Great American Reads

In reference to the Great American Read event presented by PBS and Meredith Vieira


Like most things in our culture, in everyday life, reading is a highly personal affair. I won’t tell you which book to vote for, which book is the best novel for American readers, but I can shed some light on how and why to choose any work of fiction.

As much as individually we tend to choose to operate by the assumption that quality is subjective, there’s a difference between objective quality in any product and its capacity to meet our personal standards and preferences. Online product reviews use the rating system rather liberally, and people take liberties with the option to select only one or two stars out of five. Most products are never as bad as we perceive and make them out to be, and probably, most are rarely as good. A coffeemaker can usually perform more than adequately, even if it’s not a top competitor.

As consumers in a capitalist economy, we have the luxury of choosing the best possible model on the market for our budget. We take our coffee very seriously, after all. On the flip side, that special pillow you bought may have improved your life, but it’s not likely to be a literal lifesaver. Then again, it’s your sleep, not mine, so who am I to judge?

Entertainment products, such as books and movies, are different. It’s true there are standards according to which reviewers and awards committees hold most works of fiction, for instance, but novels in particular can be difficult to quantify, to categorize, and to size up. Experienced readers and reviewers have a greater claim to knowing the formula, if there is such a thing, that makes a great book. But with entertainment, the subjectivity factor carries more weight in the judgment of a book within society and against all other books; they’re not widgets, coffeemakers or pillows.

Sure, traditionally, their form has been mass produced—they’re made of paper and ink or bits of data—but the product itself moves beyond the assembly line. A work of literature is an experience over time, a thing of variable content in its use of ideas and language, and a journey through a story of imaginary people, places, and things. Its nexus of abstraction sets it well apart from the concrete world of electronic devices and motorized vehicles.

But reading is more than just a mental exercise. Stories take us on emotional and sometimes visceral roller coasters of reaction. Authors of books and makers of film can make people cry, laugh, gasp, shudder, scream, swoon, wretch, and more, simply by their artful, vivid use of words and pictures.

For me, reading is about making connections—between me and the author, me and the characters, my life and the setting and plot, between ideas in one story and ideas in another, between different art forms. I tend to read interactively if I’m not reading on a deadline. It’s about savoring as well as digesting, rather than simply ingesting, the art. I like to taste my food as it’s going down, getting to know its different effects on my palate, its aroma, texture, and consistency, rather than devour words like individual grains or layers of sauce—en masse with the rest of the meal.

I like to read about the author’s life, wondering about connections between the story and the life. I like to talk to the author, or myself, through margin notes, Post-It notes, and by writing about the book elsewhere (like here). I like to think about the book’s relationship to culture, to other books, to film, and even to itself. I read deliberately.

In part, that’s about remembering what I’ve read. Processing the content in multiple forms and ways ensures that I’ll retain more details, assuming those matter. On the other hand, a great book doesn’t require as much hard work. To me, a great book combines high objective quality with readability and complexity. It also takes the reader through the gamut of emotion and ideas, a panoply of interesting characters, in a captivating setting, through an unpredictable plot, with grace and style and wit. A great book provokes thought, touches the soul, and stays with the reader long after the final page is read.

By these standards, I hereby make my top choices for America’s best book, which is a different thing than America’s favorite book. The Great American Read started with a list of the 100 most popular novels in America. Although using it as a springboard for this post, I won’t remain beholden to that list’s rather narrow confines. My choices are based on reading the book, so I make no selections where I have not read. This makes my picks even more personal, as they omit what I’m otherwise sure are some gems of literature. At the same time, I’ll select my least favorite books from the GAR list and try to pinpoint the reasons why.

Drawing from both the Great American Read top 100 and my own Goodreads read books list, my top novels read are the following. They appear in alphabetical order, and some link to this blog’s reviews of each. Later, I’ll narrow it down further, but I don’t really believe in single, all-time favorites of any kind of thing. There’s simply too much out there for me to love.

  1. Absalom, Absalom! By William Faulkner
  2. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; and, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll
  3. Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner
  4. Animal Farm by George Orwell
  5. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  6. Chronicles of Narnia, #1: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
  7. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
  8. The Dream of Scipio by Iain Pears
  9. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  10. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  11. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
  12. Howards End by E. M. Forster
  13. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
  14. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
  15. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  16. Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe
  17. One True Thing by Anna Quindlen
  18. Outlander (first book only; have yet to read books 5-8) by Diana Gabaldon
  19. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
  20. Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen
  21. Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
  22. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
  23. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  24. War and Peace by Leo Tolstooy
  25. Watership Down by Richard Adams

Which books did I find most amazing?

  • War and Peace
  • Outlander
  • In Cold Blood
  • Gulliver’s Travels
  • Brave New World

For whom do the pages turn? They turn for me. Length is no deterrent when the words flow like melted butter. The ideas, the stories, the people, the places—all contribute to the full immersion of experience.

If I have to choose a set to honor, to recommend, to champion, each book in this collection of five can never be a mistake. And they are not the only ones for which it is so. It is not simply about enjoyment or like-mindedness. As I stated earlier, it is a marriage of objective quality in writing ability, storytelling, and transportation to other worlds, as well as interesting ideas, beautiful truths, deep connections between people, and the complexities of life and death.

This is not to say that each book is perfect. Perfection is not the aim. After all this time, I can say that with complete and utter confidence. Love is the aim. Insight. And growth. These books have all opened multiple dimensions to me, helped me grow, made me love, and urged me to shout about it.

So for now, these are my top picks for the Great American Read. Is it taking the easy way out not to choose a final top book? I would say the books that move me most are Outlander and War and Peace. In Cold Blood being a close second. Is it predictable to choose Outlander as my favorite book when it’s so clear from my blog that it’s at least well beloved by me? I love Gulliver’s Travels and Brave New World for similar reasons between them; they’re both science fiction, satire, mirrors up to their readers, and deliciously humorous, disturbing, deep, broad, and complex in proportions. They are classic epics.

All but Outlander delve deeply into social commentary on a broad scale (all but War and Peace done fully indirectly, through the story itself), though Outlander is not without indirect social commentary of a more specific nature. None but Outlander indulges in the pleasure of the human sex act. The novel is the most intimate, most personal, and in some ways, most vivid of these five. Certainly the most relatable.

