Category Archives: fiction

Shadow of the Shore

 

 Edith Wharton at her desk.
On a recent trip to Memphis, Tennessee, my husband took me to a used book store called Burke’s Books. We have done this on many trips, and it is one of our traditions for which I am most grateful. We spend a good amount of time in these establishments; he never rushes me or questions my purchasing habits, another one of his many strong suits. While in the stacks, I browse and sit in waiting chairs, picking up and putting down many books. Mostly, I wait for a certain feeling to come over me, a tingling, or an inkling that will lead me in a direction I need to go. It was in a used book shop in Coeur d’ Alene that I found a sentence in a history book that led to me spending a decade creating My American Eden. My husband found two of the most significant details of the story in second-hand shops- one in our town and another in Westchester County, Pennsylvania. When we left the shop in Memphis, he joked that he had in his hand a book that may well be the key. I laughed because I often have the same feeling. On the plane home, I cracked open my treasure: Edith Wharton’s Summer.
The book jacket revealed that this work was considered by many to be her finest. The trip home flew by in a jiffy as I devoured Wharton’s beautiful work.
From Summer:
“The lake at last- a sheet of shining metal brooded over by drooping trees. Charity and Harney had secured a boat and, getting away from the wharves and the refreshment-booths, they drifted idly along, hugging the shadow of the shore. Where the sun struck the water its shafts flamed back blindingly at the heat-veiled sky; and the least shade was black by contrast. The Lake was so smooth that the reflection of the trees on its edge seemed enamelled on a solid surface; but gradually, as the sun declined, the water grew transparent and Charity, leaning over, plunged her fascinated gaze into the depths so clear that she saw the inverted tree-tops interwoven with green growths on the bottom.
They rounded a point at the farther end of the Lake, and entering an inlet pushed their bow against a protruding tree-trunk. A green veil of willows overhung them. Beyond the trees, wheat-fields sparkled in the sun; and all along the horizon the clear hills throbbed with light. Charity leaned back in the stern, and Harney unshipped the oars and lay in the bottom of the boat without speaking.”
Page 95
The Mount
When asked which books made her the most proud, Edith Wharton named Summer as one of them. In reading more about her life, I happened to learn about her home, a beautiful estate in the Berkshires, known as The Mount. As she penned a book about houses and gardens, she was able to oversee every detail of this exquisite treasure. Born of wealth and privilege into an old moneyed family, instead of whiling away her life in gorgeous drawing rooms and delicate gardens, she picked up a pen and gave us a body of work, worth picking up time and time again. Now I am obsessed with going to see her lovely home and have added one more adventure to my wish list. Her library is depicted below.

If you are the proprietor of a second-hand book shop, thank you. If you can spend an afternoon in a dusty shop, consider yourself lucky. You never know when you might find the key. It may lead to a decade of further study.

Provocative Silence

 

 J.D. Salinger

 Born: January 1, 1919, New York, N.Y.

 Died: January 27, 2010, Cornish, New Hampshire

Ron Rosenbaum, of Esquire magazine when describing the solitary nature of J.D. Salinger wrote:

“It is not a passive silence, it is a palpable, provocative silence.”

My Salinger Year, by Joanna Rakoff spoke to a great fantasy of mine. While I do not read romances with shirtless men on the cover, I am not without special nooks and crannies in my imagination where the topic thrills me, and sends me off into delicious flights of fancy. What do I lust after in my heart, to quote President Carter? I want to gobble up all I can about the New York literary scene.

Joanna Rakoff, at the age of twenty-three, spent a year working at an esteemed literary agency in the heart of the best of all literary worlds. What drew me to the story right from the beginning was my abiding desire to step inside one of these establishments. My filing cabinets have folders holding rejection letters, letters expressing interest, letters asking for the full manuscript, and why I keep them all is a mystery to me. Writer’s conferences invite agents who are looking for new talent. Since they are the gate-keepers to the publishing contracts, it behooves any writer to learn something about the people who hold the keys to our kingdom. Over the years, I have learned a few things about these agencies. For one, they seem to stay in business. Two, they maintain the same address, and three, they grow in the numbers of employees. Four, they have graduate students and new-hires reading our query letters. Books on how to approach literary agents and how to seek representation are plentiful. Yet, as a voyeuristic and curious reader, I want to be right inside and sitting at the desk. Joanna Rakoff did an excellent job of putting me there. She writes about her year as an assistant, in the nineties, at the old and venerable establishment working for a woman holding the coveted post of agent for J.D. Salinger.

The period of time in my life where I gobbled every word written by Salinger, is still fresh in my mind. Rakoff, well into her time in at the agency, still had yet to pick up Catcher in the Rye. We know that Salinger is reclusive and must be protected at all costs. His agent must shield him from those who would make a pilgrimage to his front door. Rakoff has the job of answering fan letters. It has always been an accepted arrangement where a reader can write to a publisher if they want to contact the author directly. The publisher would be duty-bound to see that the mail reaches its intended recipient. Rakoff, given the standard form letter, began to veer from that, and answer letters addressed to Salinger personally. Intrigued by the emotional impact his writing has on the public, she finally reads Salinger’s work and like so many others, becomes a devoted fan.

There is such clarity to Salinger’s work that it seems he can write without effort. Of course, that is not the case. His desire to keep distractions at bay has always been admirable to me. Understandably, there are those who would disagree. It is my contention that he deserved to be able to do what he did best. Never, not for one day, did I imagine that he was not continuing to write out there in Cornish, New Hampshire.

Perhaps the last sentence from Catcher in the Rye says it all:

“Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.”