Poetry, Publishing, Slice of life

Book Impressions: To Fletch from Hettie

Used books are more than collections of beat-up paperbacks and faded texts marching out from musty spines. Used books carry the weight of tearstained pages, notes scribbled in margins, the love of personal inscriptions, and the sunshine of yesterday on their faded covers. Who knows the journey a used book traversed before landing in your hand? This is the question that draws me into bookshops and libraries to search out books with their own unique histories, and I’ve found a few treasures along the way. Some of them contain mysteries that I’ve yet to figure out, but I love pouring over the clues within the pages. So, I give you the first installment of Book Impressions.

A worn book of Robert Browning's Poems.

Most of us are familiar with the English poet, Robert Browning. During the Victorian era, he wrote plays and poems with dramatic flair and married Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who was an accomplished poet in her own right. (Talk about a romance filled with poetry!) This particular book is titled, Robert Browning’s Poems and contains selections from his poetical works. It is small, almost smaller than the mass market paperbacks you see in airport gift stores. The cover, a dove grey with silver scrollwork around the edges, is faded beyond recognition, but still soft to the touch. The cover is stained, with camel-colored paint splattered across the front. Someone must have used the book to hold down a paint tarp during a home renovation project. You wonder if anybody got upset about the book damage. Maybe not. Any book collector would tell you this book isn’t worth anything, especially in its current condition. You slowly open the cover and the first two pages fall in your lap. The second one has writing on it. Three separate lines in different handwriting:

A couple of loose pages from a book, with inscriptions.

’96

F.H. Connor.

Fletch
              from

                            Hettie

Hettie’s inscription is gracefully written, simple. Fletch sounds like a nickname of sorts. Perhaps they were close. Now you get into the technical bits. You skipped over the publisher: Donohue, Henneberry & Co. located in Chicago. When was this book published? The author’s note, by the great R.B. himself, is dated May 14, 1872. But the inscription mentioned ’96, and the publisher’s history indicates a print date in the 1890s. The book is dedicated to another famous author, Alfred Tennyson. Makes sense, that these classic poets were pals. According to Browning’s dedication, Tennyson’s friendship was “noble and sincere.”

What follows is 368 pages of Browning’s poetic genius. But turn to page 112. As you read, “And yonder, at foot of the fronting ridge…” your eye catches a bit of blue at the end of the line. Resting where the page meets the cover, there is a tiny, pale blue flower, a little slip of stem peeking from underneath the preserved petals.

An open poetry book, with a small blue flower dried between the pages.

Is it a forget-me-not? It could be. We don’t know who picked the flower and nestled it safely within the pages of Browning’s poetry. Perhaps they wanted to remember line XIV from “By the Fireside.” It could have been a mindless reaction to preserve a pretty flower on a summer day. Or maybe the flower, like the book, was a gift of remembrance.

In this book, worn beyond repair by a poet lost to time, is a flower. So this book speaks about more than just poetry. It tells a story about the wear and tear of life, of painting projects, and wildflowers that grew over a hundred years ago, when Fletch got a book from Hettie.

A close up view of a page of poetry, with a dried blue flower on the page.

Book Reviews

Music & Masks: A Book Review

As a true bibliophile, my summer reading list is quite long. . . or rather, the book stack is tall. The stack may be ambitious for the summer months when outdoor projects and Hulu competes for my attention, but I happily made reading the ARC of The Orphan’s Song by Lauren Kate a priority. When the book comes out next week, you should pick up a copy for your summer page-turning adventures.

The Orphan's Song

This historical-fiction novel is steeped in the culture of Venice in the 1700s. We find ourselves at the Hospital of the Incurables, an orphanage/hospital/music school/church that maintains a rigid social structure for its wards. The girls aspire to sing in the church coro (and swear an oath not to sing anywhere else) until they marry or become nuns. The boys are forbidden to practice music and instead learn the skills of tradesmen. That doesn’t stop the young coro-member-to-be Violetta from singing to the horizon on the Incurable’s rooftop, where she meets Mino with his patched-up violin. Their first song is is broken by the missteps of youth, but it echoes in their memories as they search for family and get swept away by the masked pleasures of Venetian society.  (Seriously, there were a lot of masks—or bauta—in the book. As the bauta allowed major characters to operate with certain anonymity, it was a great plot device.)

The Orphan’s Song is Kate’s first adult historical book. (You may recognize her name from the her bestselling title, Fallen, the first book in the supernatural YA series.) As someone who hasn’t read any of her previous books, The Orphan’s Song was a pleasant introduction to the author. This even-paced novel wasn’t earth-shattering, but I really appreciated the musical references and historical immersion. I’m pretty sure I shed a tear midway through the book (you’ll know where, when you read that part) and it wasn’t predictable, like so many historical-fiction romances can be.

I give it 4 out of 5 stars. . . and I really want a bauta of my own now.