A Whale of a Tale: Bookish Vacations and Literary Landmarks

Nantucket lighthouse

The past month has been a whirlwind of last minute book deadlines and long distance road trips. The boyfriend and I spent a week mid-April in Cape Cod. It was pre-season so it was cold, many things (including the Nantucket Nectar juice stand, curses!!) were closed, and it was generally pretty empty. With our inn, the surrounding restaurants, museums, beaches, national parks, towns, and–on the day we went–the entire island of Nantucket, being relatively unpopulated, rather than feeling lonely, we kind of enjoyed the feeling that we had the place to ourselves. Though I definitely want to go back in season when it’s warm, sometime.

We went to Nantucket, mostly because I was dying to check out the Whaling Museum which ended up being SO WORTH the 2.5 hour ferry ride each way (the ferry itself was awesome, so bonus points). If you’re into history, lighthouses, seafaring, etc., I highly recommend it. But there is one entire wall dedicated to the various harpoons used–along with graphic illustrations–of the whaling/killing process, so if your love of animals completely outweighs your fascination and need to know things (I like knowing All The Things, so even though it was sad to know how many whales were killed and how barbarically it was done, it was still really interesting) then maybe not your cup of tea.

To my great surprise, the island and museum actually had a major literary connection: Did you know that Herman Melville’s Moby Dick was directly inspired by a real Nantucket whaling voyage? Truth!

Nantucket used to be the biggest whaling capital in the world and ships of natives would go to sea for years at a time, sometimes not returning for as many as four years, in order to hunt sperm whales, whales that provided the most valuable oil (taken out of their head cavity) that burned clean and was used to make candles and to keep lighthouses burning brightly. (Fun Pennsylvania fact: When oil was discovered in 1861 in Titusville, PA, whaling went out of style and the industry quickly died. So, hurray, PA for saving the whales!) One particular ship that left Nantucket’s shore, the Essex, sailed to the South Pacific, where it encountered a MONSTER sperm whale in 1820. The ship was 87 feet long and the whale was estimated at 85 feet long; a pretty even match.

At that estimation, the whale was twice the size of the skeleton on display at the museum (shown below to help your imagination).

Nantucket Whaling Museum

Do you see, in the bottom of the photograph, that boat? That boat fit about 4 men, just to give you a size comparison to the skeleton. Personally, I, as a post-JAWS generation individual, think it’s RIDICULOUS to go floating around in the ocean hunting something that’s not only bigger than me but three times the size of my floatation vessel…

They tried to kill the whale and, in response, the irate whale attacked and totaled the ship. The survivors floated on the ocean for 92 days in 20-foot back up boats that leaked and eventually, after eating the organs of those who died naturally, they resorted to drawing lots to decide who would sacrifice themselves next for their colleague’s next meal. Interestingly enough, three of the men who returned home wrote memoirs about their experiences on the boat and eating their cousins and former neighbors. It didn’t mention this in the museum, but I doubt these memoirs were well received. I mean, they were living on an ISLAND for the rest of their lives, with less than 10,000 people (similar to my college town) and they put on record who they ate. I’m sure relations were uncomfortably strained, at best. This really great Smithsonian blog post, “The True-Life Horror that Inspired Moby Dick” discusses the details of the shipwreck and how the survivors were received (some without much judgement, some more so) if you’re interested in reading more.

The rest of the vacation followed with a rather bookish theme. Went we went to Provincetown, the highlight of the day was the town library…

This was the outside...

This was the outside…

And this was the inside. It is a BOAT. In the children’s section of a library!! (I can’t imagine how they all resist climbing aboard, something that, according to numerous signs and to our great disappointment, is strictly prohibited.)

This. THIS. Awesome.

This. THIS. Awesome.

We also went on the Cape Cod Potato Chip Factory Tour…

Cape Cod Potato Chip Factory Tour

…and went to one of the most heartbreaking Red Sox games (pouring rain storm, then, they had the lead but gave up FIVE RUNS in the top of the ninth, ugh.)

