Teresa, tends to have much more involved reviews than the rest of us, so we decided to give her her own page!
The Age of Wood: Our Most Useful Material and the Construction of Civilization by Roland Ennnos
Three sparklers: nonfiction, history, wood, things you never considered about the infrastructure of the world around you.
This was a nice little book that was less interesting (to me) than it should have been. It’s very readable. I finished it. Yet, I felt dissatisfied and I’m not sure why. On reflection, I already knew some of the material. It will most likely be completely new to you, dear reader.
I like trees. A lot. I’ve been slowly transforming our 1/4-acre property in town into a permaculturist’s paradise. I’ve slowly grown an Eastern Deciduous Woodland in the center of my backyard, along with dense borders most of the way around the property, while still leaving room for vegetable gardens, flower beds, clothesline space, toolshed, and compost bin area. I belong to my local tree-hugging group. We specialize in planting trees in the Township of Derry. We’ve planted a lot of them.
Trees matter a great deal to me and we should all plant more of them. I could walk around the Township of Derry and easily show you where to plant 10,000 more street trees without breaking a sweat. Add in the alleys in the township and I’ll point out where another 10,000 trees could go.
Those grassy sloped lawns bare of anything interesting? They might as well be grass-phalt for all the good they do providing habitat for critters and preventing stormwater damage. Grass-phalt may be a new word for some my readers. It’s a portmanteau word combining grass and asphalt. Asphalt doesn’t allow rainwater to soak into the soil, watering plants and replenishing the aquifer. Closely mown grass is better but a grassy slope doesn’t absorb rainwater like a meadow does. Or a forest.
An asphalt parking lot doesn’t provide habitat for anything other than cars. A closely mown grass lawn provides more habitat, but not much. It all depends on how high the grass is permitted to grow and how heavily drenched it is with pesticides and herbicides.
I thought The Age of Wood would be fascinating and it is, most of the time. I certainly didn’t expect a discussion about our primate ancestors and how forest living may have allowed us to descend from the trees. I had never considered how many wood tools must have been made, long before stone ones were invented. It makes perfect sense. It’s a lot easier to pick up a nicely-shaped branch, ready to use as a club, than it is to search a riverbed for stone and then chip the stone into something more useful.
And let us not forget that the stone would be even more useful if it were attached somehow to the nicely-shaped branch. We have very few detailed fossil records on how our distant ancestors came up with this grand technological innovation and then implemented it. As any archeologist will tell you, stone survives. Organic material like wood rots and leaves virtually no trace of itself. So do the grass stems or strips of leather used to bind branch and stone together. Is it any wonder that we think our ancestors used more stone and metal than wood?
Yet wood is all around us, in most places on the globe, so it stands to reason that we’d use more wood than anything else. It grows on its own!
When I started writing my Steppes of Mars series (as Odessa Moon), I began considering what kind of civilization you could build when you’ve got no fossil fuels and metals are at a premium. It would involve a lot of wood. Or bamboo. When I visit museums, I now pay close attention to those dioramas and recreations of our pioneer ancestors. Virtually everything you see is made of wood. Metal, scarce and expensive, is used only where something wooden can’t be used.
This is why in ye olden days, it wasn’t uncommon to burn an unneeded house down to retrieve the nails. They’d get pounded straight and used again. You can grow trees. You can’t grow nails.
Mr. Ennos goes into detail on all the phases of wood over time. He covers wood and evolution, building civilization, wood in the industrial era (far more wood is used than you’d think), and finally, consequences. What have we done to ourselves, to our trees, and to our planet? If we mend our relationship with trees, will we be on a better footing to manage our world and ourselves?
It’s a truism that being around trees makes us feel better. Hospital patients who’ve got rooms with views of trees tend to recover quicker than patients who get to stare at brick walls. Being outside is good for us.
There wasn’t one single thing I could disagree with in Mr. Ennos’ s writing. Yet it did not catch fire for me. It’s disheartening because trees are near and dear to my heart.
You may be different, dear reader. Unless you spend a lot of time with trees, almost everything The Age of Wood covers will be new and exciting to you.
The big place where the book fell down for me was its lack of illustrations. There are some, dotted here and there in the text. There’s also a black and white photograph insert in the middle which is nice.
These few illustrations are wildly inadequate. Time after time, Mr. Ennos discusses some facet of trees or their usage. He carefully describes an object or procedure when a diagram would have been so much easier to understand. As an example, how many of you have seen a coppice? Or a pollard? I knew what he was talking about. Not everyone would and a series of illustrations of the life cycle of a hazel or alder coppice would have been genuinely useful.
So would an illustration of a pollarded tree. Too many of us have only seen butchered trees. We don’t understand how pollarding can be done well, without torturing the tree into a slow and agonizing death.
The Age of Wood is a worthwhile introduction to trees and their usage. If you write historicals, it could be even more useful. The book will help you envision the past more accurately, a past made of wood. A future will be made of wood too.
Sadly Mr. Ennos doesn’t maintain a web presence that I could find.
However, if you’d like to purchase your own copy of The Age of Wood, here’s the link: https://www.amazon.com/Age-Wood-Material-Construction-Civilization/dp/1982114738
The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World by Virginia Postrel
nonfiction, aspects of life you never considered before
Four and 1/2 Sparklers
I loved this book. Virginia Postrel covers a piece of civilization that affects us every day yet we rarely think about: textiles. Or fabric, if you want to use a more common term.
