it, for with that title there are entirely too many "ofs" in the sentence.) It is a great and happy relief to have it finished and on its way to beta-readers.

The Mountain of the Wolf will be coming to an e-reader near you in late 2016—as a matter of fact, I have some rather exciting plans afoot concerning this story's publication. I shall say no more just yet, but watch this space for an announcement sometime in the next couple of months! In the meantime, to celebrate the wind-up of this draft, here are a few snippets:

Somehow he and his noisy voice and presence were out of the house, and Rosa Jean hastily closed the door behind him. She wanted to think. She felt she had been given the key to a riddle, if only she could pick it out of everything else jumbled in Charlie's speech. She went in and sat on the edge of her bed, one hand on either side of her, and stared at the opposite wall.

He was hardly in the saddle when a wolf's howl rose loud from somewhere close by and both horses jumped. Quincy steadied Pheasant with the reins and spoke to them in low tones, meaningless words, while his mind was occupied with a pithy and fervent prayer that the wolves would mind their own business tonight.

Rosa Jean heard the thunder of hooves and dropped her rolling pin to run for the door, only to falter to a stop halfway. It was queer the way that sound still made her heart give a little jump of excitement and then just as quickly the thud of sickening remembrance.

Again he saw it—her expression shut up like a door being closed; her mouth set straight and her eyes offering no clue to her thoughts. It must hurt, he thought involuntarily, to do that...he did not know where the unsettling thought sprang from.

The white head swung slowly toward him, and the old man's blank eyes stared. Quincy nodded to him. "Your name's Sullivan, isn't it?"

The old man bent over and began doing something vaguely with a rope and bucket at his feet—he half glanced sideways at Quincy without looking up at his face. "I ain't got any whisky," he mumbled. "I tol' you I ain't got any."

Monday, August 22, 2016

20 Old-Fashioned Character Names to Revive

I'm sure I've mentioned this before, but character naming is one of the easiest and most enjoyable parts of writing for me. And one of the fun parts of writing historical fiction is the opportunity to be old-fashioned in your naming. I love being able to use a lovely old name that might be considered quaint or outdated today, but which suits a historical character and story perfectly.

Of course an elaborate or unusual name isn't necessary; if one of my protagonists decides their name should be Jim or Anne (they're usually pretty good about arriving with their names attached), I'm all for it. But I think a great opportunity exists for historical-fiction authors to make their characters memorable by choosing lesser-known names that give a flavor of the time period. And besides, a lot of the older names are just plain cool. There's so many pretty girls' names in particular, which I wouldn't mind using for a daughter as well as a character! There isn't quite as much variety among traditional boys' names, but I rather like the old trend of handing down family names by using a surname as a first name—that gives you lots of opportunity to be creative. Wouldn't it be neat to write a fictional character with an old-fashioned name who was so well-liked by readers that they succeeded in reviving their name's popularity?

Anyway, here's a sampling of some old-fashioned names I've had stashed in my "name-database notebook" for awhile, awaiting the right character and story:
  • Beatrice
  • Cecily
  • Constance
  • Hester
  • Linnet
  • Lorena
  • Marcella
  • Marietta
  • Phoebe
  • Prudence
  • Clement
  • Everett
  • Felix
  • Jerome
  • Leander
  • Malcolm
  • Merritt
  • Oliver
  • Royce
  • Thaddeus
Do you have any favorite old-fashioned or "historical" names you'd like to see revived—either as names for fictional characters, or just as popular names? Tell me about them! (I'm always looking for new names to stash in that notebook, you know...)

Friday, August 19, 2016

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Capsule Wardrobe Fun

Some completely off-topic fun for today. Over the past year or two, I've been working on sorting and sifting my wardrobe down to the things I really love and wear. Inspired by some theories of minimalism and simplifying, and profiting from the advice of a mother with a wonderful eye for color and style, I think I've finally begun getting the hang of what clothes suit me best, and am having fun creating outfits. I find when you sort your wardrobe by color, and build around a core of basic, classic pieces that mix and match, you suddenly begin seeing all the different "looks" you can achieve just with different accessories and jewelry.

