Carrie Frye runs Black Cardigan Edit (www.blackcardiganedit), which has a twice-weekly newsletter on books, writing, and creativity (tinyletter.com/caaf). On the side, she's working on a novel about the Arctic. She lives in Asheville, North Carolina.
In an earlier letter, I put out a call for favorite words you learned in 2016. I hoped they’d make a nice handful of marbles for us to have in our pockets for this new year, which only this week taught me the word ‘kompromat.’ :-(. Read more…
In the summer of 1843, Charlotte Brontë was staying at the school in Brussels where she was both a student and a teacher—at this time, more the latter. Over her time at the Pensionnat, she had developed an unrequited passion for the directrice’s husband, Constantin Héger, and she’d been present as he departed for the seaside with his handsome wife and their young children. The other teachers and the school’s boarders had already left for their own holidays, and Brontë was the only person left remaining except for the cook. Her friends outside the school had left the city too. Summer in the city: everyone who can, leaves. Her relationship with the cook, one suspects, was cordial but necessarily distant, and the cook would have had her sleep quarters in another part of the house. Brontë was alone at nights in the dormitory.
There’s a wonderful, creepy Shirley Jackson story—you may already know it—called “The Summer People.” It’s about a couple from New York City who decide to stay at their little cottage on the lake for a month past Labor Day instead of returning as usual to the city right after the holiday. The story starts out with Mrs. Allison, age 58, doing her shopping in the nearby village and announcing her and her husband’s change in plans. The first person she tells is the grocer: Read more…
Harriet Hardiman was ‘a cat’s meat man.’ That is, she went out most days with a handcart full of chopped meat on skewers to sell to cat owners. So, just to emphasize, meat for cats, not of cats. Specifically, horsemeat—gnarly leftovers collected from nearby slaughterhouses. In Victorian-era London, there were hundreds of cat’s meat men (and women and, sometimes, kids), with beats in poor neighborhoods as well as posh ones. Hardiman would have had regular routes, regular customers, as well as regular cats padding behind her as she made her rounds, attracted by the scent of her cart.
I know about Hardiman because she lived at 29 Hanbury Street in Spitalfields, and it was at 29 Hanbury Street where, early one morning, in 1888, the body of Jack the Ripper’s second victim, Annie Chapman, was discovered, lying against the steps at the house’s back entrance. Chapman didn’t live at the house—she lived at a lodging house nearby—but because of where her body was found, everyone at 29 Hanbury was interviewed and questioned. Seventeen people lived there in all. Hardiman occupied two rooms on the house’s ground floor with her 16-year-old son. Their front room served as a cat’s meat shop by day and as their bedroom at night. (The smell!) One side effect of reading about Jack the Ripper is learning about some of the people who lived in these crowded London neighborhoods, and who, because of the investigation and the ongoing fascination with the murders, have had their names, professions, and daily routines recorded and faithfully kept when otherwise they probably wouldn’t have been. “Cat’s meat man” is one of many now obsolete professions—like “sieve maker” and “laborer in an indigo warehouse”—you’ll bump up against. Reading about the murders themselves gives me nightmares, but I do like this other part of it: that while we still don’t know who Jack the Ripper was (and I doubt we ever will!), we do know something of the people who lived at 29 Hanbury Street. I like especially the “two unmarried sisters who worked at a cigar factory” who lived in a back room on the second floor.
A few months ago, my friend Maud was in town from New York, and one afternoon I met her and her stepdaughter at a teahouse downtown. The conversation turned to what we were each reading, and I mentioned that I was rereading Harriet the Spy. Within a minute, I noticed, we’d all grown extremely animated: three women in the corner of a dark tearoom, waving their arms around and exclaiming “Harriet the Spy! Harriet the Spy!!”
I was skipping around Google the other day and was reminded of a piece by Colson Whitehead called “How To Write.” You may have read it when it came out in 2012 and laughed and, if you did, I can assure you that if you reread it now you will laugh again. It starts with the observation that the “art of writing can be reduced to a few simple rules” and kicks off with this one:
It is like putting your broken unicorn out there, isn’t it? Anyway, Whitehead’s new novel The Underground Railroad is coming out Sept. 13, and I’ve been counting down to it.
When I was in college I was pretty good at gadding around (sorry to boast!), and spring was my very best time for this. I wasn’t the only one. I was talking about it with a friend I went to school with and he described it as the “spring-in-the-asparagus valley-insouciance.” We all had it. Or most of us—there may have been some people studying somewhere on campus. Then finals time would come and we’d run around in a panicked sleepless haze for a couple weeks. In my memories of these semesters it’s almost always 8:00 p.m., the sky’s purple, the air is frictionless, and there’s still plenty of time before it’s actually night, real study-time night. One spring a friend of mine had a paper due for her History of Israel class, and I have a vivid memory of standing with her in the kitchen of her dorm passing a carton of ice cream back and forth, in a place of such deep procrastinators’ panic that to this day “History of Israel” pops into my head whenever I’m agitated about a deadline. (And it wasn’t even my paper!) Read more…