It’s hard to think of cloth as being technology, but it is. Someone, back in the mists of time, looked at that moth cocoon, that furry goat, that fluffy seed covering, and thought, hmm. I’d like something to cover my body besides an animal skin. Or, more likely what came first, hmm. I’d like something stronger than a grass stem to tie my stone axe head to the handle. Maybe I can do something with those fibers and turn them into… Into…
Yes, string is technology. Can you make string with what’s hanging around your household? I can’t and I have a spinning wheel I don’t know how to use lurking in my attic. I’ve got carding combs too, to card the wool from sheep and goats I don’t have. They don’t do me a lot of good, but I’ve got them. I also know how to construct a simple box loom so I could conceivably weave the string I manufacture into a small piece of cloth. After I weave one small piece of cloth, I could spin more string (or yarn or thread); enough to weave another small piece of cloth. Eventually, once I’ve spun enough thread and woven enough pieces of cloth, I might have enough cloth rectangles to sew into a coat to keep out the cold.
It’s a lot of work and I’m stuck with whatever color the original thread is, unless I want to learn how to dye the yarn. Or the resulting cloth.
Did you know that women used to spin — all around the world too — plant and animal fibers into thread every waking moment when they weren’t doing something else? It took a dozen or more skilled spinners (or spinsters) to spin enough yarn to keep up with one, count ‘em, one weaver.
I actually got to see a demonstration of this at a Farm Show exhibit a few years back. I coaxed my husband into watching a sheep to shawl competition. There were many teams. Each team included a sheep, a man to shear the sheep (it requires both muscle and skill to wrestle a sheep in submission; points are deducted if the sheep’s skin is nicked or the fleece is damaged) and a team of six to ten spinsters who card and comb and as soon as enough fleece is processed into something spinnable, they start spinning yarn.
There is one weaver. The weaver and spinsters were about 95% female but I seem to recall there was a male spinner in one group. The weaver cards and spins too, until enough yarn accumulates to thread the loom with the warp and get started. The shearer, once the sheep was de-fleeced, also carded wool to get the production line moving fast enough for the weaver to have yarn to weave.
I don’t recall them wasting time trying to dye the fleece or the yarn. The color of the finished shawl was whatever the sheep was.
Once the excitement of sheep wrestling was over, my husband claimed it was like watching paint dry. The rest of the audience (including me) was riveted. It was a large audience too and clearly not just made up of the teams’ friends and relatives.
Today, we don’t even think about where cloth comes from or what its fibers started out as. Clothes are so cheap these days. Every thrift shop and yard sale is heaped high. They used to be valuable. Dressing well mattered because it showed your status and wealth. Today, you can strut around in jeans that are pre-ripped.
The development of textiles led to dying and, eventually, a big part of the modern chemical industry. Textiles led to industrial production on a huge scale. The need for better natural fibers, whether wool, cotton, silk, or linen, led to genetic manipulation of plants, insects, and animals. This is similar to the genetic manipulation over countless generations of food crops and animals bred for milk, meat, and eggs.
Selling textiles and their components across continents helped develop the banking industry, improvements in accounting, like double-entry bookkeeping, and mail systems and roads.
It’s fascinating. Who thinks of textiles as technology or driving changes in civilizations? But they are. Think of one of the simplest bits of technology: a button.
Essentially, buttons started out as flat beads. That’s what they are. But someone had to think of piercing that flattish shell or slice of horn or metal disk and sewing it onto a garment as adornment. It took generations after the development of buttons for someone to think … Hmm. I could cut a slit in the garment, reinforce the edges so they don’t unravel, and then — gasp! Push the button through! And hold two edges of a garment closed!
Cutting edge technology, folks, and someone had to think of it, just like someone had to work out how to cut a comb for your hair from a turtle shell.
Then there’s the discussion of synthetic fabrics, starting with nylon. We’ve got a world of fibers available to us today that weavers and consumers in the Middle Ages could only dream of. Washable, colorfast, soft, wears well, inexpensive, and even printed with bright fun designs. What is not to like about modern cloth?
Walk around a big fabric store and marvel at the bounty laid out in front of you; cloth for jeans, for pajamas, for light summer blouses and winter coats, for eveningwear that would impress the kings and queens of old.
It’s a marvel and it’s so commonplace we don’t see it any more.
Ms. Postrel breaks textiles up into separate discussions of fiber, thread, cloth, dye, traders, consumers, and finally, innovators heading into a brave new world of synthetics that will keep the wearer cool and clean and never need washing.
If you’re a movie buff like I am, you may be seeing shades of Alec Guinness right now. He made a movie in 1951 titled The Man in the White Suit that considers the implications of synthetic fabrics and what they mean. He plays Sidney Stratton, a brilliant and naïve chemist. Like many brilliant and naïve scientists, he does not consider what his fabulous invention will do to other people’s lives. His new, miracle fabric is indestructible and never needs care. Here’s the statement from his landlady and washerwoman, encapsulating textile workers everywhere as change comes whether they want it or not:
“Why can’t you scientists leave things alone? What about my bit of washing when there’s no washing to do?”
The Fabric of Civilization is a terrific, very readable book. I highly recommend it. It’s got everything, including a glossary and an index. What doesn’t it have?
This book could have used a lot more pictures, including a color plate section showing the differences between the various dyes. Rose Madder is not cochineal but what reds are they? I would like to see the glorious colors. A description of the astounding color combinations from the Mauve Decade isn’t the same as a color picture. You have to see brilliant pink and green swirls on black to believe it. It sounds so modern and not drab and Victorian at all.
But that’s what was fashionable about 150 years ago.
The Fabric of Civilization is a worthy addition to any well-stocked library, whether for research, ideas for novels (check out Jakob “the Rich” Fugger’s life story in addition to a host of other fascinating historical figures), or just to better see and understand the astonishing world around us. A world made of textiles.
If you want to follow Virginia Postrel’s adventures, here’s her website: https://vpostrel.com/ She’s written several other books, all worth having a look at.