I've also had some more theoretical fun with the idea of two-color capsule wardrobes. Imagine you're going away for a week or a few days, choose a color from your wardrobe and a few of those classic pieces to build around, and you can pack a single bag and still end up with half a dozen different outfits through mixing and matching. I tried it with a few different colors, and for fun, shared my results on Instagram. Here's what I came up with:

Capsule Wardrobe #1: White/Spring Green

White + denim shorts
Green + white t-shirts
White sheath dress
Green and white striped seersucker dress
Tan sandals + white eyelet espadrilles
Pearl bead necklace + two sets of green jewelry

I absolutely adore this shade of green, and it's one of the hardest to find. You can get four outfits out of the shorts and tees alone—more if you count dressing them up or down with different shoes—and several different looks with the white dress simply by changing the shoes and jewelry. (Not pictured: white sneakers for a more casual look with the shorts, white and/or tan purse to go with the shoes.)

Capsule Wardrobe #2: Red/White
White + denim shorts
Red + white t-shirts
White sheath dress
Tan sandals + red-and-white gingham espadrilles
Pearl necklace & pearl drop earrings + red shell necklace
Two different red purses

All I did here was swap in a red tee for the green one, and switch the shoes and accessories. (The shell necklace, incidentally, I think came from Wal-Mart goodness-knows-how-many years ago.) The red leather purse is a vintage one I got as a birthday gift a few years ago, and the polka-dot clutch a hand-me-down! The pearl drop earrings (which I forgot to put in the green picture) I bought a couple years ago to go with an outfit for a concert, and they have ended up being pretty much one of my signature pieces. I wear them almost every day.

Capsule Wardrobe #3: Peach/White
Peach capris + gingham blouse
White shorts + t-shirt
Peach seersucker dress
Tan sandals + white eyelet espadrilles
Two sets of peach jewelry

This has been one of my favorite colors since I was a little girl. I can't remember how long I've had the blouse/capris outfit. And as with all of these, you can add different looks by tossing in an extra piece or two—for example, put in the denim shorts here and you've got two more casual looks (multiplied by switching shoes); or, if you want to dress it up, substitute a white or denim skirt for the white or denim shorts.

Capsule Wardrobe #4: Blue/White
Chambray dress
White shorts
Navy pencil skirt + navy-and-white striped 3/4-sleeve top
Blue-and-white striped seersucker dress
Straw purse with blue flowers
Tan sandals + white eyelet espadrilles
Pearl necklace & earrings + navy loop earrings

I was surprised by how much I liked this nautical-inspired wardrobe, since blue isn't one of "my" colors! White shorts, pearls, and shoes still going strong...the pencil skirt and striped top were both hand-me-downs. The chambray dress from L.L. Bean Signature my sweet parents surprised me with just last month, after I'd been eyeing it wistfully for a while. But the straw purse (which looks like it was made to go with the dress) came from Wal-Mart about fifteen or sixteen years ago.

I think that's one of the keys to making the most of your wardrobe: developing a knack for recognizing how pieces you already own and love can be combined, perhaps sometimes with a new item, to create stylish outfits. And once you really know what you like and what suits you best, you can make that occasional new purchase with an eye to fitting it into the wardrobe you already own.

Now I can't wait to try this out with my fall and winter clothes.

Friday, August 12, 2016

The Past in Color

Last March, I did a two-part blog series (part Ipart II) on vintage color photos—photos from the 1940s and before, an earlier era than most of us are accustomed to seeing in color—which ended up being very popular posts. Since then, every once in a while I've seen old color photos on Pinterest or social media or while doing historical research, and I'm always delighted by them. And I recently thought, why not collect them all to enjoy in one place? So I've started a Pinterest board devoted to color (not colorized!) photos from the 1940s and before:

One thing I discovered, browsing Pinterest for a few dozen pictures to get it started—there are a lot more early color photographs out there than you'd think! The Edwardian autochromes and the 1930s/40s Kodachromes are amazing simply because we're not accustomed to seeing or thinking of those years in color. And I can't get over how crisp and vivid some of those Kodachrome prints are. It's like Glorious Technicolor in still form.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Troubles Come in Threes

First, there was the puncture in the truck tire. Then at lunch, my dad cracked a tooth. Then, just two minutes before dinner was supposed to be on the table, our German Shepherd tangled with two other dogs, got bitten and ended up needing a lot of stitches and staples in three places.

Sunday evening was basically miserable. Hours of waiting...a lot of crying...more a rather soggy supper late at night for people without much appetite...more waiting...and then finally heading out at one o'clock in the morning through empty, brightly-lit streets (it seems strange how many lights a city leaves on at night when there isn't a soul to be seen) to the emergency animal clinic to pick up Bär...getting a half-sedated, pitifully whining dog into a pickup truck...agonizing over every bump in the road on the way home....somehow getting the dog out of the truck, into the house, and finally into her crate. And then five hours of sleep. (Five hours for my siblings and I; none for my parents, since Bär whined all night in their room.)

