Women’s History

March is Women’s History Month.  My reading of actual history as of late has focused on the ancient Celts, so I confess to falling behind on modern women’s history.  Nevertheless, I came across an often forgotten piece in an unexpected way.  For quite some time I’ve wanted to read some work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman.  Her story “The Yellow Wallpaper” is known as a gothic classic.  Since a short story isn’t enough to make up an entire book, publishers have arranged different combinations of her tales into thin books that can be sold as a unit.  I purchased the Dover Thrift Editions’ version of The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories.  It was there that I learned Gilman was an early feminist who seems to have become unsung in more recent times.  Her fiction, at least as reflected in this particular edition, demonstrates the truth of the assertion.

Most of the tales in this little book require only a few minutes to read.  Although written around the turn of the nineteenth century, her stories anticipated many modern developments for women.  Her protagonists see the inequalities between the genders and work to overcome them.  They prove themselves successful at business and setting up their own houses.  There’s a gentleness to these stories that suggests quiet confidence may eventually wear down the often inflated male ego.  I found myself captivated even after finishing “The Yellow Wallpaper” itself.  Gilman isn’t judgmental, but she does note how unfairly the system operates.  She also offers solutions.

In this month of women’s history, it seems appropriate to rediscover one of the female writers who personally worked for women’s rights and expressed herself so fluently in fiction.  Her “If I Were a Man,” although clearly a period piece, takes a woman into her husband’s body.  She walks in his shoes, literally, and sees what “the world of men” is like.  This leads to both understanding and, above all, learning.  This would seem to be the very heart of history.  We read to learn both from what we did correctly to what we did wrong.  We have done so terribly much wrong.  The historical oppression of women is one of the greatest examples of our inability to catch up with our own ideals of justice and fairness.  There were historical reasons for this, yes, but we have moved beyond those times.  If only we’d act like it.  Although my reading doesn’t always keep in sync with the seasons, discovering Charlotte Perkins Gilman at this point in time was somehow more appropriate than anticipated.


Still Standing

Investment.  Time is an investment, and I recently invested in Stephen King’s The Stand.  You have to realize that I made this decision sight-unseen.  More than one person whose opinions I value told me I should read it.  I had no idea it would be 1,400 pages and would dominate my life for a solid month.  Still, I’m glad I read it.  In case you haven’t, and intend to, there may be some spoilers below.  This is one of the King books I read without knowing the plot or the ending, so if you’re in that boat, skip a paragraph or two.

I hadn’t intended The Stand to be plague reading.  It just turned out that way.  The book is about a variety of flu that kills nearly the entire population of the world.  It’s only at the very end that you learn it’s a parable.  The ending also explains some of the apparently unrelated filler that makes the book so terribly long.  In any case, after wiping out much of the world, the story narrows down to several of the survivors and how they end up dividing into two camps: those who want to cause misery (think Republicans), and those who want to reestablish civilization.  Of course there are several unpleasant instances along the way.  The camp of violent ne’er-do-wells settles in Las Vegas under the demonic leadership of Randall Flagg—his identity only becomes clear at the end—while the good guys, under Mother Abagail, choose Boulder.  A confrontation is inevitable and when the smoke clears we learn that Randall Flagg is, essentially, civilization itself.  Perhaps Christianity.

Of all of the Stephen King novels I’ve read, this one has the most overt Christian imagery.  In fact, in his introduction to the expanded edition he refers to it as a “long tale of dark Christianity.”  There’s quite a lot of theological dialogue along with gruesome deaths.  The pacing often makes the story seem quite long.  Well, it actually is.  I suspect it was this Christian imagery that had friends recommending it to me.  The idea that evil is essentially our culture that comes around and kills us is both profound and paradoxical.  As well as “Christian.”  All along the good guys want to reestablish the cooperation and comforts of civilized life.  It was “civilization” that unleashed the killer virus, however, and herein hangs the tale.  I’m glad to have read it, and I have to confess that I miss the bleak world King created, after living with it for so long.  And it turns out to have been plague reading both literally and symbolically.


What Have Faces To Do with Books?

