Category Archives: books

Things I Want to See in My Lifetime

World peace? An honest politician? A flying car? A second season of Firefly? Being able to retire? A printer that works?

Those are all worthy – though extremely unlikely – goals. But I want something else.

The first “thing I want to see in my lifetime” was to have a published book. Now I’ve done that. Twice. Check, check.

Another “bucket list” item was to see the Amber Room in St. Petersburg. The Amber Room is a recreation of a room in the Catherine Palace lined and decorated entirely with amber, weighing over six tons. The original Amber Room was constructed in the 18th century; later, it was disassembled and disappeared during World War II. It’s now considered lost forever, though there are always theories about how the pieces are on a sunken ship somewhere or in boxes stacked in an abandoned Nazi bunker.

Now that’s pretty much out of the question, what with U.S. relations with Russia, combined with my lack of funds for taking such an elaborate vacation. I’ll just have to be satisfied with my collection of amber jewelry and trinkets.

(Amber is prehistoric, fossilized tree resin. There are sometimes flies, mosquitos, or other bugs trapped in it, which makes the amber worth considerably more. The best-known varieties are clear golden in color, with shades from pale honey to nearly brown. There are also green amber and cherry amber, but I don’t care much for them. But I digress.)

No, what I really want to see in my own lifetime is a quotation from me on a t-shirt or a coffee mug. I know that I can order them one-off printed with anything I like (and I’ve had my book covers made into t-shirts and earrings), but what I want is to have someone else produce and wear them. I want to be in an airport and see someone wearing that shirt. I want to walk into an office and see someone drinking out of that mug.

Unfortunately, I don’t really have any sayings worth saying. Perhaps my most well-known one is “If my aunt had wheels, she’d be a tea cart.” That could, I suppose, appear on a t-shirt with a nice weird graphic of an aunt with a tea cart. My other signature saying is, “Sad, but true. True, but sad.” That’s short enough to fit on a mug, but a little nonspecific for anyone to take as their preferred slogan.

Of course, there’s also “DBF&P,” which stands for “Drop Back Five and Punt.” This is a phrase my husband and I use often because we’ve had to do it so often in our lives. Maybe the t-shirt would read “DPF&P*” with the translation as a footnote. I have plenty of obscure t-shirts and mugs (and shot glasses). Maybe someone else collects them too.

Most of the quotes from my blogs are too long for a mug, or even for a t-shirt. For example, “Teachers are the artists and architects of the future. We owe them a little more slack and a lot more support.” Readability would be a problem. It seems out of the question for me to be both meaningful and pithy.

Another thing I would like to see is one of my Facebook posts going viral. So far, I’ve had no luck there, either. I pass along plenty of other people’s posts, but almost no one passes along mine. Of course, that’s likely because most of the things I post are personal – interesting (at least to me) things that are happening in my life and funny things my husband or cats do. Apparently, our little family is insufficiently amusing.

The other day, I did download a meme generator (called, cleverly, Meme Generator) in hopes of putting a novel caption on an existing photo. The thing is, I didn’t want to use the too-familiar ones like “Disloyal Boyfriend” or “Change My Mind,” and again I have the problem of thinking up a clever caption short enough to fit. So here’s what I came up with as a trial run. This is my husband in a bar in Ireland. I haven’t gotten up the nerve to post it yet.

You can help make one of my dreams come true. Vote on whether I should post this meme (keeping in mind my husband doesn’t have Facebook) or not.

The Dry Well

So, it’s come to this. I have nothing left to write about. Last year I attempted a post on Halloween and how it has been taken over by adults. I then realized that I had written the same post in 2019. Not word-for-word, but almost paragraph-for-paragraph.

This has happened to me with many posts I have written lately, including my invention of a personal style, also done in 2019; plus-size peoples’ problems, now and in 2017; learning styles, and probably more. Thanksgiving came around last year, and also my birthday. I’ve already mined those subjects for posts and don’t want to revisit them, even if I could think of something new to say about them, which I can’t.

This proposes a problem or at least a difficulty. Have I already written everything I know about? Why am I just repeating myself? Or have I reached the end of my creativity?

It is ironic for me to confess this, because I have written about this same dilemma a number of times: in “Your Writing Brain” (2021), “As a Muse, Depression Sucks” (2019), “How to Write When the Muse Takes a Hike” (2018), “Muse Blues” (2016), and possibly a few others I’ve totally forgotten. Obviously, running out of inspiration is a subject near and dear to my heart, or at least close to the surface of my brain, as I think it must be to most writers.