I'd spent the whole afternoon out in the swimming pool, working my way up to a hundred laps. When you're in practice, you don't really start to feel tired until about, say, ninety-six. Then afterwards you simply feel like you have no muscles at all. I came in and got dressed and went drowsily through the motions of making supper, comfortably aware that it was my sister's night to clean up afterwards and I'd be able to crash on the couch and relax with a book or Pinterest, then get a good night's sleep and be fresh for a week of editing and researching in the morning. But at literally the moment I was taking the trays of chicken tenders out of the oven, Bär slipped out the sliding door that had somehow been left open for a split second—and this is not something she is even prone to under ordinary circumstances—and all hell broke loose. So instead of the sleepy weekend evening I was looking forward to, at nearly two a.m. I was sitting in the empty waiting room of an animal clinic with my hands shaking and teeth chattering uncontrollably from a combination of stress, squeamishness, exhaustion, and probably the effects of a piece of cake on a mostly-empty stomach at midnight.

On Monday the whole exhausted family dragged mechanically through the day, attempting nothing beyond meals and taking care of Bär. Today the real work begins: two to four weeks of keeping a large, high-drive dog quiet while her injuries heal. Keeping her crated or confined to two rooms; keeping her from running, jumping up or doing stairs; keeping her from hearing or seeing the neighbors' dogs, the mail truck, squirrels or rabbits; putting warm packs on the worst of her injuries a few times each day...hoping and praying that the stitches heal properly and without complications so she won't need further surgery. Needless to say, all my ambitious plans for the month of August have flown out the window...I will have to collect the scraps of them and see what I can do once things have settled down a little.

I was going to write a pleasantly off-topic post about summer fashion today, but I guess I will save that for next week.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Storytelling Score of Red River (1948)

I never used to pay too much attention to the score of Red River. I thought of it as fairly nice, rousing, but generic music that mostly took a back seat to the action of the movie. But last year when one of my sisters got the soundtrack CD (a full recreation by the Moscow Symphony Choir and Orchestra), and I was able to listen to the full score independent of the film for the first time, I realized with some surprise what a great score it really is—and most of all, how cleverly composer Dimitri Tiomkin used his various themes to underscore the different elements of the story.

The backbone of the score is made up of three melodies: two original songs by Tiomkin with lyrics by Ned Washington, "Settle Down" and "Off to Missouri" (at least I assume that's the title), and the folk song "Old Chisolm Trail." From the beginning of the film, the vigorous, swinging waltz tune of "Off to Missouri" is linked with cattle—branding them, raising them, rounding them up, and finally throwing them on the trail north—it's the theme for the cattle drive itself, accompanying the trail scenes in a dozen different moods and tempos. The sweeping melody of "Settle Down" seems to be linked with the Red River itself, as well as Dunson's Red River D brand named after it, and gradually becomes the over-arching theme for the whole story.

(I should mention here that I've never been able to decipher most of the lyrics to "Settle Down" or "Off to Missouri"—I figured it was just a combination of dense choral arrangements and muddy audio that kept me from understanding the Hall Johnson Choir on the film soundtrack, but I found I couldn't understand the Moscow Symphony Choir on the re-recording either. All I can make out is that "Off to Missouri" presumably begins with those words and ends with, "...we'll be in Missouri someday," and I think there's a line somewhere in the middle that runs, "Nights are so long and the days are so weary..." Anyway, while working on this post I did a little searching online and found a forum thread with a post by composer John Morgan, who restored Tiomkin's score for the Moscow Symphony re-recording—he reveals that no one actually knows what the lyrics are because they were apparently never written down! For the restored version they had to make do with listening to the original and improvising where they couldn't understand it. So it's not just me after all.)

"Old Chisolm Trail," meanwhile, accompanies the shots of an old handwritten manuscript that guide us through the story, in an arrangement of horns, a rippling harp and the hum of choir that creates a nostalgic, time-traveling effect. It also crops up more subtly here and there throughout the score at key moments relating to the cattle drive. One could say that while "Off to Missouri" is the theme for the actual work of the drive, the grit and sweat and danger, "Old Chisolm Trail" underscores the historic aspect, the sense of achievement. There's a great moment in one of the best tracks on the soundtrack, at 2:19 in "Birth of Red River D," where the two songs are played together in a triumphant counterpoint, at the moment when Tom Dunson (John Wayne) brands his first two cattle—a foreshadowing of what's to come. And is it an even subtler bit of musical foreshadowing that further back in the beginning of the film, when Dunson makes his assessment of the young Matt (Mickey Kuhn) with a laconic "He'll do," the music in the background (1:51 in "The Lone Survivor") is a determined cue of "Old Chisolm Trail"?

