#WhatImReadingNow: Heretics and Heroes

The high spirits of Renaissance Italy spilled over into other European lands, though the waves set off by so much gaiety sometimes landed elsewhere with a shock and might even be received with contempt. The Renaissance, as it appeared elsewhere, could at times look and sound quite different from its lively Italian manifestation. And though the humanists of Italy were generous in sharing their artistic and intellectual riches with other Europeans, they were quite certain that the great classical tradition was a uniquely Italian treasure and that Italians had nothing to learn from anyone else (except—when they remembered—from the Greeks, of course).

This attitude militated against the dissemination through Italy of the art of printing, where it was for years considered something concocted “among the Barbarians in some German city.” Duke Federigo of Urbino, an important collector, dismissed the invention out of hand, admitting that he “would have been ashamed to own a printed book.” No printing press was set up at Florence till Bernardo Cennini established one at last in 1477, a full quarter century after its invention in Germany.

So the miltiplication of copies of individual books in Italy continued to depend for decades on the ancient traditions of the scriptorium. But it was at such scriptoria as Lorenzo [Medici]’s that many scribes were employed for the sake of making many copies of many manuscripts, so that these might be distributed widely. (Even in their self-imposed cultural isolation, the Italians remained generous.) An it is thanks to these last scriptoria of Europe that you, dear Reader, can today read the book in your hands (or on your screen) so easily.

The thing that most put off the Italians from adopting printing was the monstrous appearance of the Gothic letters employed by German printers. Thick, heavy, overweight, very nearly sludgy, unattractive to the modern eye, these letters (whether in movable type or in earlier manuscript examples) reminded Italians of everything they disliked about the Barbarians.** (Madre di Deo, those letters looked like overweight people with inert bowels!) Instead, the Italians invented calligraphy, beautiful—and eminently readable—script. From this calligraphy, lean and swift, balanced and shapely, full of sweeping slides and lovely loops—rather than the stolid shapes of Gothic—were born the typefaces we still use today, roman, italic, and their derivatives.

**See Volume 1 of the Hinges of History, How the Irish Saved Civilization, Chapter I, for the original confrontation of taste between Italians and Germans in the early fifth century.]

—Thomas Cahill, Heretics and Heroes (Doubleday, 2013)

Some thoughts about this book:

  • This is a short selection, but I could go on and on and on. Cahill makes every little twist and turn (the hinges) of history so utterly fascinating! It’s like sitting down with your old Uncle Tom, who knows simply everything about this one topic and tells it to you like a story, complete with humor and pathos and irony and the inside scoop. Except … Uncle Tom knows pretty much everything! Languages, for example (Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, Italian). Read his biography at Wikipedia, you’ll see. The success of this series of books, Publishers Weekly has said, “lies in Cahill’s ability to interpret and present a great amount of information and complex ideas in a manner that is both easily accessible and entertaining. In straightforward yet lyrical prose filled with humor, Cahill presents ancient characters—many of whom are not well-known—with motivations that we can recognize.”
  • I read, first (as it was intended), How the Irish Saved Civilization and fell in love with it. In quick succession I read The Gifts of the Jews and Desire of the Everlasting Hills. While I was waiting for the next book in the Hinges of History series, I read A Literary Guide to Ireland (written with his wife, Susan Cahill). There is one more book to come in this series. Mr. Cahill is seventy-seven years old, and I wish him excellent health for many, many years to come.
  • Here are the six current titles. Interestingly, sometimes the subtitles have changed with subsequent printings. These are from the books on my shelves:

1 / How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe (1995)

2 / The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels (1998)

3 / Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus (1999)

4 / Sailing the Wine Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter (2003)

5 / Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe (2006)

6 / Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Changed Our World (2013)

  • The blurb: “In Volume VI of his acclaimed Hinges of History series, Thomas Cahill guides us through the thrilling period of the Rainassance and Reformation (the late fourteenth to the early seventeenth century), so full of innovation and cultural change that the Western World would not experience its like again until the twentieth century. Beginning with the continent-wide disaster of the Black Death, Cahill traces the many developments in European thought and experience that served both the new humanism of the Renaissance and the seemingly abrupt religious alterations of the increasingly radical Reformation. This is an age of the most sublime artistic and scientific adventure, but also of newly powerful princes and armies and of newly found courage, as many thousands refuse to bow their heads to the religious pieties of the past. It is an era of just-discovered continents and previously unknown peoples. More than anything, it is a time of individuality in which a whole culture must achieve a new balance if the West is to continue.”
  • I’d read other books about medieval artists (Michaelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, for example, and The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece) and knew about Martin Luther and Christopher Columbus—I’ve always had a thing for history, actually—but this book just pulled it all together: popes, kings and queens, monks, historians, artists, biblical translations. Oh my goodness. The Medicis were fascinating. As always, the book has many full-color pages of of art of the period, famous and less so. Highly recommended.

Tweet: I’ve always had a thing for history, and the Hinges of History series satisfies.
Tweet: On Heretics and Heroes: I wish Mr. Cahill excellent health for many, many years to come.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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#WordUse Series: I’m Over It! (These Words Have Got to Go)

I love slang as much as the next person. As a frame of reference, slang instantly conveys humor, sarcasm, or solidarity. Just think about the meaning occupy has taken on recently, and the myriad ways it’s been applied. Pop culture (that is, the world we live in) is a rich minefield for slang—I particularly love tiger mom and fauxdashian. (I see those eyes rolling!)

I’m less crazy about jargon, although sometimes it can be mildly amusing—say, late on a Friday afternoon when your boss decides to drill down so he can get your buy-in on a project to reach out to opinion formers who demonstrate thought leadership in the blogosphere. (He’ll want you to circle back on Monday to share any light-bulb moments you had over the weekend.) Sigh.

I even like a good cliché. If you write fiction, cliché is actually important to your dialogue, because that’s how regular folks talk. And the fact is a perfectly good word or phrase became a cliché because … well, because it works. Sweet spot, for example. We’ve all got one. Somewhere.

But sometimes these words get on my very last nerve. Sometimes I just want to scream, “Stop! Stop! For the love of the lexicon, stop!” Take these, for example. (Please.) I’m over them.

actionable
amazing (I’ve written about this one.)
baby mama
bandwith (“Does he have the bandwidth to take that on?”)
brain dump (Seriously?)
buy-in
chillax
circle back
come alongside
drill down
epic
fail (And the ever popular epic fail.)
hopefully
light-bulb moment
man up
ninja (Like “he’s a rock star” only implies more talent.)
personal brand
reach out
road warrior
rock (Used as a verb: she’s rocking that bikini.)
share (It’s not a substitute for tell, people!)
take it off-line
take it on board
thankfully
the new … (The new normal, the new black, the new thirty …)
thought leader
toolbox
unpack it
viral (A cute cat video goes viral.)
visionary, vision-casting

I just complain about these things, but my friends at Michigan’s Lake Superior State University (go Lakers!) actually do something about it: they have an annual List of Words Banished from the Queen’s English for Misuse, Overuse, and General Uselessness. The 2012 list includes: amazing, baby bump, blowback, ginormous, man cave, occupy, pet parent, shared sacrifice, thank you in advance, the new normal, trickeration, win the future.

I bet you’ve got some words to add to this list too. Reach out! :)

Tweet: I’m over it! These words have got to go!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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#WhatImReadingNow: The Land of Steady Habits

And though the deal was a windfall for [the company] and again made Anders a darling, it also gave him a belly of stress weight and a susceptibility to relentless bloody noses. He made a habit of riding home in the bar car and mauling a can of beer nuts and then falling asleep before dinner. He spent his weekends battling weeds and doing violence to a hedge of English laurel, working himself into a heap of grassy sweat and then collapsing on the sofa with an aggravated back. At night, he could barely sleep and found solace in bags of chips fried in hydrogenated oils until, when he was thirty-seven, his heart stopped working.

