Monday, May 31, 2010

Friday, May 28, 2010

What's a beldame?

Waterhouse's painting after Keats' poem, "La Belle Dame Sans Merci."

When people ask me about Petty Magic, I usually use the word 'witch' even though my narrator hates that word with a red-hot fiery passion—just because 'witch' is quicker to understand. (There's an old-school witch on the cover, too, spiriting a little girl away on her broomstick—but this is ironically appropriate.)

Think of us as sibyls or seraphs—fearsome, oh yes, but more or less benevolent.

Eve and the other beldames in Petty Magic live at least twice as long as ordinary women but age half as quickly. They can turn themselves into animals, travel thousands of miles in a twinkling, or render themselves invisible, but they get worn out and need to sleep and recharge just like anybody else. They can be sweet and solicitous like fairy godmothers, or...not. And they tell lies, so they say, only to keep the men in black from locking them up.

Because Eve is more superwoman or benign enchantress than vindictive old hag, I wanted a different word for her. In Coraline, Neil Gaiman refers to the 'other mother' as a beldam, as in 'crone' or 'witch' (the word comes from Middle English—bel, grand, and dam, mother, grandmother being the original meaning). In the dictionary 'beldame' is only listed as an alternate spelling, but in "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" (written in 1819, revised in 1820) Keats's beldame is from the French, a 'beautiful lady'—that is to say, a sorceress.
She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she gaz'd and sighed deep,
And there I shut her wild sad eyes--
So kiss'd to sleep.

And there we slumber'd on the moss,
And there I dream'd, ah woe betide,
The latest dream I ever dream'd
On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings, and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
Who cry'd—"La belle Dame sans merci
Hath thee in thrall!"
The belle dame is a dangerous woman—a fairy, or a sort of banshee—who, in medieval legend, would lure men into an enchanted forest and make them lose all desire for anything else, even to go on living. The poem harks back to the chivalric tradition, in which 'women were to be loved from afar and to be considered unattainable.'

Another version of "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" by Frank Dicksee.

Archetypes aren't terribly interesting unless you can somehow subvert them (or better yet, subvert and reinforce). Can a 'dangerous woman' have (mostly) good intentions? Maybe not Keats' beldame...but definitely mine.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Eastern Europe retroblog: Split, part 2

I haven't felt like writing lately, let alone blogging, but sometimes the way to feel like doing something again is just to do it. I got some good writing done today for the first time in a week and a half, and now—back to the retroblog!

One last post about Croatia. After Hvar, we spent another afternoon in Split before taking a train to Mostar in Bosnia.

A passionflower spotted in a public park.

This time we took a short bus trip out to Salona, the extensive ruins of a Roman city built on an earlier Greek settlement. It took us awhile to walk through the whole site, which has a bit of everything: streets, temples and early Christian churches, homes, public baths, aqueducts, a large amphitheater...

We met hardly any other tourists here—it was eerily quiet. The last picture reminds me a little of the ruined Emerald City in Return to Oz (kind of a bad film, I know, but a guilty-pleasure childhood throwback).

Next up: Mostar and Sarajevo.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Home is the Sailor, part 2

(Props to Kate for tackling the scanning of a big stack of old family photos.)

We were really tickled when a reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer wanted to do a write-up on my grandfather and his accomplishments. The link is here, but in case the article gets taken down at any point, I'm going to repost it.

Published May 22, 2010.

Theodore Colangelo, 90, defense-mapping official

By Claudia Vargas

Inquirer Staff Writer

Theodore Colangelo, 90, of Cinnaminson, a sailor during World War II who went on to be director of the Defense Mapping Agency distribution center in Philadelphia, died of prostate cancer and multiple system atrophy Monday, May 17, at the Masonic Home of New Jersey.

When Mr. Colangelo was transferred from a Defense Mapping Agency office in New York state to the Philadelphia distribution center in 1959, he was a supply clerk. By the mid-1970s, he had risen to director, managing more than 120 employees, said former colleague Gerald Bonner of Cinnaminson.

