Women have done amazing things for literature and have been an instrumental part in shaping the literature of today as well as the current publishing industry. In honor of National Women’s History Month we wanted to recognize these impressive women for all that they have done and will continue to do in the future.

There are too many amazing women, inspiring female characters, and wonderful authors to name, so instead I am going to discuss the ten books that have most inspired and/or deeply affected me in the last year. As a happy coincidence, ALL of these ten books were written by women. Today you get the second half. Check out My 10 Favorite Books from the Last 10 Months (Part 1) for the first half of this list.

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd

This is hands down my favorite book (at the moment). It also happens to be one that truly encapsulates Women’s History Month. The Invention of Wings follows the lives of two women from opposing backgrounds. Sarah Grimke, the daughter of a wealthy family in early nineteenth century Charelston is given a present that alters her life. Meet Hetty “Handful” Grimke, an urban slave and Sarah’s eleventh birthday present. Kidd follows the lives of these two women from childhood into adulthood. We watch as they grow up, grow apart, and rebel against the lives they were born into.

What I think is particularly compelling about this book is that it looks at slavery from the slave, the slave owner, and the abolitionists perspectives all at once. On top of the slavery discussion, this book also looks at gender roles and the strict confines of society on women. Sue Monk Kidd presents an interesting comparison between abolitionism and women’s rights that is still relevant today. This is a book that I would recommend to anyone, but particularly to a female audience.

Sue Monk Kidd is also the author of The Secret Life of Bees, another book that I would recommend.


Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

Counting by 7s, by Holly Goldberg Sloan

Coping with death and loss appears regularly in literature. This is a middle grade novel told from the perspective of twelve-year-old genius. Willow is not your average middle schooler, she is incredibly smart, and prefers her garden and her medical textbooks as opposed to other kids her age. When Willows adoptive parents both die in a car crash she is forced to come to terms with her parents’ death and her grief while simultaneously finding herself and her place in the new world she has been thrust into. Told through Willows’ unique, intelligent, and scientific-minded voice we follow along as this young girl turns her grief into a discovery rather than a tragedy.

I bet you were not expecting to find a middle grade novel on this list, and I can assure you that when I picked it up for the first time I was not expecting this book to be in my Top Ten either. But the surprise is what makes this book so special.


What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty

What Alice Forgot, by Liane Moriarty

What Alice Forgot is the saddest books that I have ever read and I like sad books so that is saying a lot. I’m a fan of any book that I am still thinking about days, weeks, and months later and this book is exactly that!

Married couples splitting up have become the norm. Divorce rates are high. I am just entering the phase of life where weddings are a regular event. I have been told to enjoy this “wedding phase” while it lasts because after that comes the “kid phase,” and then the “divorce phase.” What Alice Forgot deals with all of these three phases of life. Alice has amnesia. She wakes up in the middle of a ugly divorce and her children are in their early teens. However in Alice’s head, she is a newlywed, floating in marital bliss, and pregnant with her first child. She is quite confused, as you might imagine.

Moriarty magnifies both of these two pivotal times by examining how Alice fell in and out of love. I am a fast reader and I like to start and finish a book all in the same week. This book took me a while. I found myself regularly having to stop and think about what I had just read, for a day and often for a week. This is a difficult book to read in one sitting and is not necessarily one to take on vacation. What Alice Forgot will make you pause and really think about the ways we treat others and ourselves.


Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi

Ghana Must Go, by Taiye Selasi

Every book on this list is here for a reason and Ghana Must Go is here for several, one of which being that it may be the most beautifully written book that I have read in my life.

Kweku Sai, a divorced father of four and renowned surgeon, is dead. His death starts the ripple of events that bring his estranged family slowly back together. Secrets and disappointments have drawn the family apart over time and it takes the death of their father to bring them back together. This novel looks at the unconditional love of family and “teaches that the truths we speak can heal the words we hide.”

This is a book that spans generations, moving seamlessly through time, point of view, and voice as it looks at how a single family grew up, grew apart, and what it took to bring them back together. Taiye Selasi is a beautifully eloquent writer who I cannot wait to read more of.


Golden Boy by Tara Sullivan

Golden Boy, by Tara Sullivan

This is a book truly unlike any other I have ever read. Golden Boy looks at the life of thirteen-year-old Habo, who is growing up in a small Tanzanian village. His father abandoned the family because he could not accept his son. His mother will not look at him. His brother terrorizes him. The other children in the village have never asked him to play. Habo is alone and different. When Habos’ family is cast out of their village, he knows his yellow hair, light eyes, and white skin is the reason why. As his family travels across the Serengeti in order to seek refuge in Mwanza, Habo discovers his curse has a name: Albino, and there are people hunting him.

When I think of oppression and discrimination, in terms of history, there are three things that come to mind: slavery, women’s rights, and the holocaust. Maybe this is because I commonly have more access to books that discuss these issues, maybe it is because these are common topics in literature, but it is both refreshing and upsetting when you come across a case of discrimination as graphic and disturbing as the one discussed in this book. Particularly when you did not previously know it existed.

Golden Boy is a Young Adults book and while aimed at a younger audience, was one of the more enlightening and educational books that I have read this year.

