Happy Birthday, Beatrix Potter

28 July 1866 – 22 December 1943

We know her as the creator of Peter Rabbit, but Helen Beatrix Potter was also a talented illustrator, natural scientist and conservationist.

Life-long lovers of animals, as children she and her brother Bertram – who grew up to become an artist in his own right – kept a menagerie ranging from mice to bats to hedgehogs to – no surprise – rabbits. The two were sheltered growing up, only each other as playmates, educated at home by governesses. Similar to the Brontë children in their insularity breeding expressions of creativity, the two spent summer holidays at Dalguise House (Perthshire) in Scotland and, later, the Lake District of England (Cumbria).

Dalguise House, Perthshire, Scotland.

Fascinated by the natural world, they happily sketched and scribbled alongside their artistically gifted parents.

Origin of Peter Rabbit, letter to Noel Moore, 1893.
Noel Moore.

Though not published in book form until the early 1900s, Peter Rabbit’s origin lies in letters written from Potter to the children of her former governess, Annie Carter Moore. The letters began when Annie’s son, Noel, was recovering from scarlet fever. To cheer him, Beatrix sent a story based on a rabbit she’d had as a child, a Belgian buck called Peter Piper.

Many more “picture letters” followed, telling the adventures of Peter and friends. Annie Moore suggested Beatrix put the stories in book form for publication. Twenty-three books later, the Tales of Peter Rabbit were complete.

Despite the fact so much of her life was devoted to children’s literature, Beatrix and her husband had no children. She was, however, a doting aunt, as well as godmother to Beatrix Moore, daughter of Annie.

“If I have done anything, even a little, to help small children enjoy honest, simple pleasures, I have done a bit of good.” 

– Beatrix Potter

A few more interesting bits about Beatrix Potter:

  1. The inspiration for her characters unknown, in 2001 the names Nutkins, McGregor, Peter Rabbett and Jeremiah Fisher were discovered in burial records for Brompton Cemetery, London – the city where Potter grew up. Sounds like more than a coincidence, doesn’t it, especially considering she lived only a short walk away from 1863 – 1913.

Grave of Susannah Nutkins.

2. As a child, budding artist Beatrix was taken by her father to the Natural History Museum in London, as well as the Victoria & Albert, where she practiced sketching.

Accurately detailed watercolors of fungi made her well-respected in the world of mycology, and she created paintings of other flora and fauna, as well. Not content with just drawing them, Potter educated herself in the ways mushrooms reproduced, even conducting her own experiments. What stopped her from pursuing her interest further was the fact women were barred from scientific societies.

Who knows what she’d have achieved in the scientific world.

Lepitoa procera (Armitt Museum and Library) by Beatrix Potter
Drawings of caterpillars by Beatrix Potter, V&A, London

3. Previously rejecting her manuscript, Frederick Warne & Co. agreed to publish a trade edition of Peter Rabbit in 1902. By the end of the year the book had sold 28,000 copies.

Other children’s literature published that year included: L. Frank Baum’s The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, Kipling’s Just So Stories and E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It.

Norman Warne, son of publisher Frederick and also Beatrix’s editor, became smitten by the writer after an increasingly flirtatious exchange of letters about characters from her book Two Bad Mice. Upon their engagement, her parents objected saying Norman Warne was not her social equal. She defied them but, sadly, Warne died unexpectedly of undiagnosed leukemia before they could marry.

Out of town when he died, Beatrix didn’t make it back in time for the funeral. He was 37.

The 2006 film Miss Potter tells the sad story of Beatrix and Norman Warne. Writing about Beatrix Potter’s love of him, Sara Glenn, curator of the Warne archives states:

“Reading Beatrix’s letters, I was surprised to find that her love for Norman never died. We think of Beatrix Potter as a strong, private woman, but these letters show her intense loneliness.”

Norman Warne and his nephew Fred, ca. 1900

Having dreamt of sharing her life with Norman at Hill Top Farm in the village of Near Sawrey in the Lake District, Beatrix purchased the house and land the autumn after his death.

The flowers love the house, they try to come in. … but nothing more sweet than the old pink cabbage rose that peeps in at the small paned windows.

– Beatrix Potter, on Hill Top Farm

Ironically, Beatrix’s brother Bertram made a match that would have horrified his parents, as well, marrying Mary Welsh Scott, a former mill worker. He was astute (and confoundingly clever) enough to keep the union secret for a decade.

His father’s response when his son finally told him of his marriage? He wrote Bertram out of his will.

Difficult to like that man, isn’t it.

Beatrix, Bertram and doggo Potter.

4. Later in life, as president of the Herdwick sheep association she won prizes for Herdwick ewes at shows around Cumbria. Upon her death she bequeathed 4,000 acres of land to the National Trust, for the express purpose of sheep grazing.

Beatrix and shepherd Tom Storey, with one of her favorite Herdwick ewes, Water Lily.
Herdwick ewes!

5. On 13 October 1913, Beatrix Potter married William Heelis, a property attorney who helped her purchase land in the Lake District of England, located within the county of Cumbria, on which she would raise her beloved sheep.

In their 70s at the time of their engagement, her parents didn’t approve of this match, either. Beatrix and William married despite them, and by all accounts were happy.

Take that, mum and dad.

Beatrix Potter and William Heelis

6. Potter’s father, Rupert William Potter, was an amateur photographer and sketch artist specializing in portraits and landscapes. Photographs provided to his friend, noted landscape painter John Everett Millais, served as inspiration for the famous artist’s work. He also took photos of Millais’s sitters and portaits, which the painter used to aid him.