Mr. Colangelo was known as a firm leader whom employees respected for his openness to new ideas, such as having an evaluation panel for promotions. But his biggest accomplishment was coordinating the military branches working within the distribution center.

When Mr. Colangelo first arrived, Bonner said, the Air Force and Navy foremen "were all trying to operate in their own ways."

Bonner, who was hired in 1975 as the personnel officer, found himself dealing with minor issues. Mr. Colangelo reorganized the joint operation to flow smoothly, he said.

"It was humming. I got bored," he said, adding that he left in 1980.

Mr. Colangelo retired in the early 1990s after 45 years of working with military mapping systems and distribution.

Mr. Colangelo had come to the United States as a 10-year-old from his native city of Pietragalla, Italy, with his seven siblings and widower father. Arriving in 1930, Mr. Colangelo and his family settled in Schenectady, N.Y.

When he was 16, he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps and a year later the Navy, where he was a seaman aboard the Erie.

After serving for three years, he returned to Schenectady. But a year later, Pearl Harbor was attacked, and he rushed back to the Navy, his daughter Eileen DiLullo said.

As a machinist mate on the Samuel N. Moore, Mr. Colangelo, during at least one typhoon, worked frantically to keep the destroyer's engines running, his daughter said.

Shortly before being discharged in 1947, Mr. Colangelo was diagnosed with Crohn's disease. While recovering at the VA Medical Center in Brooklyn, he fell in love with Dorothy Smelz, a social worker assigned to him. Six months later, they married.

Mr. Colangelo started working for the Defense Mapping Agency in 1948.

When Mr. Colangelo was transferred to Philadelphia in 1959, he wanted a single-family home, so he settled in Cinnaminson, where he lived in the same house until he died.

He aimed to always be home by 5 p.m. to be with his family, his daughter said. But Mr. Colangelo sometimes had to work 20-hour days - and that's when Dorothy Colangelo knew something unusual was going on in the world.

In the days leading up to President John F. Kennedy's public announcement of the Cuban missile crisis, Mr. Colangelo had been holed up in the distribution center for many hours, his daughter said.

In addition to his daughter, he is survived by a son, Daniel; daughters Susan D. Grant and Mary Ann McWilliams; four grandchildren; and a sister. His wife died in 1996.

A funeral was held Friday, May 21, at Snover/Givnish Funeral Home, Cinnaminson. Interment was at Lakeview Memorial Park, Cinnaminson.

Grandpa would have been so pleased to see this in the paper. I knew next to nothing about his career at the Defense Mapping Agency, and it was strange (in a good way) to be hearing about it for the first time in the newspaper.

Thanks to everyone who left kind messages on the blog, Facebook, or by email (I'm sitting down with a cup of coffee to catch up on my correspondence right now). I'll get back to my regularly scheduled blogging topics soon, I promise. It's just that I feel odd writing about anything else right now, you know?

Monday, May 17, 2010

'Home is the sailor, home from the sea.'

My grandpa Ted passed away this afternoon. He was ninety, and hadn't been well in quite awhile, but it still came as a bit of a shock. You know how, when you're little, you think your parents are invincible? That's how I'd always felt about Grandpa Ted.

(With his father and four of his six sisters. Thanks to our cousin Paula for this picture.)

During the war my grandfather was a petty officer aboard a destroyer in the South Pacific. He went for more than a year without setting foot on land, and that was the easy part—he'd survived kamikazes and two typhoons, during which the temperature in the engine room reached 180º F. When he got back to the States, he spent nearly a year convalescing in naval hospitals; for the rest of his life he dealt with some serious medical problems as a result of war-related injuries, and yet he always seemed to defy everybody's expectations. (Just to give you an idea, today he received Last Rites for the fifth time.) He never thought he'd live to see ninety; I sometimes joked he'd outlive us all.

