At the Back Fence Issue #263

May 7, 2007 

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:

The Senses

I was in Littleton, New Hampshire not long ago, and had an Unwrapped experience; we went to Chutters General Store, home to the biggest candy counter in the world.

After a rousing discussion with the proprietor about how the proper Abba Zabba bar should have the consistency of taffy rather than hard candy, I had a Proustian moment. No…I didn’t see a Madeleine to wax rhapsodic over…I saw chocolate babies. And while I’ve never actually seen a chocolate baby, let alone eaten one, I was immediately transported back to the magic of first reading All of a Kind Family, the first in Sydney Taylor’s series of the same name.

The books are about a poor Jewish family on the Lower East Side of New York City at the turn of the century. There are several books, the final of which features the wedding of the eldest daughter following World War I. Although the first book centers on the five “step” children – each was born two years apart – a baby brother is welcomed into the family as the story comes to a close.

In the first book, the two oldest girls share a bed, as do the two youngest (they range in age from four to twelve). With that stage set, let’s peek in on the chapter entitled Who Cares if It’s Bedtime? Charlotte and Gertie, the two youngest girls, go first to Mrs. Blumberg’s candy store, and then Mr. Basch’s grocery store to spend the two pennies their uncle had recently given them.

This picture from Chutter’s interior must have been similar to what Charlotte and Gertie saw when they visited the candy store and “stood before the glass cases so full of chewy and sucking delights”. The girls faced a dilemma; there were so many different candies to choose from, and they wanted to pick just the right ones. The store’s owner looked at the girls from her stool at the other side of the store and thought, “Ach, they’ll take their time. Well, let them enjoy themselves.”

Gertie points to chocolate covered peanut bars, but Charlotte tells her they’d get too little and be finished in no time. Then Gertie suggests licorice drops because they’re big, but Charlotte points out that they’re all the same. So they look at a variety of other candies and have almost decided…

“Charlotte, half a penny of jelly beans and half of chicken-corn! That would be a whole lot of candy!”

“But we like the black jelly beans best and we can’t ask Mrs. Blumberg to pick out only black ones for us. You know we hate the white ones and we always seem to get mostly white ones whenever we buy them. No, let’s not take jelly beans.”

Gertie’s suggestion had given Charlotte an idea. “Mrs. Blumberg,” she called out, “could we buy a quarter of a cent’s worth of candy?”

“Woe is me! Haven’t I got trouble enough giving you half a penny of dis and half a penny dat? No, darling, for less than half a penny, I can’t sell”

Charlotte sighed as she turned back to the cases. It would have been so nice to have four different kinds of candy all for one penny. She and Gertie continued their examinations. One by one, they talked over each kind only to reject it. Lemon drops you could only suck. Caramels had to be chewed so hard and so long. Chocolate pennies melted too quickly in your mouth. The children considered and considered.

Suddenly Charlotte saw the little people made out of chewy chocolate covered candy. “Gertie,” Charlotte cried happily, “why didn’t we notice before? Chocolate babies!”


With their bag of “precious chocolate babies held tightly in Charlotte’s hand”, they walked to Mr. Basch’s grocery store to spend their other penny. They told the kindly store owner they wanted crackers, “the broken kind”, from a barrel that held “a most amazing jumble” of crackers. They left with their “tantalizing assortment”. Later in the chapter, after they’d hidden their booty, they got into bed for their special feast, knowing it was against house rules.

The room was in darkness save for the gas light which shone from the kitchen through the opened bedroom door. Lucky for them! One look at their guilty faces and Mama would have known something was up. But Mama suspected nothing. She wrapped the iron in its towel at their feet and their toes stretched out deliciously to meet the warmth. Tucking in the featherbed, Mama said good night to all and went out, shutting the door behind her.

The fun could begin at last! Charlotte directed because the game was hers.

“First we take a chocolate baby, and we eat only the head.” They bit off the head and chewed away contentedly.

“Now the feet.” This was hard. The tiny feet were very close to the legs but they did the best they could.

“Let’s gobble the rest together.” That was a good order. They gobbled away.

Charlotte continued. “A cracker now.” They fished about in the dark. “We’ll take a small bite just to find out what kind it is.”

They each took a small bite. “Mine is a lemon snap, I think,” Gertie said. “What’s yours?”