Fenway Park

The last day, we stopped in to visit/pick up a friend in Cambridge for the long drive back to Pennsylvania and spent the day hopping around various bookish attractions: The Raven (a used bookstore), the Harvard Bookstore (AMAZING), which also had an Espresso Book Machine named Paige M. Gutenborg, which I stared at, practically drooling, like I was hypnotized, watching books get printed on demand (Side story: Last year, at BEA, someone told me there was an espresso machine behind our booth and I WAS SO EXCITED being the book nerd I am, but when I got there it was an actual, coffee beverage espresso machine and I was terribly disappointed), and the Curious George Store which had a small but respectable children’s book section.

It was strange, going on a vacation that didn’t include a bathing suit–a first for me–and though I had been hoping for it to be a complete break from everything stressful and everything book related, some last minute page proof corrections and panicked email correspondences did seep into the vacation. And I didn’t get any fiction writing done like I’d been hoping [deep sigh] but it was great to just have a break and sleep in late and simply recharge. Thankfully now, the book is officially and completely done (more on this later) and now EVERYDAY feels like a vacation (okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it IS a huge relief).

A bookish-themed vacation isn’t terribly unusual for me–I love visiting author’s homes, like Emily Dickinson’s house and the Mark Twain house and the Edgar Allan Poe house in Philadelphia–but visiting a place that inspired a great work of fiction was definitely a first for me this year. How about you? Do you check out libraries, bookstores, and literary landmarks while on vacation? Any places you’d recommend planning a visit to this summer?

A Tiny Writer’s Retreat

My mom owns a lake house in North Carolina. She plans to retire there someday, but in the meantime, she rents it out. It’s cute and has gorgeous views and a jacuzzi tub and I have my own room. I only saw the house once, soon after she bought it two years ago, and someone has been renting it ever since.

So when the renter moved out on Friday afternoon, you can bet I was there at 5 am Saturday morning, after a nine and a half hour drive with my boyfriend, ready to claim it as mine for the long weekend.

Once I got there, I realized that it was exactly two years ago that I last visited. My mom, sister, me, and one of my college roommates drove down for Labor Day weekend. I was a senior in college and after only one week into the semester had a boatload of reading to do. It was beautiful there, restful, warm, and a great adventure, but I was stressed with all of my homework. It was such a stark difference to this weekend, where I wasn’t worried about much of anything. Only the day before my editor had approved one hundred and seventy-five photographs for my book and a huge sense of relief settled over the large chunk of my brain dedicated to worrying about deadlines and research and email correspondence.

This weekend, I was free. Free to do what I wanted. I still can’t quite get over that feeling, even though it’s been a year since I graduated. I can do whatever I want in my free time. It feels like such a luxury, still, after years of having practically every spare moment from September to May dedicated to something school related.

So I wrote. And read. For hours. Lounging out on the grass and on air mattresses (there’s no furniture in the house) and in lawn chairs on one of the many decks overlooking the lake. Besides boat traffic and water skiers, it was completely silent in my mom’s house and backyard. It was the perfect writing retreat. I got the last bit of tan for the summer. And I got three chapters written.

Per my usual writing process, I wrote each chapter out by hand first.

And then I typed them up, revising, adding, deleting, as I typed.

I could get used to this.

Maybe I’m Addicted to Bananagrams…

I just returned from a lovely, week-long, extremely necessary beach vacation. The week before had been seven days of extreme highs and lows and my stress level was pretty much at an all-time height. As the deadline for this book creeps nearer, my anxiety is increasing about Getting It Done and Doing It Well, and a series of roadblocks and breakthroughs are giving me a roller-coaster ride of it. Also, my dog almost died. But there were so many good things that matched the really awful things, that I’d prefer to remember all those:

This get-well-soon gift basket that everyone at my work put together for my sick dachshund. There was even a card that they all signed. I work with seriously the nicest people ever.

A free book from a fabulous blog that arrived just before my vacation departure and promised to be the perfect beach read. It was. I finished it in one day. (Thanks again Steph!)

A gifted pair of super funky, super comfortable new heels from my Aunt Wendy.