If you want to buy Ms. Postrel’s book, go to: https://www.amazon.com/Fabric-Civilization-Textiles-Made-World/dp/1541617606
If you want to get a copy of The Man in the White Suit: https://www.amazon.com/Man-White-Suit-Alec-Guinness/dp/B00006FMAV
Before and After the Book Deal: A Writer’s Guide to Finishing, Publishing, Promoting, and Surviving Your First Book by Courtney Maum
Nonfiction, Writing How-To (not craft)
As part of my continuing education as an indie writer, I sometimes read books about the business of writing. After all, anyone can write a book. Amazon proves this, particularly when you get down below the weeds with the other amoebas looking for books that have a ranking down in the millions. That is to say, millions of books have sold more copies than the one that you are currently observing. I seem to recall David Gaughran (indie author, marketer and former Amazon employee) claiming that as many as a fifth of all books listed on Amazon have no sales ranking because they’ve never sold a single copy. To anyone. Ever.
Knowing something about the business of writing, managing your relationship with a publisher (whichever kind you have including your ever-supportive spouse), getting publicity, and finding readers is important. It’s more important than writing the book since if you can’t find readers, then what do you have? Not a readership, that’s for sure. You also don’t have any money. Money is so useful. The landlord, the grocer, and the taxman all insist on being paid. They care even less about your soulful literary endeavors than your friends and relatives do.
Thus, we arrive at Courtney Maum’s book Before and After the Book Deal: A Writer’s Guide to Finishing, Publishing, Promoting, and Surviving Your First Book. I’m not sure anymore how I came across it. It might have been while I was searching Dauphin County Library’s online catalog for Jane Friedman’s book, The Business of Being a Writer. I always use very broad keywords when I’m searching the catalog because I like the serendipity of discovering a book I didn’t know existed, yet would want to read.
That must have been it, because I’m happily oblivious to most of the book world, particularly the farther reaches of the literary genre, where earning buckets of money is sort of frowned on. It’s so déclassé when you, dear author, should be writing from your heart for the sake of art.
Literary is, make no mistake, just as much of a genre of writing as romance or science fiction. It has its own subcategories, like romance has subcategories including Sweet Amish and Werewolf Bondage Porn and science fiction can be hard, soft, military, or space opera to name a few variants. I normally avoid Literary so I’m not current on its various subdivisions but I know it has them. Every genre does and a highly competitive, high-prestige genre like this one is no exception. I would guess Literary spans from the sort of books that book clubs like (low-brow for this crowd but with respectable sales) on up to the rarified heights where the number of sales is in direct opposition to the fawning press coverage in the sort of literary magazine where sales of issues never top five hundred.
I finished and reviewed Jane Friedman’s book (it’s excellent even if you’re not writing Literary) and then dutifully began plowing through Ms. Maum’s opus.
It’s been a slog and not just because I’ve got other things to do.
I’m an indie writer of science fiction romance (but not the subcategory of “I was the alien’s love slave”, lucrative though that is). My dear husband is my editor, layout person, and publisher — it’s a complex relationship — and he’s published two of my novels to date. My third novel is currently being savaged by my beta readers. I’m writing novel number four and I can see the finish line. It’s months away but I know where I’m going and I’ll get there. I’ve also written and published two nonfiction books (self-help of a sort and a how-to manual for production sewing of cloth market bags).
I began writing in or around 2013. I’ve got a little experience. Not much, I admit. I never bothered with trying to find an agent or get traditionally published because nothing I’ve written would be acceptable to those gatekeepers. 235,000-word doorstops are not what the industry wants at the moment. I’m not sure if readers do either but that’s a marketing issue and thus a different problem altogether.
I associate with other indie writers and publishers and while we complain about many things, one thing we do not do is wail about how the publishing world doesn’t take proper care of us. That’s one of the reasons we’re indie.
All of this is to say I know how difficult it can be to construct a coherent narrative and how much more difficult it is to market an unusual, doesn’t fit into the standard subcategory title. Yet at no point do I recall other indie writers whining about how they have to, simply must locate a therapist for after their book is published and subsequently ignored by the larger world.
The wailing! The gnashing of teeth! The sobbing! The angst! How hard it is to get attention and when you get it, it’s not the right kind! What delicate, dainty flowers literary writers must be. They wilt at the slightest provocation.
Or maybe Ms. Maum was trying to be funny and I didn’t get it. That’s likely too.
There are good bits of information tucked in here and there. On page 306, Ms. Maum gives very good advice on blurb writing, even providing an all-purpose structure that can be adapted to fit your needs. The last section includes advice from a host of literary writers, most of whom I’ve never heard of. Some of it’s even good or useful for ordinary genre writers.
Yet when she discusses advances and royalties (book one, section five of Before the Book Deal), she doesn’t mention the single most important fact an author needs to know about how advances and royalties are related. Instead, two-thirds of the book later, on page 321, she finally reveals this truth:
“You receive a royalty check if you have earned back your advance, period. If you haven’t earned out, you don’t get a check.”
This is basic and should have been discussed in book one, section five! In other words, an advance is a loan against the money your publisher thinks your book will make. If your publisher thinks he’s got a blockbuster on his hands, the kind of book that Oprah or Reese will choose for their celebrity book clubs, you might (depending on how skillful your agent is) get a larger advance. If your publisher is honest about the potential sales of your twee memoir about surviving something or other that is only special because you, the writer, endured it and everyone else’s similar experiences don’t matter a tinker’s damn, then your advance may be tiny. In either case, if sales don’t match what the publisher paid you as an advance, you’ll never see another penny.
Her contract interpretation section was weak too.
This is one of those books where if you have a delicate, literary, sensitive soul, then it might work for you. If you want more useful data, without the constant urging to examine your feelings and see a therapist because — the trauma! — you managed to write a book, found an agent, found a publisher, and thus need someone to help you manage the angst of it all, then look elsewhere.
I highly recommend Jane Friedman’s book, The Business of Being a Writer. Like Ms. Maum, Ms. Friedman aims her book at new writers emerging from MFA programs and hoping to write literature as opposed to Werewolf Bondage Porn. Unlike Ms. Maum, Ms. Friedman doesn’t waste pages on the need for therapy and managing your relatives’ disappointing responses. She discusses the ins and outs of contracts. She recognizes how criminally inadequate MFA programs can be, instructing their students in the fine arts while neglecting all those pesky money and contract issues.
