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The summer house

In my childhood, summer vacation meant a break from school – lounging around the house drinking iced tea and reading; playing Monopoly with neighborhood friends; walking to our tiny village center for the mail and a bag of penny candy. 

It was only through novels that I understood some people had “summer houses” on lakes or the ocean where they spent the whole season. In books like “All the Best People” by Sloan Wilson (set in Lake George) and “The Catherine Wheel” by Jean Stafford (Maine), I was introduced to this world of genteel privilege. 

I felt not resentment but longing: Wouldn’t it be great to have a summer house of my own, where I could settle into the rhythm of long hot days and twilit nights? I imagined reading in an Adirondack chair or writing on a screened-in porch. 

The summer between high school and college, I had a taste of this life from my own lower class perspective. I was the live-in companion to an elderly single woman. Margaret was frail, querulous, and, I suspect, mentally ill, and my job was to keep up her apartment, cook her meals, and indulge whatever anxiety she was experiencing at the moment. 

It was not pretty. She had bizarre obsessions: She would pick her nose to make it bleed, and then claim she was going to bleed to death and demand I call the doctor. When she defecated my job was to go into the bathroom, view the results, and praise her lavishly, as one would a toilet-training child. I also had to clean the commode she used at night.

From Monday morning to Friday evening I remained captive there, and by July I was going a little batty myself. I cried every day.

But then: reprieve. Each summer her sister, Harriet, invited Margaret to the family summer house in a nearby seaside hamlet, so in August off we both went. Unheated, the rambling house had a bay view, a lovely yard of perennials, and all sorts of accouterments of late Victorian leisure: a claw-foot tub, a soapstone sink, and a wrap-around porch where we ate cucumber sandwiches in the afternoon.

The setting was heavenly, but I was not meant to enjoy it. During the day I read to Margaret and tried to keep her calm. My duties now included rising at 6:30 to bring Harriet’s breakfast tray upstairs and helping Susan, the miserable old cook, in the kitchen. 

So when I slipped across the street one afternoon to wade in the water while Margaret napped – my only break that day, or any day – there was hell to pay when I got back. Susan met me at the door demanding to know where I’d been. Margaret, it seems, had awoken and was pestering her sister with a litany of imagined ills while I was off beachcombing.

Harriet followed me upstairs and in her gentle but imperious way (think Cora on “Downton Abbey”) let me know I was not free to come and go. It was an ugly scene. 

Thus I learned early that for some to have leisure, others must toil. A gardener sweated over the foxglove and peony beds. Susan, who had only Wednesday afternoons off, toiled over a hot stove. My job five days a week, 24 hours a day, was to deal with Margaret. 

The lifestyle these two women led, funded by inherited wealth, was on the wane. The houses of this summer colony were slowly being sold off and winterized, their real estate too valuable to support one seasonal visit each year. 

And it was difficult to get help, which was probably why Harriet didn’t can me on the spot for my transgression. After Susan – who was no spring chicken – passed, who would be willing to give up their entire life save Wednesday afternoons to sweep, scrub and cook all day? 

The summer house continued to hold allure. The closest I would come would be a week’s vacation – at Lake George for a couple of years and then a seasonal return to a rustic cabin in New Hampshire with our children. But that is a story for another day.

I read Sloan Wilson’s novel in the summer of 1974, when I was 14.

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A year of magical reading

Although I mostly review fiction, nonfiction dominated my personal reading list this year. Here’s a look back.


The year 2019 began, and is ending, with Colm Toibin, and there is a reckoning in the Irish author’s novels and nonfiction that makes him an appropriate literary god to bookend the year. In Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know: The fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce (Scribner, 2018), the literary fathers are more interesting than their sons. Yeats’s father, in particular, was a dynamic letter-writer and “failed” painter who had an undeniable creative fire. Here is the senior Yeats expounding on what it means to be an artist in a world that values only rational thought:


The men of science hate us and revile us … They always work in gangs, many minds engaged on one task, whereas we live and work singly, each man building for himself accepting no fellowship – for we say it is only thus we can build our habitations.


  In a way, Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know picks up where Toibin’s 2004 novel of Henry James, The Master, leaves off, although I read them in the opposite order. In the novel Wilde appears as both a hated rival and an object lesson in what might happen if the tightly wound James acted on his homoerotic nature. The Master is, well, masterful, in both its insight into James and its immersion into his style and tone. It is not mimicry so much as a complete synthesis of the writer’s inner life. All is told through hint and suggestion, every gesture and silence burdened with the unexpressed and unspoken. Like T.S. Eliot after him, James sloughed off his American self to become a British subject, and there is something of J. Alfred Prufrock in his mannered regrets.

I did not stay on the periphery of Bloomsbury but dove into it, first with Katharine Smyth’s memoir, All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf (Crown, 2019) about the author’s attempts to recover from her father’s death by reading Woolf and visiting her haunts; then with Woolf’s letters, anthologized in Congenial Spirits: The Selected Letters of Virginia Woolf, edited by Joanne Trautman Banks (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989) and then finally with an excellent new biography, Virginia Woolf and the Women Who Shaped Her World, by Gillian Gill (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019). I even got halfway through The Voyage Out, Woolf’s early allegorical novel, written in the wake of the Titanic sinking, a fact I discovered in The Age of Titanic: Cross-Currents of Anglo-American Culture, by John Wilson Foster (Merlin Publishing, Ireland, 2002).

