A few moments with Cornelius Eady

Cornelius Eady (Photograph by David Delaney)

by Celeste Schantz

Cornelius Eady doesn’t believe in apologies.  At least not when he’s on stage giving a reading of his work, that is.

The poet and Pulitzer Prize nominee was in town on April 19th promoting his new chapbook/CD combo, Book of Hooks, an eclectic blend of spoken word pieces and music. Through his appearances at RIT and Writers and Books in Rochester, NY, Eady illustrates just how engaging a reader he can be, particularly in consort with Rough Magic (the band of musicians he currently performs with.)

In between an on-air interview at WXXI and a race to catch a flight to his next reading gig, Eady generously spares a few moments of his time. We’ve arranged to meet at Rochester’s 1872 Café. It’s an up-and-coming hot spot right across the street from the iconic Nick Tahoe’s, which figures in one of Eady’s poems.

He makes his way out of the light April drizzle into the warmth and light of the café, a fresh pot of coffee brewing behind the counter.  Settling at one of the tables, we get right down to business.  Every moment must count.

Schantz:  Cornelius, thanks so much for meeting today! Your reading and performance with Rough Magic last night was great.  I know you’re on a tight schedule, so let’s get right to the first question.

Eady: Thanks, Celeste. Sounds good!

Schantz:  Do you feel that there are some poems best read silently on the page and some best performed aloud?  Or is all poetry, due to its bardic tradition, best enjoyed through the spoken word?

Eady:  All poetry can be performed.  Performance is more immediate than words on a page.  We need to get away from the idea that a poem will only work on a page. Some material is more complex than others, but using the lyrical instrument  of voice and an ability to create a “dance poem,” all poetry can be performed.


With Eady at the 1872 Cafe, a coffee shop which sits on the historical site in Rochester, NY where Susan B. Anthony once voted illegally and ultimately received a warrant for her arrest.


Schantz:  What’s one common mistake poets make when reading their work?

Eady:  Some poets make the mistake of apologizing for their work.  Don’t ever apologize!  Do not cower or be afraid.  Even if you are testing out new material, don’t say that to the audience.  The audience is on your side.  You walk up to the stage, you give disclaimers, you think you’re being disarming but with total strangers it’s not going to fly. Reading is an intimate thing…you’re exposing yourself and the crowd will taste the feeling, the energy you put out. There’s no sense in questioning why you’re there…if you ask that question, the audience will too!  You need to be commanding but welcoming.

Schantz:  Do you put poems in sequential order before you read?

Eady:  Well, it was total improve at Writers and Books last night.  It’s fun to do that! But usually, I make sure I know the first poem I am going to read, and the last poem I am going to read.  The rest I base on the audience.

Schantz:  Who is one of your favorite poets to hear reading aloud, and why?

Eady: Patricia Smith is an excellent reader.  You should look her up and find some videos.  She knows how to read a room…instinctively.  She always manages to find a way to draw an audience to her.  She has projection and confidence; she holds her body up, her voice goes out. I recommend observing Patricia Smith.


And with that, our fifteen minutes has come to an end.

As Cornelius Eady gets up to leave, we shake hands, and I thank him for his gracious consent to meet for this interview.  He’s looking around the spacious, well-lit café; new, bright, and inviting, but also looks at his watch. He has that plane to catch.

“You don’t understand” he says, smiling and shaking his head in a bit of disbelief.  “When I was growing up, the idea of having a beautiful place like this in this neighborhood would have been impossible–this is great!”  He searches unsuccessfully in his jacket for a business card to give the manager, who’s standing nearby.  We hand him a pen and a slip of paper. Eady introduces himself to the manager, gives her his contact info, compliments her on how beautiful the café space is and explains that “he’s a poet and he thinks this would be a great spot for poetry readings.” Humility and grace noted.

With that, Eady ’s out the door.

No apologies: just a big smile, a great attitude, and a few well-chosen words, as distilled and meaningful as those in his poems.








This interview originally appeared on the website of Just Poets of Greater Rochester, NY. Eady is an honorary lifetime member of that organization.

Celeste Schantz is a member of Just Poets and a former board member.

David Delaney is a current board member.


An Interview with Ron Charles of The Washington Post!

Ron Charles Staff Photo Washington Post Book World copy

Ron Charles, editor of Book World at The Washington Post


Recently The Wonderlings Book Club was thrilled to announce a very special guest: Ron Charles, of The Washington Post! Mr. Charles joined us for a live Facebook chat on Thursday, March 1st 12:30 (EST) and a great time was had by all.

Ron is a true veteran of the study and discussion of  great books and authors. He’s been a book reviewer for a sum total of more than 20 years combined, at The Washington Post and prior to that, the Christian Science Monitor, During our Wonderlings Book Club interview, we discussed that work as well as the process of book reviewing and who his own favorite authors have been, along the way.

See Ron’s recent visit to a small town book club meeting HERE as they discuss Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones.

Although his style is decidedly fun-loving,  lighthearted and satirical (as we see in the delightful  The Totally Hip Book Review, which he produces with his wife, Dawn), Charles is a veteran of all things literary.

Born and raised in St. Louis, Ron Charles earned an M.A. in English at Washington University in 1986 and began teaching American literature at Principia College (Elsah, Ill.). After the birth of his second daughter in 1991, his family moved back to St. Louis, where he taught English at the John Burroughs School and began writing freelance book reviews. Those essays eventually led to a job as the book section editor and lead critic for the Christian Science Monitor (1998-2005). In 2005, he became a senior editor and weekly critic for The Washington Post Book World. In early 2009 when The Post closed its stand-alone book section and integrated reviews throughout the paper, he was appointed deputy editor and given a weekly column in Style. In 2013, he was promoted to editor of Book World.

In 2009, he won the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. He was also a judge for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction (the year Donna Tartt won for her novel, The Goldfinch.)

Ron also hosts Life of a Poet, a series of interviews in conversation with some of today’s most prominent poets, co-sponsored by Hill Center, The Library of Congress and The Washington Post. He’s interviewed everyone from Jeffrey Eugenides and Joyce Carol Oates to Margaret Atwood, and many, many others. And last week, we were lucky enough to be able to interview him!


The Interview:

Celeste Helene Schantz Today The Wonderlings Book Club is very happy to welcome our very special guest, Ron Charles of The Washington Post. Ron is the editor of Book World, and we’re very pleased that he’s joining us on Facebook today as our guest for this half hour. Ron, welcome!

First, can you speak a bit about what it’s like to serve on the judging panel for the Pulitzer Prize? What was it like? What was the process?

Ron Charles  The Pulitzer process is really exhilarating — and exhausting! The books flood in — more than 400, as I recall. (It turns out all you need to enter your book for a Pulitzer is $50. And a lot of people have $50. Or did. There were three of us on the Fiction committee. We read widely and tried to point each other toward books we really liked.

Shabnam Mirchandani  Ron, I love your “stand-up comic” approach to book reviewing in the videos. Such an eclectic combination of raucous fun and sparking intellect! (and your wife is now my hero!) How on earth do you wade through an ocean of material and come up with such sassy, smart, and crazily addictive productions?

Ron Charles Thanks for watching!  https://www.totallyhipvideobookreview.com/Manage

Ron Charles Totally Hip Video Book Review 

Those have been a blast for Dawn and me. We’ve been trying to create one a month. But a lot depends on the books I’m reviewing and my wife’s busy schedule (she’s a high school teacher). Not all books lend themselves to zany comedy, of course — so that’s the first hurdle.

Susan Pigman  Ron, The Washington Post book section is always alerting me to books I would have otherwise missed. How do you choose which books to review out of the many possibilities published?

Ron Charles That’s our major challenge. We get about 150 books a day, but review only about 17 a week, so, as you can see, most don’t make it….. but we’re trying to create a rich selection of reviews on a variety of subjects to meet the interests of our audience. We rely on the trades (PW, Library Journal, Kirkus) and a few publicists we trust, and we poke around and see what we like. Once I identity a book for the THVBR treatment, I write up the review and then spend about a week working on the script and collecting all the props and costumes we’ll need. Come Saturday morning, we film all day and sometimes into Sunday. Then it takes me about eight hours to do the editing.