Any Other Name, by Craig JohnsonA Serpent's Tooth, by Craig Johnson Spirit of Steamboat, by Craig Johnson

Being in the business I’m in, I sometimes get some strange requests, and I figured I’d share one with you. The other day I got a memo from Orion Entertainment announcing the casting of a new docu-reality television series…

The memo says they’re looking for “authentic and colorful cowboys and their families that live the throwback cowboy lifestyle. They should spend more time on their horse than in their truck!
My first response was who in the heck are these village morons, but like a Ron Popiel commercial—wait, there’s more!
The memo goes on to point out the exact lifestyle elements they should embody. All members of the family need to live a classic cowboy lifestyle and have rugged good looks. Family should have outgoing parents with at least 3 kids, ages ranging from 17 – 35, that are all great looking cowboys and cowgirls. Active grandparents are a plus.
All right, this is almost so funny I’m not sure where to start, but evidently the most important thing in reality TV is rugged good looks or being a fantastic looking cowboy or cowgirl. Now I’ve got to tell you that in all the ranches I ever worked at, the first thing I did was hand over an 8X10 just to make sure I suited the aesthetic of the outfit. I’ve been around some pretty capable hands and they do have a point here, some of the most capable and talented individuals I’ve ever met were certainly not the best looking… It’s kind of hard to look ruggedly handsome while pulling dogies out of the mud. The last point is a real hoot, in that I agree that active grandparents are a plus.
Family needs to be working stunning ranches with diverse terrain and challenges – chasing grizzlies and wolves away from cattle, the struggles of raising crops and making a profit, battling weather elements to keep livestock safe and alive.
It’s gotten so that I have a hard time fighting off the wolves and grizzlies whenever I take the dogs out anymore.
Family and staff of the ranch must be involved in the country lifestyle: hunting, fishing, trapping, building cabins and structures, herding cattle, sheering sheep, farming, etc.
Of course, while doing these things you’ll be fighting off the wolves and grizzlies…
Members of the family and staff should have fun hobbies and skills like singing, play the guitar or harmonica, write and recite poetry, cook the best BBQ in the county, make their own clothes, raise bees or have wild animals as pets, raise bulls, or be an aspiring bull rider or rodeo participant.
You know, in all that free time you have while ranching.
All members of the family need to have big, strong personalities with great and unique looks.
I’m always wondering what Hollywood’s ideas are of “great and unique looks”. Judy says my dilapidated Carhartt jacket, Stormy Kromer hat, and Shipton’s Big-R jeans probably aren’t going to fit the bill.
See you on the trail,
PS: The tour for Any Other Name is just about finalized and will be attached to the next Post-it. In the meantime, it is available for pre-order SIGNED at Barnes and Noble and a few of your favorite independents. Here are the links:

The Book Rack

Mystery Mikes

Prairie Pages Bookseller

Leather Stalking Books

Old Firehouse Books

Sheridan Stationery Co

PPS: Don’t forget to shop the store (Steamboat Totems are in stock as are hats and shirts and mugs, oh my) and keep an eye out for a new item coming in time for the DVD release of LONGMIRE Season 2 and Mother’s Day.



Catch Craig Johnson on his book tour.

Women have done amazing things for literature and have been instrumental in shaping the literature of today. In honor of National Women’s History Month, we wanted to recognize these impressive women for all that they have done and will continue to do.

There are too many amazing women, inspiring female characters, and wonderful authors to name. So instead, I am going to discuss the ten books that have most inspired and/or deeply affected me in the last ten months. As a happy coincidence, ALL of these books were written by women. Today however you only get the first five. Check back on Thursday, March 20th for the second half of this list.


All the Truth That’s in Me by Julie Berry

All the Truth That's In Me by Julie Berry

No matter how old I get, I will never give up reading Young Adult books. The main reason being that these books tackle issues that are often left to fall to the background in adult novels. All The Truth That’s in Me is an intriguing take on a number of these timeless and important issues.

This book captivated me with its characters, its plot, and most strongly by means of its literary themes and implications. Judith Finch, disappears as a young girl. She is not seen for years until one day, now in her teens, she returns, mute. The reason for her disappearance and sudden return are shrouded in dark secrecy. Judith is ostracized by her community. She becomes the lowest of creatures in her town due to the question of her “purity.” I will not give anything else away, but I would strongly encourage this book to readers of all ages, Young Readers, Mature Readers, and all those in between.


Dear Life: Stories by Alice Munro

Dear Life, by Alice MunroLiving in NYC, the subway is a major component of my daily routine. Working in publishing, reading also makes up a significant portion of my day. It’s only natural that I would combine the two. Having finished my previous book that morning, I chose a book at random off my work shelf. This book happened to be Dear Life. Knowing nothing about Alice Munro or the book itself I got on the subway that evening, opened to page one, and began. I was so engrossed in this book, its dozens of characters, and its plethora of stories that I got on the wrong connection home and again the following day. If that doesn’t signify a good book I don’t know what does!

In a collection of short stories, Alice Munro looks at the moment in a person’s life that changes it forever. This is a fascinating read that speaks to the human condition, the ways in which we interact with one another, and the choices that forever alter our futures.


