Back from Willa Cather Country.

Red Cloud, NE – childhood home of Willa Cather.

After more than a year in lockdown with my out of control mind, a few days in Willa Cather’s Red Cloud, NE helped me decompress and put aside the crazy. It’s a tiny spot on the map, plopped down in a sparsely-populated, very politically Conservative state. With a population of 1,095, the town is so quiet I half expected skittering tumbleweeds. I drove so long without seeing another soul, I began to suspect the Rapture had left me the sole representative heathen in possession of all the bounty – a prospect that appeals, friends. I didn’t test the theory, but I suspect a person could stand in the middle of pretty much any highway in Nebraska for hours straight with zero danger to personal safety.

Things are a bit quieter there.

Joking aside, Nebraska is ruggedly beautiful. It’s peaceful, and the people I met were unfailingly friendly and kind. On a couple side-trips from Red Cloud, I pulled over to check my GPS was behaving because it seemed to have problems navigating with multiple destinations. Two of those times, locals pulled up to ask if I was okay, seeing I was a woman traveling alone. One Nebraska farmer didn’t just confirm I wasn’t in distress, he invited me to come back and see his house all lit up at Christmas – all 25 feet of Peace on Earth.

These are not things in the Chicago metro area. This is not the norm. I gathered that in Nebraska, it is.

Pretty Nebraska, start of the Great Plains.

My Red Cloud trip was as close to unplanned as it’s possible to be, without running the risk of finding myself without lodging. I rented a charming, tiny home via Airbnb and checked that the Willa Cather sites would be open in the middle of the week. That was it. I figured there were groceries to be had, a couple restaurants, all the basics. And there were, but I didn’t realize how early the sidewalks roll up. Arriving just after 4:00 p.m. the first day, once I’d settled in I thought dinner in town sounded appealing, seeing as I hadn’t stopped to eat on the 10-hour drive, fueled by Triscuits and cheddar cheese alone. Unfortunately, a quick Google revealed the grim truth: Red Cloud does have a handful of places to find food but all of them – except Subway and a gas station that serves pizza – were closed or would be closing in the next few minutes. The local population doesn’t support restaurants open all day every day, as is the case where I live. There is a wine bar, curiously, but as it turned out they’re open only Thursday through the weekend. And I was not there Thursday through the weekend.

Bummer.

While I said I planned nothing, I had packed a few groceries – food for a couple meals, plus granola and shelf-stable milk for breakfast. Pandemic food, basically. I learned my lesson. I wasn’t going to starve, but it was disappointing there was no charming little cafe on main street serving home-cooked food, as I’d dreamed of in my imagination. That was true of the entire trip. I availed myself of Subway once, from sheer necessity and convenience while out driving around. Otherwise, I stopped at a bar and grill for a burger my last day, hoping for some of that Nebraska corn-fed beef. You know how on TV you’ll see the stranger walk into a restaurant and people stop talking, turning to look? That. I grew up in a very small town that could smell an outsider. I get it. I’ve also travelled a lot and been the only American, even more uncomfortable than walking into a spot small-town locals hang out. There’s no malice in it. It’s not my favorite thing, but you get over it.

My Airbnb.

Willa Cather’s childhood home.

Considering I didn’t actually check the map to gauge the distance between the place I rented and the Cather sites, I serendipitously found myself a 10-minute walk from her childhood home – almost literally around the block. Before you go thinking that’s miraculous, remember – Red Cloud is SMALL. There is literally one North-South road, one East-West road. If ever there were a town with my name written all over it, it’s this. Even I cannot get and stay lost in a town of this size.

The place to start touring Cather Country is the National Willa Cather Center. It’s on Main St. You cannot miss it. It’s outsizedly huge in Red Cloud’s downtown. The museum is phenomenal. I cannot overstate how impressed I was by the holdings in the museum, the short film introducing her life, bookshop, and town tour that, at $ 20, is one of the best deals it’s possible to get anywhere. I’ve been to a lot of author’s homes, in the U.S. and abroad. This is one of the most impressive set ups I’ve seen, as far as amount and quality of information and access to resources. It says a lot that I went to Red Cloud with a vague idea Cather was important and left feeling an obsessive need to learn more.

She was a fascinating human being, in so many ways. A precocious child, Cather’s intellectual interests were indulged and encouraged by her family. Virginians who left partly because of their Union sympathies. the Cathers arrived in Red Cloud when she was nine years old. At the time, some of the major buildings hadn’t yet been built. Real estate was her father’s business, and he set up his office in the downtown area.

Young Willa loved music and was active in school productions held at the Opera House. She read extensively, and this tiny town of rural immigrants fed her imagination. The people she knew became characters in her books, not always in an entirely flattering light. But her passion for Red Cloud and support of its institutions even after she’d moved away endeared her to them. They may not have approved of everything about her, but the townspeople had great affection for Willa Cather.

