Category Archives: literature

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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Mysteries I Love and Hate

Cozy mysteries are a thing, and I do not like them. As all my friends know, I am a mystery lover – I’ve even written one, which is now making the rounds of agents.

But cozy mysteries have gone too far. These are the kinds of mysteries that take place in bed and breakfasts or bookstores, that have chefs or weather forecasters as their sleuths, and exhibit little to no blood, despite the crimes. They are called cozies, I suppose because you can cuddle up with a cup of tea and read them, safe in the knowledge that nothing really bad will happen.

And the titles! Most of them are puns – usually lame – based on whatever setting they have. I just can’t bring myself to read something called Chilled to the Cone (bakeshop), Premeditated Mortar (fixer-upper), Absence of Alice (garage sales), or The Malt in Our Stars (literary pub). The “detectives” are never real police officers, obviously. And most often the (supposed) humor and (artificial) quaintness fall flat.

I must admit to reading several cozy series many years ago. These were usually ones that had a setting I was interested in or characters that were well-rounded and well-drawn, or contained cats (sometimes as the sleuth). Susan Wittig Albert did a series based on an herbalist. Diane Mott Davidson did a cooking series, complete with recipes that I never tried. There was a series, the Amanda Pepper mysteries, that was set in a Philadelphia prep school, and the Kate Fansler series, set in the English Department of a college.

One that I used to read devotedly, but finally gave up on in disgust, was Lillian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who mysteries starring retired newspaperman Jim Qwilleran and his two cats, Koko and Yum Yum. (I also like Mikado references.) The first three came out in the 60s, but there was an extensive hiatus until 1987, when the series reappeared and continued yearly until 2008, with The Cat Who Had 60 Whiskers. I gave up in 1991, with The Cat Who Moved a Mountain, a dreary, supposedly amusing book set in the Potato Mountains, concerning a conflict between two clans known as the Spuds and the Taters. It was just too cozy for words.

Some writers are able to switch gears and write both cozies and grittier novels. Linda Barnes, for example, started with the Michael Spraggue mysteries set backstage at a theater but switched to the much more robust Carlotta Carlisle series when, as she said, Spraggue ran out of friends and relatives to be killed off. Carlisle, a former police officer, drives a cab in her off-hours but encounters plenty of hardened criminals and deaths. These I read whenever Barnes writes a new one.

The other cozy mysteries I read are the Mrs. Pollifax series by Dorothy Gilman. They are typical in that when you read them you know that nothing terrible will happen to any of the main or even subordinate characters (who are colorful, if unbelievable). The thing that attracts me about the Mrs. Pollifax books, other than the goofy premise that she is a grandmother who works for the CIA, is the extensive travelogues of wherever her handler sends her: Mexico, Albania, Turkey, China, Zambia, Hong Kong, etc. I find her novels soothing rather than irritating, the sort of thing I read when I’m stuck in bed with a really nasty flu.

Cozy mysteries no doubt have their place in the pantheon of mystery novels. They’re certainly popular, at least. But for the most part, I’ll take Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone or Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski over Reel Murder any day. I want believable plots; well-drawn, interesting characters; crimes that make you care what happens; and real danger. Give me early Robert Parker (before he started phoning them in) or John Sandford or Laura Lippman or even the original Nero Wolfe series, for when I want vintage mystery fiction.

Of course, I read other kinds of fiction (Gregory Maguire and Handmaid’s Tale come to mind), but mystery novels hold a special place in my to-be-read list. Let’s not mess up the genre with The Good, the Bad, and the Lemon Tart.

 

The Parents Who Didn’t Read and the Daughter Who Did

Everyone knows that the easiest way to raise a child who reads is for the entire family to read. The child should see the parents reading, lots and often.

But that’s not the way it happened in my family. Oh, my folks could read; they just didn’t.

I never remember my father reading anything when I was a child. He got his news from the television. He might thumb through an issue of American Rifleman at the car wash. But he didn’t read books while we were kids.

(Later in life, when he was bedridden with bone cancer, a family friend who worked for the library would bring him bag after bag of Zane Grey and Max Brand and Louis L’Amour novels, which he devoured. But I digress.)

Despite the lack of reading that went on in the house, there was always plenty of stuff to read. Little Golden books and Bible stories at first. I learned to read at my mother’s side, as she read storybook after storybook to us girls. Although she didn’t read for herself, she read for us.

My sister read some. Being a very literal person, every year she would start to read Under the Lilacs while sitting under the lilac bush in our backyard. (I don’t know if she ever finished it.) When she reached the horse-mad stage, she read Black Beauty, My Friend Flicka, Misty of Chincoteague, and anything else equine-related she could get her hands on. Her reading tastes were largely satisfied with that.

