Biblioholism: The Literary Addiction – Book Review

By Renee Kimball

Biblioholism *. . .book, of books; the habitual longing to purchase, read, store, admire, and consume books in excess.  Tom Raabe

In Biblioholism – The Literary Addiction, author Tom Raabe hilariously details what happens to those who are unable to contain their compulsion to purchase, collect . . .well, HOARD books.  And if you wonder if there are still certain people who do this in the age of Ebooks- – – then YES is the answer.  Biblioholics still exist, while collecting books in all its myriad forms available today.

Raabe wrote the first edition of Biblioholism – The Literary Addiction in 1991, it was revised and re-published in 2001.  Raabe’s insights are entertaining, that is, unless you are a BOOK HOARDER – and, well, then reading about it can be uncomfortable, even painful. 

So, for the record, I am biased, I am not impartial, I am a Book Hoarder.

Today’s book world is much, much different than that of Raabe’s.  Book stores, places of wonder, have greatly diminished, other online sellers have cornered the book-buying-market.  Technology has transmogrified lengthy volumes into tiny bits and bytes.  Centuries of the written word are now carried along with phones, tucked into portable cases or satchels, purses, and even pockets, read whenever the owner chooses, wherever the owner can get a satellite signal.

But still, Biblioholics that remain continue to treasure the heft of the physical book.  They are behind the scenes, ferreting out those remaining bookstores, garage sales, thrift stores, Thriftbooks, Ebay and Etsy, and public library sales for the real thing…that tome of paper–the physical book.  Dusty, dirty, old, frayed, new, crisp, silly, serious we keep looking and bringing home BOOKS

Raabe asks: Do you suffer from Biblioholism

“What another addiction? . . . Don’t we have enough addictions to worry about —drugs, alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, gambling eating, not eating, shopping shoplifting, sex, chocolate, work, television watching, fitness, religion, and who know that else—without having to worry about books too?” Raabe (p. 12-13).

What are the effects of Biblioholism?  Raabe enlightens us (the following is paraphrased, for a full accounting, please obtain the book) . . .

  1.  The first thing to go is your eyesight.  “This is because biblioholics, by definition, read everywhere…We must read and considerations, like proper lighting are not sufficient to sway us from our passion. . .” (p. 14).
  2. Losing your ability to see, is second to the change in our body (neck, arms, chest, fanny, bum, backside). Nothing worse than the effect of a tilting head and neck after years of reading in bed. “Browser’s neck” appears but that is small compared to the “every spreading” dynasty of flesh which becomes the derriere you never wanted and has “spread to the size of the Mississippi Delta.” (p. 14).
  3. “Proper hygiene,” and “time,” come last to finishing that last chapter.  If you can push yourself to read a few more sentences, then taking a spit-bath is far more attractive than a full shower or arriving to work with pressed clothes and sparking teeth.  The financial result (both in pay) and ability to buy more books, suffers.
  4. As the Biblioholic’s living space becomes constricted with books (stacked everywhere and on everything), their social world contracts as well –soon, encased by books, a recluse is born.  You can’t invite anyone in, you can’t safely open the door.”

When the Biblioholic finally realizes they need “help,” it may be too late. . . Books have taken over his/her life. 

At this stage, there is little or no money (it has all been spent on books), and because books have taken the place of human company, there are few friends to call on for assistance.  Only after the Biblioholic comes to his senses, can he finally confront his book-addiction and turn his life around.

If you believe you may be a Biblioholic and need a guide to determine if you are a true “book addict,” then review Raabe’s “checklist,’ for a more targeted approach.  Following a sample of Raabe’s questions found in: “Taking the Test: Are you a Biblioholic?” (pg. 25-30) . . .

“Have you ever bought the same book twice without knowing it?

At Christmastime, do you buy your loved ones books that you want to read?

Do you have a personal library on an entire subject, note of which you have read?

When at a garage sale, is the first thing you look at the books?

Have you ever become suddenly deeply interested in an obscure topic and immediately bought six or more books on that topic?”. . .

I must answer “Yes” to all of the above, I even have more than two copies of the same book (even three).  While there is much more to Raabe’s lighthearted but serious book, he closes with a chapter detailing a suggestion for a cure:

“. . . and now you’re probably ready to bask in the good news of a cure and get on with life, right?  Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but wrong. Because the operative rule for this disease is: Biblioholic, heal thyself.” (p. 156).

Wait! After all this about the disease, how do I cure myself, you ask?  Raabe glibly offers the following: “Total Abstinence,” “Find Something Else to Love,” (as in marriage, or supplant with another addiction: “shopping, religion, fitness, rage, chocolate, sex, work, pizza…who knows what else.” (p. 159).  And lastly, much like aversion therapy, Raabe finally suggests: “Buy Till It Hurts.” (p. 163). 

“. . .nothing works unless we want to be cured. . .And in order to hit that bottom we have to buy until it hurts, until every dollar forked over for a book brings with it concomitant pain and guilt.

          We can’t be cured until we want help; we can’t want help until we hit bottom; and we can’t hit bottom until we become absolute book fools and buy until it causes us so much pain we will want help. . .

          How else can we be healed?  The disease must run its course. . .Only in total defeat is there victory. Only from the bottom can we see the top. Once we get there, we can turn it around.  But as they say, getting there is half the fun.”. . . (Raabe 163).

What will you try?  I think I will continue to implement Raabe’s last suggestion – I will keep buying till it hurts. 

After all, when has “Total Abstinence” ever worked for any addiction?

References:

Raabe, Tom. Biblioholism: the Literary Addiction. Fulcrum Publishing, 2001.  Photo courtesy of Amazon.

The Biblioholic. Biblioholism: n. [BIBLIO + HOLISM] book, of books: the habitual longing to purchase, read, store, admire and consume books in excess. Columbia Edu – OnLine http://www.columbia.edu/~fuat/biblioholic.com/

Photos courtesy of Pixabay. 

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 Nightingale—A Novel by Kristin Hannah—And . . . Admitting When You Are Wrong

The NightingaleA Novel by Kristin Hannah is a weighty 564 pages.  The cover has shades of blue and grey with the embossed golden image of a bird in a tree- delicate, feminine, appealing.  The story is not delicate; however, it is a dark surprise, and one worth reading, even re-reading.

