DON’T WALK UNDER A LADDER – BAD LUCK!

BY

Francine Paino AKA F. Della Notte

Lucky Ladybug. Lucky penny. Lucky horseshoe. Friday the 13th. Knock on wood. Hundreds of superstitions and rituals flow through our lives, although we smile at the mention of such things, like throwing a pinch of spilled salt over the left shoulder. For an Italian, never put only two coffee beans in a snifter of Sambucca—bad luck. 

Superstitions have been around since man stood up on two legs. Often they have been absorbed through family beliefs, traditions, and cultures. Some even began with common sense. I won’t walk under a ladder or open an umbrella in the house, but athletic and artistic pursuits are riddled with ritual and superstition.

Athletes and artists are more disposed to rely on them because the common ground they share is the pressure of constant uncertainty. Despite the advances in education, communication, and science, even without outside forces promoting superstition or rigid ritualistic preparations, one incident, one supposed object of good fortune, can immediately create a sense of security. Many psychologists believe that the dependency on ritualistic practices and superstitions, when observed devoutly, actually helps the individual feel more confident that they’ve done everything to keep the fates on their side.

No athlete, regardless of how gifted or trained, can be sure of the outcome of a contest. No artist, regardless of talent, training, and rehearsal if a performer, can know whether or not a show will be good or well-received. And worse, despite the athletes’ and artists’ best efforts, they have no long–term assurances. Will they be injured? Will they be picked up again after a contract expires? Will they be re-hired for another show or dance company? And added to these stresses is the pressure of the ticking clock. Most athletes and artists have a limited shelf life.

Baseball’s Wade Boggs had a five-hour pregame ritual of obsessive detail and ate nothing but chicken for twenty years. He even wrote Fowl Tips, a book on his favorite chicken recipes. And long ago, baseball legend Babe Ruth always stepped on second base on his way in from the outfield. 

Tennis superstar Bjorn Borg’s entire family maintained a complicated routine of pregame habits, and Borg never shaved once a tournament began. During tennis tournaments, one might notice that some players will wear the same outfit every day, especially if they’re winning. 

Then there are the superstitions that weave through the arts. 

In music, there is the Curse of the Ninth. For a long time, a rumor circulated that any composer who wrote a ninth symphony would die soon after, if not while actually creating a ninth symphonic masterpiece. The suspicion of a curse began with Ludvig Von Beethoven. After completing his ninth, he died at age 56, on March 26, 1827, of post-hepatic cirrhosis of the liver. Antonin Dvorak died not long after finishing his ninth, which he named and gave a different number, but the fates were not fooled. Dvorak died of a stroke at age 62, on May 1, 1904, after completing his New World Symphony, which was, in fact, his ninth. Perhaps the man who thrust this particular superstition into the public eye was Gustav Mahler.

It was well-known amongst Mahler’s colleagues that he was obsessed and paranoid about the issue of death after composing the ninth symphony. He did all he could to circumvent the curse by calling his ninth “Das Lied von der Erde – Song of the Earth, and almost immediately after its completion, he settled into writing his tenth but escaping the curse was not to be. Gustav Mahler died on May 18, 1911. He was 50 years young.

Of course, other composers wrote more than nine and survived. Mozart wrote 48, and he died in 1791. Franz Joseph Haydn wrote 101 and died in 1804, but they lived and composed before Beethoven’s fame.  

In the world of opera, while Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde is the earliest to have earned a reputation for trouble, it is Verdi’s La Forza Del Destino that had the most fatalities. The most dramatic of these is the tragic death of Leonard Warren. 

On stage at the Metropolitan Opera on March 4, 1960, in the middle of Solenne in quest ora, (Solemn in this hour), Warren collapsed onstage and died in the wings. More than any other opera, La Forza del Destino fills opera singers with superstitious fears. The late, great Luciano Pavarotti, who sang every other opera in the Italian repertoire, refused to sing Forza. 

The ballet world has its own list of rituals and superstitions. Never allow another dancer to put their feet in your pointe shoes. Dancers have an assortment of lucky charms and objects ranging from lucky dolls to stuffed animals. Rituals include lining up makeup and hairpins precisely, preparing for a show. And to wish good luck to a ballet dancer, there is only one acceptable word: Merde!  

The French word, literally meaning feces, began for practical reasons. Many centuries ago, horses were used backstage to help move sets and backdrops, and of course, the animals had droppings of their own. Dancers would whisper, merde, and point at the steaming lumps to help each other avoid stepping in the mounds. In time, the use of the word expanded because the horse-drawn carriages pulling up in front of the theatres also left calling cards – and the more calling cards, the better, since that meant they’d have a full house.  

In modern times, designer Coco Chanel was supposedly informed by a fortune-teller that her lucky number was 5. Hence, Chanel # 5 – her famed fragrance. She also liked to present her new collections on May 5 for good luck. 

Before every fashion show, Diane Von Furstenberg taped a gold twenty-dollar piece given to her by her father during WW II in her shoe. 

Artist Pablo Picasso kept his hair trimmings and fingernail clippings for fear that he’d be throwing away part of “his essence” if he discarded them. At the same time, Salvatore Dali carried around a little piece of Spanish driftwood to help “ward off evil spirits.” 

Charles Dickens always slept facing north and carried a navigational compass with him at all times to ensure his position, while Dr. Seuss kept a collection of hundreds of hats in his secret closet. When he had writer’s block, he’d go to his closet and choose a hat to wear until he felt inspired. 

Yoko Ono lit matches and watched the flame extinguish in a dark room to relieve the stress of sound and light. Later this private ritual became public with her performance called Lighting Piece.

In theaters throughout the world, many well-known superstitions reign supreme even today. Here are a few that have retained their power through the years. A bad dress rehearsal means the show will be a hitBlue should not be worn on stageThe ghost light must always be on when the stage is empty; Mirrors on stage are bad luck; Never whistle backstage; Say break a leg, not good luck; AND NEVER EVER say Macbeth in the theater unless it’s part of the script.

From this intriguing confluence of reason and ritual, science and superstition, come opportunities for creating more drama.

    In Book Two of my Housekeeper Mystery Series, Catwalk Dead, Murder in the Rue de L’Histoire Theatre, reason challenges superstition, curses, and rituals. When Mrs. B.’s son moves to Austin and becomes a partner in the Bernardi-Bono Ballet Company and Rue de l” Histoire Theatre, strange things happen. When the ballet company prepares for its world premiere of Macbeth,   Mrs. B. and Father Melvyn find themselves entangled in Shakespearean superstition and death. 

First, the stage manager disappears. Then his dead body falls from a light bridge. A prop breaks free of its wire during a rehearsal, nearly killing Mrs. B.’s daughter-in-law and injuring a young dancer, and the theater is temporarily shut down for a safety inspection. Still, the dancers and stagehands worry, wondering if it’s the Macbeth curse at work.    

As fears, and superstitions grow, can Mrs. B. and Father Melvyn use their powers of reason and deduction in time to unravel the mystery before anyone else dies and the Bernardi-Bono Ballet Company is ruined? Or perhaps there are other factors at work beyond human control.

###

RESOURCES:

Huggett Richard. Supernatural on Stage, Taplinger Publishing Company, New York, NY. 1975

Crawley, Peter. Break a leg Macbeth: why are actors so superstitious?

https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/stage/break-a-leg-macbeth-why-are-actors-so-superstitious 1.2280338

Han, Isaac. Why Did Composers Write Only Nine Symphonies? Curse or Superstition?

https://torontopubliclibrary.typepad.com/arts_culture/2019/03/curse-or-superstition-that-is-the-question.html

Roberts, Maddy Shaw – What is the Curse of the Ninth – and does it really exist?

https://classicfm.com/discover-music/curse-of-the-ninth

Robinson, Mark. 13 Theater Superstitions.

https://broadwaydirect.com/13-theater-superstitions-halloween/

Weinsten, Ellen. The superstitious Rituals of Highly Creative People, from Salvatore Dali to Yoko Ono.

https://www.artsy.net/aqrticle/artsy-editorial-superstitious-rituals-highly-creative-people-salvatore-dali-yoko-ono

The Ardent Swarm by Yamen Manai

Translated by Laura Vergnand –A Book Review

by Renee Kimball

What started as a post about the use of “bees” as literary metaphor became something entirely different than I had first imagined.  I searched for information, but kept coming back to The Ardent Swarm by Yamen Manai.  More than metaphor, The Ardent Swarm stands as a statement about nature, life, human behavior and unwarranted invasion.

