Books About Letters

Seven Great Books About Letters

Unknown-1 Royko In Love: Mike’s Letters to Carol by Mike Royko, edited by David Royko – Yes, that Mike Roykop, tough and cynical newspaper columnist – it turns out he had a sweet and vulnerable heart as a young man in the Air Force and he wooed his high school love from afar through his wonderful letters, found by his son after his death and collected in this book.

Unknown-2 Letters to Father: Suor Maria Celeste to Galileo by Maria Galilei – Yes, that Galileo – he was a great dad, sending his daughter (ensconced in a convent) needed food, books, letters, and she was grateful and loving in return.

Unknown-1Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto by Joan Reardon – This pair of friends sent more than 200 letters back and forth, writing frankly about sex, men, life, and, of course, food.

Unknown-284, Charing Cross Road by Helen Hanff – A letter arrives a London bookstore, inquiring about secondhand books, setting off a correspondence that brought friendship, and then love, into the lives of two correspondents separated by an ocean but united by books.

Unknown-1 The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins – The first detective novel, written in epistolary form, that tracks the loss of a gigantic yellow diamond of unearthly beauty and mysterious power. Love and death revolve around the magnificent diamond – and letters tell it all.

Unknown-1Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster – A young woman is sent off to college through the sponsorship of an anonymous benefactor – all he asks in return are regular letters from school. Funny, heart-warming, and unforgettable, this book was a favorite of mine when I was a child and was just as fun to re-read as an adult.

Unknown-1Lady Susan by Jane Austen – Lady Susan Vernon is beautiful, charming, but also self-serving and quite cruel – follow her machinations to marry off her daughter and find a new husband for herself, written entirely in letters back and forth between the various characters in little-known novel by Jane Austen.

FacebookTwitterGoogle+PinterestTumblrShare

Chicago, Here I Come!

Next week I will be traveling to Chicago for two book events. I will be reading from Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing, and signing books on Tuesday July 15th at 7 pm at the Evanston Public Library, 1703 Orrington Avenue in Evanston.

On Wednesday July 16th at 7 pm, I will be reading from a different chapter and signing more books at The Book Cellar, 4736-38 North Lincoln Ave in Chicago.

Circa 1972

Circa 1972

I am excited to be going back to Chicago and will be visiting favorite spots, including The Art Institute, Gino’s East, and the Museum of Science and Industry, where I plan to stroll down Old Main Street and take a new photo on the old car – updating the one from circa 1972…
And here is 2014!

And here is 2014!

Sisters Lost and Found, in the Land of Shadows

Land of Shadows, Rachel Howzell Hall’s latest novel, is a riveting exploration of crime and its repercussions in the poor neighborhoods of Los Angeles. Together with her previous thriller, No One Knows You’re Here, Land of Shadows proves that Hall is a star at weaving fast-paced, layered, and gripping stories. She creates an L.A. seething with tension; plots that twist and turn; and heroines bristling with intelligence, heart, and grit. Her women are street smart, sexy, and determined. Having made it through tough childhoods in L.A.’s worst neighborhoods, now they want to give voice – and justice – back to the places they came from. Unknown-1

Such a task is not for the faint-hearted – and Hall’s readers have to toughen up as well. Along with Lou in Land of Shadows, I had to face ugly facts and even uglier secrets as the plot unfolded but the writing is so good, the story so compelling, the characters so real, that I dove right in and stayed willingly submerged until the final word. Coming up for air, I was grateful for the provoking and sustaining experience of reading Hall – and I was ready to dive right back down again. So I did, rereading Land of Shadows almost immediately in order to catch all the nuances I’d missed the first time round.

In Land of Shadows, L.A. police detective Lou Norton is called to the scene of a murder staged to look like the suicide of a teenaged girl. Lou quickly spots the grisly signs of foul play but even worse: she is launched back into memories of the disappearance of her sister Tori, when Lou was just a child. Back then, the police barely took notice of a poor black girl gone missing and her disappearance went unsolved. Lou has been nursing the pain of losing her sister for years; the sight of the murdered girl reopens the wounds with a searing vengeance. Norton vows that this time round, the victim will get the attention she deserves.

