Conjuring New Haven in The Book of Life

The_Book_of_Life_US_CoverI DON’T USUALLY WRITE ABOUT BOOKS UNTIL I’ve finished reading them. But I’m too excited. A few days ago, I discovered that my current literary BFF Diana Bishop is right now in New Haven, Connecticut, just 15 minutes from my house.

I’m half-way through The Book of Life, the third and final installment of Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy. And I’m loving it. The writing is crisp; the story engaging; and Diana is a compelling, likeable, and authentic protagonist—intelligent, stubborn, determined, vulnerable.

New haven signYet while I’ve known from the start of the series that Diana, a witch, is also a history professor at New Haven’s Yale University, there was never any hint she or the story would go there.

The first two books in the series, A Discover of Witches and Shadow of Night, take the reader to London, France, Venice, and Prague of today and 1591 as Diana and her vampire husband Matthew search for the missing pages of an ancient and mystical manuscript. The book is known both as Ashmole 782 and the Book of Life, and it’s believed to hold the key to the origins of vampires, witches, and daemons—knowledge that some vampires and witches are willing to kill for.

The Book of Life starts with Diana, Matthew and their extended witch-vampire families at Matthew’s towered, 11th century castle Sept-Tours in France. Hunted by the Congregation of vampires, witches, and daemons that believes bloodlines must remain pure, and has outlawed supernatural beings from cross-breeding, a pregnant Diana and Matthew escape to the haunted, upstate New York house Diana grew up in. Aided by Matthew, her witch Aunt Sarah, her vampire nephew Gallowglass, and other family and friends, Diana works to hone her emerging magical powers. Talk of travel revolves around Diana and Matthew going back to England for the birth of their twins. But then Diana’s best friend, scientist and fellow Yale professor Chris Roberts arrives.

I won’t spoil how or why Diana and Matthew decided to go to New Haven. Unlike the first two books in the series, which were slower paced and sprawling, Life is as action-packed and urgent as the tasks Diana and Matthew must complete before death, or any other form of irreparable tragedy, strikes them or someone they love.

New Haven Lawn ClubWhen we first see Diana in New Haven at the start of Chapter 15, she is sitting at a table at the New Haven Lawn Club:

The hushed confines of the main building dampened the distinctive plonk of tennis balls and the screaming children enjoying the pool during the last week of summer vacation. … “Here you are, Professor.” My attentive waiter was back, accompanied by the fresh scent of mint leaves. “Peppermint tea.” (Chapter 15)

Sitting in the New Haven Lawn Club myself, eating lunch at a table probably not too far from where Diana sat, I’ve heard the same thump of tennis balls, and splash of arms, that can float in to the club dining room. Continuing to read Life over the past few nights, I’ve also discovered more ways that my and Diana’s New Haven have overlapped.

Beinecke libraryLike her, I’ve researched rare books at the Beinecke Library, marveled at the “glass-encased books [that forms] the Beinecke’s spinal column,” eaten at Wall Street Pizza, and driven to nearby Sleeping Giant State Park (though admittedly not with a vampire husband) to look at the stars at night:

Mabon moonMatthew scanned the horizon, unable to stop searching for new threats. Then his attention turned skyward.

“The moon is bright tonight,” he mused. “Even here it’s hard to see the stars.”

“That’s because it’s Mabon,” Diana said quietly.

“Mabon?” Matthew looked startled.

She nodded. “One year ago you walked into the Bodleian Library and straight into my heart. As soon as that wicked mouth of yours smiled, the moment your eyes lightened with recognition even though we’d never met before, I knew that my life would never be the same.” (Chapter 22)

Court Street New HavenReading Life, I know exactly where the Yale Center for Genome Analysis they work in is located; am sure I’ve walked past the tall, “red door with the white trim and the black pediment” that opens into Diana’s Court Street apartment; and have parked my car near Gallowglass’s condo inside a converted Catholic church on Green Street.

What distinguished the vampire’s house was that the drapes were tightly closed and only cracks of golden light around the edges of the windows betrayed the fact that someone was still awake. (Chapter 20)

I realize that Diana is a fictional character and only literarily, rather than literally, in New Haven.