“Mine’s a ginger. We have to nibble along the side of this piece of cracker as if we were mice and we have to do it until I say stop.” So they nibbled and nibbled and pretty soon Gertie exclaimed, “My piece is all gone”.

Nearly two additional pages are given over to more games the two little girls played as they devoured their treats. Charlotte and Gertie’s innocence and joy during these scenes still make me smile, even after all these years. And I’m not alone; I found two blogs that recall the scenes, and remember the first time Blythe Barnhill and I talked about the books; she loved them, and her children loved those same scenes. And so did did my daughter when she read the book.

I want to use this ATBF to focus on an integration of the senses, associated with reading for the most part, but taking into consideration other forms of media such as music.

Last weekend we went to the Dallas Museum of Art and the Nasher Sculpture Center to see a cross-collection show of Henri Matisse’s sculpture. The entire event excited me; I’ve loved Matisse since my college art teacher showed us his line drawings during our own life drawing classes in order to illustrate how just a few lines could convey not only form, but movement and attitude. Whenever I see a Matisse, or even think about one, I can practically hear my teacher say, “Don’t draw short, sketchy, feathery lines…see how Matisse did it, in a few bold strokes!” (More evidence of that can be found in the final Matisse shown below – a cut-out that manages to convey both the human body and movement with a few well-placed leaf shapes.) And when we went to St. Petersburg a couple of years ago, we visited the Hermitage at the Winter Palace. Our tour guide focused on Renaissance and Baroque art, but gave us less than twenty minutes at the end to wander around. My mom, sister, and daughter were worn out by then, but my husband and I reconnoitered, then made a mad dash to where we hoped the Matisse room was, and once there, he proceeded to take photos of many of my favorite works by the artist while I just stood there in awe. Anne also loves that feeling of going to a museum and seeing real paintings by a favorite artist instead of copies. And what can compare to going to the British Museum and seeing the Sutton Hoo burial exhibit? Okay, it’s not Matisse in any way, but for Anne, it evokes the feelings of reading Dark Ages and Medieval romances. And the next time she read a novel set in the British Museum, she knew what that magnificent building looked like.

When my husband, my niece, and I went to the DMA last weekend, not only was I able to indulge in the artwork, some of that same adrenalin rush from St. Petersburg accompanied it, that same excitement of running through the Hermitage to find the Matisse room, then savoring it. Which is why, instead of being asleep at three in the morning, I’m here writing, and going through /wp-content/uploads/oldsiteimages of Matisse’s work to include below. Because this is a very sense-ual column, and as one of my goals is to help you dig into your own integrated sense memories, I’ve included some of my favorite Matisse works. I appreciate your patience with my indulgence. I’m particularly fond of his languid odalisques and other nudes in repose, as well as his use of multiple patterns, and how, using cut-outs, he is able to convey both movement and mood.

That final image is not a Matisse – duh! It’s a Dale Chihuly installation that hangs prominently and permanently in the DMA, and no visit there can be considered complete unless I pay homage to it. I’m not sure if I’m such a Chihuly fangirl because I was introduced to his art around the same time as I read Nora Roberts’ brilliant Born in Fire, but I always think of that book – and Stef Ann Holm’s Girls Night (the heroine owned a Chihuly, although she was forced to sell it in the story), when I step foot inside the DMA, or I hear about Chihuly or see his work. And everything all comes together in that one of AAR’s most talented reviewers and editors was Jennifer Keirans, who trained as a glass artist for a couple of years. The Japanese glass floatball inspired piece she made for me and my husband is one of my most treasured possessions…and it’s as close to a Chihuly as I’ll ever have!

If taste is invoked by the All of a Kind Family and sight by Born in Fire, then Ellen O’Hara from Gone With the Wind embodies smell. Robin and I were talking on the phone last week about my idea for this column and she asked, “What do you have for smell? Do you remember Ellen O…?” Before she could finish her sentence, I blurted out, “Ellen O’Hara and lemon verbena!” The sense of smell, of course, is one that is often evoked in romance novels; the heroine may smell of lavender, the hero of tangy musk, but my strongest olfactory sensation when thinking of books must be the lemon verbena…and I don’t particularly care for lemons and far prefer lavender.

