My poetry collection Church of Needles has been named an honorable mention in the New England Book Festival Awards. The Diary of Esther Small; 1886 won in the Regional Literature category. Maybe I’ll get some nifty gold winners’-circle-type stickers, or I could give myself the seal of approval with Emily:
Synopsis: Set in seventh century Britain, essentially the backstory of Saint Hilda of Whitby, the niece of Kind Edwin of Northumbria, of which little is historically known. Hild’s cunning mother claims she had a dream while pregnant for Hild of a bright star entering her stomach. She tells the story to her daughter and anyone else who will listen, until it’s widely accepted that Hild is destined to be ‘the light of the world.’ This vision puts the girl in a position of power, respect, and authority as the King’s seer. But Hild is also in perpetual danger from the fear and disgust of the king’s superstitious enemies, his own people, even the king himself. Seventh century Britain was a time of political and religious flux. Small bands with allegiances to regional rulers clashed and the more powerful overseers sought to control larger areas and more people. Roman Catholicism made inroads into pagan territory and succeeded in overthrowing dominant polytheistic beliefs and practices. Note** This is not a middle reader/young adult book, don’t let the cover fool you. There’s a goodly portion of sex and language in this one.
My take: I give Hild 3.5 to 4 stars out of 5. It took me a good fourth of the book to get accustomed to the tone and style of the writing; there’s a lot of early English thrown around, Welsh sounding words that begin with a string of consonants: crywl (etc). The pronunciation guide is in the back of the book, which I discovered, at the back of the book when I’d finished reading. Consequently, I was pronouncing all the names and places wrong. A small thing, but ideally I would have liked the pronunciation key up front. This is a plot and character-driven novel, somewhat epic in scope, which takes its time building setting and plot. It’s similar to, but not quite as good as, Ursula Leguin’s Lavinia. The negative reviews for Hild on Amazon go something like this: “A clear imposition of the author on a historical figure of which precious little is known”, which is kind of the point. This looks set up to be a trilogy, so get reading!
Synopsis: “After the Ninth Duke of Rutland, one of the wealthiest men in Britain, died alone in a cramped room in the servants’ quarters of Belvoir Castle on April 21, 1940, his son and heir ordered the room, which contained the Rutland family archives, sealed. Sixty years later, Catherine Bailey became the first historian given access. What she discovered was a mystery: The Duke had painstakingly erased three periods of his life from all family records—but why? As Bailey uncovers the answers, she also provides an intimate portrait of the very top of British society in the turbulent days leading up to World War I.”
My take: I give this 4 out of 5 stars. I was on the edge of my seat for the first half of the book. The reader accompanies Bailey into the secret rooms, previously sealed archives, discovering the missing records along with her. She spends days reading letters, diaries, etc. beside the tatty couch in the cold room where the Duke of Rutland died. There are three different gaps in the copious archive; entire years of correspondence missing, which, Bailey discovers, were intentional and likely ‘created’ by the Duke of Rutland himself. Bailey attempts to fill in the gaps by more broadly researching those time periods and to learn why the Duke destroyed portions of his own archive. The first two ‘mysteries’ are fairly quickly dispatched with, the second one never wholly solved. The second half of the book delves into the third mystery, occurring during WWI. The writing in this part takes the story beyond historical mystery and deeply into the dynamics of WWI for the landed gentry of England. A great read.
Synopsis: Just what it sounds like: a collection of essays by poet Donald Hall. If you’re at all familiar with Hall’s work and biography much of this material will be familiar: his younger years growing up in Connecticut and the ancestral farm he now lives on in New Hampshire, how he became a poet, the glory days of poetry and his acquaintance with the likes of Marianne Moore, his marriage to poet Jane Kenyon and her subsequent death from Leukemia, his hijinks and a lot of humor.
