Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

WikiTikiTavi Templeton!

Surely it is a mark of sheer eggheadedness to post an entry on Wikipedia. However, I have done so and now added Templeton to Wikipedia's list of Invisible Cities. Fictional cities, I think Professor Wiki calls that entry. And I must say that the local Rabid Cohort of Fenimore Cooperites (the RC/FC) has proved rather slow off the mark not to beat me to it. (Halloo, Hugh--why's the RC/FC lagging in Wiki-land?) I'm used to our local historians and critics leaving the rest of us--Southerners-in-exile like me, the yearning social climbers on the rungs below Clark-Busch-Hager Land (makes one feel Jane Austenish--those great-grandfathers made their fortune in beer! in sewing machines! in trade!), the Bassett workers, the baseball shop owners, etc.--in a fog of dust.

By the by, if you have an interest in Cooper's dreams about the wilderness, the best place to start is Mr. MacDougall's The James Fenimore Cooper Society. It also has a section in praise of Fenimore Cooper's daughter, Susan Fenimore Cooper, author of the marvelous Rural Hours.

And here is the Wiki post:

Templeton - A little Yankee village on the shore of the imaginary Glimmerglass, both invented by James Fenimore Cooper in The Leatherstocking Tales; the name of the lake having infiltrated the so-called non-fictional realm with great success, the name of the village appearing there infrequently.

I did not, however, mention that I have pilfered the imaginary town for my own twisted purposes in many short stories . . . Some things need to remain secret. Now you know.

* * * * *

P. S. to the RC/FC: Note that the link to the Tales is Not Found. How can that be? Shall it stand?

Saturday, December 24, 2005

In the magical Christmas-tree forest. Rose's cookies. Light. Pax tecum.

As a small child, I did not own many books, but several of the ones that I possessed have continued to possess me. About the time I moved from Gramercy to Baton Rouge, before first grade, I was given the Alice books. They were hardcovers in a slipcase with the Tenniel illustrations, and I still have a strong love for Carroll. I don't know what happened to the books; perhaps they are still around, tucked in a box. Other Alices are on my shelf, but not those.

But I still have my childhood copy of another book I loved, The Snow Queen and Other Stories, an oversize Golden Book illustrated by Adrienne Segur, with an image from "The Nutcracker" on the cover. I believe that this was given to me at Christmas when I was in third grade. We had moved from gorgeous, rich, marvelous Louisiana to an alien place of flat, severe beauty, and all that I had lost seemed to find some kind of echo in these tales and pictures. Glimmers of them--particularly "Winter's Promised Bride," "The Nutcracker," and "The Snow Queen"--have lit odd corners of my stories and poems. And I'm sure that "Tall Jorinda" borrowed her name from "Jorinda and Joringel." The book is in my writing room, propped on top of a bookcase...

I'm not alone in having fantastical memories of a book that Segur illustrated--Terri Windling talks about writers and artists with a childhood passion for Adrienne Segur's pictures (http://www.greenmanreview.com/windling.html), and there are many mentions of Segur at Endicott Studio. I spent hours with The Snow Queen, reading the stories and poring over the illustrations, wandering through the cruel snows and the magical Christmas-tree forest.

* * *

Friends and strangers who have written me a note or left a comment or simply come by and passed on to other pages--a joyful Christmas to you. As there is not one Day but Twelve, I'll be back during Christmas, but now I have many things to do. The castle of home has that lovely smell of warm spices, and the best cookie cookbook in the world, Rose Levy Beranbaum's Christmas Cookies, is seeing hard use. (These days you can write Rose at her web site, Real Baking with Rose.) This year My Man Who Bakes (and Cooks) is working his way through chocolate-pistachio marzipan spirals, coconut kisses, Rose's crescents, cashew chewy puffs, chocolate madeleines, mahogany toffee crunch, and buchettes de Noel. (Later will come gingerbread people and terriers and other animals, elaborately painted with royal icing by the whole crew.) Most of the cookies fly out the door on Christmas Eve, landing on our neighbor's tables in the heart of the village--in the oldest residence in Templeton, in the house that's hard by the hanging ground and made of bricks from Fenimore Cooper's Otsego hall, in the two townhouses (we have just two), in the stone house with the herringbone pattern, and in other colorful and sometimes ghost-ridden houses. I always like to peep in the haunted mirror across the street to try and catch a glimpse of the ghost.

