Literary New England interview with ‘The Age of Light’ author Whitney Scharer

“… You should own your creativity. You should own your art, and call yourself an artist, or writer, if that’s what you are. And so I hope that people read this book [and], if they are creative people, they take away this lesson from the story.”

Those are the words of author Whitney Scharer on Lee Miller, the protagonist in Scharer’s debut and much-buzzed-about novel, The Age of Light.

Literary New England’s Cindy Wolfe Boynton interviewed Scharer yesterday, just hours before she flew from her Massachusetts home to the United Kingdom for several book events. Scharer will be back in the U.S. by early March for a cross-country book tour, including several stops in New England.

Review: Read Jennifer Tseng’s Mayumi, and you’ll be floating in a Sea of Happiness, too

MayumiI have an acute case of Writer Envy. I felt it coming on earlier this month, as I sat in a surprisingly comfortable folding chair at Bunch of Grapes Bookstore in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., to hear author Jennifer Tseng read from her debut novel Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness (published by the always fabulous Europa Editions).

Jennifer Tseng at bunches of grapesDespite my exhaustion from traveling all day and sleeping little the night before, I found myself leaning forward as she spoke. I couldn’t help it. Her sentences were like Sirens–poetic pathogens made up of words and phrases that lured, serenaded and hummed; that I wanted to get closer to; that wonderfully infected me with pure, unadulterated jealousy: How come I’ve never written anything as gorgeous and compelling as that? I want to! I want to now!

She started the reading at Chapter 1:

It began at the library. While the young man waited quietly to be helped, I stood neatly in thrall to the world outside the window. Momijigari was ending; leaves were falling in drifts like snow. Blackcaps were eating the trees, striking the bark with their beaks then rapidly chewing it, in that annual burlesque of sheer appetite I always found vulgar. When I turned, he cleared his throat and asked for a library card. He explained with darting, downcast eyes that although he’d been coming to the library with his mother since he was a child, he’d never had his own card. There was something in his manner–softness, reverence, a hesitation in the face–this is particular to a son close to his mother. Doesn’t intimacy foster reverence more completely than anything that can be taught? As I handed him the form and then watched as he filled it in–his fingers fumbling a bit with the tiny pencil–I didn’t think of having him yet, I simply gaped at his beauty. I had the thought: he is out of reach, a thought that, had I been younger, might have spurred me on, but in middle age, warned me to retreat.

Like Jennifer, protagonist Mayumi is a 40-something-year-old librarian who lives on a small island remarkably like Martha’s Vineyard. As Kirkus described in its review, Mayumi is also a woman “emotionally marooned in a loveless marriage, clinging for warmth to her 4-year-old daughter, and drifting toward middle age [who] finds unlikely, forbidden love and gasp-inducing passion in the arms of an alluring 17-year-old.”

It’s a complicated love story that, as it unfolds, Mayumi can’t help but compare to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. She, after all, is not just a librarian, but a voracious reader and re-reader. Yet Mayumi is no Humbert Humbert. And the relationship Mayumi and the never-named boy develop is nothing if not beautiful, despite the social mores she unapologetically sets aside:

I saw within myself a cup marked complacency and a cup marked disappointment, the contents of both spilling over. I saw that I had been staring impassively for years at the spectacle of my own pain overflowing, as if at a hideous waterfall. Now I turned my gaze toward the young man. … I saw that there was also within me an empty cup marked pleasure and I resolved at once to fill. I refused to be thwarted.

Who of us who’ve reached middle age haven’t felt that kind of longing for fulfillment of desire, whether that desire be for love, sex, the creation of art, the exploration of new places or so many other things? All of us have dreams and desires that are more than just wants. The brave, unconventional and unexpectedly erotic Mayumi shows that while taking risks and going after fulfillment has the potential to end in despair, it can also lead unimaginable happiness, unexpected friendships and unregrettable moments.

Someone said Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness “veers more toward the lyrical than the lurid,” and it’s so true. No one who reads Maymui will be surprised to learn Jennifer is also a poet. Each sentence sings.