A bit of personal honesty is in ordergoing in, I was prepared to dislike this book.  I do not read romantic based historical fiction. I told myself that Hannah was a romantic author, very popular, but still, romance. NOPE, nope, not for me.  Not my cup of tea.

Fate intervened.  My on-line book club chose Hannah for the Author of the Month selection.  Despite moaning and muttering, I bought the book, read the book, and here we are.

Let me get it out now, I was wrong about Hannah and wrong about The Nightingale.  This novel is much more than a delicate cover. 

The novel is set during the WWII Nazi occupation of France.  Hannah weaves her story while detailing the brutal German oppression and murder of the French people, the cruel dislocation of French Jews and other targeted groups, and the incredible bravery of the members of the French Resistance.

The writing is sparse; there are no literary flourishes — it fits the story.  The novel evolves around the lives of two sistersVianne (Rossignol) Mauriac and Isabelle Rossignol, at odds with one another since early childhood.  Interweaving the present with the past, and the past into the present, the sisters’ experiences become a single thread of unmet expectations and misunderstandings, that in the end, show an unrelenting depth of love and respect between them.

The reader learns that, when they were very young, their mother suddenly died.  Ignored by their grieving father, the girls raised themselves.  Years of parental indifference caused the girls to become emotionally distanced, then resentful towards each other.  The older sister, Vianne Rossignol (Mauriac), becomes pregnant, escaping Paris through marriage and moving to the French countryside and far away from her sister.

The younger daughter, Isabelle Rossignol, an unabashed rebel, continues acting out, and as she is dismissed from one convent school to the next, the sisters become even further estranged.  Vianne settles into motherhood and country life, while Isabelle continues her ever increasing wild behavior in Paris.

Hannah forces the reader to watch as the Nazis enter Paris and expel French Jews from their homes and herd them into railway boxcars.  The reader walks the French countryside alongside hundreds of French citizens while above, German pilots indiscriminately release bombs on the crowds below.  Just as suddenly, the reader stands by as messages are secreted to members of the French Resistance.  The reader watches as downed American and British pilots are guided in the freezing cold while attempting to avoid roving German patrols, through the Pyrenees Mountains to safety in Spain.   

As the novel progresses, each sister, unknown to the other in their own way, secretly fights the Nazi occupation.  One sister becomes an undercover member of the French Resistance and the guide known as The Nightingale.  The Nightingale is the one who leads downed American and British pilots over the Pyrenees mountains to safety.  The sisters’ father makes a fateful and touching reappearance and with a surprising twist (no spoilers here).

Hannah’s research is faultless.  The Nightingale successfully mirrors the turbulence of war through the lens of a French family who deeply love France and one another.  The deprivations, hunger, fear, and reactions are visceral.  Hannah forces the reader to remember the atrocities of WWII, and cautions us to never forget this part of our history—we must all ensure that it can never happen again.  We cannot become complacent; we cannot take our freedoms for granted.

My mother once told me that a sign of maturity is admitting when you are wrong, and as much as I hate to admit it, I was wrong about this book.  Find a copy of The Nightingale, read it, and share it with other like-minded reading friends, and spread the message: we must never forget.

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References

Hannah, Kristin. The Nightingale: A Novel. 1st ed., St. Martin’s Press, 2015.

Photo of Novel courtesy of Amazon. Com

Photo of Eiffel Tower by Free Photos

Photo of Nazi in Paris. Wikimedia Commons : -(Nazi-parading-in-elysian-fields-paris-desert-1940.png  German Nazi officers parading in the deserted Foch avenue, Paris, France (1940). Screenshot taken from the 1943 United States Army propaganda film Divide and Conquer (Why We Fight #3) directed by Frank Capra and partially based on, news archives, animations, restaged scenes and captured propaganda material from both sides.)  (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nazi-parading-in-elysian-fields-paris-desert-1940.png)

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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. 

Weaving Complexity into Story

by Renee Kimball

It has been a year of extremes—Covid, freezing weather, and higher than average temperatures forecast for the summer ahead. 

During Covid quarantine, I read many, many books of all kinds.  I forgot some of those within an hour of finishing, but others, stayed with me long after I turned the last page.  

The stories that remained with me included specific historical, geographical, even philosophical backstories, that despite of a kind of literary density, held my attention.  Each author had conducted meticulous research, and their obvious investment of time, effort, along with many complex details, was an achievement.  Each story was the kind the reader falls into and stays to the end.

Similarities between them were clear; all were written by female authors; all contained resourceful, intelligent female protagonists; and each flawlessly merged a complex backstory within the main theme.  What could have been unintelligible and unenjoyable was successful, even riveting.  These stories were not mired in dry, mind-numbing facts, and the characters were believable, even likeable; what more could a reader ask?

In the first novel, The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert, we meet the protagonist, Alma Whittaker.  Whittaker’s character is loosely based on the historical women explorers of the Victorian age.  Alma’s story is engaging, and she not only became an explorer, but a respected scientist through her groundbreaking global research in Bryology, the study of mosses, a branch of Botany.

Alma, an unattractive baby, then a precocious child, develops into a brilliant multi-talented adult.  Alma’s insatiable need to know everything, to her credit, gives her an unstoppable confidence that keeps her strong and saves her in the later decades of life.  Her greatest disappointment is her failed marriage, the husband unable or unwilling to give Alma the love that she desperately wants, eventually leaving her unhappy and alone. 

Gilbert’s rigorous research details the severity of the life of a Victorian woman.  Blocked from entering or studying within male dominated scientific fields, any findings women might make were dismissed or stolen by men who took credit for the original work, or disregarded completely.  In spite of this overall disregard, many women persevered, becoming explorers or scholars in their own right, and laid the groundwork of the first inklings of female equality.

The second novel, The Weight of Ink, by Rachel Kadish, introduces a dual timeline and two female protagonists: the present-day London historian, Helen Watt, who discovers an ancient cache of valuable correspondence, and Ester Velasquez, a Jewish female scribe, who was the actual author of the historical letters.  Two stories run side by side, back and forth, jumping from present day London to the Jewish community of 1660s plague-ridden London. 

Intrigue and tension rise as a present-day scholarly battle throws university professors and researchers in a race to establish control over the translation of the letters, while, in tandem, Ester’s life-story is picked apart as the letters are slowly translated, revealing her character and brilliant inquisitive intellect.