I don’t write much about it because I don’t understand it.  Facebook, that is.  I’ve had an account there for many years now and with the rapid changes they make it seems you might want to major in it if you want to pursue it even as an avocation.  One of the bits of wisdom I’ve picked up from various marketers and publicists in the publishing biz is that you need to be visible on social media.  (I’ve encountered agents who actually won’t consider your project unless you already have thousands of followers, preferably on Twitter.)  The aforementioned marketers and publicists insist that you shouldn’t do all social media—who possibly can?  Just stick with the big ones, especially Twitter.  Especially Facebook.  If you’re a working stiff, like yours truly, you’re not allowed on these sites during the day, which means building a following is difficult.

The publisher of my third book, Holy Horror, hasn’t done much promotion for it.  (They also priced it higher than most of their books, forever dooming it to the dreaded library market.)  One thing I found in my few pre-dawn minutes on Facebook is a group of other authors who’ve published with this particular press.  We share ideas and ask questions.  We try to promote our work in ways that most publishers wish authors would.  In any case, we are hosting and event on Saturday, March 6, where we’ll be on Zoom talking about our books.  The event will be free and lots of interesting things will be on offer.  If you’d like to attend, you’ll need to see the link in my Facebook feed.  It’s free.  There will be a limited-time sale price on Holy Horror.

Working in the academic publishing world but not being in the academy I’ve learned that you “fall between two stools.”  Nobody quite knows what to make of you.  Editors aren’t supposed to write books, are they?  The funny thing about that way of thinking is that many editors (yours truly excepted) are among the smartest people I know.  Those who don’t have doctorates read more than most of the people who do.  It would seem that if you wanted to get some really interesting books you’d ask editors to write.  Of course, they may not be permitted to use social media during the day.  Falling between stools is a place familiar to me.  Facebook, however, seems more like an impenetrable forest.  It’s a good thing I write about horror movies, I guess.  If you’re interested in hearing more take a look at Facebook and join us on March 6.


The Land

It’s always a pleasure to find an author from whom you want to read more.  It was my wife who told me about Ernestine Hayes’ The Tao of Raven.  We were both so taken by the book that we turned to Hayes’ prior Blonde Indian: An Alaska Native Memoir.  Learning how badly the United States has treated the indigenous population of this continent is one thing.  Learning how badly we still treat them is quite another.  For all of that Hayes writes a memoir that is reflective and perhaps sad, but seldom angry.  The stories told in Tao of Raven start here—we meet the characters who will be further developed in the next installment and become even more curious about them.  The reader wants to reach out and help.  To tell the government, “enough!”

The indigenous peoples of North America (and likely South too, for that is a realm requiring further learning) feel, and have always felt, a close connection to the land.  Europeans see land as a resource for exploitation, not for living in harmony with.  We came, we took, we destroyed.  As if that weren’t bad enough, we left the original inhabitant trapped in grinding poverty, shoving them into places we wouldn’t see.  Until we discovered something we wanted on that land, and then we shoved them again.  The impetus to do this was, unfortunately, Christianity.  I doubt it’s the religion Jesus had in mind, but then he lost control of it millennia ago.  Believing in one’s divine mandate is a sure way of making unwarranted claims on what belongs to someone else.  Remember “thou shalt not steal”?

Hayes’ reflective style is an honor to read.  Feeling a part of a place is a rare privilege.  Born into a mobile society enamored of technology, the modern American has difficulty feeling too attached to any one place.  Of course, many people stay close to where they were born, but to become a “professional” you have to leave.  Blonde Indian is about returning home.  The land knows us.  Many of us don’t know it back.  It’s just a place to set our feet temporarily until a better opportunity comes along elsewhere.  Being tied to no land we lose something of our souls.  Our connection with nature.  With the planet itself.  Hayes is a gifted writer with a story that must be heard.  Wisdom comes through on every page.  We would do well to pay attention.


Many Moons

Scientists, often with their base matrix bound up with the local religion, are frequently interested in  myth.  And sometimes religion too.  This is no surprise.  Many of us go into religious studies because of its influence on our lives and scientists, who measure and analyze material realities, must be curious when their results challenge some religious or mythic assumptions.  So it is that Ernest Naylor addresses mythic beliefs about the moon’s influence on animals and what scientific findings on the same show.  Although this book wasn’t exactly what I thought it would be, Moonstruck: How Lunar Cycles Affect Life does address the subtitle assertion quite directly.  Naylor, a marine zoologist, knows about tides—caused by the moon—and their effects on marine organisms.  That connection is the main focus of the book, with occasional forays onto dry land.