War and Peace is likewise detailed and relevant to our struggles. In Cold Blood focuses on a crime, a pathology of human nature, on social dynamics and psychological dimensions. They’re all amazingly written, some in distinct writing styles. Outlander has the only female protagonist and first-person narrator, authored by a woman. These things elevate it further in my esteem. They say it’s quite difficult to write first person well, for example.

The humor and beauty, the terror and horror, the allure and fascination, the sheer intelligence and wit, as well as the greatly physical and emotional parameters, plus supernatural, science fiction, historical, mystery, romance, and action adventure aspects combine with all those elements previously mentioned to hoist Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander upon the shoulders of all the others. Its contemporary feel increases its relatability while its rich, exquisitely researched exploration of 18th-century Scotland helps anchor it further as a modern classic.

So, yes, I’m choosing one book, Outlander, for my favorite book, at least so far. I recommend this novel to most adults who have not become so totally ensnared in the cycles of pop fiction as to avoid all greater journeys.

As for the Great American Read, voting ends at midnight on October 19; results will be revealed by PBS on October 23. It’s really almost a moot exercise to pick a single book out of all 100 finalists, though. In a future post, I’ll caution against time wasted on some of what I felt were lesser choices among the 100, but again, I’m not a true expert, having not read all 100 books listed.

Meanwhile, if you don’t quite get to read Outlander before November 4th, the date of the Season 4 premiere for the STARZ TV series based on Gabaldon’s works, you’ll still have plenty in the books to explore. For this and so many other reasons, I recommend Outlander, the first in a soon-to-be-nine book series, by author Diana Gabaldon.

Outlander_cover


If you liked this post or want to learn more about why Outlander‘s the one, see my more comprehensive review at Book Review: Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. This blog also provides 3 Quick Book Reviews of the first three books in the series.

If you’ve read it and love it, I can only hope you’ll #VOTEOutlander on Twitter and Facebook, and select it today–only two more chances left!–online and by phone via the official Great American Read voting page

Backyard Birds: Cleveland National Air Show

From pain comes artistic gain.

I haven’t been blogging lately. Instead, I’ve been recovering from neck and back pain after combing the sky over Lake Erie for the “birds.” The 2018 Cleveland National Air Show brought packed crowds to Burke Lakefront Airport over Labor Day weekend. In 90+ degree weather on September 1, I tried to capture the four final acts of the day. My videos were a wash, but some photos came out. Was it worth it?

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Swan song for a seasoned stunt pilot, Sean D. Tucker – Power Aerobatics Oracle Challenger III

IMG_6082-Sean-Oracle-inverted-L-away-top-visible-smokeIMG_6109-Sean-Oracle-Am-flag-heads-hats-rising-LIMG_6115-Sean-Oracle-vert-climb-belly-visible-no-smoke-angl-slt-RIMG_6074-Sean-Oracle-corkscrew-dive

IMG_6124-tiger-dive-smoke-cloud-frame

IMG_6135-tiger-caught-in-smoke-ring

A tiger caught in the ring – Twin Tiger Aerobatic Team

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U.S. Navy Blue Angels – FA-18 Hornets

IMG_6205-Blue-Angels-diamond-upper-L-climb-pre-break-angles-smokeIMG_6191-Blue-Angels-5-inverted-6-straight-single-file-levelIMG_6217-Blue-Angels-delta-inverted-dive-lower-R-smokeIMG_6203-Blue-Angels-diamond-stair-steps-R-glint-no-smokeIMG_6219-Blue-Angels-delta-away-straight-from-R-dark-smokeIMG_6224-Blue-Angels-delta-upper-R-level-6-visible-2-tails-dark-smoke-6-trails-R-bleedIMG_6216-Blue-Angels-delta-upper-R-climb-smoke-closeup

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On the ground, a huge “bird” out of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio

A jet expert and flight simulation & training engineer, my spouse would have liked to see more, but we got a late start on that hot Saturday. So much the better for me and my spine. When the people dispersed, the seagulls swooped in to reclaim their backyard and scavenge the smorgasbord of leftovers. For our part, we headed to the Cheesecake Factory at Legacy Village, east of downtown Cleveland and the airport. The highlight there for me was the pumpkin cheesecake, just come on the menu for the fall season.

As I soldiered on through the spinal dis-ease of Sunday morning, we met with friends for brunch and the afternoon, followed by dinner at a Hungarian family restaurant in Shaker Square called Balaton. Their food was so disturbingly good I forgot to hurt.

With a first night separated from my co-dependent dog (with his co-dependent Ma), whom we left with my husband’s parents over Saturday and Sunday, it was an all-around very good weekend getaway. Two weeks, a massage, and a chiropractic adjustment later, and I’m on the mend at last. It’s good to be back.

 

Book Review: Tess of the d’Urbervilles

Possible spoilers, explicit sexual terminology included

While I have yet to solidify, if possible, my knowledge and perception of the different versions of the novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, and the controversy surrounding them over the course of 30 years of critics’ reactions and Hardy’s revisionist responses to those reactions starting in the late 1880s, I can unreservedly share some gems of beautiful writing to be found in one version or another. That, along with a brief summarizing book review, is the purpose of this post.
The Transatlantic Press (TAP) 2012 edition preserved or restored several paragraphs’ worth of text missing from the Penguin Classics edition (1998), which is based on a not-easily-identifiable mixture of previous editions. Whatever its sources, TAP 2012 includes the Chaseborough dance scene first restored, from Hardy’s drafting prior to the first 1891 publication, only in the 1912 edition, over 20 years later. Other aspects of TAP’s version preserve text from the 1891 publication, based on direct comparison after I purchased the Penguin Classics rendering of that version while reading the 2012 TAP edition.
That’s the barest tip of the tip of the iceberg that constitutes this novel’s textual history. Suffice it to say there were moral objections to several parts of the work from different quarters, stirring in Hardy different shades of both defiance and compliance to society’s sensibilities over a 30-year span. Amidst the intrigue, according to the Penguin editor, Tim Dolin, Hardy had the foresight, lament it though he would, to bowdlerize his own work in order to pre-empt unwanted excisions by publishers.

