OCTOBER IS FOR HORROR: VAMPIRES

Drawn by shamad
A friend recently told me that the horror villains we fear are subconscious stand-ins for things we’re afraid of in real life.  Vampires stand for a fear of change; zombies for a fear of crowds or strangers.  Fear of clowns is a sign you’re a normal, well-adjusted, perfectly rational person.

 

The anthropomorphic personification of EVIL!

Inquiring minds want to know!  I started with vampires—and I never got past vampires!

 

When I went online to learn what it means if we fear vampires, what popped up was an article by Ralph Blumenthal, “A Fear of Vampires Can Mask a Fear of Something Much Worse.”  He was writing in 2002 about villagers in Malawi believing that the government was colluding with vampires to collect human blood in exchange for food.

 

Mobs of vampire hunters killed dozens in Malawi

At the time, Malawi was in the grip of starvation, a severe AIDS epidemic, and political upheaval.  He cited Nina Auerbach, author of Our Vampires, Ourselves, to the effect that stories of the undead embody power ”and our fears of power.”

David J. Skal, author of The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror claims that a fixation on demons often accompanies periods of national stress.  “In times of social upheaval, the vampire asserts itself.”

 

 

In nearly every culture in the world, there is a legend of some variation of vampire-like creatures—the dead who reanimate and come back to feed on the living.  And there is general agreement that the roots of vampire legends are in the misunderstanding of how bodies decompose and of how certain diseases spread.

 

The Chinese Jiangshi hunts by “hopping” because of rigor mortis.

In an October 26, 2016 article in National Geographic titled The Bloody Truth About Vampires, Becky Little wrote, “As a corpse’s skin shrinks, its teeth and fingernails can appear to have grown longer.  And as internal organs break down, a dark ‘purge fluid’ can leak out of the nose and mouth.  People unfamiliar with this process would interpret this fluid to be blood and suspect that the corpse had been drinking it from the living.”

Paul Barber, author of Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality, made several telling points in the introduction to his book.  One is that there is little similarity between the vampires of folklore and the vampires of fiction.
Modern images of vampires are pretty stereotyped: fangs that bite the necks of victims; drinking human blood; can’t see themselves in mirrors; can be warded off with garlic, killed with a stake (or silver nail) through the heart; are aristocrats who live in castles and may be sexy.  This image was popularized by Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of Count Dracula in the 1931 film adaptation of the Broadway show of the same name.  Unlike Bram Stoker’s description of the monster in the 1897 novel Dracula as a repulsive old man with huge eyebrows and bat-like ears, Lugosi showed audiences a mysteriously elegant gentleman in evening dress.

 

 

The 1922 film Nosferatu (on left), though an unlicensed adaptation, portrayed the vampire as described in Stoker’s novel.

 

In European folklore, vampires typically wore shrouds, and were often described as bloated, with a ruddy or dark countenance.  Specific descriptions varied among regions: sometimes male, sometimes female, might have long fingernails, a stubby beard, the mouth and left eye open, a permanently hateful stare, red eyes, no eyes, etc.  Fangs were not always a prominent feature, and blood was generally sucked from bites on the chest near the heart rather than the throat.
Polish strzyga
But perhaps the most important theme of Barber’s book is that, lacking a scientific background in physiology, pathology, or immunization, the common response of ancient societies was to blame death and disease on the dead.  To that end, the interpretations they came up with—while wrong from today’s perspective—nevertheless were usually coherent, covered all the data, and provided the rationale for some common practices that seemed to be otherwise inexplicable.

 

A manananggal from the Philippines will send its detached head and torso to hunt.
Should you ever be pursued by a vampire, fling a handful of rice, millet, or other small grain in its path.  The vampire will be compelled to stop to count every grain, giving you time to escape.  I found no information on how vampires came to be associated with arithmomania, but it endures: remember The Count von Count on Sesame Street?

 

He’s the color of a rotting corpse, but cloth fangs are pretty harmless.
At this point, I realize that getting into methods of identifying vampires, protecting against vampires, ways to destroy vampires, and cross-cultural variations on vampirism is way beyond the scope of this blog.  Instead, I refer you to books such as this:

 

 

And should vampires show up in your dreams, according to DreamBible: the answers to all your dreams, pay attention.  Their appearance could mean many things.
  • Seeing a vampire in your dream symbolizes an aspect of your personality that is parasitic or selfishly feeds off others.
  • Alternatively, a vampire may reflect feelings about people you believe want to pull you down to their level or convert you to thinking negatively in a way similar to theirs.
  • To dream of being a vampire represents a selfish need to feed off others.
  • To dream of being bitten by a vampire represents feelings about other people using you or feeding off you and being unable to stop it.
  • Vampires may be a sign of dependence, problems with addiction, social pressure, or ambivalence.
  • A dream vampire might be telling you that you need to start being more independent and relying less on others resources or accomplishments.
  • To dream of killing vampires represents overcoming dependence on others.
  • Repeated dreams of vampires hovering over your shoulder and correcting your spelling or suggesting topics for research and expansion is almost certainly a sign that you are writing a blog entry about vampires.
The yara-ma-yha-who in Australia drains a victim of almost all blood before swallowing and regurgitating the body, which then becomes a copy of its killer.
Bottom line for writers: consider whether a vampire is a fit metaphor for your character.
 
