Avon Van Hassel

Building Worlds and Filling Them With Magic

Back in 2021, I made a video on YouTube about Napoleon’s letters to Josephine, and it is far and away the most viewed video on my channel. It was so popular, it made me want to make a tradition of reading overblown and cringey letters from famous people. You can watch the original video here:

Brace yourself, it’s a lot

~This post contains an affiliate link. If you’re interested in this book, please consider purchasing through the link provided. It gives me a little bit of Jeff Bezo’s filthy, filthy lucre because writing full time is expensive, and he doesn’t need the money for more joyrides in space. :-)~

Making the rounds lately has been an interesting post, regarding the nature of the relationship between two of literature’s heavyweights, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville. When I first heard about it, it felt like a real life fandom crossover. Like, how would these two ever cross paths? I honestly didn’t realise that they were contemporaries. And it turns out that they were equally as surprised-and pleased- to have found each other. So, let’s have a look at one of American literature’s great friendships, possibly even great romances.

Nathaniel Hawthorne

You know Nathaniel Hawthorne as the author of The Scarlet Letter, The House of Seven Gables, and Mosses from an Old Manse (if you don’t know the last one, it’s ok, we’re gonna talk about it). He also had a collection of shorts called, Twice Told Tales, which annoys me because that’s what I wanted to call my publishing house, and he beat me to it by like 150 years. I mean, it is a Shakespeare reference, so hardly original to either of us, but still. (We’re gonna talk about Shakespeare, too.)

Hathorne [sic] was born in 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts, to a family prominent in US history. Most notably of these was his great-great-grandfather, John Hathorne, who was a judge during the Salem Witch Trials. This Puritan heritage informed much of his writing, especially evident in his most famous works. Indeed, he added the w sometime in his early 20’s, probably to distance himself from the family reputation.

When he was 12, his family boarded with some farmers in Maine, and when he was 16, he hand wrote and published a little newsletter, which he delivered to family members. At 17, he attended Bowdoin College, where he met future president Franklin Pearce and my personal favourite poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He described himself as an idle student, preferring to study his own interests than the curriculum.

In 1828, he started self-publishing his early work, which didn’t sell well. That’s fine, though. We love a self-published king. He also served as editor of the American Magazine of Entertaining and Useful Knowledge, which is an objectively awesome title. He also accepted a job as a weigher and gauger in the Boston Custom House and roomed with some movers and shakers, like poets, congressmen, and naval officers. What a time to be alive.

In 1841, he joined a Utopian society so he could marry Sophia Peabody, a transcendentalist illustrator. The couple married in 1842 and moved into Old Manse, a historical house, where one of their neighbours was Ralph Waldo Emerson. The two were deeply in love and compatible and had three children, Una, Julian, and Rose, very quickly together.

Mosses from an Old Manse is a collection of 23 previously-published short stories that Hawthorne compiled and named in honour of this house. Many of these stories were already known, so it enjoyed some commercial success. He sent a copy to Poe because he literally lived my dream, and Poe was like, ‘the guy is a genius writer, but his friends suck,’ and then Emerson wrote his own review, declaring that Hawthorne was underpaid. Looks like he was paid $75 in 1846, which would have been $2,902.69, by 2022 money. So, yeah, that’s not much. But the real meat about this book is Melville’s response.

Herman Melville

You recognise Herman Melville as the author of Moby-Dick (yes, hyphenated), ‘Bartleby the Scrivener,’ and ‘Benito Cereno.’ I recently read the last one, and if you haven’t, holy shit, you should. It’s good, y’all. Like, genuinely genius (though, content warning for fairly racist language, because it was 1855).

Melville was born in 1819 in New York City, to an equally prestigious family. Both of his grandfathers, Major Thomas Melvill and General Peter Gansevoort, fought during the Revolution, with Melvill participating in the Boston Tea Party, and Gansevoort defending Fort Stanwix in 1777.

A mediocre student, though a good writer from an early age, Melville dropped out early, most due to his father’s poor money management. He went through a series of jobs, including as a bank clerk, working at his father’s fur store, and as a teacher, all the while trying to continue his studies, where he could. Eventually, the need for more gainful employment led him to the sea.