Tess was his second to last novel, followed by Jude the Obscure, after which, out of fatigue or frustration with critics’ and publishers’ opinions (the general public generally received the novel with enthusiasm) and the hassle of straddling between his own wishes and theirs, he swore off novels and spent the rest of his long life writing excellent poetry. An excerpt from his poem “The Darkling Thrush” kicks off my Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry series on this blog.
Setting that complicated history and the questions it raises aside, I center this post on a literary appreciation of Thomas Hardy’s controversial work in Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
Like most changes Hardy made, was asked to make, or purposely neglected to make, the deleted and restored scene provokes moral objections. Its palpably sensual tone and sexually suggestive content at the turn of the twentieth century was a challenge for a Western world barely recovered from the era of Victorian mores and not yet liberated by the sexual revolution of first the 1920s and then the 60s and 70s.
Leading up to the Chaseborough dance scene, Tess has been working for Alec d’Urberville’s blind mother, caring for her birds at their estate and journeying on summer Saturdays to fairs and other outings among fellow laborers in the vicinity of the fictitious town of Trantridge, real county Dorset. On one of these Saturdays, she comes upon a singular atmosphere. Alec is the instrument of her ruin which has yet to strike, and the scene serves not only as that event’s foreshadowing but also as perhaps a blend of frankness and lyrical abandon on Hardy’s part in its indirect comment and direct depiction of real society dressed warmly in Romantic and mythological allusions.
Once she reaches the source of the fiddler music unaccompanied by the sound of dancing feet, she peers through the doorway of the outhouse. The total portion of the scene represented in the TAP 2012 edition comprises some 15 paragraphs of variable length. From the second of these paragraphs, the reader shares Tess’s somewhat entranced gaze:
“It was a windowless erection used for storage, and from the open door there floated into the obscurity a mist of yellow radiance, which at first Tess thought to be illuminated smoke. But on drawing nearer she perceived that it was a cloud of dust, lit by candles within the outhouse, whose beams upon the haze carried forward the outline of the doorway into the wide night of the garden.”
“When she came close and looked in she beheld indistinct forms racing up and down to the figure of the dance…” (start of para. 3).
The residue making up the “yellow mist” had come from “the storage of peat and other products, the stirring of which by their turbulent feet created the nebulosity that involved the scene” (para. 3). And this “residuum,” or “scroff” as Hardy first labels it, accounts for the muffling of the sound of the dancers’ nonetheless very active feet.
Then, the energy rises with the number of sexual connotations, adding also some scientific tonality:
“Through this floating, fusty debris of peat and hay, mixed with the perspirations and warmth of the dancers, and forming together a sort of vegeto-human pollen, the muted fiddles feebly pushed their notes, in marked contrast to the spirit with which the measure was trodden out.”
As we zoom in, the Greek mythological allusions binding sex with music begin and pile on thickly. I include definitions and references for further reading following the passage:
“They coughed as they danced, and laughed as they coughed. Of the rushing couples there could barely be discerned more than high lights–the indistinctness shaping them to satyrs clasping nymphs–a multiplicity of Pans whirling a multiplicity of Syrinxes: Lotis attempting to elude Priapus, and always failing.”
satyr – “creatures of the wild, part man and part beast, who in Classical times were closely associated with the god Dionysus. Satyrs and Sileni were at first represented as uncouth men, each with a horse’s tail and ears and an erect phallus. In the Hellenistic age they were represented as men having a goat’s legs and tail. Rival theories differentiate silenis from satyrs.” – Britannica.com.
similar creatures: faun (Roman), minotaur, centaur, harpy, siren. – Wikipedia
nymph – “a minor female nature deity typically associated with a particular location or landform. Different from other goddesses, nymphs are generally regarded as divine spirits who animate nature, and are usually depicted as beautiful, young nubile maidens who love to dance and sing; their amorous freedom sets them apart from the restricted and chaste wives and daughters of the Greek polis. They are beloved by many and dwell in the mountainous regions and forests by lakes and streams.” forever young, can bear immortal children by gods, though not necessarily immortal themselves. examples: Charybdis and Scylla. similar creatures: mermaid, huldra, selkie, siren. the frequent target of satyrs – wikipedia
Pan – “god of nature, the wild, shepherds, flocks, of mountain wilds, rustic music and impromptus, and the companion of the nymph, often associated with sexuality” – Wikipedia
Syrinx – “a nymph and follower of Artemis, known for her chastity. Pursued by the amorous god Pan, she ran to a river’s edge and asked for assistance from the river nymphs. In answer, she was transformed into hollow water reeds that made a haunting sound when the god’s frustrated breath blew across them. Pan cut the reeds to fashion the first set of pan pipes, which were thenceforth known as syrinx.” – Wikipedia
Priapus – “a god fo animal and vegetable fertility whose originally Asian cult started in the Hellespontine regions, centring especially on Lampsacus. He was represented in a caricature of the human form, grotesquely misshapen, with an enormous phallus. Father was Dionysus, the wine god; mother either a nymph or Aphrodite, the goddess of love.” “in Hellenistic times . . . in the country adopted as a god of gardens . . .” – Britannica
– “a minor rustic fertility god, protector of livestock, fruit plants, gardens and male genitalia. Priapus is marked by his oversized, permanent erection, which gave rise to the medical term priapism.” – Wikipedia
priapism = “a persistent, painful erection of the penis unaccompanied by sexual excitation or desire” – Britannica
Lotis – “a nymph mentioned by Ovid. In his account, at the Liberalia festival, Priapus tried to rape her when everyone had fallen asleep, but she was awakened by a sudden cry of Silenus’s donkey and ran off, leaving Priapus in embarrassment as everyone else woke up too and became aware of his intentions. In another account, she was changed into a lotus tree to escape Priapus; later, Dryope picked a flower off the tree Lotis had become and was transformed into a black poplar.” “In Book 6 of the Fasti Ovid tells much the same story, but with the goddess Vesta rather than Lotis as the intended victim. According to some sources, Lotis was the daughter of Neptune or Nereus. Ovid suggests that Priapus later kills the donkey.” – Wikipedia
And, Pan and Syrinx are the parents of the satyrs and nymphs. Phew! Lots to unpack.

