SETTING STORIES IN HISTORICAL FACTS

By Francine Paino

       Past, present, future. Measures of time. The future is uncertain, or at least cannot be seen by the finite minds of wo/mankind, but the past remains a blueprint to build on, to change to make better, providing we don’t try to hide or deny the past. We cannot escape our history—nor should we. Like the gorgeous butterfly that emerges from the shell of a caterpillar, out of ugly facts of history, come two beautiful stories that lift the soul. 

  In Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens, and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See, we are invited into different worlds to experience beliefs and customs that we find unacceptable by 21st Century standards. 

These fictional characters are intensely real and their stories grab the readers’ heartstrings as we walk alongside them and watch the painful development and evolution of the human soul, at the societal and personal levels. 

Both books can be described as beautiful, agonizing, poignant, terrible, heartbreaking, joyous, and a beautiful testament to relationships and the triumph of the human spirit.

           Where The Crawdads Sing draws us into a tale of betrayal, abandonment, and murder, through the life of Kya Clark and the backwater residents of Barkley Cove, who view her as “swamp trash” to be shunned, ridiculed and looked down upon.

The story begins with the 1969 murder of Chase Andrews, the townie playboy, and son of a respected Barkley Cove family. It then toggles back to 1952.  Six-year-old Kya watches her mother, the last of her dysfunctional family, walk away from their shack, never to return, leaving Kya alone to live with a drunken, physically, and mentally abusive father.

Kya is forced to dig deep and find the strength to make some semblance of a life with him, always afraid that he’d come home drunk, constantly hoping her mother would return.  Things seem to improve, but eventually, he leaves too, and Kya is left to survive or die, among the gulls, fish, and wildlife of the swamp. 

           Considered illiterate swamp trash, Kya is referred to as the Marsh Girl. After spending one humiliating day in school, she vows never to return and successfully evades the town’s truant officers’ half-hearted efforts. Only one man called Jumpin’, the gas station owner and his wife show her any kindnesses, until the day she encounters Tate, a boy who was once her brother’s friend – then her life changes.

            Tate befriends her, and it’s through him that she learns to read and write. It’s with Tate that Kya builds her already extraordinary knowledge of the ecosystem of the swamp. Over time, Kya’s extraordinary knowledge of the ecosystem leads her to success as a published author, thanks to Tate’s encouragement. Her first book brings a royalty of $5,000, a great deal of money to Kya; despite her success, she never dreams of leaving the swamp’s safety, and the townspeople of Barkley Cove never see her as anything other than the “Marsh Girl.”

We live and learn through Kya’s determination and development as she overcomes enormous challenges for seventeen years until the past and present become one. Then Kya becomes the prime suspect in Chase Andrews’s murder and may face the death penalty. 

Where the Crawdads Sing is a door to the beauty of the wetland ecosystems, and a window to many 1960s prejudices reflected by a backwater society’s discrimination and refusal to give a person like Kya a chance in life. 

Delia Owens is a wildlife scientist who writes with the accumulated knowledge of 23 years of experience with animals and environments. In Ms. Owen’s words, Kya’s story shows that “we are forever shaped by the children we once were.”  

In Snowflower and the Secret Fan, the lives of two very young girls in the Hunan Province of China, transport us back in time to a country on the other side of the world and immerses us in a different culture.

In 19th Century China, women were considered of little worth and had to be married out. They lived in almost total seclusion, and to make the best marriage contracts, young female children around six had their feet bound, to keep them as small as possible, the goal being five-inch long “golden lilies.” 

The story is told through eighty-year-old Lily, who looks back on her life and asks the gods for forgiveness, realizes that the binding altered not only her feet but also her whole character. “By age forty,” she says, “the rigidity of that binding had moved from her golden lilies (tiny feet) to her heart, which held on to injustices and grievances so strongly” that she could no longer forgive those she loved and loved her.

We meet Snow Flower when she and Lily are six-years-old, and about to have their feet bound to make them more desirable. In the superstitious traditions of the time, the matchmaker and the diviner examine Lily and tell her family she is no ordinary child. Lily will have a favorable marriage contract, but she is also worthy of a laotong – a special relationship between girls.

For the Chinese of Hunan, the laotong or “old-sames” link was the strongest of all precious female bonds of friendship between women. It was more rare and formal, requiring a contract. A woman could only have one laotong, and it was unbreakable for life. The matchmaker negotiates a marriage contract for Lily and selects Snow Flower to be Lily’s “old-same.” The girls are taught a secret writing code called nu shu (women’s writing), and as laotong, they write their stories on fans or embroider them on handkerchiefs. It was a salve for their lonely hearts. The laotong understand one another’s souls.  

These loveable young girls support one another through the torture of footbinding, they grow into women and marry. Lily’s fortunes change for the better. Snow Flower’s fortunes change for the worse, and still, their special relationship endures. They become good wives and adhere to the expected behaviors of wives and daughters-in-law. They celebrate one another’s sons, for nothing is as crucial for a woman’s standing in the family as bearing sons. As “old-sames,” they share their pain and fear through famine, plague and rebellion, but can their relationship withstand a serious misunderstanding?   

This is author Lisa See’s ancestral history. She spares no detail in the horrific footbinding process that deformed millions of little girls’ feet until it was outlawed in 1912. Without rancor, judgment, or shame, she draws the reader in and we share the agony these children endured, sometimes unto death if infections set in when the bones finally break to keep the toes folded under the foot and retard its growth. The physical agony eventually ends, but these women never walk normally again. We watch them sway and find a different balance on stumps, never meant to carry the body’s weight. We meet the older women of their families. We are sad for many who end up with significant disabilities later in life, yet continue to inflict footbinding on the female children because traditions and societal expectations demanded it.   

Neither story ignores, covers-up, condemns, or apologizes. Where there were prejudice and slurs, Owens wrote it. Where there was the breaking of bones to the point of destroying the body’s ability to function, Ms. See wrote it. 

Although painful to read and admit even as fiction, the characters make us think, admire the strength they discovered in the face of oppression, grieve for their suffering and loss, and celebrate the triumphs of their souls. 

Book Review: The Wife, by Meg Wolitzer

 

by Renee Kimball

“The moment I decided to leave him, the moment I thought, enough, we were thirty-thousand feet above the ocean, hurtling forward but giving the illusion of stillness and tranquility. Just like our marriage.”

In 2003, Scribner published The Wife by Meg Wolitzer—a short novel of 219 pages, and it packs a punch.  For those women of a certain age and time, it is a knock-out punch that is visceral and blinding.  Wolitzer’s writing is exacting, deeply pointed, writing that draws the reader into the heart of the story, towards the character—the wife.

It is a story of women born in the ’40s and ’50s who were expected to became wives and mothers—the only worthy feminine social contract of the age.  The goal was respectable: women, as mere women, had no other option for fulfillment than as wife and mother.  Many women today cannot relate to this story; it will come at them like a foreign language, no meaning, gibberish—make-believe murmurings, not acceptable, unbelievable.

For this story describes the kind of woman who went to college to obtain a MRS. Degree; if she didn’t marry, she graduated to become a secretary or teacher or nurse until she found Mr. Right.  Mr. Right was enough for a life’s goal; there really wasn’t anything else needed or desired.

Although women had earned the right to vote in 1920, during the ’40s and ’50s they were still somehow something less; feminists’ rising voices were in the future.  A successful marriage—a good husband, a home, children—was the purpose of womanhood.  It was a long time before society would accept that women might want more, or could contribute outside the home, offer something other than what had been preordained by a male dominated world.

It is hard to imagine that being a woman during that time offered limited life choices and failed to offer much that could be achieved without male approval.  The gender differences were deeper then, more difficult, more ingrained.  Being a wife, the wife of a successful man, keeping a home, raising children, was the goal.