Mention is made of Scarlet’s mother’s scent several times during the course of the book. The first comes quite early, shortly after Scarlett learns from her father, Gerald, that Ashley Wilks plans to marry his cousin Melanie. Ellen O’Hara informs her husband and Scarlett that she must go to the Slattery household and try and nurse a dying baby…

“Take my place at the table, dear,” said Ellen, patting Scarlett’s cheek softly with a mittened hand.

In spite of her choked-back tears, Scarlett thrilled to the never- failing magic of her mother’s touch, to the faint fragrance of lemon verbena sachet that came from her rustling silk dress. To Scarlett, there was something breath-taking about Ellen O’Hara, a miracle that lived in the house with her and awed her and charmed and soothed her.

Later that evening Scarlett seeks comfort from her mother, who has just returned from the Slattery house.

Then, wheels ground sharply on the graveled driveway, and the soft murmur of Ellen’s voice dismissing the coachman floated into the room. The whole group looked up eagerly as she entered rapidly, her hoops swaying, her face tired and sad. There entered with her the faint fragrance of lemon verbena sachet, which seemed always to creep from the folds of her dresses, a fragrance that was always linked in Scarlett’s mind with her mother.

After Scarlett moves to Atlanta with Melanie, her visits to Tara and her mother are few and far between. Even while helping the Cause, she thinks about her mother with longing, disappointed that “she had little opportunity for the long quiet talks with her mother…no time to sit by Ellen while she sewed, smelling the faint fragrance of lemon verbena sachet as her skirts rustled, feeling her soft hands on her cheek in a gentle caress.”

When Scarlett returns to Tara after escaping the burning of Atlanta, she discovers to her horror that her beloved mother is dead, and that her father has gotten old. She sits and looks around her, thinking everything sort of looks the same, “except that Ellen was not there, Ellen with the faint scent of lemon verbena sachet and the sweet look in her up-tilted eyes.”

The last mention made of Ellen O’Hara’s scent comes the next morning, when Gerald sits at the head of the breakfast table, “a gray old man with absent, faded eyes fastened on the door and head cocked slightly to hear the rustle of Ellen’s petticoats, to smell the lemon verbena sachet.”

Certain scents are not only a part of my own sensory memory, they apparently are a part of my daughter’s. When she was in the first grade, I dragged her and my husband to the Scarborough Faire, which is always in the Dallas area when it’s rainy, hot, humid, and muddy. We saw the falconeer, she was crowned Queen of the May, we’d partaken of “ye olde Medieval goodies”, and they were ready to go, but I was not. I wanted to visit the soap maker and buy some lavender soap. So we trudged in the heat and mud to the soap maker’s booth, only to discover there was no lavender soap ready to buy. I was horribly disappointed.

Cut to our trip to New England, and a couple of days after we went to Chutters. Although we arrived in the area at the tail end of maple season, the cold snap we’d arrived in allowed the sap to flow for a few days longer than usual. I was like a woman possessed in trying to find a nearby maple farm that was still boiling sap, and I was thrilled to find one. On the one hour drive to the farm, our daughter asked, “Mom, is this going to be like the soap?” Then we all burst into laughter. My husband and I were surprised that she remembered that long-ago day…and that once again, I was a woman on a mission.

Luckily for all of us, it wasn’t at all like the soap. Our adventure was downright fabulous, from talking at length to a fifth generation maple farmer while he hand-boiled sap, to tasting maple soft serve ice cream, to taste-testing the various grades of syrup, to buying chewy maple candy.

While Anne likes maple syrup, honey does something to her she can’t quite understand. She used to search the shelves of the health food store for treats made with honey, knowing very well that defeated the point of going to the health food store, but believing it was worth it even for a tiny flavor of honey in the background. I, on the other hand, much prefer maple syrup to honey, and have never been to Mississippi, but all it takes is for me to see a bee, let alone a bottle of honey, and I immediately want to play Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey. It’s not just the name of the song, it’s the richness of his voice and the lyrics that wrap around me like a hot summer day in the South. And if that’s not an integration of the senses, I don’t know what is.

This text will be replaced by the flash music player.