Paragraph 4 further emphasizes the sense of illusion and transformation:
“At intervals a couple would approach the doorway for air, and the haze no longer veiling their features, the demigods resolved themselves into the homely personalities of her own next-door neighbors. Could Trantridge in two or three short hours have metamorphosed itself thus madly!”
But it doesn’t stop there, and Tess interacts next with not one but two men who notice her nervous hope that the dance will end soon so her neighbors will leave and she won’t have to journey back in the dark alone. Each man is presented as a god- or saint-like figure in an ironic sense, as they are both drunken and make suggestive comments akin to Alec d’Urberville’s assuaging overtures to Tess up to this point.
The first is described as “one of [the] Sileni of the throng,” and the singular, a “Silenus,” is a particularly older, mentor-like figure in the company of the wine god Dionysus. “The plural sileni refers to the mythological figure as a type that is sometimes thought to be differentiated from a satyr by having the attributes of a horse rather than a goat.” – Wikipedia
After these exchanges, we return to the dance floor itself in paragraph 11 of this edition’s surplus Chaseborough scene:
“The movement grew more passionate: the fiddlers behind the luminous pillar of cloud now and then varied the air by playing on the wrong side of the bridge or with the back of the bow. But it did not matter; the panting shapes spun onwards.”
Here, the dancers are reduced to nebulous forms themselves, less sexual beings and more impressions of objects, like protons spinning around an atom’s nucleus. This lends the suggestion of inevitable, eminently natural movement, the essence of life and energy. Their identities are again obscured; they could be either animals or something else, but something either supra-human or subhuman.
Hardy then focuses on the dancers’ tendencies to stay with the partner they’re inclined to once begun, as if to point out the glue-like, intimate nature of these pairs, in contrast to traditional country dances of ever-changing partners and a communal sense of order and purpose and propriety. In the middle of that paragraph, number 12 of the passage, the theme of cosmic movement reaches a pinnacle:
“It was then that the ecstasy and the dream began, in which emotion was the matter of the universe, and matter but an adventitious intrusion likely to hinder you from spinning where you wanted to spin.”
The use of the pronoun “you” personalizes the described experience to the reader’s frame of reference while simultaneously bringing emotion and human intention into equality with the ultimate nature of the cosmos. This moment serves as the climax of the figurative sexual intercourse that is the dance.
The next description reiterates the sense of accomplished sexual union and orgasmic release. However, Hardy takes it one step further in continuing to emphasize the collective over an individual couple, suggesting with no great subtlety orgiastic abandon. Paragraph 13:
“Suddenly there was a dull thump on the ground: a couple had fallen, and lay in a mixed heap. The next couple, unable to check its progress, came toppling over the obstacle. An inner cloud of dust rose around the prostrate figures amid the general one of the room, in which a twitching entanglement of arms and legs was discernible.”
Again, Hardy returns to the medium of the dance: the “fusty” “yellow mist” operating even more now as a sexual fluid of semen or the mixed pool of male and female ejaculate fluids.
Even more scandalous in his day, however, must have been his final coup de grace at the end of paragraph 14:
“. . . female accents from the human heap–those of the unhappy partner of the man whose clumsiness had caused the mishap; she happened also to be his recently married wife, in which assortment there was nothing unusual in Trantridge as long as any affection remained between wedded couples; and, indeed, it was not uncustomary in their later lives, to avoid making odd lots of the single people between whom there might be a warm understanding.”
Translation:
The husband’s clumsiness with a partner other than his wife, resulting in their falling down together, led to his wife and her partner’s collision with the first couple. This arrangement of non-wedded pairs of dance partners was not unusual in Trantridge if there was affection between sets of couples and unwedded members of the opposite sex. Well into their married lives, it was not uncommon to switch partners so that single people did not feel left out in the mix either, and to make of the crowd a more unified whole of versatile dance partners, and, implicitly, sexual partners. Swingers, orgies, etc.
As if that weren’t enough discomfort for the die-hard Victorian or Puritan reader, later when the crowd departs, Hardy overtly attaches halos to their heads, as if their very sensuality and its shameless expression have made them somehow saintly or angelic.

Hardy had balls, that’s for sure.
One would think there might be a Chapter X general note in the Penguin Classics edition concerning this deleted scene, but they don’t give it such prominence. However, they do include a note marked at the specific location where the text is significantly different between versions:
“2 – When Hardy removed this chapter from Graphic [first publication in this magazine for serial form of the text] it included a long dance scene at this point. It was retained when the chapter was published separately [as Saturday Night in Arcady], but was not restored to Tess until 1912. Appendix V reproduces both versions.”
Spoilers ahead.
At this point in the story, an incident during the journey home directly precipitates Tess’s fatal decision to go with Alec d’Urberville, who takes her into the forest and in some versions rapes while in others seduces her, resulting in her birthing a daughter, prior to which one version replaces the rape/seduction scene with a duplicitous false marriage scene between Tess and Alec.
And the confusion about Tess’s character and morality only mounts with the increase of changes and counter-changes Hardy makes over the ensuing years, in everything from subtle actions taken to gestures and tears to comments on her thought processes. The same goes for other principal figures in the book, so that when the revisions have finally ended, the modern reader hardly knows what to make of it all.
Still, and amazingly, despite all the complications, Hardy manages to deliver into posterity a well-loved narrative and tragedy of Greek proportions in a captivating writing style. Its considerable length is buffered by a noticeable economy of language coupled with playful use of extraneously large, technical-sounding words, and some made-up ones, such as “vegeto-human.” This latter feature particularly irritated many critics, but as an incorrigible intellectual in love with big words, I love Hardy for it. The tale is epic and complete and the commentary on society’s moral hypocrisy not only discernible but memorable.
Hardy elevates our understanding of human complexity, not only in his carefully told tale but also in the vacillations of all that pre-emptive shaping, editing, redaction, and rewriting. Tim Dolin, editor of the Penguin Classics edition’s textual history section and end notes, remarks on the practical impossibility of identifying a definitive edition, and proposes there may really be no such thing.
Indeed, this notion may be the simple truth of most published writing; especially in hindsight, the author knows that more could have been done or done better, but at some point they pull the trigger or nothing ever gets published. For the reader as well as the writer, the work always remains to some degree unfinished, which only adds to the fascination of literature.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles has become a new favorite book of mine, and I am sorely tempted to eschew future plans on my to-read list to take another sensual spin full of rich, transporting description around Thomas Hardy’s d’Urberville universe and the magnificently complex and shape-shifting character of Tess Durbeyfield. All that remains is the tiny matter of which edition to choose next.

book on the grass

Photo by Kaboompics .com on Pexels.com

Showcase Poems, Magnetized

For those who missed the poetry, comedy, music, stories, word battles and beautiful weather surrounding the Grand Showcase live performances last weekend in Canton, I hope you’ll enjoy these sticky slices from my reading. 

