Authors Who Love Libraries

A Tight Buns and Sensible Shoes (my library advocacy blog) post:

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1).  Were you a public library user as a kid? Any special memories of the library, its collection or librarians?

We had a tiny public library in my village (in Scotland in the 1960s). I haunted that place – there was no bookshop in the village. It was a big thrill for me when, aged 12, I was told I could now borrow from the adult section and need not confine myself to children’s stories.

 

2).  How do you think libraries can compete in this technologically-based era? What would make you more likely to hang out there and use our services?

How can libraries stay relevant? Well, that’s up to the users. Parents of small children need to know that their local library is a valuable asset. Once inside, if they find the environment welcoming and relaxing, they’ll come back – and their kids will grow to think of the library as a second home. Those kids will grow into the adult readers of the future.

 

3). Could you recommend a couple books and/or authors you love, which all libraries should own?

Authors/books all libraries should have – don’t underestimate the comic book/graphic novel as art form and gateway drug! Teenagers often give up on books because they feel school is telling them what to read. Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Frank Millar, etc – these are great writers. And versions of literary classics can also be found in graphic novel form.

 

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A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip: A Memoir of Seventh Grade by Kevin Brockmeier

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  • Print Length: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon (April 1, 2014)
  • Sold by: Random House LLC

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I had the pleasure of meeting author Kevin Brockmeier a couple summers ago, in the most idyllic setting imaginable for another literature loving native southerner. It was a literary cocktail party, nay a soirée, held in the shadow of William Faulkner’s home, Rowan Oak, in Oxford, MS. Sweaty fellow book fiends sipped mint juleps from clear plastic cups, nibbling snacks from little paper plates sagging in the humidity. It was hotter than hell; hot as June in Mississippi, which it was.

Author Tom Franklin was there, Jesmyn Ward wasn’t (she was a no-show; she called in sick). Also present was Susan Gregg Gilmore, a very sweet, pretty and feisty southern woman who writes sweet, feisty southern novels a la Fannie Flagg. Not my genre  but the woman was an awful lot of fun at the book exchange held later. Her determination to snag the cookbook she wanted was downright vicious. I can respect that.

Two reps from Random House, Michael Kindness and Ann Kingman (their podcasts are hot stuff!), were the event facilitators. It was a mixer, a get-acquainted occasion setting the tone for a literary weekend in Oxford: a weekend of talks and book signings, book chats, eating far too much great food and shopping at the legendary Square Books. And again, shopping at the legendary Square Books. Good lord, did I shop at Square Books.

The next afternoon, Brockmeier was part of a panel of southern writers talking about what characterizes the fiction of the U.S. South, moderated by Ann Kingman and Michael Kindness.  It’s a setting he knows well, having grown up in Arkansas and Mississippi,  raised by his divorced parents: with his mother in Arkansas during the school year, in Mississippi with his father in the summer. This autobiography, while it is set in the South, does not rely on that. Rather, it’s the author’s own story of a boy’s life on the cusp of adolescence. It could have been set anywhere and been just as effective.

A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip starts with Kevin arriving back in Arkansas, reconnecting with his friends before school starts. They do the sorts of things boys do: hang out, throwing rocks at glass bottles; sleeping over at each other’s houses; eating junk food and watching TV. Despite the fun they had together, the time they’d spent apart over the summer had created a rift. The experiences his friends shared created new behaviors and “in” jokes, while Kevin stayed in the place they’d been over the previous school year. For him, time had stopped, freezing his friendships where he’d left them. Picking up again proved more difficult than he’d anticipated. Seventh grade was going to be very different.

When school starts, the rift widens. It starts with his friends giving him a hard time for making all the same old, tired jokes, then progresses to hostilities. Kevin goes about his life, pretty much a normal seventh grade kid able to dress out for gym faster than anyone else in the school, his sense of himself and his self esteem relatively high for a child shuttled back and forth between divorced parents. Not that he isn’t self aware, even occasionally fatalistic. He is at that pivotal age: 13. The time of life when things fluctuate quickly and often without warning. He can see early childhood behind him and high school in front. But for the most part, he manages to hang on to being a kid just a bit longer.

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“Something washes through Kevin’s face. He would be willing to bet he is blushing, even if no one can tell. He sees his life as an endless series of but whys. Thad says you’re a liar. Kenneth isn’t speaking to you. Sarah will never kiss you again – it was only an accident of circumstance that she kissed you in the first place. It’s too late for you to become a different person. You’ll never be tall, and you’ll never be strong. You’ll always run fastest when no one is watching… Nothing you love is going to last. It’s impossible to rewind grades on their spool, impossible to pause them, impossible to replay the good parts.”

