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Now Entering River Heights

January 18, 2013 in Fiction, Mystery Writers, Travel, YA Fiction, Young Adult Literature

“Half an hour later she turned into the beautiful country road which wound in and out along the Muskoka River”  -  The Secret of the Old Clock

Some of the literary journeys I wish I could take would be impossible to pull off. Not because of time constraints or travel expenses, but because the destinations simply don’t exist. At least not in reality. But as literary travelers, that has never stopped us.

As a child I spent countless hours traveling around the country without leaving my porch swing. Now, as an adult, I miss those nostalgic literary adventures.  So recently I decided to pay homage to the books that sparked my love of literature. Join me as I set out on this bookish “staycation”–no need to bring a sweater, what you’re wearing will be fine.  The weather in Sweet Valley, California, is lovely this time of year.  Accommodations in Silver City may be a little pricey, but I hear there’s a boxcar that is quite comfortable.  And if you have children, not to worry, there are plenty experienced babysitters in Stoneybrook, Connecticut.  Of all the stops on this road trip through fictional America, however, no destination holds the same allure as River Heights, Ohio…or Illinois…or, err, New Jersey.  Unfortunately, its exact location remains a mystery –which hurts tourism, wouldn’t you say?.  Good thing it’s the home of one of the finest fictional detectives ever…Nancy Drew!

Welcome to River Heights.  Established in 1930 with the publication of the first of the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories, the town is itself an enigma. Many an amateur detective has taken a page from the area’s most famous resident and done a little sleuthing into its geography. While most argue that it’s somewhere in the Midwest, others claim the town has moved east in recent years.  Some hypothesize that it depends on which ghostwriter inhabiting the infamous Carolyn Keene wrote the particular text.

The original Nancy Drew books often read like compelling travel guides to River Heights and its surrounding areas. Amidst the pursuit of unscrupulous characters, Nancy and her friends are whisked away to various country estates and charming inns where there is always time for a well-prepared luncheon.  For a quaint little town, the crime rate is quite high, but I’m sure the River Height Chamber of Commerce makes it a point to highlight the area’s positive attributes in their hardback yellow-spined travel guides.

Looking for things to do while you are in town?  A scenic drive down Larkspur Lane in a little blue roadster can make for a lovely afternoon.  At one time the home of nefarious schemers, it is now known for its flourishing horticulture.  Don’t mind the electric fence surrounding that old rustic estate, it’s most likely deactivated now.  Bring a picnic, if you dare.

For a romantic weekend with the Ned Nickerson of your life, book a getaway at the Lilac Inn.  Make use of the in-room safe and store your valuables out of sight from lurking jewel thieves. Don’t mind the ghostly apparitions that appear sporadically on the ground, they add to the property’s historic charm, don’t you think?

While you are in town, make sure to stop in at Red Gate Farm.  The cider is top notch, but don’t feed the animals.  And if you venture off the property and run into any lingering members of the Black Snake Colony, don’t drink the Kool-Aid.  Word is that they may be in the counterfeit business as well.  I knew I shouldn’t have made change for that twenty.

River Heights thrived in the 1960s and 1970s (when most of the original 56 texts were written or rewritten).  It was a simpler time, when an afternoon ride down a winding country road in Nancy’s convertible would be followed up with a light lunch at one of the town’s tearooms. Yet the landscape of River Heights has changed throughout the years; criminals using intricate webs of carrier pigeons upgraded to landlines and eventually, in the latest YA volumes, the internet.

After every literary adventure, as I return to reality always slightly jet lagged from the trip, I am sad to leave the intangible world, but I remember that I can return anytime. River Heights may be impossible to place on a globe–my GPS may never calculate its route–but as Herman Melville states in Moby Dick, “it is not down in any map; true places never are.”

*

If you are looking to travel by the book, indulge in a little girl sleuth nostalgia by participating in one of the annual Nancy Drew conventions.  Much like River Heights, they change location every year.  Each event takes its theme from two geographically appropriate titles – one from the original fifty-six and one from the later paperbacks.  This spring journey to Boston and join other Drew devotees as they immerse themselves in the settings that provide the backdrop to The Secret of the Wooden Lady and The Case of the Vanishing Veil.

 

Fauxscar Nominee: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

December 19, 2012 in American Authors, Book Review, Fauxscars, Film, Literary Movies, Young Adult Literature

The movie adaptation of Stephen Chbosky’s well-loved 1999 novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, tries really hard, but doesn’t really succeed. Interestingly enough, Chbosky wrote and directed Perks himself, which could have resulted in a perfect adaptation, but which actually seemed to contribute to some of the move’s shortcomings. The story, as you probably know, is about the of the trials and tribulations of Charlie, an awkward adolescent boy, the very epitome of the shy, intelligent teen who can’t get out of his own head, who feels like he doesn’t belong.

