Two women are walking down the road and pass a frog sitting in the grass. “Hey,” says the frog.
“Wow. It’s a talking frog,” says one of the women. She picks the frog up and holds it in her hand.
The frog says, “Listen, I’m not really a frog. Actually, I’m a critically acclaimed writer. A spell was cast on me and I was turned into a frog. But if you kiss me I’ll turn back into a critically acclaimed writer.”
“Well, I’ll be damned,” says the woman, and puts the frog in her pocket.
Her friend asks, “Aren’t you going to kiss it?”
And she answers, “Hell, no. I’ll make a lot more money with a talking frog.”
In 2009, I accepted a challenge to write a four-sentence review of Nancy Peacock’s memoir A Broom of One’s Own. Starting well before the due date, I wrote the first sentence of the review—over and over—and deleted it. Over and over. Sometimes I wrote the same sentence several times in a row. Sometimes I composed a new sentence to demolish. After weeks of literary and rhetorical torment, I produced the following:
I like Nancy Peacock’s A Broom of One’s Own: Words About Writing, Housecleaning & Life so much that it’s taken me over two months and two missed deadlines to untangle my thoughts and write this four-sentence review, an irony Peacock, author of two critically acclaimed novels, would no doubt address were I in one of her writing classes.
She would probably tell me that there is no perfect writing life; that her job as a part-time housecleaner, begun when full-time writing wouldn’t pay the bills, afforded time, solitude, and the “foundation of regular work” she needed; that engaging in physical labor allowed her unconscious mind to “kick into gear,” so she became not the writer but the “receiver” of her stories.
She’d probably say that writing is hard; that sitting at a desk doesn’t automatically bring brilliance; that writers have to work with what they have; that “if I don’t have the pages I hate I will never have the pages I love”; that there are a million “saner” things to do and a “million good reasons to quit” and that the only good reason to continue is, “This is what I want.”
So, having composed at least two dozen subordinated, coordinated, appositived, participial-phrase-stuffed first sentences and having discarded them before completion; having practically memorized the book’s text searching for the perfect quotation to end with; and having once again stayed awake into the night, racing another missed deadline, I am completing this review—because I value Nancy Peacock’s advice; and because I love A Broom of One’s Own; and because I consider it the equal of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird; and because I want other readers to know about it; and because this is what I want.
Waller Answers Directly with One Sentence: When it takes you over two months to eke out four sentences, don’t quit your day job.
Since you can read award-winning author Bruce DeSilva’s excellent review here, I won’t try to duplicate. Except to point out that—
DeSilva calls the Samuel Craddock series “genre-bending,” because the “author’s folksy prose and Jarrett Creek’s small-town ways . . . give the novel the feel of a cozy,” and yet the problems facing the town and Police Chief Craddock “give the novel the feel of a modern police procedural.”
With the term “genre-bending,” DeSilva hits upon one reason—perhaps the reason—for the series’ success. Shames joins elements of two very different genres—cozy mysteries and police procedurals—with skill and grace, into a seamless whole. That ain’t hay either.
As a reader, I enjoy Shames’ novels, but as a writer, I seethe with envy. If only I could do what she does . . .
At the bookstore, I fell in love with the cover. On page one, I fell in love with the book. Soon thereafter, I fell in love with a sentence. Here it is, underlined, in the paragraph quoted below—the words of narrator Samuel Craddock:
I head into the house for my hat and my cane and the keys to my truck. There’s not a thing wrong with me but a bum knee. Several months ago one of my heifers knocked me down accidentally and it spooked her so bad that she stepped on my leg. This happened in the pasture behind my house, where I keep twenty head of white-faced Herefords. It took me two hours to drag myself back to the house, and those damned cows hovered over me every inch of the way.
That’s what author Ernest Hemingway would callone true sentence. Cows are curious. They’re nosy. They like to observe. I’ve seen cows hover. That’s exactly the kind of thing my father might have said about his damn cows.
Shames gets it right. Every word in that sentence, and throughout the book, is pitch-perfect.
The night I read about the hovering cows, I wrote Shames a fan email telling her I loved the sentence.