Though educated as a barrister, a fortune inherited from his father Edmund’s business, Dinting Vale Calico Printing Works , meant he never had to practice.

The Lake District, photo by Rupert Potter.

It was inherited money that made Beatrix’s father feel she was too good for any man. Not land and titles, but her grandfather’s inventiveness in mechanizing the manufacture of previously handmade, labor-intensive calico. Edmund Potter also believed in education for all, building the Logwood Mill School and providing a reading room and library for his factory workers.

Beatrix Potter and Alice Crompton Potter by Rupert William Potter

7. Her mother, Helen Leech Potter, was likewise no slouch as an artist.

Hilltop, Cumbria by Helen Leech Potter
Helen Leech and Beatrix Potter

Helen also kept a scrapbook of cards sent to her daughter from various relatives and friends of the Potter family, compiled between 1872 and 1878 – an invaluable collection of ephemera relating to a beloved writer.

8. Beginning at age 14, Beatrix Potter kept a coded journal. It would not be decoded until Leslie Linder, a superfan of the author who later donated an extensive collection of materials by and about the writer to the V&A Museum, cracked the code after 13 long years.

In 1966, the journal was published for the first time by Frederick Warne Ltd, the same company that had published Peter Rabbit decades ago.

Potter’s diary is full of hints at her future as an artist and writer. “I can’t settle to anything but my painting, I lost my patience over everything else,” she wrote at the end of one particularly agitated page. Plenty of entries close with the name of a book she had recently finished, or contain one of her signature, detailed, occasionally brutal art reviews.

Atlas Obscura

I admit I didn’t have much interest in Beatrix Potter until I read the dozen or so articles and online sources from which I extracted information for this post. Though we had a miniature set of the Tales of Peter Rabbit when my kids were small, the stories were too slow-moving for them.

I couldn’t have imagined she led such a fascinating life, and there are loads of books about her. I recommend you visit Amazon to check them out.

Happy Birthday, Beatrix Potter.

The Porpoise: A Novel by Mark Haddon

Originally published New York Journal of Books

The Porpoise: A Novel

Image of The Porpoise: A Novel

Author(s): Mark HaddonRelease Date: June 18, 2019Publisher/Imprint: DoubledayPages: 320Buy on Amazon         Reviewed by: Lisa Guidarini

“The writing is brilliant, building from a deceptively plain beginning few paragraphs to sophisticated prose that leaps off the page.”

Weaving a horrifying modern tale of a father’s obsessive, increasingly perverted love for his daughter into a parallel retelling of the ancient legend of King Antiochus, Mark Haddon’s The Porpoise is unrelentingly grim, an uncomfortable read.

Losing his wife Maja in a horrific plane crash caused by an amateur pilot’s bravado, Philippe is catapulted into shock. It’s inconceivable he’s lost his vivacious and beautiful former actress wife, doubly mystifying that his money could, for the first time, neither cushion him from life’s random brutality nor offer solace. Grief-stricken, he leans over a building imagining how easy it would be to let go, the prospect of death “like falling into bed.”

In his sorrow forgetting his wife had been 37 weeks pregnant, the subsequent stark realization the child had been cut from her dead mother’s belly was unbearable. He did not want the baby, could not bear to think of her. Still, she was the link that bound him to his late wife.

Unprepared for the child’s striking beauty, when they meet he’s taken aback that she looks like him—dark-skinned and exotic—rather than her fair, blonde mother. Her eyes are riveting; despite himself he’s entranced.

Understandably overprotective, Philippe imprisons his daughter in a gilded cage of wealth and privilege, ostensibly to keep her safe. As she grows older, paternal caresses turn carnal. It’s a simple enough matter replacing employees, once they begin noticing the unnatural attention he’s giving his daughter, easy to shelter her from the world—and the world from coming to her aid.

The years pass. Angelica grows graceful and beautiful, losing her childlike appearance, becoming more womanly. Allowed no television, Internet, or contact outside their home, she has no frame of reference. What her father does to her must certainly be normal. She has no reason to think otherwise.

Turning 14, the age her father’s considers “respectful” for intercourse, things begin to shift. What he does to her starts to hurt. The eyes of the servants, the looks on their faces, begin to make sense. She starts to get it: Her father’s attentions are unnatural.

It isn’t until a handsome young man comes to visit, bringing artwork he knows Philippe covets as an excuse to gain entrance and have a look at the fabled beautiful daughter, that Angelica has the opportunity to appeal to an outsider with the power to help. Within moments, he sees through the charade.

He invites the girl on a drive and is intent on rescuing her, but Angelica’s desperation to get away catches her father’s attention. He grows agitated. Sensing the futility, the young man retreats for the moment. Later making another effort, Philippe catches him, raining down holy hell. In the ensuing violence, the young man is injured, nearly killed, chased away.

Angelica’s only hope gone, she slides into despair. Though it hardly seems possible, the story becomes ever darker. There will be no redemption.

Haddon bases his novel on the story of a king who offers the hand of his beautiful daughter to any man who can solve a riddle, the answer revealing King Antiochus is having an incestuous affair with his child. Enter Pericles, the valiant and very clever suitor. The answer to the riddle obvious to him, he senses admitting that will put his life in danger.

Antiochus has no intention of letting his daughter go. When Pericles asks for a few days to mull over the answer, the king sees through the ruse. He grants the young man 40 days in a show of fairness; as Pericles gallops toward home an assassin follows close on his heels.