Bees have been in existence far longer than man, and as Joseph Campana states, “Without the Animal, there is no human” (2013).  So, it is not surprising that bees as literary metaphor is found in the Bible, the Quran, Shakespeare, by scholars of the Renaissance (14th -17th centuries), and the Enlightenment (16th-17th centuries), to name only a few.

The Ardent Swarm is the poignant story of one man’s devotion, loss, resilience, and persistence.  It is also a story of invasion, political unrest, and the power of nature to overcome.  Other reviewers have called it both an “allegory,” and a “parable;” it contains a layer of spiritual associations, much like The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, You feel the message between the lines; it gently leads the reader forward.  The reader is better for having read it.

The central character of The Ardent Swarm, Sidi, is a beekeeper, but he is substantially more; Sidi is a subtle thinker, a principled patient man, a devoted lover of bees.  Sidi’s hives are full of healthy honey-producing bees, bees Sidi calls “his girls”; they are his children.  If necessary, Sidi would give his life to protect his children, his bees (p. 9).  (Book cover photo, courtesy of Amazon).

The story begins with tragedy.  One of Sidi’s hives is destroyed, his beloved bees eviscerated, slaughtered, while inside the hive, the queen and soldiers lie dead, all the honey has been removed to the last drop.  Sidi collapses to the ground in overwhelming grief; he is beyond consolation.  In spite of the enormous loss, Sidi vows to find the perpetrator of this destruction.  There are answers waiting to be found, but for this story, there is no final solution; it is Nature or Spirit that will ultimately decide the outcome. 

Sidi resides near the remote village of Nawa, Qatar.  Qatar sits adjacent to the Persian Gulf, part of the Arabian Peninsula (World Atlas).  Qatar is a country comprised of many small remote tribal villages scattered throughout the country.  The villagers have no knowledge of formal government or politics; they have no running water or electricity.  The people come from ancient tribal roots; their lives are far removed from the modern world. 

Despite the villagers’ isolation, modernity comes in the guise of politics, world trade, natural gas, democracy, and empty promises; civil war soon follows. Qatar and Nawa are suddenly embroiled in political turmoil, outsiders breach the borders, the government is radically changed, and political parties fight for power; it is a terrifying time. 

The setting of the novel alludes to an actual event that occurred in 2010, historically named the “Arab Spring”.  During the Arab Spring, uprisings spread across the Arab states (Wikipedia).  The people joined together to overthrow the many centuries old regimes, and in doing so, created diverse political factions causing widespread destruction and death.  The fictional people of Nawa are also thrown into civil war, their way of life threatened by forces vying to control them.

In search of whatever or whoever destroyed his hive Sidi leaves the area for a brief time, traveling to the hills and mountains.  While Sidi is absent, Nawa, is suddenly visited by political canvassers who distribute pamphlets, aggressively shout promises, and distribute gifts of free food and clothing to amazed villagers (p. 29).

Unable to find any evidence, Sidi returns to his hives, believing the murderer would return to kill again.  Patient and steadfast, Sidi stands guard over the remaining hives, and his patience is finally rewarded. A giant hornet, black with red eyes, comes to the hive, then leaves.  Soon, a group of the same kinds of hornets appear, swarm the remaining hive slaughtering more bees before Sidi, in protective clothing, can catch and crush them one by one.  Managing to keep one hornet alive, Sidi carries the hornet into Nawa. 

Asking if anyone has seen this specimen before, Sidi finds one villager who confirms he has seen similar wasps not too long ago.  The villager takes Sidi to a shack that stores a shipping container; the crate’s labels say it was sent from Shaanxi, in Central China.  The crate was brought by the political canvassers; it held the free clothes that were given to the villagers. 

Unknown to everyone, a much darker gift came with the clothes–a large nest of Chinese hornets (also called Asian Hornets).  The nest was there all along, within the crate, hidden under the clothes.  When a curious villager opened the crate, several of the hornets flew out though the shack’s open window. 

By the time Sidi was led to the crate and discovered the nest, too much time had passed.  Exasperated, Sidi cut the nest open and found dried hornet larvae along with several hornet bodies, all dead and dried.  Sidi knew that the escaped hornets were already in the countryside, acclimating and making nests, a disaster would eventually follow (p. 105-106).  

Sidi had learned that nature could intervene, but in this case, he wasn’t sure.  He had crossbred wild country bees with his domestic bees to ward off illness and parasites.  He would find out more about these hornets, their habitats, and how they could be controlled and whether they could be crossbred to be less aggressive. 

While Sidi does find a solution, it was not easy and was very risky.  Without revealing the ending, suffice it to say the answer comes from Japan.  Whether the approach Sidi takes is successful remains up to Nature.  Like Sidi, we wait and hope for the survival of the hive.

The Ardent Swarm is more than a metaphor of bees and society torn by war; it is a metaphor for the destruction of Ukraine.  It is a metaphor for unanticipated, unwarranted destruction from an outside and aggressive source.  Just like Sidi’s hive, we wait and hope that Nature wins to modify the aggressive genetic makeup of the Asian hornet; with Ukraine, we hope the better nature of the world intervenes to stop Russia’s destruction of the Ukrainian people–we pray and we wait.

And thy Lord taught the Bee

to build its cells in hills

on trees, and in [men’s] habitations;

Then to eat of all

the produce of [the earth],

and find with skill the spacious

Paths of its Lord: there issues

from within their bodies

a drink of varying colours,

wherein is healing for men:

verily in this is a Sign

for those who give thought

Quran, “The Bee,” 16:68-69

Quoted from The Ardent Swarm: A Novel by Yamen Manai,

Additional Notes:

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, through the National Invasive Species Information Center, identified the presence of the Asian Hornet (Scientific name: Vespa mandarinia, named by Smith, 1852) in 2019, in Washington State.  It is an invasive species that arrived in the U.S. through an unknown source.  Under “impact” assessment, the USDA stated the Asian Hornet can cause “the complete loss of Honeybee colonies” (National Invasive Species Information Center. U.S. Department of Agriculture). https://www.invasivespeciesinfo.gov/terrestrial/invertebrates/asian-giant-hornet

USDA’s Cutting-Edge Methods Help Deliver a Victory Against Asian Giant Hornet

Posted by Greg Rosenthal, Communications Specialist, USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in Animals. Aug 16, 2021

https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2020/10/29/usdas-cutting-edge-methods-help-deliver-victory-against-asian-giant-hornet

“. . . After weeks of searching, Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) entomologists–—using a radio tag provided by USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and a trap developed by the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service–— have located and eradicated the first Asian giant hornet (AGH) nest ever found in the United States. For months, WSDA had been trying to find the nest they knew must exist near Blaine, WA, because of AGH detections in the area. But finding the nest proved extremely challenging since the hornets build nests in forested areas, typically in an underground cavity. . .”

References

The Ardent Swarm by Yamen Manai, Lara Vergnaud (Translator).  Originally published in French. Published February 1st 2021 by Amazon Crossing (first published April 11th 2017).

Campana, Joseph.  Manimals: Early Modern Animal/Human Interfaces.  The bee and the sovereign? Political entomology and the problem of scale. The Free Library. https://www.thefreelibrary.com/The+bee+and+the+sovereign%3F+Political+entomology+and+the+problem+of…-a0349721049

Arab Spring. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arab_Spring

Photo of book cover, courtesy of Amazon.

Photos of flowers, bees and nest, courtesy of Pixabay.

***

A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are research, reading, and writing.  She is working on a novel set during the time of the Roman Republic.

Why I Go to Critique Group

by Kathy Waller

I said to my critique partner this morning, The whole project is stinky it stinks it’s fatally flawed just nothing no hope.

She said, But Chapter 13 is so good so funny Molly is so funny it’s not stinky.

I said, Yes, the first part of chapter 13 and the last part of chapter 13 are funny and very very good but there’s still no middle of chapter 13 and what there is stinks and anyway the other 47,000 words stink except for a few hundred here and there.

And she said, But the middle could be revised and edited it has promise.

I said, But it won’t work because I have written myself into a hole and can’t get out so I have to trash that part and anyway the whole concept stinks.

And she said, NO you can fix it just keep going because I like Molly she’s so funny.

And that is why I go to critique group every blessed week.

*****

Writing is a solitary activity, but most of writing isn’t writing. It’s rewriting, rewriting, and rewriting. And then it’s revising and revising. And editing editing editing. And rewriting again. And . . .