Vacation made everything even better: I read 2.5 books, saw baby dolphins, went water skiing, got a full summer’s tan in a few days (I so so so miss being a lifeguard and getting paid to tan; we editor folks are much more pasty with our indoor office jobs), played an excessive amount of bananagrams, and even wrote a 2,000-word first chapter to a new book that’s been floating around in my head for a month or so. I won’t say much about it except to say that the writing was almost easy, I love the characters and the plot, and I think it’s good. Like, really good. [cross your fingers!] I’m so looking forward to NaNoWriMo this year (probably the next chance I’ll have to seriously start writing this new book. With my deadline for the Byberry State Hospital book being early November, I’ll be able to partake in at least some of the month’s Twitter writing-sprints and local write-ins).

So I’m back, my stress level is down, I feel like I can actually handle everything and get it all done, and will even be blogging with more regularity again (hurray!)

How’s your summer treating you? Were you able to go on a vacation yet, even if it was just a mini staycation? Did it do any good things for your writing?

Philadelphia and the Ploughshares Literary Boroughs Series

Miscellanea Libri, in the Reading Terminal Market

It’s up! My guest post is up!

If you live in the Philadelphia area, are moving to town, or just want to know what’s occurring on the Philadelphia literary scene (where to read, where to write, where to get published) definitely check it out!

I had a lot of fun doing the research for this project. Though over the years I’ve attended a lot of events–such as the Push to Publish conference–and was involved with Philadelphia Stories through my internship, this blog post gave me a whole new appreciation for the city. Normally, we of the suburbs avoid adventuring into Philly too often, but I’m starting to really appreciate how many things there are to do there. I think that as teenagers we labeled it as “lame,” just because it was nearby and familiar and we never got past that negative stereotype.

I’ve really been enjoying the entire Literary Boroughs blog series. There have already been posts on Minneapolis, Ithaca, Brooklyn, Omaha, Portsmouth, and Morocco. It’ll be running until next spring, one post a week, so keep tuned to explore other cities!

What Does Poe and a Philly Cheesesteak Have in Common?

Ever since I found out that the National Park Service preserved (one of) Edgar Allan Poe’s Philadelphia homes, I’ve been wanting to adventure there. Due to the pressing need to do some Philadelphia research (more on this later), we finally went and explored it on Saturday.

Fun Facts about Poe and Philadelphia:

  • Poe lived in Philadelphia for six years and they were his most productive, successful, and happiest years.
  • While in the city, he published The Tell-Tale Heart and The Black Cat.
  • It was while living in Philadelphia, it’s believed, that he wrote The Raven.
  • He lived in five different homes in his six years there.
  • A lot of the murders highlighted in Philadelphia newspapers at the time (has Philly ever been safe?) served as inspiration

Due to “the lack of primary evidence describing [the interior design] during Poe’s occupancy,” all the rooms are empty and the walls bare, which gave it a pretty creepy feeling, especially in the basement. The only objects in the rooms were photocopies of some of his poems and stories, loose-leaf and scattered on the shelves and in the closets, some strangely out-of-place photocopies of airplane drawings, and, even more out-of-place, this stuffed monkey.

Why is there a monkey in Poe’s closet??

It’s a small house, so it only took about an hour to properly explore and read all the museum materials. I’d definitely recommend stopping in if you’re in the Philadelphia area.

On a side note: after seeing The Raven in theaters a few weeks ago, I couldn’t help but imagine John Cusack wandering moodily around the house.

A Bookworm’s Guide to Writer’s Homes in the United States

I’m sure most of you would agree that preserving things of “historical significance” is important, but as a personal pack rat, my definition is probably a bit broader than most. If I had my way, there would probably be historical plaques on very nearly everything, toting the minute importance of this building and that object. I frequent museums, National Parks, and am particularly fond of historically preserved house tours, like the Downton Abbey-esque Biltmore House and the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace. One brand of house tours I wish I frequented more often is writer’s homes. Reading the biographies of your favorite authors is one thing, but visiting their homes, seeing where they worked, wrote, and were inspired provides a bit of information that you can never extract from author bios. With so much obsession over popular author’s writing rooms (I’m particularly fond of Roald Dahl’s grumpy-old-men writer’s room and writing habits) and bookshelf organization, it’s not hard to understand the draw. Though I haven’t visited most of the 15 Most Beautiful Estates of Famous Authors, I have visited a few.