Her bedroom, in the stifling hot attic.
Original wallpaper. Cather took it in payment from her job at the drugstore, putting it up herself.

I fell for her, too. Between the museum, the tour, the books I bought and have started reading, and drives around her dramatic Nebraska landscape, I developed a literary crush on this larger-than-life editor, critic, novelist and writer of short stories. She’s enthralling, as much for her adventurous, world-traveling spirit as the deceptively quiet, focused fiction she wrote about the place she grew up. Willa Cather did not write solely of Nebraska, but her most famous works are portraits of the citizens of Red Cloud.

I selected Edith Lewis’s bio of her partner from the pile of books I staggered out of the museum carrying, flying through it too quickly to fully digest. Willa Cather Living: A Personal Record is just that – a somewhat rough sketch of Cather the writer, created by the person who knew her best and lived with her for decades. Lewis writes about some of the works, not delving into literary criticism or deep study. There is nothing written of their relationship, not one personal anecdote, which disappointed me. I wasn’t looking to be titillated; I’d hoped Edith Lewis would relate everyday stories, informal portraits of what their life together was like. The book is anything but intimate. Lewis refers to her partner formally as “Willa Cather” throughout, never Willa, never Cather. It was a good introduction, if biased.

Deeper study will need to come from other sources.

Willa Cather and Edith Lewis shared their lives for more than 40 years, from 1902 to Cather’s death in 1947.

My few days in Red Cloud gave me what I needed: quiet respite, the peace of solitary wanders through the stately Great Plains, and the opportunity to become acquainted with an iconic American writer. It left me with more questions than answers, more avenues to investigate than epiphanies – which is precisely the way I like it. I never want to reach the end of all roads leading toward literary exploration.

Parlor, Cather family home. Table in left foreground is original to the house.
Young Willa, in Hiawatha costume.
Cemetery found in my wanderings.

Hold that thought, Red Cloud. I just may be back someday.

Writing from Hemingway’s birthplace: Many True Sentences

Parlor – Ernest Hemingway birthplace, Oak Park, IL

It’s dead quiet. If the spirits of the Hemingways are here, they’re gliding noiselessly.

The entire first floor of the Hemingway birthplace is all mine for the day, not a soul disturbing my peace. Closed to tours, the only other sentient being in the place is the maintenance man’s wife, working from the basement because their power is out. Just me and the ghost of young Ernest, born in a bedroom above my head. He lived here from birth through age six, not a very long time. Not a big percentage of his life. Still, a formative period.

It is so Victorian, so opulent and over-wrought. Beautiful, in its exaggerated way, reminding of starched shirts and generous skirts with bustles. No one would be slouching as I am on the velvet chaise, of that I’m sure. Hardwood trim intricately carved, heavy furniture with thick brocade fabric, flowery wallpaper awash with pink roses on a Wedgwood-blue background. Carpet is true to the period, bright red with flowers mirroring those on the wall. It smells strongly of air freshener. Oppressively so. It’s cool and dark, save for this part of the parlor, awash in sunlight. In fact, I wish I had a heavier sweater.

I’m finding it tough to settle. Could be the Hemingways aren’t as thrilled to have me as I am to be working here. Could be ADHD. Pretty sure we know the answer to that.

Visitors keep popping by, walking around the porch. I’m working on my DO YOU MIND? glare. A family with kids. I’ve dragged my children to their share of dead writers’ homes. I can probably guess what they’re thinking: when’s lunch and why should I care who this guy was?

Why, indeed.

The parlor, looking toward my workspace.

Imagine a young Ernest Hemingway barrelling down the stairs, running down to the kitchen to beg for a treat, servants either flustered or endeared, who’s to say. In my mind he was precocious. How could he not have been? The boy who’d go on to win the Nobel Prize. Backing up, think of the tender infant Ernest, cooing with milk dribbling from his wee rosebud lips. The tiny child who’d morph into the barrel-chested man bursting with toxic masculinity.

I cannot not feel self-conscious about where I am. It’s difficult to process. I’ll probably sit bold upright in bed tonight and yell out I HAD ERNEST HEMINGWAY’S HOUSE TO MYSELF. Instead of setting a goal for my first visit, I’m absorbing like a sponge. If it were Woolf’s Charleston, Austen’s Chawton, or Faulkner’s Rowan Oak I’d be a puddle on the floor.

In Hemingway’s house, I can be sensible. Maybe it’s best I’m here instead? Said the woman who hasn’t been offered the other options. And I hear you saying you’d switch with me. Sorry, no dice.

I’ll take it.