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The man I met and observed in Oxford appeared reserved and quiet, not that a rambunctious, spirited kid in seventh grade can’t mature into a more serious man. If that were the case, the world would be full of overgrown adolescents. The book surprised me in that way. I was expecting to read the serious story of a quiet, introverted kid but while he was gangly and awkward, he was also social to the extent of any average kid his age. Maybe a bit more so, considering he had the gumption to write and act in a play he’d written, something a quiet child would never do (I, personally, would have rather died). What differentiates his childhood from the average is his imagination, the fact he was a kid who loved telling stories and read a lot. He’s resilient, funny and popular with a certain geeky group, plus girls and adults. The crumbling of the relationships with friends he’d had all his life hurt him but this kid wouldn’t allow defeat. Kevin Brockmeier had an awful lot of fortitude.

Putting further literary digging aside, the book is fun and funny, with a great depth. If you’ve read Brockmeier’s other books you’ll know he is a very serious, literary writer. His reputation is so strong, I was surprised he wrote an autobiographical book at all. Surprised and thrilled he’d let his guard down this much. How fun is it for a book nerd to get a glimpse into the youth of a favorite writer? I’ll tell you: outrageously fun. Crazy fun.

I enjoyed this book so much, appreciating what Brockmeier shared, even when the stories weren’t all that flattering or seemly, coming from a man with his credentials (SEE: Dressing as the only black kid in school, complete with makeup, in an ill-advised attempt to gain positive attention). While it could be read by someone looking for funny stories about a kid growing up in the South, its complexity and occasional forays into deeply introspective writing give it heft. Yes, there are some cringe-worthy moments most of us can identify with – to our shame – but overall it’s highly philosophical about the passage of childhood, not an “entertainment,” as such.

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“Honestly, I just don’t want anything to change.”

“Me either,” says Thad.

“I’m sick of things being different all the time.”

“Me too.”

He turns onto his left side, his sleeping side, and lies there listening to the whoosh of the air conditioner. The day keeps coming to light again in bits and pieces … and the tingle of his sweat cooling in a humming rectangle of air, and who liked him and how much and why? One by one his thoughts flow from their outlines like a cloud, and then the cloud rolls over him and he is asleep.”

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I wasn’t sure what to expect when I requested A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip from Amazon Vine for review but I knew it would be good. Turns out, it’s better than that: it’s great.

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Moby Dick, Chapters 3 – 5

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In fact, the artist’s design seemed this: a final theory of my own, partly based upon the aggregated opinions of many aged persons with whom I conversed upon the subject. The picture represents a Cape-Horner in a great hurricane; the half-foundered ship weltering there with its three dismantled masts alone visible; and an exasperated whale, purposing to spring clean over the craft, is in the enormous act of impaling himself upon the three mast-heads.

The opposite wall of this entry was hung all over with a heathenish array of monstrous clubs and spears. Some were thickly set with glittering teeth resembling ivory saws; others were tufted with knots of human hair; and one was sickle-shaped, with a vast handle sweeping round like the segment made in the new-mown grass by a long-armed mower. You shuddered as you gazed, and wondered what monstrous cannibal and savage could ever have gone a death-harvesting with such a hacking, horrifying implement. Mixed with these were rusty old whaling lances and harpoons all broken and deformed. Some were storied weapons. With this once long lance, now wildly elbowed, fifty years ago did Nathan Swain kill fifteen whales between a sunrise and a sunset. And that harpoon—so like a corkscrew now—was flung in Javan seas, and run away with by a whale, years afterwards slain off the Cape of Blanco. The original iron entered nigh the tail, and, like a restless needle sojourning in the body of a man, travelled full forty feet, and at last was found imbedded in the hump.

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Melville sets the stage at the Spouter Inn as a dark, mysteriously exotic, testosterone-infused gathering place where whalers spend their time in port. It’s described as “dusky,” there are dusty, preserved animals staring with dead eyes and a painting on the wall illustrates the threat of the Great Leviathan – Moby Dick.

[Dramatic pause.]

Ishmael is dismayed to hear there’s no room available for him but he could share a bed with a harpooner. The innkeeper, having fun with him, talks up the mystery whaler to the point Ishmael is beside himself with anxiety:

No man prefers to sleep two in a bed. In fact, you would a good deal rather not sleep with your own brother. I don’t know how it is, but people like to be private when they are sleeping. And when it comes to sleeping with an unknown stranger, in a strange inn, in a strange town, and that stranger a harpooneer, then your objections indefinitely multiply. Nor was there any earthly reason why I as a sailor should sleep two in a bed, more than anybody else; for sailors no more sleep two in a bed at sea, than bachelor Kings do ashore. To be sure they all sleep together in one apartment, but you have your own hammock, and cover yourself with your own blanket, and sleep in your own skin.