In those previous posts, I have suggested ways to revitalize the writing juices. Read an author you like and try to incorporate their style or some aspect of their writing as an exercise. (I tried writing à la Mary Roach, but that resulted in too many footnotes.) Take off in a direction you’ve never gone before (politics, sex, children, history, economics, theater, or whatever).

Instead, I’ve delved into my memories. Visiting my country relatives as a child. Meeting Captain Kangaroo. Adventures in Girl Scouting. But my memory is notoriously spotty, so I don’t know how long I can keep this up.

I suppose I could plumb the depths of my other blog, bipolarme.blog, but those posts seem a little dark for what is meant to be a lighter-hearted blog. If only the cats would do something adorable! But no, they won’t cooperate. Neither will my husband. He hasn’t even done anything annoying lately, like the time he “volunteered” me to cater his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary celebration. In another state. As a surprise (to me and to them). (I refer to this as one of his near-death experiences. But I digress.) In fact, he’s been so sweet that he just got me a kalanchoe for my office (which spellcheck didn’t like, though I certainly do).

I read a lot, so I suppose I could do book reviews. But the books I read aren’t the latest bestsellers. Often they are children’s fantasy books or science fiction that’s decades old. Other books I like are on distressing subjects like autopsies, the Spanish Flu, lobotomies, and accidents while mountain-climbing. I suppose I could write about why these subjects fascinate me, but that doesn’t seem likely to fascinate you.

In posting this, I’m taking after my husband, who once wrote a paper for school explaining all the different reasons he couldn’t write a paper for that class. It got an A. I should be so lucky.

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Help Yourself

I admit it. When I was younger, I used to read self-help books. You know the kind, ones with titles like Women Who Hate Women Who Love Men Who Love Women Who Hate Cinderella. Back in the day, most self-help books were targeted at women who wanted to know why their love lives were train wrecks or why their psychological conditions were train wrecks. (Apparently, they didn’t consider that their psychological conditions might be train wrecks because their love lives were train wrecks. But I digress.)

Nowadays, most self-help books are written for business leaders – excuse me, entrepreneurs – and have titles like Give Yourself the Power to Lead Right Now With Powerful Leadership Secrets From the Early Etruscans. The rest are some modern-day versions of Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, which I suspect the Early Etruscans knew something about too.

I don’t know much about business leadership except that I prefer managers who use a hands-off management style (for both business and interpersonal interactions). I also don’t know much about women’s love lives, except my own, which I don’t think would be appropriate for a self-help book. I do know a thing or two about psychological conditions and write about them every week in my other blog, Bipolar Me.

Nonetheless, I find myself in the perhaps-awkward position of writing self-help books in my guise as a ghostwriter. (Or disguise. I’m required by the company to use a pseudonym.) I haven’t tackled one on women’s love lives yet, but I have written a couple about life with pets, something kind of New-Agey about envisioning your future, and two sort of business-y ones about listening to your inner voice and setting boundaries. My latest endeavor, which I’m about to start working on, is a senior health book, about which I ought to know a bit more than I actually do.

Apparently, a lot of the books that people want to have written are some variety of self-help – parenting tips (titles like Why Your Teen Behaves Like a Teen and Why You Can’t Do Anything About It), investment advice (Become the Only Person in America Who Tries to Pay the Electric Bill With Cryptocurrency), and doomsday prepping (Apocalypse When? Build Your Own Bomb Shelter Using Wattle and Daub) being some of the most-asked-for topics. (Again, subjects about which I know nothing.) I put in requests for book projects with more mental health focus such as overcoming anxiety or dealing with your inner child. But no. I get inspirational titles.

I must admit, I hate inspirational books. If they’re not about succeeding in business without really getting a business degree, they’re about positivity.

What’s wrong with positivity? Well, first of all, it’s been hard for me to achieve for most of my life, seeing that I was diagnosed with depression for decades. I’ve never been perky and seldom gung-ho. In addition, I’ve always hated cheerleaders, both the pom-pom kind and the believe-in-yourself ones. I guess I just don’t believe it’s possible to think yourself to a better, more fulfilling life with daily affirmations that sound like something from Jonathan Livingston Seagull. (If I’m going to take advice from a bird, I’d rather it be a parrot. Although it could conceivably provide me with daily affirmations. But I digress again.)

In fact, I’ve been exploring self-help books that are about non-positivity (not that I’ve been asked to write any of that kind). But Barbara Ehrenreich, the noted author of Nickled and Dimed who died recently at the age of 81, wrote a book titled Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. Another such book, which I’m reading now, is The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman. (Ehrenreich also wrote a book called Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer, another one that I need to read, though probably not until I finish writing the self-health book.)

I sincerely do hope, though, that readers will get more out of the books I write than I did out of those that I read. I’d hate to think that all my good, if ill-informed, advice is going to waste.