The Wife is the story of a woman who becomes the wife of a “great” novelist—a man who wants it all—sexual conquest, notoriety, money, lasting fame—and her part nurturing and ensuring that those dreams come true.  She sits on the sidelines through the years, willingly relinquishing the loss of herself and her own innate talent as a writer.

 

“He was Joseph Castleman, one of those men who own the world.  You know the type I mean: those advertisements for themselves, those sleepwalking giants, roaming the earth and knocking over other men, women, furniture, villages.  Why should they care? . . There are many varieties of this kind of man: Joe was the writer version, a short, wound-up, slack-bellied novelist who almost never slept, . . . who had no idea how to take care of himself or anyone else. . .” (p. 11).

 

Meg Wolitzer, by Larry D. Moore. CC BY-SA-3.0. Via Wikipedia.

In this marriage, the wife doesn’t shrink from exposing her own weaknesses and her acquiescence to play her part—she proclaims her personal failures loudly—admitting surrendering her life to a man who basically exploited her mind, talents, and body to enrich his own life.  She quietly works and goes along to get along; she plays nice and gives up everything without a fight.  She blames herself, stating she was lazy, she was too easy; she is remorseful she was not stronger, more forceful, more demanding of her worthiness.

In The Wife, Joan is a young earnest co-ed at Smith, enraptured by her mesmerizing married English professor, Joe Castleman.  An affair ensues, and Joe divorces and abandons his wife and newborn daughter.  Joe—with Joan in tow- moves to New York to pursue becoming a famous author.  While Joan is forced to work to sustain them; Joe stays in their squalid apartment with roaches in attendance and writes his novel.

 

“It kills me to say it, but I was his student when we met. There we were in 1956, a typical couple, Joe intense and focused and tweedy, me a fluttering budgie circling him again and again. . .None of us was in the thick of anything in 1956 we understood that we were being kept separate from the world that mattered. . .We were being preserved for some other purpose, willingly suspending ourselves like specimens in agar for four years.” (p. 38-39).

Throughout it all, the marriage is held together by Joan’s efforts, through the birthing of Joe’s first novel, the further birthing of three children that follow, long years of Joe’s constant infidelity, and Joe’s unending neediness and whininess, and at last, the attainment of his final monumental success, the Helsinki Prize for literature.

Withstanding all the humiliation, the pain, the children and attendant issues, and her sheer monstrous personal sacrifices —Joan remains stoic, supportive, ever willing to smooth, console, and face whatever crisis assaults them all over the long years.  Joan never strays, she doesn’t waiver, she lives to make her husband successful and proud, she never says no to his demands no matter how outrageous, even if those demands degrade her morally, ethically, while crushing her belief in herself, she remains steadfast in her purpose—Joe’s dream—that the world acknowledge him as a literary author, a writer of great fiction, memorable for all time.

 

“Everyone knows how women soldier on, how women dream up blueprints, recipes, ideas for a better world, and then sometimes lose them on the way to the crib in the middle of the night, on the way to the Stop & Shop, or the bath. They lose them on the way to greasing the path on which their husband and children will ride serenely through life.” (p. 183).

 

In the face of her personal loss of her creative self, Joan passes that talent on to her husband gladly, keeping silent, working tirelessly to enrich his life and career in confirmation of their union as man and wife.  As Joe’s fame increases, she benefits and does not deny that; yet, she suffers in silence, knowing there is more to the literary success than Joe’s brilliance: it is her brilliance that brought this about for him, out of love, adoration, anger at his infidelity, even her own deep seated confusion, she isn’t really sure.

As Joan ages, becoming angry with herself, with her silence, with Joe, with the life of secrecy that she allowed to grow layer by layer around her, angry at the lies that kept the children outside her life safely unaware of the truth behind their father’s prodigious output, their mother’s silent necessary secret.  Joan knows that speaking the truth at this late date would not only destroy their carefully crafted life, splinter their family, eradicate their hard-won position in the elite literary circles, but destroy her life’s mission—the belief that Joe is a great novelist.  In turn, the truth would then erase her as well.

All throughout the marriage she remains his rock and muse—but she is more, so much more, and we do not know the extent of her worth until the end of the story.  While she simmers and her distaste for her life grows out of control, her repulsion, her self-loathing rises even more, and she reaches the decision to break free for whatever time she is left, reaching towards a life without Joe, a life of freedom.

Not all women can relate to this story—it seems farfetched that a woman would give up her intellectual gifts so easily to live in the shadow of a well-known author, allowing him the spotlight, the adulation, the honors.  Sadly, many know this tale in one form or another, and it exists in many relationships even now, but we hope that there are more options today for these bright and talented women.

But there is so much more to Joe and Joan’s story in the end.  It will not be spoiled for you here; read it for yourself.  The Wife is not a novel for all women, but it is not so narrow a tale that the subtleties and nuances of the relationship have no meaning—it is a worthy read.

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**The Finlandia Prize (Finlandia-palkinto) is a literary award in Finland by the Finnish Book Foundation. It is awarded annually to the author of the best novel written by a Finnish citizen (Finlandia Award), children’s book (Finlandia Junior Award), and non-fiction book (Tieto-Finlandia Award). The award sum (as of 2010) is 30,000 euros (previously 100,000 Finnish Marks). Works may be in Finnish or Swedish but non-Finnish citizens are not allowed to enter. However, in 2010 the Finnish Book Foundation made an exception for a nominee.

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The movie adaptation of The Wife stars Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce.

Book Photo: Courtesy by Amazon.com

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A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are reading and writing. She is an active Animal Advocate and fosters and rescues both dogs and cats and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.

Are You Hungry? Food Idiosyncrasies and Local Flavor

by Helen Currie Foster

Why, exactly, do we take such interest in what our favorite detectives eat or what a character like Aunt Agatha grabs for first at teatime at Melrose Plant’s country house? (Answer: fairy cakes.)

Some say that cooking distinguishes humans from other speciesor at least played a role in our evolution.   (Apparently chimpanzees can learn to cook, though…)

If cooking’s a distinctive human trait, choosing which cooking to eat is an even finer distinction, one used to great effect in murder mysteries. The what, where and how a character chooses to eat can tell us a great deal. Mystery writers use food to develop characters, settings, and local flavor. Sometimes these seem to merge. (Here I’m discussing mysteries generally, not athe culinary mystery subgenre, or mysteries involving poisons including the thirty or so which Agatha Christie wrote.)

Consider, for example, that complex man Andy Dalziel, Detective Chief Inspector in Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series.

An ex-rugby player, nicknamed the “fat bastard,” he’s introduced in Exit Lines as he clambers out of bed with a morning hangover after a rough night:

And now, he told himself with the assurance of one who believed in a practical, positive and usually physical response to most of life’s problems, all he needed to complete this repair of normality was a platterful of egg, sausage, bacon, tomatoes and fried bread. Bitter experience had taught him in the years since his wife’s departure to eschew home catering. It wasn’t that a basic cuisine was beyond his grasp; it was the cleaning up afterwards that defeated him…only a beast would tolerate fat-congealed frying-pans. Fortunately the police canteen did an excellent breakfast. Gourmet cooking they might not provide, but what did that matter to a man who…affected to believe that cordon bleu was a French road-block? And a slight blackening round the edge of a fry-up was to a resurrected copper what the crust on old port was to a wine connoisseur––a sign of readiness.