Tupelo Honey is one of the strongest evocations of sound for me. There are a few other songs I’ll mention, although they’re very different than Van Morrison’s. The first is the most lyrical of songs, a love song written and performed by jazz pianist David Benoit for his wife. Even though it’s an instrumental piece, it’s easy to discern the romance, and when I envision certain beloved romance novels as movies, this always plays as the theme song in my mind’s eye. The other two are also love songs – beyond love songs, actually. Hell, they’re songs of sex, although because one is from the 70s, it’s quite a bit tamer. I bought the Exile CD well before iTunes, but solely for Kiss You All Over. And the other is a song from Maroon 5 that wasn’t a single off their Songs About Jane album…it’s the very last song on the CD: The Sweetest Goodbye. To the right is a handy little flash player I installed so that if you’d like, you can listen to one or all of these songs (which come from my own personal collection), either now, or when you’ve finished reading the column.

Actually, I hope you’ll listen to the songs now, because the strongest sense of music I have in connection with reading comes not from a specific book, but from surrounding myself with music while I read. Listening to music most definitely enriches my reading experience. I don’t generally pick and choose a particular type of music based on what I’m reading, but neither do I just put the iPod on “shuffle”, because I already know the book is going to take me somewhere unfamiliar…the music can’t keep me in suspense too. And I know authors are influenced by music; Julia Quinn even lists at her website those songs that she listened to when writing particular books!

Do any of you remember seeing ads a couple of years ago for “romance novel soundtracks” in magazines? I wonder how many people bought those. I couldn’t imagine buying one of those because how could I trust a stranger to know what I wanted to listen to while reading a romance novel? I’d much rather pick my own songs, and so, I believe, would most fans.

As for the specific songs I included on the flash player, the last two are very sexual; in my mind they combine sound with touch. Yet I don’t want to only talk about the sense of touch in a sexual manner. I want to talk about touch in another way, though. Consider “touch” as being in touch with your surroundings, being part of the world around you. This is something that authors can evoke through description, and here’s a wonderful example from Mary Alice Monroe’s Swimming Lessons, the long-awaited (at least for me) sequel to The Beach House.

After the story’s heroine, Toy Sooner, saves an old sea turtle with the help of close friends who are also fellow “turtle ladies”, they set up a wading pool for “Big Girl” to spend the night before she can be brought to the Aquarium where Toy works as an aquarist. It’s an island in the Low Country – it’s hot, it’s humid, and it’s nighttime – and Toy settles in for her shift to nurse Big Girl…

Later that evening, they all headed for bed. While Cara and Brett settled Lovie, Toy dragged the old wooden lounge chair from the porch down the stairs to the cement slab, then went back up for a sleeping bag, a flashlight, a bottle of insect repellent, and a bottle of chilled wine. She slathered the contents of one bottle on her body and poured the contents of the other into a glass.

A vine of jasmine as thick as a python snaked in and out of the rickety lattice. Any breeze that might waft in from the ocean was blocked by the heavy foliage, but it provided a heady scent that helped overpower the dank smell of mildew and the fishy odor of the turtle. Toy used the last of her energy to set up the lounge chair at the edge of the concrete slab where the space opened up to the ocean’s breeze. Then, without removing her clothes, she crawled into the flannel folds of the sleeping bag and lay facing the stars.

It was a steamy night on the island. From the darkness the insects were singing their lullaby. The moon was rising and from deep in the blackness came the shooting, omnipresent roar of the ocean.

Not an evening passed that she didn’t give thanks to the Lord for being able to live here with her daughter in this cottage near the beach. Primrose Cottage was the only place in her entire life where she’d felt safe and truly happy.

The old wood lounge creaked as she shifted her weight. From somewhere a night bird called, and close to her ear she heard the high hum of a mosquito. Slapping her neck with a curse on all mosquitoes, Toy wrapped herself mummy-like in the sleeping bag and lay in her cocoon for several minutes while the heat sweltered.

I can’t think of a better way to end a discussion of the senses, other than to add that you can read my upcoming interview with Mary Alice Monroe later this month here at AAR – and that I look forward to talking with you on the ATBF Forum about your own sense-ual memories.

Questions To Consider:

My hope is that this column helped put you in touch with your own sense memories. Rather than give you a specific set of questions to start from this time around, please reflect on your sense-ual integration and share your experiences on the five senses as they relate to books, music, and the like. Let your creative energy flow!

TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh,
Laurie Likes Books

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(AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)