Thursday, August 30, 2012

Event Recap: Louise Penny at Anderson's Bookshop

What a treat to see Louise Penny two years in a row! Last year she was at The Book Stall in Winnetka, IL (read that recap here) and on Tuesday evening she was hosted by Anderson's Bookshop of Naperville, IL. Last year's event drew about 40 people and as Louise's reputation is quickly growing Anderson's wisely held the event offsite on North Central College's campus. There were about 130 people in attendance last night which was perfect for the space at Meiley-Swallow Hall.

I've been to many author events in my day and Louise Penny's are among the best. She's personable, warmly professional, funny (as in humorous), and so genuine. Click here to go to her events schedule and see if she's coming to a bookstore near you. Don't miss her if she is. It doesn't matter if you haven't read her yet, because if you haven't, you'll want to after listening to her talk.

Posing with our new books.
After an early dinner in downtown Naperville with my friends Ruth and Cayt we walked the two blocks to Meiley-Swallow Hall. The event started at 7pm and we arrived right at 6pm when the doors opened. We didn't plan it that way (really) it just turned out that way.

We picked up our pre-paid books and tickets and were sitting in the foyer when who walks in but Louise Penny. She seemed to be alone, that is, without an author escort. After meeting and talking with the booksellers from Anderson's, Louise turned her attention to the 5 or 6 early birds who were there. She introduced herself, shook hands, and individually thanked each of us for coming to the event.

In walks Louise!
When Ruth and I told her we saw her last year at The Book Stall she said, conspiratorially, that we'd be hearing some the same things tonight. We replied that we were looking forward to it and were actually hoping this would be an annual event, her coming to the Chicago area for a book release event. She's on board with that.

Some highlights from her talk:
Louise started her talk by telling us she was trying to do this two week book tour with only a carry-on bag that is filled mostly with Gummy Bears and licorice. We were lucky, she joked, to be the first stop on the tour. And then she had everyone on the left and right side of the thrust stage squish over to center stage to get a group picture. I think a lot of people thought she was joking at first. She was not.

Louise on stage. She had everyone laughing within seconds.
After the picture was taken Louise talked about how she became a writer and eventually a published author. She shared some details that were repeats from last year, but they're the sort of thing one enjoys hearing repeated. Indeed, book lovers and aspiring writers want to hear such things repeated.

One bit was how she came to want to write by way of reading Charlotte's Web. As a child she had not just a fear of spiders, but a full-blown phobia. In addition to being a fearful and lonely child, Louise suspects she may also have been slow because, she says, she didn't figure out Charlotte was a spider until half-way through the story. With that realization she saw that the written word could do great things as her fear of spiders completely left.

Fast forward to the adult Louise who spent 20 years interviewing people for the CBC. Over these two decades she heard people talk about the extremes of human experience and saw people at their best and their worst. A great experience for a future writer.

Upon leaving the CBC Penny decided to write a book and made the mistake of telling everyone her intention. The book didn't happen right away--instead much TV watching ensued--but her husband, who was the one to remind her that she wanted to write in the first place, offered his support and never looked back. And Penny made a brief aside about how subtle lack of support can be. Looking back, Penny says, she can now see that three things needed to happen before she was ready to write:

Such laughter and joy. We could have listened to her talk for hours.
1. She moved from the city to the country, which is what she personally needed.
2. She met a group of creative woman who invited her into their monthly support group, a place where they could talk about how their creative work was going. Over the course of a year Louise saw these women have spectacular successes as well as painful failures. She saw the good and the bad, and realized that the judgement of others didn't kill these woman; it was creating that mattered.
3. She came to understand that she had been writing the wrong book for the wrong reasons and realized she wanted to write a book for the joy of telling a story and so created a cast of characters that she personally enjoyed.

While it might be tough to get published, Penny reminded us of the distinction between being disappointed (i.e., not getting published) and regret (not creating, not writing, not trying).

A quick group shot.
When Penny launched into talking specifically about The Beautiful Mystery she pointed out that it is the first Chief Inspector Gamache novel to be set completely outside of Three Pines. Other novels in the series have had action outside of Three Pines, but there's always been a return or flashbacks to the town. Not this time.

I'm looking forward to seeing how this one "feels" with that in mind. Before opening up the event to questions from the audience, Penny did two short readings from the new novel.

Stay tuned for details on the Q&A portion of the evening.