The soucouyant appears in the Caribbean by day as a harmless old woman, but she sheds her skin at night to hunt as a ball of fire.

LIKING AND LOVING (PART 2)

 
In Friday’s blog, I outlined the factors that influence/promote liking:
  • Repeated exposure
  • Physical appearance
  • Similarity (the more similar two people are on a number of dimensions, the more their liking endures)
  • Reciprocal attraction
  • Relationships that offer more rewards than costs
Oshun, the Yoruba goddess of love
Surprise, surprise: these are the underpinnings of love as well!  And although liking and loving share roots, people seldom confuse the two.  The difference is largely a matter of degree: love is more intense than like.  It’s more personal and more important to one’s well-being.

 

Love comes in many guises. 
  • Love for dearest friends
  • Love for family, one’s children in particular
  • Romantic love

We use the word loosely and often.  We love chocolate, theater, gardening—whatever we feel strongly about.  But no one seriously confuses these feelings with love.

 

Sometimes chocolate is the foundation of love!

Although beloved friends and family are direct extensions of liking, romantic love is in a category largely by itself.

 

Eros, the embodiment of romantic love
A key ingredient of romantic love is arousal.  According to Psychologist Elaine Hatfield (1988, and not contradicted since), emotions have two ingredients: physical arousal plus cognitive appraisal.  Arousal from any source can enhance any emotion, depending on how we interpret the cause of the arousal.
Note for writers: at least part of the arousal from any source (fright, heavy duty workout, viewing erotica, listening to humorous or repulsive readings) will be attributed to a suitable object of affection.

 

Aztec goddess of love and beauty Xochiquetzal
Intense romantic love per se doesn’t last.  Romantic love reaches a fever pitch of obsession—infatuation, if you will—early on.  This is the period of constant calls, texts, letters (whatever fits the time period), exchanging love poems, giving personally meaningful gifts, etc..  For one thing, it gets exhausting!  But a case can be made that continued total focus on one’s partner/mate bodes ill for the well-being of any children they might have.

 

So, according to Professor Robert J Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love, there are seven types of love, defined by the underlying factors of intimacy, passion, and commitment.

Gender effects in liking and loving.
  • Men focus more on physical attractiveness.  Although interested in appearance, women generally value their potential mate’s status/ financial security over physical beauty.  These findings hold cross-culturally and even when someone is seeking a same-sex partner.
  • Age also matters: men value youth more than women do.
  • Men are much more willing to engage in casual sex than women are, and their standards for sex partners are lower.

 

Gender differences in mate preferences may be accounted for by social norms and expectations.  The different socio-economic status of women and the level of gender equality within a society is also a factor in what attributes are prioritized when seeking a mate.

Margaret Mead, center

I’ll start with the Mating Gradient.  As long ago as the mid-1950s, Margaret Mead wrote about the propensity for couples in which the men were older, taller, smarter, better educated, higher earning, and of higher socio-economic status than the women.  Decades later, I conducted an experiment in which I had men and women respond to a hypothetical love relationship with either the traditional pattern (as outlined) or the opposite.

As expected, people in the traditional hypothetical relationships were comfortable and positive.
  • When men responded to a loved one who was two years older, two inches taller, better educated, higher earning, more intelligent, and higher socio-economic status, they were surprisingly okay with it!  A typical response was, “If a babe like that loves me, I must be pretty hot stuff!”
  • When women responded to a loved one who was lesser on all these dimensions, they were generally negative.  A typical response was, “I couldn’t respect a man like that.  How could I love him?”

One interpretation of all this is that, traditionally, women are supposed to be taken care of by their mates and men are (perhaps) threatened when of an inferior status.  But the upshot of men marrying down and women marrying up is that, overall, the least marriageable men are at the bottom of the heap while the most capable, successful women remain unmarried at the top.

 

The Sumerians were all equally shorter than the king.
Consider the implications of the traditional relationship.  Feeling constantly inferior leads to depression and feelings of inadequacy.  Feeling constantly superior leads to lack of respect and perhaps a power grab.

