“Let me tell you about winds,” Almasy says to Katherine Clifton as they shelter in a car from an Saharan sandstorm in The English Patient. “There is a, a whirlwind from southern Morocco, the aajej, against which the fellahin defend themselves with knives.”
I’ve been thinking about The English Patient because it’s one of my movie obsessions but also because I am in the room above the kitchen in the old house here, part of the original structure, a sheep shed, that was all that was here when the owner, Georgina Howard, bought the property. This house reminds me of the villa where Nurse Hana shelters with Almasy, now the English Patient, to allow him to die in relative peace. As the medical convoy moves on, Hana watches from a high window in the villa, chopping off her long hair into a chic bob the way women do in the movies. Disparate characters come and go, a thief called Caravaggio, a Sikh bomb defuser and his sidekick Kevin Whately (that is the actor’s name, I only ever think of him as Kevin Whately) all with their different knowledge, expertise, striving and grief. They come together for a time, and then they part ways.
Let me tell you about winds.
In my room with its view of the roof over the dining room, and then of the valley beyond, I heard the winds around dawn. The nearby wind sounded like the whoosh of the ocean. The approaching wind sounded like a rapidly-arriving locomotive. Not a whirlwind from southern Morocco – Morocco, like all the rest of the world, is far, far away – but a fierce eddy from somewhere that, when it arrived, bent the trees long ago matured into strange undulations like modern dancers.
And then it raised itself up and away.
A few days ago we had a straight, hard rain, after a thrilling prelude of thunder that purred and echoed across the valley. I grated cheese in the kitchen with a keen eye on Chef Carol, who disguises her expertise beneath a mask of amiable vagueness. What’s in the risotto? “Oh, it’s got some shallots and some . . . I chopped . . . did we say 7:15? With risotto, you have to be very precise.”
Outside, the rain stopped. Georgina thundered down the stairs and swept into the kitchen. She is not one to enter a room with hesitation but strides into the action mid-gesture with an urgency to impart, like a herald in a play. But you would not expect a docile demeanor from someone who twenty-odd years ago saw a Basque shepherd’s hut and willed into being a creative manse (or, in Basque, etxe). The central courtyard between the houses is a kind of stage, one where I would happily set a play, a romantic farce, if I wrote plays happily, which I do not.
Georgina cried, “Elizabeth! There is a word for the smell of the earth after the rain! Petrichor!” She rolled the R, so I thought the word must be Spanish or Basque. “Petrichor! From ‘petra,’ meaning earth and ‘cor,’ meaning . . . oh . . .”
From ichor, the term used to describe “the fluid that flows like blood in the veins of the gods” in Greek mythology. According to the Oxford dictionary, the word was first used in a 1964 article written by a group of scientists, which is why we have never heard of it.
“How would you use it in a sentence?” asked one of the writers when we brought petrichor along with the risotto to the dinner table.
I couldn’t think of how to use “petrichor” in a sentence that would not also include the words “smell” or “rain,” which tells me this was not a word clamoring to be coined. I also wonder how these scientists, finding the phrase “the smell of the earth after it rains,” insufficiently pithy to their needs, fell so easily onto “ichor.” Now there’s a word I’d like to use in a sentence. “How do I get this ichor stain out of my dress?”
There is a laurel tree embedded in the patio courtyard. Georgina constructed the patio around it, decided that the tree would be part of the family. In Greek mythology, Daphne, pursued by Zeus, transforms herself into a laurel tree to preserve herself from his lust and other ickiness.
The poem The Laurel Tree by Louis Simpson contains these lines:
“Is there a tree without opinions?/Come, let me clasp you!/Let me feel the idea breathing.”
And ends with these:
“The dish glowed when the angel held it./It is so that spiritual messengers/deliver their meaning.”
Today across the valley I heard the distant drone of a chain saw. Aside from car wheels on a gravel road, as the song would have it, this is the first mechanized sound I have heard since arriving, and it was far-off and faint, could easily have been the buzz of a bee around my head. It is so quiet that the buzzing of bees is a prominent sound, along with the bells and the baaing and the birdsong. The bells of the sheep clang when they move but yesterday, I didn’t see them move. I looked up from my laptop or my notebook — I was writing on both — and there were sheep in the meadow. The next time I looked up, the sheep were gone.