But when you’re a bibliomaniac like me, an emotional connection to a literary character can feel as real as one to a real person. I’m one of those people who likes to take literary pilgrimages to places described in a book; to places where I can breathe the same air as the character or author I’ve fallen in love with; to places that inspired favorite writers, so that I can feel that inspiration, too. It makes the reading experience richer. And it makes me feel that much more connected to my understanding of the world and myself.

Doing a quick Google search before writing this post, I found a terrific website called The Tenth Knot, which features articles by Deborah Harkness superfans who have followed Diana’s and Matthew’s footsteps around the world. Among them are two posts that provide addresses, book quotes and other details about all the New Haven cites included in The Book of Life. They’re listed as New Haven, Part 1 and New Haven, Part 2. And for anyone looking to take an All Souls New England pilgrimage, they provide all the information you’ll need.

When The Book of Life was published in 2014, I interviewed Deborah Harkness for the Literary New England Radio Show. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, Deborah told me her New England roots go back to ancestors who traveled here from England and Scotland in the 1600 and 1700s to settled just outside of Boston and in Western Massachusetts.

deb-harkness-feature-master-16Deborah joked that while she created Diana to be descended from accused Salem witch Bridget Bishop, she herself has no such lineage: “I would be proud and delighted to have [a witch as an ancestor], but I have not found one yet.”

She also talked about how “wonderful and strange” it is that Diana and other characters she “fully created” from her imagination have become so vividly real to people like me: “That I could create something that people could embrace so fully. …. That’s a rare and precious thing,” Deborah said. “I feel so privileged to have met so many amazing people who feel this way, and to have been able to experience it.”

Like all the books I read, I’ll rate The Book of Life on Goodreads once I’ve finished it. In the meantime, if you’re a history-romance-fantasy fan, don’t hesitate to add the All Souls Trilogy to your #TBR list. And if you decided to take an All Souls literary trip to New Haven or other location, definitely let me know!

F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s beautiful, gin-filled summer in Connecticut

The Fitzgeralds in front of their Westport house.
The Fitzgeralds in front of their Westport house.

For six months in 1920, F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda lived in a rented house at 244 Compo Road South in Westport, Conn., as he wrote his second novel, The Beautiful and Damned. The house is now a private home.

What the "Wakeman Cottage" the Fitzgeralds rented looks like today.
What the “Wakeman Cottage” the Fitzgeralds rented looks like today.

Fitzgerald was 23 at the time, fresh off the success of his debut novel, This Side of Paradise. He and Zelda were newlyweds and known–not always in a good way–for their love of liquor and parties.

At Compo Beach.
At Compo Beach.

Westport, a beacon for artists of all kinds in the 1920s, was a perfect place for the couple. “Summers at Westport, Connecticut, exceeded the riotousness of New York,” said Westport resident and painter Guy Pene du Bois in his 1940 autobiography Artists Say The Silliest Things. “There, gin and orange juice ruled the days and nights. Talk was an extravaganza. Work was an effort made between parties.” And gin was one of the Fitzgeralds’ favorite. In Invented Lives: F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, biographer James Mellow describes their “mad rides along Post Road with abrupt stops at roadhouses to replenish the supply of gin.”

The gin rickey was often their drink of choice. Perhaps a great way to celebrate the lives of this legendary literary couple would be to mix a pitcher and bring it to Westport’s Compo Beach at sunset, followed by a stroll down Compo Road South to see the house that ended up being immortalized in The Beautiful and Damned:

The gray house had been there when women who kept cats were probably witches. … Since those days the house had been bolstered up in a feeble corner, considerably repartitioned and newly plastered inside, amplified by kitchen and added to by a side-porch but, save for where some jovial oaf had roofed the new kitchen with red tin, Colonial it defiantly remained.

FScotthouse_CocktailSome believe Westport also was the actual inspiration for The Great Gatsby, rather than parts of Long Island. Articles in the WestportNow and The New York Times’ Connecticut section explore this possibility, plus include quotes from those who remember the Fitzgeralds during their time in Connecticut. But if gin is still on your mind, hold off on the Gatsby exploration until after you spend a few minutes enjoying this great Open Culture post about Fitzgerald conjugating the verb “to cocktail.” You may want to have a gin rickey in hand.