Just One Day & Just One Year by Gayle Forman

Just One Day, by Gayle FormanJust One Year, by Gayle Forman

Two for the price of one! What was the last book that stood up and smacked you across the face? For me, both Just One Day and its sequel Just One Year did exactly that. Now, I will admit that these books are not ground breaking in their originality of plot, but they are beautifully unique in their format. Told from opposite view points, Just One Day tells the story of Allyson Healey, and the twenty-four hours that transform her life. Just One Year, the second in the series, tells of Williem and the year that follows that life altering day.

This is one of those love stories that shatters your heart before slowly piecing it back together. This book had me rushing to the next page, dreaming (literally) about what might happen next, crying in public places, and has me still thinking about it eight months later. This is not just the love story of two people, but a love story between the individual and the world. These books follow two teenagers as they fall in love with the world.

This is a perfect book for spring and will stir up extreme feelings of wanderlust. Consider yourself warned! Clear your calendar, pick a beautiful day, gather your supplies (chocolate and tissues are a must), find a comfy patch of grass, spread your blanket, and prepare for an emotional journey that will take you to all the corners of the Earth!


Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir by Jenny Lawson

Let's Pretend This Never Happened, by Jenny Lawson

Never underestimate a good laugh! This book is hilarious; there simply is no other word. This book has a Taxidermy Shakespearian mouse on the cover . . . it was predestined to be a book of genius and I loved EVERY. SINGLE. PAGE.

For those people out there who are like me you have spent the last several months reading Memoir after Memoir. No, that’s not how you spent your winter? Regardless, my advice to you at this moment is to a.) Go get this book and b.) Be very content with your life. Prepare to be stared at in public for uncontrollable fits of laughter.



Right now Edge of Eternity is being copy edited. This painstaking process is tremendously valuable to me.

A regular editor has to find good authors and help them write good books. A copy editor is something quite different. She looks for mistakes. (They are usually women, don’t ask me why.)

First she checks spelling and punctuation. Now, my spelling is not bad, and I always look up difficult words such as Khrushchev (three aitches) or Willy Brandt (not Willi Brand). But she always finds some errors.

Then she checks consistency, just like the continuity person on a movie set, who makes sure that if the actor is wearing a green sweater when he goes to the front door, he’s wearing the same sweater two weeks later when they film him coming out of the house. A copy editor makes a note that Rebecca is thirty in 1961, and checks that when we get to 1971 I don’t absent-mindedly say she’s forty-five.

The copy editor looks for inadvertent repetitions. If I come up with a description I like, such as sparkling sea-green eyes, I might think of it again three months later, forgetting that I’ve already used it.

Do these little mistakes matter? Yes—because you, the readers, notice them. There you are, sitting by the fireside, completely absorbed in the story, anxious or sad or indignant about what the characters are doing, when suddenly you look up and frown, thinking: Wait a minute, Follett’s got that wrong! And the spell is broken.

In case you haven’t already guessed, copy editors are nit-pickers, and they drive me up the wall. But they save me from breaking the spell. That’s why I love them.


any other nameA Serpent's Tooth, by Craig Johnson Spirit of Steamboat, by Craig Johnson

The other day there was an article I saw that had listed the quintessential literary work for each of the states, some of them I’d heard of and some of them I hadn’t, some of them I agreed with and some of them I didn’t. It did, though, get me to thinking about all the Wyoming books I considered to be emblematic of my state, books like The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains, My Friend Flicka, Shane, The Solace of Open Spaces, Where Rivers Change Direction, Rising From the Plains, The Meadow and many more too numerous to mention. It’s impossible to sum up a place like Wyoming with one book–the place is too big, too broad, and too deep.

One thing I know for sure is that it wouldn’t have been one of mine.
I’ve had an awful lot of wonderful things happen to me in my relatively short writing career, but nothing compares to having Spirit of Steamboat selected as the inaugural One-Book-Wyoming read. I’m going to be traveling all over the state, canvassing the libraries and setting up shop with all the people I know and treasure, the readers and librarians of the Cowboy State. With twenty some events already scheduled and a lot more to get on the calendar, the fine folks down at the Wyoming State Library have us starting off this program with a reception for the State Legislature and then a public signing at the state library in Cheyenne the next day from 10:30 to 1:30. The following week we’ll be in Washington D.C. for another kick-off reception with Wyoming Senator Mike Enzi and his lovely wife Diana.
I would never refer to Spirit of Steamboat as encapsulating the state because I don’t think such a thing can be done, but I think it does represent some of the qualities of Wyoming we all hold dear—drive, determination, ingenuity and a heart as big as the high plains. I hope you’ll join me these coming weeks and in the next year as we celebrate reading with a little book that I hope will do Wyoming proud.

See you on the trail,

Tour of Duty

Catch Craig Johnson on his book tour.

Don’t forget to get the hot items below in our store!Any Other Name, by Craig Johnson Any Other Name, by Craig Johnson Any Other Name, Craig Johnson

Remember: New book, Any Other Name, will be out on May 13 and is available for pre-order from all the usual suspects. Working on the tour right now, so keep a watch.