What caught my attention right away was that when discussing myth and religious ideas, Naylor describes two stories as biblical: the woodcutter banished for gathering on the Sabbath and Judas’ banishment.  Both of these, he seems to believe, have the Bible banishing the criminals to the moon.  That was news to me.  There may well be folklore with such associations, but a simple opening of the covers of the Good Book would dispel this particular “myth.”  Neither the sabbath wood-gatherer nor Judas were banished to the moon after their deaths.  The former presumably went to Sheol and the latter presumably to Hell.  For me this illustrates yet again how many ideas professional people outside the guild suppose to be “biblical.”  The Bible says very little about the moon.  One New Testament demoniac is described as “moonstruck,” but beyond that the occasional references are mainly just to the moon qua moon.

The Bible’s a big book.  Everyone in western society knows it’s an important book but few read it.  Even fewer deeply engage with it to understand its original context and message.  We hear stuff and we’re told it’s in there, and we believe it.  I first noticed this in high school.  Classmates would tell me “the Bible says…” (you can fill in the blank with just about anything, this isn’t a quiz).  Almost always they were wrong.  By that point I’d read the Good Book many times cover-to-cover.  I owned concordances and knew when foreign matter was introduced.  The thing about the Bible is that it’s fairly simple to look it up.  Moonstruck focuses on marine animals and tells interesting connections to the moon.  It has a chapter on humans and the moon, finding little direct biological influence.  It’s an informative book, just don’t use it to verify what’s in the Bible.


Religions and Horrors

My latest piece on The Golem has just appeared on Horror Homeroom.  It’s free—check it out.  In it I briefly discuss Jewish horror.  I mainly write about Christian horror because that’s my immediate context.  That’s not to say other religions don’t participate in the genre too.  While I worked for Routledge I acquired the book Buddhism Goes to the Movies, by Ronald Green.  Like the title suggests, it’s about movies focused on, or made by, Buddhists.  What sold me on the project was the chapter on horror films.  Much of what’s being called “J-Horror,” or Japanese Horror these days, occurs in a Buddhist or Shinto contexts.  I’m not expert enough in these traditions, however, to spot them with the detail that I do in my own native religion. 

All religious traditions have certain commonalities.  As I’ve frequently discussed on this blog, sex and death are two of them.  Given the powerful ideas that religion trades in, it seems natural that it would appear frequently in the horror genre.  It’s just that modern viewers tend to be somewhat divorced from religion and can’t see it.  Religion is that way—it fills the cracks.  How often do we pay attention to the caulking or grout?  We tend to focus on the tile or woodwork instead.  Religion holds thought systems together, including those of the horror genre.  I just discussed no-go subjects yesterday, but even science shows religion in some of the cracks.  Learning to see it involves learning to shift your focus.

I blogged about The Golem just after I watched it, back in December.  The golem is an original Jewish monster, and Judaism is both a culture and a religion.  It’s difficult to tease them apart sometimes.  The same can be said of many traditions outside Christianity.  In fact, many cultures had no word for religion—the idea of a separate realm of life where you try to please the gods because what you do otherwise is inherently sinful.  (There’s probably a reason that capitalism grew in a Christian context.)  That means that horror particularly welcomes Christianity.  Many of the bases of fear are premised on a religion that, as culturally bound as it is, has always claimed that joining it is a choice.  If you can choose you can choose wrongly.  This is fertile ground for horror, especially when the consequences are eternal.   My Horror Homeroom piece takes a different approach than this, but religion and horror nevertheless find themselves together, often in the same room.


Book Birthing

Books, like humans and other animals, undergo a process of conception, development, and birth.  It may seem, when holding a book in hand, that it is the singular work of one person, but in fact most books are a community effort.  I’ve read many books where the author was a specialist in one area and decided to write a book in a different field.  This used to be more acceptable, as various polymaths showed that specialization wasn’t the only way to understand the bigger picture.  Such efforts these days, however, take some convincing of skeptical editors.  And with good reason.  Factual books, especially, are subject to close scrutiny.  Does the author indeed know what s/he is talking about?  Is s/he qualified to write this book?