But the truth is, I’ve always enjoyed reading Woolf’s diaries and letters, and biographies of her, more than her fiction, which can be dense, mannered, and arch. I know this is probably a personal failing (I did love To the Lighthouse), and I would not go so far as one critic did this year in trying to kick her out of the literary canon, but her fiction seems to operate at a frequency slighter higher than my own. Which is a way of saying that if only I were smarter, I might get it.

Yet we remain fascinated with Woolf for her feminist ideals, her gender fluidity and her lifelong struggle with mental illness. I even got to ask Gillian Gill about this in an interview earlier this month, and she maintains you cannot separate an author from their lives, as much as critical theorists want us to. And that feels right to me: the fiction has to be taken in totality with the life in order to be understood.

Another author’s life I continue to study is Emerson’s. I discovered Emerson and his Eccentrics by Carlos Baker (Viking, 1996) at the Kingston Hill (R.I.) Bookstore, a treasure of rare and slightly used books curated by the knowledgeable Allison Goodsell. Baker, who died before the book was published, was a Princeton scholar who delves deeply into the usual subjects – Margaret Fuller, Thoreau, Bronson Alcott – while also concentrating on Emeron’s lesser known contemporaries, such as Jones Very and Theodore Parker. Thus it becomes a biography not just of friendship but ideas, one I can imagine rereading some day.

I also read biographies of Pearl Buck and H.P. Lovecraft, memoirs by Patti Smith, Howard Norman and Amy Tan, and Casey Cep’s excellent account of the book Harper Lee couldn’t write – Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee (Knopf, 2019). But literary nonfiction shared the shelf with another genre, a combination of nature writing and adventure and history for which I have no name.

Stumbling upon a nature writer always opens new doors of thought. Bernd Heinrich is the author of more than a dozen books about birds, insects and habitats. Like my idol Edwin Way Teale, whose book Wandering into Winter won the Pulitzer Prize in 1966, Heinrich also has written books centered on the seasons. But it was the audiobook One Wild Bird at a Time (narrated by Rick Adamson, Dreamscape Media, 2016) that introduced me to the New England writer and scientist. Through his ingenious experiments and statute-like patience, Heinrich shows us not just how wild creatures behave, but why, and his curiosity is infectious. I followed up with Summer World (narrated by Mel Foster, Tantor Audio, 2009) and then bought a print edition of his latest, A Naturalist at Large: The Best Essays of Bernd Heinrich (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018).

A good nature book is never far from my hands. Another discovery was Wyman Richardson, a Boston doctor whose The House on Nauset Marsh (Chatham Press, 1972; originally published in 1947) painted an evocative picture of the Cape Cod house where his family summered (Richardson died in 1953). I journeyed west with David Gessner (All the Wild that Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West; W.W. Norton, 2015) and Cecil Kuhne (River Master: John Wesley Powell’s Legendary Exploration of the Colorado River and Grand Canyon, Countryman Press/Norton, 2017) and  a wonderful copy of Oscar Lewis’s High Sierra Country (Duell, Sloan and Pearce/Little Brown, 1955), part of the American Folkways Series. These books, besides transporting us to a different world, talk to each other, and threads stretch from one to another, weaving new ideas.

What, after all, is the point of reading? Although all of these books were read “for pleasure,”  they seeped into my writing in complicated ways. All year I also read books intentionally for research, into the life of Caroline Hazard (president of Wellesley, 1899 to 1910), for a biography, as well as into moonshining, for a novel in progress. All of these books informed my thinking, leading me from one place to the next, from one nascent idea to another. 

Stegner, quoted in Gessner’s book, defined biography as “transformation of fact by the imagination” as long as “imagination [works] with the real.” I jotted this down in my journal. Two days later, while reading something in the New York Times, I thought, “biography is the attempt to find meaning – contemporary meaning – in a former life,” and wrote, “I don’t know what made me think this.” Of course, that Stegner quote had been percolating in my mind for two days, waiting to merge with my own thoughts. 

Thus all of these readings remain just below the surface, pinging off this and that neuron for new insight. Emerson’s intellectual circle, Stegner’s fascination with the West, Heinrich’s detailed observation of the natural world, Woolf’s ability to transcend her 19th-century upbringing – all of this seemingly unrelated material is connected to this biography I’m researching, of a woman who could not transcend her 19th-century roots, who saw the West – Santa Barbara – as her escape, who surrounded herself with strong women, who will need to be observed with incredible patience and ingenuity if I am to understand her at all. Just as the subtext of Toibin’s books is the literary influence on him of Henry James, Oscar Wilde, William Butler Yeats and James Joyce, so too we are all products of what we read and where those books lead us.

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A return to leisure


This time of year leaves me in a quandary. On the one hand, I’m delighted by the end-of-semester freedom: Even if my summer break will be interrupted by two classes beginning June 24, for now I revel in the luxury of no material to prep, no reading to do, no papers to grade.

On the other hand, I miss the routine college teaching imposes. No matter what, during the school year I know I will be in class at 8 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, for example, and that afterwards I will hold office hours until noon, returning home to prep for the next day’s obligations.

It is not as though I have nothing to do. Indeed, I usually obligate myself plenty on my time off: Writing theater reviews, op-eds, book reviews, and fiction; editing work for hire; and, this year, the continuing opus of an institutional history I’m writing for a local hospital. Yet somehow, it is both not enough and too much.

My husband says the words “I wish I had accomplished more” will be on my tombstone, for that’s usually what I tell him when he asks how my day went. Today, for instance, I conducted an interview for the hospital history, finished editing notes for a client, and wrote 1,000 words on my novel-in-progress. Yet here I am, a rodent on a wheel, working on a blog – because always there’s the sense that more needs to be written.