Sometimes it’s whingeing and complaining and eating peanut butter out of the jar with a spoon and buying larger clothes and telling Molly she’s a heartless ***** who doesn’t deserve one paragraph of her own, much less a whole book.

And it’s feeling like a fraud when you tell people you’re a writer and deciding you’d be happier if you gave up and dedicated yourself to French cookery or tatting or riding a unicycle.

But if you’re lucky, it’s also going to critique group and then going home and writing and writing and writing and . . .

Here’s the way Austin Mystery Writers work: We email first drafts, revised drafts, or final (almost) drafts, depending on where we are in the process.

We read all the week’s submissions, then sit around a table–or on one side of a table in front of a monitor displaying partners in little Zoom squares–and talk about what each member has written.

Criticism here doesn’t mean trashing. It means that each member points out what the writer has done well and what she might have done better. Sometimes we suggest examples of better–the “experts” say that’s not proper, but it works for us–and sometimes we simply say what we think doesn’t work so well without elaborating. Sometimes we disagree; one person doesn’t like a word or sentence or paragraph, while another thinks it’s fine. Sometimes we all chime in and discuss ideas.

Then we say, “Thank you.”

Because we’ve become friends during our association, we can say what we think and appreciate what the others say.

We encourage one another.

We also laugh a lot.

Because of AMW, I’ve published short stories and co-written one novella.

Because of AMW, I’ve become a better writer.

I posted “Why I Go to Critique Group” (one time I titled it “Why I Go to Critique Group and Can’t Afford Not To”) on my personal blog on July 9, 2010, when Gale Albright and I were members of the two-person Just for the Hell of It Writers, which was soon swallowed up by Austin Mystery Writers (a consummation devoutly to be wished).

I periodically pull the piece out and repost it.

Because it’s important.

***

Has anyone noticed that the em dash (—) in my posts looks like an en dash (–)? I can’t help it. Sometimes I find an em dash on a grammar website (like now) and copy and paste into my post, but right now I’m just not in the mood. But I’d like picky readers, like myself, to know that I’m aware of the error and wish the platform would correct it,

***

Kathy Waller posts on her personal blog, Telling the Truth, Mainly, http://kathywaller1.com. She’s published the anthologies pictured above, the first three with Wildside Press, the last a novel co-written with Manning Wolfe, with Starpath. She has finally decided the ancient pre-published book is not stinky and has hopes of finishing it one day. If her critique partners agree.

SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE, SHERLOCK HOLMES, & DR. WATSON

by

Francine Paino AKA F. Della Notte

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote 60 mystery stories featuring the man who quickly became the favorite fictional super-detective of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Sherlock Holmes, but in his years as a medical student, Doyle’s first efforts were short stories. 

The Mystery of Sasassa Valley was an adventure of two young men and a reported ghost that scares off the natives in South Africa.

In The American’s Tale, A quarrel between an Englishman, and a ‘Yankee’ in a bar, results in Jefferson Adams, an American in England, telling a strange story set in Montana involving Joe “Alabama” Hawkins, who’d “been captured and killed by a giant Venus flytrap in the gulch.” One might view these as early prequels to the mysteries fomenting in Doyle’s mind. 

While most readers have read at least one or two of Doyle’s creations, it is in the first two that we get a real sense of both Holmes and Watson, beginning with  A Study in Scarlet. Written in 1887, Doyle was a practicing doctor and botanist, which provided him with in-depth knowledge of plant poisons, anatomy, and physiology.  

The story begins with the narrator, Dr. John Watson, an ex-military man returning to London from the British war in Afghanistan, suffering from war wounds and in ill health. Unable to afford the hotel rates, he expresses his hope of finding rooms at a reasonable rate to a casual acquaintance known to the reader as Stanford. The latter then introduces him to Holmes, but first warns him that this gentleman, Holmes, also seeking a roommate to share expenses, is  somewhat difficult.  

Appropriately, the reader meets Holmes for the first time along with Watson, in a laboratory.  The two men hit it off immediately and become roommates at  221B Baker Street, where they must accommodate one another’s needs, quirks, and habits. 

Holmes’s peculiarities begin to disturb Watson. At first, the doctor is merely curious about some of Holmes’s idiosyncrasies.  As he gets to know the crime solver, he’s appalled at Holmes’s ignorance of so many areas of education, politics, the arts, and other subjects in which gentlemen should be educated. Watson is shocked by Holmes’s rationale for why it wasn’t essential. Further, Holmes’s expertise in crimes and criminals is all-consuming, which Watson finds bizarre.  Holmes’s peculiarities begin to disturb Watson. At first, the doctor is merely curious about some of Holmes’s characteristics. As he gets to know the crime solver, he’s shocked at Holmes’s ignorance in so many areas of education, politics, the arts, and other subjects in which gentlemen should be educated. Furthermore, Holmes’s expertise in crimes and criminals is all-consuming, which Watson finds bizarre.

The good doctor is frustrated by what he thinks must be trickery for Holmes’s uncanny ability to guess so accurately. It is when Holmes is asked by detectives Lestrade and Gregson to help with a mysterious case, and Watson is invited to go along, that the doctor’s opinions change.

In the Lauriston Garden  Mystery, a man is found dead in an empty house. The deceased has no wounds, yet there is a message in blood scrawled on the wall.  In time, Holmes dubs this case A Study in Scarlet, reflecting “the scarlet thread of murder running through the colorless skein of life…”  Holmes unravels the case, and with each deduction, Watson develops a grudging admiration that evolves into genuine esteem and respect for the detective’s extraordinary powers of observation.

At the end of part one, the murder is solved, but the tale isn’t over. Doyle takes the reader to The United States for the backstory, explaining the details of the case, and why it ends in London.  

               In the second novel, The Sign of Four, Holmes and his sidekick, Watson, who has become Holmes’s internal voice to the reader, are drawn into a new mystery.

Miss Mary Morstan arrives at Baker Street to ask for Holmes’s help in solving the mystery of her missing father and a mysterious annual and anonymous gift of pearls.  But now, she has received a letter asking to meet an unknown person that evening and is afraid to go alone. Holmes, of course, takes the case, and the adventure is on.

In The Sign of Four, the reader can discern many of Doyle’s personal experiences in the military as told through Watson’s narrative, as the detective tracks a hidden treasure and a murderer. In this story, the reader understands more of John Watson’s life and desires, and Holmes’s drug use is addressed head-on.

Doyle wrote two volumes worth of stories about Holmes and Watson, and it’s interesting to know that he often felt he was slogging through the work of continuing the character he’d created. In 1891, he threatened to kill off the now-famous Sherlock Holmes, but his mother, the woman who inspired his imagination, was furious. And, of course, Conan Doyle did no such thing. Instead, he pressed the financial success of his books, urging publishers to pay more for his Holmes stories, which they did. 

In his biography, Doyle admits the influence of his mother in his early childhood, “as far as I can remember anything at all, the vivid stories she would tell me stand out so clearly that they obscure the real facts of my life.” And the facts were not happy ones.

Though well respected in the art world, Doyle’s father was an alcoholic with little impact on his son. At the age of nine, Arthur was shipped off to boarding school in England to Hodder Place, then Stonyhurst, a Jesuit prep school, where he was bullied and ridiculed by his peers and feared ruthless corporal punishment by the Jesuits. It was his ability to hide in his fantasies that got him through.  

After graduating from Stonyhurst College in 1876, Doyle pursued a medical degree at the University of Edinburgh. There, he met his mentor Dr. Joseph Bell, whose very keen powers of observation inspired the Holmes character. 

While struggling to make his name as a writer, he married Louisa Hawkins, with whom he had a son and a daughter. In 1893, Louisa was diagnosed with TB, and after her death, Doyle married Jean Leckie, with whom he had two more sons and another daughter.

In addition to his medical practice, which he gave up when the writing became successful, Conan Doyle took it upon himself to visit South Africa after the Boar war to investigate and defend his nation against charges of war crimes. He wrote a “pamphlet” of 60,000 words entitled The War in South Africa, Its Causes and Conduct, which the Crown found enlightening. In 1902 and 1903, Arthur Conan Doyle was knighted—twice, for his service to the Crown. 