It happened on the train, in the morning. Mention you have tingling in the shoulder and the whole silver beast is halted and you’re yanked out and thrown onto a stretcher at the East Norwalk station, your undershirt cut open and a paramedic counting and a train full of bovine stares. It could happen to you, he later wished he had shouted, any goddamn one of you! But the fact was that it hadn’t, at least then; it had happened to him, a man with two boys under ten, a man with so much of his life left.

What happened next wasn’t due to the fact that they rushed him to the hospital and shot his veins full of dye, or that they found four plugged arteries, or that they needed to saw through his sternum and open him like a steer, leaving a long glossy seam from his clavicle to his navel. And it wasn’t because of the three softest faces in the world waiting for him when he opened his eyes, or the lectures on diet and lifestyle he received from every cardiologist in the county, or the new lease on life that seemed to come standard with a prescription for betablockers and the nitroglycerine pill he was to wear on a medicalert chain around his neck for the rest of his life. All of those things fell under the codified umbrella of near-death experience; all of those things, on the spectrum of trauma, were totally normal.

No, what caused him to buy a new station car and fall in love with new age music—regardless of his kids’ moaning, regardless of his wife’s ribbing, discs and discs of Yanni and George Winston, of Enya and the smooth sax of later Van Morrison, some merely the sounds of creeks and wind and trees that, if he closed his eyes, could transport him back to the porch of the Longfellow Inn—what sent him west on a two-week trail ride, a group of men on horses with guides that was transformative and lifeaffirming, regardless of its many similarities to the Billy Crystal comedy that came out a few years later; what made him come home and announce to Helene that they were moving to Alaska and living off the land, that the kids would adapt and she would get used to it, that it was the only option he could come up with that would keep him alive—to which she had told him to calm down and poured him a drink and reminded him gently of the quality schools in their district and the community the kids already had and how quickly twelve years would go by—what prompted all of that was returning to work a week after the staples in his chest were removed and finding it exactly the same.

Later, his shrink told him the name for this, for the tendency to feel isolated rather than connected after a seismic event, the tendency to withdraw rather than reach out in the face of death, but the term never felt totally right. What to call the sensation of unlocking your station car in the sucker punch of a winter morning, worrying about your heart rate and the tender scar down your torso, worrying that someone might make you laugh and you would be torn open by your own muscles, and arriving to an unchanged platform of sleepy men with trench coats and wet hair, yawning up the tracks toward New Haven? What to call the trepidation he felt as he climbed aboard that silver worm and then sat as it crawled its way along the coast, all the while worrying that it might happen again, feeling every beat in his ribs as the train swayed and rocked and finally hissed to a stop in the dark tunnels under Grand Central? What to call being carried along, as always, through the scent of burning railroad brakes and up into the high marble chamber, where the frenetic clicking of heels was suddenly a threat and his careful pace created an eddy of beige coats charging through the eastern exit? And what to call the Springer Building, an ugly tiered structure of mirrored glass that the designers had meant to be stately and imposing but was now squat and gaudy and shining like a fleck of mica in the canyon of Lexington?

And what to call the newly promoted Brad French, who greeted him with a get-well card signed by the assistants and a delicate pat on the shoulder, then asked him if he was up for work and announced that there wasn’t really room for halfway, that he really needed everyone to hit the ground running? To say nothing of the work itself—what to call that? He was responsible for millions every week, nearly a billion each year, numbers he had once cited to his father, who early on didn’t understand what Anders did. Now he was citing them to himself while in the men’s room on the twenty-third floor, staring at the white tiles in front of the urinal and feeling as though the doctors had replaced his heart with a bundle of dynamite. A billion dollars. That was something, wasn’t it? It was a way of affecting people and their lives. It was money that went to build pipelines or expand ballparks or revamp zipper production and came back, after all that, profitable. A billion dollars. That was prosperity, wasn’t it? That was enough to affect the whole damn world.

Of course, there was no way to be sure. As he left the men’s room and headed back to his desk, which was in an office large enough to need a decorator, he wondered what to call the feeling of looking at the trophies the company had awarded him, chunks of frosted glass with his name etched in them that had accumulated along the sills and cluttered the tables and, eventually, filled the big echoey drawer of a filing cabinet. What to call the long ride home during which he shut his eyes and heard the chatter around him with new ears, the hymn of decency, the song of work and home, all that consensus about the importance of children and schools and opportunity? And who could disagree with any of that? It was the very basis of civilization. So what to call the fact that it suddenly made him furious?

Twelve more years wasn’t much. Helene was right about that. The previous twelve had gone by relatively quickly. They were a blur, really.

—Ted Thompson, The Land of Steady Habits (Hachette 2014)

Some thoughts about this book:

  • I bought this book because, strangely, I read an article by the author, Ted Thompson, and blogged about it. And because I was kind of charmed by his voice, I looked into the book, and thought I’d read it. I like to support first-time authors. (Of course, we all know that “first-time” isn’t an accurate term, right? He’s been writing for years to be this accomplished.) And, it turns out, I really enjoyed it.
  • The blurb: “Anders Hill, entering his early sixties and seemingly ensconced in the ‘land of steady habits’—a nickname for the affluent, morally strict hamlets of Connecticut that dot his commuter rail line—abandons his career and family for a new condo and a new life. Stripped of the comforts of his previous identity, Anders turns up at a holiday party full of his ex-wife’s friends and is suprised to find that the very world he rejected may be one he needs. Thus Anders embarks on a clumsy, hilarious, and heartbreaking journey to reconcile his past with his present. Like the early work of John Updike, Ted Thompson’s first novel finely observes a man in deep conflict with his community. With compassion for its characters and fresh insight into the American tradition of the ‘suburban narrative,Æ The Land of Steady Habits introduces an auspicious talent.”
  • The land of steady habits—who knew? I’ve never lived in the northeast, so this isn’t an idiom I’d heard. And though the blurb says it’s a nickname for the affluent, morally strict hamlets of Connecticut along the commuter rail line down to Manhattan, this article by the Connecticut state historian says, “When it first appeared widely in print in the early 1800s, the term ‘The Land of Steady Habits’ was associated with Connecticut’s ancient tradition of assuring political stability through repeatedly electing the same officials to high office.” You learn something new every day.
  • This book is basically about a midlife crisis that lasted for twenty years. It made me laugh out loud, and I loved all the characters, even the troublesome ones. You’ve seen the references to Updike and Cheever. I’d add that if you enjoyed Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, you’ll like this. Or Jonathan Franzen. It also reminded me of Michael Dahlie’s A Gentleman’s Guide to Graceful Living, which delighted me.
  • I love these big, delicious paragraphs, but don’t worry, there’s plenty of clever dialogue too. This just happened to be what I chose.
  • Is this what they call deep POV?

Tweet: The land of steady habits— a nickname for the affluent hamlets of CT—who knew?
Tweet: This book is about a midlife crisis that lasted for 20 years. It made me laugh out loud.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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#WordUse Series: Blame It On the Bossa Nova … er, the Brits

I am more sensitive than most to how many differences there are in the way native English speakers from different regions or countries wield the language. Some years ago in a lengthy conversation with a European friend—some of which had to do with how differently we spoke, in spite of that fact that we were both speakers of English—I had the occasion to wonder if I should change a particular word to the word my friend would use. And my friend said, “Just be you. I know what you mean.”

So I did/do/am.