Alternating between a contemporary storyline and the myth inspiring it, at first the swings back and forth feel smooth. Kept balanced, it’s easily navigated. However, as the book progresses and Haddon extends the Pericles sections longer and longer, the interruptions become intrusive, breaking the narrative spell. It’s as if The Porpoise is made up of two entirely different books forced together, in a rather ungainly way. Had it been better balanced throughout, perhaps the effect could have been more satisfying.

By turns riveting and repulsive, the sickening story of a father’s descent into an incestuous relationship with his daughter is the more compelling narrative: difficult to read, yet impossible to put down. The story of Pericles, just as skillfully written, cannot quite keep up. The ever-lengthening fable begins to feel interminable, such is the power of Angelica’s pull.

The writing is brilliant, building from a deceptively plain beginning few paragraphs to sophisticated prose that leaps off the page. The Porpoise remains unbalanced, yet the end of Angelica’s story is epic Greek tragedy. Haddon pulls the columns from the temple, buckling the walls, the crashing stones crushing the life from his characters. The reader stands in awe, squinting through and covered with the dust, as the curtain falls.

In its crushing power The Porpoise is ultimately redeemed.

The Valedictorian of Being Dead by Heather B. Armstrong

Gallery Books (April 23, 2019)

That’s another thing that people don’t understand about depression: we don’t want to take a shower, we don’t know why we feel this way, and even if we did, it wouldn’t make us stop feeling this way. We have lost all interest in doing anyting, especially anything that once brought us joy – because that thing will bring us joy, and we can’t bear the meaning of that.

  • Valedictorian of Being Dead

If you’re thinking this kind of book isn’t my normal fare, you’d be mostly right.

I’ve been a fan of Heather’s hugely popular blog Dooce nearly a decade, give or take. Fired from her corporate job for taking hilarious – though unappreciated – jabs at co-workers, originally she was just a snarky, damn funny writer.

After marrying and having a baby, she graduated to “mommy blogger”, going stratospheric. With her uber-honest writing about everything from the ups and downs of pregnancy (including particularly memorable sharing about constipation) to stunning photography and monthly love letters to her child, Leta, she shot up the ranks becoming one of the top 25 most influential blogs on Time magazine’s list.

Years later, dooce is still going strong, a highly personal and often funny account of parenthood, pregnancy, struggles with depression and cancer, and life as a former Mormon living among Mormons. Dooce’s strength is its unflinching honesty.

  • Time, 2009

After the publication of her first book about crippling depression, a local Chicago paper found Bluestalking – which had garnered attention through mention in The New York Times, a book about literary blogs, and winning a couple lit blog awards – and wanted to interview me about the reasons I wrote, and how it related to mental health. So, when Heather announced she was in the process of writing a book about an experimental treatment aimed at drug-resistant depression, I made time for it.

The Valedictorian of Being Dead describes in depth how and why a team of medical professionals took her brain function to near zero, then essentially brought her back life, in an effort to reset her brain. Related to ECT, this new therapy is thought to have less side effects, though it’s so new long-term data isn’t yet available.

It has so far worked for Heather, which is encouraging. She no longer wishes she were dead. Sounds like a victory to me.

Characteristic of the honesty and thoroughness of her writing, it’s not a straight relation of medical facts. Heather talks about the history of her depression, its impact on her children and family, and the evolution of dooce.com. She also opens up about her marriage, and the reasons for its demise.

Not as well written as I’d hoped, it was worth reading both for its explanation of this fascinating new treatment and further honest revelations about her life. I overlooked how over-written it is, occasionally cringe-worthily so. Though we’ve met and interacted only briefly, like millions of other readers of her blog I’m fond of Heather, and identify with what she’s been through.

It won’t make the shelf of iconic memoirs relating battles with mental ilness. It’s no Darkness Visible or The Noonday Demon, but fans of dooce.com will appreciate hearing this part of her story. Likewise, those battling depression unresponsive to traditional treatments may find hope knowing doctors are pioneering new approaches.

2019 so far: a recap

2019 marks the fourth anniversary of my divorce. I’d like to say I’ve settled into the next chaper of life, but in lots of ways I really haven’t.

The best part of post-marriage is the weight of a 25-year incompatible relationship falling off my shoulders. I chose a man who was steady and a good provider, knew his way around car and home maintenance, and could fix my computer- very practical things, if not terribly romantic.

Make that not at all romantic. See that red flag waving? So did we, but chose to ignore it.

We really didn’t like each other. He’s extraordinarily intelligent, but cold and inflexible, quick to anger, and lacking empathy. His life lacks passion; I pity that.

My dreamy, artsy, laissez-faire personality irritated the living hell out of him. I refused to take little things seriously, parented too liberally, and chose reading over house cleaning.

Opposites may attract, but without mutual respect and a core connection it’s unsustainable. Post-divorce we’re able to get along on a superficial level, civil and friendly. The kids will always connect us, but we’re so much happier apart.

Divorce has meant the freedom to make my own decisions – some wildly, epically irrational, most eccentric but basically safe. I look at him and think dear god, your life is so safe and boring. I take risks, unafraid of falling on my face. He’ll always take life far too seriously.

Fast-forward to 2019, and I’m living in my fifth home. Spending two years in my first rental, my crazy edventurous nature reared its head when I took off to live with – and potentially marry – a friend in Scotland. Back in the States a year, for the second time I sold off or stored all my stuff, moving back to the UK.

Sitting here in my third over-prized suburban Chicago apartment, I have loads of weird – though wildly magical – memories, and absolutely no regrets, but feel rootless. Restless since crawling out from under the constraints of marriage, all that flirting with life as an ex-pat cured my wanderlust.

I want to be anchored, settled in one place, and steady. I want to belong, in ways I haven’t for a long time. I own that I’m partially feral, but the part of me that’s domesticated is damned tired of being alone.

