Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Reading List

Sometimes when you're on the trail of a subject, the source material is scarce. Maybe there are no primary documents left behind or recent biographical information to refer to. I find myself in this position quite often as I delve into the lives of Amy E. Blanchard and Ida Waugh, and I've learned that when I'm seeking to fill in the missing pieces it's helpful to look beyond the obvious. (For an example of how this can be done with stunning success, I highly recommend Jill Lepore's BOOK OF AGES: THE LIFE AND OPINIONS OF JANE FRANKLIN.)

I recently visited the summer home of Amy E. Blanchard and Ida Waugh: it's a home that I've been to hundreds of times over the last thirty-five years. On this trip I realized that I've never really looked at their generous bookshelf, tucked away in the corner of the living room. So I wedged myself onto the uncomfortable sofa, cranked my neck to an angle that would make my physical therapist weep, and started browsing the shelves. Who among us bibliophiles has not cruised the shelves of friends, lovers, potential mates, or mere acquaintances, if only to get a glimpse into their soul? I wasn't looking for books they had written, although there were a few, I wanted to know what they read, what they bought, where did they spend their hard-earned money? What kind of books were they gifted by their friends?

My aunt generously offered to let me take some books home. Most of the covers were faded and worn, each book showed the toll that over a hundred years in an un-insulated house on the Atlantic had taken. I chose a few, not wanting to break up the collection. There was crossover between Amy, Ida, and the generations of readers that arrived later.

They are, from top to bottom:

  • AS OTHERS SEE US by Amy E. Blanchard. I've been looking for this book for ages. It's a little book of moral teaching that begins, "Slow people seldom receive half the sympathy that they should."
  • NEW SALADS by Mrs. S.T. Rorer. Amy loved to cook, and did so often. There are tiny "x"s on recipes I have to assume she made such as "A Sunday Night Salad."
  • SEX IN EDUCATION, OR, A FAIR CHANCE FOR GIRLS by Edward H. Clarke, published in 1873. I haven't given this a read yet, and it is so fragile that I am nervous about opening it too often. Amy had a high school education and Ida was a member of the first life drawing class at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts, so I would say that they both had strong feelings about women's rights when it came to education. After a little searching I see that this book merited a few responses, including a collection of essays written by women and titled NO SEX IN EDUCATION, OR, AN EQUAL CHANCE FOR BOTH BOYS AND GIRLS. 
  • THE HOSTESS OF TODAY by Linda Hull Larned. It seems as though Amy and Ida were at their most social on their beloved Bailey Island in Maine. From Amy's journals I get the sense that Amy was the cook, the entertainer, the outgoing one while Ida quietly, yet happily, went along with the group. Published in 1899, the illustrations by Mary Cowles Clarke are wonderful. Starred recipes include Split Pea Puree and Fruit Macedoine.
  • ITALIAN VIGNETTES by Mary W. Arms belonged to Ida. Ida and Amy traveled through Italy in 1909 and Ida father, Samuel B. Waugh, was well known for his mid-nineteenth-century paintings of the Italian countryside.
I'm not sure yet what to do with this little stack, but I love the thought of reading a book that Amy might have read, making a recipe that they may have enjoyed one summer night, or leafing through an Italian vignette as Ida may have done. (It was her first, and last, trip to Italy.)



Monday, June 2, 2014

Behind the list

As many of you know, for the past couple of years I have been fortunate enough to be tapped by the books editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Laurie Hertzel, to write up the must-read summer fiction list for the Summer Books special. Every time she asks I am both honored and terrified.

Honored for obvious reasons, terrified because...oh my God...the pressure! So, I  thought I would take a moment to write about the process.

First, when the snow is still falling, Laurie asks if I would be interested and outlines how she envisions the piece. Then the games begin! I consult one of my many running book lists. I browse through twitter to see what the buzz is about. I electronically page through catalog after catalog, first checking my favorite publishing houses, including the smaller houses as well. In the meantime, Laurie is composing her own list and pulling titles from the infamous "book room" at the Star Tribune where all of the advance copies are kept.

Then, the emails start flying. Lists are exchanged, title trading happens. Books are subtracted, added in, and then subtracted again. Some titles won't make the list because they are slated for full reviews later in the summer. Nothing is set in stone, everything is fluid, and even up until my deadline date we never know if a dark horse might take the lead.