And since soccer’s been in the news this past year, we’ve had more than one occasion to bump into one of our linguistic differences—the Great Soccer–Football Dichotomy. When I am talking with my European friends, I have no beef with their use of football rather than soccer and out of respect for clarity, I use “American football” when I’m referring to, well, American football. They don’t seem bothered when I say soccer, either. No one I know is getting too bent about the verbiage. The Irishman teases me on occasion (imagine John Wayne drawling “Soccer”) but it’s all in good fun.

Then American friend of mine declared the name of the game is always football, never soccer. And I get it, I do. But … wait just a minute, there.

This game, this kicking-around-a-ball-with-feet thing, has been around since the ancient Greeks and Chinese. They called it Phaininda in Greece and Zhan Guo Ce in China at the time. There were others, of course, but the game we play now is formally called association football and was codified just a little over 150 years ago. Wikipedia tells us,

The modern rules of association football are based on the mid-19th century efforts to standardise the widely varying forms of football played in the public schools of England. … These ongoing efforts contributed to the formation of The Football Association (The FA) in 1863. … FIFA, the international football body, was formed in Paris in 1904 and declared that they would adhere to Laws of the Game of the [English] Football Association.

Still with me? The rules of the game were codified in England—so it’s their game—and the name association football was coined “to distinguish the game from the other forms of football played at the time, specifically rugby football” (Wikipedia again), which was codified in 1871. American football was codified in 1880. The Irish have Gaelic football, which was codified in 1885. There were, and are, lots of games called football.

So where’d the word soccer come from? It may surprise you: the Brits. Yep. It’s theirs too.

It’s slang, y’all. (And oh, how I love slang.)

The word soccer is an abbreviation of association (from assoc.); it arose in English universities in the 1880s—and you know universities are fertile breeding grounds for slang of all types. My English and Irish friends routinely use words like brekkie (breakfast) and prezzie (gifts, presents), and soccer was born the same way. Wikipedia says, “A quirk of British culture is the permanent need to familiarise names by shortening them”—and so it was with the two football games, which became rugger (rugby football) and soccer (association football). This etymology is detailed in several online sources, including the Smithsonian, the AtlanticHuffPost, and even the Daily Mail.

Both words were used interchangeably in England for decades. And the word soccer, when exported with the game itself, particularly caught on in countries where there was another game involving a ball and feet (as in Australia, Canada, and the United States, for example).

But something else happened. The Atlantic elaborates:

If the word “soccer” originated in England, why did it fall into disuse there and become dominant in the States? To answer that question, Szymanski counted the frequency with which the words “football” and “soccer” appeared in American and British news outlets as far back as 1900.

What he found is fascinating: “Soccer” was a recognized term in Britain in the first half of the twentieth century, but it wasn’t widely used until after World War II, when it was in vogue (and interchangeable with “football” and other phrases like “soccer football”) for a couple decades, perhaps because of the influence of American troops stationed in Britain during the war and the allure of American culture in its aftermath. In the 1980s, however, Brits began rejecting the term, as soccer became a more popular sport in the United States.

Wikipedia says, gently, “some speakers of British English began to deprecate soccer for reasons that remain unclear; it is possible they mistook it for an Americanism.” I think that’s being very nice about it, but OK. They’re just being them and letting us be us. :)

There are plenty of word situations like this. Writer/educator Ben Yagoda has a whole blog about them (Not One-Off Britishisms). It’s fun, but people on both sides of the Pond can get testy about words they believe are theirs and theirs alone. I’ve written about Britishisms and Americanisms here and elsewhere—bottom line, I enjoy letting them be them.

And that extends to the use of football rather than soccer in reference to association football. The NY Times suggests it’s become hip, in certain American circles (“a public display of global cultural literacy”). Sportswriter (and Englishman) Jonathan Clegg, writing in the Wall Street Journal, notes these hipsters “may be the most derivative, excessive and utterly ridiculous collection of sports fans on the planet” and that “all of this feels like an elaborate affectation.” Clegg wishes these Americans would just … be Americans.

My first husband was born in Central America; he grew up bilingual in California. His father had played on a World Cup team in his youth, and after the young family moved to the United States, Senior spent a lot of time organizing small soccer consortiums in which he and his sons could play. This was in the 1960s and ’70s, and the players were largely culled from the local Mexican and Portuguese communities. I was well aware of the Great Soccer–Football Dichotomy when I hung around with this ESL group, but not a man among them held his nose at the word soccer. They knew what we were talking about, as my European friends do now.

So let’s use soccer, friends, and just be ourselves. It’s a perfectly acceptable, historic term. It’s authentic. It’s organic. It’s us. That’s good. And irrespective of what you call the game, we’re still world champions.*

* Lest you think I’m indulging in jingoism, the Irishman gave me that final line. Thanks, honey. It’s perfect. :) … or it was in 2015, when this post originally ran.

Tweet: The Great Soccer–Football Dichotomy. It started in England.
Tweet: Both football & soccer were used interchangeably in England for decades.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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#WhatImReadingNow: The Lion in the Living Room

Cats, by any reasonable standard, are terrible candidates for domestication. The most obvious problem is their social lives—or lack thereof. Mankind’s basic strategy for controlling other species has typically been to hijack their dominance hierarchies, to play the role of lead steer or alpha dog so that subordinate animals fall in line … But like almost all the cats (with the exception of lions and sometimes cheetahs), Felis silvestris lybica has no social hierarchy. It has no leader. In the wild, it does not even tolerate the presence of other adult cats except during copulation. Herding cats really is hard.

Cats’ limited social lives aren’t the only strikes against them, in terms of their suitability for domestication. The wild Felis silvestris lybica is—like most cats—nocturnal, territorial, highly agile, and difficult to contain, all of which makes sharing a schedule and space with himans far from ideal. It is sexually finicky—domestication typically involves mating the best animals to amplify desirable traits, but Driscoll believes that we have influenced feline sex lives for only 100 of the last 10,000-plus years, and even now supervise only a tiny percentage of (mostly purebred) couplings.

And of course, Felis silvestris lybica is a terrifically picky eater: many of our domesticated animals (like pigs and goats) will gladly consume any swill, but all cats are exclusive carnivores and eat only high-quality meat. Today, with pet cats, these demands remain inconvenient, as anyone who’s run out of turkey and giblets at 11 p.m. knows, but in previous millennia when meat resources were far dearer, there actually would have been a form of carnivorous competition between cat and keeper. (In some parts of the world this rivalry subtly persists: the average Australian household cat, for instance, ingests more fish each year than the average Australian does.)

Even if our ancestors, still fending off starvation and leopards, could have worked out all these kinks, it’s not clear why we would have made the effort [to domesticate a cat]. Our motives for domestication are usually quite obvious: we covet an animal’s body parts, by-products, or labor. What exactly house cats furnish (as we will see in the next chapter) is a much fuzzier matter.

But luckily for Felis silvestris lybica, at least some individual members of the species turned out to have one vital “domestic” quality going for them: their temperment. A baseline comfort with humans is by far the most important prerequisite for all domestication contenders. Anxious animals won’t mate in captivity and may even die of stress. Preferring that our rabbits reproduce like rabbits, humans have always, deliberately or by default, bred calm animals that can handle our chaotic environment. What’s so curious about house cats is that they seem to have cultivated this trait on their own.

Almost all wild cats, even those species big enough to eat humans, are, with excellent reason, shy, reclusive, and often deathly afraid of us—and that includes the several other undomesticated yet nearly identical subspecies of Felis silvestris. In the 1930s, wildlife photographer Frances Pitt wrote about her attempt to woo the European wild cat, Felis silvestris silvestris, a close cousin of the house cat’s ancestor. “Beelzebina, Princess of Devils,” as she calls the captive kitten, “spat and scratched in her fiercest resentment. Her pale green eyes glared savage hatred at human-beings, and all attempts to establish friendly relations with her failed.”