The movie opens with his entry into high school, where he’s awash in an unforgiving and harsh landscape. Logan Lerman, the actor who plays Charlie, is far too good looking to be cast as a misfit, and his attempts at looking shy come across as emotionless and blank. His smile is too perfect to find the bullying he endures believable. Allusions to his troubling past (his best friend’s suicide, the death of his beloved Aunt Helen and a possible mental illness) are made throughout the movie, but due time is not given to his past, so Charlie’s current state of confusion and sadness is hard to empathize with or fully understand. Mostly by accident, Charlie is adopted by the other kids at school who don’t “fit in,” including the odd stepbrother-stepsister duo of Patrick (played by the dynamic Ezra Miller) and Sam (played by the charming Emma Watson). Patrick and Sam welcome Charlie into a world where he feels accepted, safe and loved. Things begin to look up for him—he learns how to eat a weed brownie, he goes to some parties, he exchanges Christmas gifts, and yes, he falls in love with Sam. His naïveté and earnestness is endearing, and, at times, a bit painful to watch—perhaps, in part, because the moments in which these things materialize remind us of our own adolescence.

Ezra Miller, with his gorgeous, sculpted cheekbones steals the show as the openly gay Patrick, who puts on a mean rendition of Rocky Horror Picture Show, a moment well worth watching. A cameo from Judd Aptow’s go-to, Paul Rudd, as the Charlie’s English teacher (you know, the one who “believes in him”), doesn’t carry the depth it should; instead, the character ends up just another corduroy-wearing-To-Kill-A-Mockingbird-reading English teacher. And while certain elements are cliché, the soundtrack is very well done. Featuring David Bowie’s Heroes and teen dream classics by Sonic Youth and The Samples, the sound track helps move the movie along, but still falls somewhat short of the mark.

As much as we want to care about Charlie, the reasons for his issues are left largely untouched, and addressed only through snapshots and brief flashbacks. As we watch him gain self-confidence, secure a girlfriend (even if he’s still in love with Sam) we find ourselves wondering, Does this kid really have it that bad? His family, (while maybe ineffectual and under involved) seem to truly care about him, and he doesn’t struggle with intellectual affairs. But as the movie comes to a close, and we watch Charlie’s life start to unravel, his problems seems to be somewhere far off.

Emma Watson does her darndest with the role of the bubbly, but somewhat lost, Sam, and the connection between Charlie and her is one of the more believable relationships Perks has to offer. Ultimately, Perks the movie attempts to make us feel something we can’t: a connection to the emotionally and philosophically advanced psyche of a young man. It was a heroic try, but the movie, unlike the novel, is easy to dismiss—something like closing the lid on a shoebox full of yearbooks and graduation tassels.

Mercy Brown: American Vampire

October 24, 2012 in American Authors, American History, American literature, children's literature, Dark New England, European Writers, Gothic Literature, Halloween, Horror Writers, Literary Movies, New England Travel, Vampires in Literature, Women Writers

Halloween is big in the Northeast – a liberating blast of Pagan thrills before the bleak snows and Puritan thrift of winter. As the festival approaches, New England’s colors turn from fresh blues and greens to the long black shadows and pantomime reds of autumn. Many associate this creepy side of New England with Salem and its persecution of ‘witches’. Vampires, it is widely believed, were a European legend that was successfully exported to America, and from there they entered myth, legend and popular culture.

For anyone looking for clues about the origins of the modern American vampire, the papers of a London playwright seem to offer a tantalizing possibility. It is true that Bram Stoker kept a newspaper clipping about the 1892 case of the exhumation of a Rhode Island ‘vampire’ called Mercy Brown, but the date of the source seems to have been too late to have influenced Dracula. These ‘hick’ vampires from a depressed Rhode Island farming community are not like the aristocratic vampire of Stoker’s fiction: for one thing they really existed, and for another they tragically reveal attempts to come to terms with an urgent problem – TB.

Like the vampire, tuberculosis visited ordinary communities seemingly at random – preying upon family members, slowly robbing them of their life and turning them into fevered ghostly individuals with a persistent bloody cough. The disease could manifest soon after it was contracted, dragging on for years – or, as in the case of Mercy Brown – it could lay dormant for a decade before it quickly progressed.

Mercy Brown was the second last member of her family to die from the disease. Several years after her mother and sister were buried, Mercy and her older brother Edwin took ill. When Mercy died, the community immediately began looking for answers. After a doctor reported that Mercy’s heart contained tuberculosis germs, the locals insisted on extreme measures.  They burned Mercy’s heart and fed the ashes to her brother, who died soon thereafter. It seems that Mercy’s father allowed the exhumation because he was under great pressure from his frightened neighbors in Exeter, Rhode Island.