It’s not guilt exactly that moves me. Sure, some might sneer at my cushy schedule – working nine months out of the year, four to six hours a day, etc. I make no apologies for that. Adjunct professors make poverty wages, and when I left journalism – hardly a lucrative profession – I took a steep pay cut. I traded money for time, and it was one of the smartest things I’ve ever done.

When I think back on my years as a newspaper editor, I miss the people I worked with, but little else. The deadlines were punishing, the schedule unforgiving. Sometimes I spent 10 or 11 hours a day at a desk, editing and writing. My health had begun to suffer. I developed ocular migraines, a lightshow my brain would put on when I’d spent too much time staring at a computer monitor. That’s no way to live.

Yes, I wanted that bromide, “quality of life.” I wanted to walk more, to spend more time with my husband and (grown) children, read more books.

My old Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines leisure as “Freedom afforded by exemption from occupation or business” or “time free from engagement.” I am often engaged – indeed, I would want to be – but my occupation or business is my own time, and I am in charge of how it is spent. At least, that’s the theory.

“To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts,” Thoreau wrote in Walden. “Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.” Thoreau built a cabin in the woods and lived there, “deliberately,” for two years, two months, and two days. My cabin is metaphorical, and still under construction.

The root of leisure is from the Old French, leisir, “permission,” from the Latin licere, “to be permitted.” We need permission to enjoy the freedom of leisure, either from an employer (the standard two-week vacation) or our minds (which must let go to enjoy that time, whether it’s two weeks or two months or two years). Perhaps I have only traded one form of servitude – the 40-hour work week – for another – my Puritan work ethic.

As children we understood leisure well. Freed from the strictures of school, we knew summer was meant for fun, not accomplishments. All too soon the back-to-school ads would appear, the buses begin to run.

When I was 9 or 10 or 11, July and August days seemed to unfold endlessly. My friend Debbie and I would stave off boredom with games of Yahtzee and Parcheesi, and then walk to the center of a our sleepy village for a Pepsi and a bag of penny candy.

If I dared utter that forbidden word – “bored” – my mother would declare in her haughtiest voice, “I wasn’t put on this earth to entertain you.”

So we learned to keep ourselves occupied. No one, least of all ourselves, expected us to be productive. There were no summer reading lists back then, no playground programs. We were our own camp counselors. This limitless freedom did not make me anxious – on the contrary: It was the return to school that gripped me in anxiety.

It seems I have forgotten what summer is for. I want the pages of writing to pile up, the to-do tasks crossed out. I want to justify my idleness.

Surely there is room for puttering too – watering the garden and folding laundry and picking wildflowers. This afternoon, when nothing urgent beckons, perhaps I can lose myself for a while in doing nothing much. The cat sleeps in her red chair. Oak leaves stir lazily in the breeze. I sit here in a sudden drowse, forgetting what I’d intended to do next.

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Houses’ mysterious (writing) allure


It was a house that drew me to Nathaniel Hawthorne, and a house that brought me back to him.

I was probably 10, browsing through the Book of Knowledge, when I first came across a condensed version of The House of the Seven Gables. Who could resist the title? Never mind the pen-and-ink sketches of the house with all its twists and turns, the gaunt Clifford, the dusty shop opened by Hepzibah. I barely understood the story, but its gothic ambience was irresistible.

Years later, my husband and I visited the house that inspired the novel, in Salem, Mass., on a brutally hot day in the summer of 1986. I don’t remember much about it, except for the steep stairs and the nooks and crannies. At some point I read the book entire. I moved on to other writers.

Since then, we have toured dozens of New England houses; some sheltered writers, others merely inspired them. Last week we found another – the Old Manse in Concord, Mass., where Hawthorne brought his bride, Sophia Peabody, after their marriage in 1842. As he recounts in Mosses from an Old Manse, this house that had sheltered many a minister – and witnessed the first shots of the Revolution, literally in its backyard – drew in the couple with a warm embrace of old timbers and the shade of black ash trees.

Set back from the road, the house was fronted by a tree-lined path; in the back, the Concord River slipped peacefully past, near where the old North Bridge had stood on that first day of the Revolution. The interior was rambling and drafty, although its front and back doors afforded a nice cross-breeze in the summer.

In her book about the Concord renaissance, American Bloomsbury, Susan Cheever senses a barely disguised sexual energy in both Hawthorne and Sophia’s writings at the time. Though their stay would be tinged by sadness – Sophia lost her first baby – they used her diamond to etch messages of hope into the window glass in Hawthorne’s study: “Man’s accidents are God’s purposes.”

Standing in that study last week, where Hawthorne wrote the classic short story “The Birth-mark” and Emerson composed the essay “Nature,” I felt the pulse of both men’s creativity beating in the air. I sat in a reproduction of the wide-armed chair Emerson used for writing, feeling a little like I was about to give blood. Hawthorne’s desk, cleverly notched into the wall, is original, as are the books throughout the house.

Notes Brenda Wineapple, author of Hawthorne: A Life: “The Manse is another of Hawthorne’s old houses, fragrant with the spirit of former tenants and, perched on the banks of the past, fit emblem of his imagination.”

The houses, always the houses. After “The House of the Seven Gables,” I was drawn to a series of books in which the house is a dominant character. Just as with Hawthorne, I discovered the Brontes in the Book of Knowledge, where Thornfield Hall looms over Jane Eyre, especially in that pivotal scene when the first Mrs. Rochester stands behind the flaming curtains of the burning hall. I read the entire novel at 12, again not completely comprehending it, but drawn in by those drafty halls and stone-lined corridors.

