Random House went through 100 designs before deciding on Hausfrau’s cover

Watching this video takes just more than one minute. But choosing the cover of Jill Alexander Essbaum’s New York Times best-selling Hausfrau was a lengthy task. An article on Mashable explains:

“I worked with five designers, one illustrator and two letterers on more than a hundred versions of the jacket,” said Robbin Schiff, executive art director at Random House Publishing Group.

The design, as Schiff sees it, should give readers a clue about the experience, or how they will feel while reading the book, “rather than giving away the plot or the the details of the story.”

“The final design, with its stark Swiss typography against the moody and lush floral grouping, conveys a sensual but claustrophobic atmosphere,” Schiff said.

That mood is especially fitting for a book like Hausfrau, which tells the tragic story of adultery and a breakdown of a woman and her marriage.

I don’t think I agree with the Mashable reporter’s use of the word “tragic” in describing Hausfrau. I’d use the word “uncomfortable,” or maybe “darkly insightful.” And as I’m typing this, I’m wondering how much of my different perspective comes from the fact that I’m a woman, and the Mashable reporter is a man.

Hausfrau, which has been described as a “modern-day Anna Karenina,” is the story of 30-something-year-old Anna, an American living with her husband in Switzerland and struggling with isolation, among other challenges, because she can’t speak the language. Desperate to feel happy again, she tries to figure out her life through a series of new experiences, including German language classes, Jungian analysis and a series of sexual affairs that she enters with an ease that surprises even her.

As Jill and I talked about on the Literary New England Radio Show earlier this month, Hausfrau can be erotic, but at its heart it’s an exploration–an exploration of how we lose ourselves, and the imperfect choices that can help us find ourselves again. That doesn’t sound very tragic to me.

– Cindy Wolfe Boynton

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.

Run Out for These Running Books … | IndieBound

Warm Up for the Boston Marathon w/These Great Running Books!

Was great fun to talk with Rachel Cass (shown here!), head buyer at Harvard Book Store, who put together a list of unforgettable running books–novels, non-fiction, children’s books–that either have a protagonist who runs, or that celebrate the sport about to take over Boston. Click on the link above to see and purchase any of these books. You can also hear Rachel talk about books and next Monday’s Boston Marathon on tonight’s Literary New England Radio Show.

Run Out for These Running Books … | IndieBound

It’s #SiblingsDay, and These Sibling Novels Will Stay with You Forever

Cindy here, and once again I say thank goodness for Twitter! Without it, I would have never known April 10 was National Siblings Day, or that an organization dedicated to making it a federally recognized holiday existed. Pretty neat!

Reading #SiblingsDay Tweets recommending non-fiction parenting books, children’s books and others made me wonder about the books I’ve read about siblings, and 10 almost immediately came to mind as being among the most memorable. They’re all novels. And I’ve listed them here in no particular order, though I always like to give a shout-out for Tell the Wolves I’m Home, which in 2012 I marked as my No. 1-favorite book that year. It’s still among my all-time favorites.

As host of the Literary New England Radio Show, I’ve also been fortunate enough to interview several of terrific the authors included here, including Jodi Picoult, Julia Glass, Carol Rifka Brunt, Diane Setterfield and Krassi Zourkova. Julia, in fact, I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing twice. She’s just amazing.

What are some of your favorite siblings books? Tweet me at @LitNewEngland or @WriterCindyWB. I want to know, and I’ll definitely Tweet you back!

My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult
The story of 13-year-old Anna, who decides to sue her parents for the rights to her own body, rather than undergo another surgery to help save the life of her older sister Kate. The product of preimplantation genetic diagnosis, Anna was conceived as a bone marrow match for Kate, who has leukemia. A powerful story about what it means to be a good parent, a good sister and a good person. My Sister’s Keeper was also made into a film, but the book and film are quite different.