~The End~

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

lumière pure: my library: gift from the sea

Various editions that Cayt owns.
My friend Cayt started blogging in May and I love the way she writes about her life and her path as a writer. She sometimes writes about books and I want to share with you a post she recently wrote about a Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. 

Cayt writes not only about what the book means to her, but about how her family has embraced & celebrated the importance of this book in her life and even incorporated it into her wedding.

Cayt writes, "I often refer to Gift from the Sea, by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, as my "life-book." This is the only way I can think to describe its prominence and importance in my life. This book has spoken to me deeply, to my very core, and its wisdom and wonder have endured from my first reading through countless more: always fresh, always inspiring, always challenging."

Click the link to read this celebratory and inspiring post-- lumière pure: my library: gift from the sea.

Monday, August 20, 2012

My Mortal Enemy: Thoughts & Comments

First edition title page
Technical difficulties delayed this entry to the Willa Cather Novel Reading Challenge from being a morning post, but I'm happy to get it uploaded on the third Monday of the month as planned even if it is down to the wire!

My Thoughts
This short novel certainly leaves a powerful impression. Once encountered who can ever forget the bitterness of  Myra Henshawe? 

My Mortal Enemy is a such a slippery and complex story. My thoughts below seem half-baked. You'd think it would be easier to talk about such a short novel, but I find it's harder to put down in writing what's on my mind about this one than other Cather novels that we've read so far.

My initial reaction to My Mortal Enemy was that it's a cautionary tale about youthful passions. Myra's turning her back on her uncle's money for love is certainly romantic and the stuff of legend, as Nellie makes clear in the opening paragraph, but unlike popular romances which end with the happy couple basking in their first blush of love, Cather shows the reality of how marriages--and individuals--can turn out.

Nellie is disappointed that Myra and Oswald haven't reached a higher level of happiness. When her Aunt Lydia says they are, "As happy as most people," Nellie thinks, "That answer was disheartening; the very point of their story was that they should be much happier than other people" (25).  Where does this "should" come from? Fairy tales, of course. Or, for more recent generations, movies of the romantic comedy variety.

This issue of happiness is what captured my imagination during this reading. Happiness, Cather seems to be saying, is not necessarily found in marriage, casual friendships, or money, but in true, deep connection. This connection can be found with other people, one's creative passion, fulfilling work, art/poetry/music, or faith. Myra lacks this level of connection although she has some appreciation for music and literature. She is a drama queen, a narcissist; Someone who wants fame and fortune without seeming to take much action to attain it.

Right after Nellie's thoughts on the Henshawe's level of happiness, she launches into the fairy tale mythology of romantic love, specifically mentioning Sleeping Beauty. And then this leads into a recollection of Myra's Uncle Driscoll's funeral. At first this seems to be a seemingly incongruous  juxtaposition. A fairy tale and now a funeral?

Myra's Uncle Driscoll did a lot not only for the Church, but for other people in need over his lifetime. When Nellie recollects the spectacular turnout and magnificence of Driscoll's funeral mass, it's easy to write it off with cynicism, saying that he bought off the Church. But the reality is that he was dead and the will was a done deal. The Church didn't have to have such a turn out or ceremony, but it did because Driscoll had a deep, mutual relationship with the community and his Church. It seems to have been a relationship based on faith and action.

Nellie says,

In after years, when I went to other funerals, stark and grim enough, I thought of John Driscoll as having escaped the end of all flesh; it was as if he had been translated, with no dark conclusion to the pageant, no "night of the grave" about which our Protestant preachers talked. From the freshness of roses and lilies, from the glory of the high altar, he had gone straight to the greater glory, through smoking censers and candles and stars (26-27).

Driscoll's funeral is presented as more of a fairy tale ending than is the romantic story of young love. Cather flips things upside down. The traditional fairy tale ends up being something more along the lines of a horror story.

Why did Myra's life turn out like it did? Her life certainly did not turn out as she had assumed it would. But whose does? She wasn't able to change or adapt to the reality of her situation because, I think, she had no deep connections to support or challenge her. She had no passion of her own. She had no faith in a higher power or in something greater than herself. And her friendships seemed to have been superficial because when anyone challenges her, she cuts them out of her life. When Nellie challenges Myra about how she treats Oswald, Myra tells her to leave and to stay away. She even locks Oswald out for days at a time. It's easy to imagine Myra doing the same with other friends throughout her life. One example is the writer who wouldn't lend the Henshawe's money back in their New York days.