Recently I was reading such a book.  It was published by a university press, and the author was a specialist in one field, but writing in an unrelated one.  In my mind (so fictionally) I went through how this may have developed.  A writer goes to an editor and says “I have an idea for a book.”  From my own experience as an editor, this second party then asks her or himself a few questions.  Is this topic a viable book?  If so, who will buy it?  Is this author the right person to write it?  (It is possible that a person has an idea for a book better written by someone else.)  Depending on the author’s stature, the editor may cave and say, “Okay, but you need to let me help you.”  Editors (present company excepted) are some of the smartest people I’ve met.  They may not be specialists like professors, but they know an awful lot.  Many authors constantly question their editorial decisions nevertheless.

No matter how rational an author is, emotion plays into the process of writing.  I frequently tell my authors “the book has to be what you want it to be.”  Still, that may mean it should be published by someone else.  An author who publishes books s/he doesn’t like is not a happy person.  For nonfiction books other readers, such as peer reviewers and colleagues, also shape the final tome.  Seldom does the book in your hands represent something straight from the mind of the writer.  There are places for such things, of course, this blog being one of them.  (And there are many more.)  What makes the book authoritative, however, is that it has been fact-checked by many readers other than the author before it ever goes to press.  Gestation is important.  No book can be fully formed without it.


Gothic Dreams

There’s something that compels a large number of people to consume material in the horror genre.  Whether it takes the form of movies, books, or music, it is a genre widely spread.  The gateway to adult likes seems to be in childhood.  As a young person I read about how many adults wanted to “re-live their childhood” and at the time I wondered why.  Now, as an adult of long standing, I think I can begin to see the answer.  In any case, my gateway into appreciating horror was the Gothic.  But what is gothic?  Like many abstract concepts I know it when I see it, but what exactly is it?  I’m not sure Nick Groom has fully answered that in The Gothic: A Very Short Introduction, but then the reason may well be in the “very short” part.  Nevertheless, this is a remarkably broad treatment of the subject in not so many pages.  It also helped me to understand my own fascination a bit better.

Groom begins with the historical Goths.  Like the Celts, they are a people without a prodigious written record, so the imagination takes over.  They valued freedom above all else, and that, it seems to me, is the beating heart of the Gothic.  Recognized through its architecture, especially in notable cathedrals, the incipient Romanticism in the style made its way into works of fiction.  In that realm it is remarkably widespread.  Shakespeare participates in it.  It becomes more fixed in later generations, but it still returns in popular format even today.  At several points in this brief treatment I found myself wondering at the connections.  Gothic is so huge and sprawling that it informs quite a lot of literature that isn’t even categorized with that title.

The story Groom sketches takes the Goths from their Germanic roots to their Anglo-Saxon influence in England.  For English readers, the genre really takes shape in Britain before spreading out into the many forms in which it exists today, including several species of American Gothic.  While the modern mind tends to turn toward the dark and melancholy aspects—and they are clearly there—the underlying theme of freedom comes through.  Thus the separation of ways between “Classical” culture with its rules and strictures and symmetry and the Gothic with its mystery, wonder, and romance.  By the end we’ve passed through Poe and on to modern horror.  And through it all I catch glimpses of what drew me to all this in a childhood of longing for freedom.


Contains Cookies

In the early days of this blog I used to get regular reactions from other bloggers.  This was back before I started the long commute to New York City and when I actually had a little spare time on my hands.  I always enjoyed the interactions, but followers eventually dropped away and I now often get no responses to my posts at all.  That’s why I was thrilled when two recent posts came together with a response one of my faithful readers sent.  I’d written about keeping books neat, along with a piece related to ancient food, when a friend pointed me to the story of a cookie found in a 1529 Cambridge copy of Augustine.  According to the piece on Delish, the cookie was left in the book about half a century ago and had only now just been discovered.

Photo by Mae Mu on Unsplash

Now, like most readers of religious studies, I have opinions about Augustine that aren’t pristine.  Still, I respect books.  I suspect all the bakery jokes necessary have been made about this particular bookmark, but what strikes me as odd is that nobody discovered a cookie placed in a book when I was less than ten years old, until now.  Let that say what you will—Augustine still sells wildly in translation, of course.  Not too many individuals go back to the source, however, at least not reading as far as the cookie.  I don’t know about Cambridge, but Edinburgh used to have books from the seventeenth century on the open stacks in the New College library.  I’m sure the older volumes weren’t frequently consulted.  And I’m not the one to point a finger; I have no catalogue of my own books so I have to remember what I already have.

