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.


Non-sacred Time

It’s difficult to say goodbye to the holiday season (although, according to its origins it’s not over yet!).  While the church still recognizes a couple more days until Epiphany—which until recent times was more important than Christmas—the secular “work world” is back to usual after New Year’s Day.  2021 started with a bonus, giving us a long weekend as well.  In any case, getting back to normal time is always a difficult transition.  For those of us who spent many years in academia, the holidays began about mid-December, and in my case, stretched fairly well into January.  Now, using a combination of vacation days and floating holidays, I’m able to set up a mini semester break of a couple of weeks.  Although I have trouble sleeping in, I was still able to spend the days with family and not worrying about business.

There is a difference in the quality of time off.  Some, I suspect, are eager to get back to work.  For me this first Monday back is difficult to face.  Some would argue that the difference in time quality is merely a subjective projection.  There is nothing scientifically changed from the last two weeks to the reality of the first Monday back.  This is one of those places where religion steps in as the more understanding boss (such instances are rare, so appreciate them while you can!).  Sacred time is taken very seriously by any number of religious traditions.  Even our beloved weekends have a basis in religious observance.  Holidays, even in a secular setting, are opportunities to recharge.  For me the spring semester was something I never dreaded.  We’ve allowed capitalism to take precedence over sacred time.

The problem with ordinary time is its mundanity.  Looking back, I’d been anticipating the holiday season with its time off for well over a month.  A full twelfth of the year.  To help with the transition, with my family I spent some weekend time cobbling together a personalized Modern Mrs. Darcy reading challenge.  Knowing I have good books in the future helps immensely, although I have much less time to read when work takes up much of my waking time.  Even that new start can’t be scientifically measured.  It’s something unique to human minds.  January begins with endings.  No matter how difficult 2020 may have been, at least it ended with a relaxing couple of weeks with family and no pressures to sit in front of a computer screen for over nine hours a day.  There will be more holidays ahead, and each one of them will be sacred time.


Reading Ahead

One of the highlights of the changing year, for the past five years of my life, has been the Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge.  My wife pointed this out to me at the start of 2016 and I’ve used it to guide some of my reading for each year since then.  The idea is fairly simple: many of us get set in our reading habits.  The reading challenge listed categories of books, with a total of twelve volumes, that often forced you to read things you normally wouldn’t.  In pre-pandemic Januaries we’d go to a local independent bookstore and pick out some of our chosen books to fit the various categories.  It became kind of an extended holiday ritual.

It must be tricky to come up with new categories all the time.  Therefore it’s understandable that the Modern Mrs. Darcy has decided to shake things up a bit for 2021 with a somewhat more complex scheme of determining what to read.  Unfortunately for me, I have about enough complexity in my life right now.  For a reading challenge what I crave is simple-minded direction: read a book in (blank) category.  So now I’ll be left to my own imagination for 2021.  Not that that’s ever a problem.  My reading wishlist is enormous and, like the universe, expanding rapidly.  Every year new books of great interest appear.  Every year I learn of books I should’ve read long before now.  I also do research, in my own way, and these books can be rather insistent regarding one’s time.

Goodreads also has a reading challenge (which I also started taking in 2016), but it’s based purely on the number of books you pledge.  There’s a sense of accomplishment when you can tick off that final pledged book (hopefully in September or October), and still have a few months of bonus reading left.  Each year becomes a year in books.  Like many people, I’ve survived the pandemic so far by spending lots of time with books.  For my last post of the year tomorrow I’ll do my traditional summary of the year’s reading.  I began the year thinking of Sea Lab 2020, a formative, optimistic Saturday morning cartoon from my childhood.  We were then hearing rumors of a new disease in China, not anticipating that 45 would decide to sacrifice over 300,000 Americans on the altar of his personal disinterest and pride.  Through it all, however, there have been books.  Reading improves intelligence.  Let’s all hope, then, for a much more intelligent 2021 ahead.