 

True friendship is built on equality of hat ridiculousness at Ascot.
There is research evidence that enduring relationships are based on equality.  So how can these things be reconciled?  One way would be for the man to be “superior” on at least one dimension while the woman is “superior” in one or more of the other areas.

 


And speaking of the relationship of respect to liking and loving: Zick Rubin introduced the concept back in the 1970s, published as Measurement of Romantic Love in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  Rubin created scales to measure liking, loving, and lusting.  Each item was rated on a 5-point scale from “not at all true” to “very much true.”  Examples of these statements are below:
Liking scale items: I have great confidence in X’s judgment.  X is one of the most likable people I know.  I think that X and I are quite similar.  I think that X is unusually well-adjusted.

 

Mitra, an Indo-Iranian god of friendship
Loving Scale items: I would do almost anything for X.  If I could never be with X, I would feel miserable.  I feel responsible for X’s well-being.  When I am with X, I spend a good deal of time just looking at him/her.

 

Frigg, a Germanic goddess of marriage
Lust Scale items: I can’t stop thinking about having sex with X.  The best thing about X and my relationship is that we let our bodies do all the talking.  X’s attitudes and opinions don’t really matter in our relationship.  The best part of my relationship with X is the sexual chemistry.

 

Nanaya, a Mesopotamian goddess of sensual love

A fascinating finding (for me) in a study of engaged couples, was that women both liked and loved their partners.  Men loved their partners, but like—not so much.

 


We tend to like people more when we are in a good mood, and we like them less when we are in bad moods.  As partners stay together over time, cognition becomes relatively more important than passion.  Over time, close relationships are more likely to be based on companionate love than passionate love.
 
 
Bottom line for writersif you’re writing a love relationship, be clear on what kind of love it is!

 

by Chris Riggs in London

NOTEBOOKS, DIARIES, AND JOURNALS

 
For me—and I venture to say, for most of you reading this blog—the initial exposure to notebooks—books meant to be written in—came with entering school. During the 14th and 15th centuries, notebooks were made by hand, often at home, by folding pieces of paper in half into bundles that were then bound. Binding involved sewing along the fold or punching holes and lacing with twine or other cord. The pages were blank, and any note keeper who wanted lined pages had to make ruled lines across each page. Making and keeping notebooks was so important to effective household, farm, and business management that children learned how to do it in school.

 

Currently, besides a stitched binding, a buyer can purchase notebooks that are glue-bound, spiral bound, or loose pages in ring binders. People keep notes on everything—food, physical activity, birds cited, blood pressure. . .

 

Today, notebooks are almost universally commercially produced. You can find them lined or blank or with printed grids, depending on your intentions. Specialized ones are available for virtually any and all needs. One can shop notebooks for elementary, middle, high school, or college. Additionally, one can find notebooks designed for particular interests.

 

Specialized notebooks often include related information, advice, etc. The Writer’s Notebook is a good example of this, providing tips and exercises to improve writing and creativity. Of the 207 pages of The Naturalist’s Notebook, the first 95 are pages of how-to. The body of the book is called a 5-year calendar-journal, though it’s set up like a diary.

 

So, segueing from notebooks to diaries: a diary is a record (originally handwritten) set up for discrete entries arranged by date, reporting on what has happened. Generally, a diary has daily entries. Although it might include anything, a diary is essentially a collection of notes, often brief, focused on “just the facts, ma’am.” A war diary would be a good example: a regularly updated official record of a military unit’s administration and activities, maintained by an officer in the unit.

 

Pre-printed diaries typically allot the same amount of space or number of lines for each day. This forces the diarist to record only the most important events of each day. The diary shown above is set up for one year, with one week on each double-page spread. N.B.: These are a woman’s diaries, and you will see weather notes in the margin of each entry, which is typical of women’s diaries.

 

One-year diaries can come in any shape or size, though the entry space is often larger than that of multi-year diaries. Typical of diaries are the inserts and write-overs caused by the relatively small amount of space allowed for each day.

 

MeditationsMarcusAurelius1811.jpg
To Myself, known today as Meditations, written in Greek by the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius in the second half of the 2nd century CE might be the earliest recorded writing displaying many aspects of a diary. The earliest surviving diary that most resembles a modern diary was that of the Moroccan mathematician and scholar Ibn al-Banna’ al-Marrakushi in the 11th century. Needless to say, these were not pre-printed!

 

At one point, five-year diaries were very popular. They range in size from 2” x 3” up to 8.5’ x 11” and are still for sale today, priced from $5.59 to $72.00, though the price is not necessarily related to size. The major advantage of a five-year diary, in my opinion, is that it allows easy tracking of events (visits from relatives, weather, flower blooms) across years and seasons. The major disadvantage is the (usually) severely circumscribed space for each entry.

