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Thursday, 17 April 2014




 'In our time the destiny of man presents 
its meaning in political terms.' 

How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
on Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics?
Yet here's a travelled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there's a politician
That has both read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war's alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms.


The Poet:  William Butler Yeats (pronounced 'Yates' to rhyme with 'gates') has been described as the most Irish of all Irish poets, one whose quest for a truly 'Irish' voice and identity led him to reject the Victorian models of his childhood and seek  inspiration in the richness of traditional Gaelic and Celtic myth.  After 1900 - and increasingly after 1923, when he became the first Irish writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature - this 'mythic' voice was replaced by one more firmly rooted in the political and social reality that was twentieth century Ireland and its long and violent struggle for political independence.  An aristocrat who supported Nationalism but despised the Catholic Church, Yeats in later years favoured the idea that totalitarianism might represent a possible 'solution' for humanity, speaking out in support of Mussolini as his friend and fellow poet Ezra Pound did throughout the Depression-ravaged 1930s.

Yeats was born in Dublin on 13 June 1865, the son of a lawyer and well-known society painter.  He was educated in London and Dublin but it was in the west of Ireland - in Connaught, where his family owned a house and spent its summer holidays - that he was first exposed to the supernatural element of Irish life that would inspire much of his early work as both poet and playwright.  Although he published his first volume of verse in 1887, it was as a playwright that he first made his literary mark, going on to produce such famous dramas as Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902) and become a founding member, along with fellow 'modernist' playwrights JM Synge and Sean O'Casey, of Dublin's famous Abbey Theatre.  Their work, along with that of the translators and scholars who were helping Irish intellectuals rediscover their country's native language and its long-forgotten legends, formed the cornerstones of what came to be known as the Irish Literary Revival. 

Even at the height of his success as a playwright, Yeats continued to publish poetry - much of it in the form of laments for his country's political situation and, after the Easter Rising of 1916, condemning the violence of Catholic Nationalists.  Yeats himself had strong connections to the cause of Irish Nationalism via his longstanding relationship with Maud Gonne, an English heiress who devoted her life to the cause of freeing Ireland from its aristocratic English oppressors.  He also had a long and unhappy romantic relationship with Gonne, who rejected every proposal of marriage he made to her between 1899 and 1916.  In September 1916 he married Georgie Hyde-Lees, a woman twenty-five years his junior who bore him two children, Anne and Michael, and brought a kind of stability to his life - a life which had, up till then, been lived mostly outside his native land - it had previously lacked.  It was with his wife that Yeats experimented with the 'automatic writing' - an outgrowth of his interest in the occult and Theosophy - that led to the writing of A Vision (1925).  This book, along with his Nobel Prize and the granting of Irish independence in 1922, secured his international reputation as a poet of passion, commitment and indisputable genius.

Yeats served two terms as a Senator in the newly-formed Irish Senate, famously warning his fellow politicians that 'If you show that this country, southern Ireland, is going to be governed by Roman Catholic ideas and by Catholic ideas alone, you will never get the North...You will put a wedge in the midst of this nation.'  He retired from politics in 1928 due to ill health but was 'rejuvenated,' in his own words, by the Steinach procedure he underwent at the age of sixty-nine.  (The procedure was a type of vasectomy, which its inventor theorized - erroneously, as it turned out - would shift the body's balance from sperm production toward increased hormone production in middle-aged men, thereby reviving and increasing their sexual potency.)  In addition to pursuing affairs with a number of younger women, Yeats continued to produce poetry, drama and essays at an astonishing rate, describing himself as having entered 'a strange second puberty' following his operation.  

The procedure did not, however, make him immortal.  Yeats died in Menton in the south of France on 28 January 1939 and was privately buried in the nearby village of Roquebrun-Cap-Martin, where his body remained for a year before being brought back to Ireland under the auspices of Sean MacBride, the son of Maud Gonne and Major John MacBride, the man she had originally rejected him to marry in 1903.  Yeats' remains are now buried in the village of Drumcliff, Country Sligo, only a stone's throw away from where he spent so many idyllic childhood summers.

Click HERE to read more poetry by WB YEATS at

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Thursday, 10 April 2014

WRITERS ON WRITING #47: W Somerset Maugham

...I began to meditate upon the writer's life.  It is full of tribulation.  First he must endure poverty and the world's indifference; then, having achieved a measure of success, he must submit with good grace to its hazards.  He depends upon a fickle public.  He is at the mercy of journalists who want to interview him, and photographers who want to take his picture, of editors who harry him for copy and tax-gatherers who harry him for income tax, of persons of quality who ask him to lunch and secretaries of institutes who ask him to lecture, of women who want to marry him and women who want to divorce him, of youths who want his autograph, actors who want parts and strangers who want a loan, of gushing ladies who want advice on their matrimonial affairs and earnest young men who want advice on their compositions, of agents, publishers, managers, bores, admirers, critics, and his own conscience.  But he has one compensation.  Whenever he has anything on his mind, whether it be a harassing reflection, grief at the death of a friend, unrequited love, wounded pride, anger at the treachery of someone to whom he has shown kindness, in short any emotion or any perplexing thought, he has only to put it down in black and white, using it as a theme of a story or the decoration of an essay, to forget all about it.  He is the only free man.