Ester, an orphaned Jewish adolescent, is sent to London along with her brother, from Amsterdam, when their family home burns, killing both parents.  The children become wards of the venerated but blind Rabbi Moseh Ha Coen Mendes.  Ester’s brother, slated to become a scribe for the Rabbi, refuses, runs away, and dies shortly after. 

Hiding behind a fictious “male” persona, Ester becomes the Rabbi’s scribe.  A scribe was traditionally a male only position, but the Rabbi silently allows Ester to hide behind a false identity and to transcribe his weighty correspondence.  It does not take long for Ester’s razor-sharp intellect to rise to the surface when unbeknownst to the Rabbi, Ester modifies the Rabbi’s responses with her own commentary and questions.  This correspondence is composed in reply to some of the greatest thinkers of the day, a list that includes the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, among others.

Kadish presents an intellectually strong and resourceful woman trapped by gender, religion, tradition, and social constraints in the frantic environment of plague-ridden London.  Ester’s character refuses to be cowed and questions centuries of Rabbinical teaching and beliefs, even questioning Spinoza’s philosophies. 

Kadish’s language flows, integrating the complex philosophical theories of Judaism and those of Spinoza through Ester, and again through Helen Watt, a specialist in Judaic history who demands Ester’s letters be given the prominence and respect they deserve.  With Kadish, the reader becomes nothing less than a captive to the story—Kadish has created an historical page-turner.

The The Fifth Season: The Broken Earth, Book 1 by N.K. Jemisin, unlike the first two novels, is pure science fiction in imaginary time.  The novel takes place on an Earth-like planet of broken islands, what Jemisin’s calls the “Stillness.” The ever-changing geological landscape breaks, fuses, rises and sinks, entire enclaves disappear, only to rise again elsewhere.  Time runs in Seasons that begin and end with land-mass upheaval while creating a daily apocalypse for its inhabitants.  

Essun, the protagonist, a middle-aged woman-healer, lives in the ever-changing Stillness, confronting numerous small enclaves of hostile caste-ridden survivors with bizarre magical abilities.

When her own toddler son displays telekinesis, he is murdered by her husband.  Essun had hidden the child’s gift from her husband to protect the child, and although Essun has these same gifts she keeps them hidden because she too would be killed.  After murdering the son, the husband takes their remaining daughter and flees.  The novel is based on Essun’s search for her husband and daughter within the ever-shifting geological nightmare landscape.

All three novels are a testament to the authors’ exacting research and story-telling abilities.  

Gilbert became an expert in Victorian mores, women explorers, and scientific standards of Botany and Bryology during the 1800s. 

Kadish grounded her story in Judaism, Spinoza’s complex philosophies, the history of Amsterdam and the London plague.  She successfully tackled the difficult job of two protagonists with parallel timelines, one present day, one historical, with finesse and without alienating the reader or breaking the thread of the story.  

Although science fiction, Jemisin incorporated ever-changing geological manifestations—shifting tectonic plates, volcanic fissures, and violent changes resulting from those stresses.  Notably, Jemisin’s characters are believable despite the imaginary violent landscape of the Stillness.  Jemisin’s story is a woman’s fight for survival.

Countless other authors have successfully incorporated complex concepts into successful fiction novels. For me, Gilbert, Kadish, and Jemisin, prove that although the backstory may be scientifically and philosophically dense, it is possible to create stories both engaging and understandable to the reader  

Their skill to weave complexity into writing is something to be admired, even envied.

***

References

Image Extreme Weather courtesy of Pixabay

Images of book covers courtesy of Amazon

Heller, Jason. ‘Fifth Season’ Embraces The Scale And Complexity Of Fantasy. August 4, 201510:03 AM ET

Jason Heller. https://www.npr.org/2015/08/04/427825372/fifth-season-embraces-the-scale-and-complexity-of-fantasy

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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 both dogs and cats and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.

Pick Your Poison–An Almost Perfect Crime

“All things are poison and nothing is without poison; only the dose makes a thing not a poison.” Paracelsus, Swiss physician (1493 –1541) (emphasis added)

“Poison has a certain appeal . . . It has not the crudeness of the revolver bullet or the blunt weapon. I have no special knowledge of the subject, if that is what you mean.” (Agatha Christie, They Do It With Mirrors, p.178)

The history of poison is an ancient one, and before the birth of forensic medicine in the 1920s, poison was virtually untraceable; it was almost the perfect weapon

 Socrates drank poisoned hemlock and died in 399 BCE (Eyewitness).  Cleopatra orchestrated poisonous experiments on her slaves and prisoners of war.  Concoctions made from “Henbane, Belladonna Strychnos nux-vomica” were used to isolate the most painful and disfiguring combinations (Quave).  Cleopatra ruthlessly searched for the quickest and least painful poison for her future self, should she need it. In the end, in 30 BC, she chose the bite of an asp to end her life (Quave).  

The Borgias of the Italian Renaissance, resorted to a wide variety of deadly formulas to eradicate obstinate Church officials and political rivals.  The Borgia’s parting gifts included combinations of “arsenic, strychnine, cantharidin, and aconite incorporated in drinks, clothes, gloves, book pages, flowers, and drugs” (Sage).  The deadliest poison in the Borgia arsenal, Cantarella, made with arsenic as a base was “so dangerous that the actual formula was destroyed after their deaths.” (Blum). 

“. . . Served in a goblet of wine at dinner, it had the reputation to function with time-clock precision. According to the desire of the murder, cantarella could kill in a day, a month, or a year. It was also believed that cantarella was so powerful that no antidote existed. . .” (Sage).

During Victorian times, married women frequently resorted to poisoning as the solution to a bad marriage, or to cash in on a spouse’s or relative’s life insurance policies.  Arsenic was so popular it was given a “nickname: the inheritance powder.” (Blum). 

In England, between 1857 and 1872, Mary Ann Cotton, a notorious female British serial killer and arsenic devotee, killed “eight of her own children, seven stepchildren, her mother, three husbands, a lover – and an inconvenient friend” before she was caught and hanged (Blum; Johnson; Murderpedia).  