Gosh. The classic English breakfast “fry-up”––Yorkshire version––served in a police canteen. We’ve just learned about Dalziel that he likes the classic and plenty of it, that his wife’s left him and he doesn’t like to eat alone at home, that he habitually tries to hide his sophistication, and that the police station’s his comfort zone. We know he’s no secret gourmet. Hill’s not interested in showing us his own food sophistication (we almost hope the “slight blackening around the edges” does not describe his own breakfast). Hill is not offering us food porn––far from it. He’s giving us a close-up of Dalziel, alone at home, getting ready to walk onstage at the police station.

A different sort of home cooking characterizes Donna Leon’s Inspector Guido Brunetti series, set in Venice. Here’s Brunetti in Death and Judgment, coming home to lunch, where he finds his wife Paola––professor of English, born into Venetian wealth, politically liberal––listening indignantly to the political news:

“Guido, these villains will destroy us all. Perhaps they already have. And you want to know what’s for lunch.” …

When he does ask, “What’s for lunch?” Paola responds:

“Pasta fagioli and then cotoletta.”

“Salad?”

“Guido,” she asked with pursed lips and upraised eyes, “when haven’t we had salad with cutlets?”

Instead of answering her question he asked, “Is there any more of that good Dolcetto?”

“I don’t know. We had a bottle of it last week, didn’t we?”

Imagine how they’d react if confronted with Dalziel’s fry-up? Of course they’ll have salad, because in Venice one always has salad with cutlets! How different this home is from Dalziel’s. Brunetti and his wife talk food, talk wine, insist on proper Venetian cooking. Brunetti’s apartment with Paola and his children is truly home base. In this scene Paola’s already asked him to look into a situation…and he’s about to tell her what he has found out. Fans of Donna Leon already know that part of Brunetti’s daily work challenge comes from the inherent corruption of the judicial system, which often sends him into despair. Yet he loves Venice. Leon uses scenes showing the happy comforts provided by Brunetti’s family and family meals, with correct Venetian cuisine, to explain how Brunetti keeps his emotional balance. Despite grim crimes, despite his city’s corruption, Brunetti won’t leave: he’s part of Venice.

Food preferences make characters both human (don’t we all have preferences?) and distinctive. Think of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, shut in his hermetic mansion where his Swiss chef Fritz Brenner provides favorite dishes prepared just so.

Think of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, with his eternal tisanes.

Think of the strong food dislikes of Anne Hillerman’s policewoman Bernadette Manuelito. According to her husband Jim Chee, in Cave of Bones, Bernadette “had never ordered salad at a restaurant,” never made one at home, and if he made salad for them, she would eat only the iceberg lettuce and eat around the other vegetables. Pizza? Only pepperoni for her. Bernadette is smart, brave, sensible…but not when it comes to vegetables.

Louise Penny uses cooking to great effect in constructing the setting for her Inspector Gamache series, the quirky little Québec village of Three Pines. The village is isolated and rural, but has attracted exceedingly sophisticated residents—the poet Ruth, the sculptor Clara, Inspector Gamache and his wife Reine-Marie and others. This setting would seem quite improbable but for the role of the bistro, a place of style, comfort, warmth and great food. In the opening scene of A Better Man, “Clara’s and Myrna’s armchairs were pulled close to the hearth, where logs popped and sent embers fluttering up the field-stone chimney. The village bistro smelled of woodsmoke and maple syrup and strong fresh coffee.” Wouldn’t we all like a bistro like that, just across the village green? With really good coffee? Furthermore, the bistro, with its proprietors Gabri and Olivier, attracts other food artisans. When residents are desperately sandbagging the banks of the flooding river at Three Pines, these provide succor:

Gabri and Olivier were handing out hot drinks. Tea, coffee, hot chocolate, and soup. Monsieur Béliveau, the grocer, and Sarah the baker, were taking around trays of sandwiches. Brie and thick slices of maple-cured ham, and arugula on baguettes and croissants, and pain ménage.

The bistro is “home base” for this series. Inspector Gamache deals with crimes all across Quebec, but the inhabitants of Three Pines, glued together by the bistro, provide a vivid supporting cast and sometimes play leading roles in Penny’s series. I don’t think they’d stay in Three Pines if the food weren’t so good.

Like Louise Penny, Martha Grimes has created a character magnet in the village of Long Piddleton for her Richard Jury series: the Jack and Hammer pub. The Jack and Hammer serves as the central meeting point for the highly diverse supporting characters, including Jury’s noble sidekick, the wealthy Melrose Plant. Indeed, Grimes has named each book in the series for a pub, including The Old Success (2019). There’s usually a set piece in the books, always worth waiting for, where Melrose’s detested Aunt Agatha, angling for his fortune, invites herself to tea or dinner or invades his breakfast at Melrose’s manor house. During this scene in The Old Success we see Melrose, a little fussed because Ruthven the butler has not brought his usual egg cup, making “soldiers” as usual for breakfast––cutting his toast into oblongs and dipping them in his boiled egg.

“I always do,” Melrose said.  His breakfast habit cements Melrose in our minds as wed to his personal traditions…even though he currently eschews use of his title. Oh, and the butler Ruthven has brought his wife’s excellent cooking, including kippers and sausages, to the sideboard. Melrose’s house in Long Piddleton and the diverse village characters who meet at the Jack and Hammer form a solid home base regardless of how far (Africa, Europe, the Scillies) he and Jury range in solving the crime at hand, and how complex the crime. Sooner or later the threads may pull together at the Jack and Hammer.

Dance hall in Luckenbach, Texas, by WikiTryHardDieHard, CC BY-SA-3.0. Via Wikipedia.

I’ve used “the local” to create local flavor in the Alice MacDonald Greer series. The Beer Barn not only smells like local beer, and artisanal beer, but when Jaime’s in the kitchen, the Tex-Mex cooking is superb. The Beer Barn is meant to be the roadhouse/dance hall we all love in Central Texas. It’s where Alice meets enemies, hears a new singer in Ghost Dog, meets the reporter in Ghost Letter, tries to unravel a mystery with her best friend in Ghost Cat.

Texas dance halls still dot the back roads of the rugged Texas Hill Country with their own beer-infused local flavor, local dancing, local music from a dead-pan country band. The Beer Barn’s my dream institution.

Also a highly distinctive setting: the small town Texas coffee shop or cafe, with breakfast from the grill, mile-high pie and endless cups of coffee. And don’t forget the San Antonio ice house tradition. See K.P. Gresham’s series with its Fire and Ice House bar, beginning with The Preacher’s First Murder.  Local bars/diners/restaurants make great settings for murders, mysteries, and detectives. And to the joy of central Texans, many are still actually real…thank goodness.

Okay, what’s for lunch?

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Image of traditional English breakfast by Peter Marks from Pixabay
Image of cup and saucer by M. Maggs from Pixabay
Image of maple trees by diapicard from Pixabay
Images of book covers from Amazon.com

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Helen Currie Foster is author of the Alice MacDonald Greer mystery series. Her latest, GHOST CAT, was released in April 2020.

Alice Littlefield Residence Hall: Inspiration for a Ghost Story

“Alice’s ghost is rumored to haunt the dorm, but don’t worry, she’s a benevolent ghost. She likes to watch over students. Here is her picture,” said the tour guide escorting the new freshmen residents around the Alice Littlefield Residence Hall on the day I moved into the dorm at the University of Texas at Austin back in my college days.

A drawing of Alice Littlefield by her niece, Sarah Harral Duggan, that hangs in Littlefield Residence Hall.

Littlefield Hall was built in 1927 and is the oldest residence hall, or dormitory, on campus. George Littlefield, a former university regent, cattleman, banker, and Confederate soldier[1], donated the money for the building’s construction, specifying that it should be named for his wife Alice and that it should house only women students, to give them a homelike environment while attending the university. Alice and George’s children didn’t survive early childhood, a common tragedy of the late 1800s, so they used their wealth to educate their 17 nieces and 12 nephews, paying for all 29 to attend the University of Texas. The Littlefields housed a revolving door of student relatives in their Victorian mansion on the edge of the campus. Perhaps this is why Alice is rumored to still be watching over students.