But the Near Eastern wildcat is a remarkable exception. Studies of modern radio-collared wild Felis silvestris lybica suggest that, while most shun humans, every so often an outlier will pursue us, prowling our pigeon houses and canoodling with our pet cats, with whom they regularly interbreed. That’s not to say that a daredevil lybica is capable of anything like the sort of affectionate behavior that we regocnize in house cats; these wild animals aren’t about to snuggle with you on a Sunday morning or sit on your shoulders or request a belly rub. But personality, Driscoll explains, is a trait that can run in families, the same as milk yield or muscle quality, passed on, and sometimes amplified, through DNA. And some quirk in the natural lybica gene pool disposes particular individuals toward a certain natural bravado—a feature that would ultimately become the raw material of the cat-human bond. What we call “friendliness” in our pet cats is, in part, a lack of aggression. But it is also a lack of fear, and an inborn boldness.

So it wasn’t the meek and mild cats that first entered our fire circles at Halli Çemi and elsewhere: it was the lion-hearted. Once the most fearless felines infiltrated, they fortified themselves with our tasty leftovers and mated with other daring cats dining nearby, producing even more audacious babies. These were not domestic recruits, but invaders. And while other little predators like foxes and badgers were content to linger at civilization’s edges, where they remain today, bold cats blazed a trail all the way to our beds. In doing so, they hijacked what is normally a human-driven selection process.

In effect, Driscoll tells me, “House cats domesticated themselves.”

—Abigail Tucker, The Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World (Simon & Schuster, 2016)

Some thoughts about this book:

  • Carlos Driscoll, whose name you see above, was, seventeen years ago, an Oxford University doctoral student who spent a decade sampling genetic material from domesticated cats all over the planet, and learned that “from blue-blooded Persians to mangy strays, from Manhattan’s street-smart alley cats to the ferals of the New Zealand forest, it turns out that all house cats come … only from Felis sylvestris. More astonishingly, they are descended solely from the lybica subspecies.” Did you catch that? All our cats, no matter what they look like, are descended from the same species. Driscoll also cross-referenced the genetic analysis with archeological evidence, and concluded that our domestic relationship with house cats began about ten to twelve thousand years ago. This is interesting research.
  • If you know me personally, you know I’m a lifelong lover of cats. I’m a firm advocate of spay/neuter; I don’t believe in declawing. My cats have always been indoor/outdoor cats, which has led to some heartbreak, thus I fully understand why some folks opt to keep their cats as indoor-only. However, cats’ respiratory systems are fragile; they react to things in their “closed” environment (cleaning chemicals, for example, or room sprays, insecticides, candle smoke, cigarettes, and on and on), so caution is called for. Also, of course, they lick their paws, so if they’re not breathing it, they’re ingesting it. (Read this.)
  • Blurb: “Cats are incredible creatures: they can eat practically anything and live almost anywhere, ruling bedrooms and deserted Antarctic islands alike. But cats do humans very few favors—especially compared with dogs. So why do we feed and caress them and obsess over them online? To better understand the furry strangers in our midst, science writer Abigail Tucker investigates the way house cats have used their relationship with humans to become one of the most powerful animals on the planet. Tracing their rise from rehistory to the modern cat craze, she meets (and pets) champion purebreds and the latest mutants, attends a cats’ rights convention, and treks through the wilderness in search of house cats on the loose.”
  • This book was both fascinating—and saddening. I learned so many things. (Insert here: “that I didn’t want to know.” But that’s the human way, right?) Tucker warns—and we know this already—that large cats, lions and tigers, will soon be extinct due to diminishing habitat. Some species that are prey of the common house cat—lizards, birds, and so on—are also being diminished by the proliferation of house cats (both feral and domesticated). In fact, there are too many unwanted, stray cats, and this statistic broke my heart: the state of California euthanizes more than 250,000 house cats a year. Strays.
  • Other books about cats I’ve loved: John Bradshaw’s Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet; How to Be a Cat Detective: Solving the Mystery of Your Cat’s Behavior by Vicky Halls; and The Nine Emotional Lives of Cats: A Journey Into the Feline Heart by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson.

Tweet: #WhatImReadingNow: The Lion in the Living Room
Tweet: I’m a lifelong owner of cats, and I learned plenty from this book.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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#WordUse Series: These Are a Few of My Favorite Words

There are words and then there are … favorite words. Like, you know, cream-colored ponies and crisp apple strudels, these are a few of my favorite—

You have favorite words, don’t you? I do.

Again, I don’t mean favorite phrases, like Awesome, dude. (Although I do love the phrase clotted cream, as you must surely know by now. I’ve worked it in to more than one post.) Another fave of mine is Just sayin’, which was roundly criticized as being a cliché by a reader of my post on clichés. (I’m claiming artistic license.)

But no, no, I mean words that are my faves because I just like the way they sound (and sometimes the way they look), separate from what they mean. Like …

amaryllis           forsythia         sublime
aspen                  frisson              surpass
astilbe                gossamer        svelte
aubergine         moss                 svengali
cusp                    precinct           sycamore
December         sartorial         tessellation
esplanade         sibilant           whilst
exquisite           smitten

This would seem to suggest I’m attracted to the S sound … and clearly I am. It’s sssoft and ssspecial and even sssexy, that sound. If I were writing about trees there would probably be an aspen or a sycamore among them. (Under the spreading aspen tree the village smithy  … nah.) But I assure you the word Slytherin gives me the creeps just as it creeped out millions of Harry Potter readers. So it’s not just the sibilant.

See, I also like:

ardor                  green                    paradigm
bravura             harbinger           paradox
décolletage      harmony             penultimate
detritus              lachrymose        purview
egg                       lagniappe           velvet
egregious          lavender             verbatim
epiphany          melody                verdant
French               myriad                 verve

And there are others I like due to an emotional reaction I have to them, a probably not-complex-at-all fusion of humor and intellect and something that happened when I was three but no longer remember. These words just make me happy.

badger                         feline                         protuberance
bean                             gubernatorial (and the not unrelated goober)
bunny                          haphazard               sassy
cabbage                      kerfuffle                   soup
chubby                        Madagascar          tickle
conundrum                meerkat                  waffle
discombobulate       parsnip                  wombat
eggplant                     poppy                     zebra

Word Nerd True Confession: These highly unscientific lists of words came out of a little notebook I keep as a result of a poetry workshop I took years ago. They’re designed to inspire writing through imagery and sound. I think it’s a useful exercise, and fun (well, if you’re a fool for words like me). I am delighted when I come across one of them in something I’m reading. (OMG, lachrymose! He used lachrymose!)

I make lists of words when I’m brainstorming a writing project, too: copy for a Western-themed marketing piece was initiated by a list that included cowboycowpokebuckaroobuffalo galssaddletrailblazelassomaverickcampfirepardnerhowdy, and on and on. You’ve done it, I’m sure, when you were looking for a way to describe a character’s brown eyes (chocolatecoffeenut) or black hair (ravenmidnightebonyjetpitch, obsidian—oh, stop). Your thesaurus is useful for these sorts of exercises (just don’t get too carried away with that thing, please).

But that’s work, of course, and this is play. And play is an important part of the creative process, I think. Make a list of your own favorite words and you’ll see what I mean. Try words you like the sound of, or words that make you laugh. Other exercises in the workshop included making lists of words that might be used to describe, say, winter. (Then we began writing poetry, but that’s another topic entirely. As is zombie apocalypse, the very idea of which. Just. Cracks. Me. Up. I am currently trying to work this phrase into my daily conversation. Check for today!)

So now I wonder this: Can we analyze a list of favorite words the way we analyze dreams … or the books on our friends’ bookshelves?

Tweet: Can we analyze favorite words the way we analyze the books on our friends’ bookshelves?
Tweet: There are words and then there are … favorite words.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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#WhatImReadingNow: These Old Shades

‘Done!’ said my lady. ‘Oh, Rupert! I lost my big emerald at play last week! I could have cried my eyes out, and Edward could only say that it must be a lesson to me!’

‘That’s Edward all over,’ nodded Rupert. ‘Don’t I know it!’

‘No, you do not, tiresome boy! He will give me another emerald.’ She blinked rapidly. ‘Indeed, he is very good to me. I wonder if he will come here? I vow I shall be miserable if he does not!’

Rupert’s eyes were on the street.

‘Well, he has come, and mighty à propos, too.’

‘What! Is it really he, Rupert? You’re not teasing me?’

‘No, it is he, right enough, and in a thundering rage, by the look of him.’

Lady Fanny sighed ecstatically.

‘Darling Edward! He will be very angry with me, I am sure.’

Marling came quickly in. He was travel-stained, and heavy-eyed from lack of sleep, and his mouth was set in an uncompromising fashion. He looked his pretty wife over in silence.

‘That’s the last of us,’ said Rupert jovially. ‘We’ve all the family now, glory be! Give you good morrow, Edward!’

Lady Fanny rose, and held out her hand.

‘Edward, I protest this is foolish of you.’

He ignored the outstretched hand.

‘You’ll return with me today, Fanny. I don’t brook your defiance.’

‘Whew!’ spoke Rupert under his breath. ‘Sa-sa – Have at you!’

Lady Fanny tittered.

‘Oh, sir, you are ungallant! Pray have you looked at yourself in the mirror? You come to me muddied and in disorder! And I who so love a man to be point de vice !’

‘We’ll leave my appearance out of it, if you please. I’ve borne enough of your whims, Fanny. You’ll return with me to England.’

‘Indeed, sir, do you think I shall?’ The light of battle was in my lady’s eyes.

‘You are my wife, madam.’

‘But not your chattel, sir. Pray take that frown from your face! It likes me not.’

‘Ay, do!’ Rupert put in. ‘How did you leave my cousin, Marling?’

‘Yes, sir, and why did you leave poor dear Harriet? It was not well done of you, Edward.’

‘Fanny, have you done? I warn you, I am in no mood for these tricks!’

‘Now, careful, Fan, careful!’ said Rupert, enjoying himself hugely. ‘He’ll disown you, so he will!’

Marling swung round to face him. ‘Your pleasantries are ill-timed, Alastair. I believe we shall do better if you leave us.’

‘How dare you, Edward? And the poor boy just out of his bed, with a wound in his shoulder that only escaped the lung by a bare inch!’

‘I am not concerned with Rupert’s hurts,’ said Marling cuttingly. ‘He will survive without my sympathy.’

‘Ay, but damme, I shall suffer a relapse if I have to look on your gloomy countenance much longer!’ retorted Rupert. ‘For God’s sake, smile, man!’

‘Oh yes, Edward, do smile!’ begged her ladyship. ‘It gives me a headache to see you frowning so.’

‘Fanny, you will give me five minutes in private.’

‘No, sir, I shall not. You are prodigious ill-natured to talk to me in this vein, and I protest I want no more of it.’

‘There’s for you, Marling!’ Rupert said. ‘Go and bespeak some breakfast. You’ll be better for it, I swear! ’Tis the emptiness of you makes you feel jaundiced: I know the feeling well. A ham, now, and some pasties, with coffee to wash it down will make a new man of you, stap me if it won’t!’

Lady Fanny giggled. Marling’s brow grew blacker, his eyes harder.

‘You’ll regret this, madam. You’ve trifled with me once too often.’

‘Oh, sir, I’m in no mood for your heroics! Pray keep them for Harriet! She has the taste for them, no doubt!’

‘Try ’em on Justin,’ suggested Rupert. ‘Here he is, with Léonie. Lord, what a happy gathering!’

‘For the last time, Fanny, – I shall not ask again – will you accord me a few minutes alone?’

‘Alone?’ echoed Rupert. ‘Ay, of course she will, as many as you like! Solitude’s the thing, so it is! Solitude, and a fat ham –’

‘My dear Marling, I hope I see you well?’ His Grace had come quietly in.

Marling picked up his hat. ‘I am in excellent health, I thank you, Avon.’

‘But his spirits!’ said Rupert. ‘Oh, lud!’

‘I confess,’ Marling said steadily, ‘my spirits are a little – bruised.’

‘Never say so!’ Rupert feigned astonishment. ‘You’ve had a bad crossing, Edward, and your liver’s upside down.’

Avon turned. ‘Your conversation is always so edifying, Rupert. Yet I believe we can dispense with it.’

Rupert collapsed promptly. My lady tossed her head. Avon went to the sidetable, and poured out a glass of burgundy, and offered it to Marling, who waved it aside.

‘I came, sir, to fetch my wife home. As she declines to accompany me there is no more to be said. I’ll take my leave of you.’

Avon put up his quizzing glass, and through it regarded my lady.

‘Yes, Justin. I do. I am coming to Paris with you.’

‘I am gratified, of course,’ said his Grace. ‘Nevertheless, my dear, you will go with your husband.’

‘I thank you!’ Marling laughed harshly. ‘I do not take her an she comes at your bidding! She must come at mine.’

‘I w-won’t go at anyone’s b-bidding!’ Lady Fanny’s face puckered like that of a child about to cry. ‘You are very unkind!’

Marling said nothing. She dabbed at her eyes. ‘You come – bullying, and – and scowling – I won’t go with you! I hate you, Edward!’

‘It needed only that,’ said Marling, and turned to the door.

There was a rustle of silks as my lady fled across the room. ‘Oh, Edward, I didn’t meant it, you know I didn’t!’

He held her away from him. ‘You will return with me?’

She hesitated, then looked up into his face. Two large tears stole down her cheeks.

Marling took her hands, and pressed them. ‘In truth,’ he said gently, ‘I cannot bear to see you weep, love. Go with Justin.’

At that she cast herself into his arms, and sobbed. ‘Oh Edward, I will come! I truly will! You must f-forgive me!’

‘My dear!’ He caught her to him.

‘I am decidedly de trop,’ remarked his Grace, and poured out another glass of burgundy.

‘I’ll come, Edward, but I do – oh, I do want to go to Paris!’

‘Then go, sweetheart. I’d not deny you your pleasure.’

‘But I c-can’t bear to leave you!’ sobbed Fanny.

‘May I be allowed to make a suggestion?’ His Grace came slowly forward. ‘There is really no occasion for these heartburnings. The matter is very simple.’ He swept Marling a magnificent leg. ‘Pray come with us to Paris, my dear Edward.’

‘Oh, I thank you, but –’

‘Yes, I know,’ said Avon languidly. ‘You would prefer not to enter the unhallowed portals of my abode.’

Marling flushed. ‘I protest –’

‘It is quite unnecessary, believe me. I would not propose such a distasteful plan were it not for the fact that I have need of Fanny.’

‘I don’t understand why you should need her, Avon.’

His Grace was incredulous. ‘My very dear Edward, I should have thought that with your strict sense of propriety the reason must positively leap to your understanding.’

‘Léonie! I had forgot.’ Marling stood irresolute. ‘Can you find no other lady to chaperon her?’

‘I could doubtless find an hundred, but I require a hostess.’

‘Then Fanny had best stay with you. I will go back to England.’

Fanny sighed. ‘Edward, if you will not come to Paris I must return with you. But I do wish that you would come!’

At that moment Léonie appeared, and clapped her hands at sight of Marling. ‘Parbleu, it is M. Marling! Bonjour, m’sieur!

He smiled and kissed her hand. ‘I hope I see you well, child? Your pretty colour answers me.’

‘My infant finds favour in the austere eyes,’ murmured his Grace.‘Infant, I am trying to prevail upon Mr Marling to honour my poor house with his presence. Pray add your entreaties to mine.’

‘Yes?’ Léonie looked from one to the other. ‘Please will you come, m’sieur? I shall ask Monseigneur to invite M. Davenant also.’

In spite of himself Avon smiled. ‘A happy thought, ma fille.’

‘Why, child, I believe I must not,’ Marling said. ‘You shall take her ladyship, and let me go home.’

‘Ah, bah!’ said Léonie. ‘It is because you do not like Monseigneur, is it not?’

‘My infant is nothing if not outspoken,’ remarked Avon. ‘That is the matter in a nutshell, child.’

‘You do not think he is enough respectable. But indeed he is very respectable now, je vous assure !’ A choking sound came from Rupert; my lady’s shoulders shook, and Marling collapsed into helpless laughter.

Léonie looked at the convulsed trio in disgust, and turned to the Duke. ‘What is the matter with them, Monseigneur? Why do they laugh?’

‘I have no idea, infant,’ replied Avon gravely.

‘They are silly, I think. Very silly.’

But the laughter cleared the air. Marling looked at the Duke, and said unsteadily: ‘I confess – it’s your lack of – of respectability that sticks – somewhat in my gullet!’

‘I am sure it must,’ said his Grace. ‘But you shall have Davenant to support you. He will be delighted to join you in mourning over my departed morals.’

‘The prospect is most alluring,’ Marling said. He glanced uncertainly at his wife. ‘But I do not think I fit well in this mad venture.’

‘My dear Edward, do I fit well in it?’ asked his Grace, pained. ‘I count upon you to aid me in lending a note of sobriety to the party.’

Marling regarded his Grace’s coat of dull crimson velvet quizzically. ‘I might lend sobriety, but you, Avon? You supply the magnificence, I think.’

‘You flatter me,’ Avon bowed. ‘I am to understand that you will join us?’

‘Yes, Edward, yes! Oh please!’

Voyons, it will be fort amusant, m’sieur. You must come.’

Rupert ventured to uplift his voice. ‘Ay, join us, Marling. The more the merrier.’

‘In face of such kind entreaties what can I say?’ Marling took his wife’s hand. ‘I thank you, Avon. I will come.’

‘Gaston, then, had best return to London for your baggage,’ said his Grace.

Léonie chuckled. ‘He will die, Monseigneur. I know it.’

‘As you observe,’ remarked his Grace to Marling, ‘death and disaster are a source of never-failing amusement to my infant.’

—Georgette Heyer, These Old Shades, 1926

Some thoughts on this book:

  • The cast of characters in this scene: Siblings Justin Alastair, 40; Fanny Alastair Marling, 30something; and Rupert Alastair, 20. Léonie, 20, a young woman of noble birth Justin has rescued. Also Edward Marling, age unknown, Fanny’s husband. The highest-ranking here is Justin, who is also the Duke of Avon. He has lots of money and power, and a reputation of getting what he wants, no matter the cost.
  • I know, I know—this is a scene from a time when only noblewomen had any autonomy at all, and they had but a modicum of it. There are also some silly assumptions about humanity, such as the lowborn imposter, who is raised as a nobleman but still wishes he could be a farmer (the class he was born into). Nature or nurture? Hm. You may let things like this bother you, or you can say a) but it’s Georgette Heyer! and b) it’s historical! and just enjoy it for what it is: a very funny scene. It is classic Heyer.
  • Heyer is a hoot. She’s witty, her vocabulary is brilliant, and her details are well researched. I fell in love with her romances in high school and have never, ever fallen out. I read and reread her novels, particularly during times of stress.
  • Regency Romance: Wikipedia says, “Heyer essentially established the historical romance genre and its subgenre Regency romance. Her Regencies were inspired by Jane Austen, but unlike Austen, who wrote about and for the times in which she lived, Heyer was forced to include copious information about the period so that her readers would understand the setting.” Here’s a little bit about the Regency period, which lasted from 1795–1837 or 1780–1830, depending on who’s writing the history. All that said, These Old Shades is set during the Georgian period and takes place around 1755–56.
  • Blurb: “Set in the Georgian period, about twenty years before the Regency, These Old Shades is considered to be the book that launched Heyer’s career. It features two of Heyer’s most memorable characters: Justin Alastair, the Duke of Avon, and Léonie, whom he rescues from a life of ignomy and comes to love and marry. The Duke is known for his coldness of manner, his remarkable omniscience, and his debauched lifestyle. Late one evening, he is accosted by a young person dressed in ragged boy’s clothing running away from a brutal rustic guardian. The Duke buys “Léon” and makes the child his page. “Léon” is in fact Léonie, and she serves the Duke with deep devotion. When he uncovers the true story of her birth, he wreaks an unforgettable revenge on her sinister father in a chilling scene of public humiliation.”
  • Although many, if not most, of Heyer’s books are stand-alone stories, These Old Shades has a sequel, Devil’s Cub, and I indulged myself in it as soon as I finished. :)

Tweet: Some enchanted evening, indeed! These Old Shades is classic Heyer.
Tweet: Heyer is witty, her vocabulary is brilliant, and her details are well researched.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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#WordUse Series: Standing Around With My Finger in the Dike, Feeling Hopeful

Yes, I am trying to hold back a flood. And I’m a little annoyed with the AP StylebookAs the Washington Post says:

The barbarians have done it, finally infiltrated a remaining bastion of order in a linguistic wasteland. They had already taken the Oxford English Dictionary; they had stormed the gates of Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition. They had pummeled American Heritage into submission, though she fought valiantly—she continues to fight!—by including a cautionary italics phrase, “usage problem,” next to the heretical definition. Then, on Tuesday morning [17 April 2012], the venerated AP Stylebook publicly affirmed (via tweet, no less) what it had already told the American Copy Editors Society: It, too, had succumbed. “We now support the modern usage of hopefully,” the tweet said.

You know what I’m talking about: sentences like Hopefully, that won’t happen (when what is meant is I hope that won’t happen or It is to be hoped that will not happen). Honestly? I can’t stand them; they sound clunky, inelegant. They sound, to my ear, like the writer doesn’t know how to write very well. A puppy can look hopefully at a toddler’s ice cream cone; one can answer the phone hopefully (particularly when one is half-expecting good news). But Hopefully we’ll get a break in the weather does not work for me.

I know, I know. But … the OED! Even my own favorite dictionary accepts the usage:

Main Entry: hope·ful·ly
Function: adverb
Date: 1593
1 : in a hopeful manner
2 : it is hoped : I hope : we hope <hopefully the rain will end soon>
usage In the 1960s the second sense of hopefully, which dates to the early 18th century and had been in fairly widespread use since at least the 1930s, underwent a surge in popularity. A surge of criticism followed in reaction, but the criticism took no account of the grammar of adverbs. Hopefully in its second sense is a member of a class of adverbs known as disjuncts. Disjuncts serve as a means by which the author or speaker can comment directly to the reader or hearer usually on the content of the sentence to which they are attached. Many other adverbs (as interestinglyfranklyclearlyluckilyunfortunately) are similarly used; most are so ordinary as to excite no comment or interest whatsoever. The second sense of hopefully is entirely standard.