The more I pondered over this harpooneer, the more I abominated the thought of sleeping with him. It was fair to presume that being a harpooneer, his linen or woollen, as the case might be, would not be of the tidiest, certainly none of the finest. I began to twitch all over. Besides, it was getting late, and my decent harpooneer ought to be home and going bedwards. Suppose now, he should tumble in upon me at midnight—how could I tell from what vile hole he had been coming?

He tries squirming uncomfortably on a hard, wooden bench, trying and failing to put the furniture together in such a way he can settle down to sleep. Eventually he gives in and admits he may as well suck it up and be a man. He’ll have to throw caution to the wind and hope the harpooner isn’t smelly. Or murderous, or anything else he’s afraid he may be. His one requirement is he doesn’t want to go to sleep first. He vows to wait until he can catch sight of the mystery man before he jumps into bed next to a stranger.

You can just see the landlord’s eyes sparkling as he continues teasing the poor lad:

But though the other boarders kept coming in by ones, twos, and threes, and going to bed, yet no sign of my harpooneer.

“Landlord!” said I, “what sort of a chap is he—does he always keep such late hours?” It was now hard upon twelve o’clock.

The landlord chuckled again with his lean chuckle, and seemed to be mightily tickled at something beyond my comprehension. “No,” he answered, “generally he’s an early bird—airley to bed and airley to rise—yes, he’s the bird what catches the worm. But to-night he went out a peddling, you see, and I don’t see what on airth keeps him so late, unless, may be, he can’t sell his head.”

“Can’t sell his head?—What sort of a bamboozingly story is this you are telling me?” getting into a towering rage. “Do you pretend to say, landlord, that this harpooneer is actually engaged this blessed Saturday night, or rather Sunday morning, in peddling his head around this town?”

“That’s precisely it,” said the landlord, “and I told him he couldn’t sell it here, the market’s overstocked.”

“With what?” shouted I.

“With heads to be sure; ain’t there too many heads in the world?”

“I tell you what it is, landlord,” said I quite calmly, “you’d better stop spinning that yarn to me—I’m not green.”

“May be not,” taking out a stick and whittling a toothpick, “but I rayther guess you’ll be done BROWN if that ere harpooneer hears you a slanderin’ his head.”

“I’ll break it for him,” said I, now flying into a passion again at this unaccountable farrago of the landlord’s.

“It’s broke a’ready,” said he.

“Broke,” said I—”BROKE, do you mean?”

“Sartain, and that’s the very reason he can’t sell it, I guess.”

Long story short, the harpooner is Queequeg and the head he’s selling is shrunken, from Fiji. This is a real whaler, a strapping big man, skin whipped leathery by the salty wind, not a poser kid… Not that I’m naming names.

Hilarious. And I do mean hilarious, when Queequeg finally arrives Ishmael’s in bed, having just dozed off, waking when the big man shuffles in:

Even as it was, I thought something of slipping out of the window, but it was the second floor back. I am no coward, but what to make of this head-peddling purple rascal altogether passed my comprehension. Ignorance is the parent of fear, and being completely nonplussed and confounded about the stranger, I confess I was now as much afraid of him as if it was the devil himself who had thus broken into my room at the dead of night. In fact, I was so afraid of him that I was not game enough just then to address him, and demand a satisfactory answer concerning what seemed inexplicable in him.

Meanwhile, he continued the business of undressing, and at last showed his chest and arms. As I live, these covered parts of him were checkered with the same squares as his face; his back, too, was all over the same dark squares; he seemed to have been in a Thirty Years’ War, and just escaped from it with a sticking-plaster shirt. Still more, his very legs were marked, as if a parcel of dark green frogs were running up the trunks of young palms. It was now quite plain that he must be some abominable savage or other shipped aboard of a whaleman in the South Seas, and so landed in this Christian country. I quaked to think of it. A peddler of heads too—perhaps the heads of his own brothers. He might take a fancy to mine—heavens! look at that tomahawk!