In my two years of residence in Littlefield Hall, I never saw any ghosts, but I could see how the age and character of the historic building could inspire ghost stories. At that time, the building still featured an ancient Otis elevator that required the user to manually close, first, a gate and, then, a door before it would operate. Residents were only allowed to use that elevator if injured or if they were moving something heavy to an upper floor. The dorm rooms themselves had original doors, with giant old-style keyholes and transom windows painted shut above the door. Utility pipes added in decades after the building was completed ran along the walls in the rooms. Windowsills were crusted deep with layer upon layer of ancient paint. Air conditioning units had been added to the rooms under the windows, which we were forbidden to open, but many girls opened anyway. The building had atmosphere and charm, and was very old: the perfect place to imagine ghosts.

20180224_160451
Exterior of Littlefield Residence Hall, photo by N. M. Cedeno

In fact, some of my fellow residents insisted that they had experienced something paranormal in the dorm. One girl described seeing her books move off her desk and fall to the floor. Another swore to me that she had seen a ghostly girl, wearing only panties and bra, standing in front of the mirror inside one of the two walk-in closets in her third-floor dorm room. When I visited the dorm recently, one of the residents told me that she had selected the building because it was the closest she could get to living in a Hogwarts dorm[2].

2019-DegreesofDeceit-eBook (1)Therefore, when I decided to set one of my Bad Vibes Removal Services paranormal mysteries at the University of Texas, I didn’t have to look very far to find inspiration. My former residence’s history and reputation for ghosts inspired me to use a fictional version of Littlefield Hall as the setting for my paranormal mystery novel, Degrees of Deceit. And, of course, my fictional dorm, called Dellonmarsh Dorm, is occupied by a benevolent female ghost, looking out for the residents as they are harassed by a malevolent prankster intent on disrupting the academic semester.

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N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is currently working on a series called Bad Vibes Removal Services. The second novel in the series, entitled Degrees of Deceit, came out in August 2019.  Ms. Cedeño is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter.

Footnotes:

[1] George Littlefield is a controversial figure. He was a generous philanthropist and supporter of women’s education, and a former slave-owning, proud Southerner with the attendant prejudices of that position. His heroes were Confederate generals, and he paid for their statues to be placed on the UT campus. Those statues were removed from campus several years ago. 

[2] The fictional Harry Potter school also known for its stately antiques and ghosts.

I Won’t Kill the Governor!

 

by K.P. Gresham

 

The Texas Governor’s Mansion is the perfect setting for my next book in the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series. I’ve said it before, I LOVE doing research for my stories, and studying up on the Governor’s Mansion is a blast. Such rich history. So many anecdotes. I just had to share some of them with you.

First off, I am not a native Texan (though I’ve lived here for thirty-six years) so most of what I’ve learned is all new territory for me. To that end, I must credit The FRIENDS of the GOVERNOR’S MANSION who wrote The Governor’s Mansion of Texas, A Historic Tour, published in 1985, as well as the website https://gov.texas.gov/first-lady/history  for most of this information.

The Mansion’s history began with a $14,500 appropriation from the legislature roughly a decade after Texas became a state in 1845. Austin master builder Abner Cook was awarded the construction contract. This beautiful home has served as the official residence of Texas governors and their families since 1856.  (Governor Elisha M.  Pease and his family were the mansion’s first occupants.) It is the fourth oldest continuously occupied governor’s residence in the country and the oldest governor’s mansion west of the Mississippi River.

The mansion stayed pretty much in its original condition until after the Civil War when Governor Edmund J. Davis started a line of renovations in 1879 with an indoor lavatory installation. By 1915, there was running water, a telephone, electricity and wallpaper and more living space. I could go on, with more renovations, security installations, historic donations, BUT!

What makes this Mansion beloved are the stories of the people who lived there.

One of my favorites was the tale of Governor James Hogg (the first native Texan to become governor) and his rambunctious four children. To this day, the stair railings are still scarred  where Governor Hogg hammered nails to deter his children from sliding down the banister.

Another fave. Governor Joseph D. Sayers—the one who had electricity and wallpaper installed–owned a dog. Well, his dog must have appreciated all the modern improvements because when it was time for the Sayers family to move out of the house, the dog refused to leave. He stayed with the carriage driver the rest of his days—at the Mansion.

Then there was Governor Miriam “Ma” Ferguson, the first female governor of Texas. She vowed to return to the Mansion after her husband was impeached, (yes, James Ferguson had served as governor and gotten the boot). She was elected and arrived in the same Packard the family used to leave in 1917.  An interesting aside: Mrs. Ferguson fought to end the Ku Klux Klan, passing an anti-mask law making it illegal to wear masks in public. Now isn’t that topical in this day and age?

So many stories, so little time. I haven’t even mentioned Queen Elizabeth’s visit, or the unsolved 2008 arsonist attack on the Mansion in 2008 or its more recent occupants. I mean to think about it. How could I describe Ann Richards in one blog?

To that end, I highly recommend the above mentioned book or a quick visit to the link I’ve shared above. Thank you to all who kept records of the history of the Mansion so folks like me can wonder and laugh and learn to appreciate just this one small piece of our Texas heritage. Think how much, much more there is to learn!

Like I said, I like doing research when I’m writing a book. And, I’ll even give you a hint about this, the fourth installment in the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series.

I don’t kill the Governor–but everyone else is game!

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Image of Governor’s Mansion by skeeze from Pixabay

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K.P. Gresham is author of the Pastor Matt Hayden mystery series. Her latest is MURDER ON THE THIRD TRY

 

Reverted to Type

 

 

 

by Kathy Waller

When I opened my personal blog, back in the Dark Ages, I titled it To Write Is to Write Is to Write. I intended to tell everything I know about writing.

Everything I knew filled roughly 2.5 posts.

Now I write about what I don’t know about writing and leave giving advice to those who know what they’re doing.

Reverting to my old librarian persona, I also write about blogs by writers who aren’t anywhere near running out of material. Here’s a short list.

Friday Fictioneers

Each Friday, Rochelle Wisoff-Fields invites readers to compose 100-word stories based on a photo prompt. Writers post stories on their own blogs and then link to an inLinkz list to share with other Fictioneers and with the public. It’s fun. Specific rules are found here.

Sammi Cox

Sammi Cox posts a weekend word prompt: The rules: “Write a piece of flash fiction, a poem, a chapter for your novel…anything you like.  Or take the challenge below – there are no prizes – it’s not a competition but rather a fun writing exercise.” Participants are free to link their efforts in the comments.

Chris the Story Reading Ape

TSRA introduces readers to authors, gives authors a platform, and provides information for writers aspiring to be published.

—from Uninspired Writers: “Writer’s Block? Relax! Do Something Else”

—from Jami Gold: “Tips for Creating the Right Impression of Our Characters”

—from Lucy Mitchell: “Why Some Stories Are Like Bridges to Other Stories” 

—from Anne R. Allen’s Blog  . . . with Ruth Harris: “Freewrite: How to Write About Traumatic Events Without Adding More Trauma” by Marlene Cullen

TSRA also promotes—and thank goodness, considering how much writers need it—”FUN and an OASIS OF CALM and Font of useful Knowledge andTips for Indies (please do NOT feed my naughty chimps or they may follow you home) from the woes and stresses of the real world”—such as,

“LOLs Courtesy of BlueBird.”