I stared into the girl’s dead, half-mast eyes – 3 percent of me still believed that the last image seen by a dying person remained fixed in her eyes. ‘Who did this to you sweetie?’ I didn’t care about the ‘why.’ Fuck the ‘why.’ I wanted to know who had taken this girl’s life. Unfortunately, there were no images of that monster in her cloudy corneas. There were specks of red, though. Blood.
‘That’s okay, ‘ I whispered. ‘I’ll find that son-of-a-bitch.’ For you. And for me.

When there is little chance that a crime or its victim will garner attention, how are the losses caused by such violence to be absorbed? There can be no closure, only disillusionment; there is no healing, only a festering of disgust. Without healing, hope becomes crippled into an emotion that aims too low: for revenge, not justice; for escape, not security; for oblivion, not understanding. Lou knows what the unsolved disappearance of her sister has cost her family and how it still haunts her own nightmares.

No matter where her current investigation leads – into “respectable” neighborhoods or the gilded world of college basketball or Lou’s own backyard, further crumbling her broken relationship with her husband- she follows the trail with doggedness, fighting against her own painful memories to get through the web of lies created by family, witnesses, and perps. What Lou discovers in the end won’t make healing easy, not for her or for the family of the girl – but it will make healing possible. And with healing, comes a possibility of rehabilitating hope.

Kit Lyman’s novel, Satan’s Garden, also looks at the toll taken when a sister goes missing. Leaving aside the unfortunate title, this debut novel is engaging, provocative, and deeply moving. Two sisters are as closely twined as only sisters can be, their distinct personalities meshing together into a special bond of strength and comfort. But then Dani is kidnapped and Keely is the only witness. Unknown-2

When months pass with no message from the kidnapper and all clues have been followed to blank conclusions, Keely alone remains certain that her sister is alive. And she is – but for how long? While she remains imprisoned by a psychopath (who seems to know way too much about both girls), Keely becomes caught in another kind of web, one woven by society’s expectations, adolescent cruelties, and the deep pain of missing her sister. Can Dani be found in time – not only to save her life but also to save Keely’s sanity?

Lyman is a wonderful writer and the story she tells in Satan’s Garden quickly drew me in – I read feverishly and on the edge of my seat. The story is told in alternating chapters by first one sister, then the other, in voices that are vivid and unique. I cared about each sister so much, and found myself willing them the strength to survive while hoping against hope that time would not run out. Will one sister have to sacrifice herself to save the other? How can such a choice be made – and yet what other choice is possible, when the life of your beloved sister is in the balance?

Side Effects: the Books of Almudena Solana

I am a huge fan of the Spanish writer Almudena Solana. Great news for me: I am finally meeting her this week after years of reading and re-reading her books (we became acquainted through emails back and forth). Bad news? Only one of her novels – the marvelous The Curriculum Vitae of Aurora Ortiz – has been translated into English. I reviewed her novel Las Mujeres Inglesas Destrozan Los Tacones Al Andar (English Women Destroy Their Heels By Walking) in 2011 in the hopes it might be translated; now I am trying again with her latest novel, Efectos Secundarios (Side Effects). I’ve attempted a review in Spanish and follow with the English version. Unknown

La última novela de Almudena Solana es una maravilla de la imaginación y de la humanidad. En Efectos Secundarios el novelista español utiliza diez cualidades medicinales para explorar las profundidades internas de cada uno de sus personajes, nombrando a ellos después de los medicamentos comunes. Por ejemplo, una mujer llamada Adiro puede entender cuando alguien está mintiendo; Nolotil es un médico que tiene que aprender a decir “no”: Augmentin está lleno de nostalgia de la infancia; Voltaren es lleno de sí mismo; Paracetamol es una vieja que no puede recordar nada; y Ventolin es un joven saxofonista.