In 1839, he got a job on a merchant vessel, St Lawrence, from New York to Liverpool. He briefly returned to teaching, but didn’t get paid, so he joined on with the whaling ship, Acushnet. Much of his work concerning sailing was inspired by this job. In 1842, he and another crew mate jumped ship, participated in a mutiny, was jailed, and broke out. In August of 1843, he joined the US Navy, and was discharged in October.

So, from all of this, he developed a mistrust of authority, a drive for freedom, and a deep self confidence, with the feeling that life and the universe had imposed unnecessary hardships on him, which held him back from achieving his full potential.

In 1845, he began writing, starting with Typee, which was inspired by that time he and a buddy jumped ship in Nuku Hiva. Notably, this book drew the attention of one Nathaniel Hawthorne, who heaped upon it glowing praise.

In 1847, Melville married Elizabeth Knapp Shaw, who he had only known a few months, and in 1849, their first child, Malcolm, was born.

Their friendship

In August of 1850, the two crossed paths at a picnic in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. While other famous people were also in attendance, Hawthorne and Melville found themselves caught in the rain, took shelter together, and had a deep and personal conversation.

Melville had been given a copy of Mosses from an Old Manse, though he hadn’t read it. But after meeting Hawthorne, he read the book and published an anonymous review, titled, ‘Hawthorne and His Mosses,’ where he heaped purple praise on his new friend. Hawthorne did write a review of Typee, but I can’t find a date for that, so I don’t know if he wrote it before or after they met.

About Mosses, Melville revels in Hawthorne’s ‘blackness,’ or seldom-seen dark side, which ‘so fixes and fascinates’ him. He also openly compares him to Shakespeare, while offering very vague and surface level criticism of the actual pieces. It very much reads like doing your buddy a solid and leaving a 5-star review because you love them SO FUCKING MUCH. (Btw, if any of you feel compelled to do that for me, I will absolutely write you a sickly-sweet love letter)

About Typee, Hawthorne praised the youth and vigour of the writing, as well as the sumptuous setting details, and the delicacy with which Melville handles cultural portrayals. Hawthorne himself recognises that American and European society wasn’t ready for the way that Melville dealt with the people of Nuku Hiva, and lifted him up for it. It also very much reads as ‘my buddy is so cool and smart, you gotta read this book!’

Their personal correspondence was constant and fervent, and they visited each other often, with and without their families, and often without warning. From their first meeting in 1850 to their last in 1864, they each would have a huge impact on the other. During these years, they both published their biggest works. Indeed, Moby-Dick is dedicated to Nathaniel Hawthorne, and many have speculated that in addition to being inspired by real life events, the white whale himself represents Melville’s obsession with Hawthorne.

It’s not hard to imagine what the two saw in each other. Hawthorne was fifteen years older, plagued by a family curse and surrounded by artistic and political luminaries. Possessing a sensitive and poetic nature, and described by Melville as being beautiful almost beyond belief, he was a true tragic romantic hero in the style that any Bronte would approve. Melville, by contrast, had lived a life of adventure. The grandson of two heroes of the Revolution, he had lived a life on the sea, from which he developed a dashing, adventurous nature. Yet, he was also an accomplished poet, who, like Hawthorne, had eschewed the structure of a formal education in favour of artistic freedom. Both men were progressive, in their own way, for the time. The Scarlet Letter is lauded as a proto-feminist novel, and Typee seemed to be an early attempt at anthropology.

Other keyboards will speculate on the exact nature of their relationship, whether it was romantic and sexual, or simply a deep and profound platonic friendship. I personally cannot say, and it feels inappropriate for me to do so. They certainly lavished affection on each other, but as we only have letters for evidence, and people did write like that in the 1800s, it doesn’t feel like strong enough proof for me. Whatever the relationship, it was strong and beautiful, and they made no attempt to hide it, and I love that for them.

But I promised you letters, so here are a few. Unfortunately, I can only find Melville’s letters to Hawthorne, and none from Hawthorne, from a book called, Divine Magnet, compiled by Mark Niemeyer. However, I have to assume they were equally rapturous, given that Hawthorne is the one who held onto his. Read them to whoever you love.