The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy
Lush, mesmerizing and written by The Master Storyteller, it’s the story of a destructive family relationship, where a violent father abuses his wife and children. The story is narrated by one of the Wingo family children, Tom, a former high school teacher and coach who’s out of work after a nervous breakdown. Secrets are slowly revealed as Tom tells about his growing-up years on an isolated Southern island and the fate of his older brother Luke, as well as he tries to help his twin sister Savannah, a poet recovering from a suicide attempt. It’s thick, rich and fantastic. Loved the film, too, but not nearly as much as this magnificent book.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt
A portrait of the late-‘80s AIDS epidemic’s transformation of a girl and her family. Before her Uncle Finn died of an illness people don’t want to talk about, 14-year-old June Elbus thought she was the center of his world. A famous and reclusive painter, Finn made her feel uniquely understood, privy to secret knowledge like how to really hear Mozart’s Requiem or see the shape of negative space. When he’s gone, she discovers he had a bigger secret: his longtime partner Toby, the only other person who misses him as much as she does. Her clandestine friendship with Toby—who her parents blame for Finn’s illness—sharpens tensions with her sister, Greta, until their bond seems to exist only in the portrait Finn painted of them. You’ll never forget this book.

The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory
Sisterly rivalry is the basis of this marvelously cinematic and sexy retelling of the story of Anne Boleyn. She, her sister Mary and brother George are brought to King Henry VIII’s court as players in their uncle’s plans to advance the family’s fortunes. Mary, the sweet, blond sister, wins King Henry VIII’s favor. But then her dark, clever, scheming sister Anne, insinuates herself into Henry’s graces, becoming his adviser and confidant. Soon she displaces Mary as his lover and begins her machinations to rid him of his wife, Katherine of Aragon. And that’s just the beginning. The Other Boleyn Girl was also made into a film. The film was OK, and I think I’d have liked it better if I’d watched it before I read the book. But when you put the film against the book, there’s really no comparison to which is better. The book won’t ever let you go.

We The Animals by Justin Torres
If you haven’t read this yet, drop everything and get a copy right now. Then sit down and read it. It’s only 128 pages, so you’ll be done in a couple of hours, and they’ll be hours you won’t regret. W-o-n-d-e-r-f-u-l book narrated by the youngest son of a Puerto Rican father and white mother raising three young sons in upstate New York. The novel is comprised of vignettes that, according to one spot-on reviewer, “paints a large picture through diminutive strokes. … Torres’s prose is fierce, grabbing hold of the reader and allowing him inside the wrenching, whirlwind of a life lived intensely.” Yes, yes, yes.

The Girls: A Novel by Lori Lansens
Conjoined twins Rose and Ruby Darlen are linked at the side of the head, with separate brains and bodies. Born in a small town outside Toronto in the midst of a tornado and abandoned by their unwed teenage mother two weeks later, the girls are cared for by Aunt Lovey, a nurse who refuses to see them as deformed or even disabled. At age 29, Rose, the more verbal and bookish twin, begins writing their story. Through it and Lansens, we see the sisters’ contradictory longing for independence and togetherness. It’s as mesmerizing as the girls themselves.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
A tribute to du Maurier’s “Rebecca,” this gothic story tells the tale of a plain girl wrapped up in the dark, haunted ruins of a house that guards family secrets that are not her own, and that she must discover at her peril. Those secrets include two sisters, a governess, a ghost and more than one abandoned baby. Margaret, the heroine, is a little-known author and bookseller’s daughter who makes a romantic and compelling narrator. I was entranced.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Do I even need to describe it? One of the most beloved books of all time about sisters Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy growing up in New England, and learning the hard lessons of youth and poverty, during the Civil War. If you haven’t read it, you’re really missing out. Run now.

Wildalone by Krassi Zourkova
Really enjoyed this dark, imaginative debut that the publisher accurately describes as “a bewitching blend of Twilight, The Secret History, Jane Eyre and A Discovery of Witches.” It’s the story of college freshman Thea Slavin, who leaves her home in Bulgaria to attend Princeton, where she becomes tangled in solving the mystery of her sister’s disappearance and the lives of two handsome, dangerous and secretive brothers. Her desires lead her into a sensual, mythic underworld that’s as irresistible as it is dangerous. “Irresistible” is a good word to describe this book, too.

I See You Everywhere by Julia Glass
Julia is one of my all-time favorite writers. Loved, loved, loved her National Book Award-winning Three Junes and every book that’s followed, including this one about sisters Louisa and Clem and their complicated relationship. Louisa is conscientious and careful, while Clem is a rebel. Theirs is a vivid, heart-wrenching story about what we can and can’t do for those we love.

