“Writing Herself Into the Narrative” – A review of ‘Eliza Hamilton’ by Tilar J. Mazzeo

elizaSo, yes, it’s no secret, I’ve been on a Hamilton kick lately. And when I saw Tilar J. Mazzeo’s Eliza Hamilton at the local bookstore, I thought it might be the perfect companion to what I already knew.

I’ve rarely been more wrong.

Tilar J. Mazzeo is not a historian, and this is clear on every single page. I  had misgivings about the book from the start, when I studied the extended family tree at the front of the book and noticed that she had Philip Hamilton (the eldest), dying in 1808 – which would mean that Alexander Hamilton had to return from the dead to give him all that bad dueling advice, given that Hamilton died in 1804, and Philip died in 1801. A typo? Perhaps. But that’s not the only issue with the family tree (which doesn’t lend credence to one of Mazzeo’s later claims), and it didn’t get better from there.

As Mazzeo points out, this is the first full-length biography of Eliza Hamilton – wife of Alexander Hamilton – ever published. As a historian and writer and woman, I think it’s fantastic that we are finally beginning to recognize the women that have been referred to as the ‘Founding Mothers.’ Far from being meek, illiterate, obedient wives, these women were strong, courageous, intelligent, and sometimes at odds with their powerful husbands. But this isn’t new territory – others, including Mary Beth Norton, Kathleen M. Brown, and yes, Cokie Roberts, have all walked this ground before. Today, we don’t often recognize the power these women wielded, or how much influence these women had, so this scholarship is both interesting and necessary.

But I would like to emphasize that key word:  scholarship. That is where Mazzeo, who is not a historian, is lacking in this book.  I’d also like to emphasize the word biography – because in the end, that’s not what this book is.

To be fair, I did like the first chapters, and the last chapters. Mazzeo clearly feels sympathy with Eliza Hamilton, and brings her and her family to life in the opening chapters. I enjoyed reading about the exploits of Angelica and Peggy, and later, the youngest sister Cornelia (all of whom eloped against their parents’ wishes!). The entire Schuyler family comes to life in those early chapters, especially Eliza’s mother Kitty.

But when you write history, you have an obligation to your subject and to your readers to remain objective, fair, and most of all honest. Mazzeo fails at all three. It’s not just the fact that she liberally peppers the book with her own views as if they were fact (telling us how Eliza felt or acted, when in fact we have no idea if she did or not, and this begins with the very first sentence). For instance, on page 151, she says “Eliza was frantic and had a terrible sense of foreboding. She wanted to come home.” But nowhere does Mazzeo cite her sources for this. If Eliza wrote letters to this effect, Mazzeo has an obligation to cite them, to tell us in the endnotes (which are both inadequate and incorrect, by the way) why this was included. However, because these are not supported with evidence and citations, we are left to assume that all of this is down to Mazzeo’s imagination. In a work of nonfiction, this is not acceptable.

(Also, it bothers me that she repeatedly refers to Hamilton as “Alexander” throughout the book. Even Eliza referred to him as “Hamilton,” most often calling him “my dear Hamilton” in her letters. It’s annoying and amateurish.)

soapboxIn fact, Mazzeo hardly cites anything to support her claims, most of which fly in the face of accepted truths about Hamilton. On page 144, for example, she says blithely, “Alexander and Eliza were not an exception. They owned both enslaved people and indentures.” But, no end notes. No citations. Nothing. How can she say this (especially when Chernow goes to great lengths to point out that we don’t have evidence that the Hamiltons owned slaves) as if it’s gospel? She takes pains to point out that both Eliza and Hamilton kept household account books, that the family was always in a bit of a financial straits. Then where is her evidence for them owning slaves? The one receipt she references is not enough, when there is no evidence afterwards that those slaves ever took up residence in the Hamilton household. If the evidence is there, cite it. If it’s not – then it doesn’t belong in the book.

The title of this review is, of course, a reference to the musical Hamilton – and a fitting one, since Mazzeo makes repeated, Easter-egg references to the musical throughout the book. This only adds to the feeling that she wrote it only to ride the coattails of Ron Chernow and Lin-Manuel Miranda. ‘Writing herself into the narrative’ is a reference not to Eliza, though, but to Mazzeo herself. And that brings me to the biggest criticism I have:  her treatment of the Reynolds Affair.

