On Baltimore and Book Launches

On Baltimore and Book Launches


Yes, it happened, and I am delighted and humbled. Echoes of the Alum Chine, officially launched in the city of its setting, if not the period. Baltimore in the early 20th Century. Not a time without problems, without societal ills, to be sure, yet a time that I view through a sepia lens.

Aware of that as I drove through the neighborhoods cited in the book – Hollins Street, Union Square – well past its prime, though struggling to maintain some semblance of urban pioneer moments. I read that the local market and adjacent properties had been bought by a relative of Under Armour’s CEO, but, to my untrained eye, I could see no evidence to transformation – yet, at least.

And I ponder my reaction to any such transformation – when I big spender comes in to “revitalize” an area – to my mind, significantly different than the grass roots struggles of individuals who come to save a neighborhood from a sense of loyalty and love, rather than as an investment. I was part of such a merry band many years ago, when the area of Seton Hill began to take shape. A labor of love and money, to be sure – and I am hoping for a resurgence for this lovely area of alley houses.

And now, back to me!  It was such an enchantment to read passages of both Echoes from the Alum Chine and Another Sunday to groups who understood the historical context, who understood exactly what it meant when Celeste, the heroine of Another Sunday, ends her days at the Congress Hotel, a Baltimore landmark that at one time signified the height of sophistication and prosperity, but, by the time Celeste lived there, had devolved into what could only be called a flea-bag hotel for transients. I felt their tears and sadness for her. And they came right along with me as I recounted her 1967 cab ride through Mt. Vernon Place, North Avenue, Baltimore Cemetery and Green Mount Cemetery, with a final stop at Stewart’s Department Store at Howard and Lexington Streets. A visit remembering what had been, and the sadness of facing what was and is.

Going back to Baltimore always fills me with mixed emotions – I love seeing old friends, this time from high school and from my Roland Park days. But I am always struck by a sense of sadness, for the tone of the city has changed, so many of the landmarks that were and remain meaningful to me derelict and forgotten. I’m not so impressed with the tarted-up, pseudo-chic, multi-million-dollar condos that have replaced those earthy, drunken sailors on Pratt Street.

I know I’m in the minority – it doesn’t bother me. Someone asked me if I remembered the movie Avalon. I sure do – and salute Barry Levinson – another Baltimorean who remembers the substance of Baltimore. I think there are a lot of us out there.



On a Book Launch, Baltimore, and Echoes from the Alum Chine —


On a Book Launch, Baltimore, and the Alum Chine –

I’m heading to Baltimore this week to formally launch my second historical novel, Echoes from the Alum Chine. It’s another journey back in time for me –to my favorite era, the 1910s. It’s where I live when I’m writing, or thinking about writing. This period calls to me, resonates in a way that I must heed. I’m not sure why; perhaps I had another life then. And if I did, it was definitely in Baltimore. This was the time of a city that was real – complete with watermelon rinds floating in the Pratt Street harbor, and Norwegian sailors, arm in arm, drunkenly wending their way back to their ships after a night carousing. A time before multi-million dollar condos and pretentious restaurants and bars catering to the pseudo-glamourous.

Okay, rant over – and who can stop progress, and it is tax-base, after all, and all those factory jobs and work at Bethlehem Steel are not going to return. I get that – but still, one can remember, even if those memories are tinted sepia.

Now for the commercial – The Baltimore launch of Echoes from the Alum Chine will be held on Saturday, April 22, at 1:00 p.m. at the Irish Railroad Workers’ Museum, 918 Lemmon Street. The museum is in the heart of SoWeBo, just south of Hollins Street and Union Square, an area, I might add, that has kept its authenticity without succumbing to pretention. If you are nearby, I do hope that you will consider attending.

Echoes from the Alum Chine draws on Baltimore history – specifically, the aftermath of the 1913 explosion of the steamer ship Alum Chine in Baltimore harbor – to share the tale of three families who persevere to transform tragedy into triumph during the early 1900s. The novel explores the complexities of class and race that have challenged Baltimore for centuries, as well as the intricacies of family dynamics.

I’ll also be presenting “Writing the Historical Novel:  Fact, Fancy, and Research” at the Irish Railroad Workers’ Museum on Lemmon Street at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, April 22, and again at 2:00 p.m. on Sunday, April 23 at the Baltimore County Historical Society, 9811 Van Buren Lane, Cockeysville.