Be inspired! Books about women who disguised themselves as men to fight in the Civil War

Yesterday’s 150th anniversary of the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee to end the Civil War got us thinking about all the terrific Civil War-inspired books published over the last few several–specifically, those about women who disguised themselves as men to fight, or who went undercover and worked as spies. The result is this list of 10 books about these heroic women, including both novels and nonfiction.

We’ve featured some of these books and authors on the Literary New England Radio Show. Those books we haven’t read yet are definitely on our #TBR list–and maybe should be on yours, too! Check them out:

1. Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott
Adult nonfiction. Best-selling author Karen Abbott tells the spellbinding true story of four courageous women–a socialite, a farmgirl, an abolitionist and a widow–who risked everything to become spies during the Civil War. Abbott uses a wealth of primary source material and interviews with descendants to weave the adventures of these four heroines throughout the tumultuous years of the war. Supporting cast of real-life characters include Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, General Stonewall Jackson, detective Allan Pinkerton, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln and Emperor Napoleon III. Hear Karen talk about the book in the Literary New England Radio Show archives.

2. Wild Rose: The True Story of a Civil War Spy by Ann Blackman
Adult nonfiction. “I am a Southern woman, born with revolutionary blood in my veins,” Southerner and Civil War heroine Rose O’Neale Greenhow one said. Fearless spy for the Confederacy, glittering Washington hostess, legendary beauty and lover, Rose risked everything for the cause she valued more than life itself. Biographer Ann Blackman tells the surprising true story of a unique woman in history, which includes her pleading the Confederate cause to England’s and France’s royal courts.

3. Behind Rebel Lines: The Incredible Story of Emma Edmonds, Civil War Spy by Seymour Reit
Middle-grade fiction. In 1861, when war erupted between the states, President Lincoln made an impassioned plea for volunteers. Determined not to remain on the sidelines, 21-year-old Emma Edmonds cropped her hair, donned men’s clothing, and enlisted in the Union Army. Posing in turn as a slave, peddler, washerwoman, and fop, Emma became a cunning master of disguise, risking discovery and death at every turn behind Confederate lines.

4. Stealing Secrets: How a Few Daring Women Deceived Generals, Impacted Battles, and Altered the Course of the Civil War by H. Donald Winkler
Adult nonfition. An overview of 36 women who spied for the Confederacy and the Union: “stories of women spies…filled with suspense and seduction, treachery and trickery, romance and bravery.” Civil War memoirs, journals, letters and newspaper articles and other sources were deftly used to bring these women’s incredible stories to life.

5. Neverhome by Laird Hunt
Adult fiction. She calls herself Ash, but that’s not her real name. She is a farmer’s faithful wife, but she has left her husband to don the uniform of a Union soldier in the Civil War. This is the harrowing story of Ash Thompson during the battle for the South. Through bloodshed and hysteria and heartbreak, she becomes a hero, a folk legend, a madwoman and a traitor to the American cause. Hear Laird talk about his book in the Literary New England Radio Show archives.

6. The Spymistress by Jennifer Chiaverini
Adult fiction. Best-selling author Jennifer Chiaverini’s enthralling historical novel inspired by the life of “a true Union woman as true as steel” who risked everything by caring for Union prisoners of war and stealing Confederate secrets: Elizabeth Van Lew. She pledged her loyalty to the Lincoln White House, and even as her actions threatened both her reputation and her life, her courage never wavered.

7. I Shall Be Near to You: A Novel by Erin Lindsay Mccabe
Adult fiction. An extraordinary novel about a strong-willed woman, Rosetta, who disguises herself as a man in order to fight beside her husband. Inspired by the letters of a remarkable female soldier who actually fought in the Civil War, Rosetta cuts off her hair, hems an old pair of her husband’s pants and signs up as a Union soldier. She drills with the men, proves she can be as good a soldier as anyone, and deals with the tension as her husband comes to grips with having a fighting wife. Rosetta’s strong will clashes with Jeremiah’s while their marriage is tested by broken conventions and constant danger, and the two fight for their lives together. Hear Erin talk about her book in the Literary New England Radio Show archives.