Cakes and Ale (1930)

Click HERE to read a short biography of British novelist, short story writer and essayist W SOMERSET MAUGHAM.

You might also enjoy: 
WRITERS ON WRITING #46: Richard Bausch
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Thursday, 3 April 2014

GABRIELLE ROY Bonheur d'occasion [The Tin Flute] (1945)

Boréal Compact, 2009

Depuis quelque temps, elle épiait sa mère, elle croyait la voir s'alourdir de jour en jour, mais Rose-Anna, déformée par de nombreuses maternités, semblait toujours porter un fardeau sous sa robe gonflée.  Elle se doutait bien de la vérité à certains moments, mais à d'autres elle se disait: 'Ça doit pas être ça.  Sa mère a quarante ans passés.' 
  - C'est pour le mois de mai, vers la fin, dit Rose-Anna. 
  L'aveu lui semblait pénible.  Mais aussitôt, elle se reprit et demanda: 'Tu seras pas fâchée, hein, Florentine, d'avoir une autre petite soeur?'
   - Vinguienne, sa mère, vous trouvez pas qu'on est assez? 
  La phrase mauvaise lui avait échappé.  Florentine la regrettait déjà, elle aurait voulu la reprendre, mais dans le silence tiède de la pièce, dans le vent qui geignait aux carreaux, il n'y avait plus que l'souvenir de cette phrase qui persistait.  L'ombre semblait la répéter, la répéter à l'infini. 
  Rose-Anne se retourna sur l'oreiller trempé de sueurs.  'Pas si fort, les enfants!' supplia-t-elle.  Puis après un long silence, elle chuchota dans l'obscurité: 'Qu'est-ce que tu veux, Florentine, on fait pas comme on veut dans la vie; on fait comme on peut.'

For a long time, spying on her mother, she thought she had seen her grow heavier day by day, but Rose-Anna, deformed by her numerous pregnancies, always seemed to be carrying some kind of burden beneath her well filled-out housedress.  She hardly doubted the truth of it at certain moments, but at others she told herself: 'It mustn't be that.  Mum's over forty.'
  'It's due in May, towards the end,' said Rose-Anna.

 The confession seemed painful to her.  But immediately, she composed herself and asked: 'You won't be upset, eh Florentine, to have another little sister?'
  'The twentieth, mum, don't you think that's enough?'
  The cruel phrase had just tumbled out.  Florentine already regretted it, would have liked to take it back, but in the warm silence of the room, in the breeze which blew round the floor tiles, it was no more than the memory of the phrase that lingered now.  The shadows seemed to repeat it, repeat it to infinity.
  Rose-Anna rolled over to face her on her sweat-soaked pillow.  'Not so loud, the kids!' she pleaded.  Then after a long silence, she whispered in the obscurity:  'What do you want, Florentine, we don't do as we want in this life; we do what we can.' 
Translated by BR

The Book:  In an age where we're continually bombarded with images designed to beguile, deceive and emotionally manipulate us it can be difficult, if not impossible, to imagine anything as humble as words printed on paper serving as the catalyst for lasting social change.  Yet this was precisely the feat that Gabrielle Roy's debut novel Bonheur d'occasion achieved when it was originally published in her native Canada in 1945.  (Two years passed before the bestselling English translation, The Tin Flute, appeared in US bookstores.)  Roy's poignant, compassionate but scrupulously honest examination of the lives of a poor French Canadian family living in what was, in the early 1940s, the Montréal slum of Saint-Henri opened the eyes of her fellow Canadians to the plight of Québéc and the need for drastic change to occur in the way the province was organized, funded and governed.  While these reforms would be slow to arrive and would not fully take effect until the 'Quiet Revolution' of the 1960s, it's been argued that they may not have happened at all had it not been for Roy's ability to awaken the national conscience by depicting the struggles of the Lacasse family in such vivid, emotionally affecting detail.