Whether you call it a “sentence adverb” (as Grammar Girl does), a “floating adverb” (Geoff Nunberg), or a disjunct—this certainly puts me in my place, doesn’t it! Nunberg, writing for NPR, says about complaints like this, “It doesn’t herald the decline of the West, but it does signal another little unraveling of the threads of literary memory” before he goes on to call the issue inconsequential. The fact is, language changes. Grammar changes. (The deputy standards editor at the Associated Press says, “We’re realists over at the AP. You just can’t fight it.” Or as this guy says, all you have to do is “wait until your brand of bad becomes acceptable.”) This is why dictionaries and style guides get updated—because language and grammar users have made a new usage common.

Common being the key word for me. I still don’t like it. And the style guide I use—The Chicago Manual of Style—waffles on this issue: “The old meaning of the word (‘in a hopeful manner’) seems unsustainable; the newer meaning (‘I hope’ or ‘it is to be hoped’) seems here to stay. But many careful writers deplore the new meaning.”

Like me. I believe if you stick to the fundamentals of writing you will produce clean, clear, graceful prose. I don’t mind if you use this new hopefully in dialogue (because that’s how people talk) but if I see it in your narrative I will suggest a change. It’s about elegant writing, in my opinion, and the modern usage of hopefully just isn’t.

Tweet: Hopefully: Just because everyone’s doing it doesn’t mean you have to!
Tweet: The modern usage of hopefully just isn’t graceful.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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#WhatImReadingNow: Good As Gone

Jane woke up and whispered, “Julie?” The room yawned around her. After two years of sleeping alone in her own bedroom in the new house, Jane no longer dreamed of the ceiling fan dropping onto the bed and chopping her up. The spiders, too, had vanished from the shadows; ten-year-olds don’t need to have the corners checked before bedtime. Only occasionally, when something woke her in the middle of the night, the silence around her ached for Julie’s soft breathing. In the old house, she used to hoist one foot over the top bunk railing and giggle until Julie said, Shhh, Janie, go back to sleep. Now, she shut her eyes tightly before they could drift toward the dark seams where the walls and ceiling met.

The next noise definitely came from Julie’s room. Jane pulled back the covers and slid her bare feet down to the carpet. In the old house, a braided rug slipped over the smooth wooden floor when she got out of bed. Now her feet barely made a sound on thick carpet as she padded to the door and peered down the dark hallway. A faint rectangle of lighter darkness hovered at the end—a closed door.

They rarely slept with doors closed; Janie’s room got too hot, Julie’s too cold. Mom grumbled about the air circulation in two-story houses, but Mom and Dad’s room downstairs on the first floor was always shut at night, because they were adults.

Now Julie was too, or wanted to be. Ever since her thirteenth birthday, she seemed to be practicing for adulthood all the time, brushing her hair slowly in front of the bathroom mirror as if rehearsing for some secret play, sitting at her desk to write in her diary instead of flopping on the bed stomach-first, like Jane.

And closing her bedroom door. At the end of the hall, the pale rectangle shuddered, a crack of darkness opening up around one side. Julie’s bedroom door receded inward, four large fingers hooked around its edge.

Before she had time to think, Jane ducked into her closet, crouched down, and pulled the door shut behind her.

The fingers—they were too high up on the door to belong to Julie, too large to belong to her mother. They didn’t belong to her father either, but she didn’t know how she knew they didn’t, and that was the most unsettling thing of all. A tiny, sickening click reminded her that the closet door never stayed closed for long. She threw her hands forward, but the door was already floating slowly open.

Jane squeezed her eyes shut as a soft tread started down the hallway. When she opened them a moment later, the closet door had come to rest three inches from the door

frame. The slice of hallway visible from her hiding place almost glowed against the closet’s deeper darkness; she could see every fiber in the beige carpet, every ripple in the wall paint, and, hanging on the wall, half of a framed studio portrait in which long-ago Jane sat on long-ago Julie’s lap, wearing a baby dress with a sailboat on it. The sailboat shook on its embroidered waves. Everything else was shaking too.

The steps continued toward Jane’s room. The noisy floorboard in the middle of the hall moaned. The owner of the hand was now halfway to her room. Could he hear the creak in her ears each time her thundering heart shook the little boat?

Jane resisted the urge to shrink back into her clothes on their rattling hangers. Just then, a skinny foot appeared against the carpet, a patch of pink polish clinging to the big toenail, and Jane let out her breath. It was only Julie. She’d crouched over her toes perfecting the pink for an hour before her birthday party, but by the middle of the summer, most of it had scraped off on the rough white bottom of the backyard pool, leaving only these little triangles around the edges. So Jane had been wrong about the fingers, seeing things again, like the spiders in the shadows.

Sure enough, here came Julie, moving into the frame with her ordinary Mickey Mouse nightshirt flapping around her ordinary knees, heading toward the staircase by Jane’s room, probably just going down for a midnight snack. Jane’s matching Donald Duck nightshirt was in a brown bag waiting to be taken to Goodwill; she’d already outgrown it. Her mom said she’d be taller than Julie someday. Jane hugged her pajama’d knees in relief.

But the fingers were back, this time perched on Julie’s shoulder, clutching at the fabric of her nightshirt, her long blond hair trapped between their knobby knuckles. Jane barely had time to notice Julie’s stiff, straight posture, like that of a wide-eyed puppet, before she saw the tall man following close behind her. Julie and the strange man moved together in slow motion, as if his long arm and hairy hand were a chain binding them together.

Wake up, wake up, wake up, Jane told herself, but nothing happened. Everything was frozen, including her, like in a dream; only Julie and the man kept moving. Slow, but faster than frozen; slow, but they were almost to her room.

Janie opened her mouth to scream. Then Julie saw her. Jane’s scream slid back down into her stomach as Julie stared straight into her closet hiding place. Jane stared back, begging Julie to tell her what to do next, readying herself to obey, to yell or cry or maybe even laugh if it was all a joke. Surely Julie wouldn’t leave her alone in this bad dream. If Julie would just tell her what to do, Jane promised silently, she would listen to her and never complain from now on.

Without moving her head, Julie lifted her eyebrows and glanced meaningfully toward the man behind her, then back to Jane, as if telling her to take a good look, but Jane didn’t want to; she kept her eyes trained on Julie instead. Girl and man turned on the landing without pausing at her door, and Jane saw why Julie was walking so stiffly: the man held the tip of a long, sharp knife to her back.

Jane felt a nasty sting like a bug bite between her own shoulder blades, and her eyes filled up with tears. They were poised at the top of the stairs when a loud tick sounded from the attic. Jane knew it was only the house settling, but the man stopped and looked over his shoulder nervously. In the split second before he looked back, Julie, as if freed from a spell, turned her head to Jane, raised her left index finger to her lips, and formed them into a silent O. Shhh.

Jane obeyed.

Julie started down the stairs, followed by the man with the knife.

And that, according to the only witness, is the story of how I lost my daughter—both my daughters, everything, everything—in a single night.

—Amy Gentry, Good as Gone (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016)

Some thoughts on this book:

  • I can’t tell you why I bought it in the first place (it might have been a quick review in Entertainment Weekly); I like a little mystery, but usually find psychological suspense to be unsettling. And this opening scene was just creepy enough and just scary enough that I nearly didn’t go on. But I did. :)
  • The blurb: “Anna’s daughter Julie was kidnapped from her own bedroom when she was thirteen years old, while Anna slept just downstairs, unaware that her daughter was being ripped away from her. For eight years, she has lived with the guilt and the void in her family, hoping against hope that Julie is still alive. And then one night, the doorbell rings. A young woman who appears to be Julie is finally, miraculously, home safe. Anna and the rest of the family are thrilled, but soon Anna begins to see holes in Julie’s story. When she is contacted by a former detective turned private eye, she is forced to wonder if this young woman is even her daughter at all. And if she isn’t Julie, what is it that she wants?”
  • Oh, ho, ho! “We immediately know that something is off about Julie,” the Los Angeles Review of Books tells us, “but we don’t know quite what it is. We want to believe in the happy reunion, but there are too many jagged edges inviting our suspicion, and once we gain access to Julie’s interior monologue, it becomes clear that neither of our narrators is wholly reliable.”
  • Nice interview with the author includes a discussion of her research, her inspiration and influences, and her thoughts on writing. Check it out.
  • Writers will definitely want to look into how Gentry structured the story, with special attention to the way the past history is revealed. She also used alternating POVs in first and third person. Some commenters in the usual places found this “confusing,” but I didn’t. The themes here are the nature of truth, the complicated relationship between mothers and daughters, identity and how it changes over time, and the nature of sexual assault and victim-blaming.