However, through his adult years, there was a continual thread of spiritualism, and he believed it was “the most important thing in the world.” Later in his life, he was diagnosed with a heart condition, but that didn’t stop him from making a spiritualism tour through the Netherlands. When he returned home, however, his chest pains were so severe that he was almost completely bedridden until he died in 1930. 

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle collapsed and died in his garden, clutching his heart with one hand and holding a flower in the other. Although his life ended on that July day, his stories have survived and continue to thrill readers with adventures in the world of criminology and crime-solving. Reading his beliefs, remarkable life, and brilliant writings, it is easy to conclude that Doyle, Holmes, and Watson were three dimensions of the same man. 

Resources:

The Complete Works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

BIOGRAPHY: Arthur Conan Doyle, https://www.biography.com/writer/arthur-conan-doyle 3.10.22

THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO READING THE SHERLOCK HOLMES BOOKS

http://reedsy-com/discovery/blog/sherlock-holmes-books 3.10.22

WHERE TO START WITH SHERLOCK HOLMES

http://www.penguin.co.uk/articles/2020/september/wehre-to-start-with-sherlock-holmes.html  

CONAN DOYLE INFO

https://www.arthur-conan-doyle.com/index.php/Honours_And_Awards

Charles Dickens and Ellen Nelly Ternan–Hidden Lives

by Renee Kimball

“I must be taken as I have been made. The success is not mine, the failure is not mine, but the two together make me.” ~ Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

In 1812, eight years after Queen Victoria began her reign and the start of the Victoria Era, Charles John Huffman Dickens was born.  England was the most powerful empire in the world–”one on which the Sun never set” (Royal Forum).  It was a time of class division, social unrest, poverty, and the start of the Industrial Revolution.

Charles Dickens went on to become the most revered author in English history. His career was meteoric, his influence immense; his work remains in print today.

Yet, in spite of all that has been said, researched and written, about Charles Dickens–the author, the family man, the father—Charles Dickens, “the inner man,” remained hidden.  It was the private Dickens who created an alternate secret life, a life so well hidden that it was a long time after his death that the efforts that he had gone to to bury that secret life were revealed.

When Dickens died at 58 years of age, all of England mourned his passing.  It was only after his death, and many years later, after the death of his children, that a cache of personal documents were released.  The discovery confimed that Dickens had been concealing a hidden life—a life he shared with one other person for thirteen years; that person, the “other woman,” was Ellen “Nelly” Ternan, an actress he met while attending a play in 1857 (Ackroyd, Tomalin). 

Knowing there was another Dickens, a Dickens other than what he presented to the world, who had a dark streak, an obsession, can we still admire him? Respect his memory?  Can we look past his mistakes?

Whether we are aware of it or not, Charles Dickens is never far away; his characters are in our hearts. If you hear his name, what do you think of? Do you know a “Scrooge”?  Do you see Marley’s Ghost wrapped in “chains of his own making,” warning the cowering, disbelieving, obstinate Scrooge? (A Christmas Carol).  Or Oliver’s quavering request, “Please, sir, I want some more” (Oliver Twist).  “He hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas day who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see” (Bob Cratchit, A Christmas Carol). And Tiny Tim, “God bless us every one!” (A Christmas Carol). 

Before writing fiction, Dickens held a variety of positions, but all that changed forever in 1833 with the publication of the weekly serialization of The Pickwick Papers; Dickens was an instant success; he became a household name. 

Dickens was an early social reformer, using his stories as a platform for change.  If you were one of London’s lower classes, you faced unrelenting poverty, degradation, constant hunger, rampant disease, and high child mortality rates.  Unabashedly, he exposed these issues through his characters to arouse empathy in the upper classes towards those who struggled. 

London’s readers –rich or poor—were drawn together weekly by the installments that cut through class lines; these installments became something to look forward to, talk about, and share.  Dickens raised awareness –every week on every street corner, with every weekly publication. 

But there was something less desirable behind Dickens’ strident, boisterous personality.  In spite of his popularity, financial success, and a growing family, as well as his many talents, Dickens remained unfulfilled, emotionally adrift.  Unable to find balance in his life, his bitterness grew heavier, the work he once loved, less and less appealing; familial relationships became frayed.  The once exciting and successful life became nothing more than a quagmire of business and family demands.

Dickens believed that something or someone outside himself was to blame for this despair; he decided the cause was no other than his wife of twenty-two years —Catherine Hogarth Dickens.  Catherine had failed him; it was time for change. 

Many have offered opinions as to why the Dickens’ marriage failed, but Peter Ackroyd’s biography, DickensA Biography, published in 1990, is brief.

Ackroyd describes Charles’ dissatisfaction with his marriage with one word: “Lassitude. In other words, want of ardour. Want of enthusiasm and quickness. Want of all the qualities on which Dickens prided himself” (Ackroyd, 1990, p. 687). 

At what point does indifference take the place of love and commitment?  As for Catherine, she had borne Dickens ten children in twenty-two years of marriage; it had taken a toll.  Catherine was no longer slim, no longer young; she was not energetic.  To Dickens, Catherine’s love, loyalty, congeniality, and her care of the children were not enough any longer.  And just like that, Ellen “Nelly” Ternan appeared and calamity and despair followed.

Dickens met Ternan in 1857 while attending a play; she was in the cast. Ternan was 18, Dickens was 45.  Not long after, their affair began, and Nelly left the stage forever. 

Obsessed with having Nelly in his life, Dickens began a private long-range plan to keep her close by, accessible only to him, even though they could never marry.

The first step was removing Catherine from the home, relocating her, beginning the legal separation, and ensuring future care of the children.  Dickens’ initial plan was to have total custody of all ten children, but their oldest son chose to move with Catherine while the remaining nine children remained at the Dickens home under the care of Catherine’s younger sister, Georgina Hogarth.  Georgina’s loyalty to Dickens, rather than to her sister, shattered relations with the Hogarth family; their relationships never recovered.

In spite of these enormous difficulties, Dickens kept his relationship with Nelly Ternan a secret.  For the next thirteen years, he hid Nelly from prying eyes, by moving her in and around London, once to an outlying village.  Dickens continued to provide financially for Nelly, Catherine and all the children, while continuing to maintain his regular frenetic pace of publications and appearances.

On June 9, 1870, Charles Dickens died; at his bedside were Ellen Ternan and Georgina Hogarth, his sister-in-law.  Dickens’ will bequeathed to Nelly Ternan £1,000. 

Despite years of sleuthing by literary experts, Nelly Ternan’s relationship with Dickens remained a mystery.  It wasn’t until Claire Tomalin published The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens, in 1990, that many of the age-old questions were answered.  Tomalin was unrelenting in her search for information related to the Dickens-Ternan love affair, and her finished biography shows just how successful her efforts were.

Tomalin successfully connected information found in old documents and ledgers that were written in Dickens’ personal shorthand. The clues and notes together proved just how far Dickens had used his formidable reputation and resources to keep prying eyes away.  For his plan to be foolproof, he made sure Nelly Ternan’s real identity “disappeared,” that she become “invisible” (Tomalin).  When Dickens died at fifty-eight, Nelly “the person, the actress” had been erased; she was a non-entity. Nelly had been out of the public eye for thirteen years.

Tomalin’s work is comprehensive, tracing the affair, the numerous relocations, the false names and identities, and the revelation that Nelly may have had one, or possibly two, pregnancies during the thirteen years the couple were together.  The fate of the children, if they came to full term, or failed to survive, remains unknown.  It is highly probable that the real facts will never be known, but Tomalin has definitely come closer to the truth more than anyone else. 

Some Additional Thoughts . . .

Catherine Hogarth Dickens:  Catherine, deprived of her home, children, and status, lived another twenty years after Dickens died.  His actions towards her and his children were cruel and selfish.  While Dickens remains a phenomenal author, his behavior towards his wife Catherine Hogarth, family and even Nelly Ternan, revealed a man with a skewed sense of self-importance, a broken sense of right and wrong, and a man emotionally bankrupt. 

Admitting Nothing: Ternan went on to marry a school teacher, had two children, and lived until seventy-five years of age.  Ternan died without ever admitting to or discussing her relationship with Charles Dickens.

Unanswered Question: Nelly Ternan’s mother, Frances Eleanor Ternan (née Jarman) was an actress of some renown; her father, Thomas Lawless Ternan, was a renowned actor.  The family was a theatrical family by profession.  When Dickens became interested in 18-year-old Nelly, her mother allowed Dickens’ pursuit of Nelly–even acting as a chaperone–essentially giving her approval despite knowing that Dickens was already married and much too old for Nelly.  Why did Frances Ternan allow Dickens to pursue the illicit affair with her 18-year-old daughter?  The social consequences would have been disastrous for the entire Ternan family if the secret came to light; what motivated the mother to acquiesce to the arrangement?  Whatever those reasons were, they went with Frances Ternan to her grave.