I mentioned this at last night’s delicious dinner of chicken over couscous. I hear the bells, I see the sheep, I see the sheepless meadow. Someone suggested a sheep TARDIS. I suggested that this place is magical, which it surely is.
We also discussed our next Spanish destinations. I offered up Pamplona, which our hostess Georgina described as a place where she gets her licenses renewed, adding, “Pamplona is Spanish. San Sebastian is Basque.” A return to San Sebastian had been next on my agenda, so I simply canceled Pamplona, which I may do on a day trip, and added a day in San Sebastian, to make it a three-day home base. After that, Bilbao. But it is hard to think of an “after that” when now is so exquisite.
This morning’s lesson was on “character.” In our morning writing session, I filled out a character I had briefly sketched in yesterday’s assignment, “setting,” and added her to the scene. This alarmed my fellow writers when I shared — how had I written so much in twenty minutes? — so I will stick strictly to the assignment tomorrow. But in the meantime, I have perhaps the opening of a short story, if I wrote short stories. I’ve written less than a handful, and only one is published, but this place is magical, so anything could happen.
“Don’t you love her accent?” said the Irishwoman to the Brit.
She could only have been talking about me, since I was the one talking. I had been the one talking, truth be told, for quite some time, a jet-lagged dialogue fountain since the five of us had arrived at the Pyrenean Writing Retreat and been revived with a glass of wine (or several). I’d arrived in San Sebastian on Sunday, after quite a long journey that began in Astoria when I dragged my suitcase to the Q102 bus stop, took the bus to the E train, the E to the Airtrain, the Airtrain to the airport, JFK to Madrid, Madrid to Bilboa, then a bus from the Bilboa Airport to San Sebastian, where I was once again dragging my suitcase through a charming, unfamiliar town, where I was thoroughly lost.
“Is easy!” the text from the hotel read. “Cross the river to the Cathedral Buen Pastor, go straight to basilica Santa Maria and go up stairs we are in calle mari 21 very easy.”
It wasn’t easy. My phone was dying because I hadn’t had time to recharge it at the Madrid airport since I spent 90 minutes in line to get into Spain. I didn’t see any stairs and I mistook one basilica for another. Furthermore, despite several weeks of diligent study on Duolingo, my Spanish was crap. I could talk about universities and professors, drinking coffee and having a tall daughter, but I couldn’t ask for directions.
The wide avenues and plazas were full of families out to tire the kids on a Sunday afternoons and pleasantly tired, painted marathon runners. Cafes bustled.
“Perdon, hablo ingles?” I asked a passing family.
They didn’t really, but they helpfully called the hotel, and then haltingly told me that it was a 20 minute walk, which I refused to believe. (It was.) I was handed off to a man with a bicycle, and then I handed myself off to a man I stopped (“Perdon, hablo ingles?” “Yes, of course.”) who happened to be an English teacher. He delivered me to the door of the hotel, which was by then worriedly awaiting my arrival, since the call from the family. They had called me to check on my progress but of course, my phone was dead.
I was so grateful to the English teacher – Xavier, my savior – that I gave him the copy of CENSORETTES I had brought along on the trip in case any of my fellow students at the retreat wanted one. This left me with two books, THE GREAT GOOD PLACE by Ray Oldenburg, which is research for the dog café project, and THE ART OF SYNTAX, part of Greywolf Press’s THE ART OF series. And, of course, THE POWER BROKER by Robert Caro because you can’t write a history of New York City, even a tiny fragment of it, without referencing Robert Moses. One of his great works, after all, is the Triborough Bridge, which ends in Astoria. I downloaded it as an Audible book, my second-ever audiobook. It is 66 hours long and of course, it is eating up massive amounts of space on my phone. Hence, it keeps dying.