The air freshener’s starting to give me a headache. I’m starving, but I’m not leaving for lunch, not squandering a minute. I’ll eat while I’m waiting out rush hour traffic later. Or on the way home. Food’s a secondary consideration; I can enjoy that anytime. What I can’t get anywhere else is the oppressive weight of this scent I’m trying without success to ignore. It’s to the point I have to ask what on earth they’re masking. Would Victorians have gagged their visitors with scented oils?

I think not.

I can hear the maintenance man’s wife on the phone, working I suppose. Her husband left for whatever his day job is. Maintenance here can’t be that demanding. I wasn’t paying attention, if he told me. The tour he gave was cursory, leading me through the upstairs rooms as a matter of course. He stopped by the room where Hemingway was born and said some people break down there, dissolving in tears, which he couldn’t understand. I understand it but it doesn’t move me to that extent, personally. The maintenance man isn’t a docent. He said he could make things up as we go if I’d like. That may have annoyed me, in another author’s house. No offense intended to Hemingway, but it doesn’t here.

Again, I’ll be back and I’ll have read more about the house before I am.

I’ve visited the Hemingway House before, taking the tour lead by an actual docent. I’m sure they were a decent docent. Do I remember much? Why, no. Afraid I don’t.

The kitchen. I could seriously use a snack.

I don’t worship at his altar but how can this not be affecting. Of course it is. If I were of the romantic sort, I’d wax lyrical about his spirit remaining embedded here. I am not romantic. A true thing: The Old Man and the Sea bored me to tears in high school. Nick Adams grabbed me marginally more. Hemingway is just so American. Unappealingly self-important, at least until you know more of his past. The bravado hid a little boy who never quite grew up, stunted by a painful childhood.

Raised by a cold mother, the little boy who pattered through this house felt unloved. He acted out. Kids do that when they’re trying desperately to win their parents’ attention. He grew up continuing to act out. Depression grabbed hold of his ankle and it never let go. Depression would kill him. It killed others in his family. A terrible legacy. Learning more about him hurt my heart. It also brought me to more of an apprecation of Hemingway the man. I couldn’t dismiss him anymore.

The library. Books are of the period, not original. Damn.
Some Very Serious Hemingways.

Matter-of-fact words, one true sentence after another. A form of greatness I appreciate only now – before sitting in his parlor, but only just. I’ve been aware of him a very long time but I am a Hemingway newcomer. I don’t have literary criticism to offer; I haven’t gotten that far. Bits and pieces, visits here, his home in Key West, Shakespeare & Co in Paris. Impressions, supplemented by Ken Burns and his brilliant documentary. I thought that would send more people clamoring here. Sounds like not, unfortunately. There’s a sign appealing for money in the front yard, next to the birthplace sign. Surely artsy Oak Park won’t let their hometown hero’s home run to ruin.

Dining room, Hemingway birthplace.

Along with Hemingway, Cather has recently crept back into my sphere of interest. Next week I’m visiting her home in Red Cloud, NE. What hath the pandemic wrought, that I’d settle on mid-America as my first trip after the country opened back up? I love the Pacific Northwest, love New England. I love/hate the South, home to my god Faulkner. But no, none of these tried and trues. But Cather. I stopped feeling the necessity of applying logic so long ago. It’s tedious and, frankly, who has time to care.

My familiarity with Cather surpasses my knowledge of Hemingway, but only just. I’ve read Death Comes for the Archbishop and My AntoniaMy Antonia twice. Her writing’s so quiet, as I recall. Modern like Hemingway’s, yet not identical. It needs a literature lover to appreciate the meaning of such a nonsensical sentence. If you’ve read this far, I can only assume you, dear reader, are at the very least sympathetic.

Sarah Orne Jewett convinced Cather to concentrate her books on the sphere she knew, as Jewett did herself with her native New England. As with Cather, I’ve read little of Jewett, finding her work slow-moving and, dare I say, of little interest. Jewett is a minor American writer. Did I get away with saying that? She is. Cather is greater. I’ve also visited Jewett’s house, by the way. I was on a family vacation and didn’t drag the kids in but we did poke around outside. I saved the inside visits for later in the trip, for Melville, Wharton, Twain, and Hawthorne.

All about pacing when dragging kids on literary excursions.

Haven’t had much time to connect the dots between Cather and Hemingway. I mean, aside from these twinned visits. It’s nothing I strategized, no big literary study plan. As long as I’m doing things directly related to them, seems to me I’d find interest researching how and if they connect.

Lo and behold, they do! Tenuously, but considering they were contemporaries and very high profile, unsurprising. Hemingway famously despised Cather’s description of WWI in her Pulitzer-winning One of Ours, claiming it was taken, scene by scene, from Birth of a Nation. For her part, Cather disliked usage of profanity in writing, something she could not admire in Hemingway. As for any other connection, that’s yet to be determined.

