THE WRITING MASTER
By Kitty Burns Florey
White River Press
A few years ago, Amherst writer Kitty Burns Florey wrote a treatise on the history of penmanship and writing by hand, “Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting,” that offered a sharp counterpoint to the abbreviations and terseness of digital communication. Critics gave the book high marks, with The Financial Times calling it a “charming, illustrated eulogy to a craft that’s fast losing its place in the modern world.”
Florey was inspired by the research she did for the book to develop her most recent work, “The Writing Master,” an historical novel set in Connecticut in 1856 and published by White River Press of Amherst. The central character, Charles Cooper, is a penman and writing teacher who earns his keep in part by producing letters and documents for people who can’t write (or read). Charles is, in his own words, neither rich nor poor, but he has a skill that in that era is greatly respected.
He’s also a man with a heavy burden: He is still mourning the loss of his wife and young son, who both died in a fire. Then, in New Haven for part of the summer in 1856, he meets a spirited and unconventional young woman who reminds him a bit of his wife — but who has a murky past and a dark secret of her own.
When New Haven is rocked by a brutal murder, Charles becomes caught up in the investigation, with consequences that will be surprising and possibly life-changing.
Florey, who was also inspired by her love of Victorian novels, sets the pace in her novel to the rhythms of 19th-century life, when strict social protocols prevailed, train travel was a sooty affair, and custom dictated that people dress in, as the author puts it, “extravagantly inconvenient clothing.”
Florey also notes that she’s already contemplating a sequel to “The Writing Master,” set 30 years later in Amherst (she previously lived in New Haven). Given time constraints, she says, she’s not sure a middle-aged Charles will ever actually “see the light, but he’s a lovable character, and I remain intrigued by him.”
THE BEST PLANNED CITY IN THE WORLD: Olmsted, Vaux and the Buffalo Park System
By Francis R. Kowsky
University of Massachusetts Press
Think Buffalo, N.Y., and the images that come to mind may be of a worn-out industrial city that periodically disappears from view in winter under massive snowfall. But if Buffalo’s fortunes have declined since its heyday in the late 1800s and first part of the 1900s, it still has one of the world’s landmark park systems, according to Francis R. Kowsky.
Kowsky, a professor emeritus of art history in the State University of New York (SUNY) system, has detailed the history of Buffalo’s public park system in “Moving Earth to Create Heaven,” by the University of Massachusetts Press. As he notes, Buffalo became a testing ground for two of the 19th century’s leading landscape architects, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who had designed Central Park and Prospect Park in New York City and Brooklyn, respectively.
In the Queen City of the Lakes, as Buffalo was known in the late 1800s, Olmsted and Vaux set out to create not just one extensive urban park but three, all of which would be connected to one another by large, tree-canopied boulevards, or “parkways” as Olmsted called them. With design features inspired in part by the rebuilding of Paris in the mid-1800s, the Buffalo parks, designed between 1868 and 1896, won international recognition.
As Kowsky notes, Olmsted and Vaux also led an effort to protect and beautify the area around Niagara Falls, laying the groundwork for additional park and preserved space by the falls, where the country’s first state park was created in 1885.
In his book, which includes a wealth of historic photographs, postcards and maps, Kowsky points out Buffalo’s park system has never “divorced from real-life concerns” and took years to reach maturity, given the political and budgetary setbacks that took place along the way.
But ultimately, it’s a success story, one that became part of a larger effort in America and other countries to make cities better places to live by giving people access to green space — what Olmsted called “democracy in trees and dirt.”