8. An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, alias Pvt. Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers, 1862-1864 by Sarah Rosetta Wakeman
Adult nonfiction. “I don’t know how long before i shall have to go into the field of battle. For my part i don’t care. I don’t feel afraid to go. I don’t believe there are any Rebel’s bullet made for me yet.” Those are Wakeman’s words. Similar sentiments were expressed by tens of thousands of Civil War soldiers in diaries and letters. What transforms Wakeman’s letters is that this soldier was a woman–a simple young farm girl from central New York State who disguised herself as a man in order to fight. Rosetta did not survive the war. However, her letters provide a firsthand look at the personality and character of a woman who defied convention. The book was edited by Lauren Cook Burgess.

9. Nurse, Soldier, Spy: The Story of Sarah Edmonds, a Civil War Hero by Marissa Moss
Middle grade nonfiction. A fast-paced, high-energy picture book that tells the true story of Sarah Emma Edmonds, who at 19 disguised herself as a man to fight in the Civil War. She took the name Frank Thompson and joined a Michigan army regiment to battle the Confederacy. Sarah excelled as a soldier and nurse on the battlefield. She was so heroic, leaders asked her to become a spy.

10. They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War by DeAnne Blanton and Lauren Cook Wike
“Albert Cashier” served three years in the Union Army and passed successfully as a man until 1911, when the aging veteran was revealed to be a woman named Jennie Hodgers. Frances Clayton kept fighting even after her husband was gunned down in front of her at the Battle of Murfreesboro. And more than one soldier astonished “his” comrades-in-arms by giving birth in camp. A lively and authoritative book on several of the women who adopted male disguises and fought as Civil War soldiers.

156 years ago today, Mark Twain got his steamboat license

Image from twainquotes.com 

It’s been said that before you can truly know Mark Twain, you have to know the Mississippi River. The literary giant was raised on its banks in Hannibal, Missouri. And on this day 156 years ago – April 9, 1859 – the 23-year-old fledgling newspaper man earned his steamboat pilot’s license.

It was a dream he’d held since childhood, and that he wrote about in his 1883 Life on the Mississippi:

When I was a boy, there was but one permanent ambition among my comrades in our village on the west bank of the Mississippi River. That was, to be a steamboatman. We had transient ambitions of other sorts, but they were only transient. When a circus came and went, it left us all burning to become clowns; the first negro minstrel show that came to our section left us all suffering to try that kind of life; now and then we had a hope that if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates. These ambitions faded out, each in its turn; but the ambition to be a steamboatman always remained.

Still known at this time by his given name, Samuel Clemens, he worked as a steamboat pilot for two years, stopping only when the Civil War stopped steamboat travel. It was during this time as a pilot that he adopted the pseudonym “Mark Twain”– the term boatmen used to call to each other to warn where the Mississippi was only two fathoms deep, the minimum for safe travel.

Cover of the original U.S. edition, 1883.

As Twain, Clemens lived and wrote in California and Connecticut, among other places. But no matter where he was physically, the 2,300-mile river was never far from his mind. He wrote a series of essays about it for Atlantic Monthly, which later became the book Life on the Mississippi. In “Two Ways of Seeing a River,” it’s clear that, even years later, he is enamored with it:

I still keep in mind a certain wonderful sunset which I witnessed when steamboating was new to me. A broad expanse of the river was turned to blood; in the middle distance the red hue brightened into gold, through which a solitary log came floating, black and conspicuous; in one place a long, slanting mark lay sparkling upon the water; in another the surface was broken by boiling, tumbling rings, that were as many-tinted as an opal; where the ruddy flush was faintest, was a smooth spot that was covered with graceful circles and radiating lines, ever so delicately traced; the shore on our left was densely wooded, and the sombre shadow that fell from this forest was broken in one place by a long, ruffled trail that shone like silver; and high above the forest wall a clean-stemmed dead tree waved a single leafy bough that glowed like a flame in the unobstructed splendor that was flowing from the sun. There were graceful curves, reflected images, woody heights, soft distances; and over the whole scene, far and near, the dissolving lights drifted steadily, enriching it, every passing moment, with new marvels of coloring.

I stood like one bewitched. I drank it in, in a speechless rapture. The world was new to me, and I had never seen anything like this at home.

As most high school English students know, the Mississippi also plays an essential role in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” as Huck and Jim use it, and their handmade raft, to escape to freedom and from the evils of slavery.

PBS also turned Life on the Mississippi into a television movie. In 2010, it was adapted into a stage musical.

For diehard Twain fans, the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Connecticut, is as much a must-see as the Mississippi itself.