My top summer pick for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Then comes the time for commitment, not my strongest trait. My husband tolerates stacks and stacks of galleys on our coffee tables, put into very specific piles: in and out, liked and LOVED.  (DON'T TOUCH! I warn him...) I write as I read so that I don't lose that feeling of intimacy you have when you finish a book, when the characters are fresh and the story hovers around you like a fog. I revise again and again, worried that I may repeat an adjective one too many times.

And then that fateful moment comes: it is time to push the "send' button with my final draft, I hesitate. Is this it? Have I done all I can do? Authors spend years pushing these babies out into the world, I want to make sure that my reviews and capsules serve writers and readers alike. The casual reader may think I am being overly dramatic, but I hope that fellow writers and the readers can appreciate what I am talking about.

Whoosh, it's gone.

But it doesn't end there, the reading continues. Here is a list of fiction titles that for whatever reason may not have made the Star Tribune list (and may be slated for a future review), but should still be on your summer shelf.

  • Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia
  • The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
  • The Vacationers by Emma Straub
  • The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman
  • Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead
  • An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
  • The Fever by Megan Abbott
Also, some recent titles that are now in paperback:
  • A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
  • Sea Creatures by Susanna Daniel
  • The Gravity of Birds by Tracy Guzeman
  • The Movement of Stars by Amy Brill
  • Paris Was the Place by Susan Conley

(Shameless plug: The Minneapolis Star Tribune has one of the best books section running, with Laurie putting her heart and soul into it, an amazing group of reviewers, and a commitment to small and large presses alike. Like them on Facebook, follow Laurie on twitter, and keeping visiting the Books section for recommendations all summer long.)

Monday, May 5, 2014

What's new? The spring edition.

Store names don't get much better than this.
(Natural Bridge, VA)

  • I've had quite a few reviews run over at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, if you have a chance please take a peek. They include Gail Caldwell's new memoir, The Bohemians by Ben Tarnoff, and Life is a Wheel by Bruce Weber.
  • I finished my creative writing fellowship at the American Antiquarian Society and left with loads of new information, great new connections with fascinating people, and a whole pile of words that I will need to wrestle with in the near future. If you are a writer or an artist focusing on a pre-20th century subject you should look at their fellowship program. It's a game changer in the best sense of the word.
  • While we're on the subject of AAS and awesome talented people, please visit the website of Mental Slapstick, the brainchild of Stephanie Argy and Alec Boehm. "A Person Known to Me": it's gonna be big, you heard it here first.
  • I read twenty books last month in order to curate the best of this summer's fiction just for you. (You're welcome.) Keep an eye out for the Minneapolis Star Tribune's summer books extravaganza, which should publish at the end of May.
  • I've updated my portfolio and gee, it looks gorgeous
  • I drove to Florida and back with my family last week on a trip fueled by Twizzlers, Harry Potter, weird voices, and held together with duct tape. My intention is to write a blog post about the trip, but you know what they say about that. Here are a few photos in the meantime.


The Waffle House, home to quite a cast of characters.
Sorry Charlie but we have to take down this sign
 (Savannah, GA)

Cliff's Hot Dogs in Walterboro, SC. Yes, those prices are real.

Mark Cline's giant bug (?) in Natural Bridge, VA. You can read about his other masterpiece, Foamhenge, here.








Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Review of UNREMARRIED WIDOW: A MEMOIR by Artis Henderson

by Meganne Fabrega, special to the Minneapolis Star Tribune

There are many wonderful memoirs lining the shelves of bookstores today, but how many of these true stories can be deemed so powerful as to move a reader to tears? Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” is one that comes to mind, and, more recently, “Wave,” Sonali Deraniyagala’s memoir of immense loss in the 2004 tsunami. Artis Henderson’s stunning debut memoir, “Unremarried Widow,” is guaranteed to join the ranks of memoirs that will be talked about for years to come.