Dear readers, thank you for allowing this bit of blatant self-promotion, and I do hope that you will read, and enjoy, the book.

www.cynthiastrauff.com Echoes from the Alum Chine


Almost here — Echoes from the Alum Chine….


Oh, yes. It’s almost here, and I am so in love with this book. Excuse the hubris, but what mother doesn’t love her child?

Echoes from the Alum Chine is not available quite yet, but meanwhile I had to share this wonderful cover. Photograph by the iconic photographer of Baltimore, A. Aubrey Bodine. I think that it conveys the melancholy overtone of the story that follows three families in the aftermath of the 1913  explosion in the Baltimore Harbor of 300 tons of dynamite being loaded onto the steamer Alum Chine:  the Aylesforths, who live in the big house on Hollins Street; the Corporals, in the alley behind, and the Sherwoods, whose company insures the cargo.The story is told by the shy, forgotten Lillian Gish Corporal, who stands by and observes.

The Baltimore book launch is set for Saturday, April 22, at the Irish Railroad Workers’ Museum, 920 Lemmon Street in the heart of Hollins Street and Union Square (SoWeBo to those hipster Baltimoreans in the know).  I’ll be speaking to the group on “The Historical Novel: Fact, Fancy and Research,” at 11:30 a.m. The launch and book-signing will follow at 1 p.m.

I do hope that my Baltimore friends will be able to attend – as well as anyone (isn’t that a bit overconfident?) interested in Baltimore history.

The Greensboro launch will be later this spring.

So, it’s here – or almost here. And, after such a winter of political dread, I am ecstatic.

http://www.cynthiastrauff.com Author of Another Sunday and Echoes from the Alum Chine



On Visiting the Past


On Visiting the Past – This weekend we are in Baltimore – a reunion for him, a nostalgic return for me, as are all visits here. So much is gone, disappeared. And I’m not too enamored of the ersatz glitz that has replaced it. Potemkin’s Village, it seems, with $100 plates of spaghetti ordered by those who forget Baltimore’s past as a real city, one with watermelon rinds floating in the harbor, and Norwegian seamen staggering along Pratt Street. Okay, seen through a sepia lens, but it’s my sepia lens.

I drove up Charles Street, a few blocks from Mt. Vernon Place and my memories of Peabody Conservatory, though I only attended the Preparatory Section. And there is was, or rather, it wasn’t. The Peabody Bookshop. Gone. Ah, well.

And I thought of an earlier time – much earlier, when in high school, when I thought that it really was a bookshop, and ventured in. And it was, though one the likes of which I had never encountered before. Dark, smoky, and books, all right. I tried to make myself at home. But the back of the shop, the stube, well, was this a bar, or what? The few patrons there ignored me, as well they should have, I attired in my grey wool uniform skirt and required black-and-white saddle shoes. I had considered myself quite sophisticated – until that visit. Then I realized that I had much to learn, to experience. So I crept out, and breathed a sigh of relief when I was once again heading south to be met by my father who was patiently waiting outside the music school doors.

I returned several times over the years, each time with more experience, or so I thought. But no matter how often I went there, no matter how sophisticated I thought my order, my black turtleneck and tights, I always felt, deep down, that I was a fraud. Somehow everyone else there belonged; somehow everyone else there really had read Dostoevsky and Proust and Marx, and they knew, really knew, the difference between stout and lager.

And now I wonder.

By now I’ve read Crime and Punishment, and Remembrance of Things Past, and The Communist Manifesto, but I still don’t know my beers.

Another Sunday, www.cynthiastrauff.com



On Writing Rhythm, and Naps


On Writing, Rhythm and Naps —

I should be working on my novel-in-progress. That is what I tell myself as I clean the sunporch, change the cat litter, and lie on the sofa for just a twenty-minute nap, which, as everyone knows, is the renowned time for bringing those fuzzy brain cells back into focus.

I’m gradually coming back to my writing rhythm, or at least heading in that direction, as I also recognize that the same excuses for not writing lure me with an ever-stronger pull. Especially naps. And I must say that, when I lie there, allowing my brain to go where it choses, I compose (in my head, of course) some of the most lyrical prose never to be put on a page. I have completed at least three novels, poetry that is so moving that the reader (if it were written, of course) would swoon, or at least stay home from work to think about it. And that is only what I can remember. Now I should clarify that a bit: what I remember is how wonderful my words were. Unfortunately for me and the literary world, I am unable to recall the actual words.