But when I completed the novel and tried to write a review for my personal blog, I got tangled up in words. It came out sounding like this:
I love this book. It’s just so…There’s this wonderful sentence on the second page about hovering cows…That’s exactly what cows do…I can just see those cows…The person who wrote that sentence knows cows…It’s just so…I just love it.
That’s what happens when a reviewer lacks detachment. Wordsworth said poetry begins with emotion “recollected in tranquility.”So do book reviews. There’s nothing tranquil about that tangle of words.
So, with no review, I compromised. I posted the paragraph containing the beloved sentence and added a picture of white-faced Herefords.
Not long after, Shames spoke at the Heart of Texas (Austin) chapter of Sisters in Crime, and I told her how much I admired her work. A year later, in 2014, I heard her read from her second novel, The Last Death of Jack Harbin. And I’ve read all the books she’s published since.
From 2013 to 2022, that’s nine Samuel Craddock mysteries, each a great read, each just as good as—or better than—the one before.
But regarding Shames’ sentences—
It is a truth universally acknowledged that her hovering cows will always be Number One.
*Shames breaks the silly rule against “mixing” present and past tenses in narration. Samuel Craddock speaks the language spoken by men like him in real Jarrett Creeks all over Texas.
**The cow sentence isn’t really about cows. It’s about Samuel Craddock. But I am fond of white-faced Herefords, and the image Shames paints of them is so vivid that it obscures the man dragging himself toward his house. For me, at least.
***I took the photo of the cover of A Killing at Cotton Hill. The fur on the right side of the book doesn’t belong there, but it was easier to just take the picture than to move the cat.
Kathy Waller has published short crime fiction as well as a novella co-written with Manning Wolfe. For more info, and/or to read her posts on topics ranging from A to izzard, visit her personal blog, Telling the Truth, Mainly (http://kathywaller1.com). She also cross-posts her Ink-Stained Wretches posts at Austin Mystery Writers.
“Giants are not as powerful as they seem and sometimes the shepherd has a sling in his pocket.” — Malcom Gladwell
Malcom Gladwell is not a “new author.” He has been writing for the New YorkTimes since 1996, and is the best-selling author of many books. But more than that, Gladwell is a one-of-a-kind writer–there is no one else like him. “. . . Gladwell’s true genius lies here, in identifying common assumptions that lie just beneath the surface—beliefs that are so widely accepted, so taken for granted, that we don’t even know we believe in them.” (Adam Grant).
Gladwell’s strength is taking the ordinary and making it interesting. (Adam Grant)
Gladwell shows why finding the answers is not as easy as it appears. By the end of this book, the reader finds that their once comfortable presumptions have been turned on their heads.
There is no better introduction for Gladwell’s, David and Goliath, than the story of David and Goliath – the most well-known underdog vs. giant story of all time. It is much more than we thought– David was a lucky young man who delivered a one-in-a-million shot instantly slaying the giant. David did do those things, but thanks to Gladwell, we now know there were other reasons that played a very large part in David’s victory.
No one disputes the fact that Goliath was a giant of a man for his day. He was a scary guy– overwhelmingly huge compared to others. What was not known is that Goliath suffered from a debilitating growth condition, now known as “acromegaly, a benign tumor of the pituitary gland” (Gladwell). Acromegaly caused Goliath’s unchecked growth and also impacted his eyesight–Goliath could not see well. And because of his size, Goliath’s responses were delayed, and because of his disease, he was not only slow, he could not see clearly. For this famous battle at least, these two facts substantially reduced Goliath’s chances of victory.
While Goliath was already a proven warrior, he was primarily successful engaged within hand-to-hand combat — traditional warfare. Traditional hand combat mandated certain behaviors and dress. Combatants wore a heavily armored breast plate, needed the ability to carry and wield a large and heavy sword with alacrity, must have the ability to target and throw a javelin, and all this, while wearing a heavy metal helmet.
The fully dressed combatant was restricted both in movement and sheer weight. Moreover, to be effective wielding the sword, the warrior must be very close to their opponent—face-to-face. In this story, David was at the bottom of a ravine, while Goliath was standing at the top of a slope bellowing demands while walking in a downward direction towards David. Unbeknownst to Goliath, the fight with David would not follow the familiar traditional rules of either dress, weapon, or combat, and there would be no face-to-face contact.