(Summer 2005. This is how I want to remember him—robust, striding around the block in his Abercrombie & Fitch ballcap and t-shirt.)

(At the Mary Modern launch party with Grandpa Ted, Grandmom Kass, and Grandpop Mike, July 2007.)

We didn't always agree—heck, that feels like an understatement, given our diametrical political beliefs—but he was a good man, and I loved him very much.

(Two pics from summer '06, with kids and grandkids.)

I want to tell you the story of how my grandparents met. At the naval hospital in San Diego, they told him they were sending him home to New York for his big operation, and gave him a choice between hospitals in Queens (St. Albans) and Brooklyn. He knew that St. Albans was the newer hospital, and naturally he wanted to be treated at the best facility available. He opened his mouth fully intending to say “St. Albans,” but “Brooklyn” is what came out. If he’d chosen the hospital in Queens he would never have met my grandmother.

She was a lovely 23-year-old volunteer social worker, midway through an M.S.W. she would never complete. Sitting up in bed, he’d strain for a glimpse of her as she passed by his room. So he could speak to her, he kept asking for another pack of playing cards, and she asked him tartly how he could possibly lose so many decks. He wore her down, of course, and they married seven months later.

I've always been fascinated with this story for that one inexplicable slip of the tongue. Thank you, thank you, thank you for choosing Brooklyn, Nonno.

(What's even more uncanny is that she wasn't supposed to be in Brooklyn either—she'd been assigned to a hospital in Trenton, but another volunteer, who'd been assigned to Brooklyn, asked my grandmother to switch so she could be close to her family. My grandmother agreed, even though Trenton offered free housing and Brooklyn did not. She was that nice.)

I'm so glad I got the chance to sit down with Grandpa Ted while he was still in good health and ask him about his childhood in Italy and his life during the war. I've been meaning to edit the raw audio and put all the stories on CD. Now would be a good time, eh?

(Outside the Brooklyn Naval Hospital, sometime in 1947.)

Home is the sailor, home from the sea. (I think I like the A.E. Housman version better than Stevenson's.)

[Note on 19th May: I have made a few edits to the above for historical accuracy—after talking to my aunt Eileen and listening to the stories we recorded in 2007, I realized I'd made a few mistakes.]

The Backyard Tourist, part 2

I'll never knock Philly for being grubby ever again. Can you believe these photos were taken inside the city limits? This is Wissahickon Valley Park, the north-west portion of Fairmount Park. If you can ignore the distant hum of air and road traffic and focus instead on the birdsong and wind in the trees, it really does feel like you're out in the middle of nowhere.

One of the trails takes you under the Walnut Lane Bridge, which is pretty awe-inspiring from this vantage.

After leaving the park one day, I walked halfway across it before I realized where I was. This bridge is only a hundred years old, of course, but there's something so majestic about it, like a Roman aqueduct. You're so far below the traffic that it's easy to pretend it hasn't been used in centuries.

Following the trail, there's a wooded ridge on one side and, on the other, Wissahickon Creek far below you. At the top of one of those ridges (Mom Rinker's Rock, according to Wikipedia) there's a statue of a man I took to be William Penn, with the word TOLERATION inscribed at the base (also according to Wikipedia: the statue isn't meant to be any Quaker in particular).

You know what this means? Seven years of good luck.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Wind in the Willows, part 2

Especially for you, Pare:

And a better view of the stairs:

Can't even see the house from the street, but I want to live here so bad.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Eastern Europe retroblog: Split, part 1

The view from the train from Dubrovnik to Split (if I remember correctly, this landscape is technically in Bosnia—check out the map).

We found ourselves in Split (in Croatia) twice, before and after our trip by ferry to Hvar Island. (Oops—I should have posted 'part 1' before Hvar!) We didn't spend the night either time, but we had several hours to spend sightseeing each way, and on sojourn #1 we visited Diocletian's Palace, which dates from the late third, early fourth century A.D.