I think the thing that turned me into the voracious reader I am today was not the example of my parents, but the sheer amount of literature that was available. Our parents purchased sets of children’s books. (I can’t remember what was in that series now besides Under the Lilacs and Uncle Remus Stories, which gave me fits with the dialect.) We had collections of Nancy Drew books and Tom Swift books.

My mother had a subscription to Reader’s Digest, but I don’t remember her reading it, or the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books that sat in fat rows on our bookshelves. When we weren’t making Christmas trees of the magazines by folding the pages, I read them and the Condensed Books. That’s where I acquired my taste for true adventure, I think. It’s not that big a leap from “Drama in Real Life” to Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. I first discovered To Sir, With Love as an R.D. Condensed book, then devoured everything I could get my hands on about teaching, my career goal at the time.

We also made extensive use of the public libraries and the ever-awesome bookmobile, since my parents’ middle-class income couldn’t keep pace with my reading tastes. And there were used book stores, too, where I could swap a grocery bag full of books for another.

There was no way my parents could screen my reading matter, so they didn’t even try. I didn’t receive a very balanced reading education or a very sophisticated one. I read whatever interested me, from novelizations of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. to histories of Russia. I discovered Dr. Seuss and The Hobbit and Erma Bombeck. “Serious literature” I got from school, but love for reading came at home.

Having parents that read is a good thing, and no doubt it does help turn some children into reading mavens.

But if you ask me, letting a child explore reading at her own pace and through her own interests can be as effective as any planned course of literature or example of parents perusing the Great Books.

It worked for me.

 

Adventures in Publishing (Indie and Self)

I wanted to publish a book. And so I did. The second book was more difficult, and not because it was harder to write. I had some things to learn about the realities of publishing.

Oh, I did go through the usual rounds of submissions and rejections with my first book. It was too specialized. I didn’t have a big enough platform. It was a niche market. I didn’t want to self-publish, turned my nose up at it, in fact, but after a while, I started to think it was my only choice.

Then I found a small indie publisher (or they found me). They published just the kind of stories I had to tell – books about trauma, loss, renewal, and especially about mental disorders. And my book was about my struggles with bipolar disorder. Within two weeks after I submitted it, they accepted my manuscript.

There followed the usual rounds of back-and-forth. I’m an editor myself, so my book was in pretty good shape, but their editor made some excellent suggestions and tried to tame my idiosyncratic use of commas. I worked with a designer on the cover. He took my ideas and put them into visible form. After only a few tweaks, it was done.

There were still proofs to be approved, formatting decisions to discuss, a dedication page I had forgotten to add, a photo shoot for my author photo, copy for the back cover, a press release, and the myriad other things that had to be supplied, written, proofed, and approved. At last, less than six months after my manuscript was accepted, my book took final form and was published, in both paperback and ebook versions.

I was over the moon, needless to say. I looked for opportunities to promote my book, Bipolar Me. There weren’t that many and, as you may have guessed, the publisher was not a lot of help in that area. I did scare up an hour-long interview on a podcast (where it was clear the interviewer had not read the book), an interview (with picture) in the local newspaper and online edition, and a reading/signing at my local Barnes & Noble. (Very few attendees, but some interest from other people sitting in the café, which is where the event was held.) I sold very few copies.

The indie publisher also accepted my second book, Bipolar Us, a sequel to the first. Things didn’t run on the same rails as the first time. It was nearly a year until the manuscript was edited and formatted, the cover image produced, and all those other steps I just mentioned. It was frustrating to move so slowly when it had gone so smoothly before.

Then.

Just when my book was on the point of completion, ready to go to print, the publishing company folded. My first book would be available for only a few more weeks, and my second book would not see the light of day.

It was time for me to reconsider my notions of self-publishing. It seemed to be the only way I could get this almost-finished book over the finished line, as it were. Since then, I have been dealing with IngramSparks, providing them with the materials that the indie company had released to me (I still own the rights).

This week I approved the final paperback version for printing. (The ebook will come later, once I get my epub file.) And I fully intend to rerelease my first book as well.

I’m going to try to be smarter about publicizing and promoting my book this time. I’m going to make sure it gets reviewed and gets into the hands of influencers in the field. I’m going to take out a few strategic ads. I’m going to contact the local libraries and the local college bookstores to see if they will stock my book.

And in the meantime, I’ll be working on my next book, one in a totally different genre, that has been on hold while I wrestled with these two.

Writing Is Art, Too

You know all those posts you see this time of year about how important it is to support artists and local artisans?

I have no quarrel with that. Artists and artisans need and deserve our support. Most of them contribute to the local economy and many are barely squeaking by.