I read for a little over ten minutes a total of nine poems. Most of them I have previously posted in some form on this blog and then revised this month for the program, sharing a discussion of my process:

“Hawk Side”

“Inspirator”

“Otter Sea”

“Green Turtle”

“City Lizard”

“Of all the signs of spring”

After changing my selections multiple times, altering presentation order, and almost completely recreating poems that made the cut and ones that didn’t, somehow I ended up focusing on wild animals. Go figure. The exceptions are “Inspirator,” which describes a landscape, and “Of all the signs of spring,” which is about the sun. Both of those are really about my melancholic reactions to certain things, such as missing the preferred excitement of seeing wild animals.

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Image courtesy Normal Public Library

I thought it might be fun this time to select parts of each poem and splice them together to create a new poem. You may be familiar with magnetic poetry kits, in which each magnet has a word on it. In this post, I use chunks of words in the form of excerpts from my poems. Each chunk piggybacks off the one before it, either through image, theme, or topic. In case it’s not quite obvious, as not all minds think alike, I note the nature of their connections in italics. Enjoy!

From “Of all the signs of spring,” the last lines:

the more I sit and stare out the window that is a door
I could open but for my blanched sight and just this–
one globe’s eyeless glare

From “Green Turtle” somewhere in the middle: the fixed gaze

I want to look away, bury head into body as it can,
retract the mind down into the heart and let the two mingle,
and educate each other; give purpose to small humps
below napes. But I can’t.

From “City Lizard” toward the end: from powerlessness to vulnerability, with a gaze

It is a dangerous decree, the buzzing bikes and trucks.
The city lizard thinks he likes his sky’s debris.

This common lizard watches me and with each glance
I wonder at his circumstance, how he’s not free.

From “Hawk Side” toward the end: truck to truck to bird

Blip of a truck, fleck of a bird.
Leaving carcasses for cars and crows,
the huntress crowns the rot of wooden fence posts
low on a highway hill.

From “Inspirator” (pron. IN spuh RA tuhr), a stanza in the middle: bird to flock

Behind their flock, a splash of ember glow, a mess of logs,
extremities in dried blood spatter . . . artful twists of sinew.
Over here! on ground beyond, a grander stage presents
an ostentatious spectacle of orange-tipped yellow dancers,
live, inspirited, and heedless of the fueling wind.

From “Otter Sea,” two middle stanzas: wind’s different effects on fire and water, whether literal water or figurative fire

The sea’s face quilts copper-
coated tents, gilt roofs on
a vast circus, reluctant
aquarium holding fathoms
unsolved. A wet coat plunges,
black-coffee chestnut sheen
poured from carafe to cup,
porpoising question marks.

Do I mistake otter scuttle
for uplifted sun shadow,
obsidian lip curl tossing
salt, krill, and faint light?
No mistake (or encore)
offers sight of thickest fur—
pale-headed, black-eyed,
quick, five-fingered things.

Bonus: one of three Haiku I read, another of which I’ve also shared before: from waves in the sea off shore to waves crashing on the shore

Scolded surf curls on
itself, ashamed its crashing
Disintegrates pearls.

Next for me in poetry are new kinds of subjects, new forms, or both. Stay tuned.


For more of my original poetry, see:

Wild Verses, Bits of Nature Poetry (1 of 10), which ends with a list of most of the poems and excerpts I’ve written on the blog, both in and out of the series.

For samples and analysis of famous nature poetry, start here:

Nature Poetry by Famous Poets

Argyll with Àdhamh, Part 1 of 4

Ask anyone who knows me well. They might say I’m a magician at turning small units of time into much larger ones. Or, they might just say, as I have said, that I operate on a geologic time scale, at a glacial pace. I tend to drag out projects and procrastinate. Because of this and possibly an underlying difficulty letting go of the past, plus genuine interest, I have managed to explode a fortnight’s Scottish vacation from September 2016 into a series of blog posts spread across nearly two years since this trip.

To illustrate the span of time, here are a few examples:

Scottish Color: A Photo Essay – overview of sensory highlights (posted Oct 12, 2016)

An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 1 – my take on Outlander tourism, presenting filming sites in Central Scotland (posted December 1, 2016)

An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 4 – the story of my trip planning process, snapshots of planned vs. actual itinerary, summary of our experience, and reflections on improvements (posted March 11, 2017)

An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 6, the final post in the OL tourism series, focused on Scottish and more general travel tips and resources, based on our Scotland trip experiences (posted June 15, 2017)

With several in between, but then nothing derived directly from the trip, until now.

This one has been a long time coming for several reasons, or excuses. I’ll spare you those. Suffice it to say I’ve been writing and thinking about this day ever since my husband and I experienced it, and I wanted its expression to do the moment justice in every way possible. And, I suppose I wanted to keep experiencing it for as long as possible, too, without having to labor over representing it.

All things end, but with those endings, other things begin. While it is in our power to effect that transition, to allow new things to happen, we can also prevent it. But the world and we are the poorer for that stagnation. As Mr. Willoughby says in Outlander STARZ ep309, “The Doldrums,” once I tell my story, I have to let it go. So, it is with bitter sweetness that I let go and share, and smile with hope and wonder to think where it might lead.

Road to Argyll

The Outlander Connection

On a mild Tuesday in mid-September 2016, my love for the Outlander book and TV series gave my husband and me our best day of a two-week Scotland vacation. We attended no conference with actors from the STARZ show. No Outlander filming or book sites came into play, as we had taken an Outlander tour on the first day. We did not meet Diana Gabaldon, author of the book series and consultant for the show.