Unlike Goliath, the young shepherd David had never worn armor, fought hand to hand combat, or a major battle. David was small, lithe, unencumbered, and his only weapon a sling – and in that –slinging– he was an expert. David refused an offer of armor because he knew it would weigh him down. David approached the fight with excellent eyesight, a honed skill, unburdened by armor and no predisposed concepts of traditional warfare. David would not be close enough for hand-to-hand combat, and he carried no sword.
“So here we have a big, lumbering guy weighed down with armor, who can’t see much more than a few feet in front of his face, up against a kid running at him with a devastating weapon and a rock traveling with the stopping power of a .45 caliber handgun. That’s not a story of an underdog and a favorite. David has a ton of advantages in that battle, they’re just not obvious. That’s what gets the book rolling is this notion that we need to do a better job of looking at what an advantage is.” Malcom Gladwell (Interview, Inc.com)
We know the end of this story, and the underdog (weak) (disadvantaged) proves to be no underdog at all, and becomes in this situation the winner, (strong) (advantaged). This type of scrutiny is where Gladwell shines, taking a subject, stripping away assumptions, turning it on its head–making the story something else entirely.
Gladwell’s precise and skillful analysis continues on throughout the book’s nine sections, all equally thought-provoking, and all dealing with preconceived assumptions of weak and strong, advantages or disadvantages. In one of his more bewildering propositions, Gladwell questions the impact of certain types of disability and asks: Can disability ever be desirable? (Gladwell). A premise that at first blush, appears both jarring and indistinctly hopeful. We answer we cannot imagine that there is an appropriate answer.
To structure his premise, Gladwell reviews the impact of living with dyslexia – “a learning disability that makes it difficult to read, write, and spell, no matter how hard the person tries or how intelligent he or she is” (LDOnline). The root cause for dyslexia is still being studied, however, so far what we do know is that the brain’s mechanical functions are unable to link the vital connection of essential neuron transmitters that allow an individual to learn, to read, to speak, and to write.
Dyslexic individuals struggle every day, normal activities take a very long time and exhaustive concentration. Gladwell suggests that for dyslexics, the harder it is to learn, the more they excel in adulthood. The premise —they excelbecause they have worked so very hard from the very beginning to cope, to fit in, to make it through daily life.
This may seem improbable, but it has been found that “a high number of entrepreneurs are dyslexic” (Gladwell). Within one entrepreneurial group studied, it was found that approximately one-third of those participating had some type of learning disability. Which begs the question, would you want your child to have a disability? It is a tough question and a harder one to answer (Gladwell).
“I sat down with countless numbers of people who have been very successful in their fields who have dyslexia to ask them, ‘Did you succeed in spite of your disability or because of it,’ and every one of them said because of the disability. (emphasis added)
“In other words, these were people who, because they could not read easily were forced to develop other skills and try other strategies that proved to be more advantageous in terms of their careers.”Malcolm Gladwell, Air Talk.
The success stories of affected individuals winning over dyslexia exist because they were forced to compensate from a very early age and developed skills to overcome learning roadblocks—they were and are, flexible and adaptive and found a way to exist in a very cloudy and disorganized world. Dyslexia forced them to learn to listen acutely, memorize large amounts of information, and develop a razor-sharp ability to read people, retain complex nuances and facts, not on paper, but in their minds. So, under Gladwell’s premise, there are benefits to a disability – which may not be easily understood. (Photo: Pixabay)
While there is much, much more within Gladwell’s stories, in the end, the reader must decide which speaks to them. Which story is the most relatable, plausible? Gladwell writes simply; his premises, rebuttal, and results are presented in an easy to read format while challenging the reader to think deeply.
And if you stay the course to the end of the book, you will be given a glimmer of hope, because that is what Gladwell gives – hope. Hope that despite incredible odds, things are not as they seem –there is always more. Gladwell’s gift is to leave the reader questioning everything – and that is what Gladwell does better than anyone.
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, fosters and rescues both dogs and cats from shelters, and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.
Our family’s favorite mystery quote (bolded below) appears in Strong Poison, by Dorothy Sayers, where detective Lord Peter Wimsey first meets novelist Harriet Vane. Vane’s on trial for murder, accused of systematically poisoning her former lover with arsenic.