My take: I give this 3.5 out of 5 stars. For someone only acquainted with Hall’s work and biography this would be a more interesting read. I’ve been reading Donald Hall for about 20 years but was more a fan of his late wife, the poet Jane Kenyon. I attended Kenyon’s Harvard memorial service and listened to Hall, Tree Swenson, Liam Rector, and others read Kenyon’s poetry and remember her. She died at only 47. Hall touches on his life with Kenyon in the essays, as well as her death. He also writes about his own illnesses (cancer, stroke), aging, age-related infirmities and boredom, as well as relying on several women in their 50s on a daily basis. Though I was familiar with many of the stories, I still appreciate Hall’s sense of humor and ever-sharp sarcasm.
Synopsis: I don’t want to give too much away about this one. It was published in german in 1962 by Austrian born Marlen Haushofer and is essentially a dystopian novel, but not in the style of Hunger Games. This dystopian world looks more like our cultural fantasies of escape to a kinder, gentler place. The novel is written as a retrospective journal, though not in journal entry style, of the protagonist’s first years as the only surviving human of an undefined cataclysmic event.
My take: This is the most recent book I’ve read and I’m inclined to give it 5 out of 5 stars. I read the novel too fast and advise savoring it. This novel is suspenseful with a constant sense of foreboding, but is not plot driven necessarily. The cast consists of the woman and her small collection of animals trying to survive day to day in a hunting lodge on a beautiful and bucolic mountaintop. The setting is so serene, so peaceful and lovely, but darkness and unease are always lurking, wrought not only by the knowledge that this woman is the only human left on earth, but because she’s the only one, completely alone with herself, her own darkness and precarious survival. This is a psychological thriller in the best sense. There are some truly insightful moments in the writing about the human condition, about being a woman and caretaker, about the collective numbness of society, and about how we choose to avoid those places in ourselves that contain too much truth, because often there’s nothing we can do with those truths but bear witness. Go buy this book now!
We woke to a layer of white, fluffy snow on the winter solstice. There were several inches a few weeks back but it had nearly all melted. I got some shots of the little birds at the feeder and while I was out near the barn a raven flew over, croaked once and then just the sharp sound of his wings slicing air in the silence. I didn’t even think to take a photo….that sound of wings was everything. I decided last week that I’d make gingerbread on the solstice after listening to an old episode of the Splendid Table. Host Lynne Rossetto Kasper mentioned that the making and eating of gingerbread was an old English solstice tradition. Ginger then, as now, was considered medicinal and gingerbread a fairly palatable way to consume it. I ended up mixing two recipes; this one and this one. One has slightly different spices. I mixed them all! The result was a not too dense, not too cakey gingerbread. I made up some whipped cream and, truth be told, had a little maple cream on mine. It was a low-key kind of day. In the evening I lit some candles, one for my grandmother who passed away seven years ago on the solstice, and one for poet Claudia Emerson who died way too young a couple weeks ago. There’s something fitting and right about lighting flames for extinguished souls. The act of lighting those candles put me in a state of remembrance for the rest of the long, dark night.
Back in October I had a great interview with Francesca Rheannon on the NPR show Writer’s Voice. We discussed my work on The Diary of Esther Small and the related series of poems in my collection Church of Needles. We talked about the importance of women’s voices and abuse as the silencing of those voices. I also read some poems. The interview has gone live, take a listen. Writer’s Voice airs on some public radio stations; Saturday at 3 p.m. in western Mass.