Books aren’t a great investment, financially.  I remember back when Antiques Roadshow was all the rage.  Every episode I saw where someone brought a really old book led to certain disappointment.  No matter how rare, the value was measured in hundreds of dollars rather than thousands.  Those of us who invest in books do so for different reasons.  Our money is being exchanged for knowledge, learning, and thinking.  Back when Amazon used to give out bookmarks with each purchase one had a quote from Erasmus, “When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.”  We are kindred spirits it seems.  Buy books and you’ll grow in wisdom, but you may go hungry.  That’s the way the cookie crumbles.


Bookstore Odyssey

Work isn’t the best place to express yourself.  Once a marketer asked for input from everyone concerning their favorite independent bookshop.  Well, I might’ve gone a bit overboard, admittedly.  I listed several, each with their attributes.  I was living in New Jersey at the time so The Bookworm in Bernardsville and The Labyrinth in Princeton featured large.  But so did Farley’s in New Hope.  And the Clinton Book Shop in, well,  Clinton.  Then my mind roved to the unfortunately deceased River Front Books in Binghamton.  Then back to Wisconsin where we lived within walking distance from Books and Company.  Then to Illinois before that, where Pages for All Ages was a hangout.  We’re spoiled here in the Lehigh Valley with the Moravian Book Shop in Bethlehem,  Book and Puppet in Easton, Let’s Play books in Emmaus, and plenty of used bookstores about.  And the Montclair Bookshop back in New Jersey—okay, I told you I went a bit overboard.

Ithaca, New York, is the very definition of a college town.  Home to Cornell University and Ithaca College, it has a sizable student population.  It once boasted seventeen bookstores.  By the time we’d started visiting they were down to one indie new book store (Buffalo Street Books) and two used bookstores.  Since then one of the used stores has closed.  Like a phoenix, however, a new indie has opened: Odyssey.  On a recent trip to Ithaca we stopped in.  During a pandemic I feel compelled to make trips short, but there was a lot to see there.  Like most indies, it’s small.  As Andrew Laties notes in Rebel Bookseller, such shops thrive by becoming part of the community, and stocking books the community will buy.

Our visit, I suspect, proves his point.  If you set up shop in a university town you can stock intelligent books and make a living at it.  Despite the weather and the virus we weren’t the only customers in the store.  And we didn’t leave empty-handed.  The independent bookstore is a symbol of hope.  Books are not clutter.  Literacy is not dead!  As much as our beloved internet tries to tell us the future is digital, I like to open the door and step outside once in a while.  And leave my phone behind.  During this pandemic I’ve gone to four kinds of stores only: grocery, drug/necessity, hardware, and book stores.  The pandemic has been a shot in the arm for trade books—bored with staring at screens all day, people are starting to read actual books again.  I’m not naive enough to think it will last beyond Covid-19, but I just remembered Watchung Booksellers in Montclair and the Town Book Store in Westfield…


Mothers’ Instinct

Maternity leave (not for me, but still) demonstrates just how sexist capitalism is.  This becomes very clear in publishing where schedules are reinforced by incentives (instead of paying properly) for meeting agreed-upon deadlines.  If an author gets pregnant while writing a book—not an unusual situation—it can throw shockwaves all through a book’s schedule from production all the way back up to editorial.  Why?  Because incentives are on the line.  It’s possible to counter with what if an author falls sick?  Or dies?  Yes, these happen too, but pregnancy isn’t an illness and isn’t infrequently a biologically constrained event—there is an age at which it ceases to become an issue.  So incentives, which are based on schedules drawn up before an author conceives, put the capitalist machine into a tizzy.

If employers didn’t rely on incentives, but paid better wages, this could make the issue less acute.  The entire system is devised from a male perspective.  Sickness and death do occur from time to time, but the invariability of a schedule (which ironically takes about nine months) is based on a view that doesn’t account for the somewhat likely event of a pregnancy.  I often think about this.  The corporate structure was made by men, for men.  We now give lip-service to equality while refusing to change the masculinist structure that underlies it.  By doing so the valuable contributions and improvements that women might make are kept under the standard business model.  No wonder it feels like we’re stuck in a rut.

Societal change is generally slow, and that conservative tendency preserves our property and our means of making a living.  If we gave women more prominence in leadership I would hope that this would start to change.  The male-oriented viewpoints of the capitalist entrepreneur, the stolid religious leader, and the halls of government, and even education, are reluctant to let people think differently.  We want to move forward, but we’re afraid of losing what we have.  This is why the conversation needs to widen.  Maternity leave reminds us that some things are more important than work.  Care for a helpless human being is something nearly all people would support.  It’s when they grow up that society feels it can safely ignore their needs.  We need a mother’s wisdom here.  Every time a pregnancy sets publication schedules in a frenzy I ask myself why we have to rely on incentives beyond just being the most human that we can be.