Any Other Name, by Craig Johnson

The Grapes of Wrath 75th Anniversary Edition, by John Steinbeck

Today, 27 February, is the 112th birthday of the great American writer John Steinbeck. Over the course of his long career, Steinbeck won the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes and wrote some of the country’s most essential works taught in schools and read by millions.

April 2014 marks the 75th anniversary of the first Viking hardcover publication of Steinbeck’s crowning literary achievement. First published in 1939, Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize–winning epic of the Great Depression chronicles the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s, telling the story of the Joads, an Oklahoma farm family driven from their homestead and forced to travel west to the promised land of California.



The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Elda Rotor, Editorial Director for Penguin Classics, on THE GRAPES OF WRATH:

“There are five layers in this book, a reader will find as many as he can and he won’t find more than he has in himself.” This is how Steinbeck described his novel, a blunt challenge to the reader, and it’s a line that I think about often when it comes to how we encounter classics such as The Grapes of Wrath. Those layers are both very personal and yet universal, and in my experience, when the intersections and the layers become clear, for instance, in scenes of Ma fighting to maintain her family’s dignity as their welfare worsens, and in her exchanges with her daughter Rose of Sharon, it shakes you to your foundation. The Grapes of Wrath demands your slow and thoughtful read and you’ll be grateful for discovering those layers and what Steinbeck’s tremendous work provides.

WORKING DAYS by John Steinbeck

The journal, like the novel it chronicles, tells a tale of dramatic proportions—of dogged determination and inspiration, yet also of paranoia, self-doubt, and obstacles. It records in intimate detail the conception and genesis of The Grapes of Wrath and its huge though controversial success. It is a unique and penetrating portrait of an emblematic American writer creating an essential American masterpiece.

East of Eden, by John Steinbeck

Ryan Murphy, Marketing Assistant for Penguin Books, on EAST OF EDEN:

To me there is no more enduring scene in John Steinbeck’s work than that of East of Eden’s Sam, Adam and Lee discussing, with sincerity and gravity, the meaning of the Cain and Abel story. Deep in this incredibly rich novel, the simplest of elements—a single Hebrew word, timshel, “thou mayest”—becomes the pivot upon which the ethical heart of the narrative turns. In the context of Steinbeck’s messy and brutal world, such humble concepts or acts—like Rose of Sharon’s selfless offering at the close of The Grapes of Wrath or the quiet small-town war resistance of The Moon Is Down—often have the deepest repercussions. (include book cover)


THE WAYWARD BUS by John Steinbeck

In his first novel to follow the publication of his enormous success, The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck’s vision comes wonderfully to life in this imaginative and unsentimental chronicle of a bus traveling California’s back roads, transporting the lost and the lonely, the good and the greedy, the stupid and the scheming, the beautiful and the vicious away from their shattered dreams and, possibly, toward the promise of the future.

BOMBS AWAY by John Steinbeck

A magnificent volume of short novels and an essential World War II report from one of America’s great twentieth-century writers. “This book is dedicated . . . to the men who have gone through the hard and rigid training of members of a bomber crew and who have gone away to defend the nation.” –John Steinbeck

Of Mice and Men and The Moon Is Down, by John Steinbeck


Of Mice and Men represents an experiment in form, as Steinbeck put it, “a kind of playable novel, written in novel form but so scened and set that it can be played as it stands.” The Moon Is Down uncovers profound, often unsettling truths about war and human nature. It tells the story of a peaceable town taken by enemy troops, and had an extraordinary impact as Allied propaganda in Nazi-occupied Europe. (include book cover)




More Books from Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck include:





Redeployment, by Phil KlaySince August of last year, when I snapped this picture and shared it on my Instagram account telling readers that this is one book they won’t want to miss, I’ve been telling anyone who would listen about the upcoming Redeployment by Phil Klay.  Earlier that day, I’d been brought to tears in a pedicure chair within the first 20 pages, an admittedly odd position to be caught reading war fiction. By the end of the night the book was finished.

Redeployment, and war literature in general, is not my standard reading fare, but I trusted an editor’s recommendation and discovered a book that is so much more than I had expected it to be. Author Phil Klay takes a look at all of the lives touched by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—families, children, soldiers, and those who will find a veteran in their lives years after their deployment has ended. Interwoven with themes of brutality and faith, guilt and fear, helplessness and survival, the characters in these stories struggle to make meaning out of chaos.

Redeployment, by Paul Klay

Author and veteran Phil Klay has delivered something truly remarkable in his debut, and when asked, was happy to share his thoughts on war literature, and some of the key works in the genre for us.

The following content has been taken from an Interview with Shelf Awareness:

War literature has been its own special genre for some time now. What are some novels or stories you feel are authentic and valuable and worth recommending to readers? 

I don’t know if authenticity is always the first thing I’m looking for in literature, war related or otherwise. I wouldn’t call The Iliad an authentic portrait of the Trojan War any more than I’d call Richard III an authentic portrait of late 15th century English politics. Hasek’s WWI novel The Good Soldier Svejk isn’t particularly interested in being realistic, so I don’t know how it fares on the question of authenticity, but it does have the virtue of being incredibly good. I’d like to think my book is authentic. I did a lot of research and talked to a lot of vets in order to get things as right as I could, but my ultimate aim was to do more than just achieve some kind of verisimilitude.