In one staggering way I’ll get to shortly, I didn’t see 2019 coming. Accustomed to serendipitous surprises, I’d have been disappointed otherwise. The process of nesting I anticipated, and I love my little place. Already over-crowded with stuff, it’s not Ikea perfect like my Pinterest board, but I accept it’s a work in progress.

Professionally, I’m in flux. My current day job is stable, but unsatisfying. A creative idea generator with a penchant for – brace yourselves – writing, there’s little call for my skill set in this environment. On the other hand, fast-paced, intricately complex work in finance has honed all new skill sets I never dreamed I’d have. After four years I’m crazy good at multi-tasking, agile and comfortable navigating two screens full of databases while listening to and empathizing with clients. As experience goes, it’s valuable.

If creativity remains an avocation, I’ll try to come to terms. But I’m not giving up.

Romantically, 2019’s taken my breath away. Back in the States less than two months, I decided what the hell, life’s had some stray slow moments. Let’s dip a toe in the water and stir things up. I’ve dated pretty extensively in four years, between two marriage close calls. I’ve both made some good friends and experienced staggering weirdness, and was ready to close up shop again one date before fate stepped in.

Maybe that’s just the way it happens. When you’re just about the close the door, life says hold my beer and dig this.

The One. Him. The synchronicity of two fated souls meeting.

I’m not overstating; I do nothing by halves.

I suspected it from our first date, knew it not long after. In a few days we’ll hit five months, but I’m not going into a lot of detail now. Plenty of time for that. No update of 2019 could go without mention of it, no other change in my life as profound.

All the rest of it – the reading, the writing, the vagaries of existence, etc., etc. – will come out in time. Dynamic and shifting in so many ways, in this I’m beginning to take root. I don’t believe in a god or divine plan, but when I threw it out there that I’m ready, life said okay, how about I surpass all expectations?

I can’t explain how it happened, but I don’t expect life to provide answers. It’s real and it’s thriving and I’m no fool.

I’m going to run with it.

It’s passed the middle of 2019. I’ve learned around the corner surprises lie, and this year has proved no exception. I have hopes for the future, very specific ones. Patience isn’t my strong suit, but I’m not without diversions to work on in the meantime.

It’s headed in the right direction. And I’ll take it.

Good lord, is that the time?

You know you’ve been away from your blog a very long time when you not only cannot recall your password, but can’t even find the bloody website. I started typing T-Y-P-E-P-A…. then recalled I haven’t been hosted by Typepad for at least a decade.

Typepad? Really? What’s next, aol.com?

I dropped off the face of the blog around the time WordPress changed its format, because I really do despise it. If I’d worked with it a bit longer before trotting off in a huff, perhaps it would be comfortable and familiar by now. As it is, I’m sitting here feeling quite annoyed I can’t even find the scroll bar.

WHERE IS THE SCROLL BAR.

Nothing is where it’s supposed to be. WHERE ARE ALL THE THINGS.

All this to say I can’t use the “I’m still settling in after returning to the States” excuse anymore if I’ve been back six months. Good effort, but it’s worn thin, like “I’m still carrying the baby weight” when you baby is 21. I’m also not supposed to be writing this sort of apology for my absence, according to my career coach, but I’m flying in the face of all that professional nonsense because, drat it, I OWE YOU THAT. All of you who’ve been around a while, I mean. Who’ve stuck with me through lots of nonsense over the past dozen plus years.

You know who you are. And I love you for it.

What I’m supposed to be doing is posting book reviews and generating interesting original content. More interesting than whining, which interests me and me alone. It’s self-indulgent, counter-productive and lots of other hyphenated words and phrases. I fully realize that.

I just needed to get this out of the way. I needed a placeholder, I don’t care what anyone says. Something to say yes, there was a gap, but I’ve been off in the world doing worldly things. I’ve not been slacking off in the slightest, and slapping up a book review published elsewhere without a word of explanation just seems silly.

That’s out of the way, and thank goodness for it. My palate’s cleansed, I’ve acknowledged my sins, and I can resume regular programming.

Also, I found the scroll bar.

Now we can all rest happily.

An interview with former poet laureate Billy Collins

Interview With Poet Laureate Billy Collins

Billy Collins

I had the pleasure of interviewing former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins via telephone. Mr. Collins served two terms as Poet Laureate, from 2001 – 2003. He was also selected as New York State Poet for 2004.

Billy Collins has published several collections of poetry (bibliography below, from wikipedia.com), and he’s been included in many anthologies.

LG: Were you an avid reader as a child? What were your favorite books?

BC: I was not only an avid reader but I used to pretend to read before I could read. I was an only child and that lead to a very rich reading life. When my parents would have people over I would pretend to be reading. I would have an encyclopedia on my lap and I’d pretend to be reading it. I knew which way to turn it because of the pictures.

Later, when I was able to read, I read all the Hardy boys, and the Albert Payson Terhune books about Lad and Lassie. They’re basically all the same story, with the names changed. I read Black Beauty and The Yearling. Those I read a number of times and had them read to me.

My parents didn’t have a TV until everyone else had a TV. We had the collected Dickens in the house, and my mother said, half-jokingly, if I read all of Dickens we could get a TV. I didn’t read all of Dickens.

Mother Goose is the original inspiration for all poets. That’s where they get an idea of rhythm and rhyme. My mother had memorized a lot of poetry as a schoolgirl. She went to a rural school in Ontario, Canada. She housed hundreds and hundreds of lines of poetry. If any occasion arose she’d have a few lines of poetry about it.