Sometime between the 1880’s and 1908, in the United States Belle Gunness, known as “Lady Bluebeard,” is believed to have killed between “13 to 42” people,” including her own children.  (Murderpedia).  Using strychnine and/or bludgeoning to kill her victims, sometimes using both methods, Belle then butchered her victims and fed the body parts to her hogs. (Schecter; Murderpedia). 

Harold Schecter, who arduously documented Gunness’ murders in Hell’s Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness, Butcher of Men, wrote that despite years of diligent attempts to find or identify Belle, dead or alive, she was never found.  The Gunness case remains unsolved. 

Murderers are not the only ones who are on the lookout for the perfect murder weapon.  Mystery writers, including the most famous of mystery writers, Agatha Christie, frequently used poison as a weapon in her novels.  An extensive study of Christie’s use of poison was analyzed by Anne Harrison, detailed in her article, “Poisons Used in Agatha Christie’s Books, Foul Toxins From the Queen of Crime” (2017).  Harrison’s research found Christie had used poison more than any other mystery writer of her era. 

“. . .More than thirty victims fall foul to a variety of toxins (while others survive attempted poisonings). Christie’s knowledge was extensive, a result of her work as both a nurse and a pharmacy dispenser during both World Wars.” (Harrison).  

Agatha Christie plaque -: Torre Abbey.jpg : Violetrigaderivative work: F l a n k e r, CC BY-SA 3.0 /, via Wikimedia Commons

Harrison’s research proved Christie had more than a simple working knowledge of poison and drug interactions. Harrison’s findings further revealed how proficient Christie was ensuring not only the correct toxin’s application but how she skillfully determined appropriate outcomes for each. Harrison noted that not all of Christie’s literary victims died; some recovered. 

Research confirmed the drugs/poisons Christie actually chose for her stories were actual drugs available and accessible at the time she wrote her stories.  Christie did not fabricate the names or kinds of drugs, or their effects, or the application, but used her real-life knowledge to enhance her storyline, which as we all know, it did.

Christie’s novels incorporate a plethora of toxins: “strychnine, cyanide, arsenic, thallium, taxine, coniine, bacillus anthracis, plant arsenic, Belladonna (also known as Deadly Nightshade, Devil’s Berries or Death Cherries), physostigmine, Morphine, Vernol (sleeping tablets), and physostigmine” (Harrison). 

In the real world, poison had always been hugely problematic for law enforcement –if used for murder, its detection was virtually impossible.  The cause of death was widely determined by a medical examiner who was politically appointed.  Frequently appointees had no medical training, scientific knowledge, or access to detection tests.  People died of unknown causes, unsolved murders rose, and murderers walked free. 

The rate of unsolved murders rose as industrialization encroached on cities and towns.  According to Deborah Blum, in The Poisoner’s Handbook – Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, “As industrialization encroached throughout the U.S., new chemicals and poisons appeared unregulated.  Frequently, these poisons were undetectable.” (Blum)

Blum wrote that it was not until the first pioneers of forensic medicine appeared and true scientific detection tools were created and tested, that medical examiners and their staff were finally able to detect certain poisons as a definitive cause of death.  

Some toxins widely used at that time: “Morphine went into teething medicines for infants; opium into routinely prescribed sedatives; arsenic was an ingredient in everything from pesticides to cosmetics. Mercury, cyanide, strychnine, chloral hydrate, chloroform, sulfates of iron, sugar of lead, carbolic acid, and more, the products of the new chemistry stocked the shelves of doctors’ offices, businesses, homes, pharmacies, and grocery stores. . . “(Blum).

In New York, public outcry demanded a qualified non-political appointee medical coroner, a knowledgeable physician.  After years of political stonewalling, a decision was finally reached, and in January of 1918, “Dr. Charles Norris …became the new Chief Medical Examiner of New York” (Blum). 

No long after his appointment, Norris hired the chemist, Alexander Gettler.  It was Gettler who would later perfect tests to detect wood alcohol poisonings, cyanide gas poisoning, and he work tirelessly to find tests able to detect various poisons.  Norris and Gettler established the first forensic standards, tests, and mandatory forensic protocols, and through their efforts saved thousands of future lives.

It is not possible to encapsulate the entirety of Blum’s “The Poisoner’s Handbook – Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York.”  Blum’s history of poison, its insidious effects on the public, the rise of the first forensic department in New York and the United States, along with the discoveries of both Norris and Gettler, and the incredible people who worked with them, is well worth reading.

The public owes a debt to the unfailing dedication of both Norris and Gettler, who demanded scientific rigor in the detection of toxins, but who also paved the way for regulatory reform and laid the foundation of forensic medicine. 

Norris died in 1935, and although few knew, Norris had been financially supporting the Medical Examiner’s office with his personal resources since his original appointment.  Two years after Norris’ death, three members of his staff published a “comprehensive textbook on forensic science, Legal Medicine and Toxicology. . .it was dedicated to Norris.” (Blum)

Gettler continued to work, finally retiring at seventy-five.  “On the day he left office, he estimated that he’s analyzed more than 100,000 bodies.” (Blum).  A prodigious writer, Gettler produced numerous scholarly papers on various toxins, detection methodology, and forensics.  Gettler had also trained a legion of young scientists known as the “Gettler Boys,” who went on to become medical examiners working “from Long Island to Puerto Rico.” (Blum).  Gettler died in 1968.  

The story of poison is far from complete; it continues to morph and change; new toxins are created every day.  Their detection, however, is far more likely thanks to Harris and Gettler. 

The Poisoner’s Handbook – Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, became a best seller in 2010, and a PBS NPR American Experience series feature in 2016. 

If you are looking for the perfect murder weapon, before considering poison, a bit of research is recommended. 

Other References

Lakeisha Goedluck. A Brief History of Women Putting Poison in Their Lovers’ Food.  

Chemical Safety Facts. Org.  “The Dose Makes the Poison.”

Photo Credits:

Book 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, writing, and animal advocacy. She fosters and rescues both dogs and cats and works with various organizations to find them forever homes. 

Revisiting Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet

by Renee Kimball

“Almustafa, the chosen and the beloved, who was a dawn unto his own day, had waited twelve years in the city of Orphalese for his ship that was to return and bear him back to the isle of his birth.