Shabnam Mirchandani  Wow!  How do you balance comedy and seriousness when confronted with the implications of a “post truth” moment?

Ron Charles I feel entirely free to add little satiric zingers about “post truth” when appropriate. My favorite was a scene of Tom Sawyer/Donald Trump promising to build a fence and get Mexicans to paint that fence. The Post has been very kind about supporting them online, but the audience is still, like Milton’s, “fit though few.”

David Delaney  With that in mind, do you have a specific reader in mind when you review? T. Kooser said he wrote for his secretary. If she didn’t get it , it needed work.

Ron Charles  David Delaney Ha! Kooser is always great. But no, I don’t have a specific reader in mind, though after two decades of doing this every week, I have a pretty good idea who my 18 or so readers are.

Celeste Helene Schantz Well, now you can add the members of our little group!

Ron Charles I’m writing for smart people who like literary fiction and are willing to step outside their comfort zone once in a while; people willing to take a chance on a novel if they think it has a serious enough intent and it done with enough skill.

David Delaney  How has reviewing changed in the last hundred years — if it has?


David Delaney  At least old enough!

David Delaney  I mean has the skeleton of the profession altered over the years?

Ron Charles  The big change, of course, is the death of most of the nation’s newspaper and magazine book sections. And the rise of many, many new online review sites and the prevalence of costumer reviews. That’s a sea-change. Most of the reviews that remain have to be much shorter, much more consumer-advice oriented. People want lists of recommendations, they want thumbs up or down. They want recommendations from celebrities and, especially, their friends, broadly defined.

David Delaney  When you write a review I notice you really strike a chord on the opening line. Is that critical in the material you review?

Ron Charles For various reasons (i.e. our click-based economy) I think reviews have also gotten much more promotional, much more positive, much more happy, much more “shareable.” If you write a meh or negative review of a midlist novel nowadays, so few people will read it that the CIA could store secrets in it. David Delaney,  I spend half my time on the first two paragraphs, so thanks for noticing!

David Delaney It shows.

Susan Pigman  Ron Charles I still miss Book World. But I appreciate the WP commitment to book reviewing, although I wince every time I have to look under Entertainment for them. Also appreciate the reviews of off-main-street books like Poetry and Science Fiction roundups.

Ron Charles  Susan Pigman I miss Book World, too! But the times, they are a-changin’. Print is yesterday. Online is now. I’m glad you enjoying our monthly coverage of Poetry and SF. I instituted those columns because I felt those books were falling through the cracks in our regular coverage.

Shabnam Mirchandani  Comedy as community service and conscience preserver is a fascinating phenomenon at the present time. Your thoughts?

Ron Charles Indeed, I think comedy — satire — may be the only possible response to America’s descent into madness over the last two years.

Celeste Helene Schantz Ron, today’s book reviews primarily focus on commercially successful novels. Our book club, The Wonderlings, currently focuses on provocative short form works (short stories, poetry, essays and novellas.) Is there still a place in book reviewing for shorter writing? Do you have a favorite short story or a favorite poem or poet?

Ron Charles I’m not a big short story fan myself. And novellas are extremely rare nowadays. But I try to make sure we do roundups of short stories periodically so that people know what’s out there. I find reviews of story collections are often exceedingly dull and plot bound….But please don’t tell anybody that.

I’m a big fan of poetry, and have, for the past five years, hosted a series called Life of a Poet, co-sponsored by the Library of Congress. They stream the interviews, but that’s a pretty dead way to experience them, I’m afraid. In the room with the author, it’s pretty electric, I think.

Celeste Helene Schantz  On the other hand, poetry used to be a feature in major publications. It was poetry for the people, accessible and enjoyed by many . . .and stories were serialized and had cliffhangers . . .

Ron Charles  Celeste Helene Schantz , We used to run a popular column called “The Poet’s Choice.” Trouble is, now we can know *exactly* how many people are clicking on each thing. I can tell you that poetry reviews are not burning down our server. But I remain committed to it! Just posted this interesting piece yesterday: https://www.washingtonpost.com/…/a11e4558-1657-11e8…

Shabnam Mirchandani Ron, please accept a Wonderlings Oscar (as the mirthful transcender of all categories) from us! Looking forward to your acceptance speech/video!

David Delaney When you read do you read at the speed of dialogue ?(when there’s dialogue of course)

Ron Charles I read about 35 pages an hour when reading for a review. But I can attain much, much higher speeds when reading for other purposes.

Celeste Helene Schantz  Any last questions for Ron?

Rick Williams What writers make you laugh? And has your “Book Monkey” carefully selected any totally hip favorite books for 2018 yet?

Ron Charles Comic novels are disappointing rare, I’m sorry to say. The best recent example is Andrew Sean Greer’s LESS.  Thank you so much for remembering the Book Monkey! She’s in this episode, I think: https://www.washingtonpost.com/…/feab7cfc-bd5e-11e6..

I’m happy to hang around longer. If I stop talking to you all, I have to go back to editing….

David Delaney The best critic you have read?

Ron Charles The best literary critic is James Wood at the New Yorker.

Shabnam Mirchandani  As a newly minted honorary Wonderling, do you have suggestions for our next read?

Ron Charles  Sing, Unburied, Sing is very powerful.

Celeste Helene Schantz As a former English teacher, you’ve studied your share of excellent literature. In the world of modern, commercially successful novels, do you still see glimmers of literary greatness and beautiful prose in the novels you review?

Ron Charles All the time! Honestly, I’m amazed at the literary talent! In fact, I think our real problem is a shortage of readers, not great books.

Celeste Helene Schantz Yes! I work at a library (I’m there right now . . .) and I would say the majority of patrons are online playing games. There are very few people in the stacks 😦 That’s one reason I started this group, to gather readers together.

Ron Charles Celeste Helene Schantz You’re killing me….

Mark Ordon On that note, is there anything that can be done? I recently came upon an opinion that there should be more focus on shorter forms, or at least books “in installments” to cater to a readership which is regretfully more distracted and has a very short attention span.

Ron Charles Mark Ordon I seen a few of those attempts (and written about them at least once) but none has survived for long that I know of.

Shabnam Mirchandani Nevertheless, we (the readers) shall persist!!!!!

Ron Charles If you love short fiction, you must subscribe to the wonderful ONE STORY magazine. https://www.one-story.com/

And here’s a picture of my desk at The Washington Post:


Le desk du Ron Charles

Rick Williams Nirvana…You probably have not complained of boredom recently!

David Delaney Where’s the desk?!

Mark Ordon Who needs the desk when the books are there?!

Ron Charles That’s our wonderful office manager, Nicole Chung, in the background.

Shabnam Mirchandani Let’s build a wall (of books)…

Ron Charles  MARA! (Make America Read Again!)

Celeste Helene Schantz Okay, that’s our new slogan!

Ron Charles Celeste Helene Schantz I’ll sell caps in the Totally Hip Gift Store.

David Delaney  Thank you Ron. This has been a great treat for me.

Ron Charles  Wonderful to talk with you all. this has been great fun for me — and a little crazy trying to see what’s coming in. I’m always available on Twitter and email: @roncharles  and ron.charles@washpost.com.

Rick Williams Fantastic! What a Great Guest‼

Shabnam Mirchandani THANK YOU!

Susan Pigman Thank you!

Mark Ordon Thank you for being with us!

Celeste Helene Schantz Ron Charles of the Washington Post, thanks so much for joining us today, and feel free to be a Wonderling for as long as you like. This has been great!

Ron Charles My pleasure! I leave you with this disturbing image:


Gaga bacon-head RC


Shabnam Mirchandani  Meat head?  Tribute to Lady Gaga’s sartorial adventures?

Ron Charles Shabnam Mirchandani Yes (Lady Gaga). It’s really weird for me to look back at some of the older videos and see once-timely gags that have grown so stale that I now have no idea what I was talking about!

Shabnam Mirchandani Ron Charles, you have a (die hard) fan in me..

Ron Charles  New video coming next week (if the predicted wind storm in DC doesn’t destroy my house this weekend.)


Mark Ordon Whatever it may be, it will certainly keep me up all night


Ron Charles Mark Ordon Then my work here is done!