Anyone familiar with Hamilton knows the story of the Reynolds Affair – in the summer of 1791, Hamilton met Maria Reynolds, had a torrid affair, and was subsequently blackmailed by James Reynolds, her husband. He thought it long over, until he was accused of using his position as Secretary of the Treasury to do some insider trading to make his family and friends wealthy. Then, to clear his public reputation, he had to confess to a private affair – which did, yes, ruin his political chances, but which he felt was necessary in order to keep his public, professional honor intact. Mazzeo, however, seems intent on painting Hamilton as nothing more than a despicable scoundrel who fabricated a sexual relationship in order to cover up insider trading.

Which makes absolutely no sense. 

Mazzeo all but manufactures evidence to support her theory. She claims that Hamilton gave money to James Reynolds to invest for him, which was illegal; when those transactions were brought to light, Hamilton fabricated the story about the affair and blackmail to cover his tracks. This is where Mazzeo’s complete lack of historical knowledge and training are most evident. She claims – again, without proof – that the letters sent to him by Maria Reynolds were forged by Hamilton (possibly with the help of Eliza), and that is why Eliza stood by him during that time rather than kicking him to the curb.

First – there is no evidence that Hamilton knew Reynolds before this affair. Above, I referenced issues with the family tree. Mazzeo says that Maria Reynolds was a distant cousin to Eliza, and thus, Hamilton knew Reynolds as a relative. Let’s suppose that the family tree isn’t wrong in this case, and Maria was related to Eliza. Did Hamilton know? And if he did, why would he ask Reynolds to invest money for him? Why not secretly slip his father-in-law a few hundred dollars to invest instead? Or – since he was still Angelica’s husband’s lawyer, and handling his investments, why not slip a few hundred of his own money into John Church’s accounts, then withdraw it just as easily when the money had grown? Hamilton was a financial genius, and Mazzeo forgets this. She studied Eliza – but never Hamilton. Hamilton never really earned enough to support his family. When he died, he was $50,000 in debt. Do we really think a financial genius would have engaged in insider trading and yet not made a penny at it? 

Second – Hamilton would have never done anything to tarnish his reputation, or do anything that might possibly destroy the very things he’d created – the Treasury, and the Bank of the United States. Even a whiff of scandal at that time would have been just cause for his political foes to dismantle both and discredit him. He fought too hard, for too long, to jeopardize them in any way. The Republicans were looking to bring Hamilton down any way that they could. Insider trading – especially entrusted to someone Hamilton didn’t know?! – would have given them the ammunition they needed. There is absolutely no way he’d have risked that. None. Mazzeo needs to read Gordon S. Woods’ “Revolutionary Characters” for a better understanding of how these men viewed their honor. Sacrificing his marriage, admitting in public to a sexual relationship, in order to save his public and political honor – yes, these are precisely the things Hamilton would do. She admits several times that he was a bit of a hound. Yes, he was. And when someone under stress meets someone looking pretty . . .

As to why Eliza never kicked him to the curb – again, to anyone who has studied the eighteenth century, this is no mystery. Divorce was not unheard of, but for a woman, it was difficult to obtain. Where was she going to go? Would she, a devoted mother, risk losing her children? Risk their reputations? She had no choice but to support him. Besides, who’s to say what went on behind closed doors? Who’s to say what was in the letters she burned at the end of her life? Again, this goes back to the idea of public honor, which Mazzeo doesn’t understand. Eliza had a duty as Hamilton’s wife – and a Schuyler – to remain at his side, to not add fuel to the rumors. (It’s not as if it’s the first time a strong, independent woman has done this, after all – Hilary Clinton, anyone?)

There are other small issues of scholarship as well – for instance, she cites a letter from Angelica as proof that Eliza encouraged Hamilton to resign from the Treasury, but she cites the letter as being from 1793 or 94, not 1795 as Chernow does. A small thing, perhaps, but again, something that throws into question her veracity and judgment. In the few images in the book, she cites a portrait of Philip as being of William. Again – when you write history, every detail has to be exact, every idea has to be supported by evidence. If not, it throws into question your entire ability to do the work. And I already had those questions before I started reading.