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Teachers Under Fire

I was going to say that the title of this post was metaphorical, but anymore, it may not be.

Putting that aside for now, however, teachers today face any number of other difficulties they don’t deserve, some of which have existed for decades and others that have come to the forefront in recent times.

My respect for teachers is immense. I wanted to be a teacher when I was a child. My father, though, wanted me to be an engineer. My mother finally got him to stop trying to channel me away from teaching, but by that time he already had. Not that I ever became an engineer, however. (I might have been able to become one, but I think I would have been a very unhappy engineer.)

Still, even though I never became a teacher (unless you include two years of teaching English to first-year college students while going to grad school), I became involved with education throughout much of my life as a writer. I worked for magazines that included Today’s Catholic Teacher, Early Childhood News, Private School Administrator, School Planning and Management, and Technology and Learning. I edited textbooks on religion, English, and social studies. Education was in front of me at every turn.

The obstacles that teachers face these days, though, can’t be alleviated by articles on classroom decoration tips or advice on self-care (important as that is).

Teachers put up with low pay and out-of-pocket expenses for supplies that they shouldn’t have to buy. They put up with crumbling schools that lack basic necessities like heating and air conditioning. They put up with old textbooks or newer ones that are prescribed by committees who have few choices, thanks to the power of states like California, New York, and Texas. They have to teach in school buildings that may have lead in the drinking water or lack ADA-compliant facilities. (Two years ago, a report said that 2/3 of US schools weren’t up to ADA standards.)

Not enough people going into education – and why would they? The pay is low (and staying low) and respect is not a given. The general public does not understand the process of education, or they think that the way it was in their day is the way it should always be. They place too much emphasis on test scores, meaning that teachers must “teach to the test” instead of allowing children to learn in more fruitful, organic ways such as project-based learning.

There is scientific evidence that small class sizes are better for student learning, but finding the money and the number of educators required for that is not forthcoming. In fact, subjects that aren’t considered “academic” enough, such as art, music, and drama, are being sacrificed. Even recess for grade-school children is no longer guaranteed in order to spend more time in the classroom, despite the fact that physical activity is vital to a child’s health and development.

Many of the difficulties facing teachers were recently highlighted when approximately 4,500 teachers, librarians, counselors, school nurses, and other support personnel in Columbus, Ohio, went on strike. It was the first time since 1975 – nearly 50 years – that they had done so. The teachers’ demands included pay raises of 8% (they were granted only 4%, despite a much higher rate of inflation). But many of the issues they brought forward related to infrastructure issues such as the lack of functioning heating and cooling systems in the schools, particularly since the weather has been so hot and continues to be. And the teachers went back to school after a week on strike, despite the fact that only a “conceptual agreement” was reached. It included no promises of spending on infrastructure, though that was the cause that received the most complaints and publicity.

And what were the repercussions of the strike? The district hired 600 substitute teachers to replace the 4,000 or so teachers and fill in for online classes. In addition, the movement to allow public, taxpayer-supported funds to be used for private school tuition was enhanced, which would leave even fewer dollars in the public system to effect changes. An official for the Center for Christian Virtue, which placed billboards around Columbus promoting private schools, castigated the striking teachers: “These schools are hitting kids while they are down. After all kids have been through, being blocked out of their schools for years [a reference to the COVID crisis], and having just failed attempts at remote teaching, the fact that they would strike now is the ultimate blow to kids,” Baer said.

The Twitterverse reacted as well. While many tweets supported the strike, there were also ones that decidedly didn’t. “For the 2nd time in 3 years, Columbus City Schools athletics have been paused for all Fall sports. Both sets of soccer teams looking to have off campus workouts while the teachers are on strike. Pray for all CCS students and athletics during this difficult time” was one opinion. Another said, “Give them 48 hours and fire them. Their PR is mindless, the kids would rather be in school and their extracurricular activities. If the teachers cared about the kids, they’d still be teaching.”

Nor is Columbus the only place where these battles are playing out. New York City is engaged in a court case over proposed slashed budgets advocated by the mayor, who is a proponent of charter schools that sap funds from the public schools.

I could also mention the flack that teachers are now receiving from lawmakers and parents who want to control what teachers teach, what books they have in their libraries, and even what they’re allowed to say. And don’t get me started on the let’s-arm-the-teachers thing. There’s not enough room here for my outrage. Maybe another time.

So, here’s the bottom line. Teachers have continued to work with purpose, care, intelligence, and dedication. They have also continued to be underpaid, overworked, under-respected, and over-criticized. That they have continued to do so is a tribute to their strength and resilience. But how long must we expect them to do so? Sure, our kids deserve better than what they are getting through our broken education system – but our teachers deserve better too. When teachers get what they need to do their jobs as well as they are able, it’s a win-win. I don’t know why that should be controversial.