But let’s also give some love and support to the writers. Writing, after all, is an art, too.

Let’s take painting as an example of an art. How, you ask, is writing like painting?

First of all, writing, like painting, takes practice, at least if you want to get better at it. Painters create works that they know they can never – don’t even want to – sell, especially when they are just starting. One thing they can do with these beginning pieces, though, is analyze them. What could I have done better? That section of the painting is muddy? What could I do to adjust the colors next time? That hand doesn’t look realistic. I need to work on painting people’s hands. I can’t just hide them in every painting.

Painters are often influenced by famous painters whose works they admire. They study these paintings. Some even try to paint in the same style or using the same color palette or the same type of subject matter. They may experiment with cubism, pointillism, art nouveau, impressionism, photorealism, or all of the above. They may imitate the style of Monet, Hopper, Cassatt, or O’Keefe. They’re not being copycats or attempted art forgers. They are acknowledging the greats and learning from those who came before them.

Writers, too, must study and practice, if they are to improve, and especially if they want to produce work that is saleable. Most writers have favorite authors and analyze what it is about those authors they admire. Does one a novelist write elegant description? Does a mystery writer use tight plots and exciting dialogue? Does a short story writer pack a wallop in a small space? These are qualities that can be learned and practiced. One writer of my acquaintance pores through her favorite authors’ works and highlights dialogue tags, for example, or sensory descriptions, or foreshadowing.

The next step for many writers is also to imitate the greats. A mystery writer may try to emulate Sue Grafton. An aspiring fantasy writer may study George R.R. Martin or J.R.R. Tolkien. A neophyte poet may be drawn to confessional poets like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton or to sonneteers like Shakespeare or Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

When it comes to supporting local artists, you can often find their work at local art festivals and craft fairs. Some conventions, such as science fiction conventions have art rooms with paintings and drawings for sale or auction and general merchandise rooms that feature handmade jewelry, glass blowing, and other arts and crafts.

But where do you find the work of local writers? It’s not like anyone’s selling poems door-to-door. Well, just as there are local art fairs, there are also local or regional book fairs, where writers rent tables and try to entice passersby with their works. Frequently, when you buy directly from the author at one of these events, most of the money is likely to go to the author and not to a far-off publishing company.

Readings at bookstores and even libraries are other places to meet local or regional authors and get a sense of their work before you purchase. If you like the writer’s books, but are unable to purchase one, call your local libraries and ask them to stock that title. An author is thrilled to make a sale to a public library and by encouraging that, you are helping that writer.

There are other things you can do to support writers as well. Leaving a review on Amazon – even a two word “Liked it” – is import to writers. Amazon really cares about the number of reviews a book gets. Goodreads is another excellent place to write reviews.

Most of all, show love for your local authors by talking about them. Word-of-mouth sales are still important, even in this digital age. It’s the same with local painters and other artists. The more you spread the word about how good they are, the more you are helping talented community members make a living so they can keep doing what they do best – making art.

Why I Stopped Killing Trees

I’m a book lover. Have been all my life. I don’t even remember learning to read. So why am I now getting rid of most of my books?

Hint: It’s not that woman who says you should keep only 30 books. She also says that you should look at your possessions and ask whether they bring joy to your life. And all these books have certainly given me countless hours of joy, plus every other emotion you could think of. I couldn’t possibly pick only 30 that have affected me joyfully, or in some other way.

Nevertheless, my bookshelf now contains a mere 20 books. Oh, there will be more. But not nearly as many as there used to be.

Many – I venture to say most – were destroyed either by our recent natural disaster or by the incompetent salvage company that stored them in boxes which they left sitting on wet carpet for days. And then put the soaking boxes in a hot, lightless pod for weeks. Can you say “mold,” kids? I knew you could. Pages glued together? Plenty of that too. We’re currently going through those boxes and rescuing what we can.

Still, I’m discarding many more books than I’m keeping. The ones that are physically ravaged, of course, but lots of other books that are in relatively good condition. I’m not trashing those. I’m donating them to the Planned Parenthood Book Fair, where, to tell the truth, I originally got many of them. (That was the only place I’ve ever had to cross a line of protesters to buy a bag full of books. But I digress.)

What are my criteria for keeping and disposing, other than mold and water damage? I am keeping any signed-by-author books, ones that friends have written, a few books of poetry, and little else. Dozens of true crime paperbacks – gone. Dozens of hardbound as well as paperbound mysteries – off to Planned Parenthood.

I had hundreds of books. Maybe a couple of thousand. They filled three floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in my study, and spilled over into stacks on the windowsills and piles in the bottoms of closets, where normal people keep shoes. There were books all around the bed, in the bathroom, and on more bookshelves in the hallways and great room. There was even a bookshelf on the stair landing. More books than a person could read in a long lifetime. Though I had read my way through a fair percentage of them, I had a TBR pile tall enough to kill me if they tumbled over like a giant Jenga.