Is Myra incapable of deep connection because she never knew herself? She says: "Oh, if youth but knew!....It's been the ruin of us both. We've destroyed each other. I should have stayed with my uncle. It was money I needed. We've thrown our lives away" (90-91). Oswald may not be living a completely self-actualize life, but he seems relatively content. He brushes off her dramatics with a calm acceptance and understanding of Myra simply being Myra.

Nellie thinks Oswald could have been cut out for a more adventurous life and he does later go to Alaska. However, he certainly doesn't seem to be destroyed by Myra: he still takes great care of himself and his appearance, takes interest in others, and he still loves Myra. He understands her delusions, as he calls them. Myra, on the other hand, doesn't seem to understand herself or him or anyone else. I think her claim that she needed money is really a desire to go back to childhood, when life was simpler for her and the consequences of her actions were not so detrimental.

Myra's return to Catholicism seems to be tied to her desperation and a desire to return to her childhood as well as to her delusions of grandeur and dramatics rather than any inner or spiritual change.

When Nellie picks up Myra's crucifix to straighten her sheets, the older woman, "put out her hand quickly and said: 'Give it to me. It means nothing to people who haven't suffered'" (109). Not only is Myra rude, she's being dramatic and narcissistic: she clearly thinks she's the only one who suffers. Later she does come to realize that others have suffered and that in the end she is and always has been her own worst enemy. But does she realize she's been the cause of her own suffering? Even in the end she causes others great anguish by lying and running away.

Unlike her Uncle whose life was celebrated with a spectacular mass and whose influence carries on in the community, Myra dies alone and her body is cremated (which belies her return to Catholicism). There was no mass and no mention of a service of any kind. Her ashes are buried, "in some lonely and unfrequented place in the mountains, or in the sea" (119). There's no chance for Myra to find the kind of happiness that Jim Burden thinks about in My Antonia: "That is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great." Myra's ashes were buried in a steel box.

Things I've been pondering
Myra says, in response to something the priest said to her off the page that, "in religion seeking is finding." What did the priest say to her? What was she really seeking in the end? Does she have faith or was her clutching of the crucifix no different than the fortune teller who used to visit her? Does she commit suicide?

Share Your Thoughts!
What do you think of My Mortal Enemy? Whether this was your first reading or your fifth, I look forward to hearing your thoughts about the book, even if it's just a sentence.

Please leave your comments below, however long or short (or leave a link to your blog post, Goodreads review, etc.). This is an open forum, so please feel free to reply to one another.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Library: Prairie Creek, Dwight, Illinois

We recently took a drive (as we often do) down what's left of Route 66 in north-central Illinois. We stopped to picnic in Dwight, IL and discovered they have one beautiful library.

Prairie Creek Library
501 Carriage House Lane
Dwight, IL

Built: 1896
Size: 50 x 80 feet
Original use: cattle & horse stable
Placed on the National Register of Historic Places: 1980 
Opened as library: 1990
Current collection: 28,860 volumes
Annual circulation: 86,197
Serves: 6,634 residents

Built in 1896 as a carriage house for prize cattle and horses of the Oughton Estate. The family donated the building to the library district in 1989. For more history, visit the library website here.  According to a town pamphlet the building was first re-purposed as a treatment and recreation building for the Keeley Institute which was a "commercial medical operation that offered treatment to alcoholics from 1879 to 1965." Read more about the Keeley Institute and Cure here.
The half circle moldings above each window are a unique touch. I'd love to know what the original windows looked like.
The big barn door for cattle, horses, and carriages has been bricked-up and replaced by what looks like an emergency exit for book loving humans.

Window detail.
Emergency exit leading from the childrens section on second floor. The balcony was obviously a later addition to the building. I imagine this side of the building may have mirrored its opposite side.

Back shot of the library.
This huge, 5-story windmill is behind the library. In the first picture of this post you can see its blades towering above the library. The windmill was installed in 1896 to supply water for the estate.

A peek through a back window because of course we happened upon this beautiful library on a Sunday, when it was closed.

Notice the dog? She greets all visitors.

"A Fine Feathered Friend" by artist Patti Aldrich
Feather details.

~The End ~

Monday, August 13, 2012

Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness

Shadow of Night is book two in The All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness. The first book of the trilogy, A Discovery of Witches, burst on the scene last year and I very much enjoyed it. However, I had a hard time getting into Shadow of Night and reading its 577 pages often felt like a chore. At times I wondered why I was continuing to read. Now that I've finished it I know that I kept reading because there were some wonderful scenes that kept me going.