Celebrate William Styron’s birthday by adding to your #TBR list

William Styron GraveWilliam Styron Grave2Today would have been writer William Styron’s 90th birthday. The author of Sophie’s Choice, The Long March, Set This House on Fire and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Confessions of Nat Turner, among other works, was born June 11, 1925 in Newport News, Va. Styron died on Nov. 21, 2006, at age 81 and was buried here, at the West Chop Cemetery in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.

As he wrote about in several forms, Styron struggled with severe depression and the urge to commit suicide, which he described most vividly in his memoir Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness. His first novel, Lie Down in Darkness, also tackles the subject, telling the story of a woman struggling against insanity and the desire to kill herself. This YouTube video from Open Road Media features Styron reading a short excerpt from the work:

The quote on Styron’s grave comes from the end of Darkness Visible: “And so we came forth, and once again beheld the stars.” It is a translation of the final line of Dante’s Inferno, Canto XXXIV, line 139: E quindi uscimmo a rivider le stelle.

In 2011, I had the pleasure of meeting Styron’s youngest daughter, Alexandra, at the Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival. There, she read and signed copies of Reading My Father, a powerful and mesmerizing memoir about her father who, as she candidly describes, was a drinker, a carouser and “a high priest at the altar of fiction.” Styron helped define the concept of the “Big Male Writer.” But he was also a loving father and a husband–a complex, compelling man who Alexandra was able to better understand through the writing of this book, and that she so generously shares with us. It’s a fabulous, insightful and inspiring read.

One of the official blurbs for the book says:

Alexandra offers a vivid look at the experiences that shaped William Styron’s life and his novels: the death of his mother; his precocious success with Lie Down in Darkness; his military service and his early loves. From Europe, where he helped found the Paris Review and met his wife, Rose, to New England where he would live out his storied career, William Styron is vivid in all his epic, tragic complexity in Reading My Father.

I loved Reading My Father and believe a most appropriate way to celebrate Styron’s life and birthday would be to add it, or one of his books, to your summer reading list. I’m adding Sophie’s Choice and The Confessions of Nat Turner to mine.

– Cindy Wolfe Boynton

Novel Place: Carla Neggers’ Heron’s Cove

NovelPlaces logoFans of Carla Neggers‘ Sharpe & Donovan series can walk the some of the same New England streets that FBI agents Emma Sharpe and Colin Donovan do. The southern Maine town of Heron’s Cove that appears throughout the series is fictional. However, Carla said she had Kennebunkport, Maine, in mind when she created Heron’s Cove–specifically time she spent walking along Ocean Avenue. The Wells Reserve at Laudholm Farm in nearby Wells, Maine, was also an inspiration. As the previous links show, both are spots you can visit, too … even if you aren’t part of a popular FBI crime-fighting duo 🙂

Emma Sharpe, a former nun turned art crimes expert, and Colin Donovan, a deep-cover agent, have so far been featured in four of Carla’s books: Saint’s Gate, Heron’s Cove, Declan’s Cross and Harbor Island. Keeper’s Reach, the fifth book in the series, will be released Aug. 25. Carla also wrote Rock Point, a prequel e-novella.

An ocean view from Ocean Avenue.
An ocean view from Ocean Avenue.
Jamesway dairy barn at Wells Reserve at Laudholm Farm.
Jamesway dairy barn at Wells Reserve at Laudholm Farm.

“New England is a great place to set books,” said Carla when we she appeared on the very first Literary New England Radio Show in December 2011 to talk about Saint’s Gate. “It’s got everything–mountains, oceans, small towns, big cities. Lots of different people and things are going on. It’s also close to major cities like Washington, D.C., so it’s easy for Emma Sharpe and Colin Donovan to travel from their FBI office in Boston to Washington. New England allows so many opportunities to create richness in stories. I love to hear from readers who say my books feel like a homecoming because of the strong sense of place. Others, who’ve never been to New England, have said my books make them want to come there.”

We also talked to Carla in February 2014 about her novel Cider Brook.