After Ishmael yells at the landlord for leaving him with this clearly dangerous man, he’s reassured he’s not going to be murdered. Queequeg is a harmless island native, tattooed all over his body. He looks menacing but clearly isn’t. The night passes peacefully.  The next morning he wakes to find Queequeg’s arm thrown over him, as in a hug. Ishmael’s itching to get going, to get up and start the day, to get his bearings and figure out his plans:

Throwing aside the counterpane, there lay the tomahawk sleeping by the savage’s side, as if it were a hatchet-faced baby. A pretty pickle, truly, thought I; abed here in a strange house in the broad day, with a cannibal and a tomahawk! “Queequeg!—in the name of goodness, Queequeg, wake!” At length, by dint of much wriggling, and loud and incessant expostulations upon the unbecomingness of his hugging a fellow male in that matrimonial sort of style, I succeeded in extracting a grunt; and presently, he drew back his arm, shook himself all over like a Newfoundland dog just from the water, and sat up in bed, stiff as a pike-staff, looking at me, and rubbing his eyes as if he did not altogether remember how I came to be there, though a dim consciousness of knowing something about me seemed slowly dawning over him. Meanwhile, I lay quietly eyeing him, having no serious misgivings now, and bent upon narrowly observing so curious a creature. When, at last, his mind seemed made up touching the character of his bedfellow, and he became, as it were, reconciled to the fact; he jumped out upon the floor, and by certain signs and sounds gave me to understand that, if it pleased me, he would dress first and then leave me to dress afterwards, leaving the whole apartment to myself. Thinks I, Queequeg, under the circumstances, this is a very civilized overture; but, the truth is, these savages have an innate sense of delicacy, say what you will; it is marvellous how essentially polite they are. I pay this particular compliment to Queequeg, because he treated me with so much civility and consideration, while I was guilty of great rudeness; staring at him from the bed, and watching all his toilette motions; for the time my curiosity getting the better of my breeding. Nevertheless, a man like Queequeg you don’t see every day, he and his ways were well worth unusual regarding.

Oh, Ishmael. You goofy kid.

Ishmael finally realizes he’s been messed with as he’s making his way downstairs for breakfast. The landlord was having him on, taking advantage of his youth and inexperience – and Queequeg’s menacing appearance and harmless, kind heart – but he’s okay with it. He decides it’s fair enough and brushes it off. Things always do seem better in the light of day, that’s true. He was tired and anxious, easily fooled. The landlord saw his opportunity and ran with it.

Maybe the kid will be okay, after all. He certainly got his just desserts for coming in so high and mighty, thinking he was too good to share a bed when he himself is planning to go to sea and live life in the rough. He got off lightly, really. Something tells me living in a ship won’t be paradise. And it won’t smell pretty, either…

Q sits down at the breakfast table, using his harpoon to grab pieces of beef for his breakfast, sitting tall and dignified. Ishmael finishes his morning ablutions, then heads out to have a look at New Bedford.

So ends Chapters 3 – 5. Melville’s taken three chapters to describe the inn and give the reader background on two of the major characters. Three very short chapters, I should qualify. So very entertaining and short I took great pleasure in reading and re-reading them. They’re just so funny, written in a florid but very tongue-in-cheek style, I may just read back through everything I’ve finished so far before I go forward. How often do I do that? Pretty much never.

This book contains so many little nuggets of gold, it’s just a joy. I always had this impression Moby Dick was a dry, dull and boring book only the most dedicated readers ever made it through. Its reputation is so overblown. It’s like War and Peace, which isn’t a difficult novel at all. It’s off-putting simply because it’s really, really long. And Russian character names are tough, that’s true. I’ll give you that. Their tradition of calling everyone by multiple names slows the reading speed a lot but that shouldn’t put readers off. Most editions have a character list. If not, you can find one. No excuses! I have little patience with them to start with and there is no reason a person can’t take a few seconds to glance at a list now and then.

PLEASE. Be like Ishmael and man up, for God’s sake.

Moby Dick is so much easier, compared with War and Peace. There’s no culture clash and you certainly can’t confuse these character names. And did I mention it’s delightfully playful, even a bit snarky?

I had absolutely no idea. No idea. Or I’d have read it before I wrote my paper, all those many long years ago.

Again, why have I put off reading this book for so long?

Avast, me hearties! I shall return.

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"Queequeg" Rockwell Kent illustration

“Queequeg” Rockwell Kent illustration

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Don’t forget! There’s much more of Moby and me on Bluestalking’s Tumblr Blog!

Moby Dick, Chapters 1 and 2

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In Chapter 1 our hero introduces himself as simply “Ishmael.” No last name, no identifying details. Victorian era writers used this technique often, to obscure details and shroud a book in mystery. Sophistication in creating amorphous settings wasn’t all that well developed, I suppose. That, or it didn’t take as much to let the reader know the author’s intent. It seems silly now but contemporary readers would have expected it.