Mazzeo treats the Reynolds Affair as if it was the midpoint of Eliza’s life – in truth, Hamilton’s murder was the midpoint of her life (she was 48 in 1804), and a scant 53 pages are given to the rest of her life. She lived another half a century, raised the rest of the children on her own, lost her family (including her father and Angelica), created New York’s first orphanage, fought for her husband’s rightful place in history, went west in her 80s, for God’s sake, to see her son William, and . . . all that in 53 pages?!

So no. I wanted to like it. But her treatment of Eliza is too light, too fictional, to be taken seriously, and as I said – in the end, I felt that all Mazzeo wanted to do was write herself into the recent Hamilton narrative by spending way too many chapters on the Reynolds Affair, which she neither understands nor cares to understand.

My hope is that someone else will do Eliza’s story justice.

 

The #ReadICT Challenge – Six Months!

I haven’t posted much lately – I’ve been a little busy doing other things like avoiding my manuscript at all costs. However, one thing I have been able to do is read! As the old saying goes, if you want to be a good writer, there are two things you have to do:  write a lot, and read a lot.

I had actually not read in a long time, not seriously. I’ve downloaded books onto my Nook, and perused Amazon and local bookstores, but always found myself in a quagmire of doubt. Does this premise sound intriguing enough? Is the writing good enough to sustain the book? Is this going to be another book I throw across the room, like that God-awful The Lovely Bones?! 

But, since I decided to do the #ReadICT Challenge this year – 12 books, 12 categories, 12 months – I have to read. My original post:  https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2019/01/01/new-years-resolutions-and-the-2019-ict-reading-challenge/

And I’m happy to say – I’m almost there!!!!!

 

  1. A book with a face on the cover.
  2. A book from a genre you don’t normally read. This turned out to be a book I got last year, To Sing Hallucinated:  First Thoughts on Last Words by Nathan Brown. Brown is a former Poet Laureate of Oklahoma; I picked this up last year and forgot it was in a bag until last month! It’s really quite a good book of poetry about – you guessed it – famous last words.
  3. A book that makes you LOL. I said I’d read the last entry in the Charley Davidson series, and I did. I laughed. I cried. I am anxiously waiting to find out what happens to Osh and Beep in the new series. Come on, Darynda, hurry up !
  4. A book set in the place you were born. Deadly Design, by my good friend Debra Dockter.
  5. A classic, or a retelling of a classic. I read Juliet Immortal by Stacey Jay – it was quite good. I reviewed it last month:  https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2019/03/02/hate-romeo-and-juliet-try-juliet-immortal-instead/
  6. A book you have avoided or didn’t finish. I intended to read a totally different book for this one, but back in March, I went through a time when I couldn’t sleep, and I picked up Island of Lost Maps by Miles Harvey. This book looks at the infamous ‘career’ of Gilbert Bland, who stole dozens, perhaps hundreds, of antique and irreplaceable maps from libraries across North America. I’d put it down last year for some reason, and just never picked it back up.
  7. A translated book. On the recommendation of just about everyone who’s read it, I chose A Man Called Ove by Frederik Backman. Oh my God. I literally bawled and laughed all the way through this book. Mostly bawled. If you are one of the few people who hasn’t yet read this book, GO GET IT NOW. You will not regret it, I promise, though you will want the tissues handy.
  8. An award-winner. 
  9. A book recommended by a child or teenager.chernow
  10. A biography, autobiography, or memoir. FINALLY. I finished it. It feels like climbing Mount Everest. I’m going to write a full review later, but for now, I can honestly say that even though I’ve taken many classes on Early American History, I never knew all the hostility and animosity that existed between the Founding Fathers. The backstabbing, the machinations, the factions, the . . . wow. And even though I’ve always hated Aaron Burr, I’m going to say this:  he was despicable. If his ghost is reading this, he knows what I mean. To him, I say:  sir, bring it. 
  11. A book that features a character different fro you in some way. Done! Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson. What a sweet, surprising read – probably the most surprisingly good book I’ve picked up lately. If you haven’t read it  yet, do so right after you read Ove. Seriously. They pair together quite well. 
  12. A book by an author slated to come to Kansas in 2019. Oh, I did this one, too! Hope Never Dies by Andrew Shaffer. It was a fun – and good – read, actually better than I thought it would be.