I’ll keep reading, keep indulging curiosity.

 

“Wasn’t that last scene in the lines wonderful? Do you know where it came from? The battle scene in Birth of a Nation. I identified episode after episode, Catherized. Poor woman, she had to get her war experience somewhere” (Selected Letters 105). – Ernest Hemingway

Thank you to the Hemingway Foundation, thanks to Karma or whatever’s aligned the stars in order for this to all come about. I’ll be back over the course of the year, though I’m not yet sure when. In any event, it’s been an extraordinary experience.

Well, now, 2021 is taking a turn for the better – it could hardly have been worse.

Miss a little, miss a lot around here, I guess?.

Where do I start? The new job as a bookseller, the upcoming inclusion of one of my interviews in a poetry textbook, or my upcoming writing-in-residence at the library of Hemingway’s Oak Park birthplace?

It’s as if life is attempting to make up for the suck-fest that was 2020, all the anxiety and grief it brought. Doing a right good job of that, I will say. It cannot replace what I’ve lost, or instantly cure the mental strain I’m starting to realize the extent of now that things are looking up pandemic-wise (how often does one get to say that), but I won’t give any of it back.

You can try prying it from my cold, dead but odds are not in your favor.

“Booksellers are the most valuable destination for the lonely, given the numbers of books that were written because authors couldn’t find anyone to talk to. – Alain de Botton

Let’s clarify: I am not quitting my day job for a bookselling gig. I only wish life were that perfect. The salary and benefits provided by a job in the finance sector pay for rent, food, utilities, and books. These things I cannnot live without. A few hours a week working in a charming indie bookshop, in a charming town, on an actual town square, is the reality. Anything over and above that is metaphorical gravy.

I’m an idea person, one obsessed with pitching a million project ideas to an employer – stretching myself thin with great enthusiasm, because potential. How ’bout I write a bit for you? Review? Interview? Attempt to pull strings and get a few writers to visit, zoom, interview via the new podcast I just recommended you start? How ’bout we raise your shop’s visibility?

How ’bout not, how ’bout you’re tiring me out and I’ll rescind that offer. It’s a gamble.

It’s a shop selling new books, which explains why they were hiring. It’s a lot tougher in the used book business, but thanks to grants and kind souls who’ve been supporting indie bookstores during the pandemic, this store has maintained near-status quo. And thank the gods for it.

I’m thrilled, they’re thrilled, WE ARE ALL THRILLED HERE! And I start next Saturday.

I’m a degreed librarian, have a lit degree, and of course do all this reviewing silliness. Once before, I was half of a used/rare online bookshop business. And I have returned to roost.

It’s almost like I’m singular-minded. Is that a bad thing? If you say yes, I won’t care, mind. Just throwing that out there.

The Square, Woodstock, IL

The Importance of Being Ernest

Writing from Hemingway’s… Yeah. A day here and there, over at least the next year, writing from Ernest Hemingway’s actual library in his actual birthplace in Oak Park, IL. I only hope I do the opportunity justice. Will I make it past looking at the titles on his shelves? It boggles.

I have no idea what I’m going to write but the time cannot be squandered. Do I write about Hemingway and his work? Do I write blog posts randomly raving about the experience?

DO I WRITE FICTION.

*Faints*

I’ll be there from 9 – 5 the days I’m visiting, breaking for lunch. I expect 9 – 12:00 will consist of open-mouthed gawping, followed by an hour for lunch, in which I shove food into my mouth very quickly so I can get back to the house. From 1:00 to 5:00 there’ll be mad capering, incorporating hysterical giggling, all the while dodging people there for tours. At least, I imagine they’ll still be open for business? I never asked.

Yoinked from hemingway birthplace site…

Hemingway has been taking up a lot of rent-free head space in my noggin this year. Odd, considering the amount of energy I’d devoted to him previously likely amounts to just a tad over what I’ve given him this January – May. I’ve not read a whole lot of his stuff, but I’ve visited his homes in Key West and Oak Park, as well as his haunt in Paris – Shakespeare & Co.

In college I read a few of his Nick Adams stories for a course in American Lit. I’d be lying if I said I was smitten. I grew up a Brit Lit afficianado, never too keen on American writers – beyond Faulkner (genuflect). Hemingway is so masculine, so spare, his prose style deceptively simple. The Old Man and the Sea was assigned in high school.

It bored me to tears. FFS, REEL IN THE GODDAMN MARLIN AND PUT ME OUT OF MY MISERY.

But, and it’s a big but, my opinion began to shift without even reading his stuff, just from what I read about the man. Then, the Ken Burns special totally ignited my interest. I can’t say RE-ignited, because there wasn’t much there to start. But even before this heart-stopingly wonderful opportunity, my thoughts had begun to turn toward Ernest.