Wimsey suspects the lover’s uncle, Norman Urquhart, but the uncle assures the police that he served a blameless dinner to his nephew. Wimsey sends the all-competent Bunter (his manservant and WWI batman), to winkle out secrets from Urquhart’s cook, Mrs. Pettican, and the housemaid.
Bunter ingratiates himself by means of crumpets:
“At half-past four…he was seated in the kitchen of Mr. Urquhart’s house, toasting crumpets. He had been trained to a great pitch of dexterity in the preparation of crumpets, and if he was somewhat lavish in the matter of butter, that hurt nobody except Mr. Urquhart. It was natural that the conversation should turn to the subject of murder. Nothing goes so well with a hot fire and buttered crumpets as a wet day without and a good dose of comfortable horrors within. The heavier the lashing of the rain and the ghastlier the details, the better the flavour seems to be.”
What a setting! I’ve never tasted a crumpet, but can feel the heat of the fire and inhale the smells of toasting and melting butter. And in contrast to (or fueled by) this warmth, this delicious comfort, the cook reminds us of the victim’s death: “A dreadful wicked woman she must ‘a’ been,” said Mrs. Pettican, “—‘ev another crumpet, do, Mr. Bunter—a-torturin’ of the poor soul that long-winded way. Bashin’ on the ‘ed or the ‘asty use of a carvin’ knife when roused I can understand, but the ‘orrors of slow poisonin’ is the work of a fiend in ‘uman form, in my opinion.”
So in our kitchen at buttery moments some family member will mutter, “If he was somewhat lavish in the matter of butter…” But this week I wondered, “What are crumpets?” I mean, with Bunter toasting them over a (presumably coal) fire, then lavishing butter on them, they sound wonderful, especially for teatime in a firelit kitchen, on a cold wet afternoon, discussing the horrors of slow poisoning.
Compelled by curiosity I found a recipe. https://www.daringgourmet.com/traditional-english-crumpets/ Huh. I’d imagined English muffins. No. Instead, the goal is a tender disc, yeasty but also leavened with baking soda, creating bubbled holes to absorb melted butter, jam, and other decorations. Problem: locating crumpet rings. Yes, I’ve ordered some.
Sayers wasn’t writing a culinary cozy, despite the crumpets and an intense discussion on the following page between Mrs. Pettican and Bunter about casseroled chicken. A scene beginning with toasting crumpets produces a triumph of setting and character, a comic but dread-inspiring description of the victim’s death, and clever clue placement. Sayers does not describe either the smell of the toasting, or the taste of the crumpets, but surely you, dear reader, imagined those? Didn’t you feel yourself right there in the kitchen, with the rainy day outside, the gossipy discussion of the lover’s death agonies, and a vivid depiction of Bunter’s character? Courteous, yet firm, he deftly extracts critical information not reflected in the police report—and yes, a clue you doubtless spotted. Maybe Vane will escape the hangman’s noose after all.
Despite the strong impact of smells on humans, writers’ references to smell often seem sparse. Part of the problem is the sheer difficulty of describing certain smells. Imagine trying to describe the smell of a beloved house. It’s a mysterious mix, isn’t it? If I try to describe my mother’s house, I can’t do it with just one word. Part of the remembered smell is a faint perfume—maybe a bath powder she used, like Caswell Massey’s Gardenia. But there are other ingredients as well—contributions from oak furniture, cotton sheets, old Christmas cards on a closet shelf… See, I can’t accurately describe the smell itself; I have to name things.
My grandmother’s house in Hill County delivered a similar mixture, varying by seasons. In summer, it smelled of cantaloupe from her garden; at Christmas, of a decorated cedar tree. But always the substrate included a hard-to-describe mixture of our grandfather’s Yardley English Lavender talc, kept on the kitchen shelf where he shaved; of the garbage chute in the kitchen; of oil and electric discharges from his ham radio rig; of the ancient living room piano (wires, wood, felt). How describe the totality of that smell, that amalgam of odors, so instantly recognizable to me, but unknown to you? And how describe it without a bunch of nouns?