Lastly, but importantly, there is the question as to whether or not Ellen Nelly Ternan actually loved Charles Dickens.  Like so many other questions related to this affair, it will remain unanswered forever.

References

Photo No. 1 Portrait of Charles Dickens. William Powell Frith, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo No 2 Volume 29 Portrait of Charles Dickens

Author: Charles Dickens, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. 1990. Harper Collins Publishers. Book Photo Courtesy of Amazon.

Tomalin, Claire. The Invisible Woman. The story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens. 1990. Alfred A. Knopf. Book Photo Courtesy of Amazon.

Perdue, David. A. The Charles Dickens’ Page. “The Mystery of Ellen Ternan.” Explore Charles Dickens’ relationship with the young actress. (1997-2022).  David A. Perdue
https://www.charlesdickenspage.com/ellen-ternan.html

“Georgina Hogarth.” Wikipedia.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georgina_Hogarth

Wayback Machine. “The Extraordinary Life of Charles Dickens.” Chronology of Events. http://www.charlesdickensonline.com/Chronology.htm

Victorian era. historical period, United Kingdom.  Britannica Encyclopedia. https://www.britannica.com/event/Victorian-era

Royal Forums. Queen Victoria – The Longest-Reigning Monarch in British History. https://www.theroyalforums.com/11704-queen-victoria-the-longest-reigning-monarch-in-british-history/

***

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

Letters: A Velocity of Being

by Kathy Waller

The definition of reading readiness is the point
at which a child goes from not reading, to reading.
~ Sight and Sound Reading

But, Gwammy, I can’t wead.*
~ Jenny, five years old, after one week in kindergarten

When I was five, my Great-aunt Ethel gave me an ancient primer. She had found it in an old school building, abandoned when consolidation sent children in my hometown to a school two miles away, and then used only as a polling place. The primer had also been abandoned, and Aunt Ethel, election judge, liberated it and gave it to the youngest member of the family (youngest by about forty years; it was an old town).

My parents read to me almost from day one. The story goes that, as a toddler, I met my father at the door every evening when he got home from work, saying, “‘Ead a book, Daddy.” (Unlike Jenny, I had no pwoblem pwonouncing my ahs; I just dropped them.)

We didn’t have a library nearby, but I plenty of books: a Bumper Book, Little Golden Books, Grimms’ Fairy Tales, Andersen’s Fairy Tales, which I didn’t like, in part because they were dark (“The Little Match Girl”), but mostly because the end papers sported a hairy black thing with an ugly humanish face and enough long, winding legs to qualify it as a spider. Grimms’ tales were more pleasant.

When I received the primer, I already knew the alphabet. In fact, a year before, I’d written my name in red adhesive tape–the gooiest, stickiest adhesive I’ve ever come across–on the inside of the kitchen door. It stayed there for years.

Anyway, armed with the primer–a school book, for reading–I set about teaching myself. While my mother did housework, I trailed behind, spelling out words.

“T-h-e”

“The”

“m-a-n”

“man”

“s-a-i-d”

“said”

I don’t think I taught myself to read. But the next year, when I entered first grade–no kindergarten back then–I was ready. I took right off on the underwhelming adventures of Dick, Jane, and Sally (siblings who never had a decent disagreement) plus Spot and Puff, who came and ran a lot.

In second grade, I got a Little Big BookGunsmoke–that had one hundred pages. I read it on Saturday and reported the accomplishment in our Class News at school on Monday. Later I got a literary Little Big Book, Huckleberry Finn. One sentence confused me: a dead man’s leg was stuck out at a strange angel. I was about thirty when I realized angel was really angle. I was also surprised when, in high school, I learned that the Little Big Book had been severely abridged.

Then I discovered comic books. They were more educational than most people think. From Scrooge McDuck, I learned that emeralds come from South America. Unfamiliar with physics, I pronounced Atom Cat as A-Tomcat. Seemed reasonable.

The next year, thanks to a Christmas present from my grandmother, I discovered Nancy Drew. Nancy had a blue convertible and drove around wherever she wanted, and her father never grounded her. I envied Nancy her freedom. I didn’t like her, though; she had a tomboy friend, George, who said, “Hypers, you slay me,” which was fine, but her other friend, Bess, was plump, and Nancy often referred to how much Bess ate. I presume in later editions, Nancy behaved better. But her treatment of Bess didn’t stop me from reading about her. I wrote letters to Joske’s Department Store in San Antonio: “Please send me one copy of The Hidden Staircase and one copy of The Clue in the Jewel Box. Please charge my account.” They each cost two dollars. My mother kindly signed the letters. It was her account.

I soon outgrew Nancy, but, like many other mystery readers and writers, I credit her for getting me hooked. I read a couple of Trixie Beldens–Trixie was sickeningly enthusiastic when her mother made her dust the living room before going out to solve mysteries, but she did manage to sneak out at night. I read some Kathy Martins. Kathy, a nurse, often suspected her (nice guy) brother for whatever (minor) crime had been committed, which I thought strange, but she was more mature and more realistic than other characters. No convertible, no sneaking.

Young Adult novels didn’t exist as a genre until the late sixties, when increased federal money became available to schools, and authors found a new audience. Born too soon, I moved from children’s books into adult fare: Zane Grey, Thomas B. Costain, Charles Dickens, Aldous Huxley, Jane Austen, Harper Lee, Daphne DuMaurier, Rafael Sabatini (Scaramouche: “He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.”) Noticing that I read the classics, the bookmobile librarian, unasked, brought me a copy of the scandalous Madame Bovary. I was fifteen. He’s still my hero.

On the bookmobile, I rediscovered mysteries in the real thingSherlock Holmes. I cried and cried when he and Moriarty went over Reichenbach Falls. Nobody told me he would be back.

And another real thingAgatha Christie. Which led to Marjorie Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, Robert Barnard, Josephine Tey, Donna Leon, Karin Fossum, Elizabeth George, and so many others.

But enough about me. The point is that reading was, and is, important to me.

And that this week I’ve been reading A Velocity of Being: Letters to Young Readers, edited by Maria Popova & Claudia Bedrick. The editors compiled 121 letters from “scientists, musicians, artists, philosophers, composers, poets, actors, a 98-year-old Holocaust survivor, Italy’s first woman in space, and many more remarkable humans whose splendor of spirit cannot be contained in the shorthand descriptors we often use to condense a person’s character and cultural contributions.” Each letter is paired with an illustration to “bring it to life visually.”

Many letters describe books as portals to the universe, to other worlds, to adventure, to curiosity and questions, to dreams, to logic and imagination; they’re boats and planes and magic carpets. Contributors write about hating book reports, and being hellions when they were little and refused to listen to Goodnight Moon at bedtime because they wanted dinosaurs, and being called antisocial when they preferred to read instead of play with friends.

But other contributors take the subject to a deeper level:

Author Alain de Botton writes, We wouldn’t need books quite so much if everyone around us understood us well. But they don’t. Even those who love us get us wrong. They claim to know what we need, but forget to ask us properly first. They can’t understand what we feel . . . That’s the moment to turn to books They are friends waiting for us, and they will always speak honestly to us. They are the perfect cure for loneliness. They can be our very closest friends.

Screenwriter Shonda Rhimes says, Reading saved me. When I was twelve, I spent most of my day trying to be invisible. The year before I’d been the new girl in school, and I’d spent a lot of time trying to be accepted. . . . The very desire to bend and twist to fit in–assures your rejection They did not like me. They hated me.
I spent a lot of time alone. I rode the bus alone. I spent weekends alone, I ate lunch alone. Except I was never alone. I always had a book in my hand. If you have a book, you don’t need to bend and twist to fit–you’re there. You are in. . . .
If you have a book in your hand, you can stop being invisible. Because you’re a little more invincible
.

Venture capitalist Chris Sacca says that books are dangerous: If you keep reading, you might learn so much that you can take over for the adults and then you kids will be in charge! You all could be the journalists, entrepreneurs, artists, professors, authors, doctors, explorers, scientists, and even the leaders of our countries! Then what would the grown-ups do? Live in a world run by brilliant, interesting, innovative, and compassionate young people. Ugh. No, thank you.
So please stop reading before you become really smart, successful, and happy.

