Thursday, December 25, 2014

Joyous Noel

by Jackie King

I haven’t loved every Christmas. I’m an old gal, and looking back through the years, there were many years I just plain faked my 'ho 
ho ho.' Some of those years were hard and to get through them I had to put on a brave face of unfelt joy for the sake of those who loved me. And oddly enough, for those who didn’t like me much. Why give such people the satisfaction of seeing you’re having a sucky Christmas?

There have been two especially tough Christmases in my life. The first was when my husband of 31 years informed me on the way to a church service that he didn’t love me anymore. That he hadn’t for a very long time. “I thought I could tough it out, and I really tried. But I just can’t stand it anymore.” Then he drove us on to church. It was a cold but sunny day and I was wearing sunglasses. I wore them all through the service, hoping people would think I’d just forgotten to take them off.

Sunglasses are wonderful things for hiding tears.

The second Christmas was after my 38-year-old son passed away in the summer. Plus, in early December of the same year, the doctors said my 10-year-old granddaughter had to have open-heart surgery.

We spend that Christmas Day in the children’s hospital at St. Francis Hospital. None of us minded, we were just thankful that the surgery was successful and that our darling girl was going to be fine.

I’m sitting at my computer and to my left is a huge stack of wrapped presents, all ready for Christmas Eve at my oldest daughter’s house. Today is December 23, the date of my once-upon-a-time marriage, but I hold no grudges and have no angst.

This year there will be no faking joy. The same granddaughter, now 19, is on vacation from University of Texas where she’s enrolled in their film school and loving it. She just called and said she’d pick me up tomorrow afternoon at 4:00 p.m. for our family celebration. We chatted a good long while. Among other things she told me her next semester schedule. She listed several classes including second year Swedish. Her plan is to travel to this country, famous for excellent films, to study for a semester.

One of her classes is the beginning course in screen-play writing. (Both of my granddaughters are writers. My grandson, a computer whiz.) She is excited about this class, and so am I. Life is good and my Christmas is Merry! I hope your Christmas is also wonderful.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas Around the World

by Jean Henry Mead

While researching Christmas customs around the world, I discovered that the first Christmas tree was decorated in 1510 in Germany and Livonia (now Estonia and Latvia). And in many countries Santa Claus is known as Father Christmas. In Latvia he places gifts under the tree and a special dinner is prepared of brown peas with bacon sauce, small pies, sausages and cabbage.

In Finland, where children believe that Father Christmas lives above the Arctic Circle, they call him Korvatunturi. Their three holy days include Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day (a public holiday in many countries known as the second day of Christmas). Finnish people eat rice porridge and a sweet soup of dried fruits on Christmas Eve, then decorate a spruce tree in their homes. A "Christmas declaration" is broadcast throughout the country at mid-day via radio and television. And that evening a traditional Christmas dinner is served consisting of casseroles containing liver, rutabaga, potatoes and carrots with ham or turkey as well as various salads, sweet and spiced breads and cheeses. They also attend church and decorate the graves of their departed relatives. Children receive their presents on Christmas Eve from someone in the family dressed as Father Christmas.

In Hungary the Winter Grandfather (Santa Claus) arrives on the sixth of December when children place their carefully cleaned shoes outside the door or window before retiring for the night. The following morning they find candy and small toys in red bags placed inside their shoes. Youngsters who don't behave find a golden birch branch next to their shoes, which is meant for spanking, although it's rarely used. On Christmas Eve, children visit relatives or attend movies while baby Jesus delivers Christmas trees and presents to their homes. Candy and other edibles are hung on the tree as well as glass balls, candles and sparklers. Fresh fish with rice or potatoes and pastries are usually served that evening for dinner, after which the children are allowed to see their decorated tree for the first time. Christmas songs are then sung and gifts opened. Older children usually attend Christmas mass with their parents later that night and on Christmas Day the kids are allowed to eat the sweets hanging from their tree.

In Belgium Sinterklays (St. Nicholas) is also celebrated on December 6, and is observed separately from the Christmas holiday. Santa Claus is known as Kerstman or le Pere Noel because there are three languages spoken within the country—Dutch, French and German. Santa Claus brings gifts to the children on Christmas day and small presents for family members are placed beneath the tree or in stockings hung near the fireplace. Sweet breads called cougnour or cougnoleand and shaped like the baby Jesus are eaten at breakfast.