More on that later.

Oh, where have you been, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?

Have you not heard about my interview with Billy Collins? That happened loads of years ago. Gosh, was it 2014?

It’s a marvelous story about what can happen when you act like you belong somewhere, advance yourself forward, and approach a former-Poet Laureate’s publicist with a request for an interview. I was not commissioned. I had no business whatsoever taking up his time. I had a blog and ambition.

I just wanted to talk to Billy Collins and write about it. Which I did. His publicist set up a time for him to call me. I pulled out my laptop, sweated out a few questions onto a legal pad, and I’m still amazed I had the guts to talk to him. Me! The ultimate introvert, terrified of the world. Once initiated, there was no way I was going back on this. He called, we talked, I typed it out and posted on my blog.

Two weeks later, I came home to a message on my answering machine (it was that long ago). It was an apologetic Billy Collins, calling to apologize for having missed our interview and offering to make it up to me. Missing our interview? I called him back. I had Billy Collins’s number on my ancient answering machine. It may still be sitting in my ex’s house somewhere, though he likely tossed the thing.

Anyway, I told him we’d already spoken. He replied, “How was I? Was it any good?”

I assured him it was, indeed, very good. Good enough for a publishing company to track me down, years later, and send me a contract requesting publication rights.

Tell me it gets any better than that. All the writers I’ve interviewed through the years, the self-pubbed, the Pulitzer and Booker winners and everyone in-between, and it’s this one that gets pulled and published. So far beyond appropriate, so fitting. So redemptive.

I’m amazed, humbled, thrilled to pieces. If I never accomplish anything else in my foray into writing, this is enough. A nobody like me, a redneck from Mississippi who endured a painful childhood so brutal I developed selective mutism. My only solace was books. I dreamed of writing, dabbled, edited my high school newspaper. I earned a BA in lit, after a dozen years raising children I was hired to work at a library, doing a job that terrified me – booking programs, announcing speakers, going onto write their PR, social media, and newspaper copy. Around the time I earned a library degree, I started reviewing. Paying it forward to a new writer, interviewing her for Public Libraries, she mentioned me in The New York Times. People saw it. Friends congratulated me before I’d seen it myself. I published lots of other places.

It’s not a high-profile career, not in the first tier. But it’s a part of my story and it’s pretty remarkable.

I suppose it’s a testament to my strength of will I survived the shit I did, ultimately regaining my voice and using it to approach Billy Collins and all who came after. It’s the power of books that did it. That first fall down the rabbit hole with Alice, the first proper, solo novel I read.

To perfectly round things out, I eventually saw Billy Collins live and in person. It was at the Woodstock Opera House, when he came for a reading. I could have approached him in person but didn’t I still regret that.

The last I saw of him, he was walking through the Woodstock Square, away from me, as I sat in the window of a restaurant having lunch with friends from the writing group I’d formed at the library I was working at. We’d attended the reading together. As they talked I watched his retreating back. He walked so slowly, I could have caught up to him. No doubt it was the charm of the town delaying him. If I could have that moment back, I’d go after him and tell him the story I know he’d forgotten all about.

I think he’d find this as amazing as I do, if he’s the person I believe him to be.

I believe he is that person.

2021, thanks for the blessings.

Slumber, Awakening, and Sylvia Plath

I don’t know what snapped within me, but I’ve undergone a sea change over the past week or two. Approaching the one-year anniversary of this pandemic shite raising its ugly head, looking back over almost 365 of the worst days of all our lives, there’s finally light at the end of the tunnel. The vaccine is here, it appears to be working. Is that precipitating the seismic shift?

Dunno.

Could also be running out of Xanax.

The phase I’m in is decidedly hypomanic: a period of increased interest and activity following a Disney-princess slumber – the duration of which I don’t even know, truthfully. I don’t keep track of moods. Maybe I should. I don’t.

When did books last provoke a lustful response beyond “that sounds mildly interesting, perhaps one day I’ll care enough to read it,” I have no answer. When was my last big Amazon book binge? Half Price Books trip?

Before this week, no idea. I haven’t given a shit in the longest time.

American poet Sylvia Plath with that absolute dick of an English poet, Ted Hughes.

Could be Sylvia Plath what done it. I picked up a bio of her at random and started reading. Astonished by the extent of her outrageously out-sized battles with mental illness, suddenly there was a spark where there hadn’t been in so, so long. I felt for her, in her crushing depression and suicidal ideation, her dark nights of the soul leading to multiple and nearly-successful attempts at self-destruction.

Her story resonates.

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Sylvia Plath lead, if not a wild life, at least one filled with love affairs and experimentation. While pursuing her education and building her CV, she swung from man to man looking for an appropriate husband. The one thing she held sacred in her soul was writing.

