Monday, April 25, 2016

Reads for Writers: Rain: A Natural and Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett Provides a Masterclass

From Kate’s Writing Crate…

          As a reader, I always love finding books that appeal to me. As a writer, I am twice as pleased when the authors also provide masterclasses within their books.

          Masterclasses take place when performance artists and musicians work one-on-one with students. Writers don’t generally have this option, but I have found some books to be masterclasses for characters, backstories, plots, settings, voice and/or creativity.

          The April masterclass post seemed perfect for a review of Rain: A Natural and Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett. This book caught my eye for two reasons: I love rain and the cover is beautifully clever. On a white background, tiny silver raindrops fall from top to bottom except for the two inch wide by six inch long space in the center under a black umbrella where the title and author’s name appear.

          I expected to learn many facts and figures about rain and I did in this fun read. Fun? Yes, especially for writers as you will see.

          Here are some of the facts:

Amid the worst drought in California history, the enormous concrete storm gutters of Los Angeles still shunt an estimated 520,000 acre-feet of rainfall to the Pacific Ocean each year—enough to supply water to half a million families. (page 11)

Rain is sex for the exquisite orchid Acampe rigida…When raindrops splash inside, they flip off the tiny cap that protects the pollen…[then] they bounce the pollen precisely into the cavity where it must land to consummate fertilization. (page 16)

In medieval Europe, the 1300s marked the beginning of a five-century climate shift known as the Little Ice Age…The second decade of the 1300s was the rainiest in a thousand years. (page 39)

In his 1615 memoir of the native people of Mexico, the historian Fray Juan de Torquemada described an ingenious local skill, one his men wished they could take home to Spain. The natives knew how to make rainproof garments. (page 96)

The history of the waterproof mackintosh [coat] in Europe (patented in 1822) begins on page 98.

Along the Mississippi, in the third-largest river basin in the world, the same federal government that doled out 160-acre homestead plots to small farmers in a land too dry for corn built levees promised to withstand floodwaters in a land too wet for cities or cotton. (page 144)

In the early twentieth century, Eugene Willis Gudger, an ichthyologist with the American Museum of Natural History and editor of the museum’s Bibliography of Fishes, reported he had authenticated seventy-one accounts of fish rain, spanning A.D. 300 through the 1920s. (page 249)

Villages Cherrapunji and Mawsynram in India vie for the world’s rainiest place receiving close to 470 inches a year…the rainiest metro area in the US is Mobile, Alabama [which] pulls in 65 inches annually. (page 278)

          What I did not expect was for so many writers and authors to be referenced and quoted including in order of appearance: Ray Bradbury, Keats, Isaac Asimov, John Burroughs, William Carlos Williams, Victor Hugo, Charles Darwin, Agatha Christie, Shakespeare, Aristotle, Evangelista Torricelli, Douglas Adams, Jonathan Swift, William Faulkner, Kurt Vonnegut, Helen Keller, Thomas Wolfe, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Alexander Frater among many more. Rain, mighty storms, and their consequences make for good copy.

An author even changed people’s customs on rainy days:

The disdain of the Europeans for umbrellas is noted on page 103.

“Surely that weather watcher Daniel Defoe and his 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe also helped popularize—and defeminize—the umbrella.” (page 105)

Although, the history of the umbrella goes back 3,000 years notes the art writer Julia Meech. (page 106)

In fact, Chapter Nine is entitled “Writers on the Storm” which discusses how rain plays a major part in the lives and works of Steven Patrick Morrissey, Charles Dickens, George Sand, Isak Dinesen, Emily Dickinson, Dante, Thomas Hardy, Longfellow, Hemingway, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, James Joyce, Woody Allen, Mark Twain, and others.

In 1816, Mary Shelley might not have written her classic tale if not for the Little Ice Age.

…The eruption of Mount Tambora the year before dimmed the sun…It was the coldest summer ever recorded in Europe. Shelley and her poet companions [husband Percy Shelley and Lord Byron] had to stay holed up in their villa, huddled over a constantly burning fire. Lord Byron suggested they each write a ghost story. Frankenstein was hers. (page 200)


Many writers find rainy days good writing days.

The Seattle-based writer Timothy Egan…did his own informal study of book authors to figure out if they accomplished their best work in the murk of the dark months. (page 203)

…Seattle transplant Jennie Shortridge said she took seven years to finish her first novel in Denver, with three hundred days of annual sunshine. “When I moved to the Northwest, I wrote the next novel in fifteen months, and subsequent books every two years,” she told Egan “The dark and chill keeps me at my desk.” (page 203)

One writer decided rain was essential to his work.

In the late nineteenth century, a western poet named Joaquin Miller, living in the mountains overlooking Oakland, California, loved rain so much that he created his own personal rain machine to make water roar down on his roof. Anytime he needed some writing inspiration, he could twist a spigot inside his house to summon a shower outside. (page 275)

          I wish I had a personal rain machine as well since rainy days inspire me to write. After I read this book, rainy days now also inspire awe.


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