Kate Shrewsday

Kate was on a bit of a hiatus for a while but is back now with “Social Distancing for Dogs.” She’s posted a lot of dog stories—my favorites are about the dear (and sometimes smelly) Macaulay, the dog with the Neville Chamberlain mustache, including

“The Miasmatron: Or Never Feed Steak to a Dog”

“The Terrier’s Apprentice”

“The Day the Dog Did What He Was Told” [with video]

Rummage through her blog. You’ll find many more gems on many more subjects.

Hugh’s News and Views

Hugh posts about “this, that, and everything else,” but my favorite posts are the Blogging Tips, such as,

“7 Things To Lookout For Before Following A Blog”

“How to Use Excerpts to Get More Visitors to Read Your Blog”

and one treasure for WordPress users:

“How to Backup Your WordPress Blog to Prevent Losing All Its Contents”

A Pondering Mind

A Pondering Mind posts words of wisdom,

Old wisdom:

“The reading of all good books is like a conversation with the finest minds of past centuries.” ~ Rene Descartes

New wisdom:

“We are all now connected by the Internet, like neurons in a giant brain.” ~ Stephen Hawking

And—again, thank goodness—amusing wisdom:

“Do you know how helpless you feel if you have a full cup of coffee in your hand and you start to sneeze?” ~ Jean Kerr

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I could go on—my first draft is twice as long as this one—but the deadline loomed hours ago. I hope you’ll check out some of these blogs. And I hope you enjoy them and return for more.

And—do you have any blogs you’d like to share? Including your own. Record them in a comment.

***

Image  of New York City Public Library lion by Chinem McCollum from Pixabay

Image of apes and books by Gerhard G. from Pixabay

Image of cowboy reading by mosla99 from Pixabay

***

Kathy renamed her personal blog Telling the Truth, Mainly, and, in her posts, tells the truth, mainly. Her guests tell the truth, mainly, too.

The original title, To Write Is to Write Is to Write, is a fragment of a quotation from Gertrude Stein, who knew how to write and who told Ernest Hemingway how to write.

The current title comes from the first chapter of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Mark Twain knew everything about writing. Ernest Hemingway said so.

MORE OLIVE OIL, PLEASE? Francine Paino

From better writers than I’ll ever be, over the past weeks of being locked down, I’ve read many beautifully written high-minded prose on self-reflection, and assessments of personal, social, and political attitudes in these tumultuous times. My question, however, is simpler. Will we emerge as a new nation of truly liberal thinkers who can share ideas, even ones that are contrary to our mindsets? Truthfully, I don’t know the answer. But having survived disasters, losses, injuries, and illnesses, I know that this too shall pass, and I refuse to be beaten down now. For me, it’s “one foot in front of the other,” and march on.

So, on the lighter side, how do I pull myself back to center and regain control? I walk on the treadmill (ugh!), clean, and organize what’s gotten out of control during life before COVID (double ugh!). I catch up on DVR programs and read a mountain of books. While all of these are helpful, the number one activity that I find satisfying and refreshing, and restores my sense of control is cooking.

My entire childhood and a good part of my adulthood were spent in Corona, NY (nothing to do with the virus), an immigrant community where Italian cooking, reigned supreme. I remember the lively discussions, sharing of methods, and debates between my grandmother, my mother, and other relatives and friends about the finer points of preparing foods, even something as seemingly simple as making a marinara sauce. 

Even my grandfather had opinions about good cooking, and his pet peeve was potatoes. After working 18-hour days in the business he built from scratch or tending his little farm, he took a direct hand in food preparations, insisting that spuds be sliced in precisely the correct thickness and shape for each different recipe. Today’s cooks have the mandolin to help with that. The only mandolin he’d ever heard of was the kind that made music!

Then there’s Julia Child. “I don’t get the whole thing with Italian cooking,” she once said. “They put some herbs on things, they put them in the oven, and they take them out again.” To the revered American master of French cooking, Italian cooking was too easy. 

Well, Ms. Child, I beg to differ, but first a little culinary history.

The development of French food reaches back to medieval times. During this era, according to the ECPI blog, “French cuisine was fundamentally the same as Moorish Cuisine,” and everything was served at the same time, service en confusion

In time, presentation became very important, and great value was placed on rich and beautiful displays, utilizing consumable items such as egg yolks saffron, spinach, and sunflower for color. “One of the most elaborate dinners was roast peacock or roast swan, which was sewn back into its skin and quills to look intact. The feet and nose were plated with gold to finish the exhibition.” 

It was in the 16th century that French cooking received an infusion of new ideas. While the Renaissance flourished in Italy, the powerful Florentine Medici family married off their 15-year-old princess, Catherine, to Henri, Duc d’ Orleans. Off to France, the princess went, taking with her the chefs in her service and their advanced cooking skills. They were already creating dishes such as lasagna, and manicotti, which are still staples of Italian cooking today, as they experimented with truffles and mushrooms. 

Even though these two culinary schools’ took distinctive and separate paths, the French owe much of their gastronomic advancements to the Italians, thanks to Catherine de Medici.

Over time, French cooking became revered for its Haute Cuisine, developed to entertain French royalty. Steeped in butter, fats, fancy crusts, and all sorts of disguises, still, one must guess or be told what they are eating, delicious though it is. 

We Italians, on the other hand, don’t really like our foods disguised. We like to know what we are eating as soon as it’s on the plate – or at least as soon as we’ve taken the first bite. 

Italian cooking has grown from centuries of learning how a few simple ingredients enhance each other. What evolved into today’s Italian cuisine began during the Roman Empire. Of course, then, as now, the wealthy could afford to buy and try the exotic and foreign. Thus, the most affluent Romans had cooks experimenting with foods from the lands they’d conquered: Spices from the Middle East, fish from the Mediterranean, and cereals from the North African plains. The majority of folk, however, relied on the “Mediterranean Triad:  vine, grain, and olive,” and two thousand years later, pure Italian olive oil is still a universal leader, for its purity of taste and clarity.

Most Italian cooking is, on the surface, simple – needing few ingredients, but the knowledge of how to use them is what makes the dishes shine. For example, the American habit of overwhelming pasta with sauce is un-Italian. Properly prepared, Italian sauces are intensely flavorful and should only coat the pasta, not drown it.

 Contrary to Ms. Child’s belief, however, there are some very complicated Italian dishes for which one needs patience, time, and the willingness to try, fail, throw it away, and try again. Homemade lasagna and manicotti, originating during the Renaissance continue to be a labor of love. The Bolognese Sauce that is misrepresented in America as just a simple meat sauce takes hours to prepare.

There are other delicacies such as the Pizza Grana, a traditional Neapolitan Easter pie. Years ago, my grandmother, my mother, and I made these every Easter. It was indeed a labor of love. There is a link below for the industrious who want a challenge. A word of warning, though. Do NOT use any prepared pie crusts. Part of the lusciousness of the recipe is the sweet crust (pasta frolla). If you read the recipe, you’ll understand why it’s limited to an annual preparation.

Then there is my favorite. Homemade pancetta and black pepper bread. I don’t bake it too often because my husband and I eat too much of it.                                                                                                  

                   

Vegetable are fundamental to the Italian diet, and here a word on olive oil is essential. Olive oils range from cooking quality to the more expensive finishing quality. They vary in flavor and weight from region to region, and those differences are especially significant for vegetables because heat alters the flavonoids that give the oil its flavor. Thus, I often use a less expensive oil to sauté broccoli, aglio e olio, (garlic and olive oil), which can be served as a side dish (contorno), or as part of a first course, (prima piatta). Pour it over Orrechietti pasta, add a little grated cheese, and serve with a mixed salad. You have a meal. 

String beans are one of my family’s favorite vegetables. Blanched for no more than one minute to retain vitamins, then cooled, and sprinkled with salt and high quality, cold-pressed, pure Italian Olive Oil, my grandchildren can and do eat green beans prepared this way by the pound.