Naturally, Outlander fans might wonder what would be the point of such a day, unless you’re also captivated by Scotland, whether just its romanticized image or its complex realities as well. Scotland fans just becoming familiar with the country, however, can anticipate from this post series new insights, revealed secrets, intimate portraits, and enticing destinations for future travel.

What we did was simply take a car ride through the inimitable region of Argyll & Bute with Àdhamh Ó Broin (AH ghuv o BROYN), a friendly Scot who just happens to be the Gaelic Language Consultant for Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander book series and its TV adaptation. It felt like a new neighbor was showing us his backyard, but it was much more because the backyard was very, very large.

I’ve been a fan of Gabaldon’s Outlander series since I first read book one in 2011, after two friends from different circles of mine recommended it. Once I discovered the STARZ show’s existence and high quality, I fell in love with it, fascinated by spoken Scottish Gaelic and inspired to learn what the Highlander characters say, in both Scots and Gaelic, in the Season 1 episodes.

It was perhaps the simple genius of the STARZ production’s decision not to provide English subtitles for most of their scripts’ Gaelic lines—had Àdhamh suggested this?—that paved the way for our wonderful day with Mr. Ó Broin. In watching scenes involving Gaelic speech, the viewer feels the outsider narrator Claire’s confusion, alienation, and suspense.

The lack of subtitles also allowed me to focus on and enjoy the words for their sounds and the shapes made by characters’ mouths. Sharing time traveller Claire’s “Sassenach” (“outlander” or “Englishwoman”) perspective on the unknown Scottish Gaelic language fosters a sense of mystery and curiosity, and, for some like me, a real need to know more than could be gleaned from gestures, facial expressions, music, or interactions.

In a handful of fan blogs devoted to translating the Gaelic from the show into English, I’ve found translations of some of those early lines that inspired me to learn more words and phrases of this beautiful language, threatened, like so many, by obsolescence.

Evolution

As a result, I was one of many thousands of visitors in 2015 who began studying this unlikely tongue through free, self-guided lessons and the two-way Gaelic-English dictionary on the LearnGaelic.scot website (founded 2011). A project newly updated in 2015 with the support of series actors Gary Lewis, who plays Colum MacKenzie, and Gillebride MacMillan, who plays Gwyllyn the Bard, along with Àdhamh Ó Broin, its popularity has greatly increased since the show began.

Soon after I started watching the show, my obsessive re-watching gave rise to posts such as my top-viewed “Adapted Bawdy Lyrics,” a translation from Scots into standard English of the song Claire sings in ep114, “The Search.” Then, on Twitter I began following not just the actors but also the producers, crew and consultants, including my favorite contemporary novelist Diana Gabaldon and, of course, Mr. Àdhamh Ó Broin.

For his social media followers, Àdhamh shares Gaelic words, phrases, and sentences, often translating them. In August 2016, after having passed 20 or so lessons on LearnGaelic.scot, and reviewing some of them, I replied to his tweet of a translated caption about a picture he received of a sunny Scottish day.

In my first reply, I wrote:

Or, literally, “Sky blue ‘n’ leaves plenty for the stroll of the morning”? Showing syntax, word matchup.

Then, I thanked him for adding “sky” (speur), “leaves” (duilleagan), and “stroll” (sràid) to my Gaelic vocabulary. His liking my tweets assured me I had it right. At the time, I tried not to take my study too seriously, since I’m not a Scottish or Canadian resident–where most fluent Gaelic speakers live in certain community pockets–who can practice and become conversational. After that brief lesson, I had no illusions of greater significance in our exchange, or of further contact afterwards.

Although Àdhamh “liked” both replies, he had not remembered them when I later emailed him our Scotland trip itinerary as an informal request for recommendations. I expected neither that he would recall nor that he would reply to my email, but that reply came! And more swiftly and positively than I had dared to hope.

From Whim to Intention

It was a bona fide wonder that he should be available when we’d be in the region, and I was truly thrilled by the chance to meet him and share the day. At first, I assumed, albeit in amazement, that he must have remembered me from Twitter. Otherwise, why would a semi-renowned Scottish Gaelic language expert be so trusting and kind to a stranger as to offer his company and expertise for the Argyll-area portion of our trip? Surely, he wouldn’t just open himself up like that out of the blue to just anybody.

True enough. When I asked him about it later, he told me that it was the detail and earnestness in my planning (perhaps showing an underlying passion for seeing the country) that helped convince him to pitch his services. It’s amazing where a little encouragement and curiosity can lead when the opportunity arises.

We took our unexpected journey through Argyll & Bute with Àdhamh Ó Broin on 20 September 2016. I waited much longer than intended to finish writing about it because I wanted to make sure I did it justice. Sin mi a-nis agus seo agad ciamar.

Sin mi a-nis / agus seo agad ciamar Now is my chance / and this/here is how

Getting from Edinburgh to Argyll

That morning, I had dry eyes partly from growing fatigue and, I suspect, partly from dehydration. Besides, there was no sorrow or vexation to well up, no aspect of the first phase that had gone horribly wrong or had been even mildly disappointing. In fact, we had seen many marvelous sights, eaten well, heard great stories, and slept comfortably. Wide eyed and alert, we faced an exciting time as we began the second leg of our Scotland adventure earlier into its first day than we’d begun any day up to that point.

Having packed up from our Edinburgh base at the Residence Inn, newly ensconced in our rental car, and taking a 2-hour, week-day drive to Arrochar in the Trossachs National Park, I was the most nervous I had been so far during the trip. With my husband driving, we were carving our path to Argyll, waving toward Glasgow along the way, to meet and spend the day with the Gaelic language consultant for the Outlander STARZ TV series.

Àdhamh Ó Broin

Psst, a little advice: When an Outlander STARZ / Diana Gabaldon consultant and upbeat native of a country you’re about to visit for the first time offers to show you around for a day, you find a way to make it happen! Àdhamh Ó Broin, like Gabaldon (though herself a Sassenach), faithfully represents the ageless beauty of Scotland and Scottish culture.