LG: When did you start writing poetry?

BC: I don’t think anyone escapes childhood, or adolescence, without writing some really horrible, usually lovesick, poetry, poems of a misunderstood adolescent who was convinced no one in the course of history had ever felt this way before.

I didn’t write my first book until I was in my 40s. It took me a long time to figure it out, or find my voice, or combine these different influences so it sounded like me. I was writing all along, kind of on the side. I went to grad school and began teaching literature in college. I’ve been doing that most of my life. I used to be a professor who wrote poetry. Now I’m a poet who happens to be a professor.

LG: How many hours a day do you write? Do you keep a strict schedule?

BC: I have no work habits whatsoever. I don’t write every day, so often it would be zero hours per day. I kind of hold onto a romantic view. People say in order to be a writer you have to write all the time. The poem will come along when it arrives. I try to be on the lookout for creative opportunities, something that might trigger a poem, but I don’t sit down in the morning and try to commit an act of literature before lunch.

LG: That sounds a lot different than writing fiction.

BC: It is very different from fiction writing. As Hemingway said you always knock off for the day in the middle of a scene, but poets have to restart themselves all the time. Poets return much more often to the blank page.

I heard about a survey once, the results of which are poets are more inclined to suicide because of the anxiety of starting afresh. Depression visits poets more frequently. You can write a lyric poem in a couple of hours. You don’t know if the next poem will start the next hour or a month from now. Poetry’s known for its brevity, but that’s also the bad news for writers.

LG: Do you do a lot of re-writing?

BC: Less and less. I try to make it right the first time. The conceptual journey of the poetry is all done in one sitting, from beginning to middle to end. I hardly ever change the movement of the poem as it navigates itself. What I do change are matters of rhythm and sound, finding an adjective. But I never go back and say this is all wrong.

LG: Do you write on the computer or longhand?

BC: I write with a pencil, always longhand. I make a mess and scratch things out. A pencil seems very fluid. I put it on the computer at the very last minute, when I think it’s done. On the computer it looks fixed in place and it’s pretty much done. When you put it on a computer you see what it looks like. The look of prose is irrelevant, but the poem has a shape to it which is the result of line breaks and stanza breaks, so you can see what you couldn’t see with the pencil. Shapeliness is one of the attractive aspects of poetry. When I get it on the screen I do some shaping to make it look right.

LG: Do any other genres, besides poetry, appeal to you?

BC: Not really. I think it’s sort of like in music. It’s enough to be able to play one fairly well. That’s the question musicians never get, do you play any other instruments.

I write some prose, I write essays on poetry. Criticism. I wouldn’t know what I was doing if I wrote a short story.

LG: What writers have influenced you the most?

BC: That’s a tough question. There are too many to name. It’s not even clear the degree of influence. Often people will spout names like Yeats, Coleridge, etc., but I think these are flags of convenience. It’s hard to think of something that hasn’t influenced me, positively or negatively.

I’ve taught literature in college for so many years. Every semester I re-read Emily Dickinson, Wordsworth, Marvel. I read them all semester after semester.

What I think of as an influence is a poet who makes you jealous. It’s a polite way of saying other writers inflame you with jealousy. Driven by a jealous rage you go off and try to write something like that, or try to steal from them in order to exact revenge.

LG: I’ve read that you consider your poetry to be “hospitable,” which some refer to as accessible. How do you distinguish between hospitable and poetry that’s considered difficult or obscure?

BC: I think I discovered that you can write clearly in clear language and still have access to areas of great mystery. To write doesn’t mean to get stuck on a literal level. There are poets who follow etiquette. I write in sentences. I use standard punctuation, beginning with a standard note the reader can identify with. Once that engagement is made the poet can head off in less familiar directions and take the reader on an imaginative journey in which the writer doesn’t know where he’s going.

A poem begins in clarity and ends in mystery, if a poet is able to understand that distinction and knows when to be clear and when to be mysterious. It’s important to know which cards to turn over, and which to leave face down. In the worst poetry all the cards are face down.

LG: Aside from writing, what are your pastimes?

BC: I play the piano. I have a dog I’m obsessed with.

LG: What kind of dog?

BC: She’s a mutt, mostly collie. It goes back to those Albert Payson Terhune books. I live in New York City, on the Hudson River in the Village. That’s a good opportunity for walking.

LG: What projects are you working on currently?

BC: I’m finishing a manuscript but I don’t know if it’s done yet. I think the publisher would like it but I’m not sure it’s ready. I don’t want to rush it into print. I don’t know how many aces I have.

LG: What advice would you give to aspiring poets?

BC: That goes back to that influence question. Just read. Find poets that make you jealous. The only hope you have in what would be called originality is through a process of imitation. It’s a matter of getting rid of the young poet’s delusion that your experiences are so original that you’re going to announce this in original language. What inspires poetry is poetry. It’s not the muse. It’s not nature. It’s not emotion. It’s other poetry that inspires poetry. When you write poetry you’re adding your voice to this long historic voice. You need to listen to these for a long time before you even know what your voice would possibly add. Read widely and quickly. Don’t waste your time on poetry that doesn’t talk to you.

LG: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.

BC: Thank you.

Special thanks to Steven Barclay, of Steven Barclay Agency, for putting me in touch with Mr. Collins, and to Billy Collins, for his generosity in granting the interview.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

Oh, sleep. Nothing else could ever bring me such pleasure, such freedom, the power to feel and move and think and imagine, safe from the miseries of my waking consciousness … It was one thing my mother and I had enjoyed doing together when I was a child. She was not the type to sit and watch me draw or read me books or play games for go for walks in the park or bake brownies. We got along best when we were asleep.