Some things about the classics don’t translate as well as others. These things are what makes a work seem “dated,” putting off the iGeneration, but once you get past that you open yourself up to a whole world of beautiful, often rambling prose. Neither of these qualities are absent from some of the best books written today. A lot of the books I adore are stripped down, bare bones prose but I also love more florid styles that soar with poetry and detail. Not everything has changed.

Melville’s prose isn’t technically concise but neither is he as loquacious as, say, Dickens or Tolstoy. His writing about the sea is from the heart. In this first chapter he waxes lyrical on how all young men yearn for adventure, Ishmael expressing his desire to be gone before he either roughs someone up or commits a heinous crime. What’s surprising, in a good way, is Melville does so humorously:

” Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me. “

And really that’s all Chapter 1 is, the set up for Ishmael to get out of New York City and find a whaling ship. Before chapter’s end he leads in with his description of whales and whaling:

” Chief among these motives was the overwhelming idea of the great whale himself. Such a portentous and mysterious monster roused all my curiosity. Then the wild and distant seas where he rolled his island bulk; the undeliverable, nameless perils of the whale; these, with all the attending marvels of a thousand Patagonian sights and sounds, helped to sway me to my wish. With other men, perhaps, such things would not have been inducements; but as for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts. Not ignoring what is good, I am quick to perceive a horror, and could still be social with it—would they let me—since it is but well to be on friendly terms with all the inmates of the place one lodges in.

By reason of these things, then, the whaling voyage was welcome; the great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open, and in the wild conceits that swayed me to my purpose, two and two there floated into my inmost soul, endless processions of the whale, and, mid most of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air. “

Ah, “one grand hooded phantom…” Have a guess who that could be.

Chapter 2 describes Ishmael’s trip from NYC to New Bedford, Massachusetts, from which lots of whaling expeditions set out. He doesn’t bring much, which is true of sailors in general, as per anything else I’ve ever read about them. It’s a Saturday in December and he must find cheap shelter until the ships leave the following Monday.

 

New Bedford, MA - Harbor

New Bedford, MA – Harbor

 

The place he finds, after rejecting others that look too expensive,  is The Spouter Inn, owned by one Peter Coffin. He balks at the name – it does give the impression of a bad omen – but decides this is the best he can afford on his very limited budget:

” It was a queer sort of place—a gable-ended old house, one side palsied as it were, and leaning over sadly. It stood on a sharp bleak corner, where that tempestuous wind Euroclydon kept up a worse howling than ever it did about poor Paul’s tossed craft. Euroclydon, nevertheless, is a mighty pleasant zephyr to any one in-doors, with his feet on the hob quietly toasting for bed. “In judging of that tempestuous wind called Euroclydon,” says an old writer—of whose works I possess the only copy extant—”it maketh a marvellous difference, whether thou lookest out at it from a glass window where the frost is all on the outside, or whether thou observest it from that sashless window, where the frost is on both sides, and of which the wight Death is the only glazier.” True enough, thought I, as this passage occurred to my mind—old black-letter, thou reasonest well. Yes, these eyes are windows, and this body of mine is the house. What a pity they didn’t stop up the chinks and the crannies though, and thrust in a little lint here and there. But it’s too late to make any improvements now. The universe is finished; the copestone is on, and the chips were carted off a million years ago. Poor Lazarus there, chattering his teeth against the curbstone for his pillow, and shaking off his tatters with his shiverings, he might plug up both ears with rags, and put a corn-cob into his mouth, and yet that would not keep out the tempestuous Euroclydon. Euroclydon! says old Dives, in his red silken wrapper—(he had a redder one afterwards) pooh, pooh! What a fine frosty night; how Orion glitters; what northern lights! Let them talk of their oriental summer climes of everlasting conservatories; give me the privilege of making my own summer with my own coals. ”

It helps to know the definition and origin of the term “Euroclydon”:

1. (Christian Religious Writings / Bible) a stormy wind from the north or northeast that occurs in the Levant, which caused the ship in which St Paul was travelling to be wrecked (Acts 27:14)

I wonder how tongue in cheek Ishmael’s reference to the Bible is. Maybe he’s being a wicked little sprite or maybe he’s referring to  some other book. In either case, a little dramatic how Melville writes about something as simple as a strong wind. Lots of “thous” and words ending in “-eth.” I can see how off-putting this is for the modern reader. I was an English major and I still don’t care for it.

Isn’t the description of the inn gorgeous? “… gable-ended old house, one side palsied… leaning over sadly.” Can’t you just picture it? It’s so East Coast, salty, old traditional sea port. It’s old for this country, I mean. Others may find it amusing and quaint we consider the 19th century so long ago when they trace their own seafaring traditions back centuries. But New England has a distinctive look and feel representative of our seafaring history.

