I’m reading four books. One is my friend Jackie Shannon Hollis’ as-yet-unpublished manuscript, At the Wheat Line. I’m savoring each scene, her lovely voice and Carly trying to make sense of her own life after her mother’s death. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to interview Jackie, a novelist and short-story writer, on my blog this year.
The novel by my bedside is The Great Stink by Clare Clark, set in 1855 London. The language has lovely, historic heft and pacing, and her word choices buoy the carefully plotted action. I adore the way she uses words like tosher and flusher, inherent to the underground sewer world she’s describing, giving their meanings through context, instead of stopping to explain the definitions. The novel is full of atmosphere–and stink–in an evocative way that portrays a world long-gone while reminding us how lucky we are that government officials implemented sewer systems before everyone died of cholera.
The Hone & Strong Diaries of Old Manhattan, edited by Louis Auchincloss, is fascinating reading punctuated by full-color illustrations and excellent notes about the historical period. It’s the most useful book I’ve found so far for my current novel-research needs. I dipped into the George Templeton Strong passages straightaway, as I’ve run across his charming quotes numerous times while researching prostitution in 19th century New York City. He was the one who called the city, then overrun by women of the night, a “noctivagous strumpetocracy”–although a few sources of late, including New York magazine, have credited Whitman.
Strong’s critique of famous Swedish soprano Jenny Lind’s 1851 New York debut struck me as a good reminder about writing–and not overwriting. He complained that all her selections were burdened with too many high-pitched showy flourishes. “A man who could walk on his head as comfortably as on his feet would be a fatiguing person to look at, if he abused his faculty of locomotion and was habitually upside down.”
I’m also digesting one of those pictorial history books in the Images of America series, this one Castle Garden and Battery Park by Barry Moreno. The photos and captions offer excellent reference material that’ll help me nail down some specifics about immigration in the mid-19th century.
With all this reading, certain facets of my new novel are coming into focus. I want my protagonist Jean-Jacques to witness the burning of the New York Crystal Palace in 1858, for instance. The Hone and Strong book offers a great reproduction of a Currier & Ives print of the conflagration, which resulted in the building being a total loss. I can’t wait to set Jean-Jacques in the crowd and see what happens next.