Incluso sin nombres propios, todos los personajes son muy reales y cada uno exige nuestra atención y afecto. Al principio, yo no entendía cómo las historias de los distintos personajes se entrecruzan pero poco a poco todo se unió para formar una hermosa historia sobre la soledad, la familia, la amistad, el amor, el sexo, el dolor y el confort. ¿Cómo se deletrea alivio? A través del contacto humano.

Hay muchos métodos (y algunos pueden decir los medicamentos) para obtener a través de las dificultades de la vida – pero al final, es la relación entre una persona y otra que da a los personajes la fuerza que necesitan.

Yo mismo aparezco en el libro, en la historia de una mujer que lee un libro al día durante un año para hacer frente a una terrible tristeza. Fue durante este año de terapia libro que leí por primera vez Almudena Solana, cuando un día de la biblioteca elegí El Curriculum Vitae of Aurora Ortiz. Sentí el toque humano en las palabras de Solana – y me sentí mejor. No paracetamol para mí: sólo libros y más libros. Gracias, Almudena, para el mejor alivio del dolor – las conexiones entre los seres humanos, la empatía de una persona a otra.

Now in English:

The latest novel by Almudena Solana is a marvel of imagination and humanity. In Side Effects the Spanish novelist uses ten medicinal qualities to explore the inner depths of her characters, naming them after commonly prescribed drugs. For example, a woman named Adiro (a kind of aspirin) can understand when someone is lying; Nolotil (a pain reliever) is a physician who has to learn to say “no”: Augmentin (an antibiotic) is full of nostalgia for childhood; Voltaren (an anti-inflammatory) is full of himself; Paracetamol (pain reliever) is an old woman who can not remember anything; and Ventolin (a bronchodilator) is a young saxophonist.

Even without proper names, all the characters are very real and each demands our attention and affection. At first I did not understand how the stories of the different characters intersect but gradually everything came together to form a beautiful story about loneliness, family, friendship, love, sex, pain and comfort. How do you spell relief? Through human contact.

There are many methods (and some may say drugs) to get through the difficulties of life – but in the end, is the relationship between one person and another that gives the characters the strength they need.

I also appear in the book, in the side mention of a woman reading a book a day for a year to deal with a terrible sadness. It was during this very real year of book therapy that I first read Almudena Solana, when one day in the library I chose The Curriculum Vitae of Aurora Ortiz. I felt the human touch in Solana’s words – and I felt better. No paracetamol for me: just books and more books. Thanks, Almudena, for better pain relief – the connections between humans, empathy from one person to another.

Caught in A Dark and Twisted Tide

Summer is here but I will not be jumping into any bodies of water to cool off, thanks to my beloved Sharon Bolton. A favorite harbinger of summer is the release of her latest thriller and A Dark and Twisted Tide met all my expectations of thrills, chills, and brain curls. It also left me hanging on tightly to the safety of my backyard lawn chair and vowing never ever to jump into any river – or lake, for that matter – any time soon. I don’t want to run the chance of finding a dead body – or two or three or more – the way heroine Lacey Flynt does in the latest Bolton novel. Unknown

Granted, Lacey is swimming in the Thames, not exactly known for the pristine quality of its waters or for the safety of swimming therein. But just the thought of encountering what makes even the brave Lacey shiver down into her bones (to say nothing of the bones she encounters – shrouded in linen and shackled to the depths of darkness) may just keep me land bound for the foreseeable future. The added element of reports of mermaids – drawing boaters to their death through haunting songs – creeps me out in the deepest recesses of my brain, where my own belief in supernatural beings lays dormant until raised to blazing reality by the vivid writing of Bolton.

Perhaps if I had the help of cool and collected Dana Tulloch, my favorite recurring character in the Bolton novels, or the anticipation of sheltering in the arms of hunky Mark Joesbury (another fabulous recurring cast member in Bolton world), I could be a bit braver, a bit more like Lacey who faces her fears and runs headlong into them. But I prefer reading what this guilt-ridden, secretive, sensitive, and completely wonderful wonder woman faces off against, again and again, using brains, body, and intuition (hard-earned from her own hard knocks) to solve mysteries and save lives.