I’ll say this. Reading Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim was important to me and it informed my thinking while writing this book. That’s not really a war book, though. Then there’s Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry. Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. Seamus Heaney’s North and Station Island. Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic is less about war than about the work of crafting peace, but it’s a book I’ve thought about a lot since I finished reading it. Beer in the Snooker Club, by Waguih Ghali, is not really a war book either, but there’s a long scene where two Egyptian characters go drinking with a British soldier that is also important to me. What else? Grant’s Memoirs. Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The war poetry of Kenneth Koch and James Dickey. Nathan Englander’s short stories. There’s plenty of great war or war-related writing.

Start Reading Redeployment by Phil Klay

Looking for more War Literature? A few more suggestions from the Penguin team:

Voices of the Pacific, by Adam Makos and Marcus Brotherton

A firsthand chronicle of United States Marine Corps’ actions in the Pacific. Following fifteen Marines from the Pearl Harbor attack, through battles with the Japanese, to their return home after V-J Day, Adam Makos and Marcus Brotherton have compiled an oral history of the Pacific War in the words of the men who fought on the front lines.

Civilian Warriors, by Erik Prince

Forget everything you think you know about Blackwater. And get ready for a thrilling, true story that will make you rethink who the good guys and bad guys have been since 9/11. Prince reveals new information about some of the biggest controversies of the War on Terror.

My Share of the Task, by General Stanley McChrystal

In this illuminating New York Times bestseller, McChrystal frankly explores the major episodes and controversies of his career. He paints a vivid portrait of how the military establishment turned itself, in one generation, into the adaptive, resilient force that would soon be tested in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the wider War on Terror.

Undaunted, by Tanya Biank

As she did so provocatively with military spouses in Army Wives, Tanya Biank gives us the inside story of women in today’s military—their professional and personal challenges from the combat zone to the home front…

Beyond Band of Brothers, by Dick Winters and Cole C. Kingseed

Now in paperback! The New York Times bestseller and war memoir from the commander of the legendary Band of Brothers––now with a new preface from Dick Winters.

Biggest Brother, by Larry Alexander

Full of never-before-published photographs, interviews, and Winters’s candid insights, Biggest Brother is the story of a man who became a soldier, a leader, and a living testament to the valor of the human spirit.

Call of Duty, by Lt. Lynn Compton and Marcus Brotherton

The national bestselling World War II memoir with a foreword by John McCain. This is the true story of a real-life hero.

Brothers in Battle, Best of Friends, by William Guarnere, Edward Heffron, and Robyn Post

Tom Hanks introduces the “remarkable” (Publishers Weekly) story of two inseparable friends and soldiers portrayed in the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers.

- Kristen O’Connell, Director of Consumer Marketing and Social Media

I was very excited to be asked to be a guest blogger for Penguin because for years I have been working on a plot to infiltrate the system and inject it with my subversive ideas.

You represent stage 3 in my plan.

Wreck This Journal, by Keri SmithWorld domination aside, what I really wanted to share with you is a bit about how I was formed as a human being.  My story begins like this…

I did not do very well in school.  I think my attendance may have had something to do with it.

Wreck this Journal, by Keri Smith(The only other person who was absent more than me had cancer.)

At a very young age I realized that school was not very fun and

Wreck This Journal, by Keri SmithI began to see that my perception of the world was different than the other kids, and that school was largely about making the teacher happy, and had little to do with actual learning.  One of my early school memories is me at the age of six noticing that the other kids were getting attention from the teacher because they were struggling with reading.  I had learned to read at age four and found all the reading material too easy.  Feeling left out I decided to choose a random word and go up to the teacher and ask the pronunciation just so I could have her notice me.  The word was “sandwich”.  The teacher looked surprised at my asking.

In the book How Children Fail, John Holt states:

When children are very young, they have natural curiosities about the world and explore them, trying diligently to figure out what is real. As they become “producers,” rather than “thinkers,” they fall away from exploration and start fishing for the right answers with little thought. They believe they must always be right, so they quickly forget mistakes and how these mistakes were made. They believe that the only good response from the teacher is “yes,” and that a “no” is defeat.

At this point I became very creative.  I found as many inventive ways as I could to stay home from school.

Wreck This Journal, by Keri SmithLuckily my parents were a bit distracted with work and I was mostly free to stay home, watch tv, and make stuff.

I worked with every medium I could find.  I transformed egg cartons into dragons, grey bits of plastercine (stolen from school in small increments) into never-ending labyrinthine houses full of secret rooms and tiny furniture. Bags of wool scraps became fodder for dozens of projects, anything from weaving to doll hair; fabric scraps were sewn into a variety of shapes and characters, paper plates into masks worn with fervor.

Every day brought forth unlimited potential for creation.

And then I would have to go back to school again and I would feel suffocated and bored.

I was caught between two conflicting worlds.

Wreck This Journal, by Keri SmithWhen I was in kindergarten my parents were called in by the teacher for a “meeting.”  She had a bucket full of rolled up drawings done by me.  She pulled them out and unrolled them one by one.  Each page had a drawing of a square house with three windows and a door, an apple tree, and a few clouds scattered about.  They were all identical.  The teacher expressed concern at my lack of originality.