Jennifer Tseng at libraryA few days after that Bunch of Grapes event, I had the pleasure of spending part of an afternoon with Jennifer. Despite the rain, we sat on the back porch of the West Tisbury Library as I recorded an interview with her for the Literary New England Radio Show. That conversation will air at 8 pm Monday, July 6. We’ll also give away copies of Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness on that show, so don’t miss tuning in.

If you you’re going to be in Martha’s Vineyard this weekend, you can meet Jennifer in person at 6 pm Saturday, June 27, at the West Tisbury Library. As the flier below shows, the event will feature bubbles, cake, book talk, book signing, Mayumi swag and more.

In the meantime, no matter where you are, pick up a copy of Mayumi. Within a matter of minutes, you’ll be swimming in your own Sea of Happiness. Even for writers susceptible to contracting Writer Envy, this ravishing novel is absolutely worth the risk.

– Cindy Wolfe Boynton

Mayumi library flier

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

Jakob Crane: Author of a graphic novel about Salem’s witch trials

Lies In the Dust“Provocative and haunting” is how Kirkus Review describes Lies in the Dust: A Tale Of Remorse From The Salem Witch Trials. The graphic novel was written by New England author and visual artist Jakob Crane, illustrated by Timothy Decker of New Jersey and published by the Maine-based Islandport Press, which describes itself as being “dedicated to stories rooted in the essence and sensibilities of New England.”

Lies in the Dust certainly fits that description. The 120-page book tells a fictionalized version of the story of Ann Putnam Jr., the only girl to eventually apologize for sending 24 people to their deaths during the infamous Salem witch trials.

LiesinDUST3PICSWe air part of our interview with Jakob on tonight’s Literary New England Radio Show. Hear the complete 15-minute interview by clicking here. As Jakob mentions during our conversation, he and Decker recently established their own indie press, Box Books, which you may want to check out.

Jakob isn’t the first Islandport Press author we’ve featured on the show. Hear GA Morgan talk about The Fog of Forgetting, and Lea Wait talk about Uncertain Glory, in the Literary New England Radio Show archives. All were super interviews and guests!

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.

These WWII YA books may be sexist, but their message for unity is one today’s America needs

WW2_booksLike John Boyne’s unforgettable The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and the young adult version of Laura Hillenbrand’s inspiring Unbroken, the majority of YA books published today about World War II focus on its horrors. Not so during the war itself, when publishers like Whitman (popular from the early 1900s to the mid-1970s) sought out books written to heighten support for the United States entering the war and muster participation in homefront efforts. Printed on the dust cover of Norma Kent of the WACS, as example, was this call to action:

For Victory—
SAVE COOKING FATS AND GREASE!
Grease makes bullets and shells and bombs
for our soldiers. You can help them win!

Norma Kent of the WACS was one of Whitman’s most popular titles featuring a female protagonist determined to do whatever it takes to help Allied troops defeat Germany and Japan. Set in New England, it tells the exciting story of Norma, a Nancy Drew-like character who tracks down spies and shadowy villains intent on destroying America.

Roy Snell, a WWI veteran and graduate of Wheaton College in Massachusetts, wrote Norma Kent along with two other titles in Whitman’s Fighters for Freedom series: Sparky Ames and Mary Mason of the Ferry Command and Sally Scott of the WAVES. In Sparky Ames, Mary is a pilot and member of the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron who, among other adventures, rescues Sparky after his plane is shot down by enemy fire over Brazil. In Sally Scott, Sally breaks regulations by bringing a new kind of radio capable of picking up “secret frequencies” onto an aircraft carrier. Invented by her neighbor, the device causes more trouble than good for Sally–until, that is, her commanding officers learn they can use it to track enemy submarines and save American ships and sailors.