This time the mystery is manifold: who is drowning these young women, where did the women come from, who (or what?) is leaving threats (or promises?) on the deck of Lacey’s houseboat, what is Mark Joesbury up to – and does a mermaid really exist in the waters of the Thames?

Bolton once again treats her readers not only to a thrilling mystery but also to a fascinating landscape, this time set in and around the Thames, a murky, dirty, seething river that carries both the life and the history of London in its ebb and flow, leaving markers of the past to be deciphered and clues of the present to be found. Trust to Lacey to find the clues and also some deeper answers to questions not only of death – why did these women have to die? – but of life itself: how do we keep swimming, when the tide turns against us? Lacey knows – and she shows us how.

Maybe I will go swimming this summer – after all, Lacey’s got my back.

The Gentlest Art

In 1907, E.V. Lucas published a lovely collection of letters under the title, The Gentlest Art. Letter writing is the art referred to and the letters chosen by Lucas illustrate his point of gentility – and of beauty. letters

Lucas published a second collection of letters in 1907, cleverly titled The Second Post and explained by the epigram, “It’s all very well to talk of your Beethovens & Mozarts. Very good in their way, no doubt. But for the music that counts, give me the double knock.” An early variation of the postman always rings twice.

I found so many wonderful examples of letters in the two volumes put together by Lucas, including many written by James Russell Lowell, a favorite eighteenth century American poet of mine. I am especially charmed by the letter written by Lowell on his 70th birthday: th-1

“I have been forging over the reef of my seventieth birthday into the smooth water beyond without much damage to my keel…”

Robert Burns and the Clarinda Letters

Robert Burns is a favorite poet of mine. I don’t know which came first, my fascination with Scotland or with Burns, but one feeds the other and I am besotted. imagesThrough his poems, Burns takes me to Scotland – “Yon wild mossy mountains sae lofty and wide…yon wild, mossy moors…” – where we share our need for green hills and rolling waters — “Amang thae wild mountains shall still be my path, Ilk stream foaming down its ain green, narrow strath…” – and our taste for nostalgia: “I dreamed I lay where flowers were springing, Gaily in the sunny beam, List’ning to the wild birds singing, By a falling crystal steam…”

Burns explains goodness to me – “the gust o’ joy, the balm of woe” – and religion – “The heart most benevolent and kind, The most resembles God”- and he teaches me lessons about life: “Then catch the moments as they fly, And use them as ye ought, man! Believe me, Happiness is shy, And comes not ay when sought, man!”

A poet writes of personal experiences and so I can know so much about Burns through his poems. And yet I still want – I need – the even more intimate view provided by his letters. How lucky I am that Burns was such a prodigious letter writer. And how lucky to have in my possession the 1959 edition of The Poems of Robert Burns and Selected Letters, edited by Anthony Hepburn. What a treasure! I can read my favorite poems and follow up with a perusal of selected letters.

But to know my beloved better than ever, I have to turn to the fifty letters Burns exchanged with Agnes Craig MacLehose over three months in 1787-88 (which I have in a marvelous 1917 editon). 51-pIP7HgxL._SL500_SX258_BO1,204,203,200_

The famous “Clarinda” letters offer an especially intimate interlude with Burns. Burns first met Agnes when she was already ten years married but a virtual widow. Her husband James MacLehose had ardently pursued her, despite the obstacles put up by Agnes’ wary father. When MacLehose learned that Agnes was taking a trip to Edinburgh, he reserved all seats but one in the carriage, then shut himself in with her all the way from Glasgow to Edinburgh. By the end of the journey Agnes was engaged to James and within six months they were married. But just as quickly as he had wooed his lass, MacLehose left her, going away for years on end to his lands in Jamaica.

All alone at home, Agnes became restless. Years passed, hubby stayed away, and Agnes took on activities like writing and reading poetry to keep herself occupied. In 1787 she chanced upon the poems of a rising star on the Scottish scene. She asked friends to arrange a meeting between the two of them.

