It's been a snowy winter here in New England.
This shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who's been following the news; the entire East has been getting hammered by severe cold weather (don't even ask about my heating bill for January) and severe snow storms, and the ones in the last couple of weeks have been reasonably horrible. As I write this, I'm contemplating the joys of taking a couple of pain pills and heading to bed early, since I'll need to be up early tomorrow to shovel out the bottom of the driveway.
The joys of home ownership, let me tell you. Is it any wonder my next home will be a condo?
Snowstorms aren't unique to Massachusetts, of course. Atlanta's been getting its share lately thanks to that lovely little phenomenon known as "climate change," and a monster storm a couple of years ago in Washington, DC, led directly to a massive flash mob snowball fight at Lafayette Circle. There was even snow in Baton Rouge a couple of weeks ago, or so I was informed by a charming lady I had to call about a work-related matter.
And then there was the Blizzard of '78, better known in Bashor/Evans family lore as "the year of the buried Christmas tree."
Now, before anyone gets the idea that Mum and I practiced some arcane form of nature worship that required us to rent a backhoe, dig a huge hole in the front yard, and inter the prickly Scotch pine that we'd acquired and set up in the front window during most of December, let me assure that this was not the case. The Christmas tree had been taken down on or about Twelfth Night, in accordance with long custom, and left at the bottom of the driveway for the trash collectors to haul away in mid-January, also in accordance with long custom. We'd had a little snow that covered the stiffly dry branches and made them look pretty again, and that was that.
Then came the great storm.
We got off relatively lightly, at least as compared to New England. My ex, Wingding, was living in the suburbs of Boston when the mightiest of blizzards came roaring down on Boston, and he assured that the stories of buried cars, the state police arresting anyone caught driving without a really good reason, and pack ice clogging Quincy Bay and Boston Harbor were no exaggeration. He'd actually ventured out during the storm to see what was going on, and realized only the next day that he'd accidentally wandered onto the pack ice because visibility was so poor. How he avoided falling through the cracks and being swept out into the cold and angry waters of the North Atlantic, ne'er to be seen again, is still not quite clear.
Compared to that, the heavy snow that blanketed Pittsburgh was small beer indeed. Oh, we got some time off from school, and my long suffering uncle Lou had to shovel out both his own and our driveway sans snowblower, but we didn't lose power or heat, we had plenty of food, and once the streets were clear it was actually rather jolly. It wasn't until a day or two had passed that I noticed the huge pile of snow at the bottom of the driveway, right where we usually left the trash cans.
It also where we'd left the Christmas tree.
I mentioned this to Mum when we were backing out of the driveway on our way to the grocery store to buy dog food, toilet paper, and other sundries. Mum, who was short enough that she was having trouble seeing past the snow pile to back out, snorted slightly and shook her head.
"Don't be silly. The garbage truck got it a few days ago."
I peered at the mound of snow and ice chunks thrown up by the borough's plows. It was approximately the size of Mum's old Buick Skylark, and clearly there was something underneath its majestic bulk. "Are you sure? That looks tree-shaped to me."
"I'm sure. Now, watch the other way and tell me if you see a car - "
The days went by, and turned into weeks. And into months. And still the Snow Pile That Would Not Die remained at the bottom of the driveway, large and rounded and looming higher than the yew bushes by the lamppost. I commented on it more than once, only to be told, with increasingly impatience, that I was imagining things, that it was just snow, not a layer of frozen water covering a dessicated Scotch pine. Mum finally told me to cut it out, that she knew it wasn't the Christmas tree, and that this was yet another case of me having an overactive imagination.
So I shut up and was a good little girl. I walked the dog, waited to hear if I'd gotten into Smith, went to school, dodged the bullies, played the piano, wrote crappy fanfiction, walked the dog....
And then came the gorgeous, clear, warm April day when the SPTWND melted enough to reveal the crisp, dry, but still dark green branches of what had been a well shaped and serviceable Scotch pine Christmas tree.