 

Today one can have a paper diary and/or a digital diary. Digital diaries are often tailored towards shorter-form, in-the-moment writing, similar to what might be posted on social media, but they avoid character limits that have the same effect as the space restrictions noted above.

 

In its original (French) meaning, the word journal (from the Latin diurnis or diurnalis)refers to a daily record of activities, but the term has evolved to mean any record, regardless of time elapsed between entries. More importantly, it is a record of significant experiences, as well as documenting thoughts, feelings, reflections, emotions, problems, and self-evaluations. In short, a journal is much more personal than a diary. Per Robert Gottlieb, journals have no deliberate shape, they simply accrete.

 

In writers’ terms, a diary is a fly-on-the-wall POV; a journal is a first person POV, showing everything through the eyes and heart of the writer.

 

If you want to buy a journal, you are not likely to find books labeled “Journal.” Instead, you buy a blank book. Your first decision is totally blank or lined. It’s a very personal decision. For an artist, this would be totally blank, a sketchbook. But some journal writers also want a totally blank page,feeling freer—unconfined, not squished between lines. Others—somehow more restricted?—prefer lines, perhaps to keep them focused, perhaps to keep their words legible.

 

Journals can be broad ranging or focused—for example, dream journals, travel journals, gardening journals. In my experience, the more broad ranging, the more likely the writer will choose an aesthetically pleasing blank book.

 

For the most part, both diaries and journals are presumed to be personal, shared with no one or only a select few. But many of both have been published. Online, international lists of published journals and diaries are readily available.

 

An exception to the presumption of privacy, The Diary of Anais Nin was her own publication.

 

But many others are published posthumously.

 

Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks—numerous, informal, and not terribly organized—have been perused and edited by John Curran. He quotes lavishly from the originals but also comments and relates the notebook entries to Christie’s published works.

 

Among published diaries, notebooks, and journals, one of my favorites is Hawthorne’s Lost Notebook 1835-1841. I love this book because it has reproductions of the original hand-written notes side-by-side with readable printed versions of his words.

 

Another favorite is The Journals of John Cheever. Cheever wrote his inner life, day after day, year after year. His writings span a period from the early 1940s to a few days before his death on June 18, 1982, encompassing some three to four million words. The original journals are small, loose-leaf note books, approximately one per year, usually typed but sometimes written out in longhand, undated. The published version of his journals is, necessarily, a selection. Entries are identified by year, and each is reprinted in its entirety.

 

This printed version of his journals doesn’t draw punches, even when he made negative comments about his children or himself.

 

And now I would draw your attention to the similarities between the Hawthorne notebook entry and the Cheever journal entries. They are both open-ended and extremely personal.

 

Bottom line for writers: a rose by any other name! Call it a notebook, a diary, or a journal, record your days.

 


Our 2019 Beach Reads

illustration of Harry Potter carrying books "Change the beach one book at a time"

I wrote about beach reads in 2016 and 2018—years when I actually spent a week at the beach.

So what happened in 2017? I was in the Rockies for a week! And somehow, writing about mountain reads just didn’t come to mind. I expect to be in the West again in 2020, and I’ll fix that! In the meantime, this was another beach summer, this time at Bethany Beach, DE.

In case you are interested, the rotation is based on the locations of my daughters—one in Connecticut, one in Massachusetts, and one in Colorado. Traditionally, meeting in the East means the beach somewhere whereas the West has meant mountains. Most of the same people come year after year, all family.

Browseabout Books sign
Browseabout Books

This year’s beach reads

This year we were 14—all family, but all individuals, hence the variety of reads! Here’s what three generations are reading during their week together.

P1: Jan Karon, IN THE COMPANY OF OTHERS; Bob Goff, EVERYBODY, ALWAYS.

P2: David Jeremiah, THE BOOK OF SIGNS; Robert Ludlum, SCORPIO ILLUSION.

P3: Pearl S. Buck, THE GOOD EARTH.

GoodEarthNovel.JPG
The Good Earth (Fair use)

 

P4: Erica Ridley, THE COMPLETE DUKES OF WAR COLLECTION—seven novels and a short story.

P5: Don Miguel Ruiz, THE FOUR AGREEMENTS; Bill P, Todd W, and Sarah S, DROP THE ROCK; Nora Roberts, THE MACKADE BROTHERS; DAILY REFLECTIONS.

P6: Andy Weir, ARTEMIS; Sarah Perry, THE ESSEX SERPENT; George R. R. Martin, A CLASH OF KINGS.