As you can imagine, the volumes written about all cooking, including Italian cuisine, can fill bookstores. Cooking can be creative and imaginative. Take a basic recipe as I did with the pancetta and black pepper and add or change ingredients and invent something new. So, instead of allowing this upside-down, dangerous world to rob me of my peace and inspiration, I go to the kitchen where I feel free, refreshed, in control, and creative.

But it’s time to end my musings on the creative benefits of cooking. My grandchildren await me at the kitchen table, staring at the mountain of green beans, asking for, “more olive oil, please?” 

 As my favorite Italian chef, Lidia Bastianich, says, “tutti in cucina a cucinare.”

Everyone in the kitchen, to cook!

For detailed information on the evolution of French cooking, see the Brief History of French Cuisine: https://www.ecpi.edu/blog/a-brief-history-of-french-cuisine

The history of Italian food: https://www.lifeinitaly.com/food/history-of-food/the-history-of-italian-cuisine-i/

Pizza Grana Recipe http://blogs.poughkeepsiejournal.com/dishnthat/2009/04/13/pizza-grana-is-a-rich-easter-tradition/

PANCETTA AND BLACK PEPPER BREAD

Begin with a basic artisan bread https://www.thecomfortofcooking.com/2013/04/no-knead-crusty-artisan-bread.html

To make this into a pancetta and black pepper bread, before beginning the dough, sautee ½ – 1 lb chopped pancetta (I recommend Primo, Italian style diced) DO NOT COOK THROUGH. Allow it to cool.

Add the cooled pancetta in the first step of making the bread, along with 1-2 TBSPN coarse black pepper.

Be sure to have a cooking thermometer that goes up to 250 degrees. Generally, bread is cooked through at 200 – 210.

FOR A CRASH COURSE ON OLIVE OILS https://www.wnyc.org/story/last-chance-foods-how-pick-best-italian-olive-oil/

JuliaChild:

ILLUSTRATION AND PICTURE ATTRIBUTIONS:

Peacock: S T R A V A G A N Z A: WHAT WAS THE BEST MEAL IN HISTORY?

PizzaGrana: http://blogs.poughkeepsiejournal.com/dishnthat/2009/04/13/pizza-grana-is-a-rich-easter-tradition/

 Italian bread – Francine Paino

Woman in kitchen: Pixabay

Learning from Memoir–Surviving Catastrophe and Loss

by  Renee Kimball

Memoir – noun:  a narrative composed from personal experience  – Merriam Webster Dictionary.

Every memoir reminds us of the faraway and long ago, of loss and change, of persons and places beyond recall  –  Abigail McCarthy

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. –  Viktor E. Frankl

Thirty-five miles south of Austin Texas, is the small rural town where I have lived for over twenty years.  I am still considered an outsider—I was not born here, nor were my “people.”  In mid-January, local social community media posts were largely dismissive of the potential disaster headed our way.

The media had announced the first confirmed case of Covid-19 on January 19, 2020, in Snohomish County, Washington.  Central Texas was slow to acknowledge what was coming. *  Mid-February, stronger warnings in the air; March gusted full of tangy-tangible fear, and hoarding toilet paper became a joke-du-jour.

Then Central Texas’ Covid-19 cases mounted; Stay-At-Home orders followed.  The only entity that was prepared for the looming crisis was the Texas grocery chain H.E.B., and for that, all Texans must remain eternally grateful. ** One day it was garage-sale-car-wash-fund raising small-town normal, then just like that, the world melted.

Now mid-June, many seek an end to quarantine because we must save the economy, we are impatient, we are bored, the pandemic is a hoax, our liberties are being abridged, we are out of money, we can’t go on like this, this isn’t living, they say, people will die either way, a 1%-2% death rate is acceptable, or is it?

In the Southern states, the pandemic is not abating; the news says cases are rising.

People keep saying these are extraordinary times, we must be flexible and compromise, we must continue to stay home, the recovery will be slow, maybe after the summer.  Will schools be open in the fall?  No one knows for certain and people continue to sicken, and many, to die.

For some during times of stress, books offer comfort, friendship, and escape-they are a testament to survival.  Personal memoirs show how inner strength and perseverance can sustain the survivor.  Despite heartbreaking cruelty and immense loss for some, memoirs show that on the other side of great trauma, the sufferer can rise to thrive again.

Night by Elie Wiesel (1956).  Elie Wiesel was an adolescent when his Jewish family was forced by the Nazis to take their fatal trip to the death camps.  Wiesel’s mother, father, and sister all died there.  Elie survived both Auschwitz and Buchenwald.  Night is the first of several books by Wiesel about the Holocaust, known as the Jewish Shoah.

In 1986 Wiesel received the Nobel Peace Prize for his life’s work.  After living a full life of grace, love, and generosity, Wiesel passed away at the age of 87.  He is still quoted and revered today for his singular, razor-sharp intellect and life-long activism on behalf of Jews, Israel, and the oppressed everywhere.

“. . . Convinced that this period in history would be judged one day, I knew that I must bear witness. . .I had many things to say, I did not have the words to say them. . . Hunger—thirst—fear—transport—selection—fire—chimney; these words all have intrinsic meaning, but in those times, they meant something else.” (Night, p. viii)

“. . . I remember: it happened yesterday, or eternities ago.  A young Jewish boy discovered the Kingdom of Night.  I remember his bewilderment; I remember his anguish.  It all happened so fast. . . The fiery altar upon which the history of our people and the future of mankind were meant to be sacrificed.” (Night, p. 118)

“. . .And now the boy is turning to me. “Tell me,” he asks, “what have you done with my future, what have you done with your life?” And I tell him I have tried. That I have tried to keep memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.” (Night, p. 118).

“. . .And then I explain to him how naïve we were, that the world did know and remained silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation.  We must take sides. . .” (Night, p. 118).

Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl (1985).  Unlike Wiesel, Victor E. Frankl was an adult with a medical degree when he was sent to the camps.  From his experience, Frankl derived his psychiatric theory of Logotheraphy, its foundational premise–man’s search for the meaning of life.

“. . . I had wanted simply to convey to the reader by way of a concrete example that life holds a potential meaning under any conditions even the most miserable ones.” (Frankl, p. 12).

“. . .This story is not about the suffering and death of great heroes and martyrs. . .nor well-known prisoners. . .Thus it is not so much concerned with the sufferings of the mighty, but with the sacrifices, the crucifixion and the deaths of the great army of unknown and unrecorded victims. . .” (Frankl, p. 17).

“   In spite of all the enforced physical and mental primitiveness of the life in a concentration camp, it was possible for spiritual life to deepen.  Sensitive people who were used to a rich intellectual life may have suffered much pain . . .but the damage to their inner selves was less. . .” (Frankl, p. 47).

“. . .In the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was not the result of camp influences alone.  Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him—mentally and spiritually.  He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp. . .” (Frankl, p. 75).

Childhood by Jona Oberski (1978).  Oberski’s story is fictional, but drawn from his real-life Holocaust experience.  The narrator of Childhood is a four-year-old Jewish boy who lives in a concentration camp with his mother.  In life, Oberski was sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp at four years of age and released at age seven.  Both of Oberski’s parents died in the camps.  After liberation, a friend of his mother’s took Oberski to Amsterdam, where he was adopted.  The success of Childhood is the narrative’s sparseness, the childlike focus and intensity of his experience.

. . .His mother’s voice, “Don’t be afraid. Everything’s all right. I’m right here.” (Oberski, p. 1).

“. . .My father took me with him to his office.  My mother had sewn a yellow star on my coat. She said, “Look, now you’ve got a pretty star, just like Daddy. . .” (Oberski, p. 15).