Learning Lingo

Languages are more than ways of communicating.  They are ways of thinking.  I figured that out with German, the first foreign language I studied.  It became even more evident with Greek and undeniable with Hebrew.  Beyond that, Ugaritic and other Semitic languages confirmed my suspicion.  To unlock a language is to open up a new way of thinking about things.  (This is one reason Trump’s isolationism was so dangerous.)  Babel: Around the World in Twenty Languages, by Gaston Dorren, is an overview of twenty different ways of thinking.  The book picks a prominent feature of the twenty most-spoken languages in the world.  Apart from the list of what they are (in order of appearance: Vietnamese, Korean, Tamil, Turkish, Javanese, Persian, Punjabi, Japanese, Swahili, German, French, Malay, Russian, Portuguese, Bengali, Arabic, Hindi-Urdu, Spanish, Mandarin, and English) there are many other surprises.

Many of these languages—perhaps all—are reflections of history.  The histories often include intentional divisions between people.  “They are not like us” thinking.  Usually on the part of elites and rulers.  The common person is quick to pick up the language of neighbors but those, like Trump, who hate differences, tend to rise to the top.  Quite apart from that, the features of these various languages show us the many ways people have learned to convey their thoughts.  Some tongues are super, even hyper-polite.  Some are reserved for women.  Some represent an entire continent, but notice the sheer number of Asian languages on this list.  Dorren notes at one point that having a unifying Scripture, such as the Bible, often codifies a language.  Religion is part of the human way of thinking.

Nowhere is this more obvious in the case of those languages that are considered divine.  Arabic, as many people know, is considered the only appropriate language in which to read the Qur’an.  Since languages are ways of thinking, that makes perfect sense.  What really struck me the most, however, was the case of Tamil.  A language of south India (many of these languages are spoken in India), Tamil is considered not only a divine language, but some adherents make it into an actual deity.  In a polytheistic culture there’s no problem with adding another god.  The idea that a language can be an actual divinity, however, shows once again how important it is that we try to understand one another rather than asserting one people is superior to another.  The book is appropriately titled Babel, and to properly understand that it is probably necessary to learn Hebrew.


Dirty Books

Dirty books annoy me.  Not that kind of dirty book, but books that arrive dirty.  If a book is expensive, particularly an academic book, I look for a used copy.  Since we’re in a pandemic, and also since the books I read tend to be outré, shall we say, getting them in the local second-hand place generally doesn’t work.  Sellers of used books online have to rate them.  Acceptable, poor, fair, good, very good—the scale is somewhat arbitrary.  I don’t like books with writing in them; I don’t want somebody else telling me what’s important.  I think I can find a topic sentence, thank you very much.  Lately I’ve gone down to the level of good with my online buying.  (Have you looked at the prices?!)  When you add that “very” to “good” sticker shock sets in.  Okay, so the books arrive well loved, I expect that.  But dirty?

I used to sell used books on Amazon.  I never sold many, but I always tried to be sure they were dusted off before putting them in the envelope.  I never put a cup of coffee on them.  Nor used them as a plate.  Some people apparently do, though.  I had one book arrive so filthy that I took the 409 to it.  Thing is, it cleaned up nicely.  Is it too much to expect that someone selling used books might go ahead and get some of the gunk off before sending it?  It’s not exactly Antiques Roadshow patina, after all.  It’s someone else’s slovenliness.  Who knows—might not a quick wipe-down improve the profitability by enhancing the condition of the book?

Library builders like yours truly want to afford the best editions that we can.  Books are more than mere objects gathering dust on the shelves—they’re individuals that we get to know.  Those that we meet but don’t really care for we pass along, hopefully to loving homes.  The way someone treats books reveals quite a bit about a person.  Accidents happen, of course.  A hazard of reading a lot may lead to the occasional spilled coffee or dropped bit of food, but treating books with respect not only increases their resale potential, it’s also an acknowledgement of the accomplishment.  Writing a book involves a considerable amount of work.  And although your property is yours to treat as you please, books are particularly vulnerable to damage by water, mice, or neglect.  Add fire, food, or extended exposure to sunlight and you get a sense of their fragility.  Acknowledging the effort a book takes to produce can go a long way towards making sure no book is dirty.  That, and a quick wipe-off before shoving it in the envelope.