As John Steinbeck said, “I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.”

Teachers are indeed the artists and architects of the future. We owe them a little more slack and a lot more support.

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Cats in Space

Those of you who follow my blog know of my enduring love for cats – and not just my own. Last week my blog post was about cats in mysteries (https://butidigress.blog/2022/08/21/mysterious-cats/), so this week I’m going to tackle cats in another genre – science fiction and fantasy. Because science fiction books aren’t as predominant as they once were, I’ve expanded my source material to include various other media.

Let’s start with books, though. The most famous cat in a work of fantasy fiction is undoubtedly the Cheshire Cat in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (who shared the stage for a brief appearance of Alice’s cat Dinah). Notable for appearing suddenly then disappearing slowly starting at its tail until only its grin was left, the Cheshire Cat is sometimes considered a guiding spirit for Alice, directing her to various destinations around Wonderland.

(The Cheshire Cat is prominently featured on t-shirts and other Alice memorabilia, including a coffee mug that pictures the cat’s scene with Alice. When a hot liquid is poured into the mug, the cat vanishes, leaving only its grin. This is, I think, much more entertaining than the mugs that feature ladies who shed their clothes under the same circumstances. But I digress.)

Superstar writer and opinionated curmudgeon Robert A. Heinlein had a soft spot for cats, which appeared in a number of his works. A cat named Pete appeared in his novel A Door Into Summer, which was inspired by an actual cat that Heinlein once owned. (Or that owned him. Sometimes it’s hard to tell.) Another book, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls (shades of Lilian Jackson Braun!) featured a cat named Pixel that mysteriously appeared wherever the narrator happened to be. Cats played minor roles in some of his other books, including one named Mr. Underfoot, which I have been known to call all my cats at various times.

Perhaps best known to modern readers are Hermione’s ginger cat Crookshanks and Argus Filch’s cat Mrs. Norris in the Harry Potter series of books. Mrs. Norris was somehow able to detect student misbehavior at Hogwarts School, which happened a lot. Crookshanks comes to no harm, but Mrs. Norris is temporarily frozen by the gaze of the basilisk in Chamber of Secrets, though she first appeared in Sorceror’s Stone. (She gets unfrozen and suffers no permanent harm.) In the book, Mrs. Norris is described as bony and dust-colored, but in the films she was portrayed by three much more impressive Maine Coons.

Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series of fantasy books features a feline character, Tybalt, King of Cats, a fairy (Cait Sidhe, technically) who can transform from cat to human size and shape, in which form he woos and weds October after an on-again-off-again semi-adversarial relationship. (The character Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet is referred to as “prince of cats” for his sleek and violent nature. But I digress again.)

When it comes to cats in SF&F film and TV, we have Ripley’s cat Jonesy, who along with her manages to survive in Alien. There is Pyewacket in Bell, Book, and Candle, a film about witches that ought to be a Halloween movie but is instead a Christmas film, much the way Die Hard is, because it takes place during the winter holiday. And then there is Orion, the cat in Men in Black, whose collar proves to contain an important plot point.

The overwhelming winner for cats in media, however, is Star Trek. In the original series (or The Original Series as it’s now known), there are two different episodes that feature cats. One is “Assignment Earth,” which features a cat named Isis who may or may not be a human being, and “Catspaw,” featuring Sylvia, a woman who may or may not be a cat.

There are two other Star Trek cats of note. One is Data’s cat Spot in the TV series The Next Generation and the movies Star Trek Generations and Star Trek Nemesis. Spot is an orange tabby, but that’s about all the continuity it has. It has been portrayed as a Somali cat and as an American shorthair. It (I use the term advisedly) has been identified as male or female on different episodes, though I think we have to settle on female, as Spot gets pregnant at one point. In one episode, Data writes and recites an “Ode to Spot,” the first stanza of which is:

“Felis catus is your taxonomic nomenclature,
an endothermic quadruped, carnivorous by nature.
Your visual, olfactory, and auditory senses,
contribute to your hunting skills, and natural defenses.”

In the series Star Trek: Discovery, the character Booker has a Maine Coon cat named Grudge, which was meant to make a one-episode guest appearance but became a more featured player in a number of episodes. We know Booker has left the ship for good when he leaves Grudge with Captain Burnham. Grudge is described by various characters as “fat,” possibly due to a thyroid condition, but more likely attributable to the fact that Grudge is portrayed by two Maine Coons that are, at 18 pounds, at the top end of the range for that breed.

