The Reason It’s Out Of Order

There are many things for which I am 100% trash: Videos of cussing parrots. Generously poured glasses of red wine, particularly ones I am not personally buying. James Bond movies. I always show up for these things, sometimes even wearing something other than Old Navy sweats and my Echo and the Bunnymen t-shirt. In my reading life, I also have cherished, unproblematic faves that never fail me: Any book related to, set in, or about the Victorian Era/Gilded Age. The month of November. The mystery and crime genre.

Why is November, the calendar’s turkiest month, on this list? I have two really good reasons. November contains the Thanksgiving holiday, which is when I pull M.F.K. Fisher’s marvelous The Gastronomical Me off the shelf for the annual ReReadMFKFisherFest, which runs the entire fourth week of November. And delightfully, November is the month during which author Charles Finch reliably and thoughtfully publishes a new Charles Lenox book. Introduced in 2007, the series features amateur gentleman detective Charles Lenox running around Victorian London, solving mysteries and fighting crime. Let’s review this against my Literary Trash list:
Victorian Era: CHECK
Mystery/Crime: CHECK

See how perfect? It’s been a match made in my little book heaven…until this year. This year, in some marketing meeting that I clearly was not invited to, it was decided that the eleventh Charles Lenox book, The Woman in the Water, would not come out until…. February. What the hell? Those of you keeping score at home have already noted that February is not November. Sure, the success of the Lenox series is now driving bigger, more complex launches, requiring more time and effort for a successful publication, but you know what that sounds like? It sounds like “not my problem”. I had plans the first weekend of November that included shutting myself in a room to binge read. I was probably going to order some pizza, too. For delivery. I’m not saying that Charles Finch’s publisher is responsible for spoiling my big plans and the resulting devastation and heartbreak but it’s very clear that Charles Finch’s publisher is 100% responsible. I see you, Minotaur Books/St. Martin’s.



Today’s Agenda: Why These Two Things Are Not The Same Thing And Are Different

After recovering from the shock of finding that The Woman in the Water would not arrive as expected in NOVEMBER, I put up my red Pout Warning Flag and placed my usual all-the-formats order under protest. I don’t feel like it’s too much to ask that people I don’t know write the exact kind of books I like to read and publish them at the same time at a rate of one per year? But apparently, it is. It is now up to me to fill my Victorian void with other, non-Finch-originated books. I’ve already gotten started, even though it’s not November because I am an overachiever when it comes to poutreading.

The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage, and Scandal in the Gilded Age The Scarlet Sisters, by historian Myra MacPherson, tells the story of Gilded Age personalities Tennessee Claflin and Victoria Woodhull. Born to petty criminal parents, the sisters rose above their poverty-stricken, chaotic Ohio childhoods to prominent places in New York City’s social reform circles alongside the likes of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Flamboyant and outspoken, these women made their reputation as free thinkers,  boldly expressing radical views on everything from spiritualism to suffrage to free love. (I bought this book at The Strand, the magnificent Oz of a bookstore in New York City, because I thought buying a book in New York about New Yorkers who flourished in New York during my favorite historical era was really cool, which of course proves that I have no idea what being cool is.)

Victoria and Tennessee had remarkable media savvy. Using their newsletter Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly to promote provocative and controversial content, they created an audience that flocked to see Victoria lecture about current events and social issues, packing halls in New York and Boston. The sisters went from local notoriety to national headlines when they became embroiled in the Beecher-Tilton Scandal, one of the biggest news stories of the Gilded Age. In 1872, disgusted with what she saw as revolting hypocrisy, Victoria revealed in the Weekly that the famous (married) Reverend Henry Ward Beecher had committed adultery with one of his (married) parishioners. In an icky twist, Reverend Beecher had personally  performed the wedding ceremony for the lady in question. (EWWWWWW. This was some quality scandal. But EWWWWW.) The resulting arrests, trials, and Congregationalist Church hearings shocked the nation and dominated the national news for over two years.

It’s hard to read The Scarlet Sisters without drawing a direct line from Gilded Age shenanigans to today’s hashtag culture, with the only real difference being the cycle of news has gone from weeks to hours. On today’s treadmill of disposable outrage, Victoria and Tennessee would already have retired from the lecture circuit and leveraged their Q score to start a sister real-estate competition show on HGTV (”Sell It Under Protest!”) Eventually, wearied and worn out from the relentless attention brought about by their involvement in the Beecher-Tilton Scandal, the sisters left America for England in search of quieter lives. In full rejection of the free love philosophy that defined their identities as fiery independent thinkers in New York, the sisters married conventional, successful men of the British upper class….men not unlike the clever and charming Charles Lenox. (Just because he’s fictional doesn’t mean he’s not #victorianhusbandgoals.)

I learned a whole lot of new Gilded Age stuff courtesy The Scarlet Sisters. For instance, ‘spiritualist’ was a legit career path in 1870. All you needed was a high-profile Greek philosopher ghost willing to talk to you from the beyond and a regular trance schedule. Of course, I would not have to cram all this new knowledge into my head if Charles Finch would just publish The Woman in the Water as expected, but I am nothing if not understanding, flexible, and moderately bitter.

Meet you back here in February.

Action Items
Gone Before Christmas, a stand-alone Lenox short story, was published in October. I’m saving it until November but if you want it now, knock yourself out.

The Reason For Thank You Notes

I’ve never won a major award. Also, I’ve never won an intermediate award or a minor award or even a free pitcher of margaritas at Trivia Night. I have in fact been overlooked in all categories of every award in every industry, including the ones that seemed a sure thing, like Best Repeated Abuse Of Split Infinitives or J.D. Power and Associates Best Customer Service (General Literature Blog Mass Market Segment). I’m not bitter-MUCH-because it’s really true that it’s an honor just to be nominated. It’s always seemed to me that the most satisfying part of winning any award in public is the opportunity to publicly express gratitude to the people that have stood with you on whatever journey you’ve been on that led you to that podium. We’ve all seen that at the big performer-centered award shows: tearful recipients clutching something gold and shiny, rushing through a list of names, trying to ward off the “shut up already” orchestra music.

It must be difficult to get that once-in-a-lifetime chance to say THANK YOU only to be thwarted by a commercial break. If you want an unlimited gratitude plan, you need to publish a book. Authors have it figured out because a published book presents legions of places to thank every family member, editor, librarian, barista, dog, cat, and historical dead-type people that offered support, inspiration, or grilled cheese sandwiches during the writing of the book. There’s a Dedication page. Not enough space there? Please, expand in the Acknowledgments section, and tell us more. Need to offer more thoughts to tie it all together? There is always the Epilogue option. As a reader, I devour every word in these sections, because I am fascinated and moved by the communities and the processes that produce my favorite books, and also I’m trying to put off doing my laundry.

All For You Author dedications run the gamut from silly to sad to serious. Often, dedications are memorials to honor loved ones who have passed, such as Charles Finch’s simple lines in his nautical mystery Burial At Sea to his grandmother “who loved sea stories”.  When it comes right down to it, though, my winner for the ultimate dedication goes to British poet and playwright Robert Browning. Robert Browning was one-half of the Victorian poetry power couple Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning and there ain’t no celebrity like Victorian poet celebrity cuz Victorian poet celebrity got formal rules of comportment and sexual repression. Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning were already separately established on the literary B list when they married in  1846. It was during their marriage that Robert produced one of his most important works, Men and Women.  It’s a substantial work of 51 poems and in the last poem, Browning speaks directly to the reader and dedicates the entire incredible collection to his beloved wife. Think about that the next time you buy your significant other a funny Hallmark card with a picture of cartoon cat saying “I love you so much I brought you a dead mouse”.  Basically: you had the choice between epic poetry and dead rodents, and you blew it. Browning knew exactly what to do with his authorial podium – tell the whole world that his best writing was ultimately a gift for his wife. (Elizabeth was no slouch in the dedication department, either. Her masterwork, Sonnets From The Portuguese,  consists of love sonnets written to her husband and gave the world the immortal lines “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways”. Take that, Hallmark.)

The Chair Recognizes  Where a dedication is limited to one person, maybe two, or a family, all limits are off in the Acknowledgements.  An author can acknowledge everybody. No worries about time limits, or forgetting someone and having to recover in the press room. Acknowledgments are a lovely way to loop in not only the professional relationships that take a book from idea to publication but all the other key people in an author’s circle. I love reading these, but my inner nerd is most happy when reading acknowledgments in any book that is history-related because I am so DOWN with learning about anyone’s research processes. History authors got some damn fine research processes, just sayin’, and nobody is finer than Laura Hillenbrand. Her meticulous, painstaking research has produced two of the finest American history books ever written, Seabiscuit and Unbroken.   Laura Hillenbrand’s research methods are an art form. YUP I SAID THAT. FIGHT ME. The acknowledgments for Seabiscuit read almost as a love letter to how intimate and personal history truly is, unpacking Hillenbrand’s tenacious approach that combines painstaking thoroughness with wildly open curiosity. Before it was history, it was someone’s life, and Hillenbrand acknowledges those lives with respect and sensitivity. GAH I just talked myself into re-reading Seabiscuit.

Just One More Thing Dedications and acknowledgments are as common as dirt. When an author wants to get atypical, then it’s Epilogue time. It’s fancy to add an epilogue. Not country club fancy. More like, expensive mascara fancy. When an author needs to put a bow on what you’ve just read, a bow that needs the emotional weight of a dedication and the space afforded by an acknowledgment, then an epilogue delivers the perfect flavor of closure.  Jenny Lawson illustrates this absolutely perfectly in her book about living with mental illness, Furiously Happy. This book is intentionally hilarious, not to downplay the seriousness of her disease, but to highlight the impact anxiety and depression have on her day-to-day life and how she chooses to cope with these chronic conditions. In her epilogue, she allows the humor to fall away in a heartfelt, raw appeal to people that she knows are sharing the same struggles. Mental illness is an isolating condition, often complicated by shame and stigma. Lawson uses her time at the podium to remind her most vulnerable readers that they are valued. It’s the perfect bow.


This is gonna be one hell of an epilogue

It’s awards season. Go ahead. Pretend you’re getting that award you know you deserve, grab a spatula, and practice your epic acceptance speech in the mirror. It will be our secret.


Action Items
Extra credit if you read any of Robert Browning’s poetry.

The Reason It’s Trivial

The following is a true story.

When I was but a fledgling reader, the one of the first book series I devoured was that classic of American classics, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House On The Prairie. The books appealed to me because they were entertaining and pleasant, accessible because book Laura was about my age, but still alien because of the historical frontier setting. Laura was frustrated with her siblings, just like me! So relatable! She uses an outhouse, while I have modern plumbing! So exotic! Laura’s adventures in pioneering were engrossing but benign..until book four. Nothing in my short life had prepared me for the bombshell waiting in By The Shores Of Silver Lake.

As By The Shores Of Silver Lake begins,  the entire Ingalls family is recovering from scarlet fever. Times were hard on the prairie! So exotic!  Everyone miraculously survives, which isn’t how things typically went down in a pre-modern medicine world, but Laura’s older sister Mary is rendered blind by the disease. LIKE SHE JUST WAKES UP BLIND WTF. I was stunned. It wasn’t that I didn’t know that blindness existed. I just didn’t know that someone could just UP AND GO BLIND. WHY HADN’T ANYONE TOLD ME PEOPLE COULD JUST UP AND GO BLIND? Mary, of course, rallies to her circumstances, gathers her resources, and perseveres with the support of her loving family. Her inspiring example made me panic. I knew if I JUST UP AND WENT BLIND I would crumple like a piece of old tin foil. Even at a young age, I recognized my lack of internal fortitude. In my panic, I began to practice being blind so that if scarlet fever ever found me in the suburbs, I would be prepared. I ate with my eyes closed. I got dressed with my eyes closed. As it turns out, I was terrible at doing those things with my eyes closed, but one thing I got really good at was taking a shower in the dark. It took a while, but I got to the point that I could shower in the dark more efficiently than with the bathroom lights on. I practiced it so often that to this day, I shower in the dark. It just feels more natural. COME AT ME. PRAIRIE DISEASES. I AM READY.

True stories are sweepingly epic, or horrifying, or chilling, or heartbreakingly sad. (Or really dumb. See paragraphs 1-2.) Resultingly, true stories are great foundations for books, but a true story isn’t a guarantee of a great book. In the right hands, a well-told true story makes a book an equivalent of a phenomenal TED Talk-compelling and informative. In the wrong hands, you end up with a book equivalent of a toaster cooking demonstration-unnecessary and boring. What about a true story really matters? Does a story rivet a reader with insight, or stop a narrative in its tracks with irrelevance? These are the questions that authors struggle with. Unless, of course, the author is historian David McCullough.

David McCullough has told some of the most fascinating true American stories there are to be told. He’s been blowing the doors off American social history since his first book, The Johnstown Flood, was published in 1968. McCullough’s painstaking research marries with his lively storytelling style to make a convivial learning experience. He’s everyone’s favorite history teacher. His presidential biographies are enough to justify his formidable reputation (John Adams, Truman, Mornings On Horseback) but McCullough also tells larger stories about the unique experiences that contribute to the American identity. From the history of the Brooklyn Bridge to the year 1776 to American aviation, McCullough will entertain you and turn you into an armchair historian all in one book. You know where armchair historians are in demand? TRIVIA NIGHT. That’s right: David McCullough will make you smarter and more popular.

For maximum American history trivia answers packed into one true story, it’s hard to do better than McCullough’s The Greater Journey: Americans In Paris. America in the 1830s was a country on the move, busy building on the potential and the promises of the successful Revolution. A new generation took on the task of forging what it meant to be American by engaging in the time-honored practice of traveling abroad. In particular, Americans headed to Paris to take up residence, steep themselves in culture, and study and practice in their chosen fields. The result was an America that developed upon a foundation of New World democracy and Old World intellectual tradition. A thorough education was one that embraced the value of broadened horizons, so it was not unusual to spend multiple years in Paris before sailing back across the pond. Because David McCullough wants your team to win every single American history category including the double points round, this book delivers reams of trivia about notable Americans like Elizabeth Blackwell, James Fenimore Cooper,  and Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Of all the true stories that David McCullough tells in The Greater Journey, my favorite is that of Samuel Morse. Prior to The Greater Journey, the only thing I knew about Samuel Morse is that he invented the telegraph and Morse code and the only reason I knew that is because I read a million scrappy kid detective stories in which the scrappy kid detective, tied up and thrown into a closet/attic/cellar by the bad guy, gets rescued by tapping out a message in Morse code. As it turns out, before he invented the telegraph and detective rescue Morse code, Samuel Morse was a portrait painter. He went to Paris to improve his painting skills, and while there he spent hours every day at the Louvre, immersing himself in as much art as he could cram into his eyeballs. He distilled his time there in one of his most famous works, The Gallery At The Louvre, 38 of the Louvre’s most famous paintings rendered in miniature.  For Americans who did not have the means to experience the greater journey, Morse’s painting – and subsequently, Morse’s communication invention – closed unimaginable distances. If you can’t parlay all that Morse knowledge into a seat at the team trivia table, then you’re just not trying hard enough.


1830s Snapchat

Recently, some scrappy medical detectives published a paper recapping 10 years of research into Mary’s blindness. It turns out Laura’s true story about scarlet fever isn’t actually true, and the likely disease culprit is not scarlet fever but viral meningoencephalitis. The end result is the same: someone can up and go blind, so I’m still showering in the dark. It’s probably time to learn Morse code, too. Just in case.


Action Items
Medical detectives are awesome.  

Image of The Gallery of the Louvre 1831–33 is in the public domain {{PD-US}}

The Reason To Downsize

I like everything about travel. I like airports and train stations and buying weird gas station snacks on road trips. I like tiny travel sizes of things: tiny shampoo and tiny bottles of ketchup and tiny tubes of toothpaste. IT’S ALL SO TINY. You know those tiny sewing kits that hotels provide? I can’t resist taking them home even though I have never ever needed a hotel room sewing kit. I have 17 of them. (When I get three more, I am going to host that sewing kit-themed party I saw on Pinterest.) Nothing about travel feels inconvenient because even the most mundane travel carries the promise of the bubble, that for a quick period of time you will float above whatever your normal life is, taking in a whole new view. It’s rejuvenation and experience and making memories and ironic souvenir Tshirts.