Later came Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and a host of gothic imitators, including Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, with its doomed Manderley. Louisa May Alcott wrote captivatingly of four sisters in Little Women, but where would the book be without Jo’s garrett, the private escape of which every young (writing) girl dreams?

No coincidence, then, that my first two novels feature houses on their covers, or that the early stories I scribbled always seemed to revolve around intriguing real estate: Tug Hollow, the old Cape Cod house where my father grew up, and what we called Howard’s House, the 1728 Cape in Escoheag that belonged to his stepfather. It didn’t take much imagination to conjure their early residents. Old ancestors’ portraits were piled upstairs in Tug Hollow, and  Howard’s mother had kept a boarding house, with the registers of their guests still extant for my fervent examination. Was it true that my grandmother had made booze in the cellar of Tug Hollow, during Prohibition? (Yes.) And that a guest had died in a mysterious hunting accident at Howard’s? (Probably not.) Already I was learning that authors didn’t write history, they just used it to spark their imaginations.

Hawthorne, Wineapple writes, needed the tangible to kick-start his tales – the red A of The Scarlet Letter, the house that (once) had seven gables, the dusty records in the Custom House where he earned his bread. It’s the past he’s sifting through, and houses are the largest embodiment of it, their rooms so metaphorically akin to our own bodies: the windows as eyes, the rooms our heart and mind, the shutters the masks we hide behind.

Not only did other residents walk the halls of the Old Manse, and peer through this wavy glass, but other writers did the same, imagining the original dwellers’ presence, a tantalizing layer of observers and observed.

Rare, however, is the house that bestows inspiration on its occupant while the writer lives there. Houses achieve their highest magnetism after we leave, and we are forced to bang together their rooms from memory. Hawthorne wrote the introduction to Mosses from an Old Manse while back in Salem, working at the Custom House. The House of the Seven Gables came to him while he and Sophia lived in a cramped rented house in the Berkshires. Alcott was living in Orchard House in Concord when she wrote Little Women, but the house she fondly remembered was the Wayside (so named by Hawthorne, when he later lived there), and the March girls’ garrett came from another house altogether – Fruitlands, the ill-conceived experimental community where Alcott and her sisters nearly starved to death.

Now, staying in a modern apartment while we await the renovation of the house where I grew up, I wonder if I will be able to write once I get there. But all that will remain is a shell, the walls, roof, and floors, for the old house only exists in my mind, the best place for writing inspiration to begin.


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A reader’s guide to convalescence

I am convalescing. That’s a word we don’t use too much any more; from the Latin, con +  valescere, to grow strong, from valere, to be strong. Maybe because convalescence takes time, and we have so little of it. We might speak of being “laid up” a couple of days or “on the couch,” but most of the time we fight our illnesses and push to get back to normal as soon as possible.

But convalescence is a wonderful concept; it’s about giving your body time to repair, heal, “grow stronger.” Doctors don’t prescribe it, because it doesn’t come in a pill bottle, profit anyone, or require a medical degree to understand. Maybe you could see the results of it through some sort of electronic imaging, but then again maybe you couldn’t. My doctor came the closest to prescribing it when he said the cure for my malady was colon rest, which is about as disagreeable prognosis as I can think of. Note he didn’t say that the patient needed rest, only one of her organs, a prescription that involves a liquid, then soft, diet.

But I am prescribing convalescence for myself. Although I can’t really stop working, this time of year I teach one morning class, that’s all, so I can spend the afternoons on the couch if I want.

We have stopped going out for breakfast and instead I sit outside here on our apartment deck, sipping tea and watching the cardinals flit from branch to branch. I’ve stopped drinking, so no more glasses of wine when we go out to eat – which we do seldom now. I’m not in the car as much, so going somewhere as become a treat, a time to take in the shades of the night sky, spot wild tiger lilies on the roadside, appreciate the fine combings of raked hay.

Mostly, I read. Since my childhood, books and convalescence have been intertwined. One winter week in 1972, my mother, sister and I – recovering from the flu – read Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s Cross Creek. Home from school with a cold, I would thumb through the ancient volumes in my mother’s bookcase – Dr. Chase’s medical book, which convinced me on more than one occasion that I was dying; Mrs. Beecher’s guide to housework, which mostly involved managing her servants; and the Book of Knowledge, with its condensed versions of classics like The House of the Seven Gables and Jane Eyre.

Convalescence and reading are both slow activities. Reading helps our bodies rest while our minds stay active; I could skip across the fields with Jo March even though I was too sick to cross the street. There’s something soporific about words on the page that allows us to drift easily into a slumber we might otherwise resist. I’ve been doing a lot of napping, too. Whether curled up on a rattan chair on the deck or under a blanket on the sofa, I move easily between the page and my dreams.

I’ve read contemporary novels (Gail Godwin’s Grief Cottage, the marvelous The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar), travelogues (Adirondack Passage by Christine Jerome), and American history (George R. Stewart’s guide to how everything here got its name, Names on the Land). There’s no limitation of genre; the point is to be transported.

Jerome’s account of her canoe trip through the Adirondacks, which traces the route that George Washington Sears took in 1883, is just the sort of tale for the laid-up. I might not feel like straying off the couch, but in my mind I’ve paddled Raquette Lake, Blue Mountain Lake, and the Saint Regis lakes, thrilling to the queer laugh of the loon, dodging stomach-twisting rollers, and marveling at the sky-splitting pines of the wilderness.