Once or twice I have been so moved as to jump (well, that is an exaggeration – more authentically, I push back the blanket, stand up, and walk) to the computer to get those words down. Alas, in the interim between living room and office, the muse decided to dwell elsewhere. But in these weeks, in my head, I actually have completed my storyline, wept for characters who will face tragedy, and developed understanding, perhaps even compassion, for those characters who I wouldn’t want to meet for coffee.

And somehow, word-by-word, I am making progress. Shitty first drafts, but words on paper, waiting to be reviewed, rewritten, and cried over.

Now, as to the image above, that is Susan Sontag. Surely she napped, and look at how beautifully she wrote. Maybe some of her talent will rub off. At least that’s what I’m thinking as I drift off – for twenty minutes only.

Another Sunday, a novel of historic Baltimore, http://www.cynthiastrauff.com

On Father’s Day

glass baltimore

I had many topics cover this week, but somehow, this poem, written several years ago, on this Father’s Day, seemed to call to me.


Dumas, pere

Cognac brown, soft, consoling.

I tilt the decanter to the glass,

the heavy one with the scene

 of downtown Baltimore

etched in black and real gold,

probably 24 carat.

Not to be put into the dishwasher,

though I do.

A golden bourbon in an exquisite glass.

And behind glass, leather-bound books,

a special occasion to touch.

Before I even know the title

I open, smell and riffle the pages,

A sound like bourbon, poured from the decanter.

Alexander Dumas, one of my dad’s favorites,

The Three Musketeers,

Athos, Porthos, not D’Artagnan.

Who is the third?

He would be disappointed

 that I could name

only two.

I return to my chair,

book and bourbon in hand,

to find the third musketeer’s


And remember Fa sitting in our library,

bourbon in hand, reading,

perhaps The Three Musketeers.




On Grieving for a Place that Never Was

On Grieving for a Place that Never Was

1910 baltimore

I remain in a state of heartbreak after my trip to Baltimore last week. Not for the wonderful, warm reception I received from friends, family and readers, but for the city itself. And I realize that my fantasy, of a Baltimore now long gone, is sepia-toned, all rough edges, cruelties airbrushed away. The Baltimore of the 1910s. For it has to be a fantasy to hold on to a past I never knew.

And I am brought to Alexander McCall Smith’s poetic hymn to Scotland. I could not say it more eloquently. To me, it speaks of Baltimore.

From The Revolving Door of Life
(44 Scotland Street Series                                                                                                     Alexander McCall Smith

When I was a boy, not yesterday of course,

When life, I thought, was a whole lot

More certain than it is today,

I made a list of those I thought

Liked me as much as I liked them –

For at that age we’re loved

By just about everybody

Whom we care to love; how different

It is in later years, when affection

Has no guarantee of reciprocation,

When we may spend so very long

Yearning for one who cannot

Love us back, or cares not to,

Or who lives somewhere else

And has forgotten our address

And the way we looked or spoke.

The remarkable thing about love

Is that it is freely available,

Is as plentiful as oxygen,

Is as joyous as a burn in spate

And need never run out.

And yet, for all its plentitude,

We ration it so strictly and forget

Its curative properties, its subtle

Ability to make the soul-injured

Whole again, to make the lonely

Somehow assured that their solitude

Will not last forever; its promise

That if we open our heart

It is joy and resolution

That will march in triumphant

Through the gates we create.

When I look at Scotland,

At this country that possesses me,

I wonder what work love

Has still to do; and find the answer

Closer at hand than I thought –

In the images of contempt and disdain,

That are still there, as stubborn

As human imperfections can be;

In the coldness of heart

That sees nothing wrong

In indifference to want, to dislike

Of those who are different,

In the cutting, dismissive

Turn of phrase, in the sneer.

Love is not there, in all those places,

But it will be; love cannot solve

Every human problem, but it makes

A start on a solution; love

Is the only compass-point

We need to learn; we need not

Be clever to know it, nor endowed

With unusual vision, love

Comes free, at least in those forms

Worth having, lasts as long

As anything human may last.

May Scotland, when it looks

Into its heart tomorrow

If not today, see the fingerprints

Of love, its signature, its presence,

Its promise of healing.

Another Sunday,  www.cynthiastrauff.com