Besides all this, there's a pretty self-explanatory Indian-attack theme, cued whenever the threat of attack materializes or hovers just over the horizon, and a beautiful love theme, introduced at the beginning in "Dunson Heads South," and surfacing again later whenever the script hearkens back to Dunson's lost love (Coleen Gray)—e.g. "Out of the Past" and "Memory of Love." And one of the marvelous things about the score is the Russian-born Tiomkin's grasp of American folk songs and the deft way he uses them to highlight the action, even if it's just a few notes—a bit of "Turkey in the Straw" to accompany a wagon train; "She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain" for the railroad; a dash of "Oh, Susanna" for a celebration; and of course the single bittersweet use of "I Ride an Old Paint" in "The Missing Cowboy." More prominently featured is "O Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie," which beautifully scores several scenes of just such a burial as the song describes, beginning with "Mexican Burial."  This scene, incidentally, I've always felt to be a bit of foreshadowing in itself—the way that Groot (Walter Brennan) and young Matt stare after Dunson as he leaves the graveside, seemingly a little taken aback that he can turn so quickly from a funeral back to work. It's almost a hint at what Dunson will become in the future.

But there was one discovery I made listening to the soundtrack CD that really impressed me. Early in the film, Tiomkin introduces a brief but beautiful little melody, one that seems to evoke a sense of the wide-open plains, of optimism and promise for the future. It's Dunson's own theme, and it's only heard a few times in its original form. It appears for the first time at 1:11 of "Dunson Heads South," and is developed most fully at 1:35 of "The Lone Survivor," at the key moment when Dunson hands young Matt back his gun. It's one of my favorite bits in the score, and I thought it was a shame that it's only heard so briefly. Listening further, however, I realized that it does reappear—made over in a minor key, it becomes the ominous, threatening march that's heard for the first time in "Latimer Burial," at the first hint of Dunson's impending tyranny, again in "Cottonwood Justice" when his men finally defy him, and finally builds to a crashing crescendo in "The Challenge" for the final confrontation. (What I colloquially refer to as the Dunson Gets Mad theme.) It's still Dunson's theme, but Tiomkin has made it over to reflect the gradual darkening and hardening of his character as the film goes on. It continues to follow Dunson as he pursues his revenge ("The Spectre Takes Form"), and haunts scenes where he is off-screen but uncomfortably present in the minds of other characters ("In Wait" and "Vigil in the Night").

Without getting too deep into spoilers, the ending of Red River—changed from the magazine story it was based on—is one of my biggest quibbles with the movie. Not necessarily the way the writers chose to wrap up the plot itself, but its abruptness and sudden change of tone. If you're aiming for redemption, okay, but something still has to be done with all that rage and tension that's been building for the second half of the film—it's got to be blown off somehow. It's a little like watching a fuse burn up to a stick of dynamite and then having it go off with a pop instead of an explosion. In a musical sense, if Dunson has come full circle, shouldn't we hear his musical theme restored to its original form too? But we don't; there simply isn't time. Which possibly begs the question: does it really make sense for Dunson to have come full circle at all?

But all of that is hardly Tiomkin's fault. And what his music does for the film as it stands is really wonderful. For instance, after you've listened to the score by itself, if you go back and watch the conversation between Dunson and Tess Millay (Joanne Dru), the scene accompanied by the track "Out of the Past," you realize that all throughout it Tiomkin is subtly invoking a few bars of the different musical themes, one after another, to match what they're talking about. I love it when a film score becomes an instrument of storytelling like that. I just hadn't realized that, under all the noise of bawling cattle, the score of Red River did it so well.

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Now, this post is an entry for Legends of Western Cinema Week, hosted by Emma Jane at A Lantern in Her Hand and Olivia at Meanwhile, in Rivendell—and I thought it would be even more fun with a Western-themed giveaway! So I'm giving away one signed paperback copy of my own Western book Wanderlust Creek and Other Stories. Enter via the Rafflecopter below (as this is a physical prize, the giveaway is open to U.S. entries only).

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