Mercy’s grave is now a destination for tourists, goths, and ‘legend trippers’ – those who visit graves to seek evidence of the occult at supposedly haunted spots in Rhode Island. In Mercy’s time, these myths seemed disturbing eruptions of superstition. New fiction was even blamed by some observers for encouraging this superstitious behavior in a century that considered itself progressive and rational.

One thing that makes supernatural literary tourism so accessible in New England is the way real places and events often influence fiction. The great American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft referred to Mercy Brown’s case in his story, “The Shunned House.” Just as Mercy’s sad quiet grave can be found in a small cemetery in Rhode Island, the real Shunned House still stands – a private residence in Providence Rhode Island.  H.P. Lovecraft based his story on the history of the family who lived there, imagining the dead family members preying on the living, like the Exeter vampires. Even those who did not write about the vampire TB cases were aware of them. Thoreau for example wrote about a TB exhumation in his diary.

62 years’ after Mercy Brown’s exhumation, Richard Matheson published I Am Legend, a story about vampires that had a medical explanation. The story’s protagonist Robert Neville holes up in a house after a vampire apocalypse and studies the vampires that were his former neighbors until he finds the cause of their condition: a bacteria that fades with sunlight. Though the source of Matheson’s imaginings has not been revealed, it’s possible that he heard stories of vampire TB scares growing up in New Jersey.

For Young Adult author Sarah Thomson, history proved juicy enough to build her novel Mercy on. After many years of vampire fiction based on legend and folklore, Thomson’s is a historical vampire novel that tells the story of a real person, Mercy Brown, or the ‘last New England vampire’. As Thomson said in an interview, real life can often be scarier than fiction.

These days, thanks to its history of vampire panics, Rhode Island is the destination for ‘vampire hunters’, just as Salem is the home of witches. This time of year you’ll find a wealth of flamboyant tours, including the Ghosts of Newport and Providence Ghost Tour, of the area’s most haunted spots – but be prepared to find the real history a lot more frightening and tragic than your guides’ costumes.

 

Living Literary History at Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables

October 19, 2012 in American Authors, American History, American literature, Dark New England, Famous Museums, Gothic Literature, Halloween, Holidays Literary Traveler, Massachusetts, Massachusetts Travel, New England Travel, Travel

Located on the waterfront in Salem, Massachusetts, The House of the Seven Gables is a higgledy-piggledy pile of secret staircases, parlors and garrets – an eccentric collage architectural styles that has borne the stamp of every owner who lived there. But the strangest thing about the house is that, since the publication of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous novel of the same name in 1851, The House of the Seven Gables has been gradually evolving to look more like the house of Hawthorne’s imagination.  As our fabulous and knowledgeable tour guide, Jeff Horton, explains, “in a sense, the fictional novel saved the real house.”

It’s clear that, for Horton, associate to the group tour coordinator of The Gables, this is not just a job, but a personal passion.  Upon learning that we are literature enthusiasts, he insists on running to his car to procure his own 1922 edition of Hawthorne’s book, animatedly pointing out that it was edited by a high school teacher from Somerville, Massachusetts,  Literary Traveler’s home-base.

Horton is extremely well-versed in all aspects of the Turner-Ingersoll House (the official name of The Gables), as well as the Nathaniel Hawthorne House, where the author was born.  The latter was located across town until 1958, when, to the delight of certain Hawthorne enthusiasts, it was transported on a flat bed truck to its present location next door to The Gables.

Originally built in 1668, the Turner-Ingersoll House is the oldest wooden mansion still standing in New England.  Upon the start of the tour we are struck by the low ceilings, built to conserve heat.  Horton segues into an overview of the hardships of seventeenth century living, which far exceed ducking through doorways, and than swiftly recovers our spirits with a little historian humor: “we love history – it’s like The Hunger Games everyday of your life.”

One of the most surprising things that we learn on our tour is that Nathaniel Hawthorne never knew the seven gabled house that he wrote about. Its first owner was the wealthy merchant family Turner, which accumulated a fortune through its involvement with the ‘Triangle Trade’ in China.  In what was to become a tradition of great wealth lost and gained, the house passed from the Turner family to the Ingersoll family, after the third generation Turner squandered the family fortune. The Ingersoll family, in an attempt to adapt the house to a Federalist style, removed four of the seven gables. It was only through his Ingersoll cousin Susanna’s descriptions of the house that Hawthorne conceived of the uncanny seven gabled house of his novel.

And it’s Hawthorne’s book that is the reason the house is preserved today. A fan of the author’s work, Caroline O. Emmerton, who acquired the house in 1908, founded The House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association to commemorate the literature of Nathaniel Hawthorne and educate the community. If Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables house was once haunted by the uneasy ghosts of family (his ancestors were involved in the Salem witch trials), the resident ghost today seems to have the philanthropic and busy spirit of Miss Emmerton. Emmerton replaced the remaining gables, turned the back room of the house into a sweet-shop like the one in Hawthorne’s novel, and used the profits from tours to educate local Polish immigrant children. The Settlement Association still works within the Dominican community to help immigrants today.