Romanian children receive small gifts on December 6 from St. Nicholas in their freshly-polished shoes. Rural families "sacrifice”a pig on December 20, and each part of the pig is cooked in a different way, such as sausage or mince meat cooked with rice, onions and spices. They also dress up as bears and goats to sing traditional songs at each house in the village. Children visit other homes, not unlike our Halloween, to sing carols and receive sweets, fruit or money. Transylvanians serve stuffed cabbage on Christmas Eve and eat the leftovers for lunch the following day when they return from church services.

Brazilians call Father Christmas Papai Noel and the date of celebration differs in various regions of the country. Christmas trees are decorated by even the poor who have plastic trees or simple branches decorated with cotton to represent snow. Christmas dinners for the affluent usually consist of chicken, turkey, pork or ham served with rice, beans and fruit, often served with beer. The poor usually have chicken, rice and beans with  beer or colas. For desert they enjoy brigadeiro made of chocolate and condensed milk.

Christmas is called Noel in France and Father Christmas is known as Pere Noel. Christmas dinner is an important family gathering with the best of meats and finest wines. Christmas trees are often decorated with red ribbons and white candles, and electric lights adorn fir trees in the yard. Most people send New Year’s cards instead of at Christmas to wish friends luck, and Christmas lunch is celebrated with fois gras, a strong pate made of goose liver followed by a meal of seafood.

House windows are decorated in Germany with electric candles and color photographs as well as wreathes of leaves with candles called adventskrant, which signal the arrival of the four-weeks before Christmas. Additional candles are added as the holiday grows nearer. Father Christmas, called Der Wihnactsmann, delivers presents to the children during the late afternoon of Christmas Eve after celebrants return from church. A member of the family rings a bell to announce that presents are under the tree. Christmas Day is celebrated with a meal of carp or goose.

Father Christmas delivers gifts to Portuguese children on Christmas Eve. Gifts are left under the tree or in their shoes near the fireplace. Christmas dinner usually consists of dry cod fish and boiled potatoes at midnight.

During the reign of the Soviet Union, Christmas celebrations were prohibited. The New Year was celebrated instead when Father Frost brought gifts to the children. Now in Russia, Christmas is celebrated on December 25, or more often on January 7, the date the Russian Orthodox church reserves for religious observances. Christmas dinner consists of cakes, pies and meat dumplings.

New Zealanders celebrate by opening presents under the tree on Christmas morning. They then have Christmas lunch at home or a family member's house. A dinner of chicken or turkey is eaten, followed by tea time and dinner cooked on the barbie, served with beer or wine. And in Sweden, a special dinner is served on Christmas Eve of ham, herring and brown beans. Many attend church early on Christmas Day before gathering to exchange gifts with family members.

Christmas customs in this country are too numerous to list, and I'd like to wish all our blog visitors a very Merry Christmas and a happy and prosperous New Year, no matter where you happen to live, or how you plan to celebrate the holiday.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Those bloody voices

This has nothing to do with Xmas or even writing, but blogs have quite a wide remit, so this one is a sort of holiday posting. I only want to make one point but how I do so will depend on what sort of things you like doing in your spare time. I hope at least one of these clicks with you.

Let’s start with La Scala. At last you’ve made it for the season opener, December 7th. That unseemly row between Carlo Fontana and Riccardo Muti is years in the past and tonight, it’s one of your favourites: Verdi, La Traviata. OK, the seats have cost 650 euros each but, with Angela Gheorghiu and Juan Diego Florez performing, you’d have gladly paid twice as much. The lights and the applause for the conductor die down, those long, sad opening chords begin and you settle back, a smile on your face, anticipating a few hours of unadulterated pleasure.