The next day, another bus brought us deeper into the heart of Basque country, and then we were collected by van and brought to the retreat, which is unspeakably lovely.
After a night of chatting, I fell into the bed of my room above the kitchen, a charming room that made me feel like some intrepid mid-century traveler, a female Patrick Leigh Fermor.
This morning we had our first workshop, with the savvy and kindly Diana Friedman. The topic was SETTING. She generously used the opening of CENSORETTES as an example of an effective setting. My fellow retreaters were very kind, but I had no copy to give them, thanks to Xavier.
But at least now I can say I have international distribution.
I’m not a full-fledged book critic, but I did review two books this year and provided a blurb for another. They are therefore disqualified (and indicated in italics) from my top ten. So, with the downtime I had at my disposal, and reading in periodicals, and listening to podcasts excluded, here are the books:
When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanith (N)
Breath – James Nestor (N)
300 Years of Long Island City History – Vincent F. Seyfried (N)
The Winthrop Woman – Anya Seton (F)
Insubordinate Spirit – Missy Wolfe (N)
The Wordy Shipmates – Sarah Vowell (N)
Asthma: A Biography – Mark Jackson (N)
Damnation Island – by Stacy Horn (N)
The Other Islands of New York City – Sharon Seitz and Stuart Miller (N)
Fever – Mary Beth Keane (F)
Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public’s Health – Judith Walzer Leavitt (N)
The two ongoing projects here are an essay on breathing and other people’s attitudes towards a person unable to breathe, and a memoir/local history/I don’t know about the little area in Astoria where I live, the dog cafe which I began to frequent as soon as I felt it was safe to mingle again, and the history of the islands around Hallett’s Cove. The Winthrop Woman is a fictional account of Elizabeth Fones Winthrop Feake Hallett, a well-connected Puritan woman whose marriage to William Hallett, scandalous in its day (1650 ish), necessitated the “founding” of Astoria, which meant that a Dutch governor gave an English newcomer Lenape land to farm. Insubordinate Spirit is historian Missy Wolfe’s excellent nonfiction account of the same events, with a larger cast of characters and less romance. Similarly, Fever and Typhoid Mary are fictional and factual accounts of the life of Mary Mallon.
Wish me luck as we wave 2021 goodbye on making meaningful progress on these projects.
Actress – Anne Enright
Euphoria – Lily King
The Heavens – Sandra Newman
Convenience Store Woman – Sayaka Murata
The Cold Millions – Jess Walter
Better Luck Next Time – Julia Claiborne Johnson
Meet Me in Another Life – Catriona Silvey
Humane – Anna Marie Sewell
V is for Victory – Lissa Evans
We Run the Tides – Vendela Vida
Light Perpetual – Francis Spufford
Interesting Women – Andrea Lee
Hamnet – Maggie O’Farrell
A Thousand Ships – Natalie Haynes
A Snake in the Raspberry Patch – Joanne Jackson
This Must Be the Place – Maggie O’Farrell
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox – Maggie O’Farrell
Instructions for a Heatwave – Maggie O’Farrell
We Want What We Want – Alix Olin
Matrix – Lauren Groff
All’s Well – Mona Awad
Cloud Cuckoo Land – Anthony Doerr
The Book of Form and Emptiness – Ruth Ozeki
Harlem Shuffle – Colson Whitehead
The Hand that First Held Mine – Maggie O’Farrell
The Great Circle – Maggie Shipstead
Self-Care – Leigh Stein
The Plot – Jean Hanff Korelitz
I read Hamnet in the food court at LaGuardia Airport, where I arrived at 6 a.m. to learn that my flight on the Fourth of July weekend had been delayed twelve hours. Even the association of reading that book with the every-fifteen-minutes rendition of “New York, New York” played to the performing water fountain, and the tears I shed over Hamnet while wearing a mask could not diminish the experience. I made it a mission to read everything else Maggie O’Farrell has written. The only reason her other novels are not bold-faced is that they sort of cancel each other out, like Academy Award nominees for Best Supporting Actor, and besides, her memoir is bolded as well (see below).