“. . . A man was shouting, I woke up.  The door of my room was pulled open.  Somebody stomped in. . . . “Hurry, hurry, “the man yelled. “We’ve got to go; I have my orders.” He slung his gun over his shoulder and left the room. The gun banged against the door.” (Oberski, p. 15).

“. . .Then we had to go outside.  All along the street there were people in black coats.  We had to follow them.  And behind us there were still more people. . .We go into the train. . .” (Oberski, p. 19).

“. . .Now listen carefully,” my mother said. I’m going to show you something without using my finger.  And you mustn’t point either.  And you mustn’t look that way too long.  Just do exactly as I say.  Look over my shoulder.  Do you see the watchtower?
“. . . That hut is the watchtower.  There’s a watchtower on every side of the camp. Didn’t you know that? (Oberski, p. 41).

Survival in Auschwitz The Nazi Assault on Humanity by Primo Levi (1947).

Levi was 25 years old, a trained chemist, and a member of the Italian Resistance when taken prisoner by the German Reich.  Transferred numerous times, he landed in Auschwitz, staying there almost a full year before liberation.

Levi writes that his account was not to be used to add to the list of Nazi atrocities already reported, but as a study in human nature.  His story starkly reveals how effective the Nazi methods were in the systematic dehumanization of prisoners.

After the war, Levi returned to Turin, Italy, resumed his post as a chemist, moved into management.  In 1977, Levi retired to devote full-time to writing poetry and novels, and became a well-respected author.  Levi passed away in 1987; his writings remain influential even today.

“. . .As an account of atrocities, therefore, this book of mine adds nothing to what is already known to readers throughout the world on the disturbing question of the death camps. . . it should be able, rather to furnish documentation for a quiet study of certain aspects of the human mind.  (Levi, p. 9).

“Many people—many nations—can find themselves holding, more or less wittingly, that ‘every stranger is an enemy’.  For the most part this conviction lies deep down like some latent infection; it betrays itself only in random, disconnected acts, and does not lie at the base of a system of reason.  But when this does come about, when the unspoken dogma becomes the major premise in a syllogism, then at the end of the chain, there is the Lager. . .” (Levi, p. 9).

“. . .I have never seen old men naked. . . shaved and sheared. What comic faces we have without hair! . . .Finally, another door is opened: here we are, locked in, naked sheared and standing, with our feet in water—it is a shower room. . .” (Levi, ps. 22-23).

“. . .Then for the first time we became aware that our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man.  In a moment, with almost prophetic intuition, the reality was revealed to us: we had reached the bottom.  It is not possible to sink lower than this; no human condition is more miserable than this, nor could it conceivably be so.  Nothing belongs to us any more. . .” (Levi, p. 27).

“. . .They have even taken away our name: and if we want to keep it, we will have to find ourselves the strength to do so, to manage somehow so that behind the name something of us, of us as we were, still remains.” (Levi, p. 27).

“. . . The days all seem alike, and it is not easy to count them.  For days now, we have formed teams of two, from the railway to the store-a hundred yards over thawing ground. . .” (Levi, p. 42).

Endings and Beginnings

America is not the first country, nor this generation the first, to face a catastrophe of momentous proportions–weighty words.  Like Levi’s days, the Covid-19 days “seem alike, and it is not easy to count them.”

When this is over, and we look back to the time of Covid-19, will we be like Wiesel, Frankl, and Levi, finding our language incapable of describing what we saw, what we did, the horror, the shock of what we experienced?  In the future, when we speak of quarantine, masks, hand-sanitizer, ventilators or  Personal Protection Equipment, will our voices catch?

What can we learn from what is happening to our country, the world, and everyone around us?  What are our responsibilities now and going forward?  Will we rally for change in healthcare? Will we face our responsibilities to ensure that this doesn’t happen again or will we forget?  What is our duty to ourselves our country?  Do we know?  We do know that Covid-19 does not discriminate, everyone equally vulnerable, a potential victim.

Like Wiesel, we must speak out against injustice where we can, and when able, to help one another in whatever capacity we can.  There are many hurting now; there will be many after.  We have to find a way to ensure the greater good of all before anything else–somewhere that lesson has been lost to us as a nation.  If we are to save ourselves, we must earnestly help everyone else, even those who would fight against our helping others.

And as Frankl clearly explains, any time, but particularly now, is the time for self-reflection, a time when “. . . any man can, . . . decide what shall become of him—mentally and spiritually.” It is our time to build a rich inner life; if we are able, and are lucky enough, to shelter in place, or not, now is the time to look inward.  Ultimately, how we react, how we go forward, is up to each of us individually.

Lastly during this time of Covid-19, I give to each of you Levi’s words, if I know you or if I do not. . . To all of you the humble wish, That autumn will be long and mild.” (Levi, To My Friends).

(Italian) Benedizioni a te e alla tua famiglia  – Blessings to you and your family.

(Romanian) Binecuvântări pentru tine și familia ta. – Blessings to you and your family.

(German) Segen für Sie und Ihre Familie – Blessings to you and your family.

*

To My Friends 

Dear friends, and here I say friends
the broad sense of the word:
Wife, sister, associates, relatives,
Schoolmates of both sexes,
People seen only once
Or frequented all my life;
Provided that between us, for at least a moment,
A line has been stretched,
A well-defined bond.
I speak for you, companions of a crowded
Road, not without its difficulties,
And for you too, who have lost
Soul, courage, the desire to live;
Or no one, or someone, or perhaps only one person, or you
Who are reading me: remember the time
Before the wax hardened,
When everyone was like a seal.
Each of us bears the imprint
Of a friend met along the way;
In each the trace of each.
For good or evil
In wisdom or in folly
Everyone stamped by everyone.
Now that the time crowds in
And the undertakings are finished,
|To all of you the humble wish
That autumn will be long and mild.

– Primo Levi

***

References

Images “Toilet Paper Basket” and “Corona Virus” via Pixabay
Images of book covers via Amazon.com

“Our New COVID-19 Vocabulary—What Does It All Mean?”

*First Case of 2019 Novel Coronavirus in the United States

**“Inside the Story of How H-E-B Planned for the Pandemic” 

Logotherapy is a term derived from “logos,” a Greek word that translates as “meaning,” and therapy, which is defined as treatment of a condition, illness, or maladjustment. Developed by Viktor Frankl, . . logotherapy is the pursuit of that meaning for one’s life.

“Conavirus live updates”: Trump announces federal ‘blueprint’ for testing”

***

A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are reading and writing. She is an active Animal Advocate and fosters and rescues both dogs and cats and works with various organizations to find them

Please Take (a) Note!

by Helen Currie Foster

Lately I’ve been thinking about remarkable people who never got to see the significance of their work, regardless of its brilliance. People whose minds moved so fast their words didn’t compute, for most listeners. People whose contributions went unrecognized for many years. And if they hadn’t written down their ideas? Maybe eventually someone would have made the same discoveries, but when?

Here are just three.

I’d never heard of Simon Stevin until I read Michael Pye’s The Edge of the World (2014), on how modernity reached the shores of the North Sea. Stevin, born illegitimate in Bruges in 1548, worked as a book-keeper in Antwerp, and then enlisted at the liberal new Leiden University. He produced a book on double-entry book-keeping and another on figuring the interest on borrowed money, when publishing such hard-won information was a subversive revolutionary act. This “engineer, book-keeper, king of numbers,” per Pye, wanted to make math work in the everyday world. 

