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

by Renee Kimball

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

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

But you ask, who is Oliver Tearle?  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

Johannes Kepler, Somnium. Courtesy Amazon.com.

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

The Portable Dante. Photo courtesy of Amazon.

***

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.

Historical Fiction–Literary Time Travel

In 1986, Random House New York published Through A Glass Darkly, netting its first-time author, Karleen Koen, a hardcover rights record for a new author, $350,000.  Random House picked a winner when the paperback rights later netted an additional $755,000.  Not long after that, it was chosen by the Book of the Month Club (Los Angeles Times).  When asked about her book set in the 18th century, Koen remarked, “It was the age of Defoe, Pope, Swift and Addison,” she said, “and I lost myself in their time.”

Koen, a former magazine editor for Houston Home and Garden Magazine and housewife, created a novel that the Los Angeles Times felt was “. . . something like a bodice-ripper crossed with a text of the French Annales school, which finds history secreted in everyday life. . .”

Whatever may be said about Through A Glass Darkly, it was and remains a hugely popular historical fiction novel.  I recently re-read Koen’s book, then re-read her follow up, Now Face to Face, which was published in 1995, nine years after her debut.  Now Face to Face is as chockfull of historical information as its predecessor and enjoyed as much success.

Revisiting Koen’s writing came after a yearlong binge of reading historical fiction.  And reading back-to-back century-sweeping historical fiction created lots of questions.  Most could be answered by GOOGLE, then GOOLING more, and yet again.  But I still found, even after all that reading and GOOLING, there were unanswered basic questions about the writing guidelines and necessary steps to create successful historical fiction.

To me, historical fiction was a somewhat odd genre between unalterable truth and fictional twists.  Thoughts of just how much research was needed for a well-grounded novel was equal to going back to school for a specialist degree—I could easily see 4, 6, 10 years stretching out before writing the first line. All writing is a commitment, but writing about the ancient world, sl

slogging through translations of lost languages (if you can even find them), lost cultures, horrific wars, the peeling back layers of history and people– that takes commitment.

 Back to Basics–What is Historical Fiction.  

Jessica Dukes’ article “What is Historical Fiction?” offers an answer:

“The idea is to take readers out of the events of their lifetime. Most book lovers agree that Historical Fiction is the closest we’ll get to actual time travel.

 Historical Fiction is set in a real place, during a culturally recognizable time.

 The details . . . can be a mix of actual events and ones from the author’s imagination as they fill in the gaps. Characters can be pure fiction or based on real people . . . But everything about them —their attitudes and look, the way they speak, and problems they face — should match the era. . .” (Emphasis added)

 “How far back in time does an author have to go for their work to be considered Historical Fiction? A good rule of thumb is a minimum of 50 years.”

But . . . Just because a timeline is set back “50 years,” does not make it historical fiction.  Many other critical facets must be met and several hard and fast criteria.  To get there, we need to consider the history of the genre, what makes historical fiction what it is, and the elements that make it part of this popular genre.

Historical Fiction has been around a long, long time…

The father of the historical fiction novel is Sir Walter Scott, and Scottish history is the bedrock of his novels. Waverly, Scott’s first novel, was published in 1814; “over two dozen novels” followed, “noted for the characterizations of ordinary people and their regional Scottish dialect” (Britannica).

Scott’s writing was unique and went on to influence, Leo Tolstoy (War and Peace), George Eliot (Middlemarch), as well as Charles Dickens and Honoré de Balzac and many others (The Victorian Web).  Scott died in 1832, at 61 years of age .

R. Haggis provides the extent of Scott’s influence:

“. . .The reading of Scott’s novels led historians to envisage their task in a new way; it encouraged dramatists and novelists to turn to national history for new sources of material; it gave a vast reading public an interest in, and a curiosity about, the past . . .

“. . .The greatness of Scott is now seen to lie in the insight and understanding he shows in the interpretation of historical conflicts, in his ability to penetrate to the human reality underlying those conflicts and the opposition of historical forces, and in the way he contrives to fuse, in the creation of his fictional characters, their personal characteristics with features and qualities that make them figures representative of their times.  All this is displayed more finely—through certainly not exclusively—in his novels dealing with Scotland . . .”

So . . .What Makes Historical Fiction, Historical Fiction?

The most important element is the setting.  The setting must be factual—a time and event certain in history.  It must include supportable facts related to any real-life participants mentioned, or who are part of the storyline. An author may add a “fictional” story, what they cannot do is to “invent history.” (Rutherfurd).

What Are the Necessary Elements of Historical Fiction?

According to Ohio State University, there are “Seven Elements of Historical Fiction.”

“. . .in general writers of fiction must address seven crucial elements: character, dialogue, setting, theme, plot, conflict, and world building. The characters could be based on real or imaginary individuals (Ohio State).

How To Create Believable and Successful Historical Fiction?