  • My Year of Rest and Relaxation

I’ll just warn you in advance I’m glad I didn’t need to submit this to a particular publication for review, because the damn thing nearly broke my brain — not for its complexity, but rather because it made me very angry for being somewhat a cop-out of a novel, on a couple of levels. This was another book I’d built up in my mind, a novel that sounded so promising and got such raves I put off reading it until I felt I had the attention span to really soak it in.

How did that turn out? Keep going.

Both parents recently dead within months of each other, our unnamed narrator is a 20-something beauty, a statuesque size 2 blonde and recent Columbia graduate born to wealth and privilege.

In addition to being a very rich orphan she’s also a bitch, though I guess psychiatrists would rush to qualify she’s a manipulative narcissist incapable of empathy for anyone else’s pain, someone who uses anyone in her life naive enough to care about her. Fortunately, there aren’t many of those. Unfortunately, her best friend from college, Reva, bears the brunt of our narrator’s very bad behavior and pays heftily.

At times comically self-absorbed and very matter of fact about her beauty and privilege, the main character is positively revolting as a human being. Reader, I despised her and when I say this it’s a positive. When a writer’s so good she can set me against her main character that’s a win. It means it was intentional, and she’s done her job.

On the other hand, am I being played when Moshfegh crafts a character who’s given every privilege but can’t manage to scrape herself together without a grand act, a theatrical and cavalier game of Russian roulette played with her life just because she’s rich enough to pull it off. Is it the point to not care what happens to her because she has no substance? Another reason I’m glad this isn’t a commissioned review. I can just gloss right on past that one.

Tra la!

Days slipped by obliquely, with little to remember, just the familiar dent in the sofa cushions, a froth of scum in the bathroom sink like some lunar landscape, craters bubbling on the porcelain … Nothing seemed really real. sleeping, waking, it all collided into one gray, monotonous plane ride through the clouds. I didn’t talk to myself in my head. There wasn’t much to say. This was how I knew the sleep was having an effect: I was growing less and less attached to life. If I kept going, I thought, I’d disappear completely, then reappear in some new form. This was my hope. This was the dream.

Set up for life financially, her parents were apathetic nearly to the point of neglect, neither showing a shred of human empathy over the course of her life. Still, their loss hit her hard because it’s supposed to. Reprehensible or not, these two people made her, raised her, and more importantly left her all that glorious cash. Now dead, any chance they’d repent or explain is gone, *Poof!*, along with them. Heartbroken but reluctant to admit so straight out, her hold on life’s so tenuous she knows she needs a drastic action to jolt her out of her depression.

Left ridiculously wealthy, she decides in order to reset her grim life — poor wealthy, beautiful and admired thing — and have any chance at happiness she needs to sleep away a full year, marking a shift between her past and the future she hopes to salvage. Finding an unscrupulous psychiatrist, it’s easy enough obtaining a quantity of prescriptions and free samples to see her through. Through experimentation and much trial and error, resulting in a few wildly outrageous adventures she’s grateful she can’t fully remember, eventually she finds the formula for the maximum amount of uninterrupted sleep. More details than this I won’t give, since all that’s set out elaborately in more than half of the book. You need to read it to find out.

I loved the book through the first half and beyond; I found it nearly impossible setting it down, reading late into the night finishing it, convinced this was a 5-star gobsmacker.

Then a couple things happened. First, I read the last page and it disappointed me she took a ridiculously predictable route. Then, I started thinking about the book as a whole and it pissed me off. Stating the exact reason would be a spoiler, but suffice to say I saw the end coming like a Mormon in a suit down a suburban street: It was too late to slam and bolt the door.

Ottesa Moshfegh is a phenomenal writer in loads of ways. So good. Her sense of rhythm, turns of phrases, use of dialogue and creation of repellent characters illustrate a high level of mastery. The premise of this book was phenomenal but I’m left scratching my head at her choice to set the story around a character with no obstacles whatsoever to carrying out an outrageous plan to sleep for a year. Sure, she hits a few bumps but nothing a Columbia grad can’t work out. How much different and possibly better it could have been if obstacles were put in her path, real life practicalities the rest of us would run up against. If she’d been tested in any real way, not including one little hitch courtesy of Reva, not to be spoiled by telling you what that was.

But this book’s not about that, so I’ll yelling in the wind. It’s all about money, how it can bring you everything and nothing at the same time. Yet, even that’s spoilt by the twee ending so I can’t even say she did that well.

Yes, it’s metaphoric. I get that. And it’s a funny book and see above for the part about it being well-written. It’s all those things, but dammit I’m still pissed off and I don’t want to talk about it anymore. Read it if you want. I’m just done here.

Instead, have another quote:

Sleep felt productive. Something was getting sorted out. I knew in my heart — this was, perhaps, the only thing my heart knew back then — that when I’d slept enough, I’d be okay. I’d be renewed, reborn. I would be a whole new person, every one of my cells regenerated enough times that the old cells were just distant, foggy memories. My past life would be but a dream, and I could start over without regrets, bolstered by the bliss and serenity that I would have accumulated in my year of rest and relaxation.

For the record, this is the second time I can recall a book getting under my skin this badly, irritating me to the point I couldn’t stick around long enough to finish talking it out. And no, I don’t recall the title of the other book. If this were a marriage, I’d divorce My Year of Rest and Relaxation, citing irreconcilable differences.

If only Ottessa Moshfegh weren’t such a damned fine writer.