Unlike Ms. Maum’s book, Ms. Friedman’s book is also useful for those indie writers who would never go near an MFA program. They write Werewolf Bondage Porn and need to better handle the piles of money they make.
Everyone should understand the basics of contracts, starting with if you can’t understand the contract in front of you, pay your own lawyer to explain it until you do. Do not sign anything without understanding exactly what you are signing away. Your own lawyer, whom you pay yourself, will be far more reliable on the subject than either your agent or — shudder — your publisher.
I’m not the correct person for Ms. Maum’s book. Unless you’re a dainty-minded MFA student, you probably aren’t either. In either case, I recommend you get Ms. Maum’s book from the library. Your tax dollars already paid for it so take advantage of them.
But before you do, check out Jane Friedman’s book first. It’s far more useful.
An added postscript lest you think I was too hard on Ms. Maum and her cri di coeur for therapy for misunderstood and unappreciated writers laboring at their laptops in coffeeshops.
I was giving this review one last pass when Younger Son (aka Bunny despite having shot up to six feet tall) came home from work. He had an exciting day, performing hard, dirty manual labor in the cold, removing the enormous light-up frames for Sweet Lights in Hershey.
He got stabbed in the eye by an errant guywire.
He’s still got his left eye, along with a big bloody bruise in the sclera, a trip to the local MedExpress office care of Hershey Entertainment and Resorts, and a trip to the CVS to get his antibiotic prescription. He went back to work and finished out the day. According to him, the doctor said he’d heal but another quarter-inch and we wouldn’t be having this written conversation. Bunny would be undergoing emergency surgery for his left eye. A deeper wound would have been even more devastating. Lost eye. Brain damage. Disability. Death.
But Bunny was spared and he might remember to wear his safety goggles after this instead of leaving them in his backpack.
Ms. Maum is currently leveraging Before and After the Book Deal into online classes. If you’re interested in learning more from her or about her, you can follow her adventures at her website: https://www.courtneymaum.com/ I should mention here that Ms. Maum has written three novels as well as Before and After the Book Deal. You can learn about them at her website too.
If you want to purchase her book (which I don’t recommend since your library has a copy you can borrow for free) here’s the link: https://www.amazon.com/Before-After-Book-Deal-Publishing/dp/1948226405/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_product_top?ie=UTF8
If you want to purchase Jane Friedman’s much better book The Business of Being a Writer go here: https://www.amazon.com/Business-Chicago-Writing-Editing-Publishing/dp/022639316X/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=
The Lost City: Discovering the Forgotten Virtues of Community in the Chicago of the 1950’s by Alan Ehrenhalt
Nonfiction, contemporary social history, American culture
I’ve always been interested in why we do what we do as a culture. These days, it’s even more interesting. What is community? What is acceptable behavior? What has changed in the last seventy years? Or better, what has changed since the Greatest Generation saved the world in World War II and then settled down in the newly developed suburbs?
I was delighted to come across The Lost City: Discovering the Forgotten Virtues of Community in the Chicago of the 1950’s by Alan Ehrenhalt because this book tried to explain some of what might have happened since 1946.
Everyone is familiar with the phrase “history is written by the winners.” It has a corollary: “memoirs are written by the whiners.” This is an important point. Happy people don’t write tell-alls about their terrible childhoods and surviving awful schools that stifled their creativity and kept them from reaching their full, glorious potential. Happy people are not disaffected; they don’t see misery all around them and write novels, movies, and plays to demonstrate how miserable we really are if only the blinders would fall off and let us see warts and all reality. Happy people don’t write histories emphasizing the evil behavior of their ignorant, benighted predecessors who, dammit, should have known better like we do today.
As modern people, we are naturally the most enlightened people ever and are marching forward to our evermore glorious future in the stars.
Which is why we are all so happy and carefree and get along so well today. We have thrown off the superstitious, tribal shackles of the past. Wait. Are we? Have we? All of us? Let me take a quick look around as I write on Monday, 14 December 2020. Perhaps not. Perhaps all is not well in this best of all possible worlds, where one half of our country despises the other half.
Which leads me back to The Lost City. It’s an older book, published in 1995, yet its message is more important than ever.
Who are we as a community? What are we willing to do to maintain our communities?
I mean this on both our local level and on a national level. I’ve mentioned before that I attend municipal meetings although I admit I have yet to attend a Zoom version of our township’s bimonthly Board of Supervisor’s meetings. I did attend a Zoom meeting for my writers’ group and it was maddening. Zoom is a poor substitute for meeting in person. All the social cues are lost and I couldn’t clearly hear everyone else and of course, several of our members experienced the dreaded ‘technical difficulties’. On the other hand, meetings in person have the same problem when a speaker at the podium mumbles, enunciates poorly, and I can’t understand them.
I knew going in that it wouldn’t be the same, but my local writers’ group (the CPRW, a chapter of RWA) means something to me so I bit the bullet and signed on. Not many other people did; I believe we had eighteen people present at our peak in that session. More than half of our membership did not bother, despite not having to get up early and drive 45 minutes to attend. They merely had to get dressed from the waist up and walk to their computer in their living room.
When I attend a municipal meeting, the meeting room is normally mostly empty other than the participants who are required to be there: the people who work for the township. Yet important things get decided at the township level, decisions that affect every aspect of our lives. An active community shows up at its municipal meetings and community members march up to the podium and say what’s on their minds and make sure their elected representatives know what matters.
That’s one part of community. Why don’t more people do this? Partly because they have too many other things to do, I am sure. The rest of it might be that there’s always something more interesting to do than sit in the meeting room, listening to someone drone on about stormwater management and the difference between detention and retention basins. (Detention basins drain themselves dry between rainstorms whereas retention basins tend to have water in them all the time and function like mini-wetlands. The township doesn’t mow retention basins.)
