Mystery, history, historical mystery: restorative time-travel from the comfort of a chair. Three picks from my summer reading:
• Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin, set in Cambridge in 1171. At last, a medieval mystery with a spunky, independent woman sleuth. Trained in Salerno, Italy, a progressive city of Jews, Christians, and Muslims where women can study and practice medicine, Ariana must solve the murders of English Christian children before the local community turns on local Jews as scapegoats—and on Adelia as a suspected witch. This is the first in a lively series of four.
• Cézanne’s Quarry by Barbara Corrado Pope, set in southern France in 1885. Two of Cézanne’s more disturbing paintings depict the knife-murder and strangulation of women with red hair. When a redhead is found dead in a quarry, Cézanne is one of two suspects. The other is the victim’s lover, an English radical who offends the establishment with lectures on Darwin and the age of the earth. This and its sequels touch on tenacious issues like religion/science and antisemitism.
• Nemesis by Philip Roth, set in Newark in 1944. How can a young playground director sustain self-respect when poor eyesight bars him from military service and he’s powerless to protect his playground kids from a raging polio epidemic? The hook for me is the pre-1950s polio mystery I’ve written about: Why couldn’t fly-swatting campaigns, quarantines, and insecticides stop the spread of polio?
Four minutes and thirty-eight seconds of total darkness on August 2, 1133 (Julian calendar), portended catastrophe: the death of King Henry I of England, followed by years of civil war, and Duke Frederick’s burning of Augsburg in Germany. In honor of today’s eclipse, I hope you’ll enjoy five chroniclers’ accounts:
“In this year King Henry went over sea at Lammas, and the second day as he lay and slept on the ship the day darkened over all lands; and the Sun became as it were a three-night-old Moon, and the stars about it at mid-day. Men were greatly wonder-stricken and were affrighted.”
Extracts are from David Le Conte at MrEclipse.com. He credits the first two quotes to UK Solar Eclipses from Year 1 by Sheridan Williams, Clock Tower Press, 1996, and the last three to Historical Eclipses and Earth's Rotation by F. Richard Stephenson, Cambridge University Press, 1997 (pages 392-393).
Brocade, taffeta, ruffles, and jewelry used to be common on wealthy men. Rather suddenly about 1800, men gave up their claim to beauty in favor of looking sober and useful. Beau Brummell (1778-1840), English arbiter of taste and fashion, favored suits in dark, somber colors with full-length trousers, plain linen shirts, broad-shouldered coats, and knotted neckties. Suits remained standard menswear for two hundred years.
Why did Brummell’s taste take such enduring hold? Opinions differ. Gentility and respectability displaced aristocracy under the democratizing influence of the Enlightenment and the American and French Revolutions. According to The London Tailor in 1899, “There never was a time in history when everybody was dressed so alike.” Homogeneity loosened a bit since the 1950s, but men in most settings still don’t dress to stand out from the crowd. It’s unclear who benefits.
While “the Great Male Renunciation” blurred class distinctions, it heightened gender stereotypes. Men are rational and practical, clothing patterns suggest, while women—and only women—are decorative. I bought my first adult boots in the men’s department because they were more comfortable than women’s.
Norms for masculinity are transient. Some in the early 1900s proposed dressing boys in pink. Upper-class men wore high heels, practical for riding, before the fashion spread to women. Maybe someday we’ll cycle back to the days when men could flaunt their beauty with no one raising an eyebrow.
When I moved to Wisconsin twenty-two years ago, my freelance writing moved with me. Everything else started fresh. Creating a new life was like planting a bare patch of dirt. Some activities and connections put down roots, while others soon died out. Happily, work transplanted well.
When I’ve lived in one place for years, the garden of my life sometimes needs weeding. It can get over-scheduled or unbalanced, with invasives spreading out of control. Periodically it’s time to pull out what no longer works, give essentials like writing and family the light and water they need, and plant a few new flowers in selected spots to keep the colors vibrant.
The first time my mother’s face looked back at me from the mirror, I was shocked. Was I becoming her, with all she did that irked me? Taking over my projects to make them better but no longer mine? Giving me lessons when I just wanted a sympathetic ear?
Today on her birthday I’m recalling traits I cherish. She cultivated my love of reading, taking me to the tiny library in the fire station basement and the annual AAUW book fair. Along with English classics from her Canadian childhood, she pointed me toward stories of children in other cultures, times, and places.
She taught me to relish small wonders. We trekked through fields and forests, delighting in spring trillium and summer wild raspberries. One night she had a group of girls sleep in a barn loft so we could wake early to marvel at the dew on the grass. My memory doesn’t include why we couldn’t see the dew just as well on the lawn at home.
If the face in the mirror shines with love of books, curiosity about lives different from mine, and joy in everyday wonders, it's hard to complain.
My friend Ellen always carried a book on public transportation so she wouldn’t be alone with her thoughts. People vary. I tend to find my thoughts pleasant companions.
Ruminate is what a cow does when she chews her cud. Webster’s says it also means to think carefully and deeply about something. Sounds good, no? But online article after article discusses the dangers of rumination and how to quit. Psychologists appear to use rumination for obsessive, repetitive rehashing of the sources of discontent.
It’s not just a difference in definition. I’ve read that a mind is a dangerous place to dwell, trying to understand your emotions is a mistake, and problem-solving should take over as quickly as possible. The implication: Any thought that isn’t purposeful puts you on a slippery slope toward depression.