The other bold-facers are the familiar names of the year, with the exception perhaps of my Stonehouse sister-novelist Anna Marie Sewell, who somehow blends a tale of a First Nations detective hunting down missing women with a lycanthropic romance, and Lissa Evans’s V is for Victory because it is the third in a charming trilogy of an unlikely found family during WWII.
Ghostbread – Sonja Livingston
Ladies Night at the Dreamland – Sonja Livingston
Recollections of My Nonexistence – Rebecca Solnit
I Am I Am I Am – Maggie O’Farrell
The Good Poetric Mother – Irene Hoge Smith
I had hoped to do a workshop with Sonja Livingston at VCFA, but when the confeence went virtual, I folded like bad origami at the thought of doing another Zoom workshop. I had already done a novel workshop, and am part of a program called New Directions which blends psychoanalysis and writing, introduced to me by Irene Hoge Smith, the daughter and author of The Good Poetic Mother. New Directions streams for three intensive long weekends three times a year.
I loved I loved I loved I Am I Am I Am, a unique and compelling structure for a memoir.
The Celeste Holm Syndrome – David Lazar
The Unreality of Memory – Elissa Gabbert
Pain Studies – Lisa Olstein
Letters on Cezanne – Rainer Maria Rilke
A Poetry Handbook – Mary Oliver
I decided to re-read Rilke’s thoughts on Cezanne ahead of the exhibit on Cezanne at MOMA.
Cozy old things and mysteries
The Enchanted April – Elisabeth von Arnheim
Pretty as a Picture – Elizabeth Little
The House on Vesper Sands – Paraic O’Donnell
Dear Daughter – Elizabeth Little
High Rising – Angela Thirkell
Before Lunch – Angela Thirkell
The Women in Black – Madeline St. John
In the Bleak Midwinter – Julia Spencer Fleming
All the Devils Are Here – Louise Penny
Death at Greenway – Lori Radnor-Day
Castle Bran – Laurie R. King
Clark and Division – Naomi Hirahara
And there you have it. I will close out the year with Rebecca Solnit’s Orwell’s Roses, which I find slow-going because I often have to close the book in envy and contemplation and reconsider my life choices.
I have a smallish stack of friends’ books I have not yet been able to read, and they are moving from the pile to the list in the coming year. I recognize the utter lack of poetry books, except for the one craft book, on my list, because I tend to read poems as individuals and not as part of a collection, but I am happy to take recommendations.
I am also still looking for literature which takes place in or contains scenes which occur in Queens, so if you have any thoughts on those, send them my way.
Hello all, it is time for the promotion portion of this novel process. Please be in touch if you have a local indie (still looking for one!) where I can do a reading. If you would like me to chat with your book club, or if you would like to review the book, please let me know. In the meantime, here are some dates in place.
On November 7, I will be among the authors at my publishers’ Virtual Launch Party. Stonehouse Publishing is the press, and my fellow authors are Anna Marie Sewell, Robin Van Eyck, D.K. Stone and Sabrina Uswak. There will be readings, book trailers, and food and drink (although yes, it is virtual). The fun begins at 7:30 Eastern time. You can reserve tickets, which are free, here.
Note to U.S. friends, the 5 books for one shipping price will not apply to you. That is for Canadians. You can order the books directly from Stonehouse Publishing. You can also order my book here or here or here.
On November 20, I will be among four writer-readers participating in The Great Indoor Reading Series. I will read for ten minutes, followed by a chat. “Doors” open at 7:30, reading begins at 8:00. Zoom code is 728 9321 2031.
On October 28, I will be appearing on The Blue and Yellow Kitchen at 3:00 Eastern time. The Blue and Yellow Kitchen is a show produced by Stephanie Weaver in which she cooks a dish inspired by a new book, while chatting with the author (via Zoom, of course! Zoom is the whole world now!) about the book. For Censorettes, which takes place primarily in Bermuda, she will be making this recipe for Bermudian Fish Chowder. You can watch it on her Facebook page, IGTV, or via YouTube.
How’s your world, everyone?
