John Garland published four novels between 1915 and 1920: Ross Grant Tenderfoot, Ross Grant Gold Hunter, Ross Grant on the Trail, and Ross Grant in the Miners’ Camp. That’s John Garland pictured above—my great, great aunt.
No, there weren’t any early gender benders in my family tree, (as far as I know) rather, John Garland was the pen name of Alice Louise Lee. Alice had already published a successful series of books for young ladies (A Freshman Co-Ed in 1910, A Sophomore Co-Ed in 1911, A Junior Co-Ed in 1912, and A Senior Co-Ed in1913) under her real name, but Penn Publishing Company thought the Ross Grant adventure books would sell better if the author were male. In honor of her mother, whose maiden name was Garland, my great, great aunt chose “John Garland” as her pseudonym.
Fast forward half a century to when I was a girl visiting my grandmother’s farmhouse in Northeastern Pennsylvania. My grandmother’s bookcases, with the shelf of books by Alice Louise Lee and John Garland, were a constant source of wonder. I was related to someone who wrote books! There in my grandmother’s sewing room, sitting on the braided rug in front of the bookcases with their leaded glass doors, turning the brittle pages of Aunt Alice’s books, the trajectory of my book-centric life was set in motion.
Fast forward to 2013 (exactly 100 years after the publication of Alice’s final “Co-Ed” book): In honor of all the book people in my family tree, both readers and writers, I have named my new publishing venture Garland Press.
My grandmother, Grace Lent, drew the above book plate about 100 years ago; I have co-opted her art work as a logo for the small, independent press I’m starting. It’s not my grandmother’s publishing era any more, that is for sure. Books have come a long way since they lived in my grandmother’s sewing room, in bookcases with glass doors that drifted open if you didn’t return the folded squares of wool to the upper corners.
But thank goodness the practice of reading lives on, whether done on an eReader, a notebook, a smart phone, or good old-fashioned paper. It’s a risky time to embark on a publishing venture, but I’m excited to enter the wild fray that is competing for the reader’s attention. I’m eager to discover, publish, and promote novels and essays that are worthy of the modern reader’s time. We will revere the old books and the old ways. At the same time, we’ll embrace the new technologies that make it possible to download books instantly and for individuals to start their own presses. There will eventually be an official web site for Garland Press, but while we’re starting things up, you can come here for news.
For me, reading Nina Sankovitch’s Tolstoy and the Purple Chair was like diving into a crystalline lake after trying to swim through mud. Thrity Umrigar best described this book in her cover blurb: “A dazzling memoir that reminds us of the most primal function of literature—to heal, to nurture, and to connect us to our truest selves.”
Nina Sankovitch’s sister died at age 46 and after three years Nina still hadn’t been able to shake off her sorrow. As a lifelong bibliophile, it made sense that Sankovitch would turn to books for answers, and so she set herself the goal of reading a book a day, and then writing about each one, for a whole year. How could I resist a story like that? Especially in a year when grief had gained a stronghold in my life, with the death of my mother and mother-in-law.
Tolstoy and the Purple Chair is more than another book about books—it is a history of Sankovitch’s immigrant family, a tribute to her sister, and a monument to her extended family’s love of reading. By the end of the year, Sankovitch reaches her reading goal. And she heals:
I have learned, through books, to hold on to my memories of all the beautiful moments and people in my life, as I need those memories to help me through difficult times. I have learned to allow forgiveness, both of myself and of people around me, all trying “with their heavy burden” just to get by…..
There is no remedy for the sorrow of losing someone we love, nor should there be. Sorrow is not an illness or an affliction. It is the only response possible to the death of a loved one, and an affirmation of just how much we value life itself, for all its wonder and thrill and beauty and satisfaction.
Our only answer to sorrow is to live. To live looking backward, remembering the ones we have lost, but also looking forward, with anticipation and excitement. And to pass on those feelings of hope and possibility through acts of kindness, generosity, and compassion.
Nina Sankovitch’s book continues to sooth me as I read some of the same books she read during her so-called “year of magical reading.” I slide back into the muck of sorrow from time to time, but every book I read is like an outstretched hand, pulling me to clearer waters.
