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Author Archives: Our Town Books
Writers in Residence: American Authors at Home.
By Glynne Robinson Betts. Illustrated. 159 pp. Viking Press. Used. From $7.00.
To come upon the fact that Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mark Twain were next-door neighbors in Hartford was only one unexpected pleasure I found in a book filled with them. Used books are often like that, however. You never know what you’ll learn.
Published over 30 years ago, Writers in Residence: American Authors at Home remains entertaining and surprisingly accurate. Paging through it, you can visit authors’ homes from the east coast to the west, while stopping off at some in between– or nearby.
“Petersburg is my heart’s home,” wrote Edgar Lee Masters. His actual home is still at the corner of Eighth and Jackson over in Petersburg. You can visit it there or explore it in the four pages of black-and-white photographs and text devoted to Masters’ childhood home.
In each of the 37 homes in Betts’s collection, the details are what bring the authors to life. Carl Sandburg’s typewriter rests on an unpainted crate; a cigar stub, scattered photos, a pack of Beechnut gum clutter his desk. Marianne Moore, as you might expect, has a baseball autographed by Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle on hers. Louisa May Alcott’s desk is tidy, but the portrait of her hanging in her dining room looks a bit somber. Maybe that’s understandable. She did, after all, have Bronson Alcott as a father–a man who, the text informs us, always carried a small bust of Socrates in his pocket.
Zane Grey? H.L. Mencken? Anais Nin? William Carlos Williams? What an American mix. With graceful text and over 200 pictures at hand, you might easily plot a summer road trip or–even more easily–visit your favorite author from the comfort of your own home. Continue reading
Starting this Saturday, tune in to WLDS/WEAI radio 1180 to hear Growing up with Santa and The Stories of Hugo Kringle, written and performed by Mike Anderson.
By Marisa Silver 322 pp. Blue Rider Press. $26.95.
We have all seen the poignant Dorothea Lange WPA photograph of a depression-era migrant mother and her children–and perhaps even created our own stories about her. The picture, now on the cover of Marisa Silver’s new novel, Mary Coin, is unnerving in its immediacy. The fictionalized version, also unsettling, is nevertheless greatly satisfying.
While facts are the pegs upon which Silver hangs her story, it’s the characters’ feelings and thoughts that draw us in. The lives and reactions of the photographer, her subject, and a present-day history professor form a geometry of intersecting lines with one point in common, the photo: A young woman at the side of a dusty road in California with nothing to feed her seven children but frozen vegetables from the fields and birds the children manage to capture; a former society photographer now working for the Farm Security Administration; and an academic trying, decades later, to trace the truth of the picture.
The woman in the picture was named Florence Thompson, not Mary Coin, but in both real life and the novel, she did not make her name known until the very end of her life. By that time, the picture had become an icon of the Depression, appearing in textbooks, exhibits, and even on a postage stamp. Silver reminds us, however, that “Everyone wants to be known. Perhaps the ones who conceal themselves most of all. The question is: Who is foolhardy enough to go in search of them?”
We can be grateful that not just the WPA photographer but also author Marissa Silver went in search of the woman whose picture so many of us have gazed upon and wondered about. More than a beautifully-written and engrossing story, Mary Coin offers an opportunity to reflect on history—how it’s construed and maintained as well as what it conceals and reveals about individuals.
Do you have a good story about playing in the Town Brook? Did you grow up near by or have family who lived along the banks? Jacksonville Town Brook is looking for stories and reminiscences of the Town Brook and … Continue reading
War and Peace
by Leo Tolstoy 1,296 pages. Vintage Books. $20.
It’s only July so it’s not too late. This could be the summer that you actually do read Tolstoy’s War and Peace. No, don’t turn away. War and Peace is quite a story. It has romance, battle scenes, triumph, heartbreak—oh, and the meaning of life. You don’t want to miss that.
I first read War and Peace the summer I was 15, probably alongside a Nancy Drew mystery. This was before I knew enough to be daunted by the prospect of reading Tolstoy so I just enjoyed it for what it seemed to be: a good book. I’ve reread it at various points in my life and although my understanding of it changes, the story remains as good as ever.
Here’s a 12-word version of War and Peace: Five families live out their lives during the Napoleonic Wars in Russia.
It’s true that a saga about just one family generally contains enough excitement and psychological intrigue for a single novel, but five families in one book? Imagine. And they’re all intertwined: People fall in and out of love. They head off to war. They struggle financially. They raise their kids. Some party. Others scheme. And one, at least, tries to figure out what it all means.
It could be us, right? Perhaps that’s why War and Peace is so often referred to as the greatest novel ever written. Even though it takes place from 1805 to 1812 on the other side of the world, it could be about life in central Illinois right now–well, maybe except for that part where 600,000 Frenchmen invade.
What a book. If not this summer, when?