With the assistance of the architect Joseph Everett Chandler, who was known for his controversial restorations, Miss Emmerton hammed up the house’s Gothic credentials by restoring the staircase embedded in the house’s chimney as a ‘secret’ one, complete with false paneling and a concealed lever to open the secret door. This staircase was designed as a literal representation of how the novel’s character, Clifford Pyncheon, moved from room to room without being seen. Thus the house’s Gothic elements were, within less than a century of Hawthorne’s death, no longer fearful evidence of the house’s bad karma, but of great literary worth.

As we finish up the tour, I wonder whether this strange house – like so many other mansions before it – has been fixed in this perfected, seemingly final state, nevermore to evolve. As a national tourist site, it would seem so.

However, Horton gives us a more nuanced impression.  In the famous accounting room, typically closed in October due to the heavy flow of tourists, he shows us a map – a battered, old looking artifact that seems to fit perfectly into the room’s furnishings next to an authentic wooden chair.  But we soon learn that the map was created by a museum employee, who baked it in his oven to create its time-worn, weathered look. Horton’s advice says a lot about both the house and our view of history: “You have to be careful when you come to museums”, he warns, “things aren’t always what they seem.”

Master of Creep: Edgar Allan Poe

October 16, 2012 in American Authors, Edgar Allen Poe, Fiction, Horror, New England Travel, Stephen King

As Halloween draws near, and ghostly decorations and leering jack-o-lanterns begin to appear, I find myself thinking about the Master of Gloom, Doom, and Murder: New England’s very own, Edgar Allan Poe.

I didn’t start to read Poe’s short stories seriously until college. (Before that, I only dabbled, like many, with The Raven sometime around the seventh grade.) The delicious darkness of his stories was a welcome change from Melville’s Benito Cereno or Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass.

But I was never a fan of horror stories. I could never get through a Stephen King novel, and the infamous Chuck Palahniuk’s fiction goes somewhere over my head. I read six or seven chapters of Brett Easton’s Ellis’ American Psycho before giving up in horror and sheer repulsion. Poe, on the other hand, doesn’t repel me–he delights me.  And, there are few stories in which he doesn’t even mention murder, insanity, ghosts, haunted houses or, god forbid, being buried alive.

What he does manage to do with his collection of stories–the element  that makes each one ‘a Poe’–is take a snapshot of the mind of a deeply disturbed individual who does something equally disturbing. Without being gory, Poe’s stories make your skin crawl. Without being graphic, Poe’s stories make your hair stand up on end. Poe created complete universes in which the reader starts to believe the narrator.

One of Poe’s most genius skills is his artful handling of the narrator’s voice. He convinces us for a while that the mad man is a sane man. At some point in the story, we may even find ourselves empathizing with the narrator’s actions–even as he removes a cat’s eyeball, or hacks his wife into pieces with an ax in The Black Cat. How does Poe get us there?!

In Poe’s The Telltale Heart, the narrator has a clear and rational way of telling his tale. In the beginning he even speaks to the reader’s assumption of his madness, saying, “How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily –how calmly I can tell you the whole story.” Herein is Poe’s genius: he allows the narrator to tell us why he does what he does, and as we read, we too begin to lose our grip on reality. In The Tell-Tale Heart, when the narrator hears the dead old man’s heartbeat from beneath the floorboards, we can hear it thumping too!

Poe didn’t write with a singular task of frightening his readers, like many writers of the “detective fiction” genre, which he’s credited for creating–instead, he writes with the intention of making us understand his world.

Poe lived a hard, often reclusive life, riddled with drug and alcohol abuse. In photographs of Poe, it’s seems  as if he was haunted–those sad dark eyes and somber expression lead readers to wonder how much of what he wrote was autobiographical. Was his mind as dark as his characters’? Poe’s stories linger, and remain somewhere in the back of your mind, where you turn them over and over, looking for an answer.

This sense of ambiguity runs through almost every one of Poe’s stories. As soon as you have concluded something is an indisputable fact, Poe manages to upset your opinion. In The Fall of The House of Usher, the reader cannot make out whether or not Madeline is dead. The narrator sees her dead body, but is thrown off by her rosy and lifelike complexion. What the narrator sees, we see. Has there been a mistake? Is she being entombed alive? Poe builds in our imaginations the “what ifs?”, and constantly addresses the shared human emotion of fear, and our desire to snuff it.

As Roderick Usher says, “I have, indeed, no abhorrence of danger, except in its absolute effect – in terror. In this unnerved – in this pitiable condition – I feel that the period will sooner or later arrive when I must abandon life and reason together, in some struggle with the grim phantasm, FEAR.” You cannot reason with fear.