So I’m left with three categories! Any suggestions? I’m all ears! 🙂 

And if you’re interested in Nathan Brown’s work, here’s his website:  https://www.brownlines.com/

The #ReadICT Challenge: Four Months In

New Year’s Resolutions. You can’t avoid them, can you?

We all make them. Even if we don’t admit it, even if we don’t write them down, or intend to hold ourselves accountable. We start out with great intentions. This year, I’m going to go to the gym every single day and lose 40 pounds! This year, I’m finally going to write that novel! This year, I’m going to learn French/Italian/Latin/Klingon. Whatever they are, we’re excited to get started. We’re ready!

I didn’t make too many resolutions this year. But one I did make was to complete the #ReadICT Challenge. Twelve books. Twelve categories. Twelve months. Here’s my original post:  https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2019/01/01/new-years-resolutions-and-the-2019-ict-reading-challenge/

I’m making progress! Here’s what I’ve done so far:

  1. A book with a face on the cover.
  2. A book from a genre you don’t normally read. 
  3. A book that makes you LOL. I said I’d read the last entry in the Charley Davidson series, and I did. I laughed. I cried. I am anxiously waiting to find out what happens to Osh and Beep in the new series. Come on, Darynda, hurry up !
  4. A book set in the place you were born. Deadly Design, by my good friend Debra Dockter.
  5. A classic, or a retelling of a classic. I read Juliet Immortal by Stacey Jay – it was quite good. I reviewed it last month:  https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2019/03/02/hate-romeo-and-juliet-try-juliet-immortal-instead/
  6. A book you have avoided or didn’t finish. I intended to read a totally different book for this one, but back in March, I went through a time when I couldn’t sleep, and I picked up Island of Lost Maps by Miles Harvey. This book looks at the infamous ‘career’ of Gilbert Bland, who stole dozens, perhaps hundreds, of antique and irreplaceable maps from libraries across North America. I’d put it down last year for some reason, and just never picked it back up.
  7. 81jKaejWaNLA translated book. On the recommendation of just about everyone who’s read it, I chose A Man Called Ove by Frederik Backman. Oh my God. I literally bawled and laughed all the way through this book. Mostly bawled. If you are one of the few people who hasn’t yet read this book, GO GET IT NOW. You will not regret it, I promise, though you will want the tissues handy.
  8. An award-winner. 
  9. A book recommended by a child or teenager.
  10. A biography, autobiography, or memoir. Does it count if I’m working my way through it? 🙂 I still plan to finish Alexander Hamilton some time this year. It’s hard, though, when it’s so jam-packed with information that I can only read about 3-5 pages at a time before I have to walk away and mull it over. It’s an incredible read, don’t get me wrong, just a very difficult one as well.
  11. A book that features a character different fro you in some way.
  12. A book by an author slated to come to Kansas in 2019. 

I attempted the challenge last year, too, but there were categories that just stumped me. But this year, I feel optimistic that I’ll finish.

If you have any suggestions for any of the categories, feel free to let me know! And, seriously, go get A Man Called Ove. I’m not even remotely joking. Just go get it. Now.

Hate ‘Romeo and Juliet?’ Try ‘Juliet Immortal’ instead . . .

I have a confession to make:

I hate Romeo and Juliet. 

Hate it. Worst play, worst story, ever written.

It was required reading in high school, of course. In class, all the other girls were swooning over Juliet and how much Romeo loved her and just googly-eyed and – blech. Not me. No. I was in the corner rolling my eyes; the teacher caught me and said, “Robyn, what’s your take on it?” And I said, flat-out, “They were stupid. All Juliet had to do was marry Paris. He’s old. He’ll die sooner or later, she’ll inherit his fortune, and then she’s free to marry Romeo and be wealthy. They were stupid. Both of them.”