The only antidote to my little hissy fit would be to try and re-read the book, to see if maybe there’s not some key thing I missed. I was so distracted by the One Big Flaw I already mentioned as twee, I may have flown by some other key to the puzzle, a reason not to pack my bags and leave. But then, if I have to dig that hard it was potentially too subtle.

Compromise: I’m going to read a few reviews, hopefully finding a couple that don’t rely on idolizing what a superb stylist Moshfegh is but specifically address the problems I have with her book. I’m not feeling very optimistic. When a writer’s this much of a darling, a phenom, good luck finding anyone to point out shortcomings.

I’m really going this time. But if I find anything to change my mind about the book I’ll post about it again.

So.

The end?

The writing librarian and her work: plotting and paring

Good as my word, I’ve been busily hard at work getting my freelance writing endeavor up and running. I’m in stage one: panicked confusion.

Apparently, before you can get much of anywhere you have to brand yourself. I’ve been at work watching videos and reading articles on how a person does that, which so far as I can determine means you need to specialize, find a pithy way of expressing what you’re about, then set to work finding people who’ll pay for what you’re offering.

Sounds simple but oh dear god it’s not. When you’re a multi-niche specialist as I am, cutting down what you’re doing is like pruning limbs from your body. The good news is I’m spoiled for choice. This is why I could never abide people with no hobbies or interests. I’m awash with them.

So, which to keep and which to sideline?

Twinned with that, you need to market and promote, naturally, write a portfolio and get out there and flog it. The good thing about it is you’re your own boss, and the terrible thing about it is the same. You set your hours, but you’re still responsible when you don’t meet self-imposed deadlines.

Then there’s the produce on demand bit. Once you have clients, that’s the meat of the profession. That, and filling orders once you’ve pitched ideas to editors, of course.

It all gets very real, very quickly.

I’ve been less structured in my freelancing up ’til now, letting work come to me rather than going after focused, carefully chosen clients. But seeing as I’m actively working very hard getting back into the library profession and peddling my writing as a second income stream, it’s getting a lot more intense. There’s no end of work to be done, and if you don’t get a good grip on things you can easily go flying off into the ether. If you listen closely, you can hear the screams of writers ricocheting into The Deep.

There went another one. RIP.

My 2019 freelance goals are to find a stable column writing gig or two, a handful of clients I’ll produce for regularly and a steady stream of querying and filling orders. That’s as a second job, working part time alongside the mythical full time librarian position I’m madly pursuing.

They say if you want a job done right, ask a busy person. Sounds idiotic, but it’s actually true. If I want to do what you’re asking, I’ll find a way to fit it into my rotation. Once you’re used to getting a lot of things done rapid-fire, it’s easy to gauge if yes, I have time for that, or no, sorry, find another writer.

I won’t hesitate to tell you yes or no. I can see everything I’m doing at a glance, the way I’ve set up my schedule. I know exactly what slots are open, and have prioritized every detail.

I told you I’ve been busy.

The professions of librarian and freelance writer go hand in hand, the one feeding off the other. While it’s not true librarians spend their days reading (I only wish), in every library job I’ve held I’ve been able to flex my writing muscles. I’ve been a social media manager and in-house editor in both library jobs I’ve had so far, as well as forming a writing group that’s still active more than a decade on. If my scheduled allowed, I’d be active there still. As it’s not, I’m considering pitching a start up writers group at another library, slotted to fit into my free time.

I bring my personality to my employer, taking on the role of the voice the community comes to associate with the library. And I’m damn good at it.

You may have noticed I have rather a strong voice. I use it to good effect, given a public platform. Now, I just need the library.

Once I’m installed as a librarian, I’ll be able to say yes more often to the publishers knocking on my virtual door. Yes, I’ll read and review your book. I’ll have an audience of library patrons, in addition to my reach as Bluestalking and associated review outlets. From there I generally go to work disseminating reviews, author interviews and events to the general public via the local media. It’s never far from my mind hooking up my library with writers on tour, either.

It all comes together quite nicely. Though not without an awful lot of work. But then, when it doesn’t feel like work it’s the absolute best thing on earth. I miss it, and I’m bound and determined to get back to it. And when I’m determined, very little stands in my way.

But first, the planning: The branding and the specializing and the tweaking.

2019: I’m giving you fair warning. You’re going to be my year. 2017 and 2018 were good efforts, but it’s time to put away the first draft and get on with the big work: Editor at large of my own life.

Starting my reading year: The Nanny

 

The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani

 

A light start to my 2019 reading year with this fast-paced darling of 2018, a thriller that swept Europe, washing up on the shores of America in early 2018. Despite knowing I have next to zero luck with buzz books – the latest flavor of the month thriller – I tried hunting it down, anyway. It was the title that did it. I like the device of nannies as main characters; their narrative usefulness is broad. On the one hand, they can serve as vehicles to save children from bad parents or dire situations. On the other, they can be very bad people, indeed. What’s more horrifying than parents inadvertently leaving their children in the hands of a paid, supposedly vetted psychopath? Answer: precious little.

Nannies, well done, make for delicious characters.

 

When Myriam decides to return to work as a lawyer after having children, she and her husband look for the perfect nanny for their son and daughter. They never dreamed they would find Louise: a quiet, polite, devoted woman who sings to the children, cleans the family’s chic Paris apartment, stays late without complaint, and hosts enviable kiddie parties. But as the couple and the nanny become more dependent on one another, jealousy, resentment, and suspicions mount, shattering the idyllic tableau. Building tension with every page, The Perfect Nanny is a compulsive, riveting, bravely observed exploration of power, class, race, domesticity, motherhood, and madness—and the American debut of an immensely talented writer.