The snow is crisp and hard over the graves of Fenimore Cooper and Susan Cooper, and in the dark afternoon we will be out in the cold, lighting luminaires on the walkway that swoops past their names. And that's just the start.

Christmas approaches, glimmering...

* * *

I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round, as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.
~Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Starfire Crown: Merry Christmas

I'm on the Poem for Monday mailing list at Burke's Book Store in Memphis. This week novelist, poet, and bookseller Corey Mesler sent out a real, sure-nuff Christmas poem. These days that seems a rather bold act, even in Tennessee, and I'm passing on this bit of loveliness.

* * *
Woodcut courtesy of www.godecookery.com, the site for Medieval and Renaissance recipes.

* * *


A Christmas Carol Poem

by G. K. Chesterton


The Christ-child lay on Mary's lap,
His hair was like a light.
(O weary, weary were the world,
But here is all aright.)

The Christ-child lay on Mary's breast
His hair was like a star.
(O stern and cunning are the kings,
But here the true hearts are.)

The Christ-child lay on Mary's heart,
His hair was like a fire.
(O weary, weary is the world,
But here the world's desire.)

The Christ-child stood on Mary's knee,
His hair was like a crown,
And all the flowers looked up at Him,
And all the stars looked down.

***

Now isn't that simple and lovely and magical? It has a radiance and a sweetness that many a contemporary poet, immured in the School of the Politically Correct & the Lyceum of Snipped-up Prose, has never found. Innocence and world-weariness go arm in arm until the end, when what Elizabeth Bishop called "infant sight" conquers all in the final verse, when the flowers of light and the flowers of earth are drawn to turn their faces to the child.

And you can even sing the lines to your favorite carol or ballad tune. That old alternation of tetrameter and trimeter iambics is shapely still. The ballad stanza is easy on the ear, even when it doesn't use all its resources and sticks to one rhyme per quatrain, abcb.

If you'd like to be on Burke's list for a weekly poem, write Mr. C. Mesler via burkes [at] netten.net. Corey's "mind-blowing hippie novel," We Are Billion-Year-Old Carbon, is now available ($14.95 paperback, $25 hardback). Want a signed or inscribed copy? Go to www.burkesbooks.com.

A resounding Merry Christmas to you, with peace and joy and no materialist Happy Inoffensive Money-grubbing Holiday wishes at all.

Friday, December 16, 2005

The year of the blue tree, part 5

In which the blue forest invades a cottage in the Village of Templeton...

6:58 p.m. N is asleep, and R falls asleep immediately upon arrival. At home, we discover that the tree is about sixteen inches too tall for the 9' 6"ceiling. Mike measures the ceiling with a 9' 6" fishing pole. We knew the tree was too tall, but we didn't know how high the ceiling was. There! that's settled. We can't cut off the bottom, because it now appears that the spruce is actually three fused trees, and the base is meant to be hold them together. Briefly I remember the perfect ten-dollar tree of last year, a lovely thing that was immaculate in form and just tickled the ceiling. We heave and wrestle and turn this multiplying tree in our enormous cast-iron Victorian bucket stand. We chop the top--the many tops--and I stuff the leftovers into a big galvanized bucket. There, they look like a small tree, a civilized and easy tree. Our spruce looks utterly wild, untamed, a whole forest of trees crammed into an 1808 parlor. We discover three of last summer's nests. They belong neither to hummingbirds nor wrens but are generous habitations, streaming with the raveled grass from the hummocks. Tips of a possibly infinite number of trees swim on the ceiling, bent slightly.

It will look astonishing, I say.

Mike wants to cut more at the top so that we can use our Polish glass finial. It will be all stubs, if we start trimming, I point out. Maybe we should just hide the finial somewhere in the tree, somewhere surprising. It may be that everything about this tree is supposed to be surprising, beginning with the fact that it made it over hill, dale, hummock, etc.