Potboilers

“Potboiler” is used in publishing to describe a book written merely to keep a writer going.  Full-time authors are comparatively rare, and many occasionally resort to churning out books simply to generate income.  I have no doubt that most of them start out as most artists do—creative, and looking for a career that allows them to be so.  If you want to earn money, to keep your pot boiling, you need to follow the formula.  Those are my thoughts on having finished the last book for this year’s Modern Mrs. Darcy’s Reading Challenge.  One of the categories was three books by the same author and I had three unread Dark Shadows books by Marilyn Ross.  Barnabas, Quentin and the Frightened Bride, number 22 in the series, was clearly a potboiler.

As I’ve confessed before, these books are guilty pleasure reads for me.  My literary tastes have changed over the years, however, and such journeyman writing sometimes betrays itself.  Even if a book has vampires and werewolves.  Dark Shadows was a melodramatic soap opera of my youth.  Still, it was moody and gothic—something these books manage to convey, even if the stories don’t live up to their promise.  Some of the plot elements in this particular installment don’t even line up, and having read Jane Eyre I’d guessed the ending shortly after the beginning.  I often wonder how the book series might have turned out with a truly literary attempt to tell the story.  Writing takes time.  Good writing takes a lot of time.  But even writers have to eat.

I’m not a Dark Shadows connoisseur.  I haven’t bought the original television series on DVD and I haven’t watched it since I was about ten.  Early memories, however, are formative.  With a remarriage, a death in the family, and a move, childhood got swept away rather swiftly, and along with it, watching Dark Shadows.  The series ended in 1971 after over 1200 episodes had been filmed.  Ross’ serialization began during the six-year run of the series, and, I suspect, he had to keep up a hectic pace.  Books 13 through 24 were all published in 1970, a rate of over a book a month.  I’ve suggested before that academics ought to take pop culture seriously.  Even before this era of fandom becoming mainstream, Dark Shadows spun off a small media empire and it continues to retain public interest.  The daily show struggled, despite being partially modeled on Jane Eyre, until the supernatural was introduced.  Although the Ross novels may not always show it, the hunger remains for supernatural explanations.


A Stiff Salute

From the way he writes, Charles F. French was a Marine.  I don’t know that for certain, but those of us who venture into fiction put ourselves into our stories.  Those who blithely reject something into which you’ve poured yourself are either boorish or unfeeling.  Yes, even literary types can be so.  This year’s reading challenge includes a book from a local author.  Since I live within a (long) commuting distance of the city, I suppose I could count New York as local.  That felt like cheating, though.  To find local authors you have to haunt independent bookstores.  I do that anyway, and a few weeks ago I found a copy of French’s Maledicus.  It fit the bill.

Although the story is about the titular demon, the ensemble protagonists are mostly military men.  There’s a strong sense of combat-readiness among them, and a good deal about military honor.  I have to admit this made me a little sad.  Don’t get me wrong, I have respect for those who are willing to fight to protect their country.  I’m sad because we need military forces at all.  I’m also a born pacifist.  My father was a veteran of the Korean War.  The military was present at his otherwise sparsely attended funeral.  I grew up reading the Bible and committed to the peaceful resolution of disagreements.  In my idealized world, we really wouldn’t need weaponry at all.  There are bad people, yes.  But like Eli Lapp, I wonder how humans can judge such things.  There are good people too.  More of them than there are bad.  More often than not, they are the victims of weaponry.

Given my work on demons, I’m always interested in their origin stories.  Maledicus gives us an evil Roman lieutenant to emperor Caligula (ahem), who is a climber and a sadist.  After his nasty and brutish life, he’s approached by a demon in the next world and joins it.  This even worse Maledicus is then taken on by the Investigative Paranormal Society, which consists of three old men, two of them retired Marines.  So you see how the military comes into it.  I won’t give any spoilers, although to my knowledge I have no local followers here in eastern Pennsylvania.  It’s a nice area for peace, actually.  The same could be said for the rest of the world.  If we put our fears aside and pooled our resources to help the vast majority of good and innocent a good number of our demons would be banished naturally.


Memories of Scotland

I admire those who follow their dreams.  I have been writing fiction for over forty years now, and although I’ve had some success placing short pieces my novels haven’t found much interest.  So when I see the published work of someone who obviously loves writing as much as Ailish Sinclair does, it warms my heart.  Her debut novel, The Mermaid and the Bear, is the kind of historical fiction tinged with a little fantasy, all set in Scotland.  Having spent three happy years in Scotland myself, I like to read native writers.  One of the categories in this year’s Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge is a debut novel, so all these things came together in this one little book.  There may be a little spoiler info below, so proceed with caution!