This particular passage quoted above reminds me of Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables. The two authors were close friends, to Mrs. Hawthorne’s reported despair, so it’s possible one influenced the other. Interestingly, both books were published the same year – 1851.

As an aside, the horror writer H.P. Lovecraft called The House of the Seven Gables “New England’s greatest contribution to weird literature.” He didn’t mean that in the modern sense. It had an influence on his own writing, “weird” from the standpoint of dark and ghostly. Yet another of those things about 19th century writing you have to run through the translator, which probably puts off readers with less patience.

Yes, yes, that explains all the FOOTNOTES. Sorry, students.

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Two chapters in and I’m wondering what on earth has put me off Moby Dick this long, aside from that nasty nun. Then again, I haven’t reached the chapters featuring pages and pages of information about blubber. I’m not sure anyone, save a marine biologist, cares so much about blubber.

Early days yet but things are going swimmingly so far! And, believe it or not, I’m blowing through it without including nearly as much detail about the literary criticism and commentary I could. I’m restraining myself, in order to get through the primary read without bogging down in interpretation and such. There will be some, sorry to tell some of you but neither am I consulting Big Encyclopedias of What Nots in Literature. I.e. Google.

Note:  I have written more about Melville on the Tumblr blog I’m using as a companion to Bluestalking. If you just can’t get enough of Moby and Herman go have a peek. It’s not the only topic running there but there’s supplementary material to be had amongst the other stuff I’m posting.

The link to my Tumblr blog is on my sidebar, should you ever care to pop over and see what I’m about over there. Even if you don’t care, it’s still there.

Avast ye, matey!

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Can reading literary fiction boost human empathy?

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From The New Yorker (October 4, 2013):

 

” The results of a new study published Thursday in Science suggest that reading literary fiction may have a positive effect on social skills. The researchers, David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, who are social psychologists at the New School for Social Research, in New York City, found that subjects who were asked to read just a few minutes of literary fiction, such as works by Don DeLillo or Alice Munro, performed better on subsequent tests measuring empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence than subjects who were given nonfiction from Smithsonian Magazine or popular fiction like Danielle Steel or Gillian Flynn. Though the study leaves many questions unanswered—like how “literary” the fiction has to be to have an impact, or how long the empathy boost lasts—the researchers hope that studies like this one, which demonstrate the quantifiable benefits of reading literature, could have an impact on curriculum design in schools. (The Common Core standards have attracted criticism for emphasizing nonfiction over literature.) ”

– Rachel Arons

 

I admit I wasn’t able to read the Science article, since I’m not a subscriber, but I am intrigued by the concept. Does reading more literary fiction encourage us to feel more empathy for our fellow humans?

My first reaction is a resounding yes. I can personally testify I’ve felt stunning revelations about particular fictional “people” or groups of people after having finished many a literary novel. For instance, though I’m of Irish descent and have an idea what they’ve gone through in the course of history, after reading a novel by Sebastian Barry – particularly the stunning A Long Long Way – I was left heartbroken for the sake of the characters.

In particular, the fraught relationship between Willie Dunne and his policeman father struck a chord. Willie spent the greater part of his childhood trying to prove his manhood but only once he’d become a soldier, in WWI, could he prove he was much more than the mewling, inadequate man his father believed him to be. There’s a very tender scene in which Willie’s father, upon his son’s visit home from the front, helps undress and wash his son, picking off nits, scrubbing his boy clean. Afterward his son is cleansed of all the outward filth of life in the trenches, standing before him as both the strong man he’s become and the vulnerable son. It’s as if the father is making up for a lifetime of harshness with this one, loving act and that has stuck with me long after I first read the book.

I could go on describing scenes from some of the more literary books I’ve read, how Heathcliff and Catherine’s love/hate relationship shook me, why I find so much social truth in the novels of Jane Austen… I’d be at it all day. In fact, I could write an entire book of my own about it with no trouble at all finding examples.

The study cites the character-driven plots of most literary fiction as making it distinct from the plot-driven, less literary works. I’ve never thought of it quite that way, and, again, my first response is to agree. Not that I don’t like to know how a story ends but it’s not always as dramatic knowing as it can be leaving the reader to decide for him or herself what would be the most natural outcome. And real life stories so often fail to end satisfactorily, especially happily ever after.

I despise the happy ending mentality, as well as the neatly wrapped up close. Many disagree with that but then many also read solely to be entertained, not keen on having to occasionally struggle with an author’s meaning or a character’s likeability. I find this take on reading a bit odd. I don’t care for books in which everything’s artificially happy and all characters are pleasant, like people you’d choose as friends.