Well! That is enough for one day.

I'm awfully glad that I have a no-never-work rule for Sunday, or I might have mistaken the day for hard labor instead of a mere dawdling afternoon of Christmas tree cutting. Everyone who is awake is ravenous, and the others will be likewise, when we wake them. After dinner, we can light candles in the living room and admire our personal forest. Who knows what might happen next, with this huge wild green place asserting itself in the room? Funny, now that it's in the lamplight the tree doesn't even look blue.

Finis

That was a day in Advent 2001: the fifteenth of December. Life has gone flooding on, over the dam of sticks and through the magical woods. N is no longer toddling about in a tall cap, and B and R are now teenagers, shedding strands of the cocoon of childhood, holding a dying man close, encountering their first major death--looking forward and looking back. Life and death skip hand and hand through the blue forest. I go on being a writer and a mother, living two lives, watching out for wolves in the undergrowth and falling stars above the canopy. Other nigh-perfect trees have come and gone, but a blue branch still stirs the imagination.

Today is a Snow Day, no school, no karate, no cars passing in the street. It's windless, so the flakes are falling straight down and the firs are keeping their snow. The sketchy plum trees and the gazebo with its ravel of Dutchman's pipe vines go foreign and lovely.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

The year of the blue tree, part 4

In which many terrible things are imagined...

After a long time, we find ourselves lurching onto blacktop. Looking into the gulf from whence we have been hoisted, I see that the dirt lane appears to have been resurfaced, and the old surface to have been deposited upon the sides of Susy Bus. I hope she is not leaking anything. I hope my husband returns. I hope he does not cut off his leg with the antique bucksaw. Also that he is not lying under an enormous blue spruce, far too large for our living room. After a long wait, in which I see nothing but one winking airplane light, I hear his voice, very far off. For a time, he continues to drag the tree over dale, hill, hummocks, etc. and finally gains the blacktop, where the spruce makes a loud cracking noise. Mike, B, and I heave-ho the tree onto the roof of Susy Bus. We see that the tree has shivered into two parts, that it wasprobably always two fused trees. Durn if we care. After B gets into the car, my exhausted husband tells me a dirty joke about why angels ended up as tree toppers--it's a joke about a very rotten Christmas with a bad-tempered Santa and a grumpy Mrs.Claus and recalcitrant reindeer and the last straw of a tiny angel arriving with the tree and inquiring,"Where do you want me to stick this?" I laugh. Nobodyhas gotten mad during this whole escapade! That's pretty marvelous. Off I tootle.

Mike says that he will bake pies for Mr. Tilley and Paul, the tree farm owner with the red tractor. They aren't to be bought for money, but they will probably like being thanked with my husband's very delicious pies. If we can ever find this place again...

To be concluded; or, more adventures with a bucksaw

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The year of the blue tree, part 3

A continuing soap opera of Christmas hubris...

I hike back and report the unfortunate news. No problem! We can make it, Mike decides. He has not seen the road, but he is a man, and he knows these things, and so I nod, throwing out small female warnings about the small lake in the road and the deep ruts with the ice and pools and muck and so forth. The tree is halfway sawn. As it's getting gloomy, we hike over hill, dale, stream-with-hummocks. Etc. We drive the van down the muddy road, and we get stuck. Most stuck; also, completely stuck. Thinking of my three children in the dark, I start to implore the Ruler of the Universe and his angels, then decide it is silly to bother Him with the likes of a mudhole inthe backwater of Otsego county. There are women with three children in far worse fixes than mine who need some attention. Despite my having lodged only about a quarter-prayer, rescue arrives fairly promptly, a lot quicker than AAA would have. Mike hikes over to the charming nineteenth-century cottage, which is dark,and on to the century-later replacement, which is not. The angelic Mr. Tilley arrives on his rather small tractor. We slide backward and forward for a time.The owner of the tree farm happens by, and goes to fetch his very large (and powerfully red and Blakean) tractor. A family of four stops by, just for the interest of the thing: a rural frolic. We are now a party of ten, minus Mike, who has gone off in the pitchy dark to finish sawing down the blue spruce with his lovely antique bucksaw. There is no moonlight and no starlight because the sky is socked in with shoals of tightly packed cloud.