But then, just as the tempo changes and the strings lift into that familiar opening melody, two men behind you start to chat.
‘Well, Rob, here we go then. The building may have opened in 1778, but I doubt whether it’s seen a starrier line-up than this one.’
‘True, Kevin. Von Karajan was here in July doing the Requiem, and the punters are always going on about Solti’s recordings at Covent Garden, but this’ll be a cracker.’
‘That second violin left the Berlin Philharmonic to come here.’
‘Good move.’
‘Yes. People say it was for the money, but I don't buy that. She just wants to play with the best. Simple as that.’

And so it goes on, throughout the performance. You can’t stop them, they’re constantly making comparisons with past evenings, other opera houses and remarking on tempi, the crispness of the pizzicatos, the embonpoint of some of the chorus and the evident degeneration in quality of some of the voices of the older ones.

Or maybe you’ve made it to Edinburgh to see that exhibition of the Scottish Colourists that’s had such rave reviews. You walk into the main gallery and there’s that Peploe with the apples and jug that you’ve seen so often in catalogues and online but never in the flesh. And you let your eyes wander over the bold outlines and get drawn in to the luscious reds and greens and beyond to the folds of cloth on which stands the milky jug. And you hear:

‘Brilliant, Rob. That time he spent with Fergusson by the sea around Paris-Plage wasn't wasted, was it? What a difference, eh?’
‘Just oozes class, Kevin. You don’t see brush strokes like that in Weymouth. And I’ll tell you what, you can keep all your C├ęzannes and Manets. These guys have got it in spades.’
‘Yeah, what a line-up: Cadell, Hunter, Fergusson, Peploe. People still talk about the Glasgow Boys, but did you ever see one catch an Edinburgh interior like that? Nah.’
‘Well, for me Kevin, calling ’em Post-Impressionists doesn’t get near it. Remember the Pre-Raphaelites here last summer?’
‘Ah yes, Burne-Jones. He knew his way round a brush.’

And, as Kevin continues with an anecdote about seeing Lucien Freud drunk in Soho, you give up and walk out, the brilliance of the Colourists forever tarnished by the crassness of the experts employed to elucidate their achievements.

Extreme? Yes, but it’s what lovers of football (i.e. soccer) like myself have to put up with every time a match is televised. On show there are some of the greatest talents around and they’re playing a game which has structure, patterns, elegance, beauty, confrontations, highs and lows. But rather than watch and let us do the same, the commentator and his sidekick spew out statistics, irrelevant ‘facts’, and incisive information about the last time the defensive midfielder scored with a header in the first half. (For your information, it was in a third round cup-tie at West Bromwich Albion in September 2009.)

A recent match featured the brilliant Barcelona and their arch-rivals, Real Madrid. As the whistle blew for the kick-off, the commentator said, ‘This is it, then. Just sit back and enjoy 90 minutes of pure delight.’ And that’s exactly what I’d have done if he and his mate had only shut up.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

My Pet Peeve in Grammar

by Jackie King

I’m not sure when writers started using double punctuation at the end of a sentence, but anytime I read this in any story, I want to throw that book across the room. This weird, double-punctuation always consists of a question mark plus an explanation point at the end of a sentence. For example:

“Does that man have a gun?!”

Rather than:

“Does that man have a gun?”

Let’s suppose the scene had already been set up with our protagonist observing a man dressed in camo. The guy is trying to conceal himself behind a large indoor plant and a woman’s voice rings out,“Does that man have a gun?”

Note from reader: I don’t need the author calling my attention to the fact that this is exciting.

The addition of the exclamation point pulls me out of the scene, the book, and all I hear is the author is shouting in my head, “I’m afraid you’re a little dense and won’t understand how exciting this sentence is, if I don’t draw attention to it.”

Note to all writers: Readers are not dumb!

You will notice that in the above sentence that I didn't use both a period and an exclamation point, as if drawing attention to the fact this is a declarative sentence. That would be stupid, wouldn’t it? (Single punctuation mark.)

It’s equally stupid to use two punctuation marks at the end of an interrogative sentence.

Do you have a pet grammar-peeve? I’d love to hear about it.



Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Traduttore, traditore

I wrote a blog a while back about the delight of receiving a copy of one of my books in a Korean translation. Then, this week, through the post came copies of the same book but this time in Spanish.

