Sunday, March 12, 2017

Novels in novels: the art of Canadian putty

UnlessUnless by Carol Shields

Carol Shields' clear, informal prose contains multiple levels of self-awareness about both its style and content. It could hardly be otherwise when this is a novel by a female Canadian novelist about a female Canadian novelist struggling with a novel.

Although novel-writing is not the main subject of Unless, it is necessarily the means through which the subject is explored and Shields enjoys the chance to slyly comment on her own story-telling, teasing the reader with insights into exactly the dilemmas she must be facing in writing the book we're reading.

She's also careful not to overdo it by building a hall of mirrors. So Shields' novelist, Reta, resists the urge to transplant her latest fictional invention, Alicia, from her job at a fashion magazine to an academic world, whose familiarity would make her life easier to write about. As Reta explains, if Alicia were to start a thesis on Chinese women's poetry, "I would become a woman writing about a woman writing about women writing, and that would lead straight to an echo chamber of infinite regress."

There are plenty of carefully orchestrated echoes in Unless: between Reta's life and that of her novel; between Reta's literary career and that of the older distinguished Canadian writer whose work she translates; between the drama of family life in Reta's home and hints of conflict in the family of its previous owners; most importantly, between Reta's conscious grudging acceptance of a woman's expected role in society ("goodness but not greatness") and her eldest daughter's extreme response, as Reta sees it, to the same realisation.

Reta has been in a local writers' group, and some of what she learns there Shields appears to make use of. The telling details of daily life which add conviction to the story are what a fellow writer calls "putty": "by this she meant the arbitrary, the odd, the ordinary, the mucilage of daily life that cements our genuine moments of being". A writer must be constantly looking out for useful putty, such as "buttonholes, for instance, they way they shred over time, especially on cheap clothes." Not a such a telling observation perhaps, but good enough to put into the mouth of an aspiring writer.

Shields' art is in making the putty indistinguishable from the weight-supporting beams of the plot - just as in life, when it is often only in retrospect that we can see the significance of an event or even a remark.

If anything, to my mind, the plot is a little too sturdily constructed. Further into the book, the characters seem to lose their autonomy and there's a sense that a grand plan is being played out too precisely. We can feel the end coming and, just before it, there's a debate about the endings of novels which, we know, will be resolved in our novel by page 213. That awareness is in danger of reducing Reta and her fellow players to ciphers. The male characters in particular have never been much more.

For all that, Unless is an absorbing, enjoyable book that's made me want to read more of Carol Shields. She talks to her reader directly and moves the story along in surprising ways. It's a book driven by ideas rather that characters but contains enough wholesome putty to join the hard surfaces with wit and ingenuity.

View all my reviews

Saturday, March 11, 2017

How to embed a photo or video from Google Photos on a website or blog

The good thing about using Google to store your photos and videos is that it's probably going to be around for a while and so your precious stuff isn't going to disappear if a flaky tech company closes. The bad thing is that you can't do much to organise or display things the way you want (despite Photos' unpredictable and uninvited efforts to create albums for you).

The best of both worlds would be to leave your items in the care of Google but to be able to embed them on another site, exactly how you want to see them - effectively creating a window through to Google without copying or moving them.

That can be done. Here's a ten-point instruction list, which isn't as complicated as it looks the first time you do it:
  1. Upload the photo or video to your Google Photos account.
  2. Open Google Drive in the same Google account and find it in Google Photos in the left-hand menu. (If it’s not there, start playing it in Photos and select the Google Drive icon top right, Add to My Drive. Now open Drive and it’ll be there.)
  3. Highlight the photo or video and click the Share button, top right of the screen (the person icon with a plus sign).
  4. On the Share with others window, click Advanced, bottom right.
  5.  On the first option under Who has access, click Change, and in the window that opens, choose the second line, On - anyone with the link. Click Save.
  6. Back on the Share settings page, click Done.
  7. You are now back on the Google Photos page, with your photo or video still highlighted. Click it to open or play.
  8. Now select the three little buttons at the far top right of the screen, and choose Open in new window.
  9. The new window looks very similar to the old window, but the three little buttons are in a slightly different position top right. Select them again and this time, you’ll find Embed item… on the list.
  10. Click it to display the embed code that you can copy into the html of the webpage on which you want to display the photo or video.
NB: if you copy from Photos to Drive in item two, you'll be using up some of your 15Gb of free storage, whereas in Photos, under certain conditions, you can store as much as you want. So it's best to wait for the photo or video to appear in Drive's Photos tab if you can (especially for videos, which use up so much more storage).

My thanks to Sue Waters in Australia for her explanation of this process, which you can find here, along with other interesting information about what you can do with Google Photos.