To be continued...

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The year of the blue tree, part 2

A continuing saga of havoc, over-reaching, and Christmas Slightly Past...

We come to a wilderness of hummocks--mysterious long-haired tuffets. Beyond are willow shoots and a stream. I have a sudden memory of crossing a glacial morraine in western Canada, toiling over endless stones until I reached the green mouth of an ice cave, pale green and scary. Some memories one really should pay attention to.... I forget about the Canadian warning. Canadians are sedate and conventional, right? That's what they're always telling us. So maybe we don't want to take any Canadian advice. We toil on. The first blue spruce we find is satisfyingly blue and big, and Mike desires it--either that, or the equally large fir just behind it. By this time, the van is a mere lozenge in the distance. Before any decision is made, we must scrutinize every other tree in the meadow. We don't mind this. We find lots of holes where trees have been dug, all laced up with bands of fairy ice, some of it with milky swirls, ribbons, and ice leaves. N stomps in a big one. We go back to the first blue spruce. It is very big, bigger than I had thought. Mike flourishes his bucksaw, the very old kind that decorates country restaurants and is never used, and he starts to saw. N sits down with his legs aspraddle, and B makes helpful noises. I offer to go down the grassy rut and see if there is a passable connecting road, so that we don't have to drag a giant blue tree over hill, dale, hummocks, stream, etc. (Babe the Blue Ox, where are ye?) There is a road, but it is a dirt road with muddy ruts, and the stream loves it and laves it with enthusiasm--there is a pool about 12 feet long and 4-5 inches deep, measured on my boots--B's outgrown red rubber boots.

Monday, December 12, 2005

The year of the blue tree, part 1

A saga of astonishing foolhardiness, to be continued tomorrow...

Mid-afternoon: we decide that we must get a tree because on our only other possible free day, we have a morning baptism five hours away in Malone (nephew Cambrie, heir to the local French Canadian cheese houses of Camembert and Brie) and an evening pageant in Templeton. So we head off to a tree farm owned by a nurse at Bassett, a pleasantly haphazard place where we found a perfect nine-foot tree for a mere ten dollars last year. R complains that it is not as much fun when there is no snow and no dog to romp in it, and why can't we take the dog and the (alas, say I) visiting puppy? We get lost. We ask for directions. We find another tree farm on a dirt road, where the trees are twice as much. That's still a bargain. First, we tromp up a mountainside where the trees are comically shaped, like mountain cows with their legs shorter on one side than the other. We decide to hike along the valley, where the Douglas firs appear to be pleasantly punctuated with blue spruce. It would be fun to have one of those for a change, some sadly mistaken person decides. It might even have been me. We walk, even N, who is already tired but toddles along in his red boots and his foot-tall blue hat. R does not walk because she seems 15 and hormonal today, even though she is only 10. She stays in the car with the doors locked against passing bad guys. Nobody at all passes. It is a little dirt road.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Snow Day in the Writing Room

From the window of my writing room, I can see Otsego Lake, with Kingfisher Tower floating on its surface. Summer, I barely glimpse them through a gap between the trees of the yard behind us--the rail magnate's mansion eats up half the block with house and trees. The trees are mature, all planted by somebody in the nineteenth-century who "collected" them as rarities. Last year a Kentucky coffee tree from the neighbor's yard fell on our garage, and the canopy filled up the alley with magical jungle.

In the winter I see more of the lake and the hills around Kingfisher from my writing room. Today I see slate-blue water, ice, snow, and a tiny blue Kingfisher Tower pointing toward heavy clouds. It has snowed and snowed, and there is no school. No school spelling bee, no dentist, no karate. Just three children who want to read and frolic. Outside, the wind rocks the evergreens and spills snow, and Main Street is all garlands and Christmas, with good Saint Nicholas nestled inside a tiny Gothic Cottage next to the Tunnicliff Inn, ready to hear children's wishes and to tell a story; inside, all is cosy and bright, with books and games scattered on the floor.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

The Firebird Raven

Here is the final cover for the upcoming paperback edition of the Raven: the final piece as conceived by Renato Alarcao.