It was a dreary December day when Burns first met Agnes at a tea party in Edinburgh but he remembered it as a light in the darkest season: “O May, thy morn was never so sweet, As the mirk right of December…”

Burns fell in love, writing to a friend, “I am at this moment ready to hang myself for a young Edinburgh widow, who has wit and beauty more murderously fatal than the assassinating stiletto of the Sicilian Banditti.”

On Agnes’ part, she was quick to point out to Burns that she was married. And yet she also encouraged his intimate attachment to her, addressing him in letters as her “Sylander”, and signing off as his “Clarinda.” She chose the nicknames to reflect what she wished for in their relationship, an Arcadian idyll of simplicity and sympathy: a connection that was fresh, vibrant, unrestrained, and yet innocent.images-2

Burns had other objectives. Certainly he loved her – “I do love you, if possible, still better for having so fine a taste and turn for poesy … ” But just as certainly he desired her and wanted more than just the hand of friendship: “Take a little of the tender witchcraft of love, and add to it the generous, the honourable sentiments of manly friendship, and I know but one more delightful morsel, which few, few in any rank ever taste. Such a composition is like adding cream to strawberries; it not only gives the fruit a more elegant richness, but has a deliciousness of its own.”

I would have caved, without doubt, to such words of love and desire. Agnes, however, is determined to keep Burns’ love at a distance and her skirts down. She wrote firmly in a poem sent to him, “Talk not of Love, it gives me pain, For Love has been my foe; He bound me with an iron chain, And plunged me deep in woe…”

Burns promises restraint on his part: “I would not, for a single moment, give…. a selfish gratification, at the expense of her whose happiness is twisted with the threads of my existence….”

He is rewarded by a lowering of Clarinda’s defenses, proven by a letter she writes to him after a particularly engaging evening: “I will not deny it…. last night was one of the most exquisite I ever experienced… though our enjoyment did not lead beyond the limits of virtue, yet to-day’s reflections have not been altogether unmixed with regret.”

While continuing to promise restraint (“I would not purchase the dearest gratification on earth, if it must be at your expense in worldly censure; far less, inward peace”), Burns pursues Agnes and is at times successful: “What luxury of bliss I was enjoying this time yesternight!”

The visits and the letters go on and on for weeks, back and forth, give and take, love sworn and taken: “Oh Clarinda! Tell me, were you studious to please me last night? I am sure you did it to transport. How rich am I who have such a treasure as you! You know me; you know how to make me happy, and you do it most effectually.” images-1

In the end, dearest Clarinda was not so often “most effectually” physical as Burns desired her to be. He began to look elsewhere for satisfaction. By late February, he found refuge in the arms of a servant girl named Jenny Clow (she would bear him a son nine months later) and in March, Burns left Edinburgh and returned to the village of Mauchline, where his old lover Jean Armour awaited his arrival. He described their reunion in a letter: “I have taken her to my arms. I have given her a mahogany bed. I have given her a guinea and I have f—ed her till she rejoiced with joy unspeakable and full of glory.” The couple was married a month later.

Upon hearing of the marriage, Agnes wrote to Burns, chiding him for his betrayal. Burns eventually responded, not to his “Clarinda” but to “Madam”: “When you cull over the scenes that have passed between us, you will survey the conduct of an honest man, struggling successfully with temptations the most powerful that ever beset humanity, and preserving untainted honor in situations where the austerest Virtue would have forgiven a fall….”

Alone once again in Edinburgh and fed up with her imposed widowhood, Agnes sailed to Jamaica, seeking reconciliation with her husband. Upon arrival, she discovered that her husband James had taken up with a mixed-race mistress and fathered a child. Agnes returned to Scotland where she ended her days, as described by Sir Walter Scott, “old, charmless, and devout.”