Sally Placed the Black Box on the Study Table
Sally Placed the Black Box on the Study Table

Sally Scott opens with a fellow Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service unit member discovering her secret:

It was mid-afternoon of a cloudy day in early autumn. Sally Scott glided to the one wide window in her room and pulled down the shade. Then, with movements that somehow suggested deep secrecy, she took an oblong, black box, not unlike an overnight bag, from the closet. After placing this with some care on her study table, she pressed a button, and caught the broad side of the box, that, falling away, revealed a neat row of buttons and switches. Above these was an inch-wide opening where a number of spots shone dimly.

After a glance over her shoulder, Sally shook her head, tossing her reddish-brown hair about, fixed her eyes on this strange box and then with her long, slender, nervous fingers threw on a switch, another, and yet another in quick succession. Settling back in her chair, she watched the spots above the switches turn into tiny, gleaming, red lamps that gave off an eerie light.

“Red for blood, black for death,” someone had said to her. She shuddered at the thought.

From the box came a low, humming sound. She turned a switch. The hum increased. She turned it again and once more the hum rose in intensity. This time, however, it was different. Suddenly the hum was broken by a low, indistinct hut—hut—gr—gr—gr—hut—hut—hut.

“Oh!” The girl’s lips parted as a look of surprise and almost of triumph spread over her face.

And then, suddenly, she started to leap from her chair. A key had rattled in the door.

Before she could decide what she should do, the door swung open and someone snapped on a light.

Thanks to the wonderful Project Gutenberg, you can read Sally Scott of the WAVES, Norma Kent of the WACS and Sparky Ames and Mary Mason of the Ferry Command for free and in their entirety. Today’s readers will likely find the books to be sexist, perpetuating gender stereotypes and limiting what women can do.

Indeed, they are sexist. But they’re also great fun, as well as provide an insightful look into the beliefs and mindset of 1943 America. Their message about the need for national unity is also one today’s America needs to hear.

Scissors, please. These Spinster-inspired paper dolls are a must!

Spinster Paper DollsBy Cindy Wolfe Boynton
What’s very possibly one of the best things, in my whole life, that I’ve ever stumbled across? These super-awesome literary spinster paper dolls, which were created to go along with the release of journalist Kate Bolick‘s memoir Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own.

Adding to my excitement is that like Bolick herself (who grew up in Newburyport, Mass.), four of the five literary goddesses turned paper play-things have ties to New England. In Spinster, Bolick weaves their lives and choices into her own, showing us the unconventional ideas and lifestyles of:

  • Journalist Neith Boyce, who lived in Massachusetts and is buried in New Hampshire
  • Social visionary Charlotte Perkins Gilman, author of the must-read “The Yellow Wallpaper,” who was born in Hartford, Conn.
  • Poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, who was born in Rockland, Maine
  • Novelist Edith Wharton, who lived in Massachusetts

Irish writer and essayist Maeve Brennan is also featured.

Download printable versions of the paper dolls here, which are part of a “Spinster Kit” that also includes recipes for each of these writers’ favorite cocktails, a list of their works you should read, and a Spinster discussion guide.

SpinsterIn Spinster, which grew out a 2011 cover story Bolick wrote for the Atlantic, Bolick explores not just modern notions of romance, family, career and success, but why she, and more than 100 million other American women, remains unmarried. She uses her personal experiences as a starting point to delve into the history of the idea of spinsterhood, examine her own intellectual and sexual coming of age, and discover why so many fear the life she has come to relish.

Neith Boyce, Maeve Brennan, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Edith Wharton each helped shape Bolick, influencing both her personal and career choices and, ultimately, this book.

Kate Bolick will be one of my guests on the May 11, 2015 Literary New England Radio Show. We’ll also be giving away copies of Spinster, so save the date!

You may also want to mark Friday, May 15, on your calendar. From 5-7 pm, Bolick will be at Edith Wharton’s home The Mount in Lenox, Mass, to give a free reading and signing. Entitled “Kate Bolick’s Awakening at The Mount: A Reading and Reception to Celebrate Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own,” the event will feature hors d’oeuvres, cocktails and, says The Mount website, “conversation about what it means to live independently.” Bolick will also read from Spinster and then sign copies.

If you go, please send photos! I’m so incredibly bummed not to be able to attend.