You can check back through the proposals on earlier posts and see if you think it was the best choice. If not, which is your favorite?

Like most of the sketches, it's romantic and active. The gyre of the bird rising up from the lake sets the air and light into whirling motion, and it catches up Adanta's hair, shawl, and skirts.

The rich color and mysterious handling of light makes it a good pairing with Renato's image for the FSG jacket of Ingledove. This one has the drama of brightness tossing the dark into the air, but the malachite of this water will go well with the cobalt lake that Ingledove and Lang are crossing on the other jacket. Somewhere, up on a 17th floor in Rio, Renato is dreaming up his pictures right now--or maybe tossing his baby. His next U. S. project is a book for Candlewick, and I'm looking forward to that one.

And now my youngest is telling me that I need to write a book "for him." Maybe I'll make a deal; if he won't bring home any more pernicious winter bugs from his little Yankee elementary school, I just might do it.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

from the Pest House: reading Epstein

One of the few pleasures of having my third miserable Yankee bug of the fall is ignoring some of the work that needs to be done for a family of five and doing a little extra reading. Yesterday I reread some Singer stories ("Gimpel the Fool," "The Mirror," "The Wedding," and more) and a story from Isak Dinesen's Seven Gothic Tales. Rereading is delicious...

One of my very favorite essays is Joseph Epstein's "What Yiddish Says: The God-haunted fiction of Isaac Bashevis Singer." Epstein is unfailingly amusing and interesting, with breadth and depth and thoughtfulness and even a certain desirable humility when he confronts the mysteries of life. All this I admire. So one of the things I have read with pleasure during the current plague is his essay about Edmund Wilson in Commentary.

Epstein finds Wilson falling short in grasping "the mysteries," and says that such lapses lead to shortsightedness: "I suspect his difficulty with Joseph Conrad and Franz Kafka, two major writers whose power he could never quite comprehend, stemmed from the fact that each took as his subject, precisely, the complex mystery of life: Conrad on the cosmic level, asking why we are put on earth; Kafka on the level of human nature, asking why we are as sadly and comically limited as we are." I especially like the preface to his glancing-but-damning blow, saying that Wilson "traveled light": "One of the advantages artists have over critics is that they can be nearly complete damn fools and still produce interesting and important, even lasting, art. Critics are not permitted such large margins of stupidity. It matters that they get things right; their opinions, which is all they chiefly have, are crucial. Wisdom, in a critic, is never excess baggage."

Today's picture is another Renato Alarcao sketch, one of the proposals for the new cover of The Curse of the Raven Mocker. I'll put the choice for cover up next.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Curiouser & curiouser

To the right: another sketch by Renato Alarcao for The Curse of the Raven Mocker. This one shows Adanta with a wren, her grandmother's house in the background.

And here's an interesting "picture": I skipped over to Arts Journal and note the contrast of the two "publishing" stories currently posted. One is a story about National Novel-Writing Month, reporting that 10,000 of the 60,000 people enrolled in NaNoWriMo managed to finish a manuscript of 50,000 words. The other article is about sales of English-language literary fiction, and it's called "The great fiction crash of 2005."

Now isn't that a curious pair?

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Illustration techniques of Renato Alarcao

Wonder has no opposite; it springs up already doubled in itself, compounded of dread and desire at once, attraction and recoil, producing a thrill, the shudder of pleasure and of fear.
--from Marina Warner, Wonder Tales

Here's another Renato Alarcao sketch for The Curse of the Raven Mocker: the raven; the grandmother's mountain-top house above the twisting paths; Adanta behind Tass on his pony, Polk.

Here's something Renato wrote me about how he works: ". . . it is usually a blend of traditional and digital. Well, I have many different styles and use a myriad of techniques, depending on what the manuscript suggests (or what the editor wants). The pieces with textured surfaces and scratchy lines ("Ingledove", "The Curse of the Ravenmocker" and "Red Ridin' in the Hood") were done with black etching paint over transparent acetate. Then I scan it into the computer and apply the colors. The final touch is the pencil outline which is applied digitally as well. It takes forever to finish one single piece!!"