The Wonderlings book club sincerely thanks Ron Charles  for his willingness to be a part of our crazy book club, and we look forward to more of his videos and book recommendations. Thanks, Ron!

Weeks Twenty Two to Twenty Four: I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem



It would be easy for a book set during the Salem Witch Trials to disintegrate into yet another western racial pastiche where the character of Tituba remains a culturally unimportant shadow in the background of a privileged white morality play.  Yet in the strong, capable hands of French (Guadoluopean) author Maryse Condé, Tituba at last has had her day.

In her short novel, I,Tituba, Black Witch of Salem (1986) Condé traces the life journey of the young, delightfully human Tituba. Tituba was conceived from rape (aboard a vessel ironically named Christ the King) and she takes us right up through the end of her life, breathing fresh life, memorable as apotheosis,  into a character whose story was long overdue to be told.

Condé’s novels often raise racial, gender and cultural issues in a variety of historical eras and locales. She explores, for example,  the 19th-century Bambara Empire of Mali in Segu (1980); and the 20th-century building of the Panama Canal and its influence on increasing the West Indian middle class in The Tree of Life (1992).¹

I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, is equally captivating.

Tituba, who possesses the skill and visions of a healer, is biracial. Born on Barbados to a young African slave woman, Abena, and a loving gentle giant named Yao, Tituba eventually becomes a maroon, having no owner, but an outsider to society. She’s taken under the wing of an herbalist named Mama Yaya, learning about traditional healing methods; then falls in love and marries a slave, John Indian, willing to return to slavery on his behalf. Mortal unions with men are to become a weakness of Tituba’s, throughout the story.



rendering of a Barbados sugar plantation


Soon after, Tituba and John Indian are sold to Samuel Parris, the Puritan who takes Tituba and John Indian to Boston, then to Salem Village, where Tituba is accused of witchcraft and arrested. Tituba shares a prison cell with a pregnant Hester Prynne, the heroine from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter (Prynne also receives a bit of a feminist makeover.)²

Tituba’s story also includes a relationship with a Jewish merchant, Benjamin Cohen d’Azevedo, and raises issues of shared cultural disenfranchisement and the commonality of oppression.

Condé’s narrative employs elements of traditional storytelling to provide tales within tales, magical as double yolks within eggs, resulting in an extremely well-narrated  depiction of Tituba as a larger-than-life yet supremely human protagonist; flawed and as likeable as anyone who has been marginalized and has had to fight to survive. The inclusion of a trinity of spiritual presences, namely Mama Yaya, Yao and Abena, her mother, serve as a sort of often-appearing chorus of the ego, advising and often chiding the very human Tituba as she navigates the racist and misogynist zeitgeist of the 1600’s.

Recently The Wonderlings Reading and Discussion Group voted to read I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem.

Condé’s  book is actually the longest work the group has ever read together, and they did a smashing job! A tight core group of readers explored many aspects of the work, including narrative, voice, character development, analysis of passages they felt were brilliant or needing form, as well as history, study of the atrocities of life on a sugar plantation, and waves of feminism which either did, or did not, apply to Tituba.

I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem was published in 1986. It would go on to receive the French Grand Prix award for women’s literature.


Although recovering from a fractured ankle, the author was quite gracious in answering several of our member’s questions about I, Tituba. Here are her responses, which were very kindly sent by the translator of the book, Richard Philcox.

She wrote;

Dear Celeste Schantz,

Life has got just a little bit complicated as I have fractured my ankle and my husband will type my answers to your questions.

We greatly appreciate how gracious the author was,  to provide these responses.


A Wonderlings Interview with Maryse Condé . . .


TW: You received your PhD in Caribbean literature at the Sorbonne in 1965, what is the title of your dissertation? (PS: Thank you, thank you for your generosity in taking part in our group!) –Rick Williams

MC: The title of my thesis at the Sorbonne in 1975 was “Stereotype of Black Characters in Caribbean Literature.”

TW: There is a vast chasm going back thousands of years between the culture and history of the African peoples and the white people from Western Europe that settled this country. Taking into consideration your personal experiences with racism, do you think there is any solution to the racist problem that presently exists in the US? – Jeri Harbers Thomson

MC: I am not a specialist of racism in the US but I do believe that in spite of the prevalent ideas, racism will die and humanity will become one. Maybe that is a dream, but it is mine.

TW: Within the book you use the heralding “crick, crack!” –the traditional opening used by a West Indian storyteller in front of an audience. It seems to say; “Now, listen! I’m about to tell you a fantastic tale!” Can you elaborate on the use of this device when writing/telling Tituba’s stories? As a proclamation that we as readers are about to hear something fantastic? I loved these passages; they were among the most excellent in the book, because they contain archetypes and dreams and folk tale elements, and the reader or audience member is wondering what is tangible and what is spiritual. I’d love for you to tell a bit about your use of that story opening, “crick, crack!” – Celeste Helene Schantz

MC:  Every writer is jealous of the storyteller. There is in the spoken word a spontaneity that writing brings to an end. I wanted to remind my readers that I belong to a society where oral traditions are still alive, that my words convey a magical power and that my story can be seen as a wonderful filter for emotions and knowledge. I was trying to say that people belonging to my part of the world do not simply write, they retain the power to influence deeply the minds of their listeners.

Tituba and Mary Walcott, illustration by John W. Ehninger

Tituba and Mary Walcott, illustration by John W. Ehninger Date 1902 Source “Giles Corey of the Salem Farms” (1868), in The Complete Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Boston, Houghton, 1902


TW:  What did use of the spirit world bring to your story? When in the trance of writing, how did the exchanges come out from the “other world?” Did you write these and let them stand or revise the exchanges? How has this book shaped your later views on other writings/life? –David Delaney

MC:  A writer is a dreamer. A book is the fruit of her imagination, complex and full of diverse ideas. There is a magical relationship between Tituba and me; One day when I was searching for books at the UCLA library, Ann Petry’s book on Tituba fell into my hands. That is how I got to know the story of the Salem witch trials. That bond between Tituba and me has never been found again in my writing.

TW: I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem was written in 1986, a time when women’s spirituality, particularly reclaiming witchcraft and goddess lore, was being articulated. Was Tituba’s spirituality, as well as being historically relevant, part of the parody of feminism, or more a depiction of a healthy relationship with spirit which we could emulate today? – Anna Schantz

MC: I Tituba as a book is a parody. I went to the extent of meeting with a real witch in Los Angeles who told me the secret of her art. For me there was a large part of humor in portraying Tituba who would not be taken too seriously. Her spirituality should not be taken as a model.

TW:  We appreciated the fact that you refrained from idealizing Tituba, and portrayed her fully, flaws and all, especially her perverse tendency to embrace exploitative situations to her own detriment. What was it about Tituba’s character that affected you most deeply?  -Shabnam Mirchandani

MC: In The Crucible by Arthur Miller Tituba has been portrayed as an unimportant, old Negress without any character, a shadow in the background. I wanted to give her a character of her own: young, attractive, fond of handsome men, not at all a role model. I suppose I was trying to make her human.

TW:  Do you think that some of your meaning or references to feminism/ parody are lost in translation? How involved are you in the translation process? –Jeri Harbers Thomson

MC: For me translation is another work entirely. My husband is a translator and I never interfere with his work. I never read his translations. They belong to him. If you would like to know more on this topic read the conversation we had between author and translator published in the book Intimate Enemies (Liverpool University Press.)

TW:  Are excellent writers born? Or are MFA programs in creative writing useful to hone our skills? Did you personally ever “study” creative writing or did you learn to write on your own through reading and learning from the craft of other authors? What is the most challenging aspect for you when writing a novel? What do you love? – Celeste Helene Schantz

MC: Creative writing programs are an invention of American universities. In the Francophone world we believe that the power to write is a gift which cannot be taught. My fondness for writing comes from my knowledge of literature from different parts of the world. It is by reading certain authors that I learned how to write and influence my readers. I have never studied otherwise. Reading for me is my master.

As for the writers I prefer, the list would be too long, but I make no difference between a Japanese writer, a French writer or an American: all of them can teach me their craft and bring me closer to what I want to achieve.