  • amazon.com

 

Ultimately, the point was moot because Barnes & Noble took its sweet time noticing the frenzied press the book was getting, neglecting to stock stores local to me. When I couldn’t find it and couldn’t be bothered ordering it, I blew it off. If it was meant to be, it would be. I had plenty else keeping me busy, and it was doubtful the book lived up to the hype, anyway.

Then December rolled around. I was out buying myself books as consolation prizes to soothe bumps and bruises earned in 2018 and there it was: that smoking hot novel with enticing title and cover art. It was wearing something slinky over those stockings with seams down the back, spiky patent shoes and a smoldering, come hither stare.

You want fifteen bucks? You got fifteen bucks.

It nailed it; I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. It’s a thriller, so you know whodunnit immediately. It’s the why that keeps you guessing. Why does a perfect nanny, more friend than employee, turn into a murderer?

So many reasons, at heart a very selfish, narcissistic one. It’s dreadful, just horrifying. Well done, Leila Slimani. You created a monster. Not every Amazon reader was a fan, but then half those predictably droned on about how unlikable the main character is. Psst … She’s a villain, that’s kind of the point. If she’d killed the children, but then turned into this charmingly quirky character you loved, would that have worked as a believable story?

“I’m cute and endearing, but whoops! Killed the kids!”

Womp, womp, womp …

Quit being ridiculous. When a writer’s trying to turn your stomach and succeeds, when you want to spit in the character’s face, she’s done her job. The cover blurb told you this wasn’t going to end well. You’re in the wrong section, Skippy. Trot along to Self Help, there’s a good boy.

The other main criticism leveled at The Perfect Nanny is the characters weren’t fleshed out enough. I agree, it was a bit spare. But also, it’s a translation. Details are always lost that way. I give some credence to those who wanted to know more, but a thriller writer is hobbled. She cannot tip her hand. All the weight of a thriller lies in not knowing the motivation of the bad guy until the very end. The less you know of the character, the less likely you are to guess what’s in her head. Could Slimani have pulled the curtain back a bit further? Yes, she could have. It’s a legitimate beef, but I’d rather she leaned toward vague than risked letting slip the crucial why before the very end. Had I guessed the denouement, I’d have flung the book in the garbage.

Leila Slimani did her job, and I enjoyed the time I spent with her writing. It absolutely flew. What’s funny is I’m struggling to recall many specifics. I’m thinking those people who complained things were a little too sparse may have been onto something but stand by my feeling she pulled it off. It’s well done, intelligent and paced nicely. It was New Year’s Eve, I was sitting alone concentrating on ignoring the fact it’s a holiday and I wasn’t spending it in Edinburgh, immersed in a book I’d been trying to procure, off and on, all year. It was exactly what I needed to read at exactly the right time

What’s left to say besides read it? Yes, do. Read it. If you enjoy thrillers, especially books about evil nannies who do terrible things, read it. Read the hell out of it. I’d be surprised if you came back and said “that was really awful; I hated it and now I hate you”, unless you don’t like books about psychos. I do really like books about psychos. Hell, I attract emotionally stunted, crazy people – not necessarily on purpose. It must be some pheromone I give off. They’re good company. Interesting, at least.

The Perfect Nanny is a kick starter. It’s that book to pick up when you’re stuck, when you’re restless and can’t think what to read next. On the beach? Read The Perfect Nanny! On a plane? The Perfect Nanny!

Patterson and Grisham are shit. Read The Perfect Nanny!

Wow. That was fun. Let’s call this a review palate cleanser and back away slowly.

Hashtag WINNING.

Since The Perfect Nanny, I’ve read one hell of a great book deserving of its National Book Award win. It’s decidedly not forgettable, spare nor lacking detail, not a book for the beach. It’s emotionally exhausting, especially if you’ve ever lost an unrequited or impossible love, left wondering if a best friend could have been a one, true love of a lifetime. Maybe you already knew it was so, but had no power to change anything. And then that person’s dead – in this case, by his own hand. It’s brutal and wonderful. Wonderfully brutal.

It’s Sigrid Nunez’s phenomenal The Friend, and it’ll be up next.

Meanwhile, my home office is getting much closer to being set up, and I’m writing this on my new desktop computer. Scribbled novel and memoir drafts haven’t been transcribed, since I haven’t shelled out for MS Office, but that’s coming. Soon. Right now I cringe at the cost, but let’s face it, there’s no choice.

Hell.

Also working on reading Moby Dick and associated books about the book and Herman Melville, the 200th birthday boy of 2019. That’s in the midst of nesting in my new place, acclimating two nervous rescue cats and coming to terms with What’s Next for Me.

It’s been busy. Always is.

 

May be a bit of a lag.

 

Goodbye, Edinburgh. And goodbye, UK.

 

I have a post in draft form about my visit to London to meet up with online bookgroup friends of nearly 15 years, however, I’ve had to up stakes and change plans entirely. I’m not long for the UK, friends.

The Landlaird’s broken this camel’s back via a grievous breach of privacy and wearisome jealousy, both professional and personal. The rest of the world has friends; sorry you’re incapable of sustaining relationships, but I have a lot of them. Try dropping the unprovoked hysteria and paranoia, and keep to your wee niche. And, fuck’s sake, find and use spell check.

Barely worth the energy of an eye roll.

I may or may not post properly before I leave for the States. I’ll try very hard to at least push the London post through, but it will be tough.

It’s also not escaped me that it’s the end of the year already, time to wrap up 2018 reading. Well, I’ll do my level best.

Meantime, happy advent. Hope your holiday season’s bright. Here’s to a 2018 packed with lessons and a 2019 with possibilities.