Long silence, followed by a few whispers. I held my ground. I still do. Romeo and Juliet are the two most stupid characters ever written. Paris would have died ere long. Heck, if they were really intent on being together, they probably could have poisoned him to death. Who’d have known? It’s not like there was CSI:  Verona, after all.

Seriously, Shakespeare. Biggest plot hole in history, there.

51ILTo8CsfL._AC_SY400_So when I was looking for a book for my ReadICT Challenge that was a classic, or the retelling of a classic, I stumbled across Juliet Immortal by Stacey Jay. After reading the basic premise – “Juliet Capulet didn’t take her own life. She was murdered by the person she trusted most, her new husband, Romeo Montague, who made the sacrifice to ensure his own immortality. But Romeo didn’t anticipate that Juliet would be granted eternal life as well, and would become an agent for the Ambassadors of Light. For seven hundred years, Juliet has struggled to preserve romantic love and the lives of the innocent, while Romeo has fought for the dark side, seeking to destroy the human heart. Until now” – I was hooked. See, I knew that Romeo was a no-good rat!

Sometimes, when we read the premise of a book, we have an idea in our heads of how that book should be written. For good or bad, those words take on a life of their own, creating a world in our minds that the author may or may not have meant for us to create. Such was the case with this book. In reading the premise, I had created a world in which those seven hundred years would be showcased – maybe not all seven centuries, but enough to show us the depths of their hatred, the passion for their respective roles, the continuous interactions.

This was not the case. And I’m not saying that what Jay wrote is bad – no, far from it! Just that it didn’t quite meet the expectations I’d created in my mind, which did cloud my reading of it slightly.

Juliet Immortal is set in modern-day California. But in fifteenth-century Verona, Romeo murdered Juliet in order to secure his position in the Mercenaries, really nasty supernatural guys whose job it is to rip love asunder. Juliet, having been stabbed in the heart by her lover, joins the Ambassadors, who are sent to ensure that love conquers all. Throughout the centuries, when true love is at stake, Juliet and Romeo – and, I assume, other Ambassadors and Mercenaries – are sent to ensure that the either get together, or that one kills the other. Literally, there’s no gray area. It’s one or the other. In this ‘shift,’ Juliet is sent to inhabit the body of Ariel, a girl who is quiet and shy, and due to scars and an overbearing mother, stays to herself as much as she possibly can. A girl very unlike the woman Juliet has become, in other words. Romeo, as it turns out, is sent to inhabit the body of the boy who just tried to have sex with Ariel in order to win a bet.

Jay weaves together several subplots quite well – trying to repair Ariel’s relationship with her mother, maintaining her friendship with the rich, spoiled Gemma, trying to keep Romeo away from Gemma while simultaneously trying to figure out who Gemma’s lover is supposed to be – while also focusing on the main question:  why is this shift different than the others? All of the subplots fit each other perfectly and help build on one another, weaving a very tight story. (At least, for most of the book).

There are points at which I think Jay may have fallen victim to the age-old problem authors have:  when world-building, we tend to ‘know what we know,’ and sometimes that means we forget to explain things to our readers. Even when we edit, we may see those glitches and skim over them – “Oh, yeah, I know what that means” – without stopping to think, “Will the reader know what I mean?” The roles of the Ambassadors and the Mercenaries were clear to me, but I wanted more world-building there. For instance, there is a spell that figures prominently in the plot, but Jay never mentions spells earlier in the novel, nor lays the groundwork for how this one might work. Romeo seems to pull it out of thin air. And I think this was the problem I had with the ending as well – I liked everything up to the ending, and I liked the denouement, but the resolution of the conflict itself was too long, too convoluted, and too confusing. (Also, slightly trite.)

My other major issue with the novel was Juliet’s love interest – I despise, absolutely despise novels in which the hero and heroine fall in love at first sight. There is no such thing. And it doesn’t work on any level, for me. There’s no conflict – internal or external – in things like that. There’s no ‘will they or won’t they’ to add spice to the story. Also, let me reiterate, it’s totally ridiculous. They can’t love each other because they don’t know each other. But Juliet’s love interest was already saying “I love you” on Day 3. Excuse me while I go upchuck.