Bonheur d'occasion - the title translates literally as 'Secondhand Happiness' - tells the seemingly commonplace tale of Azarius Lacasse and his wife Rose-Anna, who live in a tiny two room apartment in Saint-Henri with their twelve children where conditions are, to say the least, cramped.  Azarius, a carpenter by trade, has been out of work for several years, a victim of the Depression and his seemingly indefatigable inability to stick at any job he manages to scrounge up for himself for more than a week or two.  This makes life a constant battle for himself and Rose-Anna who, being poor, uneducated, female and Catholic, does nothing to prevent herself falling pregnant every year with clockwork regularity.  With her younger children to care for - one of whom, Daniel, is suffering from leukaemia - the task of providing a steady income for the family falls to Rose-Anna's eldest daughter Florentine, who works as a waitress in a downtown diner and uncomplainingly hands over the bulk of her weekly paycheck to her mother every Friday night, secretly holding back a small portion of it to be spent on frivolous but, for her, necessary luxuries like silk stockings and make-up.  

While working at the diner Florentine meets and falls in love with a cynical would-be engineer named Jean Lévesque - a studious factory worker torn between his undeniable physical attraction to her and his revulsion at the thought of being trapped into marrying a Saint-Henri girl whose lack of charm and social graces will never permit him to fulfill his dream of making something of himself.  Florentine is neither smart nor sophisticated, but she's pretty and determined to get more out of life than her socially disenfranchised parents have had by utilizing whatever charms, physical or otherwise, nature has seen fit to endow her with.  Fascinated by Jean's acerbic personality and his strange love/hate attitude towards her, she tries to win his affection by making him jealous and acting the coquette with his best friend Emmanuel Létourneau, her desire fueled by the beautiful memory of how Jean kissed her on the eyelids after bringing her home from their first unsuccessful date at a fashionable city restaurant.  

Meanwhile, the war has begun and is going badly for the Allies, prompting many local boys - like Florentine's unemployed brother Eugene and the well-to-do Emmanuel, whose father makes a good living selling rosary beads, sacramental wine and other religious paraphernalia to his devout neighbors - to do what they feel is their patriotic duty by enlisting in the army.  For most of these men, joining up also represents their only chance of helping their impoverished families and perhaps creating some kind of better life for themselves after the war.  Not only will the army feed and clothe him, Eugene enthusiastically informs his mother on the day he impulsively enlists, it will also send her $20 a month - $20 a month just for herself! - for as long as he's a soldier.

New Canadian Library, 2009
The story develops slowly from this point, revealing each member of the Lacasse family as a victim of his or her illusions as much as the victim of the grinding poverty which obliges them to move house each spring and makes the mere act of putting food on the table an unrelenting daily struggle.  Life is tough and seldom kind to those without the money or influence required to shield them from its harshest economic, political and sexual realities.  Florentine cannot make Jean love her even after she loses her virginity to him and finds herself pregnant with his child.  Rose-Anna cannot help her daughter or save her sick little boy Daniel, who's sent to a sanitarium on the other side of Montréal where his affection for her is gradually eroded by his disease and his love for a pretty young English-speaking nurse who, with spirit-crushing predictability, is not there to comfort him when he eventually dies.  (The person who is there is his older sister Yvonne, a pious child whose dream it is to one day become a nun.)  

Meanwhile Azarius, his plans to make money by buying maple syrup from his wife's country relatives and re-selling it at a profit in the city, loses yet another job when the truck he 'borrowed' from his new boss without asking his permission breaks down miles from anywhere, stranding him, Rose-Anna and their inadequately-clothed younger children in a freezing winter snowstorm for several miserable hours.  Even Jean finds a way to renounce his no longer burning desire for Florentine, finding a high-paying war job in another city to distance himself from her and the threat her sexual attractiveness poses to his plans.  His abrupt and unexplained departure, just a few days after he sleeps with her, leaves the field wide open for Emmanuel, who decides to marry Florentine while he's at home on embarkation leave, completely unaware that she's pregnant with his best friend's bastard child.  

Despite the grimness of their lives, a kind of happiness - 'secondhand' though it may be - does await the Lacasses following Florentine's hastily arranged marriage and the birth of Rose-Anna's latest child.  Azarius, outraged by what's being done to his beloved France (a country he reveres without ever having visited it) by the invading Germans and tired of being viewed as a good-for-nothing loafer by everyone he knows, joins his son and new son-in-law in the army, entitling his wife to an unheard of $97 a month - more money than she and their children have ever seen in their lives, money that will allow them to find the permanent home that Rose-Anna has dreamed of having since she was a lovesick and not yet disillusioned bride.  Florentine, respectable and now quite well-off thanks to the generosity of Emmanuel and his comparatively rich family, becomes the petite-bourgeoise she's always longed to be, able to pass Jean when she spots him in the street without surrendering to her former compulsion to throw herself at his feet or, for that matter, to speak to him at all.  'Une satisfaction qu'elle n'avait jamais éprouvée, l'estime de soi-même l'étonna.  Elle reconnut qu'elle commençait vraiment une autre vie.'  ['She experienced a satisfaction she had never before experienced, a level of self-esteem that astonished her.  She understood that she was truly beginning a new life.']  Although she doesn't love Emmanuel, having married him only to give her unborn child a father and a name, she promises herself that she'll try to be a good wife to him if and when he returns from the war.  Nothing, she reminds herself, is perfect in this world.  But having someone and something to at least try to love, she is gradually coming to realize, is better than being stuck with no one and nothing to fill the void that Jean's abandonment of her has left inside her.  