Sometimes I read a novel without knowing much about it in advance.  That was the case with this one.  I read Sinclair’s blog posts and appreciate the fact that she doesn’t compose long, rambling essays.  Her posts often make me stop and think.  Her novel follows a love story that turns into a witch-hunt.  Unlike that claimed by those who have the whole world watching them, this was a real one.  The historical notes tell a bit about the characters based on women actually tried in Scotland during those dark times.  In fact, when one of my doctoral advisors gave my wife and me a walking tour of Edinburgh early on in our time there, he pointed out where the witch trials had taken place.  Sinclair captures the rage and frustration of women who had no recourse once such accusations flew.  A religion only too ready to believe the worst about people, women in particular, showed no mercy based on what was only hearsay and jealousy.

It’s difficult to imagine what life would have been like in such times.  Castles and lairds make us think of fairy tales, but reality must’ve been somewhat harsher.  It’s fun to pretend about witches around Halloween, but there’s a sadness that’s difficult to escape as an adult.  That sadness is all the more profound for finding claims of witch-hunts on the lips of abusers and others who do their best to perpetuate inequality.  They dishonor those who actually did die so that men like them could feel smug self-satisfaction in the past.  The Mermaid and the Bear brought a number of these thoughts to mind.  Our society has made some strides towards treating all people as human beings but we’re yet a long way from where we need to be.  Books that remind us of that are always to be welcomed; dreams are worth pursuing.


Quiet Night

Reading challenges are a good way to expose yourself to books you might not otherwise find.  This is my fifth time through the Modern Mrs. Darcy’s annual challenge and she tends to favor books in translation.  That’s fine by me, because we could all use a bit more cross-cultural understanding.  My latest book in this challenge was my third novel by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, Hotel Silence.  Ólafsdóttir, although a professor of art history, is quite a gifted novelist and her stories probe what it is to be human, and also reflect life on a somewhat small island.  Icelanders are known for their love of reading as well as for their geothermal power.  This novel deals with darker subjects that some of Ólafsdóttir’s previous work, but one thing becomes clear—the Bible is an influence.

With a writing style that is poetic and descriptive, she acknowledges that the Good Book plays a role in forming her story here.  I don’t want to give too much away, but it swirls around the difficult topics of suicide and war, and, ultimately, a kind of redemption.  As I’ve come to expect from her writing, the characters are quirky and have foibles.  There’s a matter-of-factness to them.  They go about following singular ideas and all of her work that I’ve read is based on the concept of a journey.  Maybe that’s something of a given for those who live on an island.  Taking her characters to far lands is a way of reaching understanding, not xenophobia.  That’s one of the reasons for reading the literature of other people.

In academia I was taught that exoticizing other cultures was a kind of evil.  I can see the point in that, although, like most academic things it takes the fun out of imagining far-away places.  Human beings need sources of wonder, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to afford a trip to Iceland, so reading stories written by a native feels, well, exotic.  Academics have a point, though.  For people of an exotic locale, their life is pretty much a daily struggle just like our lives are.  The backdrop is different and the specific circumstances are unfamiliar, but at the end, people are people.  That’s why I like Ólafsdóttir’s novels.  At the end we find them facing the same kinds of problems the rest of us face.  And we come to realize that our world is an isolated place in space.  And if there are aliens out there watching us, they must think we’re fairly exotic.  Let’s hope they’ll read us in translation.  We can all use a good challenge.


Rivers and Books

“You can’t” Heraclitus said, “step into the same river twice.”  The same also applies to reviewing books on Goodreads.  I met my official pledge of 60 books “officially” a couple weeks back, but I had re-read two books already reviewed during the course of the previous month, so I’m actually up to 65 at the moment.  Not that this is a contest.  Well, it sorta is.  But the one thing that keeps coming back to me is that my reviews of the same book change after a couple of years.  In general I’m not a re-reader.  There are lots of books I want to read for the first time, and there are few, historically, that I’ve gone back and read again.  Right now, however, I’m working on a couple of books that require some going back and checking facts.  Whenever you write “X does not” you need to make sure X doesn’t.