There’s more that could be said about cats in science fiction and fantasy, from the Tom & Jerry movie Blast Off to Mars to one Simpsons hyper-violent “Itchy and Scratchy” cartoon called “Flay Me to the Moon.” (Scratchy is the cat. I always have trouble remembering that.)

I’m sure there are others I’ve missed, and I’m equally sure that outraged cat-fen will point this out to me. My husband wanted me to include the 1935 cartoon “Dancing on the Moon,” which featured a number of animal pairs including two cats. And now I have.

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Librarians’ Choices

Librarians are the gatekeepers of civilization. Perhaps I should say “guardians.” “Gatekeepers” implies that librarians decide what to admit and what to keep out.

In a way, though, librarians do have to make choices about what books reside in their libraries. They must make decisions based on space, for example, although through interlibrary loans that are now available to patrons, a wider selection of books is available than can be stored in a single building. But interlibrary loans take a while to get to the ordering library. Patrons would prefer it if the book in question were available on the shelves of their nearest branch, and right away, with no queues for bestsellers.

Librarians must go through a selection process to determine what books (and CDs and DVDs and magazines and newspapers, etc.) they will stock on their shelves. Not even the Library of Congress has every book ever printed. (My two books, for example, are not in their collection.) In order to make room for new books, librarians will “weed” their collections, consult their computers to determine what books haven’t been checked out with any regularity, and then get rid of them, often by holding library book sales. That’s one part of the selection process. (Books about making fondue, for example, likely haven’t been checked out in decades and would have been weeded years ago. Besides, people can and do now share fondue recipes online. But I digress.)

At the rate that books are being published, no library can keep up. Librarians consult references like the Ingram Spark catalog, and reviewers like Kirkus and Booklist to find new books that fill a hole in their collection – both fiction and nonfiction. Of course, these new selections are limited by budget, a factor largely dependent on tax dollars and voters these days. Publishers don’t just send libraries free copies of newly published books. Libraries buy books from library “jobbers” or distributors for more than the price they’re sold for at bookstores. Libraries have to pay extra because of the special library binding.

You might think that authors don’t like having their books available in a public library, but you’d be wrong. Library sales can total even more than bookstore or online sales. And reading a library copy of an author’s book can inspire a reader to buy their own copy or seek out other works by the same author. And the author does receive royalties for sales to libraries.

Now, however, there is much talk of censorship and what ought to be included in a library. Librarians have always stood against censorship and kept numerous copies of “forbidden” books on their shelves. Not that they’ve always been successful at keeping them on the shelves. Patrons routinely steal books from libraries, and when the subject is controversial, they sometimes take the book in question into the bathroom and deface it.

Schools and other institutions have more stringent rules for what they select for their libraries. A K-6 school, for example, would not own copies of graduate-level tomes. Their selection process would favor topics that are covered in the school curriculum and books that are likely to be interesting or useful to the age group served by the school. Sometimes parents become involved, petitioning schools or school boards to remove controversial books from school libraries. Sometimes they succeed and sometimes they don’t. But librarians tend to come down on the side of inclusion rather than exclusion, and have a differing opinion on what books might be interesting or useful or controversial. All of them are against book banning.

Then there are special-purpose libraries that have even more stringent selection criteria. A library in a correctional facility will have law books and even Shakespeare, but no books about gangs, Nazis, or drug use, for obvious reasons. (My husband once worked in a community-based correctional facility, which is how I know this. And no, that’s not where we met.) Prisons are also likely to include books at less-than-high-school reading levels, to take into account the population they serve. That is to say, they don’t discriminate against the minimally literate, but give them what they need and want.

It’s sad when a library closes, even if it’s just to merge with another one to offer more resources than either has individually. It still means that people who live in the catchment area of the smaller library have a harder time getting access to books and other media. But to bibliophiles and library-lovers, there was almost no historical event as tragic as the destruction of the Library of Alexandria and the murder of library guru Hypatia in 415 BC. After all these years, that still hurts.

Librarians are often stereotyped as repressed spinsters who delight in shushing people who dare make noises louder than the faint rustle of pages within their domain. In reality, they are, like the libraries where they work, upholders of the tradition of free, public access to learning. I can’t imagine life without them.

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Loving the Library

I love libraries. They and the books within them have shaped my life.

The idea of libraries went back, evidently, to ancient Assyria, but libraries in the United States caught hold in 1731, when Benjamin Franklin founded the Philadelphia Library Company with a bunch of his friends. I’m pleased to note that it’s still in operation today and has, as you might guess, many of Franklin’s papers and all sorts of historic books and manuscripts, including the Mayflower Compact and first editions of Moby-Dick and Leaves of Grass. The current collection is over 500,000 books.