If you want to hear me read even more, check out my new video, below:

Please, if you know of any more real-life OTPs, or any cringy historical love letters, feel free to send them my way! I’d love to get a series going.

Last year’s list was ambitious. In my defense, I read A LOT of books, just like, only one of them was on the actual list. So, I will post a list that needs to be reviewed, books currently in progress, and the ones I have stacked up and waiting.

~This post contains affiliate links. If you’re interested in these books, please consider purchasing through the link provided. It gives me a little bit of Jeff Bezo’s filthy, filthy lucre because writing full time is expensive, and he doesn’t need the money for more joyrides in space. :-)~

Finished in 2022 that need to be reviewed

  • Finale, by Stephanie Garber
  • Our Crooked Hearts, by Melissa Albert
  • The Crimson Thread, by Kate Forsyth
  • Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen (unabridged, and the audiodrama)
  • Once Upon a Broken Heart, by Stephanie Garber
  • Legendborn, by Tracy Deonn
  • Ramona, by Helen Hunt Jackson
  • Josefina series, by Valerie Tripp

In progress (I DO NOT LIKE reading more than one at a time, but 2022, amirite)

  • Tower of Ravens, by Kate Forsyth
  • The Silmarilion, by JRR Tolkien
  • A Feast for Crows, by George RR Martin
  • Bloodmarked, by Tracy Deonn
  • The Mysteries of Udolpho, by Ann Ward Radcliffe
  • Rogue Wave, by Jennifer Donnelly

To read in 2023

  • Dark Tide, by Jennifer Donnelly
  • Sea Spell, by Jennifer Donnelly
  • Witches, by Brenda Lozano
  • The Book of Gothel, by Mary McMyne
  • The Mermaid of Black Conch, by Monique Roffey

As with last year’s list, this is mostly to keep myself honest. But you’re welcome to keep up with me. What are your reading goals for 2023?

2022 sure was a year, wasn’t it?

I don’t know if it was for you, but it sure was for me. It started off strong, and I even had some personal breakthroughs. My social life was top notch, my hair and skin really came through for me, I made some money on the side, and I even traveled abroad! Twice!

I know!

It was really my year, right? Well, no. Most if that time was spent in a pretty deep, dark hole. Shortly after I posted my One Word, I lost my grandmother, with whom I was very close. The night she passed, we watch Encanto, and I listened to, ‘Surface Pressure’ on a loop for months. It felt like every time I got my feet under me, I got knocked down, and it all snowballed. I buried myself in my second job because I just didn’t have the spoons to be creative. I couldn’t even keep up on my blog posting schedule, which is just one a month. However, I did do a hell of a lot of reading, more than any year since I was in college. That couldn’t be escapism, could it?

But even when I’m knocked down, I don’t stay down for long. So, here we are. Another year, another One Word post lowering the bar of expectations.

I don’t want to go into the history, YET AGAIN, so if you want to see where it all began, start here. This year, my word is, ‘Progress.’ Like last year, I’m embracing the notion of ‘any progress is good progress,’ and, ‘progress over perfection.’ I know it sounds like a cop-out, but it really isn’t. I am optimistic, for a number of reasons I don’t want to go into just yet, and risk jinxing it. Just watch this space, ok?

If 2022 was great for you- if you finally got out of your cave, if you felt the sun on your face, if you finally, finally rejoined the world, rested and refreshed, and ready to take everything on, I am so happy for you. You’re a survivor, and you earned the right to rock that.

But if you poked your head outside, got jumped and mugged and left for dead, then I am also proud of you. You survived. Even if you’re still struggling to pick yourself up and dust yourself off, you’re alive and fighting. So, take it easy, be gentle with yourself. You’re doing your best. Keep putting one foot in front of the other, no matter how long it takes.

Any progress is good progress.

Progress over perfection.


How was your 2022, and what is the word you’re taking with you into 2023?