But. That said, what I liked most about this book is that Juliet and Romeo weren’t stupid. This Juliet is kick-ass and smart. She learned her lesson and learned it well. Jay gives Romeo just enough humanity to make us question just how evil he is, to wonder if he’s capable of redemption.

So if you hate Romeo and Juliet as much as I do and were glad when they both died at the end (and wished they’d done it about two acts earlier), you might enjoy Juliet Immortal. 

New Year’s Resolutions and The 2019 ICT Reading Challenge

Ah, yes. New Year’s Eve. The time when goblins and ghosties and . . . nope, wait, sorry, wrong Eve. Let’s start over.

New Year’s Eve. The night when we revel and ring out the old and ring in the new and make resolutions we may or may not keep. There. That’s better!

Like many, I’m also making resolutions for this year, some of them to do with my writing. But another is to do with reading. Every year, the Wichita Public Library sponsors the ICT Reading Challenge. It’s pretty simple, really – 12 books, 12 categories, 12 months. I tried it last year and got about halfway through before becoming stumped by some of the categories (for instance, I despise graphic novels and refused to read one).

But this year, I decided I’d really try to go for it. I’m planning out some of my books in advance, so I can go ahead and get started. I have a feeling some of them will come to me over the course of the year. But for now, the categories, and my tentative books, are:

  1. A book with a face on the cover.
  2. A book from a genre you don’t normally read. (I read YA, historical fiction, historical nonfiction, fantasy, romance, paranormal anything that doesn’t involve things that shift and engage in menages, books on writing, mysteries . . . what other genres ARE there?!)
  3. A book that makes you LOL. (Aha! My first! This will absolutely be the 13th entry in the Charley Davidson series by Darynda Jones.)
  4. A book set in the place you were born. (I will probably go back to Deadly Design on this one, though ‘In Cold Blood’ is a serious contender as well.)
  5. A classic, or a retelling of a classic. (I think I’m going with Juliet Immortal by Stacey Jay on this one – hoping it’s as good as it sounds! Juliet, murdered by Romeo and destined to defend lovers against him through the centuries -!)
  6. A book you have avoided or didn’t finish. (Hah! Funny story; this is actually the category I left out of the list originally! There are so many I could choose here . . . of course, the problem is, if I’ve avoided it up until now, it’s because I didn’t want to read it to begin with . . . so this one will be tricky. But I think I’ve settled on Dominion by C.J. Sansom – one I started last summer and just couldn’t make myself finish. Not because it was bad, but because it was so damn scary. For my partial review, see this post:  https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2018/05/29/beach-reads-well-maybe-not-these/)
  7. A translated book.
  8. An award-winner. (I may go back to a childhood favorite, Sinbad and Me, by Kin Platt; I absolutely adore this book and if you like middle-grade and YA mysteries, read it – though good luck finding it, as it’s been out of print for ages!)
  9. A book recommended by a child or teenager.
  10. A biography, autobiography, or memoir. (Hands down, already knew this one before the list was published, Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton. I’m so obsessed with the musical that the cats are sick of hearing me sing “You’ll Be Back.” Time will tell, you’ll remember that I served you well, you’ll be back . . .) 
  11. A book that features a character different fro you in some way.
  12. A book by an author slated to come to Kansas in 2019. (There are already two, Elizabeth Letts and B.A. Shapiro, that I’ve read before, loved, and are coming to Wichita in March, so I’ll likely choose one of their books.)

Well, not so bad:  5 of 12 so far! I think that’s a great start. Other books are going to come to light as the year progresses; the Facebook group for the Challenge is close-knit and vocal about their recommendations, so I may pick up some ideas from them as well.

If you live in Kansas and want to participate, it’s easy! You can join the ICT Reading Challenge group on Facebook, or download the list from the Wichita Public Library (link below).

For now, I’ve got some reading to do. 🙂

 

http://www.wichitalibrary.org/readict – The official ReadICT website.

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/blog/teen/16-new-upcoming-retellings-classic-plays-novels-tales/ – A list from Barnes & Noble of upcoming retellings of classic stories.

https://www.bookbub.com/blog/2016/03/23/retellings-of-classic-books – Another good list from BookBub of re-told classics.

http://www.dublinliteraryaward.ie/news/48-novels-in-translation-on-the-2018-longlist/ – The 2018 long list of Dublin Literary Award winners for translated novels.