Summarizing the plot of a book like Bonheur d'occasion is, in a way, to do a grave disservice to both it and its author.  No blunt listing of its plot details can really do justice to the literary genius of Gabrielle Roy, who possessed a rare ability to make the reader see and feel the full unstinting truth about her characters without sentimentalizing, trivializing or patronizing them in the process.  Describing the Lacasse family and those who move in their orbit as 'characters' seems slightly unfair in their case.  The term 'character' implies that a certain amount of poetic licence, even outright fabrication, was involved in their creation but Florentine, Jean, Rose-Anna and Azarius strike the reader as being anything but fabricated people.  They seem as real, and as human, as ourselves, subject to the same self-deceptions, the same fears and anxieties, and the same fiercely resisted but often inescapable compromises that define life for everybody, aristocrat and pauper alike.  There's also warmth and a kind of hard-won understanding to be found in their tough prosaic world, bonds of family and tradition which, while tested and often found wanting, nevertheless prove to be more resilient than might be expected, given the depth of their poverty and the limited opportunities they are granted to escape it.  The happiness found by Florentine and Rose-Anna might be little more than a shabby, secondhand substitute for what most of us would consider to be the so-called 'real thing,' but it remains happiness of a kind that, for them, represents a definite improvement in their drab and otherwise bleak and colorless lives.

The Author:  Marie Rose Emma Gabrielle Roy was born in the predominantly French-speaking Winnipeg suburb of Saint-Boniface on 22 March 1909, the youngest of eleven children.  Only eight of her siblings survived infancy and her childhood was spent in a state of extreme poverty, with her mother Mélina forced to take in lodgers after her father Léon was laid off from his job as a resettlement agent in 1913, just six months before he was due to retire and start receiving the pension that would have provided some measure of financial security for him and his family for the remainder of their lives.

Roy excelled at languages and won many prizes in both French and English during her school years, allowing her to enter the Winnipeg Normal Institute in 1928 where she trained as a teacher.  She graduated in 1929 and, following the death of her father, spent the next two years teaching in the small Manitoba villages of Marchand and Cardinal, experiences she would use to great and touching effect in what would become her final novel Ces enfants de ma vie [The Children of My Heart].  

In 1930 Roy was offered a teaching job as the headmistress of a boys' school in Saint-Boniface, making her the only one of her eight surviving siblings to hold down a permanent job during the toughest years of the Depression.  During this period she also joined two amateur acting companies and performed on-stage in many of their productions, earning herself a well-deserved reputation as a gifted and talented actress.  Her family - and especially her mother, to whom she was extraordinarily close - were dismayed, however, when she announced in 1937 that she would be using her meager savings to take a trip to France and England where, she informed them, she intended to study drama full-time in the hope of pursuing a professional acting career.  She worked through the summer, teaching in a regional northern area of Winnipeg known as La-Petite-Poule-d'Eau [The Water-Hen District], and set sail for England in the fall.

Roy spent the next two years in England and Europe - traveling, studying and writing various articles about her experiences, some of which were published in the Paris magazine Je suis partout and several Manitoban newspapers.  During this time she also began taking extensive notes for what would become her first novel, Bonheur d'occasion.  She returned to Canada in the spring of 1939 and installed herself in Montréal where, contrary to her mother's wishes and advice, she set out to establish herself as a professional writer.  She soon found a job writing a 'woman's column' for the daily newspaper Le Jour and, within a few years, was regularly publishing short stories in the literary magazine La Revue owned by her lover and mentor Henri Girard.  

Although she loved teaching and described her years as a teacher as the happiest of her life, Roy never returned to the teaching profession or - with the exception of brief semi-annual pilgrimmages to visit her family - to her childhood home in Manitoba.  Montréal would more or less remain her home until 1947, when the success and furor created by the publication of The Tin Flute, the English translation of Bonheur d'occasion, obliged her to return to Europe with her new husband, the gynecologist Marcel Carbotte.  The newlyweds remained in Europe until 1950, living in Paris while Carbotte completed his medical studies and Roy worked on the novel Alexandre Chevenert, a book she eventually laid aside to write what would become her second published novel, and her personal favorite among her own works, La Petite Poule d'Eau [Where Nests The Water Hen]. 