I also kept hoping for something to happen that would put some energy into the story and give it direction, but that "something" never came along. It is probably coming in book three. And that's the problem with trilogies: the second book either makes it or breaks it for readers and I'm leaning toward Shadow of Night breaking it for me. But we'll see when book three is released (no date set yet). I'll probably be curious enough to read the first few pages of that one and take it home if it grabs me.

Sometimes a slow plot can be carried along by strong characters, but Shadow of Night didn't do anything to cement my appreciation for Diana and Matthew, the central characters. If anything, the interest I had in them from A Discovery of Witches has been eroded by hundreds of pages of wishy-washy behavior that didn't seem to match the words or intentions of the characters, or even what's at stake (their own lives and the survival of their species) or what's learned in their time travel (specifically about Diana's power as a witch). 

Diana and Matthew time travel back to 1590/91 where they're determined to not alter history in any significant way, yet they spend seven months traipsing around London and then Prague, meeting interesting characters, both historical and fictional, who are left to languish on the page. As a whole, none of the characters really stick out as significant and while all of the characters seem to have great potential they never quite develop into well-rounded, memorable characters.

Although the book is well-written and there are some wonderful scenes, cool time-travel concepts, and neat historical tidbits, overall the novel seems too safe and amorphous. However, several of my friends who loved A Discovery of Witches have read Shadow of Night and all of them liked this book more than I did, so my advice (as always!) is that you check it out for yourself.

p.s. Harkness is a professor of history, focusing on the history of magic and science in Europe from 1500-1700, so if you're into reliable fictional representations of Elizabethan England you won't want to miss this one. Read about her background here.

Shadow of Night
Deborah Harkness
Viking, July 10, 2012
ISBN13: 9780670023486
Source: review copy
Goodreads rating: 2 stars (meaning it was ok)

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

My Mortal Enemy: Book #8 Intro

First Edition
Read all 12 of Willa Cather's novels in chronological order of publication, one each month, throughout 2012. For details about the challenge click here.

Our eighth novel of the challenge is My Mortal Enemy. Read it sometime over the next three weeks and we'll start our conversation about it on Monday, August 20th. 

About My Mortal Enemy:
  • Cather started writing it in the spring of 1925.
  • My Mortal Enemy first appeared in McCall's Magazine in March 1926.
  • Published in book form by Knopf in October 1926.
  • It's a short novel, just over 17,800 words.
  • Is one of Cather's least explored novels. The Library of America relegates it to their Stories, Poems, and Other Writings volume of her writings, rather than to Later Novels.

From the Vintage Classic Paperback:
"Sometimes, when I have watched the bright beginning of a love story, when I have seen a common feeling exalted into beauty by imagination, generosity, and the flaming courage of youth, I have heard again that strange complaint breathed by a dying woman into the stillness of night, like a confession of the soul: "Why must I die like this, alone with my mortal enemy!"

Willa Cather's protagonist in My Mortal Enemy is Myra Henshawe, who as a young woman gave up a fortune to marry for love-a boldly romantic gesture that became a legend in her family. But this worldly, sarcastic, and perhaps even wicked woman may have been made for something greater than love.

In her portrait of Myra and in her exquisitely nuanced depiction of her marriage, Cather shows the evolution of a human spirit as it comes to bridle against the constraints of ordinary happiness and seek an otherworldly fulfillment. My Mortal Enemy is a work whose drama and intensely moral imagination make it unforgettable.

  • Usually difficult to find new, but I've seen some copies available in used bookstores and, of course, in libraries. 
  • Support the Willa Cather Foundation and order it online here. Plan ahead and buy a copy of Death Comes for the Archbishop while you're at it.
My memory might be off, but I believe this was the third Cather novel that I read. O Pioneers! and My Antonia were my first and second novels (not sure of the order) and they both left me feeling uplifted and full of hope. With My Mortal Enemy, however, I felt punched in the solar plexus. I remember feeling stunned by the bitterness of Myra Henshawe and the economy of Cather's prose. I'm excited to re-read this novel some twenty years after the first time to see not only how it compares to my memory, but how it may connect with some of the themes and character types of Cather's earlier novels even though her writing style had changed dramatically.

I'll share my thoughts on reading My Mortal Enemy in a new post on Monday, August 20th. At that time let's start our conversation--simply post your thoughts about the novel in the comments section of that post so we can have everyone's thoughts in once place.

Happy Reading!
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