TW: Can you tell us about what you are working on now? (or at least give us a hint . . .?) –Susan Pigman

MC: I have just published a novel dealing with the major issue of terrorism. It’s called Le destin triste et fabuleux d’Ivan et Ivana, but it has not been translated yet into English. My autobiography of my years in Africa is about to be published by Seagull Press/University of Chicago as What is Africa to Me? True Fragments of an Autobiography. My husband is translating at the present time Of Morsels and Marvels, a travelogue of recipes and journeys throughout the world.


Best regards to all the Book Club members!

Maryse Condé



. . .A Bit About the Author . . .



Sandro Michaeless, BOMB Magazine


Born as Maryse Boucolon at Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe, the author Maryse Conde’ was the youngest of eight children. After having graduated from high school, she would go on to attend the Sorbonne in Paris.

After graduating, she taught in Guinea, Ghana and Senegal. She returned to Paris, and in 1965 completed her PhD in Caribbean literature at the Sorbonne.

In 1985 Condé was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to teach in the US. She then became a professor of French and Francophone literature at Columbia University in New York City. In addition to her creative writing, Condé retired from Columbia University as Professor Emerita of French. She has also taught at the University of California, Berkeley; UCLA, the Sorbonne, The University of Virginia, and the University of Nanterre. She and her husband (Richard Philcox, the English-language translator of most of her novels) split their time between New York City and Guadeloupe.

About Windward Heights




Her novel Windward Heights (2008) is a reworking of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, which she had first read at the age of 14. She had long wanted to create a work around it, as an act of “homage.” Her novel is set in Guadeloupe, and race and culture are featured as issues that divide people  Reflecting on how she drew from her Caribbean background in writing this book, she said:

“To be part of so many worlds—part of the African world because of the African slaves, part of the European world because of the European education—is a kind of double entendre. You can use that in your own way and give sentences another meaning. I was so pleased when I was doing that work, because it was a game, a kind of perverse but joyful game.”³


About Crossing the Mangrove


“Conde writes elegantly in a style that beautifully survives translation from the French…[she] gives readers a flavor of the French and Creole stew that is the Guadeloupan tongue.  In so doing, Conde conveys the many subtle distinctions of color, class, and language that made up this society.”–Chicago Tribune



In this beautifully crafted, Rashomon-like novel, Maryse Conde has written a gripping story imbued with all the nuances and traditions of Caribbean culture. Francis Sancher–a handsome outsider, loved by some and reviled by others–is found dead, face down in the mud on a path outside Riviere au Sel, a small village in Guadeloupe.


None of the villagers are particularly surprised, since Sancher, a secretive and melancholy man, had often predicted an unnatural death for himself.  As the villagers come to pay their respects they each–either in a speech to the mourners, or in an internal monologue–reveal another piece of the mystery behind Sancher’s life and death.


Like pieces of an elaborate puzzle, their memories interlock to create a rich and intriguing portrait of a man and a community. In the lush and vivid prose for which she has become famous, Conde has constructed a Guadeloupean wake for Francis Sancher.  Retaining the full color and vibrance of Conde’s homeland, Crossing the Mangrove pays homage to Guadeloupe in both subject and structure.

Maryse Condé’s works go well beyond historical fiction.

Among her plays are: An tan revolisyon, published in 1991, first performed in Guadeloupe in 1989; Comedie d’Amour, first performed in Guadeloupe in 1993; Dieu nous l’a donné, published in 1972, first performed in Paris in 1973; La mort d’Oluwemi d’Ajumako, published in 1973, first performed in 1974 in Gabon; Le morne de Massabielle, first version staged in 1974 in Puteaux (France), later staged in English in New York as The Hills of Massabielle (1991); Pension les Alizes, published in 1988, first staged in Guadeloupe and subsequently staged in New York as Tropical Breeze Hotel (1995); Les sept voyages de Ti Noel (written in collaboration with José Jernidier), first performed in Guadeloupe in 1987.

Prolific, refreshingly honest, and an excellent writer who deserves great praise and place in any canon of world literature . . .Maryse Condé is all of these things.


Also check out this 52-minute documentary, Maryse Condé : Une voix singulière       (with subtitles) 





¹ Wikipedia

² ibid.
³ Rebecca Wolff, Interview: “Maryse Condé”, Bomb Magazine, Vol. 68, Summer 1999, accessed 27 April 2016.

Week Nineteen: An Interview with NPR’s Nina Martyris!


Nina Martyris


The journalist Nina Martyris has written for many publications including The Guardian, The New Republic, Salon, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Times of India, Slate, and The Millions.
She is also a regular contributor to NPR, where she writes about food politics, and this week she graciously agreed to be our book club guest!
Two of Nina’s articles serve (pun intended) to shed light on food politics in United States social history.



Frederick Douglas



In the first article, Frederick Douglass On How Slave Owners Used Food As A Weapon Of Control  (NPR’s “The Salt,” 2/10/17) Martyris tells us;

“Hunger was the young Fred’s faithful boyhood companion. “I have often been so pinched with hunger, that I have fought with the dog – ‘Old Nep’ – for the smallest crumbs that fell from the kitchen table, and have been glad when I won a single crumb in the combat,” he wrote in My Bondage and My Freedom. “Many times have I followed, with eager step, the waiting-girl when she went out to shake the table cloth, to get the crumbs and small bones flung out for the cats.”

Her article explores Douglas’s slave narrative within the context of food used by masters as a form of violence and oppression against slaves.

The second piece studied is  How Suffragists Used Cookbooks as a Recipe for Subversion (NPR’s “The Salt” 11/5/15).

This piece and one very touching one about women visiting Susan B Anthony’s grave, were NPR’s two most-tweeted pieces on the evening of Nov 8 of the most recent presidential election.



members of the women’s suffrage movement planning to march.


“In the movie Suffragette,” says Martyris, “ Englishwomen march on the streets, smash shop windows and stage sit-ins to demand the vote. Less well-known is that across the pond, a less cinematic resistance was being staged via that most humble vehicle: the cookbook.”

Both famous authors and everyday women distributing pamphlets on the street contributed recipes which sprinkled a healthy dose of revolution in-between the pickles and gravy.

Cookbooks as revolution? Absolutely, and we’ll have seconds.


On Thursday at 12:30 EST Nina joined us for a “live” Facebook chat

Here’s the great conversation we shared. Enjoy!¹


Nina Martyris: Hi Celeste! Are we on?

Celeste Helene Schantz:  Welcome, Nina Martyris! Yes, we’re on! Thank you so much for joining The Wonderlings today. It’s much appreciated! As you can see, we have some questions lined up . . .

Nina Martyris:  Thank you for your question and for inviting me to do this chat. Very flattered!

Celeste Helene Schantz: Nina, what drew you to write about food culture and politics?

Nina Martyris: Well, the answer is a mix of the political and personal. I’ve always been interested in literature, culture and politics, especially the ways in which they crisscross in our daily lives. Food, however, was something I was barely interested in until I got married and more or less had to start cooking (else I’d starve!).

One day, I was looking up an Italian recipe which had oregano in it. The chef providing the recipe added a little history. He said oregano only became popular in the US after WWII. Before that it was used largely by Italian immigrants. It was American soldiers who fought on the Italian front who tasted this fragrant herb and brought a taste for it back home. Then it began to boom. Consumption went up 6000 per cent in the 1950s. I was fascinated by this story — and the window it opened on how food travels and how history affects our palates.

On a whim, I pitched a “how oregano became popular in the US” story to NPR on the anniversary of V-E Day. The editor loved the idea, and that became the first of a series of food-history-politics stories.

Celeste Helene Schantz: Had you written for NPR before?

Nina Martyris: No, that was my first pitch. The editor was testing me, but she gave me a chance, which I’ll always be grateful for. I think she was intrigued by the idea of soldiers and oregano.

Celeste Helene Schantz: David Delaney asks: “Nina, Do you believe most wars are ultimately fought over food? “the Taste of War” notes that WW2 was fought for that reason. Has the author found an instinctual need (that becomes obsessive) for the security more food seems to provide people? And do you see any parallel in food use (control as in American slavery) and any current situations on our planet?”