And in the twelfth year, on the seventh day of Ielool, the month of reaping, he climbed the hill without the city walls and looked seaward; and he beheld his ship coming with the mist. . .
. . .
“And he said to himself:
Shall the day of parting be the day of gathering?
And shall it be said that my eve was in truth my dawn? . . .

The Prophet

Born in Lebanon in 1883, Kahlil Gibran was the son of an erratic and abusive alcoholic father who forced Kahlil’s mother to flee with her four children to the United States; Kahlil was 12 years old.  Although they arrived in New York initially, they quickly relocated to Boston’s Southside, settling within a larger immigrant community.

Gibran’s formal education was interrupted fleeing Lebanon, again through relocation to Boston.  The small family faced obstacles of language and culture, yet, despite this, the mother opened a small store that allowed some income.  During Kahlil’s late teens, a sister and both brothers died from tuberculosis; shortly after, Gibran’s mother died from cancer.  As the remaining guardian of his youngest sister, Gibran continued working his mother’s store while pursuing painting and writing.

Prior to his mother’s death, Kahlil also began writing and translating various articles for Boston’s Arabic /Lebanese newspapers. Through the translation work, he established contacts within the Boston artistic community giving Kahlil the encouragement and patronage he desperately needed.  His mother, however, questioning his friendships with the Art Nouveau/Romantic community, sent him back to Lebanon for more education.  He found his father the same aggressive, angry alcoholic Kahlil had fled years before, and he quickly returned to Boston and his mother.

Gibran’s early attempts at art, similar in style to the Romantic William Blake, failed to find an audience, but his writings, generated a respectable following. This was still not enough to support his sister or himself, particularly after his mother’s passing.  It was during this time that Gibran established a pattern of behavior he followed for the rest of his life—first, seeking acceptance within a supportive artistic community and, second, befriending and securing patronage of wealthy older women.

Boston’s literary critics found Kahlil’s grammar stilted and his spiritual style hard to understand.  Acceptance in the larger literary circles remained out of reach but several years passed before Gibran, upon the advice of friends, relocated to New York.  Once there, Gibran’s prose poems and parable style writings established his reputation as a respected writer.

In 1931, Gibran died from causes related to alcoholism and cirrhosis of the liver. He was 48 years of age. His body was returned to Lebanon, where he was buried.

In these troubling times of COVID—confusion and radical change, Gibran’s gentle messages pose as a reminder of the importance of caring for your neighbor, giving without expectation of return, knowing yourself, and loving without judgment.  You do not have look hard to find the love in Gibran’s message, and I, for one, am in favor of more of love everywhere.

 

On Love

…When love beckons you, follow him,
Through his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north
Wind lays waste the garden.

. . .

. . .Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself.
Love possesses not nor would it be possessed;
For love is sufficient unto love.
. . .
When you love you should not say, “God is in my heart,”
but rather, “I am in the heart of God.”
And think not you can direct the course of love, for love,
If it finds you worthy, directs your course.”

Of Children

 . . .Your children are not your children.
 They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you. . .

You are the bows from which your children as living
Arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with his might that His arrows may go swift and far. . .

 On Giving

Then said a rich man, Speak to us of Giving.
     And he answered:
     You give but little when you give of your possessions.
     It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.
     For what are your possessions but things you keep and guard
     for fear you may need them tomorrow? . . .
. . .
 It is well to give when asked, but it is better to give unasked,
through understanding;
      And to the open-handed the search for one who shall
receive is joy greater than giving.
     And is there aught you would withhold?
     All you have shall some day be given;
     Therefore give now, that the season of giving may be yours and not your inheritors’. . .

 ***

References

Gibran, Khalil. The Prophet. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (1926, 1970).

Naimy. “The Mind and Thought of Khalil Gibran.” Journal of Arabic Literature, vol. 5, 1974, pp. 55–71.

Pantucek, Svetozar. “ANALYSIS OF THE PARABLES OF GIBRAN KHALIL GIBRAN.” Quaderni Di Studi Arabi, vol. 11, 1993, pp. 139–147.

Poetry Foundation. Kahlil Gibran. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/kahlil-gibran

Images via Wikipedia. All are in the public domain. For more information, click on each image.

***

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 both dogs and cats and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.

Ray Bradbury on Writing and Life

 

by Renee Kimball

 

“Your intuition knows what to write, so get out of the way.”

                                                            ― Ray Bradbury

“. . . And what, you ask, does writing teach us? First and foremost, it reminds us that we are alive and that it is a gift and a privilege, not a right.  We must earn life once it has been awarded us.  Life asks for reward back because it has favored us with animation…Secondly, writing is survival.  Any art, any good work, of course is that.  Not to write, for many of us, is to die…”
                                                Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing

Courtesy of Amazon.com

In 1994 , Ray Bradbury published Zen in the Art of Writing; he was 74 years old.  Bradbury began his writing life at twelve years of age and committed the rest of his life to writing one thousand words a day, if not more.

Only 176 pages, Zen is a succinct and instructive work.  The book deftly uses autobiographical material to lay the groundwork as a guidebook for writers; but more, it is an instructional manual for creating a rich, productive, and happy life.

Finding Bradbury’s Zen was an unexpected pleasure.  It is doubtful I would have known of it if it had only been available in hardback.  Because the electronic edition just “happened” to come up on my E-reader, I downloaded and began reading.  (Photo Courtesy of Amazon).

Courtesy of Amazon.com

Zen’s language is reminiscent of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, but that takes nothing away from his message.  In an interview with Futurism Magazine five years before his death in 2012, Bradbury had reached a pinnacle of success known by “living authors.”  Some critics have named him the “greatest science fiction author of all time” but he was more than a science fiction author; he was also a “humanist-philosopher” (Futurism).

Bradbury’s career began as a short story writer during the 50s.  He became a novelist, evolved into writing poems, as well as theatre and movie screenplays.

A collection of Bradbury’s short stories became the basis of his first novel, The Martian ChroniclesThe Illustrated Man followed in 1951, and Fahrenheit 451 in 1954, both still read in high school English classes today.  Bradbury is credited with bringing the science fiction genre into mainstream literature.  The move to writing television screen plays was a natural progression. Gene Roddenberry, Bradbury’s friend and the creator of Star Trek, invited Bradbury to write for the popular show.  Bradbury became the primary writer for the show for many years; the series became a monumental success, spawning sub-culture worship status still going today.