Being part of a community means working with other people who don’t think like you. Some of these people can be intelligent, well-meaning, deeply concerned about life in the community yet at the same time, they want a wildly different interpretation of the rules.
Being part of the community means compromise. It means accepting some authority from someone you may not agree with. It means going along to get along. This is darn difficult to do if you’ve spent your entire life believing in the magical power of the individual where no one can tell you what to do.
Unfortunately, you can’t be a rampant individualist and be a member of a given community. The goals are mutually exclusive. For example, building your palace at the top of the hill and logging off the forest below so you can enjoy your spectacular view from your extensive terraces is a worthy goal. Too bad the results for your neighbors downhill is that every time it rains, their basements fill up with water.
This very issue has been a bone of contention in the Township of Derry. After all, you paid for that hillside, you paid for that palace with the extensive terraces, and you paid for that view. The homeowners downhill — who may or may not have been there first — will argue over whose rights are more important after they finish pumping their basements dry.
How can a situation like this be managed, when none of us are willing to give up an inch of high ground? When none of us are willing to admit that our elected authorities were elected to make these difficult decisions where nobody gets everything they want?
We’re back at The Lost City.
A careful reading of the three parts (the working-class parish of St. Nicholas of Tolentine, the segregated African-American community named Bronzeville, and the newly built suburb in Elmhurst) shows the strains of community versus individualism.
Privacy back in 1957? Limited to very limited. Autonomy? Not much there either. Being able to do whatever you wanted? Didn’t happen. The hypocrisy of having to smile when you didn’t want to? Ever-present. Being told what to do and having to do it, whether you felt like it or not? Always.
Alan Ehrenhalt makes it clear, if you’re willing to see it, that the residents of these three communities lived very constricted lives in many ways. But they had positives as well; plenty of them. The residents knew their place in the world. If you, as a resident of the parish of St. Nicholas of Tolentine, were comfortable with the regimentation, you were probably quite happy.
If the lock-step regimentation made you crazy, you were miserable and went on to write tell-alls about the horrors of Catholic schools and vicious nuns and abusive priests.
I was fascinated by The Lost City. The world has changed so much since 1957. And, remembering that memoirs are written by the whiners and Alan Ehrenhalt has his own axe to grind, let me add that for many reasons, I’d never go back. I like having choices that I would not have had in 1957. A typical one is having a credit card in my name and not my husband’s. Privacy from prying and officious neighbors (which is why we don’t live in an HOA). The ability to go where I want and not worry I’ll be harassed.
There’s lots to like about the modern world. But the modern world did not come without costs. That’s the great strength of The Lost City. It makes clear the community and togetherness that people of 1957 Chicago enjoyed and the cost they paid in loss of autonomy to get that community and togetherness.
We do not have similar communities today. We’re far more autonomous, to the point of anarchy. This situation has its plusses to be sure. There are negatives as well and we forget those negatives at our peril. The pendulum of society always swings and it will swing back eventually. When it does, we’ll all moan about the wonders of rampant individualism and never consider what it cost to both individuals and communities.
Alan Ehrenhalt doesn’t maintain a website so you can’t follow his adventures. He is a contributing editor for Governing Magazine if you want to read more of his essays: https://www.governing.com/authors/Alan-Ehrenhalt.html
If you want a copy of The Lost City so you can write notes in the margins: https://www.governing.com/authors/Alan-Ehrenhalt.html
The Beautiful Fall: Lagerfeld, Saint Laurent, and Glorious Excess in 1970’s Paris by Alicia Drake
Nonfiction, fashion history, biography, tell-all
Four and 1/2 sparklers
I picked up this book because I read André Leon Talley’s memoir, The Chiffon Trenches: A Memoir. That was a terrific tell-all that really did peel back the heavy silk draperies and multiple layers of gauze concealing how petty and smallminded the fashion industry can be. This is the industry (and it is an industry) that touts glamour, creativity, artistry, youth and beauty, but only if you’re scrawny and what they currently want to see and adore. And only if you’re hot right now and never mind how much they loved you last year. Last year is over and done with.
This year? You’re passé, trite, outmoded, and boring. Come back when you get interesting again and maybe we’ll talk. But probably not, because how could you ever become fascinating and new and interesting again?
Fashion interests me, even though I am not now and never have been a snappy dresser. It so often intrudes in my life in unexpected ways.
For example: I recently bought (because I had to) new eyeglasses. Why did I do this? Because the blind screw in the frame came out and could not be replaced because the optical industry doesn’t manufacture that kind of glasses anymore. They’re not fashionable. Nor do they provide replacement screws. Like the computer industry, the answer to customers like me is “buy a new one, you cheapskate.”
I let myself be talked into very expensive frameless lenses, but I had a darn good reason: I wear trifocals. I could never get used to the lines so I buy lineless lenses (which cost more). I’ve also found that I need the biggest possible lenses in order to see better. If I can’t see, I can’t get anything else done.
But, but, but! The fashion industry has declared that smaller frames and thus smaller lenses are what is trendy and selling. Thank God that this year’s models are slightly larger than those darned penny-sized lenses of a few years ago. Even so, the current styles are too darn small. The optician was very helpful, listened to me rant, and she found me the largest possible lenses.
Naturally, they also cost the most. If I wanted glasses that would work for me, I was stuck, so I gritted my teeth, signed the credit card slip, and cursed whoever designs eyeglass frames that don’t take actual human needs into consideration.
That’s my most recent encounter with fashion and eyeglasses. Here’s the second, coming immediately on its heels: my glasses have huge lenses with no frames, meaning I now have to wear eyebrow pencil and mascara when I go out in public. My eyebrows are sparse and white, so at age sixty, I’m learning to apply eyebrow pencil to improve my appearance. And mascara. I draw the line at eyelash curlers (instruments of torture) and eyeliner (I’ll poke my eye out).