But seriously, books are dangerous. Holocaust survivor Helen Fagin writes about life in the World War II Polish ghetto, where being caught reading by the Nazis meant anything from hard labor to death. But books were smuggled in, read by each person for only one night, and then, for the sake of safety, passed on. She stayed up all one night reading Gone with the Wind. Then she decided the children she secretly taught needed not dry information, but stories. And for one hour each night, she told them the story of Scarlett and Melanie, Rhett and Ashley; and for that hour they “escaped a world of murder.” Then “a knock at the door shattered our dream world.” Years later, she met one of only four of the students who survived. The woman called her “the source of my hopes and my dreams in times of total deprivation and dehumanization.”

Composer Mohammad Fairouz shares a story that I cherish from my upbringing; . . . 1400 years ago in the deserts of Arabia, a meditative prophet named Mohammad had a vision of the Angel Gabriel who came to him with a message: “Read” . . . This was the first word of the Quran.
In the years following the prophet’s death, his followers built an empire where they contributed to every branch of knowledge, from algebra to optics and medicine to music. Countless things we have today would not exist without their contributions: that includes space stations, glasses, aspirin, your iPad.
They were able to do this because they were inspired to seek out the power that comes with being to read. You deserve the same power . . .

Years ago, I knew a young man who had never learned to read. I don’t know why; he just hadn’t. As an adult, he took a literacy class. He said that when he traveled for his work, he was always scared, because he couldn’t read road signs, and he was afraid he would get lost. At the most basic level, reading is power.

And consider: At one time in the American South, it was illegal to teach slaves to read. If they were literate, they might be able to read signs that would help them escape. They might also read some inconvenient truths: “. . .  that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness . . .” Inconvenient for their owners, that is.

Does reading fiction make better people? Research doesn’t give a definitive answer. But “at the Princeton Social Neuroscience Lab, psychologist Diana Tamir has demonstrated that people who often read fiction have better social cognition. In other words, they’re more skilled at working out what other people are thinking and feeling. . . .

“So the research shows that perhaps reading fiction does make people behave better. Certainly some institutions consider the effects of reading to be so significant that they now include modules on literature. At the University of California Irvine, for example, Johanna Shapiro from the Department of Family Medicine firmly believes that reading fiction results in better doctors and has led the establishment of a humanities programme to train medical students.

“It sounds as though it’s time to lose the stereotype of the shy bookworm whose nose is always in a book because they find it difficult to deal with real people. In fact, these bookworms might be better than everyone else at understanding human beings.”

Philosopher and professor Martha Nussbaum gives an example: The great African-American novelist Ralph Ellison said that a novel like his Invisible Man could be “a raft of hope, perception, and entertainment” on which America could “negotiate the snags and whirlpools” that stand between us and the democratic ideal. He’s referring here to Huck Finn and Jim, who got to know one another as full human beings, rather than just as a white man and a black man, when they traveled down the river on a raft together. On the raft, they had to look at one another, listen to one another’s stories. In our divided society, such encounters happen all too seldom in real life, and are fraught with mistrust when they do. Reading can create such encounters in the head, so that the ones that happen in the world are a little less crude, a little less deformed by fear and anger.

Huckleberry Finn has for years made the American Library Association’s list of most often challenged, banned, or restricted books–a novel that can teach us to be better people.

Design writer and educator Steven Heller extends the idea that reading is power and issues a challenge: Books are weapons in humankind’s battle against ignorance. I don’t mean like lasers and drones. I mean that knowledge is strength and the kind of knowledge you get from books is not the same as the quick fix that Googling gets you. What’s more, books can’t be hacked. But they can he censored, which means blocked or forbidden from being published. And this is why they are so valuable to us all. Often in fighting ignorance, the ignorant take books prisoner. If you don’t read books, then those that have been censored over the ages will be lost and forgotten. So kids, don’t let them down. Read them, savor them protect them. Don’t let others make books irrelevant.

*

*Jenny soon learned to wead. And to pwonounce her ahs.

*

I’ve gone on too long. If you’re still with me, thanks for sticking. And one more thing: Despite the title, A Velocity of Being isn’t just for young readers. It’s also for adults who need to be reminded to make reading part of their children’s lives.

***

Kathy Waller blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly. Find her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/kathy.waller68. She’s published short stories and memoir and is working on a novel.

While writing this post, Kathy was watching/listening to an old TV series of Dorothy L. SayersLord Peter Wimsey mysteries. Bless Youtube and all who post on her. (Opinion: Ian Carmichael was the best Peter Wimsey by far.)

The Lost Characters

By K.P. Gresham

This week I lost a very good friend and an incredible mentor. Anna Castle wrote historical mysteries including two internationally successful series: The Francis Bacon Mysteries and the Professor and Mrs. Moriarity. Her books can be found on her website at https://www.annacastle.com/books/

Writing a series of any kind requires a great deal of research. Triple that for historical mysteries. The writer has to learn the dialects, the clothes, the food, the politics, the religions, the caste systems, the locations—the list goes on. It takes a special person to get all of that right, and for Anna to do it in two series is off the charts. And while getting all of the “facts” right, Anna also had the task of creating characters that needed to be loved, laughed at, hated, suspected, intriguing, whatever was needed to propel the plot forward. The character must be seen, understood, memorable—well, you get the drift.

And in reading a series, the characters must be people that intrigue the readers so much, they are not just willing to buy the next book in the series, but the writer must create a story where the readers will wait for that next book, hope for it, buy it in advance. The reader becomes bonded to the characters. I as a reader find myself worried about them, excited for them, scared for them, and yes, hate them and love them. To me, they were real people.

And now, Anna’s characters will never live again. The next book won’t happen. There will be no more intrigue for them, romance for them, fear for them. Life for them.

As I write this, I am devastated as I mourn Anna’s passing. No more lunches with her. No more emails. No more hugs. No more bragging or complaining or learning or all those things that dear, dear friends do together.

But also, I will deeply mourn the passage of the characters she put in my head and in my heart.

Thank you, Anna, for giving so much.

K.P. Gresham





ON THE SUBJECT OF PREQUELS

By

Francine Paino AKA F. Della Notte

Unlike sequels, which are straightforward continuations of possibilities that may happen after a novel ends, the prequel tries to imagine and show what happened before the novel’s story began. 

A prequel attempts to provide the reader with information about what came first, what impacted the characters’ development, places where the stories occurred, the times in which they happened, and a host of other matters upon which a novel may be built not necessarily included in the story. 

It may surprise many that even among classics, there are prequels. While The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a sequel to Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, in 2017, author John Clinch released Finn, a prequel to both of Twain’s masterpiece novels.  Finn is about Huck Finn’s father and the dysfunctional family relations that came before the adventures of Huck Finn began.   It immerses the characters in the chaotic, murky waters of antebellum America with all its complexities, the shame of slavery, and the racial attitudes of the time that almost destroyed the nation.

In Porto Bello Gold, Arthur D. Howden Smith imagines a pirate story with Captain Flint and Murray stealing treasure and burying it as the Prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

Then we have Mario Puzo’s contemporary classic, The Godfather, a gripping story of the 1940s underworld in America and Italy. Author Ed Falco wrote a prequel entitled The Family Corleone.  In this prequel, Mr. Falco gives us background on many of the characters before Vito Corleone became a Don. Shortening it by at least a third would not have damaged the storyline. If a reader is very familiar with Puzo’s characters, there are few, if any, surprises or new information. Much of what came before was included in Puzo’s novel. The only new information was about Sonny, Don Vito’s first-born son. He’d witnessed his father’s criminal activities early on and decided that he would follow in his father’s footsteps. This is hardly surprising given how Puzo portrayed Sonny in the original novel. Perhaps a more interesting avenue would have been a fuller portrait of Michael, whose younger years do not prepare the reader for his change of heart after the Don is almost murdered. (For more insights and reviews of prequels written by authors other than the creators of the original stories, see the source materials below.)

So, where did the interest in prequels start and why? It should come as no surprise that the new mania started when Hollywood became obsessed in the 1970s and 80s after the 1969 success of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. By 1979, Hollywood released Butch and Sundance, the Early Years, as a prequel.  Another Hollywood success, Star Wars, was released in 1977, and its succession of successful movies sparked the Star Wars prequels. Still, there are mixed reviews of the values for each of the abovementioned prequels and others, which may make one ask if it’s worth reading them at all. 