P7: Jonathan Kellerman, KILLER; John Sandford, DARK OF THE MOON; DAILY REFLECTIONS.

P8: Ernest Cline, READY PLAYER ONE.

P9: Angie Thomas, THE HATE U GIVE.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

P10: Jeff Kinney, DIARY OF A WIMPY KID: THE LONG HAUL

P11: Sharon M. Draper, OUT OF MY MIND

P12: Adam Silvera, HISTORY IS ALL YOU LEFT ME; John Green, WILL GRAYSON, WILL GRAYSON.

P13: Andrew J. Mellon, UNSTUFF YOUR LIFE: KICK THE CLUTTER HABIT AND COMPLETELY ORGANIZE YOUR LIFE FOR GOOD

P14: H. W. Brands, THE FIRST AMERICAN: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF BENJAMIN FRANKLIN

 

beach reads sign: "what are you reading this summer? Let us know!"

Where are you traveling this summer, and what are you reading? Let me know in the comments.

Something to Aspire to!

Jane Austen: Her Complete Novels title page, Gramercy Books
Jane Austen: Her Complete Novels
Those of you who have been with me for awhile know that I am a HUGE fan of Jane Austen. On March 22, 2017, I posted a blog on the 200th anniversary of her last fiction writing. A gazillion books and articles—that’s by actual count!—have been written about Austen. If you want a pretty thorough overview and summary, with references to delve deeper, check out the 30-page Wikipedia article. What you have in this blog is my personal homage.

 

My Journey to Jane Austen

Copies of Austen’s novels are old friends. I bought Northanger Abbey secondhand for 35 cents.
book cover of Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen, Laurel Jane Austen edition
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
Others were bought new for 50 cents each.
book covers of Persuasion and Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
Persuasion and Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
All of them have been read and read again, and most show those years of age and love.
I first became a fan in the spring of my sophomore year in college. “Why so late?” you might ask. In my pre-matriculation advisement, the English professor (who happened to teach such classes) urged me toward Chaucer and Beowulf. I took no literature classes after my freshman year, so there were tons (by actual weight) of books that “everyone” had read but I hadn’t. A lot of them are still out there. In any event, during finals week, I devoured every Austen I could lay my hands on.
Pride and Prejudice first page, early edition
Hugh Thomson (1860-1920) [CC BY-SA 4.0]
As I recall, I read Pride and Prejudice first, and it remains my favorite. I’m not alone here. As far back as 1940, various film and TV versions have come to be. If one searches Kindle for Jane Austen Fan Fiction, there are literally hundreds of novels based on this book alone.These include prequels, sequels, murder mysteries, soft-core porn, fantasy, and horror.

 

Film adaptations of all Austen’s novels abound. In 1995, Emma Thompson won an Academy Award for her role in Sense and Sensibility. 2007 brought forth Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion. Love and Friendship, based on Austen’s first novel, Lady Susan, appeared in 2016.

Lady Susan by Jane Austen

Jane Austen for Writers

Setting pen to paper—or fingers to keyboard—a writer never knows what the future holds. Although Austen’s Lady Susan, written in the epistolary form popular at the time, was penned first (1804), it was published last (1871). Austen published as Anonymous and enjoyed little fame or fortune during her lifetime.
Title page of the 1909 edition of Emma, illustrated by C. E. Brock. Matt [Public domain]
Emma is but one example of why Austen’s work is so enduring. Before she began the novel, she wrote, “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like. Emma Woodhouse is handsome, clever, and rich. She is also spoiled, headstrong, and self-satisfied; she greatly overestimates her own insights and abilities; she is blind to the dangers of meddling in other people’s lives; and her imagination and perceptions often lead her astray.” In other words, she paints a timeless portrait of the conceit and hubris of youth.

 

Austen is a great example of “write what you know.” In all her novels, Austen explores the concerns and difficulties of genteel women living in 18th and 19th century England, their dependence on marriage for security and status. Her novels portray the social and economic reality of the period.

 

And she makes her readers laugh.

 

Something to aspire to: to express universals of human relationships, personalities, passions, and foibles that transcend time and place. She’s my role model—which is why I continue to acquire her books. This is my most recent one. Although published in 1981, I’ve enjoyed it for only a couple of years—so far!
 