What is fashion but being concerned about our appearance? And how we fit into the world? And what we like, think, sing, eat, watch, do and where we go on vacation? So many, many parts of our life are fashion-driven even when we don’t admit to it. Clothing in fashion is as fraught with peril as fashion trends in business or education. I want to look good without pouring in huge amounts of time, energy, and money. Make no mistake, it takes effort to find well-fitting, flattering clothing, especially if you have an actual woman’s body with tits, hips, and an ass and you’re not six feet tall. Or young and scrawny.
You’ll have to learn how to sew or spend huge amounts of time shopping and develop a relationship with a tailor.
What does this ranting have to do with The Beautiful Fall? More than you would suspect, as it turns out. The Beautiful Fall, as the title says, is about Karl Lagerfeld, Yves Saint Laurent, and how their lives and careers intersected. Their ideas and visions of how dresses should look, even at the haut couture level, eventually filter down to my secondhand level. Remember the simple A-line shift, the Mondrian dress? That was Saint Laurent. Remember that great scene in the movie The Devil Wears Prada where Miranda Priestly educates our naïve heroine? Every word was spot on.
What an astonishing book this was. Utterly and completely fascinating. I had no idea that Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent knew each other back in the late 1950’s in Paris. But they did. There’s a picture of them, both prizewinners, of the 1954 International Wool Secretariat Competition. Saint Laurent won for dresses, Lagerfeld won for coats, and another young woman (Colette Bracchi) won for suits. Ms. Bracchi vanished into the mists of time, but we all know who Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent are.
Their lives intertwined with each other, as would be expected since they both worked in fashion in Paris at the same time. Yet they didn’t do the same kind of work. Saint Laurent was always haut couture. He eventually designed ready-to-wear and he’s known for it, but when I think Saint Laurent, I think of his gorgeous, glorious, groundbreaking collections.
Karl Lagerfeld had a more interesting career. He designed not just ready-to-wear. He designed, as a freelancer, collection after collection for all kinds of names. He finally ended up designing for Chanel and revived a moribund fashion house into the powerhouse it is today. At the same time, Lagerfeld continued to design collection after collection of ready-to-wear as freelancer. He must have designed several dozen collections of clothes every single year going back to the early 1960’s and continued up to his death in February 2019 at age 85.
Maybe he was 85. He listed several dates of birth, depending on the story he was telling and who was listening. Remember, in fashion, you can never be too young but you sure can be too old.
Anyway. Lagerfeld’s level of creativity and work ethic are amazing and deeply impressive. He’s a massive outlier.
Reading The Beautiful Fall, you realize how even more amazing Lagerfeld (and Saint Laurent’s) output is when you start to understand what a dissipated lifestyle they both led.
I said the book is utterly fascinating? It is also shocking and appalling in equal measures.
Oh. My. God. They were in the thick of things in Paris in the 70’s and then the 80’s. They had their own courts and entourages, were deeply competitive and if you were in one court, you couldn’t belong to the other. They competed for everything, including the favors of Jacques de Bascher.
The Beautiful Fall is also about the charmed, tragic, and louche life of de Bascher.
Our intrepid author, Alicia Drake, interviewed about 150 people. At least, those were the ones who were willing to go on the record. She interviewed other people who wanted to talk, but they didn’t want to be named. When this book was published in 2006, Saint Laurent, Lagerfeld, and Pierre Bergé were still alive so talking to Ms. Drake was risky. It’s surprising how many people she got to speak on the record.
Saint Laurent did not speak to her. Pierre Bergé did. Mr. Bergé was Saint Laurent’s longtime partner in both life and business and was, based on my understanding of Ms. Drake’s book, the main reason Saint Laurent reached the top of the fashion world and stayed there for his entire adult life. He needed Bergé to run things and keep him from self-destructing. They had a complicated relationship, let us say. Saint Laurent needed Bergé and Bergé needed to be needed.
Karl Lagerfeld did not speak to Ms. Drake. What he did do was sue Ms. Drake for damages for the intrusion into his personal life. He lost in a French court. She’d done her homework, documenting everything, including an extensive collection of newspaper and magazine stories that appeared over the years. Karl Lagerfeld lived much of his life in public and it’s hard to get a judge to agree that your personal life was intruded on when your every move is documented in tabloids, gossip columns, newspapers, magazines, TV shows, and documentaries.
Nonetheless, he still won in a way, at least in France. According to a New York Times article (https://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/11/style/11iht-fkarl.3860665.html), The Beautiful Fall was not translated into French nor were English-language editions available in Paris. Isn’t it nice to be powerful, rich, and important? You can squash impertinent wretches who write impeccably researched tell-alls about you and get away with it, even when you lose in court.
This book is loaded with namedropping. Famous models, designers, writers, artists, actors, and celebrities of every description. They all show up. They all knew each other and went to the same parties.
Even the footnotes are worth reading, as is the index. After a few chapters, I realized I needed to read the footnotes for a given chapter first, so I would know exactly who Ms. Drake interviewed. She didn’t make any of this stuff up, folks. I’m still amazed at what people were willing to say on the record.
The lifestyles are jaw-dropping. Luxury, wealth, power, dissipation, sex, drugs, and alcohol. It’s amazing that so much creativity flowed out, considering all the shenanigans that got in the way. I’ve always wondered how much more creative an artist or designer could be if they weren’t permanently hungover. The Beautiful Fall made me wonder more.
I was mesmerized and you might be too. If you’re at all interested in modern fashion, you won’t go wrong with The Beautiful Fall. Fashion students will be reading this for generations because of the background detail, warts and all, that the glossy magazine interviews don’t talk about.
So why didn’t I give The Beautiful Fall that all important last 1/2 sparkler? Because it needed more pictures! All those famous people and most of them didn’t get a picture! Maybe Little, Brown & Company didn’t want to spend more on photographic credits. That was a serious mistake in my view. The Beautiful Fall is one of those rare reference works: interesting and readable as well as thorough.