Poets apparently run into that problem. I set out to locate poems incorporating odor and fragrance, grabbing poetry volumes from the shelves. Yeats? Gorgeous references to sight and sound, as in “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”: “Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee, /And live alone in the bee-loud glade…” The poem is rich in sight, in sound, but not smell. We don’t smell the clay and wattles or honey.
Same for Wendell Berry’s A Small Porch—a volume of ideas, images, light and air. But I didn’t find smell. Nor did I find smell references in Chaucer or a number of Renaissance English poets, except that Michael Drayton gives us a wonderful line in “To the Virginian Voyage” referring to the much-anticipated Virginia landfall of seaborne English explorers: “When as the luscious smell/of that delicious land…” Of course Shakespeare mentions the “sweet odour” of roses (as in Sonnet 54): “Of their sweet deaths are sweetest odours made.”
Indeed, I had trouble finding references to smell in most of the poetry books I opened. There were some. In “Aimless Love,” “gazing down affectionately at the soap,” Billy Collins writes, “I could feel myself falling again/as I felt its turning in my wet hands/and caught the scent of lavender and stone.”
Marianne Moore, in “Enough,” from O To Be a Dragon, gives us this: “The crested moss-rose casts a spell; its bud of solid green, as well, /and the Old Pink Moss—with fragrant wings/ imparting balsam scent that clings…” Many readers will recognize balsam. Another from Moore’s “In the Public Garden”: “O yes, and snowdrops in the snow that smell like violets.”
Also readers may know the smell of violets. Charles Wright, in “Dog Creek Mainline,” gives more challenging references: “Dog Creek: cat track and bird splay,/Spindrift and windfall; woodrot; Odor of muscadine…” If you’ve played around wild grapevine you know the odor of muscadine––maybe woodrot too.
Try the experiment yourself. Pull some poetry off the shelf. Don’t most poems rely on sight and sound, and rarely odor? Because a particular smell can be very hard to describe.
“The way the brain deals with smells is very different to how it deals with other senses, such as seeing and hearing. For example, we can identify the different instruments playing in a band, or the different shapes and colours in a painting. But it is very hard for us to tell the individual parts of a smell mixture.” He goes on: “We can sense the smell of “orange” or “coffee” as a single thing, but have trouble identifying the many different parts that make up those smells individually. However, it is possible to get better at this with practice. Professional wine-tasters or perfume-makers can detect more parts of a smell mixture than most people.”
Our difficulty in describing smell is not that we humans can’t detect odors—we can, says Greg Miller, Science (November 11, 2014): “We humans have about 400 different types of receptors for detecting odorant molecules. That’s on the low end for mammals, but it’s enough, at least in theory, to allow us to distinguish a trillion different odors, one team of neuroscientists calculated earlier this year (although there’s been some controversy about that estimate).”
Can’t you smell those spices? And doesn’t that passage help round out (pun) our vision of Nero Wolfe, gourmet, gourmand, brilliant detective? We’re planted in the kitchen of Wolfe’s New York brownstone, the primary setting for all the mysteries. These few lines convey Wolfe’s insistence on sophisticated cuisine, and reflect the rigor he demands of every employee under his roof, including Fritz the cook; Theodore Horstmann, the keeper of his orchid greenhouse; and our narrator, his foot soldier, Archie Goodwin. A shish kebab recipe helps define the setting and Wolfe’s character as well.
Ngaio Marsh begins Night at the Vulcan (1951) with Martyn Tarne, a young New Zealand actress desperately seeking an acting role in London. One night, out of food and money, with no place to stay, she enters the Vulcan Theatre which has advertised for a dresser: “She was at the back of the stalls, standing on thick carpet at the top of the ramp facing the centre aisle…The deadened air smelt of naphthalene and plush.” The empty theatre lacks an eager audience, waiting for the curtain to go up. Instead Marsh gives us the “deadened air” of a closed theatre, where the plush seats are empty, and the air smells of naphthalene—chemical dry cleaning. Martyn starts to work: “As soon as she crossed the threshold of the star dressing-room she smelt greasepaint. The dressing-shelf was bare, the room untenanted, but the smell of cosmetics mingled with the faint reek of gas.” I don’t know the smell of greasepaint, but Martyn does; she’s in a setting she understands.