How does that stretch my mind? It wouldn’t and I don’t find myself entertained by simplistic plots and reliably constant characters. I don’t always care if the guy gets the girl, the bad person comes to a suitably bad end or anything else that’s set up to be a made for TV script. I don’t care for it in books or film. What entertains me is what challenges me, moves me and impresses me with its high level of artistic skill. And yes, with higher level literature comes higher identification with characters. Empathy, in other words.

Not having read the original article, I’m not sure I need to. I’ve worked it out for myself and it seems obvious to me the premise is correct. I don’t believe I’ve realized it but I know my level of empathy in general is high, so it’s not a leap believing what I read – since I do so rabidly – is partially responsible. Not always in a completely positive way, as with high empathy comes more potential for heartbreak and sadness. Depression, too, that such things must be the way they are.

Overall, I’d stick with reading literary fiction, accepting the consequences. I have no interest in the popular stuff. It bores me senseless, to tell the truth. And there is a hierarchy in prose quality, to head off that old, worn out argument. I may not be educated highly enough to express it well but it is there. Not all writing is created equal. Some of it soars and some of it sucks. If I were Queen of the World I’d stamp out what sucks and consider myself sole judge with little reservation, leaving only quality writing. May as well be honest about it.

And that’s my take. Opinionated, stemming from the great passion I feel for literature. Political correctness be damned! I welcome the thoughts of others but am unbendable in my own. I’ve read too much, been too many places and seen too many things to ever be persuaded otherwise.

It is what it is.

The end.

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Amazing Art: The Lumiere Brothers

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Lumière Brothers – the serpentine dance (c.1899)

The lumiere brothers filmed this in black and white, and then hand colored (probably with little paint brushes) each frame of the film. you can see the full movie here .

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Auguste and Louis Lumière

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“The first moving pictures ever captured were done so in 1895 by the Lumiere brothers (Lerner). These men made short “movies” of normal, every-day things such as crowds of people or moving trains. Soon after the excitement of being able to simply capture film died off, plots started to develop in movies and silent films started to become popular.”

– Jacy Quint: Pop Culture and the Evolution of Music in Film

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Ironically, these two brothers believed there was no future in film.

Born in Besançon, France (Auguste in 1862, Louis in 1864) they patented features of the movie camera they invented, holding their first screening in 1895. Imagine if they could see into the future and know the tremendous industry film has become.

 

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References and extras:

The Lumière Brothers’ First Films: IMDB

The London Telegraph: Article

Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema: The Lumière Brothers:

” After seeing an Edison Kinetoscope, Antoine suggested that they work on developing a motion picture system. Louis’s brother Auguste attempted to design a camera but with little success, until Louis suggested a mechanism like that used in a sewing machine to advance the cloth step by step. Although Auguste gave credit to Louis, the successful machine was patented in France on 13 February 1895 in the name of both brothers, in common with their other inventions. The first model was made by their engineer Charles Moisson. The machine was a combined camera, projector and printer and the perforated film was moved intermittently by a form of claw pulldown – a pair of pins which, inserted into the perforations on either side of the film then moved down, carrying the film with them. The cam motion mechanism (improved in a supplement to the patent dated 30 March 1895) formed the basis not only of the Lumières’s instrument but of a large number of later mechanisms, some still in use today. ”

 

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Bluestalking Cooks: A Domestic Diversion

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I love grocery shopping! It’s so housewifey.

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Bet you weren’t expecting this.

Today’s post is, aside from being distinctly unbookish, meant to be instructive. I’m very excited by myself and the fact I made an actual real meal for dinner yesterday evening, the kind that doesn’t come out of a box. They always eat balanced meals. Not perfectly balanced but close. Meat, veg, starch. Often we have a dessert of fresh cut fruit. Topped by a bit of whipped topping. REAL whipped topping. I think. It comes in a can but it says it’s real.

I am, despite all evidence to the contrary, a domestic goddess in addition to reading and writing and my other pursuits. I cook and I clean and I occasionally do laundry. What I do NOT do is read books during dinner preparation time, nine times out of ten, letting pots boil over and meat overcook. I’m much, much better than that. Ignore any evidence rumor to the contrary.

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Shall we begin?

A couple of the recipes  I made yesterday are interestingly innovative (SEE: came from the internet) and yummy and others may find them useful when in a bind, desperately trying to come up with something, anything a bit different to make for dinner. The best part is they’re easy to make! I know, it’s like a miracle. And sharing interesting and useful things which are like miracles comes from the librarian in me. The one I consumed whole and have yet to thoroughly digest.