Then, god help her, Ted Hughes. I’m not sure I mentioned he was a bit of a prick? Because he was a bit of a prick. A genius poet, but a bit of a prick.

Who doesn’t know Plath committed suicide by asphyxiation, sticking her head in a gas oven? Distraught over that prick Ted Hughes (fight me) and his inability to keep his pants zipped, the blatant flaunting of his affair shattered whatever sanity she had in reserve. Left back in England with two small children to care for, while Ted was off in Spain screwing German poet Assia Wevill (who, and this is supremely ironic if you don’t already know, in turn committed suicide the exact same way Sylvia had, tragically taking their four-year-old daughter with her) Sylvia cracked in half for the last time.

Of course, this is all gross simplification of Sylva Plath’s life, influence, and what shoved her off the cliff. The point is, she made me care. Her life was short and she suffered terribly. But she left behind so much beauty, didn’t she?

I’m going to finish this biography, dip into her journals and poetry, and most likely read another recently-released biography of Sylvia Plath recommended by a friend. Then, if I’m still in the mood, read The Bell Jar, her thinly-fictionalized novel about a suicidal woman gone mad.

Then, I may read something else.

Good morning.

Sylvia Plath Quotes On Death. QuotesGram

News Release: My Official Good Work News

Okay, it’s not a promotion, not a new job and not a raise in pay… But I still find it pretty dratted exciting. And now that it’s officially confirmed, I can safely open my mouth and tell the world. Believe me, it was tough keeping this one mum, even for just a day. But I just couldn’t say it then have it turn out not to happen. That would be very unprofessional. But mostly, embarrassing.

Janiskearney_2Yesterday morning I sealed the deal for a booking with Janis Kearney to come speak at the library. Who, you ask, is Janis Kearney? Well, I’ll tell you. She was the official White House diarist for President Bill Clinton.

(!!)

I had no idea “official White House diarist” was a position until I saw an article about Janis Kearney in a newspaper. Who knew? Imagine the things she must have heard and seen about former President Clinton. Think about the prominent figures she must have met, and the experiences she must have had. And I’m NOT, I tell you NOT, talking about Monica Lewinsky she who must not be named. I’m not, as they say, going there…

When I saw Ms. Kearney was in the Chicago metro area, it seemed silly not to at least TRY to see if I could book a program with her.  What’s the worst that could happen? She could say no, but what harm would that really be? But, what do you know, my fears were for naught. She was interested. Not only was she interested, but she let me know public libraries hold a very special place in her heart. I like her already.

A few emails later we had our date set. She’s coming here on Tuesday, March 13.

Ms. Kearney is the author of two books, Conversations: William Jefferson Clinton From Hope to Harlem and Cotton Field of Dreams: A Memoir. She’ll be presenting  a talk and book signing at the library. If I don’t pass out dead on the floor from the excitement it should be a great event. Of course, if I do pass out dead it’ll make even better newspaper copy.

Dilemmas.

Conversationsclinton Cottondreams After the program photos and a complete transcript will follow, have no doubt of that. I may even break out the BRAND NEW camera for the occasion, the one I’m still half afraid to touch because it cost nearly as much as a month’s mortgage.

In the meantime sign me,

Thrilled to Bits

Bluestalking Reader: The Folksy, Home-spun Side

I didn’t realize I had so much home-grown in me before. I saw traces of it pop up occasionally, most notably when I’m able to flawlessly imitate the southern accent (no, don’t ask me to do it, inspiration must strike me first). The fact is, I’m starting to gravitate a little toward Appalachia. Not literally or anything, but in the sense I’ve recently booked two programs here at my library based or inspired at least partly by things Appalachian, awakening me to the fact I must have some sort of latent interest in this subject.

Who knew?

For those outside the U.S., you may not fully realize what Appalachia means. To people inside, you may not actually, either, to be fair. Generally, when  you mention Appalachia one pictures the garden variety of hillbilly, people with bad (or no) teeth swinging off porches built on houses that sit precariously on the sides of wooded hills. Generally these people are connected with home-brewed alcohol, and the picture’s completed when you add a whole-grain “still” to the mix.

If you’ve been in the Smoky Moutains area you’ll have seen the cabins/shacks I’m talking about, but even if you haven’t I’ll bet it’s not hard to picture huge, overall-clad families sitting on shaky, wooden porches blowing into empty jugs to make music. While that’s really neat and all, I also think we shouldn’t get too blinded by the stereotype. And I don’t just say that because my paternal family line filtered through Appalachia, specifically the Carolinas. I may not be quite as personally fired up to stress the need to balance otherwise, but even without that I’d like to think the culture would still interest me.