After returning to Canada, the couple bought a house in Québéc City and, in 1957, a small cottage in the nearby village of Petite-Rivière-Saint-François which they would visit  every summer for the rest of their lives.  La Petite Poule d'Eau was followed by the postponed Alexandre Chevenert [The Cashier] - a penetrating psychological study of the life of an emotionally and socially isolated Montréal bank teller that's generally considered to be the most 'modern' of her novels - and Rue Deschambault [Street of Riches] - an autobiographical work concerning a young girl's struggle to become a writer - which would go on to win her the second of her three Canadian Governor General's Awards for Literature.  (Her third would be won in 1978 for Ces enfants de ma vie.)  Private to the point of being considered reclusive and anti-social, Roy was content to spend her time writing, taking occasional overseas trips with her husband and maintaining an intense correspondence with her sister Bernadette, known as Dedette, who was a cloistered Catholic nun.  

Her sister's death in 1970 prompted Roy to revisit Saint-Boniface for the first time in many years and led to the writing of La Route d'Altamont [The Road Past Altamont], another autobiographical novel inspired by her decision to leave Canada in 1937.  Like her previous novels, it was well received by the critics and quickly translated into English, helping to consolidate her reputation as Canada's best known and most frequently honored author.  In addition to her Governor General's award, Roy was also the recipient of France's Prix Femina, the Prix Duvernay, the Canada Arts Council Award and the New York Literary Guild Award.  She was made a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1967 and was the first woman to be inducted as a fellow of that country's Royal Society. 

Gabrielle Roy died, of heart failure, on 13 July 1983.  The first volume of her autobiography, La detresse et l'enchantement [Sorrow and Enchantment] appeared a year later and was followed by a second volume, prepared by her literary executors and titled La Temps qui m'a manqué [Time Has Escaped Me], in 1997.  In addition to these memoirs and her eight novels, Roy also published three children's stories and several volumes of journalism and other miscellaneous writings during the course of her long and very distinguished career. 

Click HERE to visit THE GABRIELLE ROY HOUSE, a museum devoted to her life and work which opened in June 2003 in her original (and now fully restored) childhood home at 375 Rue Deschambault in Saint-Boniface, Manitoba.  Most of her work is still available in both its original French and in English translation and can be obtained via your local bookseller or favorite online retailer.  

A film adaptation of Bonheur d'occasion, directed by CLAUDE FOURNIER and starring MIREILLE DEYGLUN as Florentine, MARILYN LIGHTSTONE as Rose-Anna and MICHEL FORGET as Azarius, was released in 1983.  Click HERE to read two (unkind) reviews of it.

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Thursday, 27 March 2014

WRITERS ON WRITING #46: Richard Bausch

I don't teach writing.  I teach patience.  Toughness.  Stubbornness.  The willingness to fail.  I teach the life.  The odd thing is that most of the things that stop an inexperienced writer are so far from the truth as to be nearly beside the point.  When you feel global doubt about your talent, that is your talent.  People who have no talent don't have any doubt.  It's figuring that out and learning how to put all that stuff behind you and just do the work.  Just go in and shake the black cue ball and see what surfaces.

Click HERE to visit the official website of US novelist, short story writer and teacher RICHARD BAUSCH.

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Thursday, 20 March 2014

POET OF THE MONTH #15: Kristina Haynes



I go everywhere and want to be kissed.
What does it say about me that I change my
perfume every time I get a new boyfriend?
Lately I walk to places with headphones on
and let myself be sad when the music says
I should be. I’ve become cliche: Drinking lattes
and posting pictures of the food I don’t even
eat online. I get excited over everyone else’s
excitement. I do the things single girls can
get away with, like letting him stick his hand
up my skirt and search until I say yes, until I say
don’t stop, until I am breathing in so deeply
that his hair gets stuck in my throat. I have sex
in public restrooms and watch myself in the mirror.
His hand on my ass. His mouth on my shoulder.
I cannot write a better poem than this.

Published online 23/11/2013
© 2013 theshipfitterswife



Ugly girl, unlovable.
Ugly girl, try to fit in.
Ugly girl, you can’t sit here.
Ugly girl, quiet.
Ugly girl, hoarding beauty magazines.
Ugly girl, breakouts.
Ugly girl, thick waist.
Ugly girl, feel so small.
Ugly girl, selfie.
Ugly girl waiting for him to call.
Ugly girl never gonna find better.
Ugly girl, bloated.
Ugly girl, not enough sleep.
Ugly girl suffocates from too much hairspray.
Give ugly girls a chance, they need love too!
Ugly girl, back of the photo.
Ugly girl, lipstick on your teeth.
Ugly girl, it’s what’s on the inside.
Ugly girl breaking mirrors instead of your face.
Ugly girl, your body is not an apology,
a four-page letter written to God asking why.
Ugly girl, you are not the sum of the men who have left you.
Ugly girl, you are not your shade of foundation.
Ugly girl, you are not your parents’ throwaway genes.
Ugly girl, raise the blinds.
Ugly girl, come outside.
Ugly girl, state of mind.
Ugly girl, good enough.
Ugly girl, break out.