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First, the potatoes:

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Buy yourself some baking potatoes, one per person should be adequate.

After washing the potatoes:

STEP 1: Holding potato FIRMLY, carefully slice width-wise [see above], stopping just before cutting the skin on the bottom. But BE CAREFUL! These things really slip around and it takes a mighty sharp knife to cut them.

I cannot be held accountable for potato-related injuries.

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IMG_4590-2It’s harder than it sounds.

STEP 2:  Drizzle olive oil over the potatoes, trying to open up those little slices you cut without pulling the potatoes apart, so the oil gets in there. Then sprinkle kosher, sea or whatever salt strikes your fancy over the top.

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STEP 3: Bake in oven at around 400 – 425 F, until insides are done and outside is crispy. For me, that was just over an hour. Maybe an hour and fifteen minutes.

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And the result?

IMG_4682-2YUM.

As my younger son said, “Please make these every day.”

As my husband said, “I prefer regular baked potatoes.”

NOTE: You can also bake the potatoes without slicing, coating them in oil and salt. Those are tasty, too. The skin gets so crunchy and flavorful. Cooking instructions are the same.

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IMG_4596-2This is broccoli.

Really, if you don’t know how to prepare this vegetable I’m not sure I have any hope for you. Cut it up, put in pot of salted water, cook to desired firmness. Butter, salt, pepper.

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Beer bread!

Oh, my friends. If you don’t know the goodness and ease that is beer bread I have to remedy that. It’s a bread you can make with almost no notice. There’s no waiting for it to rise, beating dough into submission, then rising again! Just mix and bake.

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The secret’s in the beer, which already has the yeast. Then, salt, sugar and baking soda. Instant mix, instant bake.

Ingredients:

    • 3 cups flour (sifted)
    • 3 teaspoons baking powder (omit if using Self-Rising Flour)
    • 1 teaspoon salt (omit if using Self-Rising Flour)
    • 1/4 cup sugar
    • 1 (12 ounce) cans beer
    • 1/2 cup melted butter ( 1/4 cup will do just fine)

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I melt butter right in the glass measuring cup. You can mix in other ingredients before pouring into the dry or just keep it from splashing all over the place when you add it.

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Mix everything together, then it’s time for the beer.

IMG_4609-2THE BEER!

I used some premium stuff, because it’s all we have on hand. But I can’t let my kids know this SECRET INGREDIENT or they wouldn’t eat the bread. School has indoctrinated them with an “all alcohol is BAD” mentality, which is a bit over the top but I guess choosing between drunkards and teetotalers I’d choose the later.

Probably any old beer will do for this bread.

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Pour in the entire bottle/can.

IMG_4622-2Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble…

Check out that yeast working! It’s eating away at the sugar and baking powder and salt. No need to let this rest.

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Just stir it up, throw it in the pan and bake at 375 F for about an hour.

See how easy that was?

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IMG_4669-2And the result… Mmm!

It’s just a bit sweet, tastes only barely of beer (if you know it’s in there) and took almost no time to prepare.

Magic, yes?

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So, we have potatoes, broccoli and bread. Now, a meat. All I had on hand was one pound of ground hamburger.

What to do with that?

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Make a small but adequate meat loaf, that’s what. I generally use one pound beef, one pound pork for meat loaf, however, since my older son’s a vegetarian I thought I could get away with one that’s half the size. Especially with the very filling potatoes and bread as side dishes.

Time to add the stuff.

IMG_4658-2The egg.

IMG_4662-2Then the secret dry ingredients, plus Sweet Baby Ray’s BBQ sauce.

I used onion powder, garlic powder, salt, pepper, Worcestershire sauce and sage. Sage, as well as the BBQ sauce inside AND on top are my two secrets, why my family loves meatloaf night.

As for measuring, these are my spoons:

IMG_4660-2Throw it randomly; hope for the best…

IMG_4664-2Form into loaf shape.

Bake in oven with potatoes and bread, for roughly 30 – 40 minutes.

IMG_4665-2Madly baking!

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So, there you have it, loves. Potatoes with olive oil and sea salt, fresh broccoli, beer bread and meatloaf. A very hearty dinner on an autumnal evening. Each dish is easy but tasty and all can cook together in the oven at the same time.

Well, except the broccoli. We’ve had that discussion.

Hopefully I’ve given you an idea or two for some different dishes to put on your family’s table, while raising your opinion of my domestic skills at the same time.

I’ll be back to talking about books very soon. I thought I’d just mix it up a little, like I used to do in the early days. Readers have to eat, right? How else can we summon the strength to hold our books?

Until next time…

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