Burns composed one final poem for Agnes in 1791 and sent it to her just before she sailed to Jamaica; it would be become one of his most well-known, titled Ae Fond Kiss:

Had we never loved sae kindly,
Had we never loved sae blindly,
Never met – or never parted,
We had ne’er been broken-hearted.

Burns would never have traded away the hours spent with his Clarinda, or the letters written to her. Hours well spent by him, and letters blissfully read by me.

Books About Life – and Cats

As far as books go, it is always the year of the cat. Just take a look at any bookstore and you can find more than a few books about cats (Cat Daddy, Cat Sense, How to Tell if Your Cat is Plotting to Kill You, I Could Pee on This –poems allegedly by a cat; The Cat Who Went to Heaven – the story of Buddha and his cat, etc. etc). And as a cat lover, that is just fine with me. IMG_7737

Even if I were not the willing slave of two cats, a trio of cat books – two out in the last year and one coming this November – would receive my rave reviews. Because even more than being about cats, the books – The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide, Lost Cat by Caroline Paul and illustrated by Wendy McNaughton, and the upcoming The Story of Fester Cat by Paul Magrs are about connection, and all the attendant consequences of taking up with another living being. Along with the feelings of happiness and contentment, there are the darker emotions of possessiveness, jealousy, suspicion, and the deeper ties of responsibility, empathy, and always, always, the promise of growth and change.

The Guest Cat tells the story of what happens when a tiny, independent, and utterly charming cat enters the lives of a couple living in a rented guesthouse. The affection the couple feels for the cat and the reliance they come to have on her presence in their lives sets off a chain of disquisitions on nature, destiny, joy, pleasure, and sorrow – and on the importance of connection, in the moment and of the moment. Some relationships are fleeting, as the one the narrator enjoys with a passing dragonfly, and some are longer but still finite, as the one he treasures with the little cat. But all connections are enriching, as this lovely book so fully illustrates.

The Lost Cat goes further down the road of cat/human relationship examination. When a beloved house cat disappears for six weeks and then saunters back in, well fed and looking good, his previously undisputed owner goes into a tailspin of self-recrimination, paranoia, jealousy, and suspicion. Who has been feeding her cat? And why oh why didn’t he come home when she called? UnknownRelying on modern technology (GPS and spy cameras), the befuddled owner tries to make sense of her cat’s behavior. The life lessons she learns alternate between hilarity and sweetness, and their application to all relationships is spot on: “You can never know your cat. In fact, you can never know anyone as completely as you want…But that’s okay, love is better.”

The Story of Fester Cat is enchanting, a gorgeous memoir about how family is created, not the one we’re born with but the one we choose – or the ones who choose us. When a feisty, opinionated, and very observant cat adopts two men, a lovely symbiosis occurs; love, compassion, and care flourish. We readers are fortunate enough to be invited into the family circle and it is a warm and beautiful place to be. This book will take its place on the bookshelves (permanent collection!) of everyone who cherishes their connections with pets, lovers, music, books, and family. Unknown-1

Whether it is a tie of affection and respect between humans or between a human and a beloved pet, a connection is a connection. To quote Nile Rodgers totally out of context, from his bestselling memoir Le Freak, “A great hook is a great hook, whether its for Le Freak or Halo.” And a good friendship is a good friendship, whether it is between two-legged friends or two-legged and four-legged, as so wonderfully examined and celebrated in The Guest Cat by Tikashi Hiraide, Lost Cat by Caroline Paul, and The Story of Fester Cat by Paul Magrs.

Proud to Be Member of Letter Writers Alliance

I was made an honorary member of the Letter Writers Alliance, a fabulous group that supports letter writing.  And loved my book, which is great: “This is one of the best books on letters and the love of letters that I have read in a while. It’s not just a dry listing or a facsimile. It really makes letters live. It’s a great book… Honestly, you should really just go buy one. It’s that good.

Check out the rest of the LWA review here, and peruse the site. You too can be a proud card-carrying, letter-writing member of the LWA.

lwa

Follow

Get every new post on this blog delivered to your Inbox.

Join other followers: