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
November: CHECK CHECK 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.

 

Months

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 It’s Not In Order

There is an intended compulsivity to my To-Be-Read list. Theoretically, I read what’s on my stack in the order in which it was added to the stack. My books should all wait their turn behind the velvet line divider next to the sign that says “Wait Here For Next Available Associate”. It’s a neat, orderly procession because I don’t like my books to crowd me and line management is important. In theory, everything executes like clockwork, one of those Swiss clocks that is a marvel of efficiency and accuracy.

In practice, my To-Be-Read list is less a line of well-behaved books patiently waiting their turn than a crowd rushing the entrance of Toys”R”Us the day after Thanksgiving. There’s pushing, shoving, hair-pulling, and at least one fistfight. I want to be methodical and deliberate, I really do, because from the outside that approach seems marvelously productive. It’s a practice I have yet to translate into reality. For example, I’ve had Stacy Schiff’s The Witches on my list since the day it came out. That book is a straight-up diva though and I haven’t had the necessary uninterrupted time that a diva demands. Then there are my disappeared titles, because I lost my working TBR list in a disastrous iPhone update a few months ago so there are a bunch of books that I know I want to read but no longer know the names of. WHYYYY APPLE WHYYYY??? Then, of course, there are the books that are recommended to me by other enthusiastic readers. I get super pumped for those because sharing is caring and asking me to read a book you like is a secret mystery-coded message that says you like me BEST of all the people you know. It’s ok! I won’t tell anyone else that I am your favorite. If all of this feels like an elaborate justification as to why I just had to bump Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to the top of the stack last week, well, your instincts are dead on.
Me: HAHAHAHAHA
Mary Shelley: Whut
Me: DEAD on. Get it??
Mary Shelley: Ugh

I suppose if any book is going to push to the front of the line with terrible manners and superhuman strength, it would be Frankenstein. The story behind the book is almost as famous as the book itself. In 1816, Mary Shelley and her husband the poet Percy Shelley were on an extended European tour, staying away from England for really good reasons that included avoiding Percy’s first wife Harriet, who was a tad cranky because Percy had run away with Mary while still married to Harriet. While in Switzerland, Mary, Percy, Mary’s stepsister Jane and their friends Lord Byron and John Polidori found themselves stuck inside on a rainy day. They challenged each other to tell ghost stories to pass the time and that was one hell of a one-up story session because that little party germinated both the vampire genre (hat tip to John Polidori) and the Frankenstein monster.
Percy: Whatcha doing Mary
Mary: BRB writing classic horror novel
Percy: Well “classic” might be premature—
Mary: also inventing science fiction
Percy: Okay, sure, it’s original but-
Mary: what’d YOU do today
Percy: whatever

I hadn’t read Frankenstein in a long loooong time and in truth, I didn’t read it that closely the first time. It was assigned reading in a British Literature class, a class in which the volume of assigned reading was honestly insane. The teacher’s approach was basically “British people wrote a lot of stuff. Let’s read all of it in two months.” It was all I could do to keep up with it. By the time that class was over, I was so burned out I hated England, Princess Diana, tea, Masterpiece Theater, and Monty Python. As a result of this shallow immersion, most of the Frankenstein lore I was carrying around in my head was supplied by Mel Brooks. (I’m not even sorry because Gene Wilder’s hair in “Young Frankenstein” is perfection.) When a friend told me she was reading Frankenstein for her book club and struggling a bit with it, I couldn’t abandon her to the wilds of English gothic horror. I had been there, and I have the scars to prove it. It was time to up-end my TBR stack yet again, stop skating on my sketchy, force-fed-British-Lit Frankenstein memories, and give that tall drink of mostly dead water the attention it deserved.

One trip to the used bookstore later, I was prepared to be scared. The Frankenstein monster we know, the force of nature that is a dangerous combination of brute power and pure instinct, is a creepy figure, but the Frankenstein monster in the book is actually far removed from today’s pop culture, neck bolt version. The monster’s creator, Victor Frankenstein, is an arrogant scientist who single-mindedly pursues the ultimate scientific challenge – creating life in inanimate tissue. Once he reaches his goal, he abandons his creation, unable to come to terms with the ramifications of his actions and unwilling to accept responsibility for his profound discovery. Mary Shelley curses her monster with self-awareness, a being who is unable to feel gratitude for the life he was given because he knows he is ultimately not of the world that he’s living in. This book is wildly modern, and the questions Mary Shelley raises about the ethical pursuit of knowledge are even more relevant now. I was also stunned at what a huge whiny man-baby Victor Frankenstein is. I missed that completely the first time around. I was rooting for the monster, frankly.
Mary: Me too TBH
Me: Right??

the-inheritance

Stackus Interruptus.

My TBR stack is still a work in progress, a messy monster of my own creation. After I finished Frankenstein, I went back to the next book in the stack and promised myself no more interruptions. I’d completely forgotten that Charles Finch’s new one in the Charles Lenox series, The Inheritance, came out this week. Ooops. Charles Lenox has VIP status at my club so he always goes to the front of the line. I’ll get back to the stack right after I finish it.

#frontoftheline

Action Items
You might be able to catch the National Theater Live’s version of Frankenstein. It’s making encore rounds now. Check it out here.