Nina Martyris: Hello David! I’m so glad you posted in advance. It gave me a chance to do some preparation. I’m going to answer it in three parts.

Nina Martyris: Your question goes to the very heart of historical conflict. On a light note, the first conflict between man and God was fought because of an apple. But more seriously, yes, food has always been a major reason for conquest.

For instance, as I’m typing out this response, I have by my side a delicious cup of tea, two of whose ingredients (tea leaves and sugar) have a history covered in what Jonathan Swift liked to call “blood and treasure.” Britain was so addicted to tea that it fought two opium wars with China to protect the source of this afternoon elixir. And every cup of tea was sweetened by sugar grown by slaves on British-owned Caribbean plantations. Shelley, Southey and other radicals didn’t take sugar in their tea as a form of protest (one more of my NPR pieces!). In India, where I’m from, one of the most landmark mass protests against British rule was Gandhi’s Salt march against the punitive salt tax (which was much like the Boston tea tax). So yes, food features prominently as a source of conquest and war.


Tea has a long and quite political history

Nina Martyris: To move more specifically to your question about WWII. Thank you for pointing me to Taste of War by Lizzie Collingham, whose book Curry I dip into frequently. Collingham does pursue her thesis doggedly, but there’s no question that Hitler invaded Russia in 1941 for one overwhelming reason: bread. He had his eye on the rich soil of Ukraine, the bread basket of the region. Before Hitler, during the thirties, millions in Ukraine starved thanks to Stalin exporting its wheat to crush peasant rebellion. The Ukrainians even have a word for it: Holodomor (Man-Made Famine). Hunger and war are bedfellows.

Nina Martyris: And, finally, about examples of food wars from today. The Ivory Coast in West Africa is a heartbreaking example — of a non-violent food war (though hunger is a form of violence). This country is the world’s largest producer of cocoa producing 40% of all cocoa in the world. Big companies like Mars, Hershey and Nestle use Ivorian cocoa for their chocolate.


Everyone loves chocolate, yes. Why then is poverty on the rise in this otherwise well-off country?


The answer is complex but to put it briefly, cocoa is a source of wealth but also a crop that is used as a weapon of control by MNCs and the country’s politicians. Politicians have been known to block exports of cocoa and seize control of cocoa income to fund the buying of arms. MNCs, who want bumper crops, often push for unsustainable farming practices which has long-term effects that poor farmers have to face. We enjoy chocolate so much today, but there’s no doubt that it, too, comes covered in “blood and treasure.”

Anna Schantz: Nina Martyris and now we see consumer boycotts of some foods for political or environmental reasons: eschewing products using palm oil, in order to protect the dwindling orangutan population comes to mind. And veganism.

Shabnam Mirchandani: Nina Martyris , I so appreciate the fact that your writing is not driven by retributive passion or soapbox morality, instead you have a panoramic historical vision. Hats off to you!

Shabnam Mirchandani: Nina, what was the readership like when Douglass’s work was first published? When a writer (as custodian of facts) has to be heard in a resistant or hostile environment, the challenges must be immense. To relate this question to your personal experience: do educators, commentators, scholars, artists, and writers have to take on the role of a hermeneutical mafia of sorts when there is a major dislocation in the codes observed in public discourse, and multi-faceted, in-depth exploration of issues is no longer prioritized? In this present time, which I like to call a period of etymological burlesque, how does a journalist who is a curator of history as it is unfolding, remain true to his/her calling?

Nina Martyris:  Shabnam! I’m here today because of you. But more important, you were one of the first people who encouraged me and made be believe that I could become a journalist. You were such a fabulous, imaginative teacher – one of a kind. I can still remember your wonderful lecture on Van Gogh.

Nina Martyris: To answer the first part of your question, it’s comforting to know that Douglass’ autobiography was very well received. It got good reviews and became an immediate bestseller. Within three years, it was reprinted nine times, and translated into French and Dutch. It is still the most widely read slave narrative in American history. Scarcely surprising given Douglass’ eloquence and the powerful theme he tackled — his life as a prism into the misanthropy of slavery.

Celeste Helene Schantz: Thank you, Shabnam! Nina Martyris, she is a treasure 🙂

Shabnam Mirchandani: Nina Martyris thank you, you were the best and brightest, and I could not be prouder of what you have accompished.

Shabnam Mirchandani Celeste Helene Schantz it is kind of emotional to experience this virtual reunion, so thank YOU!

Nina Martyris: Moving on to our contemporary age of “etymological burlesque” — love the phrase — yes, as a journalist one is acutely conscious of how, in this age of fake news, facts are twisted, language is corrupted, and history misrepresented.


Indeed, the spur that got me researching the Frederick Douglass story was Fox news commentator Bill O’Reilly’s glib comment that slaves were well-fed. This from an educated person who writes on history. So I turned to Douglass’ book and began to read about what it was like to grow up as a slave. Of course it was an awful story, but Douglass is such a fine writer and thinker that his writing went beyond the misery to reveal the cynicism underpinning the system, and how food was used as a weapon of control. This piece touched a chord. I think it’s my most-read piece on NPR second only to the suffragist article.

Nina Martyris: Finally, talking about etymology, I did another short piece for the Economist on the word “mogul” at the time when Trump was calling for a Muslim ban. My point was that Trump enjoyed being called a real-estate mogul by the press, probably unaware that the title comes from the most powerful Islamic dynasty in history. My point being that we are all interconnected and influenced by other cultures even without knowing it. So bans are an absurd policy.

Shabnam Mirchandani: Nina Martyris very astute observations, and you have harvested much from these teachable moments. It takes a lot of stamina and courage to wade through the sheer volume of dubious material being fed to us. As Stephen King recently pronounced: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs” ( “bigly” comes to mind…)

Anna Schantz:  I’ve recently been involved in a number of enlightening discussions concerning cultural appropriation, particularly regarding music and dress, and particularly in reference to Indigenous peoples in Canada (Happy Indigenous Peoples Day, as well as Junet eenth, btw!). I’d like to ask Nina if she considers cooking and food culture an area calling for more sensitivity in appreciation, or whether it is perhaps exempt from rampant dominant culture commodification.


When are we respecting and educating ourselves about food and when are we appropriating it? (Photo by James Sutton, Unsplash)


Also, how would she suggest we all, white and people of colour, might approach the celebration of food and our varied histories with it, for the promotion of greater mutual understanding and peace? Thank you!

Nina Martyris:  Hi Anna! Thank you for your wishes and for this question. Yes, it’s a tricky one — and it goes to the heart of freedom of expression. Who gets to tell whose stories? I’ve thought about it and I feel quite strongly that anyone should be able to write about anything. The job of a writer is to imagine and empathize and identify with people beyond those from his or her background. So if an Indian writer wants to set a novel in the American Mid-West she should go right away. Likewise, if a White American wants to write about China or India or any culture, he should go right ahead. I’m with Lionel Shriver on this one.

When it comes to food, the same rule should apply, in my view. Anyone should be able to cook anything. If a Vietnamese chef wants to make shrimp and grits, great. If a Southern chef wants to make pho, great.


The second half of your question — how we might approach the celebration of food and our varied histories with it, for the promotion of greater mutual understanding and peace — is in wonderful counterpoint to David’s question above. Food has been a historical source of conflict but it can also be a marvelous and delicious bridge between cultures. Breaking bread with a new group of people makes it slightly harder to hate them.

Nina Martyris: Anna, I’d also be interested in your views on cultural appropriation.

Anna Schantz:  Nina Martyris the recently resigned editor of a Canadian publication felt the same way. I think his refusal of any kind censorship and admittedly too flippant attitude regarding appropriation caused an uproar, partly because it was taken the wrong way. I understand your prioritizing freedom of speech, particularly journalistic freedom.

Nina Martyris:  I think my view is unpopular among liberal circles, but I feel strongly that stories belong to everyone.

Anna Schantz: I believe that it is not a level playing field, however, and that people of privilege owe a debt of respect and greater care when using traditions from marginalized peoples. In a perfect world it would not need to be legislated.

Nina Martyris:  Yes, I agree one should always be sensitive, but the freedom of speech absolutists who bridle even at that kind of demand. I’m not an absolutist, but lean towards that kind of freedom.