Okay, possibly.unitedstatesofappalachia

I’ve recently  booked author Jeff Biggers to come speak at our library. Jeff wrote a book titled United States of Appalachia: How Southern Mountaineers Brought Independence, Culture and Enlightenment to America. The man has a string of credentials about as long as my arm, but what probably sealed the deal was the fact he’s been an NPR (National Public Radio) commentator. The quality coming out of NPR is just huge, so there’s no doubt in my mind Mr. Biggers will be a stellar speaker.

On his website there’s information on the book he’s coming here to talk about specifically, In the Sierra Madre (Mexico’s Copper Canyon). While here he’ll talk about travel writing, as well, and other matters he knows an awful lot about. While this is pretty far away from the subject of Appalachia, his other book lands him squarely in that realm.
The other Appalachian-related/inspired program I booked will happen in May. This one centers on the music of that region and will feature video accompaniment and clog dancing.

Yes, clog dancing. In the Chicago suburbs. Won’t you be sorry you missed
that.

We’ll be a-hootin’ and a-hollerin’ that day, at least as much as one does so in a library setting. And, if you’re wondering, I will bring my camera. so keep on the lookout.

Edgar Award Winning Author Theresa Schwegel

I haven’t mentioned lately that I have a really great (day) job for a book lover. I think it’s time to rectify that.

I had the pleasure of hosting Edgar Award-winning author Theresa Schwegel at the library last evening. Theresa came for a reading, book signing and Q & A. She’s making a lot of local appearances at the moment, while on a book tour promoting her second book Probable Cause. We were absolutely thrilled she was able to stop by the library while she’s in the area.

Probable Cause was reviewed in the New York Times this past weekend, if you’d like to take a look at that. It’s been getting huge attention all over the place. If Theresa keeps up at this rate she’ll be a household name in no time! Here in her hometown we couldn’t be more proud of her.

 

theresaschwegel

 

Theresa grew up in Algonquin, Illinois, graduating from the local high school in 1993. Her first novel, Officer Down, won the Edgar Award for a first mystery novel.
Theresa’s genre is crime fiction, and from her track record so far I think we can safely say she has that one pretty well mastered. Winning an Edgar Award right out of the starting gate is just about the most auspicious start anyone could hope for in the mystery genre.

If you’d like to know more about Theresa, or see her appearance/book signing schedule, check out her website.

Now that I have signed copies of both her books I’m going to get down to business and read them. I’ll report back, you can be sure of that. From what I’ve heard from other readers these are very much “put life on hold” books. Once I’ve started I have a feeling I’ll be glued to them, so I’ll have to clear the schedule and turn off the phone before I start!

Congratulations to Theresa on all her success, and we’ll look forward to more opportunities to be proud of her in the future. To say her career is promising is an understatement. As far as success goes, she’s already there.

 

 

Edgar Johnson on Charles Dickens: Maria Beadnell

Mariabeadnell_1 Could this sweet face be that of the original for Estella? After finishing Johnson’s chapter on Dickens’s ultimately heartbreaking relationship with Maria Beadnell I find myself asking that question.

Charles Dickens met Maria Beadnell when he was 17 years old. He got along famously with Maria’s family from the start. He and all the Beadnell girls had a marvelous time together, laughing and singing and generally carrying on as much as Victorian teenagers were allowed. Charles fell head over heels for the lovely Maria, and he fell hard. She, in turn, was apparently smitten with him, as well. Either that or she played the part very convincingly.

Unfortunately for him, Charles wasn’t a good catch.  As a lowly court reporter with no clear expectations for more on the horizon, he was not at all the sort of man the Beadnells wanted to see their daughter marry. After the Beadnells found out John Dickens had been incarcerated in Marshalsea for a time that was apparently the last nail in that coffin. The Beadnell pater sent Maria packing to the continent, to cool things off a little. When she returned Maria was a different sort of girl. She was cold and aloof to Charles, making him feel very hurt and puzzled. Though he’d nursed his flame for her the entire time she was away, she’d apparently moved beyond him. After a few attempts to reconcile, Charles ultimately had to give up his hopes for Maria. He slunk away, heartbroken.

Cold, aloof, beautiful and trifling with a man’s affections. Sounds like Estella to me. Though it’s rash to jump to conclusions, I would really not be surprised to think this defining episode in his life ultimately made it into Dickens’s fiction. Was Dickens thinking of Maria when he wrote Great Expectations? Hopefully I’ll find an answer to that somewhere.

Estellapip

More Edgar Johnson on Charles Dickens

dickensselectedjournalism

  • Paperback: 688 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics (February 1, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140435808
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140435801

Before Dickens was a novelist he was, hold onto your bonnets, a reporter with a truly masterful grasp of shorthand.

(Okay, not really surprising OR earth-shattering. I’m just having a very slow day and am looking for any bit of sensation I can get.)