Looking back now I think my drawing rut reflected my mental state at being forced to go to school.  I did what I felt was expected of me.  Every day, the same thing.  Ad nauseum.  I had taken on their perception of me.

But in my private life I became invincible.  My imagination ruled.

As I grew I became a seasoned “clock watcher”…

Wreck This Journal, by Keri Smith…counting the minutes until the bell.  I did the bare minimum of work necessary not to fail.  No one asked for anything more from me.  And I didn’t offer.  It was the same for middle school and into high school.

As I struggled with family conflicts, my mother’s diagnosis with a terminal illness, and adolescence I became disconnected from my imagination.  I felt completely lost.  I rebelled against everything and everyone.

In my mind the world was very dark so I wore only black. It was at this point that I began to believe that my failure in high school was due to a deficiency of some kind.  Some unavoidable lack of intelligence.  I was the stereotype of the white-faced goth kid in the back of the classroom just putting in time until the bell rang so I could go out for a smoke.

Wreck This Journal, by Keri SmithI knew I could see things in the world that others could not–to me the world could be much more alive and animated.  Objects turned into characters before my very eyes, little messages appeared just for me, I saw what ‘could’ exist, magical things.  But I pushed these thoughts aside because the world told me they were crazy.

Wreck This Journal, by Keri SmithMy silenced imagination left me feeling sad and hopeless about the world.  In 1986, a break-up with a boyfriend resulted in my isolation from friends and family.  To ease the pain, I took an overdose of pills and put myself in the hospital.  After that, in an attempt to heal myself I began what I call “my research.”  I was on a quest to find meaning, an explanation of what it means to be human.

I began to read.

Not the books that were assigned in school.  I found respite in authors who didn’t just live in their imagination but somehow ‘became’ it.  Madeline L’Engle, C.S. Lewis, John Wyndam, Asimov, Rober Pirsig.  These led me to others, and thus I began my lifelong journey as an autodidact.  After not graduating from high school, I got the only job I was qualified to do: working full time in a bookstore [1].

Because I couldn’t get into university, I acquired a reading list from a friend for her English Literature 101 class.  I actually believed that due to my lack of intelligence I might not be able to get through these novels.  On the list were the Brontes, Austen, Thackeray, Hemingway.  After finishing each one I found myself amazed.  Not only could I understand it, I reveled in it.  I became insatiable. I tore through Dostoevsky and Turnev, and Tolstoy.  Flung myself into Orwell, Huxley, and Vonnegut.  Then onto Salinger, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner.  Nothing was out of my reach.

And then I had a thought (a few thoughts actually)…

What if everything I had been taught about myself in school was wrong?

What if the opposite of everything was true?

What if I had the power to create anything that I conceived of?

What if the world was magic and I was able to see things that others could not for a reason?

[1] One of the skills I learned while working in the bookstore was an ability to distinguish publishers by the smell of the ink.  Penguin Classics was one that I always got right.  In those days the printing smells were a lot more distinctive than they are today.

Wreck This Journal, by Keri Smith[2]

I found out about a loophole in the Canadian school system where I could apply to college as a “mature student” after being out of school for a few years, and they wouldn’t look at my marks.  I applied to art school and got in.  There I was exposed to a whole new world, one where I was at the helm and completely in charge of my own life/research.  My life became my research project. I was determined to mine my teachers and the books for the answers to everything.

[2] My dad worked for IBM in the education dept. where they taught this on a regular basis.

Wreck This Journal, by Keri SmithI loved this new life of research.  I had thoughts and ideas and opinions and it was glorious.  When my classes finished, I found myself literally running to the nearest bookstore to get more information.

Very slowly I began to experiment with my ideas.  Instead of listening to the fears I had developed over fourteen years of schooling, I began to question everything.  The rebel in me moved to the forefront.  I found other rebels to serve as role models.  What if we ‘did’ the opposite of what we were taught?  What would happen?

Some of my responses came out in book form:

Wreck This Journal, by Keri SmithThe books mimic my own process.  Part deconstruction, part re-enchantment of everyday life.  Break things down, tear them apart, then shape them into something.  I try to see what it is like to be free from convention, and how it feels to go to the limits of your imagination.  I want to enter fully into an experiment, that place of being open to the unknown.  The realm of uncertainty.  The leaping off point.

“Since we can’t know what knowledge will be most needed in the future, it is senseless to try to teach it in advance. Instead, we should try to turn out people who love learning so much and learn so well that they will be able to learn whatever needs to be learned.” —John Holt

 One thing I have learned from my life so far is that creative thought gives individuals a sense of ownership over their world.  And this is what I aim to share with others.  I do not see myself as any kind of expert on anything; what I have to offer is an intense passion for learning.  As I found with the greatest teachers I have had over the years, this passion is infectious.

To this effect I leave you with a few thoughts:

Wreck This Journal, by Keri Smith

Fallen Beauty by Erika Robuck

Edna St. Vincent Millay’s seven-hundred acre estate in the Berkshires, Steepletop, is a literary gem. I visited Steepletop for research for my novel, Fallen Beauty, and wish to share some background about the home and the legacy of the poet, and encourage travelers to visit this site so rich in natural beauty and literary history.