Reading is a self-rewarding enterprise.  I’ve not stopped reading when I don’t post about books, but I’ve been reading bigger books.  Despite my academic background and current job as an editor, I’m a slow reader.  I always have been.  I set my Goodreads goal based on the fact that without commuting I hope to read five books a month.  I have to throw in some short ones to make such a goal, and I never count the children’s books (I read The Lorax several times this year) and I can’t count the books I read for work that haven’t yet been published.  Nevertheless I keep making my Goodreads pledge—it gives me a goal I can attain—and in a life where meeting goals is becoming more difficult all the time, I appreciate those I enjoy reaching.  Enjoy reading.

Goodreads is a community.  Some of my friends there comment on my blog posts, which is really neat because almost nobody comments on my blog itself.  It’s nice to have that little extra extension.  I skim through the reviews that come to my email inbox every day.  I like to know what others are reading and I get tips for future goals from the books my Goodreads’ buddies post.  And now that November looms—and over its shoulder I can see December—I think of the Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge.  I generally meet that goal by about September.  Reading books is like meeting new friends.  And some of them, unlike Heraclitus’ river, you can meet twice.


Best If Used

Used bookstores are like a box of books—you never know what you’ll get.  I perhaps overindulge this particular vice, but it doesn’t feel too sinful to me.  Part of Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge for the year is three books by one author.  I decided since I’ve been on a Kurt Vonnegut kick that he would be the one.  I figured (mostly wrongly) that his books would be all over the place in used bookstores.  I always found a plentiful supply at the now mourned Boston Book Annex.  At a used shop in Easton I asked where they might put Vonnegut.  “In science fiction,” the owner promptly replied.  I don’t think of Vonnegut as a science fiction author.  Some of his work does fit, but this little exchange got me to thinking about genres again.

Writers, unless they’re strictly commercial, don’t think of genre.  We write.  The novel I’ve been trying to get published for the last decade doesn’t fit into any neat category at all, and that’s probably part of the problem.  Neither fish nor fowl—what is this thing?  I’ve noticed this with my brother-in-law’s books.  Now, I’m holding out on retirement to dig into Neal Stephenson’s books because they require more time than I have in my workaday world, but they aren’t always science fiction.  Still, that’s often where you find him in bookstores.  I was in a local shop in Bethlehem the other day and there he was, in sci fi.  Although I understand why booksellers (and critics) want to use genres, but it seems to me that they limit human creativity.

The past couple of non-fiction books I’ve written aren’t really in genres.  They’re not academic books, but academics (once guilty, always guilty) have a hard time convincing publishers they can do anything else.  Non-fiction may be a more difficult gig than fiction after all.  Holy Horror and Nightmares with the Bible don’t comment on horror necessarily, at least not directly.  They’re not religious books either.  When I try to explain them in one sentence, it quickly becomes run-on.  I began both the same way—I noticed something and began writing about it.  With a little structuring and a little time, you’ve got an entire book.  It may not find a publisher.  It may not fit a genre.  Nobody on Medium is going to come looking for your advice.  And if you’re lucky you’ll find yourself put on a shelf with others who don’t conform to genre expectations either.


Winter Travels

Every now and again you read a book that drops you into a world of wonder.  That’s how I’d describe Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller.  What’s it about?  It’s difficult to say.  It’s a novel about reading, and more specifically, interrupted reading.  You might call it Post-Modern, but in a good way.  I came across the book in a manner that, like the story itself, emerged from different narrative structures.  First of all a colleague sent around a quote from the book that grabbed my attention.  I decided that if I ever found a copy in a bookstore I’d buy it, based on that quote alone.  A second stream was the Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge.  One of this year’s categories was a book in translation, which this is.  And yet a third factor was that I found the book on the shelf of a used book vendor in Ithaca.  And so I read.

Like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas—and having nothing to do with the fact that it was the most recent novel I’d read—If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller is a nested story, a story within a story.  Breaking the “fourth wall” Calvino addresses his readers in the second person and makes them characters in the plot.  The reader buys a defectively printed book and when he tries to return it to the seller, a fantastical world opens up.  I’m not sure that there’s a particular genre here—literary fiction constitutes a genre of its own—but there are a few speculative elements that keep the story pulling you along without really giving any conclusions (that the po-mo aspect to which I referred).