Whatever happened to reflection, contemplation, imagination, introspection? Meditation in the old-fashioned sense of pondering something, as distinct from emptying the mind? Liberal arts along with employable skills? Please understand, I’m all in favor of mindfulness meditation. I appreciate planning and problem-solving, value the trades, and don’t have much use for obsession. But isn’t it possible the seed of at least one of the world’s great inventions, discoveries, or works of art may have germinated in a mind allowed to run free?
Another summer, another Saturday of escape into a fantasy of the past. In the depths of winter my husband and I share a litany of future joys, as certain in our life as the rising sun. Part of our litany is always, “We’ll go back to the Faire.” The Bristol Renaissance Faire, midway between Milwaukee and Chicago, has never failed us yet.
Each year delights us with a blend of familiar and fresh. While our favorite porcupine wasn’t at this year’s petting zoo, we got to gape at a large horned zebu cow from Africa. We missed a couple of bands we enjoy and happened onto others that kept us smiling. I shot six arrows from a miniature crossbow. Only one hit the target.
What do you suppose time travelers from Elizabethan England would make of it all? Would they find anything familiar? Not the fairy wings, accordion music, or chocolate-coated bananas. It doesn’t matter. Historical accuracy matters a lot for nonfiction, quite a bit for historical fiction, and not at all for playing at the past. Getting to pick and choose makes the Faire a lot more fun—not to mention safer and more healthful—than if we could actually travel back in time.
The drive home took us through Wisconsin countryside devastated by flash floods. Roads and bridges were out, vehicles half under water, farm fields transformed into ponds. I’ll bet a flood disaster would make perfect sense to visitors from the Renaissance. In real life they, like the residents of this week’s flood-land, didn’t get to pick and choose.
An 18-month-old boy was the third child paralyzed by naturally occurring poliovirus in Pakistan in 2017, we learned last week. Polio struck four so far in Afghanistan. Just seven in all the world. Tragic for them and their families, but remarkable compared to 350,000 cases a year in 1988 when the Global Polio Eradication Initiative began.
When I’m not writing blog entries or historical fiction, my major project is writing the ongoing history of polio eradication. Conveying the drama gets harder as eradication draws near. Don’t blame the media for reporting polio outbreaks more often than achievements. Bad news draws us, the adrenaline rush is so delicious.
It’s got me considering the contradictory ways news affects emotions. An endless onslaught of bad news can instill depression, the opposite of an adrenaline high. Fight-or-flight responses, energizing in a crisis, turn debilitating when they go on without release. I’m told to give fictional protagonists not only distress (fear, misery, torment) but also resilience (strength, courage, ingenuity) to respond, whether their responses succeed or fail.
Does bad news hook you with drama and then drag you down? If you don’t make the perfectly reasonable choice to avoid the news, the trick may be to pair distress with resilience or stories of resilience. Take some positive action, however small. Fred Rogers’s mother famously advised him to look for the helpers.
The lesson for my polio writing is the reverse: to breathe life into success stories with tales of trouble. Seven children and their families are devastated, with others at risk. Migratory families are elusive. Violence stalks vaccinators, sometimes fatally. It’s not just the polio they prevent but the challenges they overcome that makes heroes of the protagonists.
A nasty little voice in my head says writing is self-indulgence when there’s so much that needs to be done, protested, supported, or fixed in the world at large. A wiser voice in my gut says I’m doing what I’m called to.
Writers, and perhaps all artists, try to understand a little about the world and share that understanding with others. Much of my favorite fiction touches on justice, ethics, relationships, motivation, and the interplay of individual and society. It leads me to perceive or experience life in fresh and deepening ways.
Philosopher and author A.C. Grayling wrote, “To ask what art is good for is not exactly the same as asking what its purpose is.” Art and literature are their own excuse for being. Novelists and painters create for pure joy, or to pay the bills, or for any purpose or none. Their creations may be entirely self-indulgent and still do good in the world at large.
Do you know the uneasy feeling there’s something everybody but you understands or has or is doing? Gurus say fear of missing out, or FOMO, is one reason this week’s blog post title makes you more likely to open it. Another is that social media algorithms pick up on keywords denoting urgency. If you came here via social media, the keywords may deserve credit for the link showing up in your feed.
Did the goofy title work? Data from Weebly and Facebook will show whether traffic goes up or down this week. Articles online debate the best time of day to post on various social media sites. I cringe at the very idea. I’d so much rather write, trust you to read what strikes you as interesting, and respect your choice to skip the rest.
A Peanuts cartoon shows Snoopy on his doghouse, typing a letter about the novel he just completed. It’s so good he won’t even submit it; the editor or publisher can come and get it. What a delightful fantasy! Who wants to spend half their time promoting their work, as authors may in order to reach an audience? Why do so many choose a profession where they’ll spend half their time doing something they dislike?
Volunteering for not-for-profits, I’ve had assignments that involved fundraising or sales. On a good day a switch flips in my mind and suddenly it’s no longer about pushing a product. It’s about hospitality in helping people connect with something they want, whether it’s a glass of wine or a way to support a cause they value. On a good day as a writer, reaching out to readers isn’t about goofy blog titles. It’s about extending an invitation to connect. As I wrote a year ago, connections are what writing is all about.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.