The complete works by Jane Austen spine
Jane Austen: Her Complete Novels

Armchair Hiking

walk woods bill bryson
[Source: Amazon]
On the first day of my Nature Writing class, we were assigned to read a book of our choice that had a strong nature theme. It could be anything, from fiction to poetry. I chose Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods (1998) for several reasons. From the time I read Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way, I’ve been a Bryson fan. Then, too, my roots are in Appalachia. Last but not least, I had the book on my shelf—still unread. Now that I’ve read it, I want to share.
Armchair Hiking
The Appalachian Trail (AT) is approximately 2100 miles. If you read the book, you will understand why the exact length is unknown, but for my purposes, it is sufficient to know that it’s hugely long and stretches from Georgia to Maine. Bryson (not a hiker) starts with a chapter describing his almost whimsical decision to walk the AT and the buying frenzy of assembling the necessary equipment. And right away I was drawn in. As a reviewer for the Chicago Sun-Times said, “Bill Bryson could write an essay about dryer lint or fever reducers and still make us laugh out loud.”

 

appalachian trail south
[Source: Warrior Expeditions]
It’s difficult to cite representative funny passages because (1) there are so many of them; and (2) often the humor is in a whole situation, scene or exchange, not a succinct quip. He started in Georgia in March, intending to end in Maine in October, a timetable intended to avoid suffocating heat in the south and New England winter. In the even, that March brought a record cold snap, and the first day of spring came in the midst of a blizzard. And that’s pretty much the way the hike went: never quite what was planned.

 

Bryson’s writing is take-you-there-with-him vivid. For example, “…we were half-blinded by flying snow and jostled by gusts of wind, which roared through the dancing trees and shook us by our backpacks. This wasn’t a blizzard; it was a tempest.”

 

appalachian trail midway
[Source: Warrior Expeditions]
I like the insights he shares. “Distance changes utterly when you take the world on foot. A mile becomes a long way. . . .The world, you realize, is enormous in a way that only you and a small community of fellow hikers know.” This is true only for those of us living the typical American life or a similar one in another developed country—but that’s true enough for most of his readers.

 

Reading a Bryson book is always a learning experienceA Walk in the Woods is packed with history, geography, and botany. The idea of the AT started with Benton MacKaye in 1921, work actually started in 1930 under the auspices of Myron Avery, who mapped it out, extended it from 1200 to over 2000 miles, supervised construction, and convinced hiking clubs to provide volunteer work crews.

 

Bryson is a skilled observer. The details he notes allow the reader to see how the trees of the north differ from those in the south, identify denizens of the flower-strewn meadows, and quake beside sheer drop-offs. And he is wonderfully in touch with real people—people who can cite statistics about the rarity of a hiker being attacked by a black bear, and the greater rarity of one being killed, but still have anxiety attacks because “It does happen!”

 

The only thing that put me off a bit about the book was a somewhat stereotypical disdain for fat people and hillbillies. Perhaps that’s where the book’s age came into play.  Bur it never tipped into meanness. In any event, it didn’t keep me from enjoying the book overall. There are moments of tenderness, and a budding awareness of the danger to our environment.

 

appalachian trail maine
[Source: Down East Magazine]
I’ll end by mentioning his walking companion, Stephen Katz. It wouldn’t have been the same book—and probably not as good—without Bryson’s unexpected fellow traveler. It’s a feel-good book from beginning to end. Other than that, I won’t tell you how it ends—except to say, “They both lived to tell the tale.”

 

bill bryson
[Source: Independent]
Bottom line: Read this book—or any Bryson book—and be prepared to be drawn into non-fiction.

Throwback Post: Queen of Mystery


By “Queen of Mystery,” I don’t mean Agatha Christie. Frankly, Christie’s mysteries usually annoy me—too much alligator-over-the-transom in her solutions—meaning that some completely unforeseen, unpredictable bit of info suddenly appears and unlocks everything. (No offense to Christie fans out there; but reading preferences are very individual. Ask any writer who’s received multiple rejections for a piece of work that someone more on the same wavelength eventually accepts.) No, if I were bestowing the crown, it would be Dorothy L. Sayers.
 
Dorothy L. Sayers novels
 
Sayers was a woman of many achievements. She translated Dante, wrote poetry, and worked as a copyeditor. She was a playwright, essayist, literary critic, and Christian humanist, as well as a student of classical and modern languages. But she is best known for her Lord Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane mysteries. You may recall from last Friday’s blog that Sayers is one of the few fiction authors I periodically re-read. Now, you might ask, “Why would anyone reread a mystery? Once you know Who Done It—and probably how and why—what’s the point?”

 

Dorothy L. Sayers The Unpleasantness at The Bellona Club; The Five Red Herrings

 

In the case of Sayers, my answer is three-fold. First there is her openings that draw me.  The Unpleasantness at The Bellona Club begins, “’What in the world, Wimsey, are you doing in this Morgue?’ demanded Captain Fentiman, flinging aside “The Evening Banner” with the air of a man released from an irksome duty. ‘Oh, I wouldn’t call it that,’ retorted Wimsey, amiably. ‘Funeral Parlor at the very least. Look at the marble. Look at the furnishings. Look at the palms and the chaste bronze nude in the corner.'”