Before writing a story, most authors have a sense of the characters’ backgrounds, times they live in, and other essential building blocks.  As the novel unfolds, critical information is included to advance the plot. However, some characters or events may be more compelling. Who were these characters before the story began? What happened to them? What factors influenced their development into their current selves? These questions create fertile ground for a prequel and give way to the next question. Should prequel materials precede a stand-alone novel or become book one in a series?

Prequels can flesh out backgrounds, locations, personalities, and what came before. The danger is that offering new angles for consideration may also ruin the impact intended because the reader may not come at the story with the same sense of anticipation, feel the intended shocks or enjoy the sense of surprise.  Reading a prequel first, even for blockbuster books such as The Godfather, can also turn a reader off. If I’d read The FamilyCorleone, first, I might have passed on Puzo’s masterpiece. 

Prequels then should be published judiciously. They did not create interest in a particular story. It is the story that made the prequel possible.

SOURCE MATERIALS:

https://www.bustle.com/p/7-prequels-to-famous-books-you-probably-didnt-know-existed-46709

Book Review: The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History by Oliver Tearle

by Renee Kimball

Sometimes you stumble unawares into a book and then, in total surprise, you are rewarded.  That was my experience when I happened to find The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History by Dr. Oliver Tearle.  This is a book a bookish reader can gobble up, each chapter one more rich tidbit that goes on and on – an entertaining, multi-layered literary feast.

Tearle begins with an old question: “What book would you like to take with you if you are left on a desert island?”  (We all know that question, and we also know the answer varies widely in response both to what you have read, as well as, your age).  And having asked this question, Tearle provides G.K. Chesterton’s still witty reply: “Thomas’ Guide to Practical Shipbuilding.”  A response Tearle says is guaranteed to produce a smile. 

But you ask, who is Oliver Tearle?  

Dr. Oliver Tearle is a professor of English at Loughborough University, United Kingdom, and the author of The Secret Library: A Book Lovers’ Journey through Curiosities of History.  Tearle is also the creator of the highly popular literature blog, Interesting Literature: A Library of Literary Interestingness, touting 25,000 followers, along with an enviable presence on Twitter and Facebook. 
If numbers are proof of success, those that follow Tearle appear much more than just a little bit interested in literature’s long and quirky history. 

In the “About,” section of Tearle’s website, he offers the intent behind his blog:“. . . The aim is simple: to uncover the little-known interesting facts about the world of books, and to shine a light on some of the more curious aspects of literature.” 

Backtracking to Chesteron as to what might prompt a choice of books on that desert island, Tearle argues that for a book to be important enough, “the . . . book needn’t mean ‘great work of literature’ or ‘novel you’ve always wanted to read but have never had the time or courage to take on. . .”

An important book can be relatively unknown except to a few, but its impact upon ‘Western society’, is immense, citing to Euclid’s Elements, or Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary.

Writing The Secret Library, Tearle’s goal was to simply answer some questions he had had about literature; even though these may have been previously addressed, he wanted to go further and include “non-literary texts” as well.

Tearle stated he had . . . “two related aims: to bring to light the lesser-known aspects of well-known books, and to show how obscure and little-known books have surprising links with the familiar world around us. . . In short, it attempts to bring to light some hidden facts about both the best-known and the least-known books ever written, typed, inscribed, dictated, or indeed fabricated.”.

Beginning with what we have inherited from the Classical era that created the basis for all the arts, we are linked back to Ancient Greece (in gratitude).  With Tearle, we are led even further forward into a bibliophile’s wonderland . . .” its a medley of curiosities, a whistle-stop tour around an imaginary library stuffed full of titles both familiar and forgotten. . .”  If you are a curious book lover seeking unknown facts and authors, this is the reading adventure for you. 

Throughout nine chapters, Tearle explores literature (gone but not forgotten) chronologically, from the Classical time forward.  Each chapter ends with a clue tying it to the next chapter – it is up to the reader to puzzle it out and connect the clues.  Without spoiling the book for would-be-readers, below are just a few of the interesting answers found within The Secret Library. . .

What is the oldest book known to man?  . . .The Etruscan Gold Book, which was produced around 2,500 years ago. It comprises six large sheets of 24-carat gold which have been bound together with rings, thus forming a unified object that might be labelled a ‘book.”  It was discovered in the mid-twentieth century; unfortunately, as it was written in Etruscan language, which we know very little about, deciphering it proved tricky, to say the least. (Note, Wikimedia Commons does not have a photo of this book; however, there are images of it on the web at various sites).

Is the Iliad the first great work of Western literature?  “The Iliad is the first great work of Western literature probably composed in around the eighth century B.C. . . who Homer was remains a mystery. . .and after nearly three millennia unknowable.  The story of the Greeks . . disguised in a big wooden horse inspired the Trojan horse (in computing, a piece of malware that infiltrates your computer by disguising itself as something benign).”

Who was Euclid? “. . .The greatest mathematician of ancient Greece was Euclid.  But which Euclid? There were, it would appear, several. . .The attribution of the work to Euclid is the result of one passing reference made by a later writer, Proclus, naming Euclid as the author of, the book . . .most historians accept the attribution as fact.

Who was the first science fiction writer? “Pinpointing the starting-point of science fiction is a tricky undertaking. Did it begin with Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth in 1864? Or Mary Shellye’s Frankenstein in 1818?  . . .Asimov and Carl Sagan give the mantle to . . . astronomer Johannes Kepler, whose Somnium written in Latin in 1608, speculated on what the Earth might look like from the Moon. . .but the origins of science fiction can be traced back far earlier even than Kepler. . .to the second century. . . to a Syrian writer named Lucian, whose short work A True History has claim to being the first-ever work of science fiction. . .

Who owned the largest library in medieval England?  “. . . Richard de Bury would have to be a contender. . .a fourteenth-century bishop of Durham, de Bury appears to have been something of an incurable bibliophile whose library dwarfed those of his fellow bishops. . .he has been described by his biographer Samuel Lane Boardman as the patron saint of book lovers. . .De Bury even wrote a book about his book obsession, Philobiblon (literally, ‘love of books’), which has been described as the first-ever book about library management. . .he completed it shorty before his death in 1345.”

Flatulent Demons? “Dante Alighieri. . .is best remembered for the epic poem about heaven, hell, damnation, purgatory and salvation called The Divine Comedy. . .It is not a comedy, because it is not funny. . .it might be viewed as the original fantasy trilogy, charting the poet’s journey from hell to purgatory before arriving in heaven.  T. S. Eliot, to whom Dante meant a great deal, said of Dante’s work that genuine poetry is able to communicate before it is understood.  Rumour has it that Dante taught his cat to hold a candle up for him in its paw while he was eating or reading.”

And . . .there is so much more: The First Autobiography (a manuscript found by “William Erdeswick, a lieutenant-colonel, found in a cupboard in his house in Chesterfield. . .a book first transcribed in the 1430s written by Margery Kempe;” “The discovery by an Italian librarian during the fifteenth century of Lucretius’ epic poem De Rerum Natura” was the spark that began the Italian Renaissance (according to literary historian Stephen Greenblatt); “Rabeliais, who wrote Gargantua and Pantagruel gave us two popular adjectives. . .gargantuan. . .and panurgic. . .”

There are more tales, more improbable but true connections, that Tearle deftly reveals and magically weaves into a cohesive whole.  This is the book you keep in your carryall, in the car, by your beside table; pick it up at any point and you will be amazed at just what you can learn.

References

The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History by Oliver Tearle. Photo Courtesy of Amazon.

The Iliad. Wikimedia Commons, attribution:  Pete unseth, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

Johannes Kepler, Somnium. Courtesy Amazon.com.

The first page of Richard De Bury’s Philobiblon. Wikimedia Commons, attribution. Richard de Bury (Life time: 1287-1345), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Portable Dante. Photo courtesy of Amazon.

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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.

Book Review: Benjamin Capps’ The Heirs of Franklin Woodstock

by Kathy Waller

George Woodstock received the peculiar phone call on his sixty-sixth birthday. . . He let the phone ring twice, then answered, “Woodstock Machine Shop.”

It was Helen’s voice. “Clara called, George.”

“Where is she?” 

“Your sister. She’s out at Woodstock where she always is. Your papa has escaped from the nursing home.” . . . 