 

Our Fairy Tales: ‘Cottage for Sale, Must be Moved’

Cottages for sale. $3,000 each. Must be moved. 

I imagine these cottages, all in a row. Waiting to be adopted. I wonder where they are.

Must be moved. I wonder how much it costs to move a building.

Thus begins one of my favorite books, my own personal fairy tale:  Cottage for Sale:  Must be Moved by Kate Whouley.

Fairy tales.

Don’t we all have our own? Whatever it is? Didn’t we all grow up with them? Cinderella. Snow White. The prince riding in on the white horse to save the day, to rescue us from the evil stepmother, or boss, or bullies. From the time we’re old enough to handle the remote – or even before – we’re raised to believe in magic and love and blah blah blah.

cottage for sale

My fairy tale is different.

See, it’s always been my fantasy to move a house. An old house. An old house that’s about to be razed, and needs saved. An old house with charm, character. An old house with stories and elaborately carved newel posts, with a huge porcelain farm sink and hardwood floors, with transom windows over the doors and a bay window and the original woodwork inside. The style of house has changed as I’ve gotten older; I used to dream only about Victorian homes – the gorgeous details, the tall ceilings, the whimsy and artistry. Now, it’s Craftsman-style houses that draw me in. The spacious floor plans and attention to detail – and the fact that while everyone wants a Victorian, almost no one seems to want my beloved Prairie Style homes.

But I thought I was totally crazy to want to do it – until I found Kate’s book.

Kate lives on Cape Cod, where houses are small, the Conservation Commission is strict (rightfully so), and space is at a premium. She loves her little corner of the Cape – the cranberry bog, the woodchuck who lives in the hill next to her house, the day lilies and daffodils and lilacs and trees and birds. But her house is tiny, and she has spent years wanting to expand, exploring every option. It seemed impossible – until she opened the Penny Saver one day, and saw the ad that changed it all.

Going mostly on faith, she embarks on a quest to purchase a cottage – the one in the very back, the one with the Mexican tiles in the kitchen and the little sliver of soap left on the sink – and move it to her property, and attach it to her house, creating a home. She has to navigate small-town bureaucracy, the logistics of actually moving a house – even a small one – dealing with plumbers, electricians, concrete guys, and others, and overcoming her own doubts and fears about the entire project along the way.

Kate’s is a story that resonates with me on several levels. Obviously, the entire house-moving idea appeals to me. If she can do it, so can I . . . someday. But it’s more than that. Her observations of the people around her, her interactions with them, are so warm and appealing that you really do want to move to the Cape just to be near them all. She is incredibly aware of her own motivations and fears, and has no hesitancy in putting them on the page. Her love for the land she owns, and the animals she shares it with (especially Egypt, the Cat-in-Charge), comes through loud and clear. Her writing style is a little different – it’s present tense, which I tend not to like, but in this case it works well.

I love this book. I read it at least once a year. When I start to feel down, when I lose yet another house to the bulldozer, when I look at my bank accounts and realize there’s nothing there . . . I go back to this book. Kate’s faith in the project is the only thing that carries her through it. Faith that the Conservation Commission will approve her requests – because she has to buy the cottage before she gets their approval. Faith that the cottage will fit on her property; faith that it can actually be put there. Faith that she can afford it, even though she’s self-employed and doesn’t precisely have a steady income. Faith that the project will come together, even when it seems things are at a standstill. Faith that it will all come together, just as she envisions it, even when no one else seems to think so:

“It isn’t hard for me to envision what the house will look like when it is finished, but as I receive visitors I realize that most of them do not see what I see. I give them the tour, tell them what wall will come down, what doors will be replaced, what the roof will look like . . . At some point, they invariably say to me, “What a lot of work!” . . . And these echoes of my neighbor’s remark tell me I am communicating process well enough, but I am not able to share the visuals that I carry with me in my mind’s eye. It is a lot of work, sure, but what I can already see motivates me, propels me forward.” (p. 161) 

Yes. My personal fairy tale. No matter what, Kate is determined to move this house in order to change her life for the better. And that really is what it’s all about, in the end – changing her life for the better. Creating space for more work, more family, maybe even someday a partner. Creating a home in which she can be who and what she is.