Carla herself is steeped in New England. The multi-times New York Times bestseller was born and raised in rural Massachusetts and now lives in Vermont.

thə-ROH or THUR-oh? He’s one of the greatest writers of all time, so shouldn’t we know?

Henry_David_Thoreau_-_Dunshee_ambrotpe_1861You probably pronounce Henry David Thoreau’s last name thə-ROH, placing an accent on the second syllable. But in honor of today being the 153rd anniversary of his death on May 6, 1862, we should consider pronouncing it THUR-oh, like “thorough,” which in all likelihood was what Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne and his other 19th century New England writing pals called him.

Thoreau birthplace
Thoreau’s birthplace in Concord, Mass.

Perhaps best known for his book Walden, a reflection on nature and simple living, Thoreau was an author, poet, philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist, tax resister and activist whose essay “Civil Disobedience” is an argument for acting up against an unjust state. See actor Mark Ruffalo read an excerpt of it on YouTube.

Thoreau was just 44 when he died. After contracting tuberculosis, he suffered with respiratory problems for several years, eventually becoming bedridden. It’s reported his last words were “Now comes good sailing,” followed by “moose” and “Indian.” He’s buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Mass.

Thoreau graveFor a complete and thoughtful bio, check out The Thoreau Society’s “Life and Legacy” page.

Poem in a Virtual Pocket: Long Island Sound

Anchor Beach and Charles Island: two locations on Long Island Sound in Milford, Conn.
Anchor Beach and Charles Island: two locations on Long Island Sound in Milford, Conn.

EmmaLazarus-1_3If I was able to get my act together this morning (which I was not), I would have made copies of “Long Island Sound” by New York writer Emma Lazarus (1849-1887) and properly celebrated “Poem in Your Pocket Day” by sharing it at all the places I went.

But alas, this did not happen. And the day is now almost over, even though it feels like it’s just begun! So I’ll pretend this blog is my pocket, and that we’re meeting somewhere along Long Island Sound.

My house on a hill in Connecticut looks out over the Sound, which technically is a 21-mile tidal estuary of the Atlantic Ocean, located between the southern Connecticut and northern Long Island, NY, shores. I’ve been lucky enough to live near it my whole life.

– Cindy Wolfe Boynton

Long Island Sound
By Emma Lazarus
I see it as it looked one afternoon
In August,—by a fresh soft breeze o’erblown.
The swiftness of the tide, the light thereon,
A far-off sail, white as a crescent moon.
The shining waters with pale currents strewn,
The quiet fishing-smacks, the Eastern cove,
The semi-circle of its dark, green grove.
The luminous grasses, and the merry sun
In the grave sky; the sparkle far and wide,
Laughter of unseen children, cheerful chirp
Of crickets, and low lisp of rippling tide,
Light summer clouds fantastical as sleep
Changing unnoted while I gazed thereon.
All these fair sounds and sights I made my own.

Chowder, hickory, moose, skunk: Among the words Webster included in the 1st American Dictionary

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Above is a handwritten draft of Connecticut native Noah Webster’s “American Dictionary of the English Language,” which was first published 187 years ago today on April 14, 1828.

The book, which Webster worked on for two decades, contained more than 70,000 entries, including 10,000 new words believed to be distinctly American. You can see from those listed here that many of these “Americanisms” came from the Indians, and were learned by Colonial settlers, while others represented young America’s new system of government:

caribou, chowder, congressional, gubernatorial, hickory, log house, moccasin, moose, skunk, squash, succotash, tomahawk, wigwam

Believing that many traditional, British spellings were unnecessarily complex and confusing, Webster also simplified the spelling of many words, including changing:

centre to center, colour to color, musick to music, plough to plow

Webster was a teacher, lawyer and abolitionist. He died in 1843, but he can still be seen, felt and learned from at locations  throughout Connecticut.

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In West Hartford, his birthplace and childhood home is now a museum: the Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society.

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Also in West Hartford, a statue of Webster stands outside the city’s public library.

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At Webster’s alma mater, Yale University in New Haven, an 8-foot likeness of Webster is one of eight statues that stand at either side of the clockfaces on Harkness Tower on High Street.

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Webster is also buried in New Haven along with many other notable Connecticut residents at (the always-worth-a-visit) Grove Street Cemetery.