Category Archives: Memoirs and Histories

Praise for The Lowells of Massachusetts

With less than two months until publication, The Lowells of Massachusetts: An American Family is garnering stellar reviews. 

Booklist calls The Lowells of Massachusetts “a fascinating collective biography … paying tribute to both worthy individuals and everyone else in this prominent, complicated family.”

Recommended by Library Journal for readers of biography and American History: “Sankovitch’s use of interpretative passages breathe color into descriptions of home life of various Lowells, adding an artistic dimension to the account. Her ability to switch the focus among the family members while keeping readers fully engaged in the narrative is a significant achievement.”

“A sturdy, busy multibiography of an eminent American family… Exhaustive work by a clear admirer and dogged researcher,” says Kirkus Reviews.

And at latest count, 4.33 star rating on Goodreads.

Follow The Lowells on Facebook and on Instagram.

Returning to Therapy

Book therapy, that is. Eight years ago I began my year of reading a book a day. I was looking for escape, wisdom, comfort, and clarity after losing my oldest sister to cancer.

Reading in my purple chair, with my cat on my lap
Reading in my purple chair

When my year was over, I found myself stronger, calmer, happier. I knew I would always grieve for my sister but I learned through books that I could always carry her with me in my heart. As I wrote in Tolstoy and the Purple Chair about my year of reading, “We all need a space to just let things be, a place to remember who we are and what is important to us, an interval of time that allows the happiness and joy of living back into our consciousness.”

I need that space and the therapy of books — immersion in reading — again. It has been a long, brutal election season and instead of finding relief in the result, I find myself waking in the middle of the night filled with fear. Fear for the future, fear of what America has become, such a divided and angry nation. In researching my book on the Lowell family, I followed them through the years of the Civil War and the aftermath of the divided nation. I found proof in family letters and journals of individuals struggling to bring the country together again with new dignity, new rights, new dreams. I need to find the energy and the hope to work for positive change for all who live here in the United States.

I hope to find that energy and hope in books. I find myself gravitating towards books about women, looking for role models of survival and strength, resilience, and power. Books like Time and Again by Charlotte Rogan, with its heroine who fights for truth at a terrible cost, and The Summer Guest by Alison Anderson, in which women from different times strive to understand the unique power of words, the power to record and reflect and inspire. Nicotine by Nell Zink has a quirky and sometimes even flaky heroine who is ultimately tough enough and resilient enough to get it done — “it” being bringing new life to an abandoned house (and way of life).

I will indulge in the books by Elly Griffiths, in which mysteries are solved by Ruth Galloway, a single woman of large build and big heart and keen intelligence. I gave myself an afternoon of fun in reading Hot Flash Holidays by Nancy Thayer: five women in their fifties and sixties deal with aging parents, faltering bodies, annoying in-laws, and impatient children — and through the ups and downs all five rely on the strength of their shared friendships to keep them going. As Renee notes in The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which I am re-reading, “the complicity of indestructible friendship…is what life is all about.”

The Elegance of the Hedgehog was the very first book I read during my year of reading a book a day. Over the past eight years, I have looked back at the notes I kept in the book, and passages I underlined but this is the first time I am re-reading the entire book. What struck me right away is that Renee, one of narrators of the book, is fifty-four, the same age I am now. She also happens to weigh exactly what I weight now. Strangely enough, these similarities are changing the book for me — I feel now as if Renee is my double, and I am cheering her on as she enters new territory with trepidation but with hope as well. Right back at me: enter the future with trepidation (and rightly so) but also with hope.

fullsizerender-7But as you can see from the photo, I am not only reading books about women or by women in my new book therapy. I have a wide range, fiction and non-fiction. With so many books to anticipate, the future looks brighter. I feel sure that I will come out of this round of immersion stronger, and ready to work for what I believe in: a future that brings people together to work for the welfare, security, and dreams of all who live here in America.

The Art – and Artists – of Letter Writing

A gorgeous new book, Pen to Paper: Artists Handwritten Letters, edited by Smithsonian curator of manuscripts Mary Savig, underscores not only the artistry of a well-penned letter but also the lasting impact of words shared via pen and paper. To read through the beautiful-produced book is to enter the worlds of different artists, joining them in those moments of their life captured in their correspondence.

Artists represented (no pun intended) in the book include Mary Cassatt, Frederic Church, Howard Finster, Winslow Homer, Ray Johnson, Rockwell Kent, Georgia O’Keeffe, Claes Oldenburg, Maxfield Parrish, Eero Saarinen, and Saul Sternberg.