Creating a life.

Maybe that’s why this book resonates with me so much. It’s not about moving a house. It really is about creating a life for yourself, despite the naysayers, despite the difficulties.

A lesson that some of us probably need from time to time.

And that, really, is my personal fairy tale.

 

Beach Reads? Well, maybe not these . . .

I haven’t written much lately because life’s been going in a million different directions.

First – I had my presentation about my research into George Kimmel’s disappearance that I had to prep for (which went great, by the way, thanks for asking, none of my friends did). That took a long time because I had to go back over the material, and dig back into the depositions, and look at the newspapers from my personal godsend, newspapers.com . . . so that meant time away from writing.

Second – well, frankly, I don’t have a second. I’ve been reading books for the ICT Reads challenge (read 11 books, 11 different categories), and getting through my to-be-read list. And some of the books have been amazing! Now, if you’re looking for a ‘beach read,’ this is not that list. But if you’re looking for something that will make you think, here’s a few:

the-perfect-horse-The Perfect Horse, Elizabeth Letts – this book is about the fight to save the famed Lipizanners of the Spanish Riding School, during World War II. What I always heard was a dumbed-down version:  Alois Podhajsky, Director of the School, asked General Patton to save them, and convinced him by doing a riding demonstration of the stallions’ talents. Not necessarily true! There were many people – American and Nazi, Polish and Austrian – who worked tirelessly together to save these horses from being killed by the Russians. Note:  if you grew up during the Cold War like I did, this book will not make you like the Russians any more than you probably do now – which, if you’re like me, isn’t very much.

notes small islandNotes From a Small Island, Bill Bryson – hands down the best, funniest, and most heartfelt look at Britain ever written. If you don’t want to go to Britain, you will after reading this. Bryson doesn’t pull punches, but he manages to find something endearing even in the worst situations. It is absolutely laugh-out-loud funny in places, so be warned and don’t read it in public unless you’re willing to let others in on the secret!

 

dominionDominion, C.J. Sansom – I’ve read Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake novels, set during the Dissolution period (1530s – 40s) in England. So when I saw this cover, I felt compelled to see what it was about. Fact:  this is the absolute scariest book I’ve ever read. Forget Stephen King. Forget Dean Koontz. They write about monsters and crap that isn’t real. But this – When I explain World War II for my students, I tell them to think about it as a giant chess game:  all the people, all the pieces had to be in their precise place in order for the Allies to win. Hitler had to survive numerous attempts on his life; Churchill had to be pulled from the morass to become PM; Roosevelt had to be elected to an unprecedented third term; King Edward had to abdicate his throne, leaving it to his younger brother. But remove just one piece . . . and what happens? This book. It’s set in 1952, twelve years after Britain surrendered to Nazi Germany and became ‘allies’ of Hitler. Churchill never became Prime Minister, and there was no one to convince the people to fight. So now, the police work with the Gestapo to root out dissenters; the Resistance is trying to gain ground against a corrupt British government; and I feel such revulsion in knowing that this is all extremely plausible and could have happened. It makes you think. It makes you realize what might have been.

forgersspell-coverThe Forger’s Spell, Edward Dolnick – LOVE this book! Last year I bought a bunch of books for a YA novel I was toying with writing (still am, don’t go getting any ideas!), about art heists, forgeries, and the Nazi quest to steal all the great treasures of Europe for themselves. This one, I read first. Dolnick is an art lover, and a great storyteller. The book is about the ‘career’ of Hans van Meegeren, a hack painter (seriously, how anyone could mistake his crappy, creepy stuff for Vermeer is beyond me!) who made a fortune during the 1930s and 40s selling faked masterpieces to the Nazis. Dolnick does a great job of explaining precisely how van Meegeren was able to do this – and get away with it for so long. A great story, and highly recommended.

 

Now that I’m off for summer, I’ll be getting back to work on the novels (once I get over this stupid sinus infection and can keep my eyes open, anyway!), and writing about that process. I can tell you right now:  the theme of the summer will be rewrites. But for now, if any of these books tickles your fancy, do grab them!