In a similar way, Cross Creek took us out of our tissue-sodden misery that long-ago February. We took turns lolling in my mother’s bed, literally passing the book to one another, enjoying this rare indulgence of leisure. The orange groves of Florida in the 1930s could not have been farther from my provincial existence in rocky New England. The smudge pots that Rawlings lit to ward off frost, the stray breeze that cooled her porch, the lap of a paddle as she canoed from house to house – it seemed a magical, upside-down world, where creeks became highways, where winter could be spring, where oranges actually grew on trees.

Ultimately, no matter what organ our doctors seem intent on fixing, it is our minds that control our bodies, and our minds that need these oases of quiet. So I rifle through my bookcase, looking for the next journey of my convalescence. Will it be Steinbeck’s California, Wordsworth’s Lake District, Nin’s Paris? Maybe it will be all three. After all, a proper convalescence should last a good long while.



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The power of the personal library


It’s hard to overestimate the importance that owning books played in my development as a reader and a writer. Although we had books in the home and went to the library regularly – by age 10 I was walking to Clark Memorial Library by myself after school – there is a difference between borrowing books and purchasing them.

The borrowed book is read, enjoyed, and returned to the library, perhaps imprinting a few lasting images on our memory. The purchased book is read, enjoyed, and returned to its shelf in our homes, a lasting reminder of the reading experience and available at any time for rereading.

By age 12 I had a small library of my own, mostly paperbacks purchased through the Scholastic Books program. Baby boomers and millennials alike will remember the colorful newsletters that were passed out in class, with their long order form inviting student purchase. Although money was always tight in our household, I can’t remember my mother ever saying no to my book requests, and a typical order might be two or three paperbacks.

Soon I had built a library of maybe two dozen books. I favored Lois Lenski’s stories of regional America, like “Prairie Girl” and “Strawberry Girl”; classics like “Little Women”; and stories of strong working women, like “Nellie Bly, Reporter.”

Sometimes, I would buy a book based on its description in the flier, only to find it too difficult or dull to capture my interest. For some reason I bought, but never read, “The Secret Garden,” for example.

The never-read and the well-thumbed books shared space on a makeshift board shelf in my room. Taking the idea of a library literally, I decided to turn my modest collection into the Thayer Free Library. My mother, again never one to stint on the educational, bought me white stickers and a due-date stamp. I fashioned by own due-date slips out of index cards and cardstock, and used my mother’s old Royal manual to type out call numbers on the stickers, which were then affixed to the book’s spines.

By this time I had begun working in our elementary school library, where I became familiar with the Dewey decimal system. I don’t recall ever actually letting someone borrow books from Thayer Free Library, however. It was the cataloging I loved.

Sometime in my early teen years, the library book sale replaced the Scholastic flier as my primary source of reading material. The first book sale I probably attended was at the Washington County Fair, where every August Clark Memorial Library filled a booth full of library discards. What riches! While my friends were riding the Tilt-a-Whirl or eating fried dough, my sister and I were browsing this pop-up bookstore. Here I filled my arms with old sentimental novels, reference books, and trashy paperbacks like “Nightmare County” and “Forever Amber.”

But for every Jacqueline Susann novel I brought home (my mother was less sanguine about these, calling them “trash” and “filth”), my library began to fill with classics, books that would remain in my library for decades to come and shape how I viewed the world. I was 15 when I bought a Harvard Classics edition of “Walden,” which still occupies a place of honor on my writing desk. Plays by Luigi Pirandello and Anton Chekhov, the short stories of Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor, poets from Walt Whitman to Sylvia Plath, and the novels of Faulkner, Steinbeck and Sinclair Lewis – these I consumed as avidly as an Agatha Christie mystery or pulp paperback.

Without realizing it, I was beginning to develop a reading aesthetic. I discovered regional novelists like William Humphreys (Texas), Shirley Ann Grau (Louisiana), and Ruth Moore (Maine). One writer led to another – Welty to O’Connor, O’Connor to Carson McCullers, McCullers to Truman Capote. All of these books began to form a web of impressions in my mind, that I tested against the reality of my own family life – the tragic, the grotesque, the comic, the pathetic. Not yet certain why one writer enthralled  and another left me cold, nonetheless I began to apprehend my own taste and to trust it.

Over the years, I’ve carried these books with me, occasionally scuttling some over the bow, as it were, to make room for more. I collected Sinclair Lewis for years, but eventually had to sacrifice most of his ballast for more contemporary writers.

Each time I moved, my father would call up his sawmill helpers and enlist them to carry the heavy boxes from one apartment to another. Doing his part, he made me two bookcases out of rough pine, perhaps optimistic that two bookcases would be sufficient.

A few months ago, my library was packed up again. My now it has grown to hundreds of books. I still have some of the original Thayer Free Library volumes (“The Schoolhouse Mystery,” “Mr. Pudgins”) and library book sale acquisitions from long ago (“Autumn Comes Early,” by Howard Breslin, a romance set against the backdrop of a hurricane). To them have been added dozens of novels, biographies, nature books, poetry collections. My husband claims he put 68 boxes into our Pod, and it’s probably not a exaggeration.

Maybe it’s because I still remember the thrill of acquiring those first volumes, the pleasure of marking them as my own – Thayer Free Library – and having them at hand to thumb through, over and over, that I have kept buying, and keeping, books. Certainly, keeping books carries a certain price, but weighed against the joy they have brought me, I would buy them all again.