When we first met Àdhamh at our B&B in Arrochar, bagpipes case in hand, he greeted my husband with a handshake and half man-hug, half pat on the back, and me with a kiss on the cheek. Of moderate height, his figure betrayed only trace evidence of a whisky belly beneath a baggy, dark grey T-shirt and black zip-up jacket.

Although Àdhamh sported his usual high-cut straight bangs thin and flat against his forehead, his hair suggested no baldness for pushing 40 years of wear. His robust but uniform beard ran a half-shade darker than the natural red with a touch of strawberry blond haze on his crown. Àdhamh wore well-loved brown hiking boots and saggy-hipped jeans in a medium blue that matched his eye color. He fit the part of the humble, fun-loving person who values substance over style. Our kind of people.

Originally from Argyll & Bute, Àdhamh voices a softened (as in, intelligible to Sassenachs) Glaswegian accent. At the time of our jaunt together, Glasgow was his city of residence. The location is convenient for meeting with the cast and crew of the Outlander TV show, which houses its studios just outside the city, on the way to Edinburgh from Glasgow.

Unplanned Plan

My husband and I hired Àdhamh as a guide to help us explore Argyll. After I devised a basic travel plan prior to communicating with Àdhamh, he then upended my original itinerary. I had thought maybe we’d go to Inveraray Castle, Auchindrain Museum, and perhaps the Crarae Gardens. All of these are probably lovely, but I didn’t feel their lack as Àdhamh steered us to more unusual treasures. The schedule may have been out of our hands, but Àdhamh skillfully shaped the journey around our interests. He had places in mind to show us, but he adapted that rough plan to our interests in scenic vistas, wilderness, and ancient sites.

For my husband’s first-ever UK driving experience, he drove from our hotel in Edinburgh past Glasgow through the Trossachs to Loch Long in Arrochar. Then, for the next 7 hours, over 200 miles of winding, hilly, and many single-track roads, in both daylight and darkness, Àdhamh navigated while my husband bravely pressed on. Despite describing the experience as “terrifying,” hubby remained our DD the whole way. There was never a dull moment, in or out of that little black rented Vauxhall Corsa.

From having perused Àdhamh’s website and the Twitterverse, I had only a vague notion of what to expect. But over the course of the day, we enjoyed 5 hours of visits to chapels, a parish church and graveyard, 19th-century croft ruins, farmland, canals, an ancient kingdom’s fort, standing stones, cairns, wild landscapes, seascapes, and loch-scapes, a canal-side coffee shop, and lunch at a little inn off a boat-filled cove. It was a personalized, story-driven portrait of life in Argyll & Bute, past and present.

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Loch a’ Bhealaich / inlet of Taigh a’ Bhealaich (village of Tayvallich) viewed from restaurant window during lunch. Images © C. L. Tangenberg unless otherwise indicated

Argyll & Bute

A conglomeration of land bridges, peninsulas, and islands, with diverse waterways among them, the modern council area of Argyll & Bute (A & B), sometimes alternatively styled as Argyll and the Isles, can appear fragmented and, thus, arbitrarily collected. It’s a part of Scotland where it’s hard to tell whether loch, sea, or land is more pinched off at its edges.

But imagine Scotland, and the outline of its map, as the figure of a bagpiper in full regalia from severed knee at the English border to feathered beret reaching through the Arctic Circle, much like the frame of the constellation Orion.

If the country’s shape resembles a kilted Scottish warrior—with the Borders and Southwest comprising the pleats below the waist, the Grampian Mountains bearing the shoulder-draped section of plaid, and Northwest Scotland the slanted beret atop a bushy beard—then Argyll & Bute is the fringed sporran swinging from the Highlander’s belt as he marches proudly across the face of the blue-and-white Saltire sky.

And the region is just as full of singular secret treasures as the sporran of Outlander’s Jamie Fraser is.

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Scotland map from booklet Top 10 Scotland, published by DK

The range of Argyll & Bute extends from roughly northeast—beyond where sea-sourced Loch Linnhe replaces the land spread of the Great Glen (at Fort William)—to south and southwest.

The Great Glen is the seam that divides the Northwest and West Highlands from the Grampian Mountains of the Highlands. Though scattered by the sea, Argyll comprises the southern-most wedge of the Grampian Mountains.

East of Argyll, the traveller encounters the Central Lowlands, with its famed cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, south of which the Southern Uplands border England.

Enfolding the isles of Mull, Jura, Islay, Oronsay, Colonsay, Iona, Tiree, Coll, and Gigha, among the Inner Hebrides within its borders, the A & B council area also claims the western shore of Loch Lomond, the Isle of Bute, and the Mull of Kintyre, headland area of the Kintyre Peninsula.

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Argyll section of Scotland map from booklet Top 10 Scotland, published by DK

Argyll & Bute also borders the Firth of Clyde, a bay connected to the river of the same name coursing through Glasgow.

The main peninsulas of A & B stretch south-southwest toward a foreign shore. The extension of the longer, the Kintyre, peninsula halts only 13 miles across the North Channel from Northern Ireland. The Republic of Ireland shares its island with Northern Ireland beginning at the same latitude but farther west from Scotland.

The Path

To help my family with context for our Argyll slide show, I traced our circuit on a map of the area from a page in Fodor’s Travel: Essential Great Britain. The path is shown below.

The Journey

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In dark black ink, the path we drove from Arrochar and Loch Long through Argyll and back. Label “Dunadd Fort” is obscured by criss-cross marks. Map: (2015) Fodor’s Travel Essential Great Britain guide book.

Morning in Argyll

September 20th, just after 10 am

In the southernmost of the Southern Highlands, close enough to Glasgow to encourage frequent visits by hill walkers and climbers, the Arrochar Alps punctuate the base of Argyll’s Cowal Peninsula like a primitive stone necklace. West of Loch Lomond, and north and west of Arrochar where we lodged, these mountains cut a majestic gateway to the west coast of Argyll. Here we spent a whole day with Àdhamh Ó Broin.