It needs more pictures. Lots more pictures, even black & white ones embedded in the text as opposed to full-color, full-page glossies. Fashion students will need to read the book while having their laptop browser open to Google images, so they can see who’s being dished about.
Seeing is important, because that’s what fashion is all about. How you look is the name of the game.
If you want a copy of your own (as long as it’s not in French), go to: https://www.amazon.com/Beautiful-Fall-Fashion-Genius-Glorious/dp/0316001856/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_product_top?ie=UTF8
If you’d like to learn a bit more about Alicia Drake, she has a minimalist website: https://www.aliciadrake.uk/
The Chiffon Trenches: A Memoir by André Leon Talley
nonfiction, memoir, the fashion business, tell-all
Four and 1/2 sparklers;
Although I am not and never have been a snappy dresser, I can appreciate those who make the effort. It is work to look good at all times, rather than going out in public looking like you’ve just come from cleaning out the garage. I also recognize that the world judges us by how we dress: i.e., did you make the effort to clean up nice or is the world going to see you as if all you do is clean out the garage?
I think about this every time I go out in public, especially when I’ve got a book event. I want to represent my brand (Peschel Press) to the best of my ability and I want any attendees to remember me, be interested in me, and most importantly, know who to give the money to if they purchase a book.
Defining my style and selecting the right clothes helps me look my best. Looking more stylish shows I care. I’m not very good at it, but you won’t see me in public in rags or a t-shirt worn thin with age and pockmarked with holes. Despite my limited income and total lack of elegance, I can do better than that.
Then there’s the fashion industry. Make no mistake. It is an industry and one that is worth billions of dollars. All of us are deeply affected by the fashion industry; it determines what we can find on racks at the department store during any given season. Someone made those choices of what to manufacture, hoping to capture the attention of shoppers who need a new blouse.
If you saw the film The Devil Wears Prada (the movie was loads better than the book), there is a great scene where Miranda Priestly educates our young, naïve heroine about color and the magician’s choice she got at the clearance rack. That color, cerulean blue, had been chosen by a designer and then that color worked its way through the fashion food chain until our heroine selected her sweater, thinking she was making a free choice.
Well, she was making a free choice.
But she was only free to choose from the predetermined choices made available to her. She didn’t get to choose candy-apple red because that color wasn’t available for that type of garment at that moment. Colors go in and out of fashion all the time. This is why, if your favorite, most flattering color is currently in fashion, you’d better buy those garments because a year later, you won’t find that color other than at Goodwill.
The fashion industry is loaded with choices like this. I still remember working at Foxmoor Casuals back in the early 1980’s. Remember this long-dead mall chain? It carried trendy togs for young women. We got all kinds of clothes selected for us by the buyers at corporate headquarters. They chose what they thought would sell from what the manufacturers offered them. No matter what us lowly sales clerks thought about what corporate sent to Dover (a small town in a small state), we got what we got and then did our best to sell those clothes to a disapproving public.
Fashion, a billion-dollar industry, is a huge ecosystem and at the very top, are the designers and the magazines that discuss the business of fashion. That’s where André Leon Talley landed in the early 1970’s. He was fresh from Durham, North Carolina (not generally known as a hotbed of elegance) with a scholarship in French studies from Brown and he loved clothes, fashion, history, and Vogue magazine.
Mr. Talley was and is brilliant, supremely well-educated about fashion and its history, hardworking, and has great personal style and a great eye. He’s also very personable, which shines in his memoir. As a fashion journalist, he worked with everyone in the business and does he have stories to tell!
As you would expect, a field dominated by extremely talented egotists has more than its share of fireworks and personality conflicts. There’s also the vision of tsunamis of money sloshing around of the type that ordinary people can’t fathom. I can’t imagine how much money Vogue magazine spent in its heyday, shipping twenty-two people to Europe several times a year for the couture and ready-to-wear shows. All expenses paid, of course, and the staffers didn’t bed down at the youth hostel.
Fresh flowers daily. Porthault sheets (several thousand dollars for a complete set of queen-size bedlinens. I looked it up, gaping in awe.) Custom-made garments with Hermès scarves used for the lining. Cars with drivers. Suites at the Ritz. Private jets. Expensed dry-cleaning and hand laundry. Champagne and caviar and truffles and macaroons. Page after page after page of luxury. Wow. Reading Mr. Talley’s memoir was like peeking into the queen’s palace, when under normal circumstances, I would never get closer than a mile away.
Unless, of course, I was the lucky person scrubbing the toilets in the queen’s palace because none of the people Mr. Talley discusses scrub their own toilets. Maybe they did, when they were poor and working their way to the top, but once they get to the top, someone else scrubs the toilets and dusts the chandeliers. I think a lot about class differences. Mr. Talley’s memoir was a reminder that it’s really good to be the king.
Except when it’s not.
As long as you are desired (and stay young and thin), you’re on top. The second you stop being desired (and put on some weight and get old), you’re out in the cold as if you never existed. Talented Mr. Talley, brilliant and hardworking, had to endure the same ups and downs. The attitude in the fashion industry is always “what have you done for me lately”; not, I am sorry to say “you are a brilliant, hardworking person who made us look better and we’ll always be grateful.”
Mr. Talley mentions that he thinks being African-American worked against him in the industry. I’m quite sure he’s correct. There were probably times when it worked for him, too, as it added to his uniqueness and fashion loves unique. I think, though, that what also sometimes worked against him was plain old boring, mundane human jealousy. When you are brilliant, talented, stylish and hardworking, you make other people look bad. They don’t work hard themselves and they resent anyone who does, showing them up as the slackers they are.