Jeri Harbers Thomson: In the suffragette article you say that a Henry James, Sr. was in favor of a woman’s right to vote, but that he didn’t feel many would avail themselves of that privilege. In our last presidential election, it was suggested (wish I had a cite here, but that he didn’t feel many would avail themselves of that privilege. In our last presidential election, it was suggested (wish I had a cite here, but memory fails!) that one reason. Clinton lost the election is because many women were swayed against voting for her by their husbands, because many men did not want a female president…especially a female Commander-in-Chief. Do you feel there is merit in this suggestion?

Nina Martyris: Hi Jeri! Thanks for this question about the suffragist piece.

Nina Martyris Though I wrote it in 2015 (the peg was the Meryl Streep movie), NPR re-posted it on social media on the evening of the election last year. It became one of if not the most tweeted pieces. This piece and one on women visiting Susan B Anthony’s grave in Rochester. It was so touching to see literally thousands and thousands of (mainly) women tweeting and commenting on it. It was a real moment. It’s something I’ll always remember.

Of course the next morning we knew that things had turned out differently!

Nina Martyris: To answer your question. I worked that Henry James Sr. anecdote into my article because I was so taken aback by the sheer condescension of his views. I’m glad his student fought him over it.


About the election, I’m quite sure there are women everywhere who vote the way their husbands do. Indeed when women in America were fighting for their Great Cause, many men were bewildered by their demand, saying that women were already represented by their fathers, brothers, husbands and sons, so what did they want the vote for?


Even Frederick Douglass who was a staunch support of the suffragist movement, broke with it a little when it came to giving the black man the right to vote before women were given it. He said white women already had their husbands voting for their interests, whereas Blacks had no suffrage to represent them, and that if the black man voted, then, in an indirect way, the black woman would be represented too.


So perhaps some women did vote according to their husbands’ diktats but I would like to believe that they were not the majority. I’ve met many women (especially young women) who said they didn’t want to vote for Clinton. Many of them couldn’t abide Trump either, but they seemed to be thinking independently. One can only hope they were and that Henry James Sr. was wrong.

Anna Schantz:  Nina Martyris so moving!

Rick Williams: Question for Nina Martyris: I read these two articles plus her article on Gandhi being “the most punctual man in India” as well as “Auden’s 1939 Elegy for Yeats.” These articles appear to have required a lot of research and then reduced to a super ef ficient short article. I’m curious about Nina’s research and writing habits. Would Nina share some of her research and writings habits?


(side point: Is she like Gandhi checking her watch all the time or more like Auden when he writes “Stop all the clocks.”)

Nina Martyris:  Oh Rick! That question is like balm for my tired eyes. You’re so right. For each article, I have to read (or dip into) at least three or four books, apart from googling away like a worker bee to get all that information for those stories. Apart of course from cross-checking facts all the time. I always have reams of leftover research.


The clock is draconian — though unlike Gandhi (and Auden — he was fanatically punctual), I’m less conscientious and am always racing till the very last minute to meet a deadline. As a freelancer, I have to come up with unusual ideas — that’s the challenge. So I try to approach old stories from a fresh angle — for instance, everyone knew of Auden’s Yeats elegy, but the conversation and spinoffs it generated was something I worked out and connected.

Celeste Helene Schantz: Speaking of the clock, we’ve a few moments to go. Any last questions for Nina?

Celeste Helene Schantz: Nina, can we expect a book from you at some point?

Shabnam Mirchandani: Plan to write a book any time soon?

Nina Martyris: Have to think of a theme — non-fiction if at all.

Nina Martyris: After we finish this chat, I have to go back to researching a piece on — well, I can’t disclose it right now, but please read it if you can. It has to do with the Nazis. Nazis and food!

Shabnam Mirchandani: “Mein Food!” . . .

Celeste Helene Schantz: Nina Martyris, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you. The time has gone much too quickly! Friends, feel free to carry on this fascinating conversation, and look for the recap in our Sunday Gazette. Nina, we’ll be looking for more of your wonderful rich prose and excellent articles! Thanks for joining us today.

Anna Schantz: Thank you, Nina!

Shabnam Mirchandani: THANK YOU Nina dearest!

Rick Williams: Unbelievably fantastic!

Nina Martyris: Thanks, Wonderlings! You’ll were great. Such good questions. Made me think, read and argue with myself. Bye for now.


Thanks to the wonderful members of The Wonderlings group who took time and consideration to participate in our discussion with Nina.

As usual, you rock!

For further reading:

Here is the excellent  Afro-Culinaria, a food blog authored by Michael W. Twitty, (Twitter: @Koshersoul /Instagram:@thecookinggene/Michael W. Twitty on Facebook), a writer, independent scholar, culinary historian , and historical interpreter personally charged with preparing, preserving and promoting African American foodways and its parent traditions in Africa and her Diaspora and its legacy in the food culture of the American South.

Read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas for free, online!


¹Very minor edits made in transcribing our interview from Facebook for the purpose of clarity.

Week Seven: Two Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and an interview with Lee Jackson, Author of Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth



This week The Wonderlings went on a fabulous journey of the mind (or perhaps mind-palace?) to Victorian London; to visit no other than the renowned tenants of 221 B Baker Street. It’s elementary, my dear reader!

Sherlock Holmes is a fictional private detective created by British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Known as a “consulting detective” in the stories, Holmes is known for a proficiency with observation, forensic science, and logical reasoning that borders on the fantastic, which he employs when investigating cases for a wide variety of clients, including Scotland Yard.

No study of the short story would be complete without a foray into the country mansions and city opium dens where Holmes and Watson solved each adventure.

Though not the first fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes is arguably the most well-known, with Guinness World Records listing him as the “most portrayed movie character” in history.

Conan Doyle repeatedly said that Holmes was inspired by the real-life figure of         Joseph Bell, a surgeon at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, whom Doyle met and had worked for as a clerk. Like Holmes, Bell was noted for drawing broad conclusions from minute observations. However, he later wrote to Doyle: “You are yourself Sherlock Holmes and well you know it”. Sir Henry Littlejohn, Chair of Medical Jurisprudence at the University of Edinburgh Medical School, is also cited as an inspiration for Holmes. Littlejohn, who was also Police Surgeon and Medical Officer of Health in Edinburgh, provided Doyle with a link between medical investigation and the detection of crime.


Excerpt: Chapters from A Study in Scarlet

As a warm-up for Holmes 101 it may be useful to check out Chapters One and Two of the novel A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It established Watson as the narrator and is our very first glimpse into the mind of Mr.Holmes. It’s also our first glimpse into Holmes’s interest in forensics.  Enjoy!  http://www.read.gov/books/sherlock_holmes.html

“The Adventure of The Abbey Grange”

“The Adventure of the Abbey Grange” which first appeared in The Strand Magazine, takes place in the bitter winter of 1897. There’s a new case. Holmes is known for his critical reasoning and his ability to secure proofs which are based on facts. Yet what happens in this story?

“The Man With The Twisted Lip”

For the second story of the week we explore “The Man With The Twisted Lip.”

It’s the sixth of the twelve stories in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. The story was first published in the Strand Magazine in December 1891. Doyle ranked “The Man with the Twisted Lip” sixteenth in a list of his nineteen favorite Sherlock Holmes stories.

Dr Watson is called upon late at night by a female friend of his wife. The woman’s husband has been absent for several days. Let’s travel together now, to explore some of the seedier side of Victorian London, as we read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Man with the Twisted Lip.” Enjoy it here.

It may also be of interest to peruse a project called Reading Sherlock Holmes, from Stanford University: http://sherlockholmes.stanford.edu/history.html

A bit about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle:

Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle was born on May 22, 1859, in Edinburgh, Scotland.

He was a British writer and physician, most noted for creating the character Sherlock Holmes and for his detective stories which are generally considered milestones in the field of crime fiction.

He is also known for writing the fictional adventures of a second character he invented, Professor Challenger, and for popularising the mystery of the Mary Celeste. He was a prolific writer whose other works include fantasy and science fiction stories, plays, romances, poetry, non-fiction and historical novels.

In 1876, he began his medical studies at the Faculty of Edinburgh.