 Dr. Holly Peppe, a Millay scholar and the literary executor of the estate, was kind enough to share her knowledge of the family and of Steepletop with me. Her work on Millay, including the Introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Millay’s Early Poems, a collection she annotated and edited, has helped keep Millay’s memory alive. Her other critical essays about the poet appear in various anthologies and in the new Collected Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay (Harper Perennial, 2011). As one so close to the family, Dr. Peppe gave me keen insights on the fascinating Millay women, and voiced her wish to rekindle public interest in one of our greatest American poets.

ERIKA ROBUCK: As one who believes that books and writers find us when we need them, I am curious about the commencement of such “relationships.” When did your relationship with Edna St. Vincent Millay begin?

HOLLY PEPPE:  You might say it was a winding road! My mother read poetry to me as a child and sang songs every evening at the piano, so I was exposed to the musicality of words early on. By the time I was in high school, I considered poetry a second language—my favorite pastime was writing poems and songs and reading every poet I could find. My favorites were Neruda and Borges. I started out as a music major in college but switched to English and earned a B.A. and Masters before moving to Rome, Italy where I directed the American College of Rome’s English Department for a few years. Inspired by a favorite book, Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet –a work that I encourage all writers to read—I made a summer pilgrimage to Switzerland to visit a water castle and other places where the German lyric poet Rilke lived and wrote, ending the tour with a visit to his grave. I was in love with him and his work and decided that I would return to the U.S. to pursue a doctorate, with Rilke as my subject.

Unfortunately, the Ivy League university where I had earned my Masters rejected my plan, noting that I could not earn a doctorate in English if I wrote about work that had been translated from another language. Instead I would need to find a poet who wrote in English. So I chose Edna St. Vincent Millay, whose poetry I admired, only to have this second topic rejected by the English department because Millay was not considered a “major American figure.” I was told I could combine my research on Millay with work on another poet or two, like Robert Frost, Marianne Moore or Louise Bogan, and the combo would equal one “major” writer! My frustration with that plan, which I considered absurd, led me to the University of New Hampshire, where I was told they would accept Millay as a dissertation if I would educate a doctoral committee about her work. Because she was a bestselling poet, most scholars had considered her poems “too accessible” and “popular” and therefore not worthy of serious study. I disagreed on all counts and set out to prove them wrong.

My research led me to Steepletop, where Millay’s sister, Norma, age 89, was still living and working as the poet’s literary executor. The Director of the Millay Colony, an artists’ enclave across the hill from Millay’s home, told me Norma was largely unapproachable. Nonetheless, armed with gifts from Rome and my determination to write about her older sister, I made the trek to the top of the hill in Austerlitz to visit. Luckily Norma accepted me as an ally and over the next few years, where I spent days and weeks at a time at Steepletop, we became good friends.

Getting to know the poet through the eyes of her fiercely devoted sister was a moving experience and before long, Millay became far more than a dissertation topic or even a favorite poet to me—she became a living memory.

Even on my first visit to Steepletop, the place seemed to exist outside of time. Norma and her husband, Charlie had carefully moved in around Vincent; she left her sister’s clothes and shoes in the bedroom closets. (Norma’s own clothes were hanging on the shower rack in the bathroom). Millay’s evening purses, with lipstick still inside, were left in place, tucked lovingly into the mahogany bureau’s drawers.

There were times when I felt Millay’s presence everywhere, like the night Norma asked me to try on Millay’s gowns. Dutifully I modelled them, one after another, including the long red velvet and black taffeta dresses the poet had worn on her reading tours. For a graduate student in awe of her subject, it was thrilling!

ERIKA ROBUCK: Was Norma pleased to have a scholar studying her beloved sister?

HOLLY PEPPE: Oh, no—not at all! She didn’t believe in academia and said most professors drained poetry of its passion. So she insisted that before she would discuss a poem with me, I would need to memorize it. This is what prompted me to learn many of the poems and sonnets by heart, which was indeed more enriching than simply reading and analyzing them one after another. In the end, we spent two to three hours a day talking about Millay’s poetry—its origin, form, meaning, and so forth.

ERIKA ROBUCK: How did it feel to be living in Millay’s house?  

HOLLY PEPPE: I felt like I was living in a dream. Many times, especially when Norma and I were sitting in the living room, sipping wine and eating our meals from decorative metal trays as Millay sometimes had, I gazed around in appreciation and wonder at the whole experience.

ERIKA ROBUCK: When I visited Steepletop, I was taken aback by the life force left in the house and grounds. For a place that has been almost untouched since the days of the poet, the atmosphere is very active. Has anything troubling, haunting, or fascinating ever happened to you at the house?

HOLLY PEPPE:  Yes, and though I’m not generally a believer in the paranormal, I absolutely believe there is a spirit or two in residence at Steepletop. So much happened there—from Millay and Eugen’s legendary parties, to the 1936 car accident that resulted in Millay’s addiction to morphine, to Millay’s and then Norma’s death in the house 36 years later.