After the blacking factory Dickens did, as I think I already mentioned, return to school. He was known as a chubby, animated boy who loved laughing best of all.

He finished his schooling and very soon decided to try his hand at journalism, becoming lightning fast at writing shorthand. Not only was he fast, though, he was more importantly accurate. And, not just accurate as far as taking down dictation, but he wrote very, very well. People began to take notice of this. Most importantly
, employers began to realize here was an exceptionally gifted writer.mariabeadnell

That’s as far as I’ve gotten with the Edgar Johnson bio. Dickens is just now earning a name for  himself in journalism and making friends with abandon. He’s met and fallen in love with his first love, Maria Beadnell (PHOTO at right of the pretty thing), but I haven’t gotten into that very much just yet. I already know how that romance ends, but I’m looking forward to learning the details, cheeky gossip that I a
m.

I’ll soon be taking a pause from the Johnson bio to read the selected journalism of Dickens, published by Penguin. I’ve had my copy of this book for years, and now seems as good a time as any to finally read it. I’m very curious to read these early writings, to compare and contrast with what I know of Dickens the novelist. Are there hints of his later, distinctive style in his reportings? I’ll soon know.

Edgar Johnson on Charles Dickens

dickenstragediesandtriumphs

Charles Dickens: His Tragedies and Triumphs by Edgar Johnson

When Charles Dickens was a young boy, as the story goes, he and his father strolled past a house called Gads Hill Place. The young Charles was smitten by the house, and longed to one day live in it. His father, John Dickens, told him if he worked very hard all his life and applied himself to his work, he just may be able to achieve that dream.

And, of course, Charles Dickens did just that. He worked very hard, became extraordinarily famous, and for the last twelve years of his life he lived at Gads Hill Place, dying there in 1870.

Edgar Johnson’s two-volume biography of Charles Dickens is considered by many to be the definitive work on the life of the great author. After having spent last evening reading the first four chapters of this work I think I understand exactly why that is. Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph reads more like a novel than a straight biography. It’s written in a style that seems to have been influenced by Dickens himself, and this very high quality of non-fiction prose likely has a lot to do with the fact the biography is still so highly recommended today.

charlesdickenschildIn the first four chapters of this book I got a very good picture of what Dickens’s early life must have been like. Though I knew the basics of it, I didn’t fully realize the extent of how much his years in the blacking factory really impacted him.

I also had a false idea of the sort of man I thought John Dickens must have been. A father who brings financial ruin to his family, and then sends his young son out to support himself by working in a blacking factory against his will, ending his schooling in order that the boy may support himself, doesn’t earn high marks from me. I assumed John Dickens must have been either a wreckless gambler or a hard-hearted man, but the reality seems quite different. Though it’s true he was a man who couldn’t manage money, and whose love of the finer things in life made it impossible for him to live within his means, he doesn’t seem like the black-hearted wretch I always thought he must be. According to Johnson, he was really a good man who just had problems managing his personal finances. When it gets to be really disastrous, though, is when you have a wife and several children you’re responsible for, as John Dickens did. To fail and go bankrupt is bad enough, but dragging your entire family into the poor house is another thing entirely.

So, whatever the judgment on John Dickens, young Charles wound up having to quit school and work in a the Warren Blacking Factory (right), doing menial wwarrenblackingfactoryork, at quite a young age. His little spirit was crushed, and his heart broken, partly because
this meant he had to separate from his family (who wound up in a debtor’s prison) and because he had to quit school. Quitting  school seems to have been the truly demoralizing part of the ordeal for Charles, who was driven to learn from an early age.When the day came he could no longer attend school it was a terrible blow for him.

As the story further goes, Charles was still in the blacking f
actory even after his father had managed to pay his debt and be released. Though he’d assumed he’d be returned to his normal life after that happy event, things continued much the same for him. The breaking point came when John Dickens walked past the blacking factory and found his son on virtual display in the window, demonstrating how quickly he could paste labels on blacking bottles and becoming somewhat of a sideshow. The humiliation of the public display apparently led him to protest to the manager, and the manager let Charles go. Charles, it seems, cried upon his dismissal as it was so abrupt he wasn’t sure if it was due to his own fault. Even though he’d gotten at least part of his heart’s desire, his sense of failure led him to break down. Such a sad image.

Dickens’s early years had such a huge impact on him he never felt comfortable telling anyone about his past, not even his wife. It was only after his death, when the first biography of his life came out, that his family even knew the details. Imagine the weight of carrying that secret shame around with him, and how difficult it must have been.  It really gives a more complete picture of the great writer knowing where he came from and what he experienced, especially in these crucial early years.

The Edgar Johnson biography is so wonderful I can’t even express it. I’m looking forward to getting back to it.