It's a huge complex, some parts below and some above ground, and it's so well preserved that there are actually shops and market stalls located inside it.

Elliot at the entrance to...erm...I can't remember, even with the aid of Google. Cool shadow, though, no?

Below: the cathedral bell tower, which we climbed. Felt kinda woozy at the top—I'm not terribly good with heights but I always make myself go up anyway.

Hammin' it up, as usual. We found a good pastry shop on the quay, and sat on a bench under those palm trees where we spilled powdered sugar all over ourselves.

Next: Split, part 2.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Witchcraft, Magic & Alchemy

It's high time we had some more witchy stuff on here!

Witchcraft, Magic, and Alchemy by Grillot de Givry has got to be the weirdest book I have ever cracked. The publisher's product description is somewhat misleading:

From raising the dead to foretelling the future, this historical tour of the occult offers a captivating exploration of sorcery and ceremonial magic. Prepared by a noted French historian, it ventures into virtually all of the classical arts, with 375 rare black-and-white illustrations derived from paintings, illuminated manuscripts, sculpture, and architecture.

The author doesn't actually approach the material with the objective eye of a historian; he writes about necromancy and love philters and suchlike as if he actually believes in all this stuff. I can't decide if he's brilliant or cuckoo.
It is also very easy, according to several Black-books, to become invisible by carrying the heart of a bat, a black hen, or a frog under the right arm. A more elegant method is to wear the Ring of Gyges on your finger; you can then become visible or invisible at will simply by turning the stone inward or outward. This ring must be made of fixed mercury; it must be set with a little stone to be found in a lapwing’s nest, and round the stone must be engraved the words, “Jésus passant ✠ par le milieu d’eux ✠ s’en allait.” You must put the ring on your finger, and if you look at yourself in a mirror and cannot see the ring it is a sure sign that it has been successfully manufactured.
How nutty is that? There's plenty more where this came from, but I left the book at Seanan's when I was moving out of Galway and forgot about it while I was in Tipperary, so further excerpts will have to wait.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Great Book #46: The Wind in the Willows

'It's my world, and I don't want any other. What it hasn't got is not worth having, and what it doesn't know is not worth knowing.'

The Wind in the Willows is one of those classics I really don’t know why I never read. Now I wish I’d read it as a child, because as I was listening to the Librivox recording (with a variety of readers, most of them excellent) I kept thinking too much like an adult:

A toad riding a horse! Rats and moles eating bacon and lobster! Field mice singing Christmas carols! How silly!

I also wish I didn’t know anything about Kenneth Grahame, thanks to “The Tragedy of Mr. Toad.” [Recently it has been pointed out to me what a rubbishy newspaper the Daily Mail is, so I apologize if 'Femail,' etc. offends anybody.] As I was listening, I did often think about how this book was the most substantial thing the love-hungry Alastair ever got from his father…at least according to the article.

But setting all that aside—this really is a lovely book, full of beautiful descriptions of nature and the changing of the days and seasons.
As he sat on the grass and looked across the river, a dark hole in the bank opposite, just above the water's edge, caught his eye, and dreamily he fell to considering what a nice snug dwelling-place it would make for an animal with few wants and fond of a bijou riverside residence, above flood level and remote from noise and dust. As he gazed, something bright and small seemed to twinkle down in the heart of it, vanished, then twinkled once more like a tiny star. But it could hardly be a star in such an unlikely situation; and it was too glittering and small for a glow-worm. Then, as he looked, it winked at him, and so declared itself to be an eye; and a small face began gradually to grow up round it, like a frame round a picture.
Most of the episodes in The Wind in the Willows emphasize that true friendship occasionally entails a bit of personal sacrifice, and that loving your friends for who they are doesn’t mean letting them go off and make outrageous fools (or menaces) of themselves. This is all communicated quite nicely without bonking children over the head with ‘the moral of the story.’ That said, I bet everybody looks forward to those chapters following the exploits of the incorrigibly conceited Toad, because the other animals are too sensible to be anywhere near as interesting.
'Glorious, stirring sight!' murmured Toad, never offering to move. 'The poetry of motion! The REAL way to travel! The ONLY way to travel! Here to-day--in next week to-morrow! Villages skipped, towns and cities jumped--always somebody else's horizon! O bliss! O poop-poop! O my! O my!'