Published online 19/10/2013
© 2013 theshipfitterswife

The Poet: The following biographical statement appears on the poet's Tumblr blog.  [It is re-posted here for recommendation purposes only and, like the poems, remains its author's exclusive copyright-protected intellectual property.]

Kristina Haynes is a 22 y/o aspiring actress currently living at home with her parents and commuting back and forth to college where she majors in Theatre.  After graduating from her current school, she hopes to pursue a Bachelor's Degree in Musical Theatre in New York City.  Her work has been featured in several literature magazines including Freckled and The Laconic and she has recently published a chapbook of poetry, It Looked a Lot Like Love through Where Are You Press.  When she's not writing or spending her time on stage, she's usually tweeting celebrities or putting her Netflix subscription to good use.  She believes in astrology, red lipstick and you.

Kristina writes self-revelatory poems that are as witty and insightful as they are painful and occasionally heartbreaking.  Please take a moment to read more of her work. 

Click HERE to visit the Tumblr blog of poet, writer and actress KRISTINA HAYNES.

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Thursday, 13 March 2014


I hadn’t been a good reporter because I didn’t care about getting the story before the general public had it.  I didn’t care about being the first one on the scene, the first one at the accident.  I also started to feel the limitations.  Obviously, in journalism, you’re confined to what happens.  And the tendency to embellish, to mythologize, it’s in us.  It makes things more interesting, a closer call.  But journalism taught me how to write a sentence that would make someone want to read the next one.  You are trained to get rid of anything nonessential.  You go in, you start writing your article, assuming a person’s going to stop reading the minute you give them a reason.  So the trick is: don’t give them one.  Frontload and cut out everything extraneous.  That’s why I like short stories.  You’re always trying to keep the person interested.  In fiction, you don’t need to have the facts up front, but you have to have something that will grab the reader right away.  It can be your voice.  Some writers feel that when they write, there are people out there who just can’t wait to hear everything they have to say.  But I go in with the opposite attitude, the expectation that they’re just dying to get away from me.

Interview in The Paris Review #166 [Summer 2003]

Click HERE to read In The Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried, a short story by AMY HEMPEL.

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Thursday, 6 March 2014

WILLA CATHER A Lost Lady (1923)

Penguin Twentieth Century Classics, 1999

It was what he held most against Mrs Forrester, that she was not willing to immolate herself, like the widow of all these great men, and die with the pioneer period to which she belonged; that she preferred life on any terms.  In the end, Niel went away without bidding her good-bye.  He went away with weary contempt for her in his heart.

The Book:  As a boy, Niel Herbert is fascinated by Marian Forrester, the beautiful new wife of Captain Daniel Forrester, builder of the midwest's new 'lifeline' - otherwise known as the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railway.  It's a fascination shared with every other male in the small prairie town of Sweet Water, who treat the charming and elegant Forresters like its uncrowned king and queen.  For them, the enchanting and flirtatious Marian represents everything that's sophisticated, glamorous and morally irreproachable, the magical 'other side' of the humdrum, occasionally venal lives most of them are forced to lead as residents of an isolated and very dull frontier community.

As he grows to manhood, Niel feels proud to be included in the Forrester's circle of friends and flattered to find himself included on the guest lists for Marian's lavish dinner parties and genteel card evenings.  But his feelings for his idol change after he smells liquor on her breath one day and  accidentally overhears her laughing with her lover, Frank Ellinger, while strolling past her bedroom window a few mornings later - an unforgivable betrayal, as he sees it, of the Captain's unstinting love for her and his own, overly-romanticized vision of what she is and, more significantly, of what she represents.  Marian's betrayal is soon compounded by the Captain losing most of his railroad fortune as the result of an unforeseen bank failure and suffering the first of several debilitating strokes which, without permanently paralyzing him, in time reduce him to a helpless shadow of his former vigorous self.

Niel goes east to college and returns to Sweet Water several years later only to find the Forresters and the town whose social life they once dominated both greatly changed.  Marian has now been reduced to doing her own housework and selling or renting out most of their land to outsiders to keep herself and her incapacitated husband clothed and fed.  While she strives hard to retain her old flirtatious manner, she's visibly aged and seems somehow tarnished by her new life of impoverishment and unwilling social exile, still seeking compliments and flirting with men like the attractive young hostess she no longer is and can clearly never be again.  Insult is added to injury when she learns that Ellinger - a man she still loves despite his casual rejection of her - has married a young girl he originally met at one of her no longer fashionable soirées.   