Apart from being merely fun, the story is thought-provoking.  What goes on when we read?  Do we not get absorbed into the mind of the writer?  And not only of the author but also of others who’ve read the book with whom we might discuss it?  Writing is an endlessly addictive activity.  One of my observations about careers without sabbaticals is that those who wish to practice the art must carve time out from days interrupted by work to be writers.  For me that means awaking early, for this blog is only one of many writing projects I have going.  To write well, however, means reading much.  And if you’re casting about for a story that’s hard to classify and difficult to put down, I would gladly recommend If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller.


Yearn Books

While this blog ranges over an outdated map of my mind, one of the two common elements that hold it together is books.  I don’t have many bibliophile followers, but for any who happen upon my pages, welcome.  Each year at this time I look back over the year in books.  I started doing this when I joined Goodreads.  I don’t put every single book in Goodreads, but it’s a fair register of what I’ve been up to.  This year I set a reduced goal of 65 books (I knew I’d be moving and commuting less, and I do most of my reading on the bus).  Happily I ended the year with 83 officially read, but then the first five months of the year were still spent in daily commutes.

Three years ago my wife discovered the Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge.  I can’t say just how much I look forward to the new year just to begin reading the books I select to meet that challenge.  The reason I do this is to force myself into reading things I might not feel like reading, or often, books I’ve been putting off for some reason or another.  It only amounts to a dozen books and if I can’t get through twelve in a year, something’s terribly wrong.  Margaret Atwood once said something like “Show me a person who’s read a thousand books and I’ll show you an interesting person.”  I didn’t really need that quote to set a goal, and I don’t think of it as bragging for readers to share their experience with books.  I started getting into books in middle school, and although I didn’t keep track in those days I likely read a thousand books before I graduated from high school.  Branches begin to bend to the light early on.

So, were there memorable books this year?  My reading, due to contractual obligations (I brought them on myself), has tended to be dark.  There were, nevertheless, spots of light.  Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and Paul Bogard’s The Ground Beneath Us were early favorites.  I managed to stop my ears enough to miss spoilers from Jeff Vandermeer’s wonderful Annihilation.  Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World was artfully done, and Gregory Alan Thornbury’s Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music? was a saunter down memory lane.  Selections from my reading challenge fiction that I really enjoyed were Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl, and Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves. And Lee Irby’s Unreliable.  And and Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind.  The last inspired non-fiction title I read was Susan Fair’s American Witches.  I always appreciate suggestions, just sayin’.  Reading is the balm in my personal Gilead, and I look forward to a 2019 full of books, even if I can’t keep the pace of years past.


Firestorms

Banned Book Week technically doesn’t start until the week after next, but I have a pathological fear of being late.  I don’t know why.  It could be that I’m aware time is of limited quantity and much of it is owed to the beneficent corporation that keeps you alive, so you have to trade it for food.  And books.  Not much of it is left to do what you want to do.  In any case, my last book for the 2018 Modern Mrs. Darcy Reading Challenge was in the banned book category.  Long ago I had decided it would be Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.  I’ve read it before, of course, but it had been long enough that the details had been sanded away and I could only remember parts.  One thing I’d forgotten is how much Vonnegut brings religion into the story.

Writers who avoid religion miss the motivating factor of the majority of human beings’ lives.  This has always seemed a strange denial to me.  I’m not suggesting that every novel should mention religion, but since it is concerned with ultimate interests, it is somewhat surprising that it’s so often overlooked.  Not that it plays a major role in Slaughterhouse Five, but any novel concerned with death is inherently in the realm of ultimate concerns, I should think.  Right, Dr. Tillich?  In any case, I’d forgotten that Slaughterhouse Five was such a poignant, funny, and sad novel.  Vonnegut’s experience of World War Two clearly haunted him—most writers are haunted by something—and his musings were, and often are, banned.

