Book Club Goes to Tanglewood.

TanglewoodMy book group likes connecting previous books and themes to our current reading.  Even more than that, we love a good field trip… which is how we ended up at Tanglewood for its annual celebration, Tanglewood on Parade.

Our being there wasn’t as arbitrary as it seems; last year we read three books that somehow revolved around Abraham Lincoln — The Poet and the Murderer by Simon Worrall, Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell, and Henry and Clara by Thomas Mallon* — and the concert featured Lincoln Portrait, Aaron Copland‘s composition commemorating the sixteenth President.  Interspersed in the music are some quotations from Lincoln, which were read that night by Deval Patrick, while the Boston Pops played.

Fireworks, 1The evening’s finale was Tchaikovsky‘s 1812 Overture, replete with canons, and followed by a spectacular fireworks display.  It was my first time seeing non-televised fireworks — which was quite exciting, particularly since we happened to be sitting very close to where both they and the canons had been set off.  I don’t think any of us in my book club were expecting either canons or fireworks; indeed, when the first shot banged out during the overture, more than one of us screamed in fright and surprise.

In spite of the amazing fireworks and canons, my personal favorite piece of the night was Tributes: For Seiji, which was written as a gift for Seiji Ozawa by John Williams to honor Ozawa’s twenty-fifth years as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (Ozawa held this position for four more years after that).  I thought it was brilliantly moving.**

Picnic, Thigh + WineAnother thing about the night that I found brilliant were other people’s ability to glamorize something as prosaic as a picnic.  Apparently it’s something of an established practice to pack a picnic to Tanglewood, especially if you’ve lawn tickets to a concert.  Our book club decided to follow tradition, toting in a mushroom tortellini salad with marscapone, corn on the cob with feta-mint butter, black bean and corn salad, mixed berries with brandy syrup, a berry buckle and several bottles of wine.  We blindly set up our spread by the pale light of the distant stage, observing as we did several of our neighbors’ citronella-scented candelabras, cut-crystal wineglasses and tables adorned with flower arrangements.  Honestly, such accoutrements were the norm.  We stood out (sat out?) by having mismatched blankets and no chairs — though our hurried discussion of this past month’s book might have also had something to do with it.

Lost City RadioWe had read Lost City Radio by Daniel Alarcón; it’s the story of insurrection in an unidentified South American country, and how lives are changed as a result.  The main character hosts the nation’s most popular radio show; each week, Norma reads an ever-expanding list of missing people.  As a result, listeners are reunited with their loved ones, though, ironically, Norma still searches desperately for her own missing person: her husband.

The aspect of the novel that I thought the most interesting was something quite small — the fascistic government that emerges after the war renames all populated areas with numbers.  The larger the city, the smaller the number.  To speak a city’s name rather than its number is highly punishable.  I found this tiny little detail fascinating.

In general, it seemed we had mixed feelings on Lost City Radio, but I can’t say for certain, as we were more focused on the evening’s music than on the book.  Please don’t blame either the novel or book club for that.  Not much could compete with canons, fireworks and the symphony — not even our appetites.  Which is really saying something.

* This is a little geeky of me to admit, but I kinda love how these three authors all have double Ls in their surnames.
** I should mention, I think, that I was raised almost entirely on classical music, and my love of it might also be interpreted as a little geeky.

Road Trip with Book Club.

For ages now, my book club has been talking about hitting the road and taking a book-related trip. When we read Leviathan by Paul Auster, for example, Stephanie suggested driving out to Brooklyn to see if we could track Auster down. We shot that idea down, though. It sounded too stalkery.

We thought of the ideal destination after reading our most recent book, The Poet and the Murderer by Simon Worral. Worral’s was the third in a row to somehow deal with Emily Dickinson: first we read The Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, about burning down the Dickinson house; then Afternoons With Emily, a piece of historical fiction told from the perspective of a young girl in Dickinson’s hometown. Once we read Worral’s work, it made perfect sense to jump into the car for a ride over to Amherst and the Emily Dickinson Museum.

The museum is actually made up of two buildings — the Homestead and the Evergreens. The Homestead was Dickinson’s place of birth, as well as the house where she spent most of her life; the latter, next door, was built for Dickinson’s brother Austin and his family. Though the family originally owned several acres of land, now the museum sits on about an acre of the former property, which Dickinson herself used to garden.

In absolute honesty, the museum was a bit bleak. The Homestead, for example, had previously been purchased as a residence and been gutted by the owners; as a result our docent asked us to “imagine” what the rooms must have looked like during Dickinson’s life. The only room which the curators had been able to truly replicate was Dickinson’s bedroom, but that was possibly even more depressing that the downstairs, as the furniture here really are approximations and replicas. Apparently Dickinson’s own belongings are at Harvard’s Houghton Library, who have no interest whatsoever in returning the furniture and other personal effects to Amherst.

Even more interesting than the Homestead, though, is its next-door neighbor. Unlike the Homestead, the Evergreens has been almost entirely preserved — actually, the only reason why I used the word “almost” is because a more modern stove and a functioning bathroom were installed in the second half of the twentieth century, along with a heating and cooling system to better manage the home’s temperature. Everything aside from that is untouched, remaining exactly as the last of the Dickinson’s left it… which is absolutely chilling. Austin Dickinson’s wife Susan had a huge interest in interior design, and frequently redecorated the house; miscellaneous layers of wallpaper are visible in some rooms. One of the creepier aspects of the house is the nursery, which literally has not been altered since the day its last inhabitant died unexpectedly. His toys are strewn across the floor and covered with dust; his child-sized suit stays spread out on the bed. To top it off, the last of the heirs to the Dickinson estate lived in the Evergreens in this state until their deaths in the late 1980s.