 

Five Red Herrings opens, “If one lives in Gallowy, one either fishes or paints. . . To be neither of these things is considered odd and almost eccentric.”

 

Strong Poison begins, “There were crimson roses on the bench; they looked like splashes of blood. The judge was an old man; so old, he seemed to have outlived time and change and death. His parrot-face and parrot-voice were dry, like his old heavily-veined hands. His scarlet robe clashed harshly with the crimson of the roses.”

 

Have His Carcase begins, “The best remedy for a bruised heart is not, as so many people seem to think, repose upon a manly bosom. Much more efficacious are honest work, physical activity, and the sudden acquisition of wealth.”
 
Dorothy L. Sayers novels

 

The second reason to reread is to really grasp the intricate plots that often allow me to learn something. And, coincidentally, to appreciate all the ways she foreshadowed the ending and inserted the evidence and clues without telegraphing the ending. In various Sayers novels, I learned the effects of chronic ingestion of arsenic, a lot about English bell-ringing, cyphers, the advertising world, a great deal about the questions surrounding the execution of the family of Czar Nicholas II—among other things.
 
Dorothy L. Sayers books
 
And then there are the characters and their romance. I recently read that Sayers once commented that Lord Peter Wimsey was a mixture of Fred Astaire and Bertie Wooster. I always envisioned Wimsey as Astaire, even when the TV serials starred Ian Carmichael or Edward Petheridge. He’s brilliant, graceful, athletic, debonaire—plus he blathers, and suffers “shell shock” (a.k.a., PTSD). Harriet Vane is highly intelligent, strong-willed, principled, with a low opinion of men—and not really beautiful. I find them appealing in their flaws.

 

Dorothy L. Sayers books, cheap editions

 

Sayers set her mysteries between WWI and WWII, but they are still popular today. Masterpiece Theater aired the series. The complete DVD collection was released in 2003.

 

Dorothy L. Sayers, "Are Women Human?"

 

Harriet Vane was very atypical for her time. Sayers did not devote a lot of time to talking or writing about  or otherwise dealing with her own non-traditional choices, let alone her heroine’s. In Are Women Human, two Sayers essays address the issue of women in society. Her position is that women are first and foremost human beings, and that women and men must be regarded and treated as essentially much more alike than different. Human beings—color, age, background or abilities aside—are equal. Sex does not, a priori, determine anything. Sounds pretty modern to me!

 

So get thee to the library or Amazon or your favorite bookstore and sample Dorothy L. Sayers. Her first mystery was Whose Body? That’s as good a place as many to start. Unless you’d rather go for romance first, in which case, start with Strong Poison. But do it!
Dorothy L. Sayers,

Mysteries, Thrillers, etc., etc., etc.

mystery thriller week goodreads
This is Mystery and Thriller Week on Goodreads, so it seemed like a good idea to blog about that. I enjoy both mysteries and thrillers, and started with enthusiasm. Starting with what separates the two seemed reasonable and easy.

 

Mysteries are brain books: Some crime has been committed and the point of the book is to solve the puzzle and determine who done it. Mary Burton is a local example of a typical mystery writer.
Thrillers are action books: Typically fast-paced, with lots of physical threat and daring-do, often the point of the action is to keep something dreadful from happening—i.e., stop the bad guys before they do whatever. Fiona Quinn is a local example of a thrill writer. In fact, she writes a blog called Thrill Writing.

 

wasp fiona quinn
That’s a simplification, of course. But when I started to try to refine it, I became mired in exceptions and subcategories. Police procedurals, for example, could be either a cozy mystery or action packed, depending on how the author presents the basic defining characteristic—i.e., how the police operate, collect, analyze, and collate the evidence.
So then I considered citing best sellers in each category—but whose? Goodreads? Amazon? USA Today? NY Times? To list them all would be pages and pages, with lots of overlap.

 

penguin random house thrillers
Then I considered cutting it another way. I searched online for Richmond, Virginia mysteries and thrillers. What I found was that Richmond authors were camouflaged among broader lists of “books written by authors in, from, or about Virginia.” I decided the culling wasn’t worth it.

 

And so I’ve thrown in the towel. Find your own mysteries and/or thrillers, from whatever sources you rely on, and define those as you will. In such matters, the reader is always right!
reading

Transportation of Prostitutes During the Civil War

Schuylkill Valley Journal of the Arts

Some of you are familiar with my short story mysteries featuring Clara, an engaging prostitute who plied her trade during the Civil War with men whose sexual preferences included “soft” fetishes—i.e., nothing painful, more like making love in caskets, lapping brandy from her bellybutton, or enjoying chocolate applied with feathers. (So far, no one’s complained about the lack of explicit sexual detail on the page!) And somehow, she was repeatedly embroiled in solving mysterious deaths.