Henderson first attracted attention with her 2010 New York Times “Modern Love” essay, “In Grief, a Mother and Wife Bond.” She had been married less than a year to her husband, Miles, when he was killed in a helicopter crash while serving in Iraq in 2006. The first part of the memoir details their courtship and the challenges of Army base living, especially in Henderson’s position as girlfriend, not wife, which relegated her to a lesser status.
Henderson paints an honest portrait of her life with Miles without falling into the trap of glorifying the dead. She is painfully honest about her misgivings about Army life, her reservations about her compatibility with Miles, and the stark fact that she would be sacrificing many of her own dreams in order to play a supporting role in Miles’ career. Nevertheless, she follows her heart, as her mother did years ago with Henderson’s father, and she married Miles before he deployed to Iraq.
The second half of the memoir is about the “right of the boom,” a military term for what immediately follows a traumatic incident. Far too young, Henderson is thrown into a world of grief, and she feels herself become “porous and malleable, easily breached.” She is reclassified by the military as “URW” for “Unremarried Widow.” Along with the shock of her sudden loss she is expected to follow military protocol, which involves a detailed “death presentation” that outlined the findings about the crash, and her fellow widow’s continued challenge to the official report.
“There is no greater hurt than knowing you have been loved and the source of that love disappearing,” Henderson writes, in a sentence so plain and so true that it is impossible to continue reading without feeling your heart break just a little. It is this kind of lucid writing, intertwined with her story of love and loss, that makes this memoir truly unforgettable.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

BFFs

As I dig deeper into the lives of Amy E. Blanchard and Ida Waugh I find myself increasingly interested in the subject of women's friendships. One book usually leads to another, and there are so many that I want to read that I have to be very careful which rabbit hole I choose to slip down and for how long.

I bought a book at the thrift store a very long time ago, but just recently unearthed it from the bulging shelf of my reference books. Carolyn G. Heilbrun (a.k.a. Amanda Cross) wrote Writing a Woman's Life in 1988; it is a veritable wealth of inspiration and information, especially where my own research is concerned. Not only did it provide me with many new points of reference, it reinforced the importance of sharing Amy and Ida's friendship with the world.

As she discusses the importance of uncovering friendships between women, particularly those of the past, she writes "If one sets out to survey the annals of friendship...one ends by reading...of male friendships. If the friendships of women are considered at all, and that is rare enough, they intrude into the male account the way a token woman is reluctantly included in a male community."

What struck me to the core, to the very heart of my passion for uncovering the story of Amy and Ida was this particular excerpt: "The sign of female friendship is not whether friends are homosexual or heterosexual, lovers or not, but whether they share the wonderful energy of work in the public sphere. These, some of them hidden, are the friends whom biographers must seek out."

Amy and Ida worked in the public sphere as they lived, with a drive and passion that to not work would be unthinkable, just as to not share their life with each other would be equally unbearable. BFFs as they say nowadays...Best Friends Forever.




Friday, December 6, 2013

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

It's the "Best of..." book list time of year! The time when all of us book nerds get together to list, to debate, to champion, or to put down which books made the multitude of lists out there.

You can find me over at The Minneapolis Star Tribune, weighing in on biography and memoir titles for 2013. Don't miss the Critic's Choice roundup either, where I tell you why you absolutely can't miss Susanna Daniel's SEA CREATURES.

As always, nobody does it like David Gutowski over at Largehearted Boy who aggregates all of the "best of..." lists in one glorious place.


Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Author All Girls Love

Even back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries an author had to be at the top of her game. Up-to-date authorly photos and marketing materials were a must. Amy Ella Blanchard was often photographed with a serious expression and book in hand, even as a child. As an adult she was most likely wearing a dress that she sewed, or at the very least, a hat that she had trimmed herself.


I have not unearthed any author interviews with her, and frankly I’m not sure if that was even a “thing” back then, but each of the author biographies that she penned reveals a new fact about her that I had not yet uncovered. Reading this “Biographical Sketch” helped me connect the dots between Amy and a tiny obituary of her paternal grandmother that I found tucked between the pages of yet another scrapbook.







Every author needs a good blurb or two, I like the one at the bottom of this pamphlet advertising her series of historical novels for girls. “The best historical stories for girls ever written.” It’s not attributed to anyone, but who cares? It’s said with such authority that it must be true.


I’ll be speaking to a class at (my alma mater) Hampshire College next week about Amy and Ida, so I’ve been lying awake at night trying to gather my thoughts. Every time I peek into the archive something new leaps out at me, I could easily speak for hours.  








As I sifted through the papers yesterday I came across this newspaper from North Andover, MA circa 1894. This little news column reminds me of the Portsmouth (NH) Police Log of today.