Dr. Joseph Bell

 Per The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia, here he met two men who influence the choice of his future novel hero: Professor Rutherford, whose Assyrian beard, booming voice and broad chest, inspire him Professor George Edward Challenger  and Dr. Joseph Bell, Professor of Surgery, whose amazing deductions on his patients and their diseases did germinate the idea of a detective using the same methods.

In 1887, he wrote his first Sherlock Holmes adventure, A Study in Scarlet.

In august 1889, during a dinner hosted by J. M. Stoddart, an American agent of the Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde were hired to write two stories. Published in 1890, Wilde wrote The Picture of Dorian Gray and Conan Doyle The Sign of Four, the second adventure of the detective. The same year, the Conan Doyles stayed a few months in Vienna for Arthur to improve his medical knowledge. Back in England, they moved to London on Montague Place and the young doctor’s office opened at 2 Devonshire Place. Patients were still scarce, and Conan Doyle took up the pen again.

In January 1891, discovering the first issue of The Strand Magazine, he decided to write and propose new adventures of the detective, including A Scandal in Bohemia and The Red-Headed League. He then provided five other short stories and renewed his contract for six additional stories at the rate of one per month.  (The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia)  . . .but as we all know, The story of Holmes would not end there.

Any appreciation of the Victorian London streets, the history of the detective novel, or a study of methods of critical reasoning, logic, fallacy or forensic methods would not be complete without a visit to 221 B Baker Street; therefore we include Doyle in our syllabus and encourage all to further peruse additional stories.

For a more detailed and illustrated biography, please see The Official Site of The Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Literary Estate here.

Lots of information on Doyle and his work can also be found in The Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia, here.


The Granada Television production

The Wonderlings Interview Lee Jackson, Curator of  The Online Dictionary of Victorian London and Author of Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth!


Lee Jackson is the author of Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth. His online Dictionary of Victorian London is often consulted on social history by universities offering courses on the topic of the Victorian novel. It’s a faithful and fascinating resource.


Lee Jackson. Photo from Yale University Press

He has been interviewed by NPR as well as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian and many others.

He’s also written seven historical crime novels (published in the UK and France); two anthologies about Victorian daily life; a coffee-table book; and, most recently, a guide to Walking Dickens London.

As we follow Sherlock and John through the famous London fog (composed of pollution from the burning of bituminous coal), the author agreed to ANSWER SOME OF OUR MOST PRESSING QUESTIONS about everyday life in dirty old Victorian London.

Q and A

TW: At this particular time in history, I am wondering how London compared to other urban areas in the West? Was London the most developed metropolis of its day? (Rome did always refer to the English as barbarians didn’t they?) -Jeri Harbers Thomson:

LJ:  London in the 1880s/1890s (classic Holmes period) was the biggest city in the world, with a population well over five million people. It was the centre of the British Empire, with massive import/export trade through the London docks, taking raw materials from the West Indies, Africa and Asia, converting them into finished products, and selling at home and abroad. The underground railway network was developing quickly, and rail (underground and overground) made possible extensive suburban commuter-belts; so transport was excellent, albeit the central streets were often highly congested with horse traffic. From a health point of view, London had benefited from a pioneering mid-century sewer project, which effectively eradicated water-borne disease like typhoid and cholera; but, on the other hand, it was now heavily polluted by coal smoke, which led to the infamous occasional ‘pea-soup’ fogs, but also a pervasive filth, which turned everything grey/black, from trees in the parks, to one’s clothing. Paris was the nearest comparable metropolis, but New York was growing fast in terms of size and population and would overtake London in the next century.

TW: I see that Doyle was into “spiritualism” – fairies, belief in otherworlds. Was spiritualism popular at that time in London? What exactly is spiritualism? – Rick Williams

LJ:  Spiritualism was the idea that ‘mediums’ – persons of particular ‘sensitivity’ – could communicate the spirits of the dead. Two sisters in New York really kickstarted the interest in this (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spiritualism#Origins  ) Many Victorians mocked this nonsense; see my site for examples http://www.victorianlondon.org/religion/spiritualism.htm  but others made it into a lucrative business, charging for seances etc. There was a renewed interest in spiritualism after the countless deaths of young men in World War One. Conan Doyle’s enthusiasm ties into this, although apparently he was interested in the subject even before the death of his son in the war.

TW: During World War I did the amount of horse dung decrease in the streets of London? And when the war was over were the men who returned put to use on any city sanitation projects or improvements projects? –   David Delaney

LJ:  The amount of horse dung (predictably) decreased with the advent of the motor-bus and motor-car, which began to really take over in the 1920s (although you could still see horses in London streets in the 1950s). I don’t know of ex-soldiers working on sanitary projects – it’s a little after my period of study. Not everyone saw the car’s potential, though. This is a quote from 1896:

“One of the most entertaining features of this revived interest in what it is the fashion to call automobility, is the series of laments as to the supersession of the horse expressed in almost exactly the same terms as in Trevithick’s day. The railways also were to have wiped out the horses, but have they? There are more horses now than there ever were.

TW: “Could Mr. Jackson relate what he knows of the lives and importance of chimney sweeps in the Victorian era? -Anna Schantz

LJ:  There’s half a chapter in my book Dirty Old London on chimney-sweeps. Basically, sending boys (for the most part, rather than girls) up chimneys, to clean out blockages of soot, was standard practice in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. In some cases these tiny children were squeezing into spaces not more than nine inches square. They often went up naked (clothes got torn and snagged) and developed nasty wounds and lesions (including, in later life, cancer in the groin, thanks to exposure to the soot). The cane poles and brushes you see in Mary Poppins were invented in the early nineteenth century, but people were used to sending children, and it took a while – and repeated efforts at forming suitable legislation – to stop the practice of using these ‘apprentices’. It was a nasty trade: the only ‘apprenticeship’ where the employer paid the parents to ‘take on’ a child (it was usually vice versa), because it was so brutal. It was finally stamped out in the mid-nineteenth century, with only very rare instances of children being used after that (and certainly not by Holmes’s time).  There’s a biography of a sweep you can read here https://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00IEN2H0Q/victoriandict-21/

TW: Can you speak a bit about the forensic investigations of Doyle’s day? Were people really writing monographs the way Holmes was always doing? Did the medical colleges or Scotland Yard take any of the Holmes methods seriously?  – Celeste Schantz

LJ:  Certainly you get post mortems and chemical investigation of stomach contents in poisoning cases in 19C (I recall it from a detailed account of the Madeleine Smith case https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madeleine_Smith ). The use of  photographs of convicted criminals was becoming common from the 1870s onwards. Scotland Yard set up a fingerprint bureau in 1901, and its own forensics lab in 1930s (but used outside scientists before that time).

Thank you, Lee, for taking the time to speak with The Wonderlings!

For more information on Lee Jackson’s books or to visit The Victorian Dictionary:

Check out his NPR Interview: http://www.npr.org/2015/03/12/392332431/dirty-old-london-a-history-of-the-victorians-infamous-filth?utm_campaign=storyshare&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=social

as well as



Week Two: “Marginalia: An Essay”: A Wonderlings Book Club Interview With Author/Wilderness Guide Michael Engelhard


Engelhard’s bookcover, depicting fantastic slickrock in southeastern Utah

Michael Engelhard is a writer and wilderness guide.

Says Engelhard;

I first discovered storied landscapes as an anthropology student. Accompanying Native Alaskan elders on hunting and fishing excursions, I shared in the place-based experience of people who maintained fluency in nature’s idiom to an unequaled degree. Each slough, each mountain pass, each peregrine roost or bear den spoke to them of a past that is also present. The landmarks and associated stories express a worldview as much as they embody knowledge. They focus the traditions of people whose history and self-image largely reside in the land. They define homeland rather than wilderness. They endure as part of a moral universe, eloquent reminders that continue to shape the identities of groups and individuals.

 . . .As a wilderness guide and writer I not only unearth extant tales but also sink roots deep into landscapes, creating new stories that drive and sustain me.

In “Marginalia: An Essay”, a trek across the Arctic, a wildlife guide’s map becomes a record of his journey.

Read Engelhard’s essay here.

Recently, the author very graciously took time to respond to Wonderlings member questions and comments. “I enjoyed the readers’ feedback very much and am glad they enjoyed the essay.”