The Reason For All The Formats

If you are an author who sets your books in Victorian London and your first name is Charles, I have a special section on my bookshelf just for you. Granted, it’s a niche genre, but it’s not that crowded yet so now is the time to make your move if you’ve been considering a name change and a literary specialty. If that isn’t enough to entice you, maybe I should tell you a little bit about the company you’d be keeping. Take a close look at my cool authors shelf, population Charles Dickens and Charles Finch. (On Wednesdays, they wear pink.)

Victorian London is a wonderfully elastic world in which to set a book- by turns atmospheric and grand, violent and sexy. The tension that results from the convergence of Industrial Age modernity and monarchical rigidity is a forceful backdrop. Plus, the wardrobes are on point.
Victorian London: what is it about me that’s so awesome
Colonial America: maybe the top hats
Victorian London: i serve steamed suet for dessert
Colonial America: it’s definitely the top hats

Charles Dickens’ poignant ghost story A Christmas Carol has Victorian London street cred. Dickens drew on his own life experience in his writing, having been a poor child who worked in a blacking factory. As a successful author, his storytelling served as a platform for him to articulate his arguments about the impact of crippling poverty, class injustice, and the need for social reform. He self-published A Christmas Carol in 1843 and the rest is past, present and future. “Bah, Humbug” entered the English language and Scrooge achieved the kind of one-word name recognition that would one day be shared by Beyoncé and Liberace.
Charles Dickens: Goals: codify the meaning of Christmas for generations in one short book
Charles Dickens: (publishes A Christmas Carol)
Charles Dickens: nailed it

Over there on the shelf, to the right of the multiple copies of A Christmas Carol, are the books in the Charles Lenox historical mystery series by Charles Finch. A Beautiful Blue Death introduces Charles Lenox, amateur gentleman detective, wealthy enough to pursue his passion as a hobby but also wealthy enough for his passion to be tolerated by his social circle. (Oh, Victorian London, you and your insufferable class snobbery.) Lenox is sharply intelligent and remarkably intuitive, and his determination and drive are the core of the appeal of the books.
Charles Finch: Goals: publish an award-nominated debut historical mystery novel
Charles Finch: (publishes A Beautiful Blue Death)
Charles Finch: nailed it

According to every car commercial aired between 12/1-12/31 and all 4,324 Christmas movies on Lifetime, the month of December guarantees joys are magnified, memories are made, and problems are solved with a quick application of some Magic Of The Season. Sometimes, that is real life, but December has a way of magnifying all the opposites too. Losses are more resonant. Endings are more heartbreaking. The boomerang between the highs and the lows tuckers me out. Inevitably, there comes a moment in December when I need to shake off all the heightened, frantic expectations and when that moment comes, I’m selecting a favorite from the Charleses shelf for a solid re-reading chill session.  I never get tired of Ebenezer Scrooge throwing off the weight of a lifetime of grief. I never get tired of Charles Lenox’s clever perserverance. I never get tired of imagining myself navigating the streets of Victorian London in a top hat.
Victorian London: seriously?
Colonial America: told you
Victorian London: what about sewage? got lots of that
Colonial America: sticking with the hats

QV in a top hat

Queen Victoria in a top hat. Aesthetic: monarch meta.

If you’ve ever asked me for book recommendation, you’ve heard me talk about the Charleses. (Charleseses? Charlesi.) Also, if you’ve ever asked me for a book recommendation, I am so sorry, and I hope you have recovered. You were unprepared to be utterly swamped by a tsunami of pure booknerd glee. I should have warned you that I am positively evangelical about books I like. If you ask me for recommendations while you are in my undecorated house, I am going to take the book I want you to read off my shelf and press it into your hands while I describe in detail why I love it so much. You poor thing. Just nod and take it; I really can’t help myself. It’s because of my lack of bibliophilic boundaries that I buy the same books over and over again. When I need to spend some time re-reading, I’ll hit up my shelf only to find that the book I want isn’t there. Buying the same books every 18-24 months will really throw off Amazon’s recommendation algorithm.
Amazon: Did you enjoy A Beautiful Blue Death
Me: Yes!
Amazon: Then we recommend A Beautiful Blue Death
Me: I’ll take it

I’ve laid in some emergency formats for the inevitable days that my shelf presents a Charleses (Charlsises. Charlers?) gap. I picked up A Christmas Carol on audiobook this year to go with my hardback illustrated special edition and paperback. I own A Beautiful Blue Death in  paperback and digital and just replaced the hardback (for the third time). When I’m ready to enjoy a favorite, I want to enjoy it however how I can in the moment I have available. Sometimes, that’s e-reading in a waiting room. Sometimes it’s a hardback on a lazy morning or an audiobook on a long drive. And sometimes, I want to enjoy it by pressing a copy into someone else’s hands.

On December days when the edges are ragged and the strings are strung tight, I am comforted by Charleses and the vision of top hats on a busy Victorian London street. Scrooge forgives the world that took his beloved sister. Charles Lenox tracks down West End thugs and Hyde Park racketeers. Souls are saved before it’s too late. There’s redemption and there’s justice. I’m reading something that has an ending I know, because all the endings I don’t know are looming a little too large. Maybe, when you asked me what you should read, I really heard you ask for a good ending. I get it. Here’s a Charles.
#chuckwagon

Action Items
Charles Finch just published the ninth book in the Lenox series, Home By Nightfall. 
Patrick Stewart’s audio version of A Christmas Carol is marvelous.