After the museum, we made our way to The Lady Killigrew at the nearby Montague Mill. It’s a really interesting little area — the structure is a converted 1842 gristmill that now houses a bookshop, two eateries, an artist’s studio and a little boutique. It’s all located right on the Sawmill River (hence the mill).

It seems like a really popular spot; even though the day was overcast and gray, several people sat at the café’s umbrella-ed tables on the patio overlooking the river. We were so lucky to be able to find place to sit that was spacious enough to accommodate the six of us — for the briefest moment I worried that we would have to split up, which would have made discussing The Poet and the Murderer extremely difficult.

We managed to make do after ordering our dinner, though I will say that deciding what to get was so very tricky indeed. The menu at The Lady Killigrew isn’t that extensive; I think there’s something like fifteen items to choose from. With such a small number, it’s deceptively easy to think that making a decision would be simple. I was, as usual, torn between two items: the peanut-ginger udon noodles ($6.50 for a small bowl, $8.50 for a large), or one of the grilled sandwiches. Melissa came to my rescue when said I could try her noodles, so I opted to go for the first sandwich listed: brie, apricot jam and marinated apples on organic sourdough bread, served with a small house salad on the side ($8.50). It’s funny; the menu has a category entitled “Food That is Intrinsically Delicious,” something I would normally find pretentious. I suppose, however, it’s not pretentious if it’s right. My only suggestion would be to label the entire menu as such, or to at least lump my sandwich in there as well. Sweet, warm and comforting, it was a great treat on a wet day.

One we all had our plates in front of us, we chatted about Worral’s book. The Poet and the Murderer is a nonfiction account of the forgerer Mark Hoffman, who beguiled the world countless times over with counterfeit documents and tender. The story begins in Amherst at the Jones Library, where an administrator was trying to purchase a newly-discovered Emily Dickinson poem written in her own hand. Ultimately, the poem would be discovered to be a complete and utter fake, composed and scrawled by Hoffman across one hundred year old paper. Worral traces Hoffman’s steps, from his youth in a Salt Lake City Morman household to his mission in England to his first attempt at forgery.

We agreed that it’s an exceptionally fascinating book, in spite of the fact that we all thought Worral’s writing was most certainly lacking. It was awkward, we said, to read such a compelling story that was written poorly. Not only that, but The Poet and the Murderer was in desperate need of a copy editor; we found multiple typos and mistakes throughout the text. It was terribly distracting. What does it say, though, if a book’s pages remain truly turnable, in spite of such silly mistakes? Hoffman’s history — and how he ended up literally blowing two people to bits — is most dramatic, almost making up for the careless errors.

A final note: this trip was so much fun, though I know we’re a bit biased in saying so. After all, we felt such a strange little connection to Dickinson, so much so that we ended up naming our book group after her. The docent at the museum had suggested to us that we needed a name, so please allow me to introduce you to the Emmie Dicks.

More on our literary exploits to follow.

Emily Dickinson Museum
280 Main Street
Amherst, Massachusetts 01002

The Lady Killigrew
440 Greenfield Road
Montague, Massachusetts

My Reading List, and Some Reasons Why.

Here’s a photo of the books I’ve currently got waiting in the wings, in no particular order. They are all for pleasure, except for The Poet and the Murderer, which is for book club. That’s not say, of course, that the books my friends and I pick to read together aren’t pleasurable — the difference is that I chose the six others for myself, and for no reason other than just plain wanting to read them.

  1. The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
  2. The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry
  3. Messenger by Lois Lowry
  4. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
  5. Mrs. Kimble by Jennifer Haigh
  6. The Poet and the Murderer by Simon Worrall
  7. Charity Girl by Michael Lowenthal

Excluding The Omnivore’s Dilemma and, again, The Poet and the Murderer, I purchased these books this past weekend at the Muse and the Marketplace. I attended a lectures by both Jennifer Haigh and Lois Lowry (big surprise, that), chatted with Michael Lowenthal at lunch on Saturday and attended the keynote brunch the following day with Jonathan Franzen. There were several books to be purchased at conference, but I went with these not only because these were the writers who impressed me the most, but also because I had a very limited amount of room in my bag.

  • Do I really need to say anything more about my great affection for Lois Lowry?
  • Jonathan Franzen read excerpts from his most recent book, The Discomfort Zone, and answered many questions on what I can’t help but think of as The Oprah Incident. He also discussed the German language, his unsuccessful pursuit of girls and the contemporary North American writers whose work he enjoys reading. I should also mention that Mr. Franzen’s voice is absolutely lovely to listen to. Immediately afterwards, I went to a seminar with John Sedgwick, who wondered how a voice like that could be attained. Nicotine, he concluded.
  • Jennifer Haigh’s workshop on how to get a novel started was undoubtedly one of the most helpful, and not to mention exciting. In clear, concise words, Ms. Haigh spoke about some of her writing tricks; I know that I’m going to use them myself from here on in, with the hopes of being even a quarter as successful.
  • Michael Lowenthal was a funny and friendly lunch companion — though our eating together was pure happenstance. I nervously sat down at a table, and found myself with published, acclaimed writers and a charming, witty agent. I’ve never felt like such a fraud before in my life. Mr. Lowenthal was easy to talk to, and had so many fascinating things to say about his recent time at the Instituto Sacatar, an artists’ colony in Brazil.