“What in the hell does escaped mean? Did you ask any questions? . . .  Have they put up a fence for patients to climb over? Or did he tunnel out? Did he wound any guards? I thought Papa was in a nursing facility.”

“Please don’t be snotty, George. I’m only telling you what Clara said. I said you’d call back.”

According to Best Mystery Novels, mysteries must meet certain criteria: there must be a puzzle; a detective or protagonist who sets out to solve the puzzle; suspects; clues; red herrings; hidden evidence; gaps in information; and suspense.

The Heirs of Franklin Woodstock  isn’t classed as a mystery.  It’s “general fiction.” Literary fiction. It isn’t shelved  in  bookstores and libraries amongst the Christies and the Hammetts and the Chandlers.

Author Benjamin Capps is famous for his award-winning historical fiction, realistic novels set in an Old West lacking the romance of pulp fiction. He didn’t write mysteries.

But based on the criteria laid out above, The Heirs of Franklin Woodstock is a mystery. On page one, the puzzle is laid out: ninety-one-year-old rancher Franklin Woodstock has “escaped” from the nursing home and is missing. And protagonist George Woodstock sets out on the three-hour drive from Fort Worth, northwest to the town of Woodstock, near his father’s seven-thousand-acre ranch, to find out what’s going on. (Clara, the sister who called, is known in the family as “a dingbat.”)

George’s investigation begins in chaos. The sheriff says they don’t usually find missing persons, just bodies they then identify by going through the files. He has two deputies out looking and will call in more searchers–George offers to help with expenses if necessary–but that’s about all his office can do.

At the Goodhaven Nursing Home, George asks the nurse at the front desk if she has a clue as to what his father might have been thinking in the days before he disappeared. She has a ready, and vehement, non-answer:

“I’m trying to bring the charts up for the next shift,” she said. ” . . . Now, sir, I would like to tell you what is charted again and again about Mr. Franklin Woodstock: Stubborn! Will not eat boiled and mashed carrots. Stubborn! Will not accept bath. Stubborn! Will not let aides assist in toilet. Stubborn! Tries to pinch aide or nurse. Stubborn! Will not lay as asked in bed. Stubborn! Pulls out feeding tube. Stubborn! Broke injection needle. Stubborn! Will not swallow boiled and mashed vegetables. Stubborn! Spits out pills.”

Asked the same question, the ward nurse sticks out a hand: “See that thumb? That knuckle! That’s  where a patient bit me. Just bit me on purpose.  . . .  She’s only got about seven teeth and she sunk every of them into my thumb.”

The Director of Nursing speaks more formally, but her only specific reference to George’s father is that a nurse was fired because she was discovered  bringing him food from home–ground broiled steak mixed with mushroom soup and thermoses of cold beer.

At the Woodstock ranch, George finds a haven in the person of Izzy, housekeeper, cook, compulsive gardener, canner, egg gatherer and churner of butter, and mother to everyone, although she’s probably no older than George. Izzy’s son Juan, who’s always gone by the name of Johnny Woodstock, is, as always, doing the practical–heading out on horseback with tenant-cowhands Buck and Slim to search for their employer. Johnny knows the ranch nearly as well as Franklin does.

Then the phone calls begin, and the six-hour round-trips to the airport in Fort Worth to pick up siblings and to try to keep his small machine shop afloat.

So the suspects gather. With plans. And motives.

Walter, a New York businessman with a degree from Harvard Business School, sees an opportunity to subdivide five thousand acres for an exclusive community, “no low-class people.” With his experience, of course, he’ll head up the project. That Chicano Johnny is good enough for punching cows but using a computer and managing a huge enterprise? Maybe he graduated from high school. Walter has also hired a private detective to find Papa, no matter how far he has to go or how much it costs.

Irma and her evangelist son Wilbur propose a different idea: The ranch will become Noah’s Ark, a combination religious retreat that will attract famous preachers, and a place of safety where every resident will be armed, a thousand rounds of ammo for each rifle, seeds, chainsaws, experts who can fix windmills and water pumps, animals two by two . . . because Russia, or somebody, is preparing to drop the Bomb. They’ve thought it out to the nth degree. Papa was a Born Again Christian and would have approved. Wilbur will probably be the first president, receiving a modest salary of $60,000. Irma had suggested $100,000.

Clara seems to want only to spoil her grandchildren, and Clarence, with a Ph.D. in literature and teaching in California, seems only to want to sit up all night with George, sharing several six-packs and talking old times. But Frank, his geologist son, believes the ranch sits on deep oil wells that could be profitable.

During George’s long drives between Fort Worth and the ranch, we learn a lot about Franklin Woodstock. He hasn’t always been “stubborn” or “Born Again.” He’s been a hard worker and a shrewd manager, starting with nothing and acquiring land and cattle, building “the Old Place” and later a large house, adding stock tanks and windmills, working alongside his hands in every endeavor. He has raised a family and sent his children to any school they wanted. When Clara’s grandson, Homer, who is “different,” is expelled from third grade for arguing unintelligibly with the teacher because he doesn’t want to sit down, and then (it is assumed) keeps breaking into the school library and stealing books (which are always returned), Franklin somehow smooths things over and starts building a library in his own home; the break-ins cease. Homer can’t read but seems to think if he could , he would understand what everyone else does.

Franklin Woodstock is the best man George has ever known.

We learn a lot about George, too: a surveyor with the CCC, a navigator who flew forty missions over the Pacific in World War II, an assistant engineer with the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, a machinist and tool-and-die maker. He’s a man  with a high school education who wants to work with his hands, and he’s good at it. His father respects that and has promised him $100,000 to expand his business–a loan, not a gift. But with nothing on paper, and no witnesses to the promise, George doesn’t know whether he’ll get the money. And he feels guilty for even thinking about it.

He’s also worried that his siblings are behaving as if Papa is already dead. Walter says they can have him declared so. Walter is determined. Who knows what the others will agree to?

Although the active characters are the heirs of Franklin Woodstock, the old man holds the novel together. He’s missing. Is he dead or alive? Will they ever know?

What happened to Franklin Woodstock? There’s the mystery.

There are, of course, clues, red herrings, hidden evidence, gaps in information, suspense–all of the other basic criteria. But it would be a shame to share too much here.

As they say in fourth-grade book reports, if you want to know what happens, you’ll have to read the book.

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A word about the author:

Benjamin Capps was born in 1922 in Dundee, Archer County, Texas.

At fifteen, he entered Texas Technological College in Lubbock but left after a year to work in the Civilian Conservation Corps and then as a surveyor in the U. S. Department of Engineering. As a navigator, he flew forty missions over the Pacific in World War II. He received two degrees in English and journalism from the University of Texas and taught at Northeastern State College in Oklahoma. But teaching didn’t allow him time to write and drained his creativity. He became a machinist and tool-and-die maker before becoming a full-time writer. He lived in Grand Prairie, Texas.

In “Benjamin Capps Papers: A Guide,” (University of Texas Arlington Special Collections), it notes that,

According to Capps, his writing’s aim is to be authentic and “to probe the human nature and human motives” involved in his stories. His works are painstakingly researched for historical accuracy and generally explore lesser known facets of the American frontier. 

Three of his books won Spur Awards from the Western Writers of America. One novel and one work of nonfiction received a Wrangler Award from the Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center. He was the recipient of numerous other awards.

Dundee, Capps’ birthplace, is nineteen miles from Archer City, where Larry McMurtry was born eleven years later. Capps never achieved McMurtry’s fame (or notoriety).

But he’s been counted among writers such as Walter Van Tilburg Clark and Conrad Richter for writing about the Old West with “compelling authenticity.”

James W. Lee, Director, Center for Texas Studies, University of North Texas, calls his Woman of the People “the finest novel ever to come out of Texas.” (Note: Lee is right.)

He also says “Ben Capps is the Texas author whose work will still be read a hundred years from now.”

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Kathy Waller has published short stories and one novella, Stabbed, written with Manning Wolfe. She blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly.

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Sources:

Benjamin Capps. The Heirs of Franklin Woodstock. Lubbock: TCU Press, 1989.

Spur Award for the Best Western Novel

Texas Archival Resources Online

Encyclopedia.com

Texas Escapes

Within Hours

Book flap and blurbs

Master’s class, “Literature and Lore of the Southwest,” Southwest Texas State University, taught by Dr. Dickie Heaberlin, 1984. Memory and informed opinions of Kathy Waller, student.

Cover image: Amazon.com