Tweet: Is she or isn’t she? Good as Gone will keep you guessing.
Tweet: The opening scene was so creepy and scary that I nearly didn’t go on. But I did.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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#WhatImReadingNow: The Time Fetch

They walked silently to science class. Edward sat down in the back row and tried to think things through. A few days ago Feenix was a terror, a plague, a human tsunami, and now she was gone. Not only was she gone; it was like she had never existed. No one even remembered her, except Danton, Brigit, and him. Why? How could such a thing be? Rack his brain as he might, there were no good answers. …

Mr. Ross was standing in the middle of the room holding the fruitfly jar aloft. It was now absolutely, totally jammed with fruit flies. “As I said the other day, they get ten days to grow up, breed, and die. Each female lays about four hundred eggs. Let’s say there’s a hundred females in here right now and each one lays four hundred eggs in the next few days. How many new fruit flies will be in here by the end of next week?

“A million,” someone offered.

“What’s important for you to understand,” said Mr. Ross, “is that the growth of the population is exponential. It doesn’t merely double in size. Every ten days it is four hundred times bigger than it was ten days earlier. In theory, in ten days there will be forty thousand fruit flies in here. In twenty days, there will be sixteen million. If we let them out of here, by the end of next month they will have taken over the world, won’t they?”

A confused look of worry appeared on a couple of faces, but Robert said, “No, of course they won’t take over the world.”

“And why would that be, Robert?”

“Because they’ve got to find fruit to eat. When they run out of food, they’ll stop reproducing.”

“Excellent. There are many checks and balances built into ecosystems. One check of a population is how much food it has to eat. It can only keep on growing for as long as it has adequate nutrition. So when these guys run out of food they will start dying. Can you think of any other things that might keep this population from growing out of control?”

“Not enough room?” someone offered. “Sure,” said Mr. Ross. “If this population keeps exploding in here, they soon won’t have enough room to breathe or move.”

“Not enough to drink?”

“Right, again. Drought is a very effective way to keep populations in check. What about disease? And predators? If we let these fruit flies go in a nice sunny meadow full of swallows, they’d probably be mostly eaten up in an hour. In other words, a population can keep on growing only if no other checks are put upon it. In our world, the checks and balances are part of an extremely delicate and complicated system. Human beings, as we are continually discovering, are generally the worst offenders when it comes to messing with the balance of things.

“Let me remind you, my dear young friends, that you will soon inherit the guardianship of our beloved planet, a planet that is in the midst of a mass extinction event such as has not been seen since the CretaceousTertiary extinction event sixty-five million years ago when the dinosaurs were wiped out. There are predictions that if we continue in our greedy and shortsighted ways, half of all currently living species will be extinct within a hundred years. Remember what I have said to you many times. Entropy is one of the busiest and most powerful of forces at work in the world around us. Entropy, anybody?”

Robert answered in a bored voice: “The tendency of systems to move from order to disorder.”

“Right. All the things in a closed system—cars, people, animal species, the solar system—everything tends to run down, fall apart, die, lose available energy. Human beings, in their willful ignorance, generally seem eager to help the process along. But think about it, my young seekers. There may be ways to slow entropy down. Even reverse its progress. You can align yourself to fight alongside the powers of order and creation. You can battle to keep things going, even join the ranks of those who devote their lives to making greater harmony and knowledge. Or you can sit back and allow things to run down.”

There was one of those long pauses where everybody waited for something to happen. Only Edward and Danton and Brigit knew that they were all waiting for Feenix, who no longer existed, to interrupt and send the discussion shooting off on some other tangent. Since she couldn’t do this, the silence grew until Mr. Ross suddenly remembered that they were actually supposed to be talking about rocks.

“So,” he said. “Back to mineral formations. Let’s turn to chapter four.”
—Amy Herrick, The Time Fetch (Algonquin Young Readers, 2013)

Some thoughts on this book:

  • I have always loved middle grade fiction. It’s a very broad classification, with everything from sporty books (often for boys, who are, at this age, starting to lose interest in pleasure reading—just when it’s getting good!), animal books, historical fiction, and—my fave in this category—fantasy/sci-fi. Middle grade readers are at the perfect age for slightly far-fetched fiction that sucks you right in. If you add just enough science to keep things on the up and up, this adult reader is in heaven. Enter The Time Fetch. Fun! And perfect for a light read during stressful times.
  • (One exception in the middle grade category: I do not care for—I’m being diplomatic—the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan. Poorly written, in every sense of those words. I can’t for the life of me understand why the books have done so well. No, really.)
  • As I was reading The Time Fetch, I was reminded repeatedly of Einstein’s Dreams, a special novel I read in the early ’90s and have recommended repeatedly. The author of Einstein’s Dreams, Alan Lightman, is an interesting guy, and I urge you to read his official bio and be amazed. He’s a poet, a novelist, and has a doctorate (physics) from Cal Tech. He is also, Wikipedia tells us, the founder of the Harpswell Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to empower a new generation of women leaders in Cambodia and throughout Southeast Asia.
  • I’ve had more than one fruit fly infestation in my kitchen. Ugh.
  • I have read more biographies of Einstein—and books on physics and mathematics in general—than most people I know. This is unusual for a woman who only has a rudimentary grasp on middle grade–level math. :)
  • Here’s the blurb: “Under normal circumstances, a Time Fetch sends out its foragers to collect only those moments that will never be missed or regretted. It then rests, waiting to be called back by the Keeper, who distributes the gathered time where it is needed in our world and others. When eighth-grader Edward innocently mistakes a sleeping Fetch for an ordinary rock, he wakes its foragers too early, and they begin to multiply and gobble up too much time. Soon the bell rings to end class just as it’s begun. Buses race down streets, too far behind schedule to stop for passengers. Buildings and sidewalks begin to disappear, as the whole fabric of the universe starts to unravel. To try and stop the foragers, Edward must depend on the help of his classmates Feenix, Danton, and Brigit―whether he likes it or not. They all have touched the Fetch, and it has drawn them together in a strange and thrilling adventure in which the boundaries between worlds and dimensions are blurred. The places and creatures on the other side are much like the ones they’ve always known―but slightly twisted, a little darker, and much more dangerous.” I totally identified with that speeding-up of time thing.
  • School Library Journal says, “This transcendent middle-grade debut could almost be subtitled ‘A Young Person’s Guide to Existentialism.’ The opening scene presents Edward struggling to get out of bed with the knowledge that ‘it was all dancing atoms. Nothing was solid.’ It’s not a depressing novel, though. The story is strange and beautiful, with profundity hiding in the mundane while science and magic come to a comfortable alliance. … [It] provides an accessible, age-appropriate introduction to deeper themes of both the intellect and the spirit.” I agree! I loved the way the science lessons—Mr. Ross is Edward’s favorite teacher—subtly give clues to what’s happening in the Time Fetch universe. The book gets started and never lets up. Plenty of good tension! Your tween will enjoy it, for sure.

Tweet: I have always loved middle grade fiction. The Time Fetch.
Tweet: The Time Fetch: I was reminded repeatedly of Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

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