Marian's semi-hysterical reaction to the news of her former lover's wedding is enough to permanently shatter Niel's already unfavorable image of her and he soon leaves town again, hearing no more about her until several years pass and he happens to run into another former Sweet Water resident while visiting a Chicago hotel.  Mrs Forrester is dead, his friend informs him, but not before she found the opportunity to regain at least some of her former status by remarrying a cranky Englishman who owned vast land holdings in Brazil, where she was once again free to play her former role as the sparkling society hostess they'd known and admired so fondly in their youth.  Niel finds, after this, that he can and must forgive Marian for her shallowness and her various moral and social weaknesses, realizing that she represents not only the passing of his own boyhood but also the passing of a never-to-be-recaptured era in American life.  Marian truly is a 'lost lady' - as 'lost' as the rapidly vanishing remnants of 'the Old West' she once so colorfully personified.  Like the past, she's become the victim of that terrible but continuously recurring disease the world calls 'progress.'

Alfred A Knopf Inc first edition, 1923
A Lost Lady appeared at a time when the United States - and particularly the frontier which had for so long dominated the world's image of its newest and most vibrant democracy - was undergoing a period of rapid and irreversible social change.  These changes are embodied in the characters of the highly adaptable Marian and the idealistic if somewhat naïve Niel and, to a lesser extent, in those of Captain Forrester, Frank Ellinger and Marian's final Sweet Water lover, the greedy and unscrupulous lawyer Ivy Peters.  Cather viewed the passing of the Old West - a phenomenon she'd experienced first-hand during her own Nebraska girlhood - as a tragedy not only in terms of what it was going to cost the nation socially and culturally but also, more disturbingly, in terms of what it would do to the character of the American people in a financial, political and particularly in a moral sense.  Like many of her generation, Cather equated the term 'modernity' with immorality and viewed the rapacious commercial exploitation of the American frontier as the first step towards stripping her countrymen of their values, their ideals and ultimately of their souls.  Yet she also recognized that these changes were inevitable and, as such, could not be successfully prevented, merely resisted by individuals for as long as they proved willing and capable of doing so.  As Marian tells Niel on his first visit home from college: 'Money is a very important thing.  Realize that in the beginning; face it, and don't be ridiculous in the end, like so many of us.'  It's Cather's honest exploration of this conflict - between money and honor, illusion and reality, acceptance of facts and the desperate and ultimately futile efforts of the Forresters and others to ignore and deny them - that makes A Lost Lady the most realistic and, in the end, the most completely modern of her many fine novels.

The Author: Wilella 'Willa' Cather was born on 7 December 1873 on her family's farm in the small Virginia town of Back Creek Valley.  Her paternal grandfather, a farmer of Irish descent, moved to Nebraska in 1877, leaving their sheep farm, called Willow Shade, in the care of Cather's father.  When Willow Shade burned down in 1883, the now homeless Charles Cather was also forced to move his young family to Nebraska - a place his clever ten year old daughter initially found to be 'as bare as a piece of sheet iron.'

In September 1884 Willa and her family - she already had a younger brother named Roscoe and would eventually have three more - moved from her grandparents' house into a comfortable home of their own in the growing prairie town of Red Cloud.  Here she regularly began attending school for the first time and met the immigrant Czech, Russian, Scandinavian, French and German farmers whose lives she would later portray so vividly and movingly in her breakthrough 1918 novel My Àntonia.  Although she would do a lot of traveling and live in many different towns and cities during the next sixty-three years, Cather always thought of Red Cloud as 'home' and maintained strong ties with many of the people, especially women, she had known there as a girl.  Indeed, all her closest relationships, outside those with members of her immediate family, were with intelligent, cultured and artistically-minded women who, like herself, had quietly refused to don the straitjacket of conformity their ultra-conservative midwestern upbringing expected them to wear. 

After graduating from high school, Cather attended a prep school where she did well enough in Greek, Latin, chemistry and mathematics to earn herself a place at the University of Nebraska.  In 1891 an essay of hers titled 'Concerning Thomas Carlyle' appeared in the Nebraska State Journal.  It was her first appearance in print and persuaded her to abandon science, her original choice of career, to try her hand at writing.  Within a year she had become literary editor of the university paper Hesperian, with many of her stories and poems subsequently appearing in its pages.  During this time she was also active in the university debating and theatrical societies and began to dress in male clothes, a habit she soon dropped - along with those of referring to herself as 'William Cather' and keeping her hair cut mannishly short - in order not to make a spectacle of herself or embarrass her family.