Stevin tutored his student friend Prince Maurits in math, beginning a lifelong association. He made the prince a sailing chariot for the beach, with two sails, four great wheels, and flags flying. Stevin informed the prince the earth went around the sun. When Maurits became king, Stevin became an army engineer, devising, pumps, dredgers, windmills. He produced an influential treatise on fortifications and another on how to calculate longitude at sea. He wrote a book asking Dutch cities to adopt uniform money measures, suggested a decimal system, founded a mathematics curriculum at Leiden. And he wrote down these ideas! Stevin’s dream, that explaining practical mathematics would help his country thrive, eventually came true––though not necessarily in his lifetime.

You already know about the world’s first computer programmer? Another who did not live to see her work recognized is Countess Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s daughter. At seventeen she began helping mathematician Charles Babbage with his “difference machine” for math calculations. In 1843 she published an article in an English science journal describing processes we now call computer programs, including how to create codes using letters and symbols as well as numbers. She died of uterine cancer in 1852, at 37. Her work came to public attention in 1953 when B.V. Bowden republished her notes in Faster than Thought: A Symposum on Digital Computing Machines. In 1980 the U.S. Department of Defense named a new computer language “Ada.”

“We’re still catching up with one of the greatest minds of the last century.” That’s Anthony Gottlieb, “The New Yorker,” May 4, 2020, on Frank P. Ramsey. Ramsey––a Cambridge (UK) scholar whose genial brilliance intimidated his professors when he appeared on campus at 18––died at only 26, in 1930. Economists, philosophers and mathematicians are still exploring the “Ramsey effect” on their disciplines. He was immediately taken up by Maynard Keynes, and refuted Keynes’s fuzzy notions of probability. He was tapped to translate Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” from Germanas the only German speaker available who could not only understand what Wittgenstein was trying to say, but say it more clearly (he reportedly dictated his translation). In one paper he created two math theorems which, decades after his death, became part of the “Ramsey theory” analyzing order and disorder. (See video of a student working a Ramsey probability problem). Ramsey’s modesty about his astounding abilities made him appear almost offhand about his accomplishments.

As a student of Virginia Woolf, I blinked twice to find Ramsey appearing in her diary (February 1923).

Yes!–– at dinner with Maynard Keynes. “Ramsay [sic], the unknown guest, was something like a Darwin, broad, thick, powerful & a great mathematician, & clumsy to boot. Honest I should say, a true Apostle.” Keynes at least tangentially belonged, with Virginia and Leonard Woolf, to the Bloomsbury group, which included several members of the select Cambridge “Apostles” club (including Leonard Woolf). In 1927, Woolf published To the Lighthouse about a family she called the Ramsays, where Mr. Ramsay, a professor, fears that though he has reached Q, he lacks genius and will never be able to think his way past Q, that he’ll never reach R: “How many men in a thousand million, he asked himself, reach Z after all?” If Woolf had known then what we know now she’d have known Frank Ramsey could easily have reached R and zoomed on past Z. 

Okay, I admit I took the Special Math Course for English Majors to get my math graduation credit. Yes, I did. Nevertheless I’m doggedly staggering through the first full biography of Ramsey, Frank Ramsey: A Sheer Excess of Powers, by Cheryl Misak (Oxford Press 2020), fascinated by his mind and especially his lightly worn “sheer excess of powers.” I might, even, try to find his 1926 paper about truth and subjective probability, where he said we should take account of people’s judgment of probability.” 

Now there’s a pungent topic for mystery writers. At every turn, our characters use subjective probability to make decisions. “Can I kill without being caught?” “Can I catch this villain without being killed?” “Have I examined all the what-if’s here?” “What are the chances anyone will recognize me?” Suspense lies in decisions made on subjective probability.

Okay, so Ramsey died without knowing that ninety years later University of Georgia students in hoodies, poised at the whiteboard, would be filming explanations of “Ramsey Theory.” Ada Lovelace died without knowing the Defense Department would name a computer language for her.  If asked, would she have preferred Countess? Would she be fascinated by the world of hacking? Simon Stevin would drive our city streets, ready to opine on public transportation–would he recommend air-conditioned tubes, with moving sidewalks, to move people east and west across Austin? Or possibly a sailboat with wheels?

Now we come to you. Yes, you. How will we know what you thought?

Stevin, Lovelace and Ramsey at least published some of their work. You can go farther. You own your copyright as soon as your work is “fixed.” You can also provide notice of copyright by using the symbol or the word “Copyright” and your name and the year of first publication, and registering your copyright by paying the required fee and depositing required copy(ies) of your work, thereby creating a public record of your copyright claim. (See details and requirements here.) 

That’s at least a start. As for Aeschylus, only seven of his seventy to ninety tragedies remain intact. Sophocles? Only seven of over a hundred remain. Euripides? Eighteen of over ninety-five remain. Sappho? We have only two complete poems out of her nine books of verse, from the woman the ancients called “the tenth Muse.”

Will depositing your work at the Library of Congress––oh yes, you must––give us some assurance we can know your ideas, your writings, a century hence? The Alexandrian Library didn’t fare so well. Nor did the Dresden Sächsische Landesbibliothek which lost perhaps 200,000 volumes in the Allied bombing of the Dresden historic center. The 1986 fire at the Los Angeles Library burned 400,000 books.

No guarantees, but it’s a start. At least try to leave the world a copy. Even if you leave us too soon, even if fame has not yet arrived…you never know. A century from now, maybe…?

Beware, Sherlock Holmes!

 

By K.P. Gresham

The spring of 2020 has provided me with the opportunity to return to one of my favorite pastimes…and escapes.

READING!

And why not get back to my favorite sleuth, Sherlock Holmes?

I’ve spent the last few months catching up present-day iterations of the iconic and prolific Sherlock Holmes. Arthur Conan Doyle’s private detective first saw publication in 1887. Since then, authors (and screenwriters) around the world have given a go at their take on the famous detective.

My first selection was The Lady Sherlock Series by Sherry Thomas.  As its title suggests, Sherlock Holmes is actually a woman names Charlotte Holmes. This turned out to be a delightful read. Thomas creates a storyline that sounds far-fetched but pulls it off with insightful references to the original Doyle short stories. The mysteries she’s created don’t allow you to put the books down.

Next, I turned to Laurie King’s bestselling novel, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. In this book and those following in the series, an aging Sherlock is befriended by (or is it she who befriends him?) a highly observant, seventeen year-old woman who rivals his abilities in observation and deduction. She soon becomes his apprentice in the detective game, and then…well…the game’s afoot!

Anna Castle writes a delightful series, The Professor and Mrs. Moriarity Mysteries. In her incredibly believable way, Castle creates a world where Professor Moriarty is the good guy, and Sherlock Holmes is not. Not exactly, anyway.

Other authors have had their own way with Holmes. The Sherlock Holmes – Anthony Horowitz Series comes to mind as well as the Anna Elliott and Charles Veley series, The Sherlock Holmes and Lucy James Mysteries. Even Kareem Adbul-Jabar co-wrote a series based on Mycroft Holmes.

Now the warning. Reading all these Sherlock Holmes iterations (and binge-watching movies/series featuring Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, Robert Downey, Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch) puts one in a mood to eat. Apparently I’m highly suggestible when reading a good book. When the characters have tea, I want tea. And I’m not just talking about the beverage. I’ve been chowing down on tea sandwiches, scones, pastries, desserts–and I’m not even a sweets lover. And when a character in the book has had a shock or a close call, whiskey is handed out in short order. Now I don’t drink whiskey, but I manage to find my own libation. I hate to see a character drink alone.

So thanks to that lean, tall Sherlock Holmes, I have put on the extra pounds that he willfully sheds when he’s on the hunt for a villain.

Alas.

If you’re looking for a comfort binge in these difficult times, I suggest you give Sherlock Holmes a try. But remember! You’ve been warned that you might come away with more (weight) than you bargained for!