Acknowledging the essays the group read by Mark Cocker and Robert Macfarlane, Engelhard said ” I’m a big fan of Mark Cocker also — absolutely love his Birds and People. And felt honored that he reviewed Ice Bear in The Spectator.”



“When writing about your explorations have you ever personally experienced a feeling of an ideal configuration or a kind of synchronicity in your description, a moment when you fully rendered that crossing of a threshold from “looking” to “seeing”?  (submitted by Shabnam Mirchandani)


Actually, the introduction to American Wild, which addresses my love for the Colorado Plateau and the Arctic forced me to contemplate why I continue to be drawn to these two particular landscapes and I discovered commonalities I had never before seen: the long sightlines, sparse population and vegetation, even the quality of the light . . . also my deeper motivations for doing things and the “lessons” learned from an experience only truly take shape during the writing. That’s one reason why I usually have a good idea how and where an essay begins but hardly ever, where it takes me – and the reader.


Can you tell us a bit about the trip which inspired Marginalia?


That trip was about the hardest physical and mental endeavor I’ve ever undertaken. It was a project I’d been dreaming about for decades. Whenever I guided up there, I felt there was never enough time to explore all the places I wanted to see. (Of course, there never would be.) But the magnitude of it intimidated me. Plus, summers are when I make most of my living so taking a whole one off for a personal trip (and the cost of the expedition, too) was a considerable sacrifice. But ultimately, because of the wakeup-call of a client on another trip who soon after unexpectedly died of cancer and because every year you get older certain things become harder to do, I embarked.


The author Michael Engelhard guiding a paddle raft on a commercial trip on the Canning River, the western boundary of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.



Given the climate change facts of today, can the lyric nature essay or poem be a form of meaningful activism? What causes you to care more about climate change- a science report or a walk in the wilderness? Or a combination of both?


It’s not “activism” – it only can sensitize and alert readers to the issues. But to me, signing petitions or forwarding information on the Internet also doesn’t qualify as activism. I’m a bit of an Abbey-ite, I guess: activism is throwing a wrench into the system responsible for degrading Nature. Anything from consumer boycotts to protests, from labor strikes to eco-sabotage. Investigative journalism, in my opinion, is more a form of activism than a lyrical essay is, much as I love that literary form.


What’s next for you? Is there any place calling you?


I’d like to finish my aborted Grand Canyon hike, the 40-day adventure described in No Walk in the Park, another essay in American Wild. The falling out with my hiking buddy that ended it left a bad taste in my mouth, which I don’t want to be the defining memory. I also need this (another 20 days, perhaps) for closure. In general, I am not drawn to foreign, exotic places. So I want to explore more of my two favorite regions: Alaska’s Arctic and the Colorado Plateau. I would like to hike entire large landscape features, such as the Comb Ridge monocline – a rocky escarpment in southeastern Utah – or a Brooks Range river from its source to the Arctic Ocean.


More reader comments and responses:

Loved reading the piece…I was imagining the map “taped at the folds” his writing all over it…very evocative…it’s a beautiful piece and I wanted to read more…(Esha Chakraborty)

Thanks, Esha. There’s an abridged version of the essay here that even has some image of the maps http://www.hcn.org/issues/45.16/marginalia-an-essay

I’ve always taught that writing is communicating, that if the reader’s eyes stop because they don’t comprehend something you’ve written, then you’ve probably lost them. This concept was always directed at beginning writers who inevitably feel it’s their duty to impress the reader with their vocabulary, using a longer word when a smaller one will suffice. So I’m always enriched when I discover a writer who can use the language with such expertise and cunning. To me, this essay, so complex and demanding of the reader, is a microcosm of his journey. The complexities he suffered through must have been enormous, and this so cleverly written essay is the perfect window for that. I have yet to read his novels, etc, but after having read this, I certainly will. (Timothy Wright)

Thanks, Timothy. To me, it’s not always as simple as “a shorter word is better than a longer (or technical) one” – there is sentence rhythm (number of syllables, etc.) to consider, alliteration, or sometimes you just want to jolt the reader with the unexpected choice. I’m a huge fan of T.C. Boyle, who doesn’t mind sending his readers scrambling for a dictionary. But in general, I agree: simple is often better, and there are usually enough synonyms to find the right word without resorting to Latinate forms.

Arctic, maps, snow, ice, no trees, no people, heck at times no daylight!
But I dove in and really enjoyed the essay… I was able to read the authors funky map scribble notes “arctic walkabout” which was interesting since I’m a little familiar with the Australian Aborigine Walkabout”
After this article, I will never look at a map the same….. (photos were great)
I’m ready for my own walkabout with maps and “felt pens of various colors” to scribble my own funky notes. (Rick Williams)

Rick, when I went, in the Arctic summer, it never got dark! I love Chatwin and Songlines, and have written myself much about the “sacred geography” of the Navajo and other Native peoples. Actually, my background as a cultural anthropologist strongly influences my writing.


Author Michael Engelhard

That is what I’d call breathing the story. Such excellent compression it seems too short and I am left wanting more of the tingling descriptors, of absence, of allness. The writing was as fresh as the terrain, clean, head turning. (David Delaney)

Interesting comment, David. Part of the reason I kept extensive notes on the trip was that I didn’t want to forget anything. (I didn’t bring a camera.) But I’d also played with the idea to turn the adventure into a book. I gave that up quickly, because, for a publisher it was not dramatic enough: no near death experience, not other people to write about. No major disasters at all really. But I think in its extreme condensation, the essay works really well and is true to the emotional content of this journey.

Loved it. The semiotic narrative of a cartographer’s mapping is a journey into a realm beyond physical features of places. It is tied with experience and an overwhelming feeling of awe at the abundance of life that brings topography to life. Engelhard’s sense of interconnectedness of seer and seen, and of a grand cosmic resonance embedded in wild places is a pleasure to partake of in this piece. The psychic import of color, texture, and sound in the memory collage in each of our minds imprints itself so vividly in our recreation of them in language.

Your luminous writing created epiphanies in me just through its cadences, and I felt trepidation mingled with excitement and freedom when you delved deep into “silence’ and “absence”, when all polarities collapsed, along with all constructs of time and space. Wow, it makes one question all assumptions behind formal cartography! (Shabnam Mirchandani)

I’m glad it worked for you, Shabnam. You should write as a reviewer! The things you describe are actually things that keep pulling me back out there and often, when everything falls into place just so, I feel it’s my true home.

As I read this I couldn’t help but think of some films I’ve seen in which the map of a journey is shown and becomes a montage of life events. The physical map became a sort of spiritual cartography…each symbol imbued with provenance. I don’t know if Engelhard received any awards for this lyric work but he certainly deserves to! Lyrical and full of internal rhyme and deeper import. (Celeste Schantz)

Every short autobiographical piece written is a montage, almost by definition. And we still think of life (and most films) too much in linear terms. But lived live (or what has been called a “flow” experience is multi-dimensional, non-directional. I like the idea of “spiritual cartography.” Every object out there is imbued with “unseen” dimensions, which we only perceive at the best of times. This is called “animism” in anthropology: the belief that even rocks and clouds have a spirit. That may sound woo-woo to some people, but certainly works for the Nature writer. (But beware the pitfalls of anthropomorphism, Ruskin’s “pathetic fallacy.”) 

Editor’s Note:

After interviewing Engelhard, I received this email from him, entitled “PS”:

I was just thinking about Shabnam’s question. The way it was phrased, I took it to be about the writing process. But now, I think she might have wanted to know about “looking” versus “seeing” in instants during my explorations .

Here are two examples of true seeing (which sometimes seems to occur in correlation with length of time spent “out there”):

Compelled by sudden unease, I once switched banks hiking along an Arctic creek, only to round a bend and rouse a bruin with her two cubs right where I would have been stepping. Another time, I noticed Boykinia spiking a slope. Knowing that the white flowers are catnip to grizzlies, I wondered if there were any close by. And lo, when I hollered, one popped from a ravine thick with alders I’d been about to cross.  



Our sincere thanks to Michael Engelhard for his great generosity in participating in this discussion.

You can read more about Michael Engelhard and his work here.