And it’s against that background that I want to set an email I received this morning. It was from a person who wrote a while back saying very complimentary things about my story Love Hurts and asked for permission to translate it into Persian. This is the same story that’s been optioned by a small film company in Los Angeles (although it’s so long since I’ve heard anything from them that I suspect I can wave goodbye to the dream).

Anyway, it seems she’s finished the translation and is relatively pleased with the result, except for a couple of sentences. She says she doesn’t really understand what I mean by them and asked if I could help ‘solve them’. The sentences were:

Outside, the sky hangs between pale blue and the peach wash of the sunset’s beginning.  Ben is in his usual place on the window seat.  Six feet two of him, folded into a corner of the sky.

And, later:

the peach wash has thickened to a buttermilk gold.

(OK, I know it’s the sort of writing that Elmore Leonard would cut because it ‘sounds like writing’, but I wrote the story a long time ago and I was deliberately aiming at being lyrical. So sue me.)

I really wanted to help with her translation but my first thought was: ‘Well, they’re just images, self-explanatory really’. But I remembered that I wrote the original version of the story for a competition on the theme ‘The Colours of Love’. (It came second and I won £100.) So I wasn’t just trying to paint pretty pictures.

In the end, my answer to her email went as follows:
‘Both sentences are really there to contribute to the theme of colours that runs through the story. The changing colours indicate its development – so there’s lots of brightness and sunshine during the happy days but, as her relationship with her son goes sour, it’s the darker colours which predominate. So here, specifically, the sky is pale blue but the sun is setting, so the blue is giving way to a peach wash (‘wash’ is a term from painting which suggests the colour isn’t intense but diluted). Both colours are fading – the blue is pale, the peach is a wash. And all of this is a visual background seen through the window for the silhouette of Ben. He’s folded into a corner of the sky, which means that he’s a dark, colourless shape. And, as the peach wash thickens to a buttermilk gold, it means the sky gets darker, gold is darker than peach and buttermilk is thicker than a wash. So, in the end, the colour images – which are an important part of the story – help to stress how what starts out as a beautiful, clear love becomes corrupted and evil. Darkness takes over from light, except in the mother’s troubled mind.’

Well, that was the theory, but I certainly didn’t have such conscious thoughts as I was writing it all. But if readers are puzzled by it, it means Elmore’s right and the writing is getting in the way of the meaning. My real reaction, though, was that translating is incredibly difficult, even if you’re truly bilingual. Is a ‘horse’ exactly the same as a ‘pferd’, a ‘cheval’, an ‘equus’, a ‘hippos’ or a ‘cavallo’? And even if you’re convinced they’re all equal, what happens to the meaning when you put it into a context that maybe carries a subtext? And how does the actual sound of each relate to the other sounds around it? And what if its main contribution is rhythmic rather than connotative or literal?
And all of that before you take into account the cultural baggage every language carries. I’ve no idea what effect my story will have in Persian, but, in case you’ve never come across the expression Traduttore, traditore, it’s approximately ‘A translator is a traitor’, which sort of sums up the problem.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Murder with Monsters

by Carola

My next Daisy Dalrymple mystery is going to start at the Crystal Palace.

This vast glass and iron building was first erected in Hyde Park in 1851, at the Great Exhibition. A couple of years later it was taken down piece by piece and rebuilt in Sydenham Park, south of the Thames, with two large wings added. It was in its way a precursor to Disneyland, but with an educational bent. As well as Roman chariot races (and racing automobiles in due time), it had displays of architecture from various time periods, art and sculpture, and other attractions too numerous to list. And the first public ladies' conveniences (loos/restrooms) ever.

The Crystal Palace burned to the ground in 1936. All that's left of the building is the foundations, stretching for hundreds of yards across the hilltop.

One exhibit was unaffected by the fire.  A sculptor, Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, created huge models of prehistoric animals in the first attempt to show what the skeletal discoveries of the past half century might have looked like in life. He worked under the scientific direction of Sir Richard Owen, according to the latest scientific knowledge. They are so big that Hawkins gave a dinner party inside one of the sculptures before completing it. Inaccurate as we now know them to be, they are marvellous monsters, now restored and still lurking in natural settings in the park.

I simply can't decide whether to leave a body lying beneath one of the monsters or in the ladies' convenience. Or both.