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Looking back on ‘Snow-bound’

Every winter I re-read my favorite old-fashioned poem, “Snow-bound” by John Greenleaf Whittier. Its 759 lines are less the “winter idyl” of the subtitle than an elegy to a family circle that has vanished like snow at the hands of a cold and ethereal wind.

When I was a child, Whittier was the white-bearded poet on the Authors cards we laid out on the kitchen table. Even as a teenager reading “Snow-bound,” I could only see in it a vague nostalgia for a simpler time.

The poem starts off with vague foreboding: “The sun that brief December day/Rose cheerless over hills of gray/And, darkly circled, gave at noon/A sadder light than waning moon.” My grandmother understood the meaning of a ring around the sun; she would remind us that it foretold a storm. Whittier describes it as “a portent seeming less than threat,” and what youngster’s blood would not quicken at the thought of a coming blizzard?

Night and day and night the storm “roared on,” and the inhabitants of the Whittiers’ old saltbox house can only hunker down until it ceases. When the snowfall finally stops, the household marvels at the “strange domes and towers” it has created from common objects, such as the corn crib, brush pile, and well curb.

Most teenagers in the 1970s would not have recognized these objects, but I did. We lived in a small village in southern Rhode Island on just under two acres that remained of an old farm. The corn crib my father had converted into a tool shed; the brush pile would be burned at odd intervals to keep the lot clear. The property had not one but two wells, one hand-dug. A snowstorm had plenty of other surfaces to mold: an outhouse, no longer in use; a burn barrel for trash; the fence posts surrounding my mother’s garden.

On Feb. 6, 1978, the snow began to fall in the morning. Like Whittier’s storm, our blizzard that winter of my senior year came on quietly but by evening had roared into a full nor’easter. My father, in one of his many part-time jobs, was off plowing snow for the town of Richmond. My sister Andrea was house-sitting in a nearby oceanside town for our aunt, who had wisely taken off for Florida. So all that remained were my mother and I to brave the elements.

By the fire in Whittier’s birthplace in Haverhill, Mass., circled a veritable community gathering: besides his parents, there were his brother and two sisters; an aunt and uncle, both unmarried; the village schoolteacher; and famously, the “not unfeared, half-welcome guest,” Harriet Livermore, a woman in her late 20s whom Whittier portrays as willful, outspoken, and temperamental.

When Whittier wrote “Snow-bound,” he was an old man, and all but his brother had passed on. “O Time and Change! – with hair as gray/As was my sire’s that winter day,/How strange it seems, with so much gone/Of life and love, to still live on!” are the saddest four lines in the poem, the ones I return to again and again, and which I failed to comprehend all those years ago.

We had not a fireplace but a woodstove, and my mother kept it roaring from the woodbox my father had filled before his departure. She already had shut off the upstairs, and I prepared to sleep on the old sofa bed near the blazing fire. Tucked into my nightgown – which she had warmed behind the stove – I sat up on that lumpy old couch, writing another self-pitying entry in my journal.

Though she was a writer, Mother had no such luxury. It was nearly 9 p.m., the wind had picked up into a whine, and my father had just called to say his pickup had gotten stuck in a snowdrift and he would have to spend the night at a neighbor’s house. All around Rhode Island, strangers sought shelter as the snow overwhelmed the plows and, one by one, roads shut down.

“I hope they’re treating him all right,” Mother muttered, as she prepared to go outside. The kerosene in the kitchen stove had dipped dangerously low, and since that was our only source of heat in that part of the house, she would have to refill the jug. In her silver parka, a “second” from Kenyon Mill, she looked like an Apollo astronaut about to walk on the moon.

When she huffed back inside with the full jug, tipping it carefully upside down into its cradle, we heard the reassuring glug-glug of flowing kerosene. She kept up a running commentary of the conditions outside: she didn’t think she would make it back; the visibility was near zero; the wind blew and the snow drifted. I stood in the door between living room and kitchen, already imagining how I would relate her hysterics to my sister.

Years later, hearing this story, my husband said matter-of-factly, “And you didn’t offer to help her?”

The thought, then and now, had never occurred to me.

“You could at least have gone outside and offered her some moral support.”

Well, I was in my nightgown. But the truth was we were all so used to my mother’s anxiety that I never took any of her fears – or her hard work – seriously. Now I can imagine what it might have been like to face that howling wind, wade through the rising drifts, turn on the kerosene drum’s tap, and keep that jug steady while it filled. And what it must have weighed as she tried to find her way to the back steps, into the back room and up to the kitchen stove, all the while thinking that her husband was away for the night, and who knew when he would return?

As Whittier mourned his family in “Snow-bound,” so too I look back on that February night, almost 40 years ago, and find it hard to believe that I am the same age, 58, as she was then. That my father, my mother, and my sister have all died, and the Blizzard of ’78 has passed into lore, a story to be told to subsequent generations. As I sit snugly in our centrally heated house, I can only “pause to view/these Flemish pictures of old days,” and marvel at how little of life we really apprehend as we live it.