1893 saw Cather begin to contribute regularly to the Nebraska State Journal - a practice she would continue, off and on, until 1900.  In 1895 she graduated and became associate editor of the Lincoln Courier.  Soon bored with this newspaper job, she applied for an instructor's position at her old alma mater.  When she failed to be offered the position, she impulsively moved to Pittsburgh, where she shortly became the editor of a widely circulated women's magazine known as Home Monthly.  In addition to her magazine work, she wrote and published stories, poems and drama reviews both locally and in nationally distributed literary journals like The Overland Monthly.  Pittsburgh was to remain her home until 1906 - she had by this time become a very well-traveled woman, spending her summers with an ever-expanding circle of friends in New York, Washington DC, Ohio as well as in 'emerging' western states like Wyoming, New Mexico and Arizona - when she moved to New York to take up yet another editing post at McClure's Magazine.  It was while working here that she met Edith Lewis, a fellow editor who was to remain her confidante and companion for the next thirty-nine years.

Cather spent much of the time between 1908 and 1914 traveling.  During this period she met new friends like novelist Sarah Orne Jewett (who encouraged her to find her own voice as a writer and write about the places she'd grown up in) and visited London and the Continent both for pleasure and in her new professional capacity as Managing Editor of McClure's Magazine.  Her first novel, Alexander's Bridge, was published by the magazine in three installments in February 1912 before being republished in book form by the firm of Houghton Mifflin in May.  It received a mixed reception, with several critics comparing it unfavorably to the work of Henry James, who was still considered America's preeminent (if physically absent and no longer publishing) novelist at the time.  Cather's second novel O Pioneers! - a story based on her Nebraska childhood which appeared in 1913 - was more popular and helped to cement her reputation as one of American literature's most promising new talents.  The publication of her third novel, The Song of the Lark, in 1915 prompted the esteemed US critic HL Mencken to state that she had 'stepped definitely into the small class of American novelists who are seriously to be reckoned with.'  

Mencken's praise did little to improve the sales of her fourth novel My Àntonia (1918), which sympathetically examined the life of a Czech immigrant girl and remains one of the most emotionally affecting and realistically drawn portraits of the immigrant experience ever published anywhere.  As had been the case with all of her previous novels, Cather chose to make its narrator a man.  She generally preferred the work of dead male writers to that of living female ones.  'When a woman writes a story of adventure,' she once wrote, 'a stout sea tale, a manly battle yarn, anything without wine, women and love, then I will begin to hope for something great from them.'  

The latter half of Cather's career saw her move further afield than her childhood memories of Red Cloud for inspiration and material.  Although the early chapters of One of Ours (1922) - a bestseller which won her that year's Pulitzer Prize, despite the criticism leveled at it by some reviewers who accused its author of romanticizing what had been a costly and very brutal war - and all of A Lost Lady (1923) were set in Nebraska, her two succeeding novels The Professor's House (1925) and Death Comes For the Archbishop (1928) revealed a new interest in the landscapes and native cultures of the American southwest.  Cather changed direction again with Shadows on the Rock (1931), her first genuinely 'historical' novel, which tells the story of a young girl's coming of age in seventeenth century colonial Québec.  This was followed in 1935 by Lucy Gayheart, a contemporary tale about a young opera singer and her struggle to fulfill her artistic potential which saw Cather return once more to Nebraska for inspiration - albeit to a Nebraska that was in the process of undergoing radical social and economic change that would soon make it unrecognizable as the rugged frontier state she'd grown up in and loved all her life.

Cather published her final novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl, a tale of slavery set in antebellum Virginia, in 1940.  By then her style of writing had come to seem irrelevant and old-fashioned to younger, left-leaning critics like Edmund Wilson, causing several of them to dismiss her and her work as outmoded relics of a bygone age.  She planned to write another novel set in France but was unable to complete more than a few dozen pages of it due to a painful hand condition and other recurring health problems which plagued her during her later, increasingly reclusive years.  Her work enjoyed something of a revival during World War Two, earning her hundreds of letters from grateful GIs who wanted to thank her for bringing to life a 'vanished' America that many of them wanted and needed to believe they were fighting to defend.  Although her last years were marked by ill health and grief at the loss of family members and many old friends, she did manage to complete a final book of stories, The Old Beauty and Others, which appeared, posthumously, in 1948.  

Willa Cather died on 28 April 1947 and was buried - not, as might seem obvious, in her hometown of Red Cloud - but in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, close to the Canadian island where she'd spent at least part of every summer since 1922 with her partner Edith Lewis.

Click HERE to visit THE WILLA CATHER ARCHIVE, a website maintained by the University of Nebraska which offers further information on every aspect of the writer's life and career.  To read A Lost Lady as a free downloadable eBOOK, please click HERE

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