Research. Research. Research.

“. . .the key to an author getting all of this right is research.  Authors are always allowed artistic license, but the most satisfying works of Historical Fiction have been researched down to every scent, button, turn of phrase, and cloud in the sky.” (Dukes)

How Popular is Historical Fiction Today?

 If Hilary Mantel’s trilogy, Wolf Hall, and C.J. Sanson’s highly successful Matthew Shardlake Series, are any indication, historical fiction is both popular and lucrative. Mantel’s Wolf Hall, and Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, have evolved into popular television series.  Gabaldon’s ninth book of the series was released November 2021—it would seem there is no end in sight to the popularity of Scottish history.

Another successful current historical fiction novelist, Edward Rutherfurd, is known for his long and complex novels of diverse places that span thousands of years. Rutherfurd’s Sarum, his first novel, a family saga tracing five families across 1000 years, starting during the Ice Age and ending with the present. Set in Stonehenge and Salisbury, England, Sarum was eagerly received by the public and quickly became a best seller.

Rutherfurd followed Sarum with other successful sagas: Russka, 800 years of Russian history, London, 2000-year long history of London; The Forest—a sequel to Sarum, a history of the forest lying “south-east of Sarum on England’s southern coast” ranging “from the Norman Conquest to the present day.” The Princes of Ireland, 1100 years of Irish history, and The Rebels of Ireland, starting before Cromwell to the Easter Rising and into the Irish Free State. Followed by New York, Paris, and the 2021, China, (the shortest timeframe covered so far—a mere seventy-five years).

Rutherfurd has frequently been compared to the historical fiction author James A. Michener.  Michener’s popularity began in the late ’40s and his long sagas continue to draw readers even today—most are still available.

In 1948, Michener won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, with his Tales of the South Pacific; in 1949, it was adapted into the Broadway musical, South Pacific.  Two movie versions were produced in, 1958 and in 2001.

During his long career, Michener authored more than 40 books, including Hawaii, Centennial, Poland, The Source (story of Israel), Caravans, and Texas, to name only a few.

Michener passed away in 1997 at 90 years of age.  His manuscripts and galleys for his book Texas were bequeathed to the University of Texas at Austin.

An Afterthought or Two. . .

When I began researching the nuts and bolts—the actual mechanics—behind writing historical fiction, I was quickly convinced that, even before writing the first sentence, writing historical fiction is a long-term commitment.  You need staying power to find historical truth, and that isn’t always an easy task.

The reality is . . . history changes every day.  Technology and advanced archeological techniques find new information hourly across the globe.  Yet, in the final analysis, and in spite of rapidly advancing changes within all fields, historical fiction is here to stay (Sparkpress).

Readers are drawn to history, particularly their own.  People are curious about their roots, their beginnings, their past, their culture; they want to get lost, be transported to another place and time, and what better way to do that than literary time travel?

Afterward EXTRA, or just another thing insightful and interesting . . .

Edward Rutherfurd provided an opinion piece on his website detailing his “seven guidelines” for writing historical fiction. If you are the curious type, you can access the opinion there under the website menu bar, “Opinion,” then,  Ethics: Rules for Writing Historical Novels .

***

Images of book covers courtesy of Amazon.

Koen, Karleen. Through A Glass Darkly. Random House. (1986).

Koen, Karleen. Now Face to Face. Random House. (1995).

Images of book covers courtesy of Amazon.

Image of Sir Walter Scott by Charles Herbert Sylvester, via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Other images courtesy of Pixabay.

***

A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice, and is currently dedicated to retirement.  Among her interests are reading, writing, research, and animal advocacy.  She fosters both dogs and cats and works with various rescue groups to find them homes.

Book Review: FULL DARK, NO STARS by Stephen King

“From the start . . . I felt that the best fiction was both propulsive and assaultive.  It gets in your face.  Sometimes it shouts in your face.  I have no quarrel with literary fiction, which usually concerns itself with extraordinary people in ordinary situations, but as both a reader and a writer, I’m much more interested by ordinary people in extraordinary situations.  I want to provoke an emotional, even visceral, reaction in my readers.  Making them think as they read is not my deal.” (Full Dark, No Stars. p.365).

There are some who avoid works by Stephen King.  Literary elitists have shown distain towards King for years, dismissing his writing as story-telling for the masses.  This review isn’t about the literary merits of King’s works, or his overwhelming success, or even about the monumental effect King’s life-long dedication to writing has had on the horror genre.  This is a brief review and discussion of two of four novellas found in Full Dark, No Stars, released in 2010.

Short stories and novellas are not a new format for King.  King has published very successful short stories and multiple novellas over his 35-year-long career.  He has clearly succeeded yet again, with Full Dark, No Stars.