I'd like to tell you that I didn't gloat. That I didn't point at the evidence that I'd been right all along and hoot triumphantly while Mum gaped. That I didn't take every opportunity to inform my aunt, my uncles, and random strangers that we'd gotten so much snow that it had buried the Christmas tree until April.
I'd like to you this. But you know, Mum and Dad always told me not to lie....
As you might have gathered from the above anecdote, the winter of '78 was unusually snowy, and unusually cold. You'd be correct, too. It was probably the single snowiest winter of my childhood, and of my life until the winter of '94-95, when the weather was so bad and the storms so persistent I quite literally had a screaming fit in the driveway where I expressed my desire to move to Florida instead of spending one more minute in !#@!$@!$#@!@! Massachusetts. This month hasn't been great, but it hasn't been even close to a year where the snow was so deep that the Globe finally gave up on conventional measurements and simply printed a picture of Celtics center Robert Parrish on the front page with a caption noting that the snow was now up to his hip, or his chest, or the tip of his nose.
As awful as winters like this can be, they do have their charms: steaming mugs of cocoa, beautiful white landscapes glittering in the sun, fluffy cats curled up on the bed...
And of course, good books to read on those days when it's too cold to go outside.
Tonight I bring not bad books, but books that are perfect for a snowy winter day. The following selections are all books that chronicle some sort of history, either personal or general, and several haven't received nearly the attention they deserve. Some are old, some are new, but all are worth the time and effort:
My Twice-Lived Life, by Donald M. Murray - one of the best parts of reading the Boston Globe back in the day was turning to the Living section and seeing the "Over 60" column. These beautifully written essays, which touched on everything from the tribulations of aging to memories of growing up during the Depression, were a real treat for anyone regardless of age; Murray, who'd won a Pulitzer Prize for his editorial writing in the 1950's, had the same sort of lucid, graceful prose style as mid-century giants like E.B. White and Malcolm Cowley, and I dreaded the day when age would finally force him to stop writing.
That day came over a decade ago, but fortunately for all who love good writing, Murray published a memoir that drew upon much of the same material as his columns. There's much to savor here: moving references to the death of Murray's beloved daughter, descriptions of the changes that illness brought to his wife Minnie Mae, tales of his days as a reporter and then as a writing teacher. Best of all are the columns where Murray, who grew up in a poor Scotch-Irish family, reminds anyone who's nostalgic for the Good Old Days of how much human potential was lost to racial and ethnic hatred, women being forced into the role of housewife, and male domination that frequently led to abuse. Highly, highly recommended.
Sundown Towns, by James Loewen - Loewen, best known for Lies My Teacher Taught Me, is a historian specializing in post-Civil War race relations. Among his other works are The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader (a treasure trove of primary source documents) and this searing examination of the all-white towns that sprang up after Reconstruction.
Ethnic cleansing of African-Americans from the new suburbs, Native Americans, Mexicans, and Chinese in the West...the Tulsa race riots...the deliberate hollowing out of industrial cities like Detroit as whites fled for the suburbs...the continued honoring of blatant racists like the former Mayor of Dearborn, Michigan (a sundown town that is now, ironically enough, largely Arab-American)...this book will open your eyes just why America is so segregated, and how very little choice has to do with it.
Best of all is a list of known sundown towns, and information for contacting Loewen with more town names. I sent them the name of my hometown, which may not have been a de jure sundown town but sure was one, and believe me, I never once thought I'd have to do that when I was growing up.
We Shook the Family Tree, by Hildegarde Dolson - Dolson, a magazine writer and mystery novelist, grew up in Franklin, Pennsylvania during the early years of the 20th century. Franklin is near the tiny farming community where my mother spent her teen years, and this memoir, written in the 1940's, is a delightful look at the area that shaped my mother and her sister.
Two highlights: an account of Dolson and her siblings breaking into an abandoned house and finding an amazing bathtub (which they called a "yachitt," and you'll have to read the book to find out why), and "How Beautiful With Mud," the saga of Hildegarde's adventures when the "Beauty Clay" facial mask she'd acquired from a mail order house wouldn't wash off. Of course she'd left it on twice as long as recommended....
Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, by Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough - Cornelia Otis Skinner became an actress and monologist. Emily Kimbrough became a writer. But before that, before either had done more than peek their noses out of their respective familial bosoms, they were two college girls on their way to Europe the summer after college to romp, play, and learn about life in a way that only be described as "delightful."
Cornelia coming down with measles on the cruise ship to Europe and having to fake her way through customs...Emily forgetting the seam allowance when she made an evening gown out of drapery fabric...Cornelia's father being reduced to incoherent laughter at the sight of the girls smothered in rabbit fur cloaks that shed, and shed, and shed...attempts at flirting with an impressively uniformed sailor who turns out to be the married leader of the ship's orchestra...a bedbug infestation before a date...being trapped in the bell tower of Notre Dame...tennis with HG Wells...Cornelia and Emily did all that and so much more. One of the loveliest, funniest books I've ever read.
Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold, by Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline D. Davis - another book about women, but completely different from Cornelia and Emily's sunny adventures, this is a serious look at the lesbian subculture in pre-war Buffalo, New York. Tough bar butches (some of whom cross-dressed), their femmes (some of whom had, or would, or were still dating men while being protected by their butches), strict gender roles but a surprising amount of freedom...this is a fascinating history of how one group of lesbians defied societal norms, police raids, familial disapproval, and everyday life in an industrial powerhouse to create as safe a world as they could.
The Golden Age of Quackery, by Stewart H. Holbrook - Stewart Holbook is almost forgotten today, but this native of the Pacific Northwest was a prolific magazine writer and popular historian for over thirty years. This book, a wry examination of the snake oil salesmen who sold Indian bitters, highly alcoholic cure-alls, and remedies for catarrh, "female complaints," and all varieties of consumption in the years before truth in packaging laws, is still entertaining and surprisingly current; sharp-eyed readers will spot plenty of similarities between the marketing of, say, Hadacol or Lydie E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound and whatever combination of herbs and vitamins someone touted on The View last week.
Of particular note, at least to me, was the section on the now-vanished nostrum called "Peruna." My grandmother, a lifelong teetotaler, swore that two tablespoons and a nap were good for what ailed you, at least until my aunt picked up the bottle and noticed that it was 28% alcohol! She tried to point this out, only to be met by a terse, "You don't know what you're talking about" as Grandma flounced out of the room, Peruna bottle in hand....
American Phoenix, by Sarah Skinner Kilborne - I freely admit that I have an ulterior motive in recommending this book. William Skinner was a remarkable man who rose from the slums of Spitalfields to success in the United States, then had to do it all again at the age of 49 after a devastating flood destroyed his business and the village that had grown up around it, but that's not why I recommend it. Nor am I telling you to read it because of the wonderful details of life in a mill village in the mid-19th century, or the family anecdotes about William Skinner and his children, or even the story of the silk industry in the United States.
No, the reason I read and enjoyed this book so much is because I lead tours at the Skinner mansion, Wistariahurst, on the weekends. The house, a 20 room Victorian mansion with a mansard roof and gorgeous woodwork, survived the flood that forced the Skinners to relocate to Holyoke from Williamsburg, and has been the jewel of Holyoke ever since. Knowing the story of the family has only made my tours better, and I invite any and all Kossacks who are in Western Massachusetts to come on down for a tour some Sunday afternoon.
The Pagan Dream of the Renaissance by Joscelyn Godwin - I've always been interested in what Dame Francis Yates called "the underground stream" of esotericism and barely disguised paganism in European culture of the Renaissance and early Baroque. Godwin, originally trained as a musicologist, is an expert on this fascinating but little-known subject, and this lavishly illustrated volume is a treat for the eyes and the mind.
Godwin also translated a strange, dense, and extremely influential book, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili: The Strife of Love in a Dream, an early Renaissance novel that is part dream narrative, part courtly romance, part architectural inspiration and archive. Godwin's done his best to make the deliberately opaque text comprehensible to modern readers, and I can't recommend his work highly enough.