Once upon a time, there were three bears- a papa bear, a mama bear, and a baby bear- who all lived in a cottage in the woods. One day, they made porridge for breakfast, but it was too hot to eat, so they decided to go for a walk in the woods while it cooled down.

Meanwhile, in the village, a pretty little girl with shiny blonde curls was acting far too naughty for her poor mother, so she was cast out of the house. With nowhere else to go, she set off into the woods, where she stumbled upon the Bears’ home.

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Hello, everybody! We’re a few months into 2022 now, so I thought I’d give you an update on what’s going on with me.

January

I’m afraid I have to start with sad news. On December 19, my grandmother fell in her apartment and broke her leg. We took her to the hospital, where they fixed her up, but things got complicated. One thing and another, despite the stellar care of understaffed and exhausted hospital staff, she contracted pneumonia and passed on January 17. My family, who had been preparing for this outcome for quite some time (she was 96), was devastated. We’re still dealing with shockwaves every once in a while. She was a grand old dame and she left a massive hole in our lives that we’re still trying to map and navigate. Our only solace is knowing that we loved the hell out of her, and she loved us just as fiercely back.

Also, we all practice ancestor work, and she did too, so we know she’ll be around when she’s ready.

New Year’s has become one of my favourite holidays. It brings me fresh perspective and renewed energy to take stock and figure how to move forward. This two-year depressive spiral where I barely wrote at all, paired with a severe financial situation in my family, made me feel like I needed a change. Writing fiction will always be my greatest love, but despite everything I say about it being, you know, ‘1% inspiration, 99% perspiration,’ it’s still damn hard to do when you can’t focus. Fiction is hard, y’all. And it’s even harder when you can’t stop thinking about the critics. I don’t suffer from Imposter Syndrome, but I know when I’m off my game, and I don’t like putting out work that isn’t my best.

So I decided to freelance. It’s kind of perfect- my own hours, writing, and a bit of pocket change to remove my personal expenses from the family budget, with an option for setting some aside. Eventually, I was contacted by an academic ghostwriting company, and I took it.

NOW BEFORE YOU COME FOR ME about helping students cheat, first of all, homework is unethical to begin with. Kids already spend all day at school and then have to do more school in their free time. Bullshit. Mandatory school was hell for me and if I could have paid someone to do my homework, I would have. Two, these are Chinese students in English-speaking countries, where they’re held to the same expectations as native speakers, so they’re already at a disadvantage. Most of the essays I write are short projects for elective classes- I’m not writing dissertations and helping people skate through med school. Those sorts of qualifications have much stricter checks and balances. Three, the suicide rate amongst Asian students related to academics is higher than any other demographic, and if I can ease some of that stress for someone, I call that a good deed. And four, I’m a nerd- I like writing essays, and it’s awesome to get paid for it.

February

So, the new job is going well. It’s not bringing in much, but it eased some stress in the house, and I’m learning loads.

Despite the increased workload, I decided to dedicate February to self care. All of the stress of the last month, the burnout from the last six weeks, and the bleakness of the last two years, got to me. Also, February got HOT—FAST. Like, mid-May hot. In February. But climate change is a hoax 😂

So, I started spending more time outside in the hammock by the pool. It’s rough, I know. But I’d go out there with my drink, a podcast or a book, and chill with the dogs and the sun. It was glorious.

Be jealous

Part of this self care dedication involved starting a new diet. Now, to be clear, I don’t believe in diets. Diet culture is proven to be toxic and ineffective, however, I do have a number of health issues that my doctor is happy to ignore. I have to advocate for myself and I’d rather change my lifestyle than take pills. To be clear, I’m not arguing against medication wholesale, some issues need meds. I don’t believe my case does. But I don’t know because my doctor refuses to test me.

So, in February, I joined a 30-day challenge to give this lifestyle change a try and see if anything changes. I’ll update you guys if it’s successful. Essentially, it involves cutting out inflammatory foods, eating more of some of my faves, and *sigh* regular exercise. They promise an increase in energy, so if that happens, maybe I’ll hate exercise less, lol. I figure, what can I lose by eating more whole foods and exercising? Especially if I gain so much.