Full Dark contains a common theme within each novella, a theme exploring the darker side of the human psyche, retribution, revenge, and a sense of twisted justice.  Redemption is not a theme, but revengeful retribution is revealed in each.  Even evil has the opportunity towards a twisted kind of justice—a black and damaging kind of justice, but justice nonetheless.

The first novella, 1922, is set in Depression era Nebraska.  The story involves a barely working family farm, constant work, brutally harsh, and unrelenting.  The wife and mother, Arlette, is a bitter and manipulative character who harps without end her wish to sell the 100-acre farm that she inherited from her father.  Arlette’s dream is to leave the country life and move to the progressive city of Omaha.

The husband, Wilfred “Wilf,” dominated and hen-pecked, is a browbeaten, beleaguered husband whose only desire is to stay on the land.  Wilf tells Henry, their only child, of his mother’s, Arlette’s, plan.  Wilf then convinces Henry to help him murder his mother.  Wilf intones that if Henry does not help with this, they will be forced to leave the farm, and Henry will never see his girlfriend, who lives  close by, ever again.  Henry, a meek and obedient boy, resists but finally agrees to help murder his mother.

When Arlette’s demands to sell increase, Wilf and Henry determine they must go through with the murder.  It is a clumsy and brutal murder; both father and son are deeply shaken afterwards.   Arlette’s murder acts as a horrific prelude to a story which evolves into a twisted tale of backwoods justice and supernatural interference.

The vicious murder results in the destruction of both father and son.  The darker psyche of Wilf bobs and weaves throughout the tale, and in the end, destruction follows.

(Spoiler:  If you have a phobia against rats, you may not want to read this dark tale).

A GOOD MARRIAGE:  A Good Marriage is both thought provoking and highly believable.  The main character is a stay-at-home wife, Darcy, whose children have gone to college and left home to start their lives.  Darcy has been married to the same man, Bob Anderson, for over 25 years.  She believes she is living the American dream, or a semblance of it – not perfect, but predictable, comfortable.  It is by sheer accident that she trips over a misaligned carton residing in the garage.  Darcy opens the carton and realizes that the man that she believes she knows as well as herself, not only has a double life, but is a serial killer.

Once Darcy confirms her suspicions, she realizes that there has not been a killing for 16 years.  She attempts to come to grips with what she knows for certain.  Her husband, Bob, intuits that she knows about his secret life when he realizes that the garage carton has been moved.  Bob confronts Darcy, and manages to convince her that it is all up to her what happens next; his life and their life together, as well as their children’s, hang on her decision.  Bob assures her that as long as she keeps quiet, he will suppress his killing urges; he promises her won’t kill again, but she must make her decision to stay and keep their secret.

Bob explains to Darcy the reason he took a break from killing was because of her, that being with her has allowed him to suppress and ignore his urge to kill.  But if she breaks her word, the killing will start up again, and Darcy will suffer the consequences, will be ostracized by the very people she believes to be her friends.

Bob and Darcy’s lives resume; he goes back to work, Darcy takes up her house-wifely duties, and they ignore their shared secret and there are no killings.  But Darcy, never feels at ease; she is ashamed and feels responsible.

After years of silence, Darcy stages an accident and succeeds in killing Bob.  After an evening celebration with family and friends, Darcy manages to push Bob down a flight of stairs, and he falls to his death.  Although Darcy is cleared of any foul play, she knows someone will come knocking on the door sooner or later.  And the day does come, and that someone comes knocking, but it isn’t who she expects.

Retribution comes in the end, along with a good dose of twisted justice, but you have to read the book to find out.

You will enjoy this collection.  Both 1922 and A Good Marriage have been made into movies.  The book will make you think, and may even surprise you.

After all, no one knows what they might do if pushed to the absolute edge.

*

From the Afterword:
“I have tried my best in Full Dark, No Stars to record what people might do, and how they might behave, under certain dire circumstances. The people in these stories are not without hope, but they acknowledge that even our fondest hopes (and our fondest wishes for our fellowmen and the society in which we live) may sometimes be vain. Often, even. But I think they also say that nobility most fully resides not in success but in trying to do the right thing…and that when we fail to do that, or willfully turn away from the challenge, hell follows.” (Stephen King).

“Stephen King has proven himself to be one of the finest chroniclers of the dark side of the human psyche over the 35 years of his successful career. While literary snobs sometimes cock a snoot at his mainstream appeal, there is no doubt that on his day he can spin as compelling a yarn as anyone” . . . These tense tales delve into the dark heart of a knitting society and a serial killer’s last stand.” Doug Johnstone. Independent. November 14, 2010.

***

References

King, Stephen.  FULL DARK, NO STARS. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010.

Kirkus Review.  “Deals with the darkest recesses of the human soul. . .”   Nov. 10, 2010.

Johnstone, Doug. Independent. November 14, 2010. 

Photos: Courtesy of Pixabay

Book Photo: Courtesy of Amazon

***

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.

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.

***

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)

***

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

***

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.

###

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