Travel is great. You know what isn’t great? Packing. I fucking haaaaaate packing. Packing is the sullen, tedious yin to my sunny travel yang.I don’t like anything about packing. I don’t like making decisions about what to take with me. I don’t like all the tiny things, the tiny toothbrush and tiny shampoo and tiny pillows, because no matter how tiny I make the tiny things I always run out of room in my stupid tiny suitcase. My track record is erratic on remembering to pack essential stuff like contact lenses or glasses or, on one memorable trip, my actual suitcase full of my actual stuff. Considering how much I hate packing just a fraction of my possessions for a limited period of time, the thought of moving fries my synapses. Pack ALL the stuff? Then take ALL the stuff to a different place and unpack it? I do not see the point. Let’s just stay here. It’s lucky for everyone concerned that it was not my job to be an American pioneer or Ernest Hemingway because believe me if it was my job there would not be a California or a The Sun Also Rises. We only have those things because people (not me) were willing to pack up and move.


No, we are NOT.

There are two kinds of moving: Back To and Away From. Back To moves circle around to where you started, like moving back to your hometown. Away From moves launch you into the great unknown, taking you out of the familiar, like when Luke leaves Tatooine so he can go blow up the Death Star. Arguably, American history is one big Away From move story and while many of those stories have happy endings, the Donner Party’s is not one of them. The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of The Donner Party by Daniel James Brown, isn’t just Away From, it’s Far Away From. This book traces the Donner Party’s journey, step by tortuous step, from its beginning in Missouri in May 1846 to their arrival in the Sierra Nevada mountains…where they, um, stayed a while. I don’t want to spoil the ending for you, but winter in the Sierra Nevadas did not go well.

Daniel James Brown is wonderful at translating his meticulous research into relatable human experience, and in this book that is never more evident than when he is scaling the westward journeys against the preparation for the journey. The detailed description of the provisioning that the Donner Party undertook blew my mind. Food, oxen, a mobile kitchen, linens, clothing, EVERYTHING–outfitting a traveling party for the great migration west took weeks. This is yet another story that proves to me I would have been the worst pioneer to ever pioneer. I am actually whatever the opposite is of a pioneer. Pion-not? If it took me weeks to pack for anything I would cancel my plans.
Pioneers: Westward, ho!
Me: meh
Pioneers: Let’s make history!
Me: Or stay here and make popcorn. WHO’S WITH ME

Moves can cross countries, or moves can cross oceans. Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises by Lesley M. M. Blume tells the story of how Ernest Hemingway conceived, wrote, and marketed his debut novel, and how that experience created the public face of Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway and his first wife Hadley moved to Paris after the first World War, because Europe after WW1 was an inexpensive place to bring American dollars. While in Paris, Hemingway cultivated the nurturing support of the city’s literary elite, establishing the relationships and the network that would help make his name as a writer and living the experiences that would ultimately become The Sun Also Rises.

Hemingway’s move is, at first glance, an Away From move. It’s hard to get much more Away From than putting an ocean in between your start and your destination. Going to Paris was a lot more fun than going to Gatlinburg or Fargo, but it amounted to the same thing, because upon arriving in Paris, Hemingway immediately fell in with a crowd of…Americans. His Parisian friendships and social circle consisted of Americans and UK expats-until he went to Spain. In Spain, his friendships and social circles consisted of Americans and UK expats he brought with him from Paris, plus matadors. Hemingway loved him some bullfighting.
Hemingway: I really do like bullfighting
Me: I get it
Hemingway: My Tumblr is @fuckyeahbullfighting

If I actually HAD to move somewhere, which I’m absolutely not doing because I hate packing, I’d model it on the Hemingway method, which is
1. Not have a lot of stuff
2. Take all that stuff to Paris
3. Eat some cheese, probably
4. Become famous

That is way less strenuous than the pioneer method, which is
1. Have a ton of stuff
2. Get even more stuff
3. Skip the iffy pioneer cheese
4. Drag all that stuff for hundred of miles, on foot, and there’s not even a hotel with room service when you get there because frontier

A hat tip to those intrepid souls who pull off pulling up stakes and start over in a new place. I’m happy to come visit you, as soon as I finish packing.
Me: so what’s in the wagon anyway
Pioneers: Tiny sewing kits
Me: I knew it


Action Items
Daniel James Brown is the author of The Boys In The Boat, another great Away From moving story.