Here is a photo of mine, when I look out on it.
I am two blocks from a branch of Mount Sinai Hospital, as my friends and social media friends know. A branch where they have erected emergency COVID testing tents. In three minutes from the time I am writing the words “in three minutes,” the applause will start, the applause for the health care workers at the shift change. It seems to grow in duration and in volume every day.
I begin each day by opening the window and turning on the classical music station. I was fortunate in that my remote control broke one week into this isolation, so I no longer have the option to channel surf or listen to live press conferences.
There it is, the applause. Banging of pots and pans, honking of horns.
It should lift up my spirits, but instead it burrows deep into my sinews, like a fishhook, not a knife. This is a trauma not easily extracted. This is an anger not easily assuaged.
When I was on an “Unworkshop” retreat at the Highlights Foundation last fall, I met a woman named Heather Dean Brewer. The Highlights Foundation retreats take place in Pennsylvania on a rural property outside Honesdale, Pennsylvania. Because I admittedly live in an NYC bubble, Honesdale was the first town where I saw an un-ironic “Make America Great Again” sign posted in the window of a small-town business.
Heather was at Highlights for a workshop.(By way of explanation, Highlights offers a vigorous catalogue of workshops for children and young adult authors and illustrators, but also offers space and meals for any writer who might need time and space.) I was there for time and space. Heather was there for a workshop. She is the author of this happy little book which I bought for my sister’s birthday. (Spoiler!)
Heather was sweet enough to send me a bottle of wine from distant Michigan.
My cultural references these days are Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, staring out the window and speculating on the neighbors. And Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider, a short novel about the 1918 pandemic which has been written about by wiser heads than mine, for example, here. I cannot look at it now, not with the sirens screaming in the background, but nor can I forget the story’s final line: “Now there would be time for everything.”
A month ago, my biggest concern was that the 92nd St. Y would cancel the appearance of Dame Hilary Mantel, who was to discuss the third book in her Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror and the Light. I had been looking forward to her talk for months; bonus points for it occurring on my birthday. But of course, it was cancelled. Instead, I ordered the book from The Astoria Bookshop, my local indie, on the last day it was operating live. It is still operating virtually, if you would like to support it.
I am having a hard time concentrating on The Mirror and the Light. I loved the first two volumes. I am pretty well versed in the Tudors. But despite the fact that the circumstances are dire, and that we know how this will end (it’s the world of Henry VIII, after all), I have trouble following along and perhaps need a lighter book.
But one line did resonate. Among so much speculation about succession to the throne, one character observes that it is treasonous even to wonder about the future. “We are trapped,” she sighs, “in the hours we occupy.”
My review of Joan Frank’s wonderful essay collection Try to Get Lost is up at the Brevity website. You can find it here.
Joan Frank was the first Frank to accept a friend request from me on Facebook and among the Franks I have friended in that strangely intimate and arm’s length space, ours is the strongest connection. I buy all of her books. We cheer each other on. I have plans to meet her for a second time (after that bean soup in Florence) when she visits Fort Greene next month to promote her two books. (She might provide snacks.)
Through her I “met” Thaisa Frank , a writer with whom I have never exchanged words, except to praise her lush-coated tortoiseshell cats (such cats must always be praised). I also friended and exchanged warm words with Gabriela Denise Frank after I read her piece “Muzzled” in True Story.
In real life, I have only a sister with the surname Frank. Her children have their father’s name. My brother ceased communication with both of us years ago. His sons have grown up without their Frank aunts. So I collect virtual Franks — send them a friend request when they cross my feed, cheer quietly when they publish (I only reach out to writers) and otherwise wish them well from afar.
In this way, I have created my own little France, a country which, after all, was settled by a tribe of Franks a millenia or two ago. Speaking (again) of France, I do recommend my cousin (but not my cousin) Joan’s collection, if only (but not only) for the piece “The Cake Frosting Country,” which I cannot link to here, although I can link to a coda published by The Antioch Review.
In these days when we are discouraged (if not forbidden) from travel, these pieces will transport you, without the lines or the luggage.