Unlike the unflinchingly descriptive gore of Stephen King and Chuck Palahniuk, Poe hovers somewhere above the proverbial dead bodies, inviting the reader to fear what will come next at every turn.

So dust off the Master Of Creep’s stories, and take each heavy step into the darkening days of October with him.

Interview with Linda Olle, Author of the Upper East Side Cookbooks

October 10, 2012 in Fiction, Interviews

Linda Olle’s alter ego Parsley Cresswell is an intriguing character. Glamorous, yet frugal, evasive, yet conspiratorial, she’s the perfect guide to New York’s Upper East Side. Like Parsley, Olle is an avid birder, and the Upper East Side Cookbooks are a little bit like bird-spotting guides you might take with you to a café, while you sip and observe the neighborhood’s characters.

They’re also scrapbooks of tips on how to enjoy life and literature in a wealthy neighborhood on a budget. When WNYC’s Brian Lehrer asked Olle how she differed from her creation, she said coyly, “well, I don’t wear furs.” She does however forage for mushrooms and Gingko nuts in Central Park. And like Parsley, who manages to be both spontaneous and organized, she advises using caution and proper gear.

The UES Cookbooks are narrated by Parsley’s neighbor, a straight-laced accountant who, after Parsley ends up in prison, pulls together the pieces of Parsley’s scandalous life from the notes in her cookbooks. Parsley’s crime? – a former writer and critic fallen on hard times, she pragmatically takes the job of dominatrix, and has the misfortune to be present at the scene of a wealthy old businessman’s death.

Linda Olle blends the drama of Parsley’s life with practical tips from her own experience living on the Upper East Side. The combination of humor, rumor, recipe and literature is a really unique way to be introduced to a neighborhood.

Literary Traveler: What is it that makes artists and writers like yourself want to stay in the Upper East Side, despite the cost of living there?

Linda Olle: If you got your apartment a long time ago, your rent is probably cheaper than in the Bronx. I signed my lease in 1981. It’s quiet here and the architecture is spectacular. There are lots of restaurants and few places to food-shop. I wanted to write about this oddball neighborhood, and there had never been a regional cookbook of the UES.

About ten years ago, I took up bird watching, which is practically inevitable when you live next to Central Park. It opened up a whole world, and I met some wonderful New Yorkers. It’s also Museum Mile. Parsley Cresswell, the heroine of the fictional-cookbook, goes to museum free nights and takes up bird watching, which is also free.

LT: Do you think the recession has changed the habits of wealthy Upper East Siders, or is it just freelancers like Parsley who’ve had to tighten their belts?

LO: Honestly, I cannot tell. I hear rumors of penthouses in foreclosure. Though I bill myself as the Queen of the Upper East Side, and my twitter is CarnegieHillian, I don’t know how neighbors manage at all.

I assume they’re like Mitt Romney and have their billions stored offshore, tax-free. Some of my neighbors are cool people and support good causes. It’s mostly Democrat. I don’t begrudge my neighbors their money, I just wish they’d forked over the taxes to help out their fellow man.

LT: Eric Arthur Blair (A.K.A. George Orwell) is one of Parsley’s favorite literary personalities – and seems to influence her philosophy. Which non-food related author has influenced Parsley’s cooking the most?

LO: The news stories of Martha Stewart spending 5 months at Federal Prison Camp Alderson, in West Virginia, fascinated me. She was able to make crème brûlée in the prison microwave. In Volume 3 of the Upper East Side cookbook series, Parsley Does Thyme, to be published on December 6, 2012, Parsley Cresswell is in prison and manages to make chocolate soufflé in a mug and microwave banana cake. She meets a serial killer who murdered two fiancés who stood her up at the altar: “Julienne made the roasted chicken with lemon and garlic dish called Engagement Chicken with Marry Me Juice for each of her serial boyfriends. She served it with Dutch beer and a salad called Lettuce Alone.” (page 52, Parsley Does Thyme.)

Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London influenced me. Eric Arthur Blair (A.K.A. George Orwell) had a job as a waiter at a restaurant in Paris, found himself working “seventeen and a half hours” a day, “almost without a break.” It prevented him from eating an expensive restaurant meal ever again: “I can point to one or two things I have definitely learned by being hard up. I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy… nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant.” (from Down and Out in Paris and London)

LT: I know that Parsley adores Julia Child – but in the Upper East Side Main Course (Vol 2.) I was surprised to learn that her accountant/neighbor/biographer doesn’t ‘get’ her. Does this reflect your mixed feelings about Julia Child – or do you, like Parsley, make the sign of the cross when her name is mentioned?

LO: I revere her and grew up loving her TV show – everybody did. She was a hoot! Yet I rarely refer to Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It’s not the most dog-eared cookbook in my collection.