Besides collecting old diaries, I have a small but growing scrapbook collection. If you’re familiar with the contemporary scrapbooking movement and all its accoutrements: special paper cutting machines, glossy stickers, trinkets; remove everything but the paper from your mind and you have old-school scrapbooking. Scrapbooking became popular around the time of the Civil War. Early scrapbooks were often repurposed books, see the images from my personal collection above. Some scrapbookers created books on one subject: gardening, recipes, the royal family; others included a sampling of newspaper articles from their moment in history. Many young women created personal scrapbooks filled with cards they received on different occasions. With a pot of glue and a pair of scissors, our historical counterparts created their own archives. My personal collection, above, includes a recipe and household tips book compiled in an 1866 Department of Agriculture report. The scrapbooker was a young, unmarried woman preparing herself for the years ahead with recipes and tips she cut from local newspapers, as though writing a letter to her older self. Another was compiled in the Fifth Registration Report of Vermont 1861. The original pages, still visible throughout the scrapbook are a kind of census report from 1861. This scrapbooker collected primarily designs for lacemaking and quilting, though she does include a remedy for ‘diphtheria and scarlet fever’ and newspaper advice on how to keep a sanitary house. I also own a British scrapbook from 1936. This one was compiled in a book made for the purpose and is filled with newspaper clippings mourning the death of King Edward V and the coronation of Kind Edward VIII. My last scrapbook is the most intriguing to me. It’s compiled in a blank book and, again through newspaper clippings, recounts the saga of the ‘Holy Ghost and Us’ Society, an early 1900s Christian cult operating in New England. Replete with starvation, beatings, death and a ‘ghost ship’, this scrapbook doesn’t give the ‘author’s’ name but contains a thorough examination of its subject, one I wasn’t aware of before finding the book. I wonder if the author was in some way connected with the cult, through personal experience or a family member. I’m not an expert on old scrapbooks, I just know what I like. If you rummage around at antique stores and on Ebay you could come up with some interesting finds. The history of scrapbooking is fascinating. I’ve included some sources below.
and for fun, but it may be gone by the time you read this:) Vintage Mark Twain Adhesive Scrapbook
Library Stamp T-Shirt I love the cut of this T-shirt, not boxy, very wearable and machine-washable. Sold through a British website, it’s about $31. Not bad; and I like the sly 1984 reference.
Library Card Socks For the full ensemble. $12.51
Aqua Notes Waterproof Notepad I don’t claim to know how a piece of paper is rendered waterproof, but I know a great idea when I see one. There are two inconvenient times ideas seem to flow: in the shower and on the cusp of sleep. This pad comes with 40 pages and a pencil and can be mounted to the wall. Way better than a shower radio. $7.32
Treasure Island E-Reader Cover Fits Kindle, Kobo and Sony readers. If you have to read on a screen, pretend it’s a book! $23.
Paperback Perfume And if the writer/reader in your life wasn’t nerdy enough, now she can smell like a used bookstore. $2.50-$25
Jane Austen Action Figure I think ‘action figure’ and ‘writer’ might be an oxymoron, but if you’d like to pose Jane (or Charles Dickens or Edgar Allen Poe) on your desk as a kind of writerly spirit guide then this is for you. I might also suggest that when any young, impressionable girl on your list asks for a Barbie for Christmas, you surprise her with Jane, and a copy of Sense and Sensibility. $12.93
Time To Write Poster Not sure if the writer on your list would appreciate being prodded, but you may gift this to yourself. I think it would be lovely paired with this vintage phrenology poster. $10.95 and $41.99
Scrivener, Software For Writers I’ve heard only good things about Scrivener and actually just bought this for the young fiction-writer in my life. This software is touted for writers in all genres but seems especially suited to organizing the novel. Essentially, it keeps all your notes, character sketches and research tidy and at your fingertips. $45.
Grammar Tote Bag Well, this might be a way to get people to shut up so you can write in your head already! But may not make you very popular and if you give it for a gift, might be tainted with implication. I think it would be funny to use it as a gym bag, or an ironic gift for a teacher: silently? $14.99
Letter Autographed by S. Clemens The S. Clemens? According to ‘History for Sale’ on Amazon, this is an original 1889 letter written and signed by Mark Twain. You’d think with a price tag of $25,000 they’d offer free shipping. Nope.
And finally, I’ll leave you with this helpful and cautionary list on the blog Terribleminds. Pay special attention to number 24. ANYTHING BUT A BLANK GODDAMN NOTEBOOK. The writer in your life will thank you.