I have a t-shirt that says “I Love You to the Library and Back.” That’s what I should have said to my father. Every other Saturday, the bookmobile parked in the Rike’s Department Store parking lot, and I got my reading fix. I almost always checked out Green Eggs and Ham, until my mother told me that I should get something else, too. (My mother once tried to make me green eggs and ham. It worked for the eggs, but not so much for the ham. But I digress.) My dad drove me to the bookmobile and sometimes even to a small library just a bit farther away. I brought home double armloads of books and started reading them on the drive home.

Later on, my father even drove me to the library downtown, where I could check out a particular record album I loved and could find nowhere else (I now have it on iTunes, but this was long ago). Libraries now have CDs and DVDs and video games and ebooks and sometimes even tools you can check out. They also have computers that the public can use for searching the online “card catalog” and for their own wants and needs. They have children’s summer reading programs, storytimes, and crafts.

My father wasn’t really a reader himself until he was laid low by cancer and couldn’t even get to the room with the television. Beth McCarty, a family friend and the “traveling library lady,” brought books to shut-ins and never failed to bring my father bags of the Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey and Foxfire books he loved.

When I was in junior high, I volunteered to work in the school library during my free period, shelving books. It was there I became acquainted with Robert Heinlein’s juveniles and Ray Bradbury’s short stories, beginning my lifelong love of science fiction. (I once was concentrating so hard on the titles that I walked right off the little stool I needed to reach the upper shelves. But I digress again.)

I spent my undergrad college years working in the grad school library, which had closed stacks. I was a page and retrieved books for people and sent them down in what was essentially a dumbwaiter. It was my first exposure to the Library of Congress classification system, though it wouldn’t be my last. I loved the job, since when there weren’t any requests, I could read to my heart’s content from the topics shelved on whatever floor I was stationed on. In later life, I also read while on duty when I worked at an unsuccessful bookstore.

By the time I was a young adult (though older than what is called “young adult” these days in terms of fiction audiences) I made regular trips to the library. I discovered Sue Grafton’s alphabet series while she was still only a few letters in. Another type of fiction that I explored was children’s literature. The library never made me feel silly about checking out Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series. And I particularly haunted the new acquisitions shelf. I was always on the prowl for something I didn’t know about that sounded interesting.

I thought of the overdue fines I paid over the years as my little contributions to the libraries’ budget. (A much more substantial contribution to the Ohio libraries – over $600,000 – was made by comedian Drew Carey, who gave away what he had won on game shows, before he ever hosted one.)

Of course, if Ben Franklin were alive now (and I wish he was), the concept of libraries would most likely never have gotten off the ground. A place accessible to anyone where they could get books for free? Supported by our tax dollars? It’s hard to imagine that going through these days.

Anymore I think of librarians as a type of freedom fighter. They take access to books and the privacy of patrons seriously. Back in 2001, when the Patriot Act was passed, they refused to rat out their patrons based on what “unsuitable” books they checked out. Now, they resist efforts to remove books from their shelves based on the wishes of pressure groups.

At one point in my life, I seriously considered becoming a librarian myself. I sometimes still wish I had. I would be proud to join their ranks, even with the low pay, lack of funding, and political nonsense. It’s a job that needs doing, and always will.

(I’ll have more to say about libraries next week.)

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What Good Is Fiction?

Nonfiction has purpose. It informs, educates, and illuminates. What does fiction do? Nothing but provide escape.

And what’s wrong with that? Nothing, as far as I can see. If there’s any time when people need escape, it’s now. I don’t have to detail the current political, social, and news situations to know that’s true. At times like these, who doesn’t want to escape to a desert island or another planet?

Actually, escapism has never been a bad thing. There are always things in life that need escaping from. At least there have been in my life. Misunderstanding, bullying, depression, loneliness – fiction helped me escape from these, from Green Eggs and Ham to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to A Wrinkle in Time to The Lord of the Rings.

Nor do you need high-brow fiction to provide escapism, though that is there as well. I’ve found escape in Dorothy Gilman’s Mrs. Pollifax books, a cozy mystery/adventure series with included travelogues. In fact, mystery books still provide an escape for me. And science fiction and fantasy, perhaps the ultimate escapist literature, still fill many spots on my to-be-read list, as well as my to-be-reread list. (The fact that I am friends with several sf writers is also a factor.)

I’ve had my innings with classic literature, it’s true, particularly in college, when I was an English major – though one of my favorite courses was children’s literature (aka kiddie lit). If you look at my e-reader, you’ll find Shakespeare and Cervantes along with Grafton, Heinlein, Dumas, and others.

Fiction, like nonfiction, can inform, educate, and illuminate as well – spark thought and inspire to action.