I met Julia Child in 1995, at her home in Cambridge, with my friend who went to the Cordon Bleu. It was about the best day of my life to sit listen to them talk about Paris. She served smoked salmon and dill sandwiches and champagne. Julia’s girlfriend played the piano. It was a sparkling couple of hours. I was higher than a kite.

LT: Parsley’s thriftiness seems to have been born out of her Midwest farming background. But I also notice allusions to the kind of super-organized hippie cooking of the 70s Superwoman. What do you think of the Superwoman model of housekeeping? Do you reckon it’s making a comeback with the recession – and is it sustainable in a tiny city apartment?

LO: The 70s Superwoman was barefoot in the kitchen, made her own bread, wore her hair down, drank cheap red wine, smoked a joint while she cooked. Parsley is that, but actually more of a 50s hostess who takes pains. If you visit her, you’ll find her refrigerator stocked with paté, a selection of cheeses and raw vegetables, and paper-thin rice crackers, capers, and olives. Served by candlelight.

Come to my house and you get a cup of tea and cookies from the store if you’re lucky. I’m an insecure cook, but I aspire to be a 70s hippie, who puts out a fantastic one-dish meal, with crusty bread, and vegetable side dishes, with sensual pleasure and little effort.

LT: I’m sure other readers, like I did, will wonder which anecdotes are true or not. A few of them are so priceless that I just have to ask… I’m thinking of the very Upper East Side moment where a toddler with his nanny mistakes Parsley for his mother, because she is blonde. Or when the 80 year old neighbor who made his way down 80 flights of stairs during the Twin Towers disaster is greeted with cookies, freshly baked by Parsley…

LO: It’s so interesting you ask that. Like Parsley, I have almost an almost unhealthy fixation with Bob Dylan and George Orwell. I have a lot of friends who are writers, and a bookshelf full of intriguingly inscribed books. Here is a preview of volume four of The Upper East Side Cookbook: May I Have a Doggie Bag?: Parsley will be so destitute that she sells off the books, one by one, on eBay.

I too get my clothes second-hand at church bazaars and rummage sales. You can get barely worn expensive clothing at Upper East Side churches. These sales are so popular that their dates are more or less secret. My excellent winter coat came from the Church of the Heavenly Rest on Fifth Avenue. There was a wrinkled twenty-dollar bill in the pocket – more than I paid for the coat. These Ferragamo shoes are from the Brick Church, between Park and Madison, where there’s a sale next weekend. I got a cashmere sweater from St. James Episcopal on Madison – the next one, November 16, is marked on my calendar.

The experience of being mistaken by a toddler for his mother happened to me three times in Central Park—with different children. I was in my twenties when I first moved to New York from Wisconsin. I’d be sitting on a park bench, reading. The child toddles up and shyly says, “Mommy?” Nannies on the Upper East Side are usually black. The baby has spent most of his life with the nanny, and rarely sees his mother—who is likely a blonde like I am. The kid looks at me, questioningly. I’d be smiling back and shaking my head “no,” but that only makes him more convinced that I’m his mother. When I give this rather poignant experience to Parsley, I can see the humor in it.

Yes, I know of an 80-year-old man who survived the World Trade Center bombings walking down from the 80th floor, and he walked all the way home to the Upper West Side. His neighbor greeted him with some freshly baked cookies. Talk about the restorative powers of baking!

Parsley’s esthetic is more European and Japanese. I spent a lot of time in the U.K. and in Japan. I’m not a 50s or 70s Superwoman, just a traveler who likes to eat wherever she goes. I’ve eaten fabulous meals in Japan, North Africa, Spain Italy, France, and especially, in London, Edinburgh, and Dublin.

Henry Beston: A Summary of his Life and Achievements

October 2, 2012 in American Authors, Biography, Nature Writing

It is here at Eastham beach on Cape Cod that Henry Beston found his first refuge, in a house that he had built for himself after returning, weary, from WW1.  One September in 1926, Beston came to this retreat – which he called the Fo’castle – and stayed on as autumn turned to winter.

Beston wrote, “the fortnight ending, I lingered on, and as and as the year lengthened into autumn, the beauty and mystery of this earth and outer sea so possessed and held me so that I could not go.”

During this time, he observed the cycles of nature and compiled many of the writings that would make up his classic memoir of the seasons, The Outermost House.

When he returned from Cape Cod in September 1927, Elizabeth Coatsworth was waiting for him, and he married her in 1929. Unlike Beston, who wrote slowly and painstakingly and liked to put down deep roots in beloved places, Coatsworth was a prolific writer and traveler.

Their Maine farmhouse was the inspiration for Beston’s other well-loved book, Northern Farm. But it is The Outermost House that stands out – as his daughter Kate has suggested – as the main contribution that Beston would make to a society which he felt was losing its connection to nature. In Beston’s graduation book, a college friend summed up Beston’s love of the natural world with a cartoon imagining of Beston’s gravestone, engraved: “He Hated Machines.”