Mick Herron’s unputdownable Slough House series uses odor to create the key setting––the decrepit building which serves as center stage. Book 2, Dead Lions, describes entry to the building as follows: “No one enters Slough House by the front door; instead, via a shabby alleyway, its inmates let themselves into a grubby yard with mildewed walls….” Yecch, mildew. The building houses the “slow horses” who flunked out of MI-5’s headquarters in posh Regent’s Park, and are now under the tutelage of former Cold Warrior Jackson Lamb, a terrifying mentor. “Jackson Lamb’s lair,” the office on the building’s top floor, is described thus: “The air is heavy with a dog’s olfactory daydream: takeaway food, illicit cigarettes, day-old farts and stale beer, but there will be no time to catalogue this because Jackson Lamb can move surprisingly swiftly for a man of his bulk….” No question that odor is part of the setting. Lamb is an olfactory terrorist. https://www.amazon.com/Dead-Lions-Slough-House-Book-ebook/dp/B008ADFIKQ/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2OWSNB20HLYMN&keywords=dead+lions&qid=1659990272&sprefix=dead+lion%2Caps%2C169&sr=8-1
The century-old Beer Barn, a beloved road house in Coffee Creek, is where townspeople gather in my Ghost series. That includes lawyer and protagonist Alice Greer. Naturally the smell of beer is key. In Book 3, Ghost Letter, Alice invites a political reporter to the Beer Barn for lunch: “As they pushed through the Beer Barn’s tall swinging doors the fragrant haze enveloped them—incense compounded of hickory smoke from the wood-fired grill, chiles toasted on an iron comal, and thousands of bubbles popping in bottles and glasses, releasing the yeasty magic of beer to the air.”
Smells may be hard to define, but including the smell of a setting can enrich a mystery’s impact. Or, as Mrs. Pettican says, “Have another crumpet, do!”
Helen Currie Foster lives and writes north of Dripping Springs, Texas, loosely supervised by three burros jostling for roles in the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series, set in the unique landscape of the Texas Hill Country. So far all three burros have made an appearance, though insisting on aliases. Book 8 is on its way…
I wrote the following for my personal blog to answer a “challenge.” I intended to post it at the end of September 2009–yes, 2009. But I got all tangled up in words and couldn’t write a thing. Then I intended to post it at the end of October. I still couldn’t write it. I managed to write it after the October deadline.
In the middle of the “process,” I considered posting the following review: “I like Nancy Peacock’s A Broom of One’s Own very very very very very much.”
But the challenge specified a four-sentence review, and I had hardly one, and I didn’t want to repeat it three times.
So there’s the background.
I must also add this disclaimer: I bought my copy of A Broom of One’s Own myself, with my own money. No one told, asked, or paid me to write this review. No one told, asked, or paid me to say I like the book. No one told, asked, or paid me to like it. No one offered me tickets to Rio or a week’s lodging in Venice, more’s the pity. I decided to read the book, to like it, and to write this review all by myself, at the invitation of Story Circle Book Review Challenge. Nobody paid them either. Amen.
Review of Nancy Peacock’s A Broom of One’s Own
I like Nancy Peacock’s A Broom of One’s Own: Words About Writing, Housecleaning & Life so much that it’s taken me over two months and two missed deadlines to untangle my thoughts and write this four-sentence review, an irony Peacock, author of two critically acclaimed novels, would no doubt address were I in one of her writing classes.
She would probably tell me that there is no perfect writing life; that her job as a part-time house cleaner, begun when full-time writing wouldn’t pay the bills, afforded time, solitude, and the “foundation of regular work” she needed; that engaging in physical labor allowed her unconscious mind to “kick into gear,” so she became not the writer but the “receiver” of her stories.
She’d probably say that writing is hard; that sitting at a desk doesn’t automatically bring brilliance; that writers have to work with what they have; that “if I don’t have the pages I hate I will never have the pages I love”; that there are a million “saner” things to do and a “million good reasons to quit” and that the only good reason to continue is, “This is what I want.”
So, having composed at least two dozen subordinated, coordinated, appositived, participial-phrase-stuffed first sentences and discarding them before completion; having practically memorized the text searching for the perfect quotation to end with; and having once again stayed awake into the night, racing another deadline well past the due date, I am completing this review—because I value Nancy Peacock’s advice; and because I love A Broom of One’s Own; and because I consider it the equal of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird; and because I want other readers to know about it; and because this is what I want.