March

So here we are, at long last in March, and I feel like it’s March of 2020 and I’m living my best life again. A month of self care did me good.

I got a promotion at my job, after only a month of work (why yes, I AM good at research and writing, so kind of you to notice!), and a project a couple friends of mine and I are working on is once more underway. More details on that, once we’re further along.

The diet is going well. I can’t say I’m noticing much when I’m on it, but I certainly notice a change when I take a break and go back to eating junk food. So that’s promising.

I finally reached a major milestone. When the pandemic hit, a bunch of things in my house failed in rapid succession: the oven, the dryer, and the freezer. We had a microwave that could act as an oven, so we muddled through with that until it completely failed at Thanksgiving, but the freezer had been my best strategy for trying to save money on food and see us through an unknown future. So I taught myself how to can. We only had a big stock pot, so I was limited to things I could can in a hot water bath: high acidity foods like jams and pie fillings. If I were better at social media, I would have posted pictures because I set myself the challenge of canning a hundred recipes before I had earned my pressure canner. It was fun and I was getting good practice and not letting fruit go to waste, but it wasn’t exactly stocking the cupboard with food. I needed a pressure canner. But those are expensive and with appliance repairs, emergency medical bills, our notoriously untrustworthy plumbing, and skyrocketing prices in every sector of life, the household couldn’t afford one, even if it would save us money in the longterm.

Well, this month, through some savings, tax returns, and my new job, I was able to buy my pressure canner! So now, I can make salsas and sauces from all those tomatoes that are inexplicably fruiting in March!

MY BABY CAME HOME AT LAST

So, that’s about it from me. I’ve had a decent start to the year, and am looking forward to the next quarter. What about you guys? How’s 2022 treating you, and what do you have to look forward to?

Love. L’amour. Is there anything sweeter than a deep intimacy between two people and the legacy it leaves behind?

Unless, of course, it goes south and one of them mysteriously disappears and the other one has blood on their hands. Sometimes that legacy evolves into one of my favourite genres of music, the precursor to today’s true crime podcasts- the murder ballad.

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Let’s try something new, shall we? I have a tonne of books, I’m sure you can relate, and I need to organise them so that I can inch through them. So maybe it’ll help to make a list here, that I can access, and so that you guys can see what I’m working on.

~This post contains affiliate links. If you’re interested in these books, please consider purchasing through the link provided. It gives me a little bit of Jeff Bezo’s filthy, filthy lucre because writing full time is expensive, and he doesn’t need the money for more joyrides in space. :-)~

Books that I have finished that I need to review:

  • A Chorus Rises
  • Brambles in the Wishing Well
  • The Mark of Zorro
  • A Thousand Dreadful Curses
  • Caraval
  • Legendary
  • I Am Half-Sick of Shadows

Books in progress:

  • Tower of Ravens, by Kate Forsyth

Books to Read Next:

  • The Wild Girl
  • Vasilisa the Wise
  • The Beast’s Garden
  • Witches of Eileann Series
  • Birds of Rhiannon Series
  • The Last True Poets of the Sea
  • The Hero with a Thousand Faces
  • The Five
  • Ramona
  • The Uses of Enchantment
  • The Chronicles of Prydain Series
  • The Chronicles of Narnia Series
  • Once Upon a Broken Heart
  • Throne of the Crescent Moon
  • The Wyrd Sisters

This is obviously very, very bare-bones and not attributed correctly, but I promise when I post the reviews, they will be properly credited. This is just to keep me honest and chugging along.

Do you ever look so forward to savouring something that you almost dread consuming it? Like you worry that your excitement is bigger than the satisfaction of having the thing? Or you’re saving it for just the right moment, but the Right Moment never comes? That was what happened with this book.  It’s difficult and expensive to get here in the States, but a friend in Australia sent it to me in September,  2019, and I just let it sit, Schroedinger’s literary experience,  both read and unread simply by owning it. It’s silly, I know. But I found a moment, after mowing down three books since the first of January,  and took the plunge.

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The language of flowers refers to a system of subtle communication by using plants as symbolic images. It combines horticulture, mythology, and and psychology to form a sort of lexicon that can convey messages.

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