Beston took Elizabeth to the Fo’castle for their honeymoon, but after their marriage, his base was in the Maine homestead of Northern Farm, with his wife and two children. Even in his family home, he preferred to work in solitude. His year in solitude at the Fo’castle would always be the template for his difficult, yet contemplative path as a writer.

Beston is a nature writer in a great American tradition, from Thoreau to Rachel Carson – though he himself was not sympathetic to Thoreau, finding him too “cold”. But Rachel Carson – like Beston, a passionate advocate for environmental conservation – was a disciple, and later a friend.

The Fo’castle was used by the Audobon society until it washed away in a storm of 1978, but the Beston society is hoping to rebuild it.

Biographical Snippets: Beston

  • Born June 1, 1888, Quincy MA
  • Served as an ambulance driver in WW1 – 1915
  • Began a writing career after WWI
  • Had “the Fo’castle” built in 1925
  • Spent much of the next few years there in solitude
  • The Outermost House published in 1928
  • Married Elizabeth Coatsworth in 1929
  • Donated Fo’castle to the Audobon Society in 1959
  • Died April 15, 1968
  • Fo’castle washed away by a storm in 1978

Southern Hospitality: A Spring Road Trip through the Literary South

April 5, 2012 in American literature, Classic Literature, Southern Writers, Travel, Travel Writers

Painting by David BatesWith winter winding to a close, there is no better time to hop in the car, roll down the windows, and enjoy the warm breezes of spring as you venture off to places unknown.  From John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley to Jack Kerouac’s iconic On the Road, literature is ripe with tales of road trips, penned by authors sharing their experiences traveling the country.  With summer fast approaching, isn’t it time to imagine your own cross country adventure?

Over the years I’ve often planned hypothetical road trips for myself, drawing zigzagging lines with a Sharpie across maps of the United States, hopeful to take my own journey one day. But of all the lines I have drawn, my favorite always takes me a southern route from the North East down through Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana. I believe one reason it’s my favorite route is because the South has been so vividly portrayed in literature. From the grandiose to the grotesque, Southern writers from Flannery O’Connor to Margaret Mitchell have painted brilliant portraits of the South in their works.

While I long to witness the natural beauty the South has to offer, see the Mississippi River and experience the splendor of the Louisiana bayou, I am sure even these urges have their root in my experience of Southern literature.  So it only makes sense that on any road trip through the Southern U.S., literary travelers pay homage to the literary greats that lived and wrote there. While New Orleans is well known for its associations with literature, from Tennessee Williams to Truman Capote, the South is brimming with less well-known but equally fascinating ways to connect with literary history.

In Atlanta, Georgia, let the wind take you in the direction of the Margaret Mitchell House and Museum on Peachtree Street.  While it took Mitchell almost a decade to finish the epic Gone with the Wind, you can tour the museum in a couple of hours, viewing her living space and a selection of her letters.  Travel to Atlanta this April 20-22nd, and receive free admission to the house during the Atlanta Dogwood Festival, an event that draws artists from around the world.

If you take your adventure to Savannah, visit the one-time residence of writer Flannery O’Connor.  While A Good Man is Hard to Find, the author’s childhood home, located on East Charlton Street, is not!  The house where the author resided from 1925-1938 contains some of the original furnishings.  For more O’Connor memorabilia continue on to Georgia College and State University, where there is a room dedicated to the famous alumnus that houses her writing desk and typewriter, among other artifacts including the author’s own personal library of more than 700 titles.

In Mississippi, honor William Faulkner with a visit to his Rowan Oak estate located in Oxford.  Originally built in 1844, the property is now owned by the University of Mississippi and visitors are admitted to view the space where Faulkner lived and worked for over thirty years.  The Oxford, MS Convention & Visitors Bureau offers a more extensive map of “Faulkner Country.” So download one here, and meander at your own pace through the stomping ground of this twentieth century great.

Like John Steinbeck wrote in Travels with Charley, “we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.” The next stop is up to us.

 

The Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival

February 16, 2012 in American literature, Literary Festivals, New Orleans, Southern Writers, Tennessee Williams

Self-Portrait by Tennessee Williams

While many are drawn to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, there’s another late Winter festival worth its weight in gold. After all the beads have been tossed and the confetti has been swept away, it’s time for literary travelers from around the world to take over the resplendent city.  March 21st marks the start of the five day Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival.  The Festival started in 1987 to celebrate the city’s immense literary culture.

According to the press release, “The five-day fête honors the legendary Tennessee Williams, his works, and literary life in the adopted city he called his ‘spiritual home’ and features two days of master classes; a roster of lively discussions among distinguished panelists; celebrity interviews; theater, food and music events; a scholars’ conference; a poetry slam, writing marathon and breakfast book club; French Quarter literary walking tours; a book fair; short fiction, poetry and one-act play competitions; and special evening events and parties.”  With so many events to choose from, five days doesn’t seem like nearly enough time to experience the festival as well as get a taste of all the city has to offer.  In order to squeeze the most into your experience there are a few easy ways to multi-task.