Engaging thoughts found in the slim volume of Zen:

The need to write every day. . .

“I have learned, on my journeys, that if I let a day go by without writing, I grow uneasy.  Two days and I am in tremor.  Three and I suspect lunacy. . .An hour’s writing is tonic. I’m on my feet running in circles. . . Zen (p. ixx).

 On writing with enthusiasm, and finding ideas:

“. . .If you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half a writer.” (p.4).

. . .But I wanted to show what we all have in us, that it has always been there, and so few of us bother to notice.  When people ask me where I get my ideas I laugh.  How strange—we’re so busy looking out, to find ways and means, we forget to look in.” (p. 35.

Bradbury’s “formula for writing”. . .

Courtesy of Pixabay.com

“. . .So, simply then, here is my formula. . .

 “What do you want more than anything else in the world? What do you love, or what do you hate?

“Find a character, like yourself, who will want something or not want something, with all his heart. Give him running orders. Shoot him off. Then follow as fast as you can go. The character, in his great love, or hate, will rush you through to the end of the story. . .” (p. 6).

When he was twenty-two, after ten years of struggling, Bradley finally wrote what he believed was his first good short story, “The Lake.”  He earned twenty dollars.  For years afterwards, “The Lake” was continuously published in a variety of magazines; while he was surprised, Bradbury was infinitely pleased.

President George W. Bush, Ray Bradbury, and Laura Bush at Bradbury’s acceptance of the National Medal of Arts , 2004. Wikipedia.

When reading Zen, if you are a certain age, the reader can believe that being with Ray Bradbury would be comfortable, undemanding, enjoyable—he is the model for a “good friend.”  Bradbury is the ultimate family man, devoted to his wife and four daughters.  He had strong life-time friendships —not only in business, but in life.  He writes about his gratefulness to his wife and his daughters and joy they brought him and the loving home they shared.  He never shies away from sentimental feelings of family and friends that seem to escape modern writing, he acknowledges his missteps and successes with humor and truth.

Bradbuy’s Wisdom

“Read poetry every day of your life.  Poetry is good because it flexes muscles you don’t use often enough. Poetry expands the senses and keeps them in prime condition.  It keeps you aware of your nose, your eye, your ear, your tongue, your hand. . .” (p. 36).

. . .

“You say you don’t understand Dylan Thomas? Yes, but your ganglion does, and your secret wits, and all your unborn children. Read him, as you can read a horse with your eyes, set free and charging over an endless green meadow on a windy day… (p. 37).”

. . . “Read those authors who write the way you hope to write, those who think the way you would like to think. . .” (p. 38).

“. . . The constant remains:  the search, the finding, the admiration, the love, the honest response to materials at hand, no matter how shabby they one day seem, when looked back on…” (p. 41).

“. . . By living well, by observing as you live, by reading well and observing as you read, you have Your Most Original Self.” (p. 43).

In Zen, the reader will find a template for a full life, a joyful life. Bradbury did not just give advice, he lived what he told others to do: work with passion and creativity, write every day with enthusiasm, find joy in whatever you do, and nourish your inner self, your inner muse.  Read everything, and experience the wonder of the people in your life, the world around you, and most importantly sprinkle everything you do and say with Love—success will follow.

Courtesy of Pixabay

“You must write every single day of your life… You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads… may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.”

― Ray Bradbury

###

REFERENCES

Bradbury, Ray. Zen in the Art of Writing.
Bradbury, Ray. 1990. Zen in the art of writing. Santa Barbara, Calif: Joshua Odell Editions, electronic publication 2012, Amazon.com Kindle Edition.

Ray Bradbury. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ray-Bradbury

Full Cycle Publications. Interview with Ray Bradbury. 07.20.2019. https://www.fullcyclepublications.com/interview-with-ray-bradbury/

Goodreads. Bradbury Quotes.  https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/1630.Ray_Bradbury

###

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 both dogs and cats and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.

A Common Reader Looks at Women Writing Science Fiction

 

by Renee Kimball

 

In Ex Libris, Confessions of a Common Reader, author Anne Fadiman explains the origin of the term, “common reader”—which Fadiman borrowed from Virginia Woolf’s story, The Common Reader, and Woolf had borrowed from Samuel Johnson’s Life of Gray (Preface).

“In The Common Reader– Virginia Woolf . . .wrote of “all those rooms, too humble to be called libraries, yet full of books, where the pursuit of reading is carried on by private people.” The common reader, she said “differs from the critic and the scholar.  He is worse educated and nature has not gifted him so generously.  He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others.  Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole.”  This is the whole that I have attempted to create from the thousands of odds and ends that crowd my sagging bookshelves.” (Ex Libris, Preface).

 I am a Common Reader, one of those who collect books without purpose—other than I am curious, (or nosy). I am in love with books—and their secrets. I enjoy that challenge of finding a connection—there is always a surprise lurking between the pages.

While I am attracted to all things bookish, I am not alone.  Online, hundreds of like-minded bookaholics come together, willing to share their enthusiasm for good books, new authors, and interesting finds—excellent company in this time of social distancing.

Which brings me to this post about women writing science fiction. These bookish groups, and their book prompts, often require reading science fiction—a genre I normally do not read.  I struggle with understanding scientific concepts, other worlds, fantastical cultures with fantastical abilities, much less the ability to pronounce non-phonetic imaginary names and languages.  I lack imagination for made up worlds, but I admire those who possess it.

And that is how I came to read and admire, not one, but two female science fiction authors—Octavia E. Butler and Ursula K. Le Guin.  In fact, there are many, many more, but this post addresses only these two.

The science fiction genre is a multifaceted, scientifically imagined environment with fantastical cultures—environments created from almost unruly imaginations, producing amazingly satisfying results, including social and moral lessons.  Yet Butler and Le Guin push the boundaries even more—they are rebel authors who use their platforms to fearlessly address social ills: injustice, slavery, discrimination, diversity, feminism, social unrest, and sexuality and much, much, more.

Octavia E. Butler

Octavia Butler. Licensed by Nikolas Coukouma under CC BY-SA 2.5. Via Wikipedia.

You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.”