I’ve posted this review before both here and elsewhere. I consider the reposting a service to writers. The book is absolutely invaluable, and all writers need to know about it.
I blog at Telling the Truth, Mainly. I write crime fiction–have published short stories and am working on a novel. My blog, however, doesn’t have much to do with crime. There I write about anything that comes along. I like to think it’s eclectic, but it’s really just a jumble.
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.
TheArdent 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,
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
“. . . 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. . .”
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).
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.
On April 2 I drove with my writing compadre D.L.S. Evatt (aka Dixie) to Houston to sign books at Murder by the Book. That renowned bookstore has sold mysteries for 42 years. Huzzah!
We’d launched our books–my Ghost Daughter, Book 7 in the series, and her Bloodlines and Fencelines–at our Honky-Tonk Book Launch on December 5, 2021, at venerable Sam’s Town Point, a South Austin treasure for decades. The owner, Ramsay Midwood, declared it was the “first book launch” for Sam’s. Before the band––Floyd Domino’s All-Stars––began playing, Austin Shakespeare’s Ann Ciccolella interviewed us. Her first question: “why have a book launch at a honky-tonk?”
Why? For all the right reasons—great beer signs, dance floor, pool table, and music. But the main reason: murder mysteries set in small Texas towns must have a place where townspeople meet, where news is exchanged and gossip is passed along, where people see friends and frenemies and fall in love, where the past isn’t forgotten but the present is very much in play.
For Alice Greer, the lawyer protagonist in my Ghost series, the century-old Beer Barn is that place. Artisanal beers, excellent Tex-Mex food, the requisite dance floor—and the mix of music that says “Texas Hill Country.” In Dixie’s Bloodlines and Fencelines, that place is Sara’s General Store.
Of course setting is crucial in mysteries. For a small town setting, a “town crossroads” becomes a useful dramatic tool, providing a place where the mystery’s protagonist runs into various characters and hears (and evaluates) their stories, slowly unraveling the truth of a murder. Have you ever lived or visited relatives in a small town? You may have identified potential locations that would work well in a mystery. In Itasca, Texas, home of my maternal grandparents (and the Itasca Wampus Cats), it might’ve been the church fellowship hall, or the one café that served breakfast and lunch, or (I keep returning to this thought) the frigid meat locker downtown where, like many families, my grandmother kept her side of beef, back before home freezers. I still remember the sharp cold vapor of the meat locker. Imagination stirs…
At any rate, Sam’s Town Point was perfect for a book launch. When we scouted Sam’s, Dixie took a look around and said, “There are stories in these floorboards.” So we wrote a song, “Stories in the Floorboards,” which premiered last month at our book event at the Austin Woman’s Club, sung by songwriter/actress Helyn Rain Messenger.
We asked John McDougall at Murder by the Book if he knew of other authors who’d written or commissioned a song for their book launch. He said, yes, Harlan Coben and Jeffrey Deaver had done so, and Lee Childs had commissioned an entire album. Well!
The notion of an album set me thinking of John Rebus, the crusty Edinburgh cop made famous by author Ian Rankin. Rebus, acerbic and brilliant, likes his music. In Black and Blue, he sticks a tape in his car cassette player – Robert Wyatt, Rock Bottom, then Deep Purple, “Into the Fire.” That title matches the heat of the fix he’s in at that point. (Later in the series, the cassette player becomes a CD player.) But at home, he still relies on the hi-fi.In Rather Be the Devil, set in his ways, now retired and older than dirt, Rebus knows he has an ominous shadow on his lung as he enters his apartment: “A glow from the hi-fi system that told him he hadn’t switched it off. Last album played: Solid Air. Felt like that was what he was walking through…” https://www.amazon.com/s?k=rather+be+the+devil+by+ian+rankin&crid=11GFHLFGLRGUT&sprefix=%2Caps%2C135&ref=nb_sb_ss_recent_1_0_recent
Rebus has stuck to his old technology. And now he’s ahead of the curve. Vinyl sales are up: “Left for dead with the advent of CDs in the 1980s, vinyl records are now the music industry’s most popular and highest-grossing physical format, with fans choosing it for collectibility, sound quality or simply the tactile experience of music in an age of digital ephemerality. After growing steadily for more than a decade, LP sales exploded during the pandemic.In the first six months of this year, 17 million vinyl records were sold in the United States, generating $467 million in retail revenue, nearly double the amount from the same period in 2020, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.”