Since no literary trip to New Orleans would be complete without a walking tour of the multitude of literary landmarks that cover the city, make sure to get your fill with Heritage Literary Tours.  Led throughout the year by retired University of New Orleans Literature professor Dr. Kenneth Holditch, as part of the Festival he will be offering a tour that focuses on landmarks relating to Tennessee Williams in particular.

As for accommodations, there is no shortage of literary culture at the historic Hotel Monteleone, which is offering a limited number of rooms at a discounted rate for attendees of the festival. The 125 year old hotel is a literary landmark in and of itself, as it was once frequented by Truman Capote, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty and Williams himself, as well as being featured in the writing of Ernest Hemingway in “The Night Before Battle.”  Suites at the hotel now bear the names of Welty, Williams, Faulkner and Hemingway.  The Hotel Monteleone also offers a Literary History Walking Tour, which spotlights the hotel’s place as a literary landmark.  Led by local historian Glenn De Villier, the tour begins and ends in the hotel’s Carousel Bar, which was a favorite of Williams’ and immortalized in the works of Williams, Hemingway and Welty.

In lieu of souvenirs, do a little shopping while experiencing further literary heritage by visiting Faulkner House Books, located at the site of Faulkner’s 1925 residence, where he wrote his first novel, Soldiers’ Pay.  This new and used book store specializes in Faulkner, Williams, and Southern Literature with an emphasis on New Orleans and Louisiana. Faulkner House is a national literary landmark, and for book lovers and history aficionados, not to be missed.

Williams once said, “if I can be said to have a home, it is New Orleans, which has provided me with more material than any other part of the country.” So, take a page from the literary sentinel and find inspiration in the sites and sounds of the city of New Orleans.  Whether traveling to New Orleans for the Festival, or just to experience the city’s rich culture, there is no time like the present to book your trip. 

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Featuring Tennessee Williams

Key West Friday: Having Dinner With Tennessee Williams 

The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond

The Best of the Best of 2011: A List

December 24, 2011 in American literature, children's literature, Contemporary Literature, Fantasy Literature, Literary Books 2011, New Writers

Artwork by Dan Park

Jeffrey Eugenides, Artwork by Dan Park

There are a heck of a lot of “Best of 2011″ lists coming out this week. There’s the best music, the best films, and, of course, the best books. But with so many “best of” lists, put out by practically every blog, magazine, and newspaper around, it’s hard to tell which books really came out on top.

But fear not! After combing through some well respected sources’ “best of” lists, it was clear which books were the real winners. The lists consulted included those compiled by Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus Review, National Public Radio, Barnes & Noble, The Economist, Paste Magazine, Slate Magazine, Goodreads, the Washington Post, the Washington Examiner, the Village Voice, the Los Angeles Public Library, The New Republic, Amazon, The Horn Book, Esquire, and The New York Times.

There were, of course, books that made it onto just one or two lists, but to really be the best of the year, a book’s got to make a bigger splash than that. Therefore, the books that made it onto three or more of these lists are posted below on this compilation of what may as well be called “The Best of the Best Books of 2011″:

The Top 15 Fiction Books:
1. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
2. 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
3. State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
4. Open City by Teju Cole
5. The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht
6. A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin
7. Train Dreams by Denis Johnson
8. 11/22/63 by Stephen King
9. The Submission by Amy Waldman
10. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
11. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
12. The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips
13. Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
14. The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
15. The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

The Top 13 Nonfiction Books:
1. Blood, Bones, and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton
2. Blue Nights by Joan Didion
3. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt
4. Bossypants by Tina Fey
5. Townie: A Memoir by Andre Dubus III
6. In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson
7. Hemingway’s Boat by Paul Hendrickson
8. The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick
9. Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable
10. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
11. Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie
12. 1861: The Civil War Awakening by Adam Goodheart
13. Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin

The Top 11 Young Adult Books:
1. Divergent by Veronica Roth
2. The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
3. Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
4. Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
5. Blink & Caution by Tim Wynne-Jones
6. Beauty Queens by Libba Bray
7. Anya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgol
8. The Future of Us by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler
9. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente
10. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
11. Chime by Franny Billingsley

The clear favorite of critics is The Marriage Plot, which shows up on seven different lists. Additionally, 1Q84, Divergent, and Blood, Bones, and Butter all made it onto six. It goes to show how diverse readers’ (and editors’) tastes are across America. Clearly, though, there’s still common ground, and if you’re looking for a good book to devour this holiday season, chances are you’ll find plenty of worthwhile material on this list.