Hemingway brings to life the pleasures of a warm and friendly café, in his Paris memoir, A Moveable Feast. This past winter I was fortunate enough to visit several of the Paris cafés where Hemingway wrote, and I turn to A Moveable Feast now, seeking relief from troubles that I will call, for lack of a better term, “writer’s block.” Hemingway’s book offers much sustenance for a writer—his stories of the artists who flocked to 1920’s Paris entertain, and his accounts of the writer’s life instruct and inspire. As a bonus, the reader comes to know Hemingway back when he had to skimp on food and heat, before he became “Papa,” the literary giant.
Reading is my biggest weapon against writer’s block. I choose a piece of writing that gives me pleasure, such as A Moveable Feast, and as I read, I’m reminded of the importance of this difficult vocation. What if instead of facing the empty page or the unsalvageable chapter, the writers I love had decided to abandon their stories? Often the answer to this question is enough to make me carry on.
But if my blockage is still unmovable, I type a section of writing that I admire. Typing 300 words can be enough to release a stream of my own words and also allows insight into another writer’s craft, much more so than by simply reading.
If this reading and typing exercise doesn’t open the flow, then a change of scenery may be in order. Like Hemingway, I’m fond of writing in cafés, sipping café au lait, and people watching can be a creative stimulant as well. You can bet that the girl with hair “black as a crow’s wing” shows up in one of Hemingway’s later stories. Enjoy the passage below from the young Hemingway.
From A Moveable Feast, p. 17, Scribner’s 2010 edition
It was a pleasant café, warm and clean and friendly, and I hung up my old waterproof on the coat rack to dry and put my worn and weathered felt hat on the rack above the bench and ordered a café au lait. The waiter brought it and I took out a notebook from the pocket of the coat and a pencil and started to write. I was writing about up in Michigan and since it was a wild, cold, blowing day it was that sort of day in the story. I had already seen the end of fall come through boyhood, youth and young manhood, and in one place you could write about it better than in another. That was called transplanting yourself, I thought, and it could be as necessary with people as with other sorts of growing things. But in the story the boys were drinking and this made me thirsty and I ordered rum St. James. This tasted wonderful on the cold day and I kept on writing, feeling very well and feeling the good Martinique rum warm me all through my body and my spirit.
A girl came in the café and sat by herself at a table near the window. She was very pretty with a face fresh as a newly minted coin if they minted coins in smooth flesh with rain-freshened skin, and her hair black as a crow’s wing and cut sharply and diagonally across her cheek.
I looked at her and she disturbed me and made me very excited. I wished I could put her in the story, or anywhere, but she had placed herself so she could watch the street and the entry and I knew she was waiting for someone. So I went on writing.
The story was writing itself and I was having a hard time keeping up with it. I ordered another rum St. James and I watched the girl whenever I looked up, or when I sharpened the pencil with a pencil sharpener with the shavings curling into the saucer under my drink.
I’ve seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.
“Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.”—Heinrich Heine, from his play Almansor (1821)
In 1497, Savonarola, a Florentine religious fanatic with a large following, instigated “bonfires of the vanities” which destroyed books and paintings by some of the greatest artists of Florence. (The following year he was hung from a cross and burned, along with his propaganda.) In 1933, a series of massive bonfires in Nazi Germany burned thousands of books written by Jews, communists, and others. On September 11, 2010, a certain Florida pastor is threatening to burn the Koran, hoping to go down in history as one of the big boys of book burning.
Call me unambitious, but I’d rather buy books than burn them. So to anyone who leaves their mailing address on the comment section of this blog on September 11, I will send a free copy of a book that promotes construction, rather than destruction—Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Build Peace…One School at a Time. A portion of the proceeds of this book will go to Greg Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute, which has built over 145 schools, most of them for girls, in the remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
It will be my pleasure to buy you a book, to celebrate Mortenson, a humble man of good deeds. It will be my way of throwing one small bucket of cold water on a Florida pastor with illusions of grandeur.
Please note: Your address will not appear on the blog; I will not share it or save it. This is a gift, free and clear.