The Knights Next Door, by Patrick K. O'Donnell - as faithful readers of these diaries know, I'm a long-time member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, a re-creation/re-enactment group that's devoted to "the Middle Ages as they should have been, not as they were." O'Donnell, a reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, first became enamored of medieval re-enactment on an assignment, then went on to join the SCA as an embedded reporter to see exactly why ordinary people would want to devote so much time and effort to researching and living in a version of the past.
The answer to that question is only part of this book, which also follows a fighter named Valheric in his quest to become a king, a knight, and ultimately a better man; British groups such as the Ermine Street Guard and Regia Anglorum; serious live action roleplayers like Dagorlad who also dip into the SCA; and the conundrum of how to honor the past while still living in the modern age.
Wonderful Blood, by Carol Walker Bynum - Bynum's book, which I picked up at the Kalamazoo Medieval Studies Congress a few years ago and read on the plane home, is a scrupulously researched, somewhat dry, but nonetheless fascinating examination of the eucharistic blood miracles of medieval Germany. These tales of bleeding Hosts, usually involving perfidious Jews who stole and then damaged the consecrated wafers out of their blasphemous hatred of Jesus, all too often resulted in violent pogroms against the local Jewish populations.
Bynum concentrates on the blood miracles of Wilsnack, a now-obscure German town that was once a pilgrimage center that rivaled Compostela and Canterbury in the medieval Catholic world, as well as remarkably similar if less popular cults in other towns. Seeing the relics of the cult (if not the actual miraculous Hosts, which were destroyed during the Reformation) is not a look into the past, but a chilling reminder the European anti-Semitism had very, very deep roots, and that the blending of hatred and faith is a poisonous brew indeed.
Do you have a favorite history book? A favorite memoir? Have you used Beauty Clay? Ever been to Wilsnack? Ever mistaken the name "Wilsnack" for a brand of junk food? Did you grow up in Western Pennsylvania? Now's the time to 'fess up and pass the talking stick to the next person....
Readers & Book Lovers Series Schedule:
|DAY||TIME (EST/EDT)||Series Name||Editor(s)|
|SUN||6:00 PM||Young Reader's Pavilion||The Book Bear|
|2:00 PM||What's on Your E-Reader?||Caedy|
|2:00 PM||Bibliophile's Wish List||Caedy|
|4:00 PM||Political Books||Susan from 29|
|Sun||9:30 PM||SciFi/Fantasy Book Club||quarkstomper|
|Bi-Monthly Sun||Midnight||Reading Ramblings||don mikulecky|
|MON||8:00 PM||Monday Murder Mystery||michelewln, Susan from 29|
|Mon||11:00 PM||My Favorite Books/Authors||edrie, MichiganChet|
|TUES||5:00 PM||Indigo Kalliope: Poems from the Left||bigjacbigjacbigjac|
|alternate Tuesdays||8:00 AM||LGBT Literature||Texdude50, Dave in Northridge|
|alternate Tuesdays||8:00 AM||All Things Bookstore||Dave in Northridge|
|Tue||8:00 PM||Contemporary Fiction Views||bookgirl|
|Wed||2:00 PM||e-books||Susan from 29|
|Wed||8:00 PM||Bookflurries Bookchat||cfk|
|THU||8:00 PM||Write On!||SensibleShoes|
|Thu (first each month)||11:00 AM||Monthly Bookpost||AdmiralNaismith|
|alternate Thursdays (on hiatus)||11:00 PM||Audiobooks Club||SoCaliana|
|FRI||8:00 AM||Books That Changed My Life||Diana in NoVa|
|alternate Fridays||8:00 PM||Books Go Boom!||Brecht|
|Fri||10:00 PM||Slightly Foxed -- But Still Desirable||shortfinals|
|SAT (fourth each month)||11:00 AM||Windy City Bookworm||Chitown Kev|
|Sat||12:00 PM||You Can't Read That! Paul's Book Reviews||pwoodford|
|Sat||9:00 PM||Books So Bad They're Good||Ellid|