 

From Dawn, Book I of III, Lilith’s Brood:The Complete Xenogenesis Trilogy

“Down on Earth,” she said carefully, “there are no people left to draw lines on maps and say which sides of those lines are the right sides. There is no government left. No human government, anyway.”

. . .

“What is it?” she asked. “Flesh. More like mine than like yours. Different from mine, too, though. It’s … the ship.” “You’re kidding. Your ship is alive?”

. . .

“She had learned to keep her sanity by accepting things as she found them, adapting herself to new circumstances by putting aside the old ones whose memories might overwhelm her. . .”

Ursula K. Le Guin 

Ursula K. LeGuin. By K. Kendall. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. Via Wikipedia.

“. . . Write what you know,” I was regularly told this as a beginner. I think it’s a very good rule and have always obeyed it. I write about imaginary countries, alien societies on other planets, dragons, wizards, the Napa Valley in 22002. I know these things. I know them better than anybody else possibly could, so it’s my duty to testify about them.”

“But when people say, Did you always want to be a writer?, I have to say no! I always was a writer (tweet that, emphasis mine). I didn’t want to be a writer and lead the writer’s life and be glamorous and go to New York. I just wanted to do my job writing, and to do it really well.”

From The Left Hand of Darkness

“Light is the left hand of darkness and darkness the right hand of light. Two are one, life and death, lying together like lovers in kemmer, like hands joined together, like the end and the way.”

. . .

“Though I had been nearly two years on Winter I was still far from being able to see the people of the planet through their own eyes. I tried to, but my efforts took the form of self-consciously seeing a Gethenian first as a man, then as a woman, forcing him into those categories so irrelevant to his nature and so essential to my own. Thus as I sipped my smoking sour beer I thought that at table Estraven’s performance had been womanly, all charm and tact and lack of substance, specious and adroit. Was it in fact perhaps this soft supple femininity that I disliked and distrusted in him? For it was impossible to think of him as a woman, that dark, ironic, powerful presence near me in the firelit darkness, and yet whenever I thought of him as a man I felt a sense of falseness, of imposture: in him, or in my own attitude towards him? His voice was soft and rather resonant but not deep, scarcely a man’s voice, but scarcely a woman’s voice either…but what was it saying?”

#

Le Guin and Butler were fearless in their writing.  LeGuin shook the science fiction world when she wrote about men’s role in parenting.  In The Left Hand of Darkness, there are no women, no females, only one gender—male.  Men go into “kemmer” when they become a female vessel and are then impregnated by another male.  After they become pregnant and after delivery of their progeny, both men serve as parents.  Male childcare and nurturing—a subject rarely discussed in 1969.

Butler forged ahead on similar lines, writing about slavery and sexual desire while portraying women in leadership roles, unafraid to demand respect and control.  Butler’s aliens from other universes conquer earth and gain control through sexual conquest and mind control.  She never shied away from using her writing as a means to remind us of the ills of slavery or subjugation of races while weaving these lessons into the tapestry of her stories.  Butler was a leader of Afrofuturism and equality, believing “hierarchical” societies are a danger to society.

Both Le Guin and Butler are now deceased.  Le Guin died in 2018, at 88 years of age, after leaving behind a voluminous legacy.  Butler died in 2006, at 58 years of age, also leaving a voluminous legacy of work and papers.  The list of Butler’s awards is too numerous to produce here; however, she won both the Hugo and Nebula awards twice.  Le Guin won eight Hugo and six Nebula awards in addition to numerous others.

Both authors’ works will continue to be revered and read far into the future; it is also hoped other female science fiction writers will follow their example.

 ***

Book covers courtesy of Amazon.com.

***

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 both dogs and cats and works with various organizations to find them forever homes

Mary Oliver—Who Heeded the Call

 

by Renee Kimball

 

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”

~ Mary Oliver

 “Ten times a day something happens to me like this – some strengthening throb of amazement – some good sweet empathic ping and swell. This is the first, the wildest and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness.

~ Mary Oliver                          

* 

Sometimes we bump into an author that shakes us—strikes deep.  In complete amazement we say, I wish I had had the advantage of her wisdom sooner.  Now, going forward, may we all be as aware as Mary Oliver, may we all practice her approach to life, love, and nature.

 

*

Mary Oliver was born on September 10, 1935, and died at the age of 83, on January 17, 2019. She published over 25 books of poetry and prose during her lifetime.

Oliver rarely wrote of her Ohio childhood.  She was a victim of extreme child abuse and family dysfunction. To survive, she escaped to nature and literature and they sustained and saved her.

She studied at Ohio State University and Vassar College, but left before completing her studies.

Oliver won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1984.  She continued to win numerous other literary awards as well as honorary doctorates during her lifetime.

*

—from Upstream (Penguin Press, 2016).

“. . .Teach the children.  We don’t matter so much, but the children do. . . Show them daisies. . .Give them the fields and the woods and the possibility of the world salvaged from the lords of profit. Stand them in the stream, head them upstream, rejoice as they learn to love this green space they live in, its sticks and leaves and then the silent, beautiful blossoms. . Attention is the beginning of devotion.”

“. . . But first and foremost, I learned from Whitman that the poem is a temple—or a green field—a place to enter, and in which to feel. . .I learned that the poem was made not just to exist, but to speak—to be company.  It was everything that was needed. . .”

“I quickly found for myself two such blessings—the natural world, and the world of writing: literature.  These were the gates through which I vanished from a difficult place. . .”

“. . . And this is what I learned: that the world’s otherness is antidote to confusion, that standing within this otherness—the beauty and the mystery of the world, out in the fields or deep inside books—can re-dignify the worst-stung heart.”

—from Dream Work (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1994)

“. . . You don’t want to hear the story
of my life, and anyway
I don’t want to tell it, I want to listen
to the enormous waterfalls of the sun. . .”

 

 

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert,
repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of
your body
love what it loves.

Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell
you mine
Meanwhile the world goes on.

. . .

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place in the family of things.”

—from Devotions (Penguin Press, 2017)

I Wake Close to Morning

Why do people keep asking to see
God’s identity papers
when the darkness opening into morning
is more than enough?
Certainly any god might turn away in disgust.
Think of Sheba approaching
the kingdom of Solomon.
Do you think she had to ask, “Is this the place?”