Take Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. In that book, it’s poetry (another “useless” pursuit) that helps the protagonist understand the value of literature and the futility of trying to suppress it. It’s still extremely relevant, considering all the book bannings lately. Or take Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, as appallingly relevant as the day it was first written. Or The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell, which has the first contact with an alien civilization being made by Jesuits. If that’s not thought-provoking, I don’t know what is.

There’s also historical fiction, which, while not always totally accurate (we have nonfiction biographies and autobiographies for that), speculates about the inner workings of famous people’s psyches and posits reasons for how they lived. Melanie Benjamin’s The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb and The Aviator’s Wife, about Anne Morrow Lindbergh, are two examples.

Then there is fiction about fiction and books that provide escape for the mind that cannot be found anywhere else. The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, is one such. John Irving’s The World According to Garp is another famous example. With books like these, one can delve into the mind of the creative person who provides escape for others.

Of course, nonfiction can be escapist as well. Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars provides an entertaining history of the space program, but also NASA’s current exploration of the possibilities of, well, going to Mars. Now that’s escapism – but not fiction. Histories can whisk us away to another time and place with explorers who climbed Mount Everest or charted the Amazon. Ernest Shackleton’s diaries can take me right out of a sweltering day and make me feel the freezing air and hear the buffeting wind of Antarctica.

I will admit that there’s a lot of nonfiction on my e-reader – including true crime, science, biographies, adventure travel, language, and mental health. But it’s fiction I return to again and again. I recently read a beloved novel that I hadn’t read in at least 40 years, and I still remembered not only the plot but also lines of dialogue. And I’ve tried my hand at writing fiction too, which provided mental escape of a different sort.

So, what good is fiction? Even if it’s only escapism, it’s extremely valuable and not to be sneered at. At its best, fiction can make one’s interior world more vibrant, more fascinating, and more meaningful; and the world around us more wondrous, more exciting, and more entertaining. That’s enough of a recommendation for me.

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Whose Daughter? Whose Wife?

Emily St. John Mandel noticed back in 2012 that there were many, many books with titles that related to someone’s daughter. “No trend that I’ve ever noticed has seemed quite so pervasive as the daughter phenomenon,” she said. “Seriously, once you start noticing them, they’re everywhere. A recent issue of Shelf Awareness had ads for both The Sausage Maker’s Daughters and The Witch’s Daughter. I’m Facebook friends with the authors of The Hummingbird’s DaughterThe Baker’s DaughterThe Calligrapher’s Daughter, and The Murderer’s Daughters, and those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head.” She actually made a spreadsheet of the number of daughter books and came up with over 530. “I don’t mean to suggest that 530 represents the total number of these books,” she added. “Five hundred and thirty was just the arbitrary point where I decided to stop counting, because the project was starting to take too much time. I was only on page 88 of 200 pages of search results.”

Well, I took over her mission and recorded still more daughters that were the subject of books. One of the best known is The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Amy Tan. Among the others I found were the President’s, General’s, Senator’s, Governor’s, Admiral’s, Colonel’s, Judge’s, and Sheriff’s. And the Bishop’s, Apostate’s, and Vicar’s. Not to mention the Alchemist’s, Apothecary’s, Taxi Driver’s, Merchant’s, Outlaw’s, and Killer’s. There were even ones that recognized that sometimes women had daughters as well: the Harlot’s, the Mistress’s, and the Book Woman’s daughters all came up on the search.

But the phenomenon doesn’t stop there. I also found a plethora of books devoted to various people’s wives. The most recent and popular was The Time-Traveler’s Wife, but there are plenty of others. Some I found particularly interesting: Zookeeper’s and Tiger’s (two separate books), Nazi Officer’s, Traitor’s, Lightning God’s, Liar’s, Shape-Changer’s, Dopeman’s, Conqueror’s, and Dark Overlord’s. Lobotomist’s (I think I need to read that one) and Anatomist’s and Knife Thrower’s. Lots of occupational ones – Shoemaker’s, Pilot’s (and Aviator’s), Headmaster’s, Optician’s, Woodcutter’s, Centurion’s, Mapmaker’s (a fascinating book that I’ve actually read), Tea Planter’s, Clockmaker’s, Chocolate Maker’s, Restaurant Critic’s, Runaway Pastor’s (no, that’s one, not two), Penmaker’s, and Banker’s wives were all featured. And some that are just puzzling: Salaryman’s, Janitor’s, Centaur’s wife.

That’s where I stopped recording them. I’m not a big fan of spreadsheets.

The reason I bring all this up (there actually is a reason) is that I’m always annoyed (not to say pissed off) when there’s a campaign that defines a woman in terms of her relationship with someone else: Breast cancer could happen to your wife or your mother. Being attacked on the street at night could happen to your daughter, your fiance, your niece. Abortion, stalking, mental and other illnesses – all could happen to a person related to you.