If there were banned books in my high school (and I grew up in a conservative area, so surely there were) I didn’t know about them.  Let’s face it, teens seldom sit around talking about significant novels.  Many, at least among my classmates, didn’t read those that were assigned in English class.  Slaughterhouse Five wasn’t one of them.  I learned about Kurt Vonnegut from a friend while in college.  This is the third of his novels that I’ve read in 2018.  The first two I’d never read before.  So it goes.  I’m keenly aware of time.  I’m also aware that those who would ban books are often those who obtain elected office.  And when you find that your own nation has turned on you, remembering the fire-bombing of Dresden is an appropriate response.  For such reasons Banned Book Week remains important.  It should be a national holiday, at least among those of us underground during the firestorm.


The Pack

Maturity, in my experience, means knowing little and assuming even less. When I was young I grew up on a diet of books that were linear—plots were easily followed and there was clear resolution at the end. Who, as a kid, thinks that such a standard is impossible? One of this year’s reading challenges was a book nominated for an award in 2018. That assures a pretty current book, and I chose Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves. Like life, it’s not linear. The narrator is unreliable. There are a lot of threads left hanging. It’s also a completely mesmerizing story. I selected it not because the content deals to a large extent with religion—I had no idea that it did when I selected the book, but, given what I do on this blog it was definitely a bonus.

I don’t want to give too many spoilers here since this is a novel well worth reading. I’ve always been impressed with writers who can convey accurately what it was like to be a teenager. A time of awkward discovery when we learn that things weren’t what we thought. Linda, the narrator, has been raised in a religious commune in the northern Minnesota woods. When a Christian Scientist couple moves into a cabin not too far away, she becomes a trusted “governess” for their young, sickly son. Unable, for religious reasons, to admit their son’s illness, they entrust him to Linda’s care. She comes to know each person in a unique way and learns that even adults don’t have the answers.

An interesting conceit for a story—one minority religion learning about another—the book ranges wide and far from that. Life as a teenager is when one typically both needs and rebels against religion. The awakening of adolescence, something our psyches aren’t equipped to comprehend much before this time, throws everything into confusion. History of Wolves won’t lead to any answers, but it is a useful discussion partner to have along the way. The Christian Scientists I’ve known have to face some of the same issues raised in this tale. Ironically, the advance of science has hit this group particularly hard. Novels such as this demonstrate that we, as a species, still turn to religion to explain our world. We’re frequently told that it’s safe to ignore—it’s from the childhood of our evolution. I wonder, however, whether Homo sapiens have just begun to reach adolescence and we are just starting to learn what it means to be adults in a world we don’t understand.


Taming Shakespeare

It hardly seemed credible, from what I heard in high school, that anyone would read Shakespeare if it weren’t required. I’m not completely naive, but I do wonder if we insist on introducing kids to the Bard before they’re ready for him. The real stumbling block is the unfamiliar words from the Elizabethan period. With enough regular reading they’re less of an obstacle to adults. Or should be. Or not to be. In any case, one of this year’s reading challenge books required that I read The Taming of the Shrew. I’d never read it before and kind of shied away from it because of the chauvinistic theme—Katherine has to be “tamed” by Petruchio so that her poor, sweet sister Bianca can be married. The overall theme is biblical—Rachel can’t be wed before Leah, so Laban declares. The play’s a comedy at the expense of women.

Those who know Shakespeare better than I question whether the playwright’s motives were as undeveloped as all that, but it is in keeping with the time. That’s not to excuse such patriarchal thinking, but we can’t rightfully blame people for thinking in the terms of their time. Yes, we now realize (except on Pennsylvania Avenue) that women and men deserve equal treatment. We are all human beings and should be treated as such, not as if one gender were somehow more important or better than another. In the Tudor Era, however, that idea had not yet caught on. The Taming of the Shrew contains clues as to why.

Perhaps the most reviled part of the play is Katherine’s closing speech as to why women should be subjected to men. Her reasoning is distinctly biblical. Indeed, the edition of the play I was reading took pains to point out the biblical allusions in the speech—primarily to letters of the New Testament. The fear, unaccountably real after all these centuries, is that we might go back to such thinking. The Bible, after all, doesn’t change much. The most conservative of society still read it in the King James, although the Bible Shakespeare’s contemporaries knew best was the Geneva translation. And, like the schoolchild reading Shakespeare, such conservatives need a little help with the language since words have changed their usages over time. They also may need some assistance realizing that not only words evolve, but so does our understanding of what it means to human. It’s not women who need to be tamed, Mr. Shakespeare. No, it’s quite the opposite.