The Mark Twain House in Hartford, CT

The Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom's Cabin) house, also in Hartford, CT. It's actually right next door to the Mark Twain house. The museums share a parking lot.

The Emily Dickinson house, Amherst, MA. Her grave is just around the block, and I couldn't resist visiting that either. It's on local tourist maps, but nearly impossible to find!

Added Later: Also, though not technically a writer’s home, when I studied abroad in Egypt in the summer of 2010 (before the protests) I was overly-thrilled when I stumbled upon El Fishawi Café, the famous café in Cairo’s historic marketplace, Khan El-Khalili, where Nobel Prize Laureate Naguib Mahfouz (author of Midaq Alley) frequented and was known to write at upon occasion. While everyone else sipped their delicious fruit drinks and compared souvenir purchases, I stared at my surroundings, slack-jawed.

Next stop? The Edgar Allan Poe house in Philadelphia, a free museum and National Historic Site, and the alleged possible site where the first draft of The Raven was written.

To some, the over-priced admission, high realty listing prices, and general enthusiasm to visit these homes might seem silly, but “there are about fifty-seven writers with houses in their honor open to the public. Several have more than one house museum, bringing the total number of writers’ houses to seventy-three open to the public in the United States.” These houses can’t stay in business–or manage upkeep–if readers didn’t really love them. Which writer’s homes have you visited? Do you have any on your bucket list?

An Opportunity to Virtually Visit a 9/11 Memorial

Around midnight, I visited the Garden of Reflection in Lower Makefield, PA.  The fountain is composed of two, 9-foot-high towers of water symbolizing the missing Twin Towers surrounded by a shallow pool of water.  Illuminated by spotlights, the water towers looked unsubstantial, like tall, solemn ghosts.  A string of hand-drawn hearts the size of my palms cupped together, strung from tree-to-tree, decorated the entire park.  There was a leaflet explaining the hearts:

As you enter the drive into Memorial Park, and then continue the walking journey of the Garden of Reflection you will see 2,973 Healing Hearts fluttering in the wind, strung from tree to tree.  These hearts are an expression of the emotions invoked within each young person who created a heart; one for every person who perished on that horrific day.  These Healing Hearts are reminiscence of Tibetan Prayer Flags.  Just as the Tibetan Prayer Flags promote peace, compassion, and strength to all, these Healing Herts send out similar messages (of honor and hope).  As you continue your journey, which leads from sorrowful reminders of the tragedy and grief towards luminous symbols of Hope, Peace, and Celebration of Life, these Healing Hearts will be blown by the winds to spread those thoughts and prayers into all the prevailing space, sending their messages to all.

By viewing these Healing Hearts you are reminded to pray for those we lost and their families who continue to grieve, as well as a peaceful future for the world.  –Tara Bane-DellaCorte

When I realized that each of those paper hearts represented a person who died in 9/11–in NYC, in the Pentagon, in Pennsylvania–the impact was powerful and shocking, to say the least.  There were so many hearts.  They were everywhere.  Actually seeing the number of people physically represented, actually grasping the reality of the number, was overwhelming.

It reminded me of the time I visited Boston with a group of friends and we stopped to see the Holocaust Memorial.  Along a small walkway there are a series of glass towers about three stories tall each.  A sequence of unique numbers are etched into the glass.  My friend didn’t understand. “What are all these numbers?” he asked, tracing his finger across them.

“Each number represents someone who died in a concentration camp.  These are the numbers that were tattooed on their arms.”

Stunned, he gazed upwards at the wall of numbers.  “This many people died in the Holocaust?” he asked.

Another friend shook her head.  “This is how many died in just one camp.”  She pointed at our feet where “Auschwitz” was carved into the granite.

If you can’t get to a 9/11 memorial in person today, the park offers a virtual tour on their website. Did you know that most of the steel remains from the World Trade Center lives in Pennsylvania now?  It was originally manufactured in Coatsville, Pa and apparently it was returned there during the clean up.  The Garden of Reflection has a large piece of its own, standing like a modern art statue.

Piece of the World Trade Center, The Garden of Reflection, Lower Makefield, PA