Well, I’m working on another Clara story, and here are some bits of info I think you’ll find interesting.

The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell thomas lowry

I stumbled across this book some years ago in the gift shop at the Museum of the Confederacy and bought it, because who isn’t interested in sex? Since then, Thomas P. Lowry has become my favorite writer on the topic! However, I’ve also searched online. I won’t be giving specific citations, because many of these facts pop up in several writings.

The topic of prostitution isn’t as intensively researched and written about as many other Civil War topics, and one might assume that’s because it was a minor issue. Wrong! In 1864 there were 450 brothels in Washington and over 75 in Alexandria, Virginia. A newspaper estimated there were 5000 “public women” in DC and another 2500 in Alexandria and Georgetown—and this is just an example. Whenever army troops set up camps, nearby small towns were overrun with women in the sex trade.

One estimate was that 40% of soldiers suffered the pox (syphilis) and/or the clap (gonorrhea). These STIs were nearly as dangerous to soldiers as battle—which prompted military officers to take action. That often took the form of moving bawdy women elsewhere.

Ivanhoe ship
[Source]
For example, Major General William Rosecrans ordered that all prostitutes found in Nashville or known to be there be seized and transported to Louisville. What followed was that a recently christened steamboat, the Idahoe, was basically conscripted to move 111 of the most infamous of the sex workers. Louisville refused dockage to the Idahoe, and ordered them on to Cincinnati instead. Cincinnati also refused to accept them, so they were sent to Kentucky, but were turned away by Covington and Newport. Bottom line: they ended up back in Nashville.

Similar rounding up of prostitutes and forcibly transporting them to the enemy’s city by train was common between Richmond, Virginia and Washington, DC—which promoted women being spies. (But spying is for another day.) In any case, such transportation did not take into account the convenience, preferences, or comfort of the women. For example, one report on the women aboard the Idahoe said the women were in bad shape when they returned to Nashville: “The majority are a homely, forlorn set of degraded creatures. Having been hurried on the boats by a military guard, many were without a change of wardrobe.” Nor were they properly fed after the first three days.

civil war era train
[Source]
Bottom line: Prostitution during the Civil War is a fascinating topic to pursue!

Guest Review: Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly

Like most readers, I have my habits. In the service of exposing my readers to a wider perspective, I have interviewed Christina Cox, fellow book lover, about a recent read she enjoyed: Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly.

hello universe erin entrada kelly
[Source: Barnes & Noble]

As a child, I dreamed of having a job where I could read children’s and middle-grade literature all day. Granted, I don’t get to do it all day, but one amazing perk of my job is I get to read over some wonderful new literature coming from that genre!

Most recently, I picked up Hello, Universe, the 2018 Newbery Award winner. Folks, this book is fantastic. I can absolutely see why Kelly won the award. The book follows four characters: Virgil, Valencia, Kaori, and Chet, all of whom have varied personalities and backgrounds. Their stories collide when Chet, the neighborhood bully, plays a prank on Virgil that will change the course of all of their lives. See its description on Goodreads (I’ve deleted spoilers!):

In one day, four lives weave together in unexpected ways. Virgil Salinas is shy and kindhearted and feels out of place in his loud and boisterous Filipino family. Valencia Somerset, who is deaf, is smart, brave, and secretly lonely, and loves everything about nature. Kaori Tanaka is a self-proclaimed psychic, whose little sister Gen is always following her around. And Chet Bullens wishes the weird kids would just act normal so that he can concentrate on basketball. They aren’t friends—at least not until Chet pulls a prank that puts Virgil and his pet guinea pig in danger. This disaster leads Kaori, Gen, and Valencia on an epic quest to find the missing Virgil. Through luck, smarts, bravery, and a little help from the universe, a rescue is performed, a bully is put in his place, and friendship blooms.

One of my favorite tropes (is it a trope?) in books is when multiple storylines finally converge into one and something clicks with the reader. The best example I’ve ever seen—not just in children’s literature, but in all of the books I’ve read—is Holes by Louis Sachar. Hello, Universe has a more low-key way of converging storylines (and it’s not a surprise it happens—read the dust jacket!), but it’s still satisfying in a way that I’m sure will delight its young readers.

Don’t just take it from me; there are so many starred reviews of this book that it’s hard to pick just one quote. Booklist and Kirkus are among its starred reviewers, which is a huge accomplishment.

Bottom line: Hello, Universe is a delightful book for lovers of children’s and middle-grade fiction. Check it out!