The World I Live In

I have refused to live
locked in the orderly house of reasons and proofs.
The world I live in and believe in
is wider than that. And anyway,
what’s wrong with Maybe?

You wouldn’t believe what once or twice I have seen. I’ll just
tell you this:
only if there are angels in your head will you
ever, possibly, see one.

*

The world is much lonelier now without Mary Oliver.  We are fortunate that she left us a word filled legacy that advises us to be awake, attentive, read without stopping, and become a lover of nature.

Lastly,  if you are lucky and should hear the creative call, then do the work, whatever that may be that calls to you—open your arms, your mind, your being, and respond.

Those of us left behind remain immensely grateful that Mary Oliver heeded her call.

*

“. . . My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely.  It does not include mustard, or teeth.  It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot . . My loyalty is to the inner vison, whenever and howsoever it may arrive. . .

 “There is no other way work of artistic worth can be done.  And the occasional success, to the striver, is worth everything.  The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”

 —from Upstream (emphasis added).

***

References

Cover photos from Amazon

Mary Oliver page from Goodreads.

Mary Oliver 1935–2019. Poetry Foundation.

Mary Oliver website.  Beacon.

“On Being with Krista Tippett  Mary Oliver Listening to the World.” Radio Podcast. September 3, 2020. Original Air Date February 5, 2015.

Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver. October 10, 2017

Upstream: Selected Essays by Mary Oliver. October 29, 2019.

Dream Work by Mary Oliver.  May 1, 1986

***

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: Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do; Edited by Meredith Maran

by Renee Kimball

Meredith Maran decided to write a book about writing to show her “gratitude to writers everywhere.”  To do that, however, she needed information from at least twenty best-selling authors.  Their responses would form basis for the book and a portion of the final profits would be donated to the 826 National literacy outreach centers promoting reading and writing in underprivileged areas.  She hoped this extra incentive would entice the “twenty” to respond.

While Maran’s greatest worry was whether the popular selling authors would even acknowledge or ignore her plea, she found her worries groundless—every author she contacted fully participated.  The responses were beyond Maran’s wildest expectations.

Along with their replies, the authors also included a bit of personal information and a plethora of sage advice for new writers.  The result of Maran’s inquiries became,  Why We Write 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do.

While you will need to read the book to enjoy of the wealth of information, below a few of the authors’ replies are highlighted.

 Isabel Allende

“I need to tell a story. It’s an obsession.  Each story is a seed inside of me that starts to grow and grow, like a tumor, and I have to deal with it sooner or later. Why a particular story?  I don’t know when I begin. That I learn much later.” (p. 4).

“It’s worth the work to find the precise word that will create a feeling of describe a situation. When you feel the story is beginning to pick up rhythm—then you know the book is going somewhere, and you just have to find it, and bring it, word by word into this world . . . (p.11-12).

David Baldacci

“If writing were illegal, I’d be in prison.  I can’t not write. It’s a compulsion.” (p. 16).

“When the sentences and the story are flowing, writing is better than any drug.  It doesn’t just make you feel good about yourself.  It makes you feel good about everything.” (p. 16).

“It can go the other way too. . . But actually, sitting there and conceiving story ideas and plotting—it’s the coolest profession in the world.  I’m paid to daydream.” (p. 16).

“Whether you’re writing a novel or a cover letter. . . shorter is always better.” (p. 23).

“The upside of the current state of publishing:  it’s a lot easier to self-publish than it ever was.  Publish on the Internet, or on demand, or self-publish in print—but whatever you do, if you want to share your story, publish it” (p. 23).

“Writing for your readers” is a euphemism for “writing what you think people will buy.” Don’t fall for it! Write for the person you know best: yourself.”  (p. 23).

Sue Grafton

“I write because in 1962 I put in my application for a job working in the children’s department at Sears, and they never called me back.  Seriously, I write because it’s all I know how to do.  Writing is my anchor and my purpose.” (p. 52).

“My best time as a writer is any day, or any moment, when the work’s going well and I’m completely absorbed in the task at hand.  The hardest time is when it’s not, and I’m not.  The latter tend to outnumber the former.  But I’m a persistent little cuss.  And I soldier on.” (p. 52).

“Most days when I sit down at my computer, I’m scared half out of my mind.  I’m always convinced that my last book was my last book, that my career is at an end, that I’ll never be able to pull off another novel, that my success was a fleeting illusion, and my hopes for the future are already dead.  Dang!  All this drama and it’s not even nine a.m.” (p. 53).

“Mystery writers are the neurosurgeons of literature.  Or maybe magicians.  We work by slight of hand.” (p. 57).

“There are no secrets and there are no shortcuts.  As an aspiring writer, what you need to know is that learning to write is self-taught, and learning to write well takes years.” (p. 60).

Ann Patchett

“I write because I swear to God, I don’t know how to do anything else.  From the time I was a little child, I knew that writing was going to be my life. . . I put all my eggs in one basket, which has resulted in a great number of eggs.” (p. 185).

“Don’t be afraid to make money writing the kinds of things you’d never write for the fun of it. There’s no shame in earing a living, whatever your write, even catalog copy or fluffy magazine articles, makes you a better writer.” (p. 192).

 Jane Smiley

“I write to investigate things I’m curious about.” (p. 206).

“A novelist’s job is to integrate information with the feelings and the stories of her characters, because a novel is about the alternation of the inner world and the outer world, what happens and what the characters fell about it.  There’s no reason to write a novel unless you’re going to talk about the inner lives of your characters.  Without that, the material is dry.  But without events and information, the novel seems subjective and pointless.” (p. 206).

“When I am writing, more than any other emotion, I feel excited.” (p. 209).

“Don’t write the book you think a publisher will want to publish.  Write the book you want to research and the book you want to read.” (p.215).

Maran’s small book is well worth reading and you just might find a kindred spirit within its pages.

Allende—obsession
Baldacci—compulsion
Grafton—writing is my anchor and my purpose
Patchett—can’t do anything else
Smiley—to investigate things

***

*826 National is a nonprofit organization that provides strategic leadership, administration, and other resources to ensure the success of its network of seven—soon to be eight—writing and tutoring centers.

Photos courtesy of Amazon

***

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 both dogs and cats and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.

Book Review: The Wife, by Meg Wolitzer

 

by Renee Kimball

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Photo: Courtesy by Amazon.com

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