Neat as a pin.


Savage Doc

Over the past several years I’ve written quite a lot about childhood books.  Despite my ambivalence toward the internet, it has made it easier to find books from years ago.  Since one of my Modern Mrs. Darcy reading challenge categories was a book from my childhood, my thoughts went to Doc Savage.  I haven’t written much about the Doc on this blog.  I think I can understand why now.  Doc Savage, I suspect, was one line of inspiration for Indiana Jones, although the latter was much more of a hapless sort of adventurer.  Kenneth Robeson was a pseudonym mostly for Lester Dent, the author of many of the pulp fiction stories about Doc.  As a forerunner of the superheroes that were shortly to appear, Savage was a “Mary Sue”—a literary character with no faults.  The stories were originally written in the 1930s and ‘40s.

As a child I read many of these novels, beginning in sixth or seventh grade.  I recently found a used copy of Brand of the Werewolf, which I read as part of my challenge this year and I was embarrassed by what I found.  Not that Doc’s perfection came as a surprise.  No, my embarrassment was at the racial stereotypes that were so blatantly on display.  This particular story caricatures African-Americans, American Indians, and Spaniards.  It does so unselfconsciously with an air of entitlement that made me ill.  Sure, all characters suffer by comparison to Doc Savage, but those who aren’t “white” (or bronze, in context), are throw-away characters.  Unless, of course, they are pretty girls.  If so we’re reminded every time that they are pretty.

No wonder our culture remains so intolerant of difference!  Here the default human being is the white male.  Even Doc’s female cousin (pretty, of course) doesn’t really help at all.  The entire scandal is uncovered and resolved by the white man.  I realize that I might be putting too much stress on a pulp that just can bear much weight, but I do wonder about how such stereotypical messages, repeated decade after decade, blend into the cultural stew in which we all soak.  I was by no means the only tween reading these books in the 1970s, some three or four decades after they’d been published.  A friend of mine got me started on reading them, and they were still popular books at the time.  We need, it seems, to be aware that our prejudices will live on in our words after we’re gone.  And after all that there wasn’t even a werewolf in the book.  Childhood memories are sometimes unclear.


Sea Romance

Sea shanties seem to be one of the early rages of 2021.  I’ll likely address this as a separate topic soon, but today I would note their appropriateness for discussing Melissa Broder’s The Pieces.  Despite my earlier concern about the Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge for this year, my family helped me put one together.  You see, January has become a bookish month for us.  Not only are books frequent holiday gifts, they are also a great way to anticipate a year of reading.  One of my categories was a book that makes you laugh out loud.  For help in selecting such a book I consulted some websites and found The Pieces so listed a few times.  The tie-in for sea shanties?  It’s the story of a woman’s love affair with a merman.

What defines a book as laugh-out-loud funny is largely the reader.  Yes, this is an amusing story with several parts that make the reader smile (or blush), but it seems to this reader a much more serious story than many reviewers suggest.  Yes, the idea of a merman makes it less reality based that much straightforward literary fiction, but the protagonist is portrayed as dealing with very real human relationship issues.  These made my reading of the book a pretty serious one.  When a person feels inadequately loved, it’s no laughing matter.  Sometimes such people (as the protagonist is portrayed as being) are driven to desperate measures, as the book suggests.  Perhaps some people find this funny, but others of us see a serious message dressed up in fiction.

Part of the draw here is clearly the romance of the sea.  Lucy (the narrator/protagonist) begins her relationship with Theo (the merman) because of the abusive kinds of relationships men have presented her with.  It’s a sign of Broder’s writing ability that she can make this kind of story lighthearted enough that some would call it hilarious or laugh-out-loud funny.  For me, however, when the issues raised are serious, even when couched in humor, there are underlying issues of sober import.  Relationships are complex.  Since the speculative element of a merman is thrown into the mix, it seems, many readers think the story is funny.  This despite the suicide attempts of one of Lucy’s friends and the death of the dog she’s watching for her sister.  For me laugh-out-loud books either have no serious consequences or dismiss such consequences as laughable in themselves.  The Pieces, however, made me think and, ironically, take a renewed interest in sea shanties.