Now I’m replacing most of my books with e-editions. I like to think that I’m saving thousands of trees, but really my motivation is not nearly so lofty. I have nearly a thousand books on my Nook and I can carry them with me anywhere without being squashed and needing to have another back operation.

There are things I do miss about so-called dead-tree books: the solidity of them; the sensory touch of turning the pages; the colorful bindings, dust jackets, and covers; and, of course, the smell that takes me back to my days lurking in second-hand bookshops. And there are books that don’t do well in pixels, such as the Miss Peregrine books that rely so heavily on photos and hand-written notes.

Which brings me to why my husband is making the insurance company replace his books with actual, physical pages and bindings. He’s a very visual learner and had dozens of coffee-table-type books recording everything from the War in Vietnam to the legacy of the Grateful Dead to the latest fantasy art to Middle Eastern architecture. It’s actually kind of fun searching for them online, seeing if Amazon or ebay has the best price, and then stalking the mail carrier for a week afterward.

Anyway, books are books, no matter what form they appear in. I just dread the day when my e-book purveyor goes out of business entirely and I have to switch to a different dealer to provide my literary fixes.

The Naked Audience

I had a public speaking engagement coming up. In fact, my publisher had arranged to have me do a reading/signing of my first book, Bipolar Me, at the local Barnes & Noble.

I do suffer from anxiety but, perhaps surprisingly, this did not have me paralyzed with fear. For one thing, I had supportive friends. Although the most common advice given to people who do public speaking is to picture the audience naked, a friend of mine offered to picture me naked instead if I thought it would help. And my husband offered to stand in the back of the room and shout, “Show us your tits!” if I started to freeze up. Such helpful friends I have!

Perhaps the reason that public speaking doesn’t terrify me is that I studied speech and debate in high school. Once you’ve been in an extemporaneous speaking contest and drawn the topic “If a chicken had lips, could it whistle?” there’s little that can daunt you in the future. (For those interested, I said, no, it could not.)

I also have some experience teaching college and business school English. Sometimes this endeavor was fraught with peril. Once I was teaching a lesson based on a reading about AIDS and one of the students informed me she had heard that it started in Africa with people “messing with monkeys.” I told the class that I denied that was what happened.

One student piped up, “People do screw sheep, you know.” (He did not say “screw.”) I knew this was meant to disconcert me. “Mr. Chadwick,” I replied, “can you please tell us what disease you can get from screwing sheep?” (I did not say “screw” either.) He did a perfect spit-take, the only one I have ever caused or indeed seen in real life.

(I referred to my students as Mr., Ms., or any other courtesy title they were entitled to, on the theory that if they were required to call me Ms. Coburn, I should extend the same dignity to them. But I digress.)

I had even done public speaking at business functions. Once I had to address a group at a power breakfast meeting, introducing a new magazine that the publishing company I worked for was launching. I even opened with a joke. (“I thought that since we’re launching a new magazine, I should open with a toast. My husband said, ‘A toast? At breakfast?’ ‘Okay,’ I said, ‘how about cinnamon raisin toast?'”) There were gratifying chuckles.

Another time, I was asked to give a humorous talk at the retirement dinner of my boss. (Again, my husband was prepared to stand in the back and heckle.) I borrowed a technique I had seen used at a business conference and created an imaginary slide show. I used one of those little clicker gizmos that nuns used to carry in Catholic schools to “advance” the slides and then described whatever scene I wanted to set up a punchline. (“Here’s a picture of Carl dressed as The Big Bad Wolf for Halloween. The next day he called in sick with distemper.”) Afterward, they gave me $100, so I suppose now I can call myself a professional stand-up comic.

My Barnes & Noble talk, though, didn’t exactly go off without a hitch. Only two of my friends showed up (plus my husband). Luckily the event was held in the bookstore’s cafe and I managed to suck in a few patrons, especially during the question and answer session. I had to skip my introduction, as the audience already knew me, and cut my joke, too. (“What is bipolar disorder like? It’s like sex. You can’t adequately explain it to someone who’s never had it.”)

Anyway, I counted the appearance as a success. I read a few short pieces from my book, which I had cleverly printed out in large type beforehand so I wouldn’t squint. I signed a book for one of my friends and a bunch for the store so they could put “Signed by the Author” stickers on them. One member of my accidental audience asked for my autograph and a few words of wisdom, though she didn’t buy a book.

And the store said they’d be glad to have me back when my second book, Bipolar Us, comes out later this year. No joke.