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View from Seabank B&B, 9/21/16. Morning fog over Loch Long, with the tip of Ben Arthur “The Cobbler” (upper left) just visible behind the ridge. Image © C. L. Tangenberg

First Foray

Draped in morning fog, ruddy tidal plains rim the northern arcs of long sea inlets, where up sprout the sharp mountain ridges of Argyll. Some of their bright green flanks shoulder darker tree lines. Whether seen as attractive patchwork or ugly open wounds (Àdhamh saw them as the latter), the swaths are signs of more recent conifer forestry. In a borderland between sea and loch, some waters are fresh and some brackish, and Argyll’s complex web nets incredibly diverse and abundant wildlife.

We launched our day in Argyll from accommodations in the town of Arrochar, near the heart of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park. Along with the Cairngorms, it is one of only two national parks in Scotland. Here, freshwater and sea loch fingertips reach up from the heart of Argyll through the southern parts of the park. Our lodging, Seabank B&B, sits on the northeast edge of Loch Long, a sea loch, just a stone’s throw seaward from the large, freshwater, and famous Loch Lomond. The A83 motorway led us to the west coast.

Curling first around Loch Long’s northern tip, we passed Beinn Ime to the northeast, between fingertips, and then began our ride around Loch Fyne. From the north, we cleaved to Fyne’s western bank as we drove southwest toward the Atlantic. The shortest path by car between points in Argyll is never a straight line, and never on level ground.

“It’s in the folds and twists of the countryside, the interplay of land and water and the views out to the islands that the strengths and beauties of mainland Argyll lie” – Rough Guides – Scotland, Argyll

As we drove the glens, Àdhamh told us the eerie story of a woman named Mary whose neighbor’s premonition saved her from being washed away by a rainstorm’s flood in Gleann Cinn Ghlais (Glen Kinglas), meaning “valley of the greenish-grey (or grey-green) head,” describing the color of the hills.

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view of Inveraray Castle from inside the moving car on a bridge crossing the river

Past the town of Inveraray, stronghold of Clan Campbell, with a glimpse of its castle from a bridge, we continued south, where the A83 pulls to the southwest, leaving Loch Fyne’s shores. Eventually, we waved to the Auchindrain Township Museum on the left as we kept driving, drawn back again to Loch Fyne’s western bank on the same A83.

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from the car, near Glen Kinglas

At this point, my husband’s terror had not yet begun since first climbing into the driver’s seat of the rental car in Edinburgh; although hills, curves, turns, narrow single tracks, and stonewall bridges greeted us, it was still daylight, the sun shining. On our way to the coast, we made a pit stop at the Crinan Coffee Shop for a sip and a view of the Crinan Canal, along with some lively conversation where my husband could relax and fully participate.

In the next posts, look for the wonder and intrigue of new and deeper mysteries surrounding key moments in Scottish history. We’ll start it off with a cup of joe and some details of our conversation.


Sources Consulted for Argyll & Bute and the Isles

Argyll and the Isles Tourism Co-operative Ltd (AITC) http://www.exploreargyll.co.uk/about.php since 2012

Walking and climbing in Argyll and the Isles: Come to Argyll and the Isles for unbeatable walking and climbing. Enjoy epic long-distance routes, magnificent munros, loch-side strolls and coastal treks – all amid stunning Scottish scenery.

The Rough Guides – Scotland, Argyll: https://www.roughguides.com/destinations/europe/scotland/argyll/

LearnGaelic.scot: a resource for free, self-guided lessons and a two-way Gaelic-English dictionary on the LearnGaelic.scot website (founded 2011). A project newly updated in 2015 with the support of actors Gary Lewis, who plays Colum MacKenzie, and Gillebride MacMillan, who plays Gwyllyn the Bard, along with Àdhamh Ó Broin

Walk Highlands – Argyll, Bute and Oban: https://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/argyll/

Loch Fyne and the Coast

Inveraray Castle Visitor Information: An iconic Scottish castle in Argyll, Scotland.

Auchindrain Township, Inveraray. The last surviving example of a Highland farm…

Sources Consulted for Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park

Elizabeth Forest Park: Trossachs – The Lodge Forest Visitor Centre – Forestry Commission Scotland

Loch Lomond – Day Trip Loch Lomond Waterfalls: Guided Walking and Sightseeing Highland Day Tours for independent travellers wanting to experience Scotand beyond the major tourist attractions and the confines of a bus.


Gáidhlig Dhail Riada. If you are interested in the rich Gaelic heritage of Dalriada and would like to find out more…

Àdhamh Ó Broin – Gáidhlig Dhail Riada

Grand Showcase coming soon!

Hey, art lovers and writers in northeast Ohio, heads up!

The annual Writing Knights Grand Tournament has been restyled as Grand Showcase and Marketplace 2018!

Grand Showcase 2018

Presented live in Canton, OH ~ July 27-28

Hosted by Writing Knights Press and downtown Canton

I’ll read my poetic “Scenes from a nature film” live @ IKON Images Gallery & Shoppe, July 28 at 1pm

Descriptive nature verse (mostly)–some seasoned pieces, some revised, some made fresh for the show

Located at 221 5th Street, Canton, IKON is just one of several venues where poetry, music, comedy, and stories will be performed over Friday and Saturday, July 27-28.

Check out the full main schedule of performers, including me at 1pm on Saturday, July 28, plus an open mic list. All the action starts Friday night, July 27.

Open mic runs concurrently with the main program on July 28, from 12pm to 6pm. Interested performers for the open mic email writingknights@live.com. Full instructions here.

Below is the general plan. “Love” offerings (cash) will be accepted at each program.

“Friday July 27th from 7pm to 9pm: We will have one show at Makeshift Makerspace.
Saturday July 28th will be the big day. We will have the following shows:
  • 12pm to 2pm show at IKON Art Gallery
  • 3:30pm to 5:30pm show at Makeshift Makerspace
  • 7pm to 9pm the final show of the event at Avenue Arts/Kathleen Howland Theatre.”

Vendors will set up along Court Street, so bring cash for food, souvenirs, etc.

Writing Knights will also be selling copies of the Showcase issue of their literary magazine The Wayward Sword for $15. Four of my poems made it into the litmag.

Full details at Writing Knights Press, see the posts using key word “Grand Showcase 2018.”

Come out to support the arts scene, share your work, get inspired and just have fun!