Why? For some, vinyls are the new collectible. But maybe it’s about the additional experience involved in listening to a favorite chunk of music. Rebus, for instance, is not listening to streamed music, not asking Alexa to play music that “sounds like” some musician. No, he’s taking a number of steps, both mental and physical, before he begins to experience the music he’s after. He’s choosing an album, seeing the familiar cover again, sliding the fragile (yet powerful) disc from its jacket, and placing it on the turntable. The album represents an entire experience, not just one cover song. Then he’s lifting the arm, carefully lowering the needle, hearing the introductory hum and scratch and—there it is again, the music that lives in his memory and is playing out again right now, in his living room. He’s making music.
Moreover, he’s activating memories, and perhaps comparing the memories of the music with his present situation, as Rebus does here, thinking the song title—John Martyn’s “Solid Air”—“felt like … what he was walking through.” (A compelling description. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UikPQOaJpfU)
Writers use music in mysteries to add depth to the protagonist’s character. Inspector Morse, alone in his flat, listens to opera. Lord Peter Wimsey plays Bach on his baby grand; Sherlock Holmes plays the violin and attends opera. Rebus relies on the music of his time, has the albums, still has t-shirts from concerts he attended. Detectives need a listening ear, need to be able to discern the sound of a lie, hear the tremble in a frightened voice. What the sleuth chooses to listen to can almost make us feel we’re hearing background music. Music becomes the continuo, the bass line that we feel beating like a heart as a book comes to life.
Because—even if we don’t know the specific notes Holmes is fingering on his violin, or which Bach fugue Wimsey is toying with, or which Wagnerian album Morse has put on his hi-fi, or precisely what “Solid Air” sounds like, we do have a huge memory vault of similar music that bubbles up as we read a mystery. We may not quite create the same soundtrack the author had in mind, but our brains engage.
Book 5 of my series, Ghost Next Door, involves a murder at the Coffee Creek city park, the night before Coffee Creek’s first barbecue competition. My protagonist, lawyer Alice Greer, is part of the happy crowd under the stars, listening to keyboard geniuses playing varieties of boogie-woogie, a genre which may have begun in the lumber camps of East Texas and still flourishes in Austin. Early in the evening Alice hears “Right Place, Wrong Time,” presaging what happens next. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hf15HrUZ5Wk. The following night she and her romantic interest, Ben Kinsear, attend the Pianorama at the Beer Barn (Alice’s favorite client). Six piano players are trading licks, winding up with Freddie Slack’s “Down the Road A Piece,” with its rippling magic trick at the end, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OX8TPanPKzU, and ending with Slack’s haunting theme song, “Strange Cargo.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tQM46xi031M
The crowd demands an encore, Alice listens as the theme grows “more complex, begins to create dreams, memories, ambitions.” The music reflects Alice’s emotions.
Music memory involves several different parts of our brain. “Different types of music-related memory appear to involve different brain regions, for instance when lyrics of a song are remembered, or autobiographical events are recalled associated with a particular piece of music.” https://academic.oup.com/brain/article/138/8/2438/330016
You already know this. Your personal music catalog—music from your past, your present, your childhood, your teenage years, and the new piece of music you just listened to—is with you, quietly ticking away in your brain, available and waiting. And there’s always more to add.
So, you could check out the line-up at Sam’s Town Point. Go Hear Floyd Domino’s All-Stars. Keep filling the music catalog…
Helen Currie Foster writes the Alice MacDonald Greer “Ghost” series, north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros. She’s fascinated by dirt and water law, as well as human history, and the way the past, uninvited, keeps crashing the party.
Ghost Daughter, Book 7, was named Semifinalist for the BookLife Prize for Mystery/Thriller (“an intriguing and complex narrative”). Book 8 is underway.
“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, Dickens – A 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.
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.
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.
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 Book—Gunsmoke–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.
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 deBotton 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 Rhimessays, 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.
“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.
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.
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.