One of my favorite letters in the collection is the ecstatic note penned by artist Grant Wood after learning that two of his paintings, including American Gothic, were to be included in a show at Chicago’s Art Institute:

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Pen to Paper: Artists Handwritten Letters is a book to savor and to share, and reading through it will certainly inspire the writing of letters (perhaps a great gift for college-bound students and/or their left-behind parents?). As I tried to demonstrate in my book, Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing, the art of letter writing is not a lost art, nor is it a field left only to artists. Anyone can write a letter, and everyone should.

The Art of Love in Writing Letters

Barbara Newman’s fascinating book titled Making Love in the Twelfth Century: “Letters of Two Lovers” in Context was written for scholars and academics but will be cherished by anyone who loves a good love letter. The letters referenced in the title constitute the amazing discovery made at the closing of the twentieth century of the longest existing correspondence from the middle ages.15518

Making love in the twelfth century literally meant declaring love through words, and in the letters Newman translates, written between a “Man” and a “Woman”, plenty of love is made.  I went through this book madly underlining all the beautiful phrases and sentiments – “farewell, you who shine more brightly than the moon tonight and please me more than tomorrows sunrise” – and if  ever a case could be made for plagiarism, I would love to steal these declarations of love and send them off to find lodging in hearts open to love and joy, as well as to those needing the comport of company in the attendant emotions of confusion, distress, and longing.

There is much to learn in Newman’s book, not only from her translations of the letters and her accompanying notes but also from her fascinating essay Making Love in the Twelfth Century: An Essay in the History of Emotions (should be mandatory reading for all students of medieval and renaissance and modern social history) and her brilliant discourse on the possibility of renowned lovers Abelard and Heloise having penned not only those letters already attributed to the both of them, but also the “Letters of Two Lovers.”

Newman underscores that important thing is how the 116 surviving letters prove that the two lovers were “extraordinary people engaged in an extraordinary protect” – and we are grateful for Newman’s translations and explications of their extraordinariness.

Reading in Brazil

A group of students from the Educational Center Analia Franco, in Caceres, Mato Grosso, Brazil, sent me a wonderful message, via these photographs. 13245889_778421288925167_1643435791_nYes, reading is a passion in Brazil!

I love the purple sign that reads: “One of the most beautiful things in the life is lecture,” which means, READING. I agree completely! And I appreciate that the sign is purple.  Purple will forever symbolize the necessary therapy – and joy! – that reading provides for me.

Thank you to the students and to their fabulous teacher, Milena Campello (center, below).

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Hugs and lots of book love to (from left to right below) Ingrid, Raul, Mariana and Giulia. Read on!

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Cats Forever: The Sequel

Great news for cat lovers and book lovers!  Welcome Home, Bernard Socks, the sequel to The Story of Fester Cat will be released this week. The second installation in Paul Magrs’ series about the cats in his life (and we want more!) is titled Welcome Home, Bernard Socks.  It tells the story of a family reinvented after loss.  Those left behind must pick up the pieces and go on, but how?  Getting a new cat after Fester dies feels like a betrayal but living without a cat is impossible.  And so Paul and Jeremy take the big plunge and find that instead of losing their old cat in the mix of the new, all memories have been incorporated into the present. And who knows what the future will bring? Plenty of adventures, some heartache, but through it all generous servings of love, humor, and compassion.  And that is just on the part of Bernard Socks, cat extraordinaire!  The humans in the story have plenty to offer and so does Fester, for the best news of all is that Fester is still around, keeping watch on the family from the heavens above.  Unknown-1

The Story of Fester Cat  has taken its place on the bookshelves (permanent collection!) of everyone who cherishes their connections with pets, lovers, music, books, and family. Now make room on the shelf for Welcome Home, Bernard Socks.

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!” burns__cover

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 – Nancy to her friends – 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 Nancy 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 Nancy’s wary father. When MacLehose learned that Nancy 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 Nancy 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, Nancy became restless. Years passed, hubby stayed away, and Nancy 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 Nancy 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 Nancy’s 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.” They chose to use these pet names to hide their relationship – and the nicknames reflected what Nancy wanted from 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. Nancy, 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 Nancy 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 his old lover Jean Armour, who was also pregnant with Burns’ child. Robert 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, Nancy 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, Nancy 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. Nancy 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.
SILOUETTE

Special thanks to Janet Thompson Deaver for her comments, corrections, and the photograph of Burns’ statues, and the silhouettes of Nancy, Robert, and Jean.

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.

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