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Five publishing trends: Skip the subhead


As a coda to my annual analysis of books read in 2017, I identify five trends in publishing:

  1. World War II novels continue to be hot. This year I caught up with two recent best-sellers of this genre: Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale and Margaret Hall Kelly’s Lilac Girls, both on audio, and reviewed Georgia Hunter’s We Were The Lucky Ones – based on her own family’s harrowing experiences in a Polish ghetto – as well as Loretta Ellsworth’s Stars Over Clear Lake, set stateside during the war. Whether because this international conflict still resonates in our foreign policy or because it provided so many opportunities for female empowerment, World War II still feels contemporary to modern audiences, despite the fact that most readers are two generations removed from this era. As the daughter of an Army veteran who served in the European Theater under General Patton, I can’t get enough of these stories.
  2. Novelists also are taking inspiration from real lives, especially those of writers and artists. This year I reviewed three books in this category. A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline is about Christina Olson of “Christina’s World” fame, and Isadora by Amelia Gray was inspired by dancer Isadora Duncan and the tragic death of her children. You could also put in this category Caroline: Little House Revisited, by Sarah Miller, an authorized retelling of the Little House books from the perspective of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s mother, Caroline Ingalls. There seems to be no end to this sort of thing (Amy Bloom has a novel coming out in February, White Houses, about the relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and the journalist Lorena Hickok). The writers who take on these subjects must combine the skill of the novelist with the accuracy of the biographer, quite a tightrope to walk; still, they make me cranky.
  3. Some famous writers seem to skate by on their reputation, as publishers will put out just about anything that has a recognizable name attached. Joan Didion’s South and West: From a Notebook was pretty much what its subtitle implies – a disconnected series of episodes from unfinished projects. Richard Russo’s short story collection, Trajectory, was good, but it only included four stories (the best of which, “Voice,” was really a novella).
  4. And while we’re at it, can we somehow put an end to the seemingly endless parade of subtitles, particularly in nonfiction? You can pretty much sum up every title this year as BIG F-ING CAPITALS: What This Book is Really About.
  5. Despite the dire predictions that books are dead, people continue to read them, and publishers continue to produce them, and they find their way to me in sometimes unusual ways. The Providence Journal forwards me packages that turn an ordinary day into Christmas. Publishers mail me books in care of The Day, and authors even send them to my URI address. I can only review so many (this year, I wrote 22 reviews for the Journal – two have yet to appear – and wrote two book-related pieces for The Day). Some just don’t resonate with me as a matter of taste. The Journal, like most newspapers, doesn’t review self-published books. As a writer, I know how tough it is to get your work published and reviewed. So I guess point 5 is: The publishing business continues to be difficult, but all of us, writers and readers alike, should support the writers and publishers who produce books, the bookstores that sell them, and the publications that make space for reviews. Happy reading in the New Year!

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A year of reading great writers

Each year I compile a “best of” books list for two newspapers, The Providence Journal and The Day of New London, Conn. These lists sometimes differ (if I can give a shout-out to a local author for either publication, I do), but they share the same failing: limited to 2017 releases, they don’t begin to plumb the depths of the year’s reading.

I read 54 books last year, 13 more than last year and a new personal record. Part of this was due to a June reading binge that coincided with an embarrassment of riches from my book review pile and the end of the spring semester. My audiobook habit also contributed to this total, at 11 titles. Of the 54 books read, 23 were novels; 10 were biographies; and 13 were memoirs or diaries. More than half of the books, or 32, were written by women.

Scanning the list, I can see how one book leads to another, or one interest expands outward, enveloping other authors and genres. My interest in Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson continued, bolstered by a summer trip to Concord, Mass. I reviewed Kevin Dann’s Expect Great Things: The Life and Search of Henry David Thoreau, but it was Robert D. Richardson Jr.’s 1986 tome, Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, that resonated. Richardson exhaustively traces Thoreau’s intellectual interests and pursuits and manages to bring him to life; at the end, when HDT utters his cryptic last words (“Moose. Indian”), I nearly cried.

At the Walden Pond bookstore, I found Richardson’s Emerson: The Mind on Fire, another exemplary intellectual biography that held in me in thrall in August after our visit to Emerson’s house. This time, however, the ending felt muted, despite the masterful job Richardson does of unweaving both Emerson’s state of mind and writing influences. A bonus: finding an errata tucked into the book that had been initialed in Richardson’s own hand.

Thoreau and Emerson were never far from my mind as I “discovered” another 20th-century nature writer. Much like Edwin Way Teale, Donald Culross Peattie was a best-selling author in his own time and has since faded from view. I found reprints of The Road of a Naturalist and An Almanac for Moderns at Bank Square Books in Mystic, Conn., which consistently shelves an eclectic selection of fiction and nonfiction. If Teale is ultimately a journalist of nature, Peattie is a poet, painting evocative pictures of terrain ranging from the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina (where his mother, also a writer, retreated to a cabin) to the American West. Here’s Peattie describing the all-too-brief blooming of desert flowers, like blue gilias and Mojave aster:

We used to wonder, at the ranch, how far this flood of rare flowering washed across the desert floor. You couldn’t tell; you only knew it went on to the rim of the horizon. And you knew it was brief. It must be loved while you had it, like the song of the thrush in the southern states. Something that each morning you dread to find gone at last, whelmed by the advance of summer heat. (p. 14)

Peattie is writing about so much more than desert life cycles. “It must be loved while you had it” could be a philosophy of life. I had to look up whelmed, which, derived from the Middle English, means “to turn upside down” or “cover or engulf completely,” clearly the origin of our contemporary and, as I now realize, redundant overwhelmed.

The best writers send me to my dictionary. They prompt me to keep a pencil or pen in hand so I can annotate favorite passages. Emerson and Thoreau, of course, were both insatiable and wide-ranging readers; if you tour Emerson’s house, you can see his floor-to-ceiling bookcase, in fact a series of stacked bureau drawers he would pull out and take with him on lecture tours. Richardson notes that it’s not the volume of reading that is important, but “the active filtration and the tight focus of constant intention which convert that reading into real life experience and then into adequate expression,” what he calls “the exclusive properties of the great writer.”