My first encounter was the night Norma died –she was in Millay’s bed in an upstairs bedroom. I was with Norma’s dear friend Elizabeth Barnett, who would inherit her role as literary executor. In the middle of the night, Elizabeth and I got into my car and followed the hearse down the hill to the funeral home. A few hours later, sad and exhausted, we drove back to Steepletop, only to find that the strings of Christmas lights surrounding the house were blazing with an array of color, having somehow turned themselves on! Instead of being frightened we were instantly delighted—we knew it was the spirit of Norma, welcoming us home.

A few weeks later, when I returned to the house to discuss Norma’s memorial service with Elizabeth, we heard a loud crash upstairs. When we went to investigate, the wooden bar in Millay’s closet holding the gowns had crashed to the floor. Was it Norma this time, or the poet herself sending us a message? We weren’t sure.

And finally, on the afternoon after Norma’s memorial, I was bidding Elizabeth goodbye on the front porch when the light above me started blinking, slowly at first, and then faster and faster until it went out. “I guess she doesn’t want you to leave,” Elizabeth said with a smile.

ERIKA ROBUCK: Why is preserving the legacy so important to you, and what would you like readers to know about Steepletop?

HOLLY PEPPE: I promised Norma, and then Elizabeth, I would carry on as the next literary executor, a keeper of the flame. I want people to know that Millay’s impressive body of work is of vital importance to the American literary tradition. It was this poet, who was also a playwright, essayist, and short story writer, who infused new life into traditional poetic forms and brought new hope to a generation of youth disillusioned by the political and social upheaval of the First World War.

I also want to introduce readers to her deftly crafted sonnets and lyrics not only addressing typical poetic subjects — love, loss, life, and death and so forth– but also tackling the social issues of the day: political injustice, discrimination, and personal freedom.

It’s an exciting time in the world of Edna St. Vincent Millay! The Millay Society Board, is intent on preserving the beauty and spirit of Steepletop.  On behalf of my fellow Board members, I’d like to invite readers and others to visit this National Historic Landmark, Millay’s beloved country home. There you can walk through the newly restored gardens and rooms in the house where, at every turn, it feels like the poet herself might just walk in the door.

ERIKA ROBUCK: These are lovely sentiments for a worthy cause, and I encourage all to visit this fascinating place, and learn more about Edna St. Vincent Millay. Thank you, Holly.

Steepletop is open from May 23 2014 – Oct 20 2014, and reservations are required. Call 518-392-3362 or visit the website at millay.org for more information.


While Beauty Slept by Elizabeth Blackwell I’ve never been known as a trendsetter. So imagine my surprise—and delight—when I found out my Sleeping Beauty–inspired novel, While Beauty Slept, would be published the same year a high-profile Sleeping Beauty reboot hit movie theaters. Invariably, I knew, my book would be compared with Angelina Jolie’s big-budget Disney film Maleficent, even though I suspected the two stories would take very different approaches. I had always intended my book to read as historical fiction rather than fantasy, imagining the dramatic events of the fairy tale as if they had happened to real people.

I was pretty sure Disney would be going in the opposite direction—and judging by the recently released Maleficent trailer, I was right.

There’s lots to love about it, from the appropriately eerie Lana Del Ray cover of “Once Upon a Dream” to the overall creepy tone. We like our fairy tales dark these days, focusing less on the “happily ever after” and more on the dangers that come beforehand. The Maleficent of the 1959 animated movie is one of the great Disney villains, right up there with Cruella de Vil and Snow White’s Evil Queen, and when I wrote my book, I renamed her Millicent so that she wouldn’t come across as a cartoon bad guy. If I wanted my story grounded in reality, it didn’t really work to have a character whose name literally means “I do terrible things!”

I’ve still got a soft spot for the original Maleficent, though, and Jolie perfectly captures the character’s magnetic evil. With her glowing eyes, spine-chilling cackle, and one-of-a-kind black antler hat, she’s mesmerizing. The only thing that took me aback was when one of her freaky-sharp cheekbones nearly popped out of the screen; I hope that effect was achieved through makeup or special effects, rather than a starvation diet.

There’s plenty more movie magic in the trailer: flying fairies, a levitating Elle Fanning, and trees that morph into soldiers. There are battle scenes and rugged castles that look like outtakes from Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, both series I love. But I worry about all these epic fantasies blending into one indistinguishable mass of CGI overkill. A friend of mine once expressed her distaste for traditional westerns by saying she didn’t like movies “filmed in brown”; it seems we’re now living in an era of fantasies filmed in gray.

Maleficent is an iconic character, and Angelina Jolie has the star power and talent to pull off that tricky role. Self-interestedly, I’d love the movie to be a huge success. But I also hope the film is able to create a sense of real magic: the kind that comes not from clever programmers sitting at computers, but from a story that whisks you away from the everyday. With While Beauty Slept, I wanted to create a world where the drama arises from human actions and emotions. I believe the story of Sleeping Beauty has resonated all these years because of its characters and its imagery: the dramatic curse, the finger pricked on a spinning wheel, a princess sleeping alone in a tower. None of these moments needs over-the-top special effects to cast its spell on an audience.