Literary New England
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.
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.
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.
Some 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.
Quote Posted on Updated on
Last night I dreamed of Nauquasset again.
This is the first line of Rachel Pastan’s Alena, which as anyone familiar with the 1938 novel Rebecca knows was inspired by Daphne du Maurier’s timeless and classic gothic story of Mrs. Danvers and the two Mrs. de Winters. The first line of Rebecca: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”
Like the heroine of Rebecca, the heroine of Alena remains nameless throughout this provocative and spellbinding tale. But rather than take readers to an isolated gray stone mansion on coast of England, Alena takes readers to a progressive art museum on the coast of Massachusetts–where, like the second Mrs. de Winter, the new, young curator finds herself haunted by the legacy of her predecessor.
Alena was released in paperback earlier this month and is an ideal book to enjoy outside on a park bench, at the beach or under the hugging branches of an oak or willow tree. It’s so wonderful spring has finally arrived! We had the pleasure of interviewing Rachel for the Literary New England Radio Show when Alena was first published in hardcover in winter 2014.
Here is a mini Q&A with Rachel, though you can listen to our entire interview with her by clicking here.
When you got the phone call announcing you had sold a novel, how did you react?
I was at work, at my day job at the art museum—my novel takes place in an art museum—and I didn’t feel I could tell anybody. I just walked around in a daze for a while and then called my husband and my mother. That made it finally feel real.
Where did you get the idea for the novel?
I had gotten a full-time office cubicle job in my mid-forties, and there were lots of things I didn’t know how to do: use the complicated copy machine, format letters in Microsoft Word. People kept talking to me about the person who’d had the job before me, whose name was Elysa. They would say, “Elysa used to do it this way.” It made me crazy. Then one day I thought, It’s just like the novel Rebecca (in which a new wife is tormented by comparisons to the dead wife), only in the workplace. And then I thought, “That’s a good idea for a novel!”
What scene or bit of dialogue in the book are you most proud of, and why?
I’m very proud of the end of the book. My novel is a version of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, which lots of people have read and loved. So I had to think of something for my ending that honored Rebecca’s ending, but that was also different and surprising. I always wish I could read the ending when I give presentations at bookstores, but of course you can’t do that.
Who’s your favorite character in the book, and why? Who was the most fun to write?
I love my main character (who doesn’t have a name; actually she does have one, but I’m the only person who knows it), because she keeps her sanity and finds peace, despite everything. I loved writing Agnes, the business manager at the museum, a spooky, large, middle-aged woman—often compared to a crow or some other big bird—who wears black dresses and dyes her hair pink and does her best to make the narrator miserable.
If there was one thing in the main character’s life that you’d like to have in your own life, what would it be? What one thing in the character’s life would you never want?
I’d like to have an apartment in San Francisco with a balcony. I’d never want to have to work for a selfish, shallow, petty boss like Louise!
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.
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.
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.
For diehard Twain fans, the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Connecticut, is as much a must-see as the Mississippi itself.