This year also brought continued focus on Anais Nin, whose diary created a sensation when it was finally published in seven volumes beginning in 1966. I finished vols. three and four this year, and then read Deirdre Bair’s Anais Nin: A Biography, which fills in the gaps created by Nin’s elaborate evasions. You can read Nin many ways – and she has been condemned as a liar, a “minor writer,” or what Bair calls “a major minor writer.” She has been criticized for posing as an independent artist while her banker husband supported her (and her many lovers and hangers-on). You could condemn her for both bigamy (she was married to two men, on the East and West coasts, and kept them each in the dark for years) and incest (with her father, the musician and ne’er-do-well Joaquin Nin). She had multiple abortions, slept with two of her analysts, and suffered the miserable death of the promiscuous, dying of cervical cancer at age 73.

The bottom line, for me, is that she was a writer and artist who fought to curate her own life, in the face of overwhelming – or should we just say whelming? – financial, cultural, and patriarchal odds. Her diary is not the spontaneous outpourings of a romantic, as cliché would have it, but an extensively rewritten document that has been polished, sharpened, and cut to illuminate hard diamonds of truth. In this she can be likened to that most unlikely of comrades, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who actually spent two years indexing his own journals to make it easier to mine them for lecture and essay ideas.

Nin’s diaries were both her well spring and her albatross. She carried them across continents, from Paris to New York to Los Angeles, and secreted them in bank vaults or hidden compartments in her own closets. She hid them from some and shared them with others; Henry Miller borrowed liberally from her work in writing Tropic of Cancer. She relentlessly hawked them to publishers and agents, behavior that even her biographer condemned but which eventually paid off when she found a sympathetic agent, Gunther Stuhlmann, who edited and sold the diaries to Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

If Nin had been a man, of course, her relentless pursuit of publication would have been lauded, not criticized. Her sexual habits would be the stuff of legend, not condemnation, and even her bigamy would be hailed as some sign of literary genius. We cannot separate her work’s reception from her gender, particularly as her life as a woman is such a predominant theme in the diaries (and in her fiction).

If there is any theme to this year’s reading, it is those writers and artists brave enough to create their own lives and talented enough to make them into art. In reading biographies of Andrew Wyeth, Tennessee Williams, and Daphne du Maurier, and memoirs by Joyce Carol Oates and Sandra Cisneros, I find this recurring struggle. From what well does inspiration come? How can the artist serve the dual masters of an intellectual life and a personal, human one? Who decides whether the artist succeeds or fails?

As a book critic, I make cold assessments of people’s work. As a writer, I pursue the seemingly impossible task of both living and reflecting, of trying to curate a life that is both creative and moral. It is a life that is firmly rooted in the written word. You cannot be a writer without being a reader, and the best books will lead you to the habits of great writers. So in 2017 I have considered the inspiration of the natural world; the possibility within journals; the necessity of never giving up.

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Knausgaard draws us in tighter to the vortex

If I were to imitate his style, I might write this brief look at Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle (Book Four) by starting out in the near present, no particular concern for the comma splice, I type at my keyboard, the letters of which have partially or completely faded (gone are the B, V, S, D, C, O, R, T and I). This requires my fingers to take over from my eyes but, occasionally when passwords must be entered exactly, I peek at the gold-on-black letters of my mother’s 1946 Royal sitting on the table next to me.
After this scene had been painted fully, my interior state of mind plumbed, I would retreat to the near past. The transition might be jarring, a few years, even decades. It would be told so directly, however, that my reader would follow along. In 2014 I sat in a beach chair at Misquamicut, My Struggle, Book One, heavy in my lap. I held my cell phone camera at elbow’s length. In the viewfinder, the ocean rolled in green underneath a white sky. I might stay in 2014 for the rest of this blog and only return to the present year near the end, with a sudden but swift bit of summary.
I cannot write like Knausgaard, I can barely imitate him, yet my thoughts are consumed with self-awareness (how to write about consciousness? how much should be revealed? How presumptuous am I?). Because Book Four (translated by Dan Bartlett, Archipelago Books, 2015), like the previous volumes of My Struggle, can be dissected but not imitated. I can tell that he violates rules; the bulk of each memoir is one long flashback; yet the narrative unfolds with intense immediacy. I know there is a novel arc in here somewhere, that is, we have plot questions: tension builds around his quest to lose his virginity, his inept first-year teaching, and his excessive drinking. But to think of My Struggle as having a conventional plot arc – rising tension, climax, falling action, denouement – is to miss the underlying structure of the six-volume series, which has yet to be fully realized.
Rather than an arc – a roller-coaster – the essential questions of this novel can be likened to concentric circles. His relationship with his alcoholic, abusive father and his quest to become an artist (that is, a writer) do not unfold in a neat three-act structure. What you get instead is a whirlpool that draws the reader in and threatens to annihilate the narrator. These circles, like ripples in a pond, tighten with each volume, bringing the narrator – and the reader – closer to the abyss. Yet, just when you think you have learned everything – the young Karl Ove humiliated, beaten, mentally tortured; the adult Karl Ove cleaning up after the dead father and his trail of broken relationships – you realize you are remain on the brink of the vortex, doomed to spin around, waiting for the next book, the deeper revelations.
With each volume last summer, the closer I felt to the secret of Knausgaard’s genius, the further it seemed to slip from my grasp. So this is where we leave off, in 2015, to puzzle out a memoir sequence with our own limited range of tools: Q, W, A, Z, X, Y, P and U and shards of J, K and M.

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