It’s not that you shouldn’t be aware of how these tragedies and distressing situations can affect those around you – loved ones, relatives, neighbors. And it’s not like there aren’t a few similar things that could be said about husbands, fathers, uncles, brothers, or male friends (killed in war or suffering from prostate cancer, usually).

What gets to me is that the afflictions are said to be visited on women in relation to someone else. Isn’t it bad enough when a woman is raped or gets cervical cancer strictly as herself? Why do we have to define her as someone’s something in order for her to deserve our attention?

Even the sisters and the daughters are encouraged to think, “It could be my mother or grandmother. It could be my best friend.” I guess “It could happen to any woman” isn’t specific enough. There has to be an emotional connection to make them worth caring about.

But there are plenty of women without family or community connections who are subject to diseases and disasters – the homeless woman, the one who has always lived on her own, the widow with no children. Why can’t we care about, have sympathy for, and work toward the health and happiness of them too?

Or are they only worthwhile and interesting when they’re daughters or wives?

More salted caramels, please!

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Ghostwriter Gigs

For the past several years, I have been working for a transcription service, typing up shareholders’ and lenders’ info sessions, conferences, and other sorts of gatherings to discuss primarily business issues.

With the slowing of the COVID pandemic and other factors, however, transcription assignments have been thin on the ground, or at least in the inbox.

Fortunately, I have discovered ghostwriting. Actually, I was applying to be an editor, not a ghostwriter. But I screwed up on the qualifying test. I’m a good editor, but I wasn’t used to their way of editing. When I was an editor in magazine publishing, I worked for a small company. We didn’t have lots of editors, subeditors, associate editors, assistant editors, acquisitions editors, line editors, content editors, proofreaders, or much of a budget for freelance writers. A simple editor had to do virtually all of it. And I was a simple editor.

So when I was faced with a sample text to edit, I did it the way I always had – I attacked all the problems I saw during my first editing pass, then went back to attack the rest of the problems – things I’d missed or that only became apparent on a second or third reading. Problems of flow, continuity, grammar, style, punctuation, and other arcane pieces of an editor’s craft were addressed in a somewhat random fashion.

What the company wanted, however, was a series of separate editorial steps – first (for some reason) spelling and punctuation, then moving upward through a series of other steps done in a certain order until all the editing was complete. I did my usual slash-and-burn editing, which didn’t at all mesh with their procedure. I was turned down.

But I noticed that the company also employed ghostwriters. “I’m a writer,” I said to myself. “I’ve written many an article that I didn’t develop myself on topics that I didn’t select. Why can’t I do that with a book?” This time I passed the trial assignment and became an actual ghostwriter. Then I went through the various processes associated with the position, such as selecting a pen name, creating a profile, choosing which niches I could write in, and so forth.

I expected to have to request orders and wait to be accepted, but almost immediately I received a request from a prospective customer. The book requested was on pets, which I know something about, but specifically on dogs, which I know little about. Some discussion ensued, but I was granted the assignment – 27,000 words, due in three weeks (the usual deadline given for a book of about 30,000 words). That works out to about 1,500 words a day, a number I could easily meet.

Then I got another assignment, a self-help book. The time period overlapped somewhat with the deadline for the pet book, but I took the assignment regardless. After all, 3,000 words a day would be a stretch, but since the overlap was only a week, I thought I could handle it.

While I was finishing up the first book and working on the second book, I sent out more requests for invitations to work on other books, thinking that it might take me a while to line up another assignment. That’s how I acquired my third assignment, which overlapped with the second one, with revisions on the first assignment thrown in. The third assignment was a self-help/business book on a subject I had written something about before in a blog. After some back-and-forth with the customer to make sure we meshed, I signed on for the assignment and the customer signed on for me.

I am finding the job rewarding, though not necessarily financially. The money isn’t great, only a few hundred dollars per book, but more than I ever made at transcription, even when the taps were open and the assignments flowing daily.

I’m writing nonfiction just now, but I think I’ll try taking the test for fiction ghostwriters too, just to give myself more options. I don’t have as much experience with writing fiction as I do with writing nonfiction, but I do have some. And I figure that being able to write both will make my services more marketable and keep the assignments coming in.

Will it be frustrating to see someone else’s name on a book that I actually authored? And not even my pen name at that? Other writers will know what I mean when I say that as long as they spell my name right on the check, I won’t mind. (Not that anyone pays by check anymore. So just so long as they deposit it to the right PayPal account, I’ll be satisfied.)

More salted caramels, please!

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