'O STOP being an ass, Toad!' cried the Mole despairingly.
Toad’s gleefully insane obsession with motor-cars, his imprisonment for auto theft and his flamboyant escape and subsequent adventures while impersonating a washerwoman—these passages are even more enjoyable than all the poignant bits about Rat and Mole’s particular friendship, though I feel a bit guilty saying so.

Toad in drag, fleeing the authorities.

[picture the following shrieked by a huuuge British guy with painted-on warts]:
I'm being attacked by a cushion! AHH! I'm being attacked by a shoe! AHH! I'm being attacked by my foot! AHH!
—Toad in the Masterpiece Theatre version of "The Wind in the Willows"

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

I ♥ Shaye

Something really crappy happened in the publishing world last week.

Let me back up. From the day I got my Mary Modern book deal (14 March 2006—can't ever forget a date that important), I felt really happy to be a part of Shaye Areheart Books. Shaye and Sally (my editor on Mary Modern) always made me feel not only that they loved my book, but that they cared about me personally. I got the impression that it wouldn't make one bit of difference to Shaye if I never made a bestseller list, so long as I kept telling good stories.

Now, this sort of thing happens quite a bit—CEOs and other folks in lofty positions occasionally get ousted in publishing just like any other business—and I don't want this to turn into an anti-corporate rant or anything. (Well, all right: I composed the rant, and have just hit 'delete'.) I just wanted to ask that when you pick up a hardcover copy of Petty Magic this fall, stop and look at the colophon on the spine. It ought to have been a steaming coffee cup, with SHAYE AREHEART BOOKS written underneath.

Sunday, May 2, 2010


I've been back from Yaddo several days now, and it's all starting to feel like a marvelous dream. To be able to write and read all day in a quaint little sun-lit study with no interruptions whatsoever, and a plastic lunch pail packed with a sandwich and fruit and carrot sticks wrapped in wax paper; to go for a run in the woods, or lay my yoga mat out on the back porch, and listen to the birds and the squirrels going about their business in the trees; to meet up with new friends at dinner, and play games in the pool house and have wine and snacks by a fire in a cozy sitting room, and to go back to work for a little while afterwards, if I felt like it...the whole experience was magical, it really was. One Saturday I laid in bed all afternoon reading Neverwhere—even ate my lunch in bed—and I didn't feel one bit guilty about it!

As I said, I was a little nervous about going without internet access, but it actually felt really good to be unplugged and unreachable, unless I wanted to be (and I did quickly check my email a couple times a day, usually after breakfast and before dinner). And of course I was meeting so many interesting new people that I wanted to get to know them all better, rather than spend much time on the computer in the evenings. Everyone—staff and residents—was so incredibly kind and friendly!

I know each person's experience of an artists' residency is going to be a bit different, and I think we were all looking to gain slightly different things, but for me the social aspect was almost as important as the actual work. We talked for hours about books (our own, and others'), and art, and pop culture, and shared horror stories from our childhoods, and I went to bed every night just feeling really, really content. I was fortunate enough to give my first-ever reading of Petty Magic after my new friend Nova read from her forthcoming novel, Imaginary Girls (look for it, summer's going to be amazing!)—and even more fortunate afterward to be able to have one of those marvelous conversations with her that would, the next morning, allow all the disjointed bits of my fledgling novel to click into place. I love that kind of conversation—one you can look back on as a real turning point.

So, if you are reading this and thinking of applying to Yaddo, I have one piece of advice: DO! If you haven't published a book/had a show/whatever yet, don't let that stop you; part of what makes Yaddo so awesome is that they bring together writers and artists of all levels of experience.