It doesn’t matter how well-mannered you are if someone resents you for breathing. It doesn’t matter how smart you are if someone can’t see past the fact that you’re a scholarship boy (a terrific British term that perfectly encapsulates talented student from the trailer-park trying to mix with his aristocratic betters) with zero family money or connections. It doesn’t matter how hard you work if someone actively looks for the dirt from the trailer-park that you shook off your feet long ago. Thus, despite the rarified air Mr. Talley breathed on a daily basis, he didn’t always sleep in a bed of Porthault sheets embroidered with roses. It wasn’t all glamorous fun, despite what his life looked like when seen in the pages of Vogue.
I devoured The Chiffon Trenches. It was fascinating, reading stories about names I recognize like Diana Vreeland, Anna Wintour, Karl Lagerfeld, Yves Saint Laurent and more and more and more A-list names after them. The book has a cast of thousands. My gracious, does Mr. Talley have stories to tell. He knows simply everybody who was anybody in the fashion business.
He’s also honest. A great many of these people are, how to put this nicely. Hmm. Aha! Challenging, entitled pains in the ass who shove you under the bus into the slush the second you stop being useful. I’m reminded once again of Lord Acton’s famous statement: “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Truer words were never spoken.
The Chiffon Trenches is a great read and if you’re interested at all in the fashion business at any level, it’s well worth your time. So why don’t I award it that all-important last half sparkler?
It needed an index!
Oh my God but this book needs an index. Famous name after famous name and no index to keep track of them all! I have no idea why Ballentine didn’t spend the pittance an indexer would have cost. They knew this book was going to sell like ice cream in August. The Chiffon Trenches is going to be read by fashion historians for decades. It will become a reference work. It needs an index.
The other reason is that it needed more photographs. There are some, both buried in the text and in the color plate section. Even so, considering the amazing clothes and amazing people Mr. Talley discusses, there weren’t enough of them. Again, this will be a book that fashion historians will use for decades. There should have been more photographs. Lots more photographs. Ballentine could have easily doubled the size of The Chiffon Trenches with added photographs. Yes, that would have transformed the book into a coffee-table sized volume but so what? That would not have been a bad thing.
I don’t mean just fashion photographs of famous people either. Some photographs of his roots in Durham, his grandmother in particular, would have been very nice too, considering how his upraising gave him the strength to manage what can be a very vicious industry.
So there you have it. The Chiffon Trenches is a great, insider’s look inside an industry that affects each of us, every day, whether we notice it or not.
If you’d like to learn more about the talented Mr. Talley, you can follow him on twitter: https://twitter.com/OfficialALT?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Eauthor
Or on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/andreltalley/?hl=en
The Chiffon Trenches can be found at https://www.amazon.com/Chiffon-Trenches/dp/0008342342
Rewiring Tinnitus: How I Finally Found Relief from the Ringing in My Ears by Glenn Schweitzer.
Nonfiction, self-help, health and fitness
I have had tinnitus for years. Mine generally sounds like static on the radio with a faint, high-pitched whine. Sometimes I get bees, either a few or worse, an entire hive full of bees buzzing around aimlessly. Angry bees are the worst. The tinnitus would rise and fall and I didn’t have any idea what to do. Sometimes it would be easier to tolerate, for no reason I could see. Keeping busy, white noise, background music; sometimes those things helped and sometimes they didn’t.
Dr. Google and the internet were no help.
I figured I would have to live with it, suffering every step of the way. Then, I cannot remember why, I saw Rewiring Tinnitus: How I Finally Found Relief from the Ringing in My Ears and asked my husband to buy it for me. Unlike most of the snake-oil salesmen on the internet, Mr. Schweitzer didn’t promise my tinnitus would go away and it hasn’t. He didn’t promise effortless results and he’s right about that too.
But since reading his book, I’m better.
I did not know where tinnitus comes from and now, I do. While it’s annoying to the point of maddening, tinnitus is physically harmless. It is the operating noise in your inner ear, similar to the whir of a fan in operation. People without tinnitus don’t hear this normal body noise –lucky them! Tinnitus sufferers do get to hear the ears’ built-in operating system.
Mr. Schweitzer discusses the background of tinnitus, tinnitus triggers, keeping records of those triggers, tinnitus as a symptom of your overall health, and most importantly, what you can do about it.
There is no cure.
But and this is important, you can habituate yourself to your tinnitus. He does it with meditation. Now I have meditated in the past. It helps me keep a clearer focus. Unfortunately, as with flossing, I am inconsistent with my meditation. Like exercise and flossing, mediation works best when you do it every day and frequently, I don’t seem to find the time. More importantly, my tinnitus got in the way.
So, I started meditating again and this time, did something I would have never thought of: I focused on the sound of my tinnitus as Mr. Schweitzer recommends rather than trying to ignore it. That is, I used the tinnitus like an ‘om’ mantra or focusing on my breathing.
I learned a few things right away. My tinnitus is primarily located not in my ear canals, but on the other side of the ear drum. Yes, I can now locate its point of origin. It’s primarily on my right side. I now realize that it rarely pops up on my left side. I don’t know why that happens. It must be something in my own brain’s wiring pattern. Considering how ubiquitous and annoying the buzzing is, it turned out to be surprisingly difficult to focus on it.
The idea behind focusing on the tinnitus during mediation is to habituate yourself to the sound, remove all the negative emotions that make it worse, and perhaps, learn to not hear it as much. Mr. Schweitzer suggests that this process will take several weeks to several months. I’d have to agree with that assessment and yet, within a few days, my tinnitus got easier to tolerate. Not a lot. But a little bit and I didn’t believe that would ever happen.
I had also never considered tinnitus triggers even though I knew my tinnitus was always worse after I had a poor night’s sleep. I had discovered on my own that aspirin made my tinnitus worse. I hadn’t realized that alcohol or caffeine were triggers, along with many prescription medications. Learning your tinnitus triggers and avoiding them does not merely lessen your suffering. It gives you a much-needed sense of control.
Thanks to this little book, I understand my tinnitus much better. The better I understand it, the better I can cope with it. It was a tremendous relief to discover that what I was hearing, what was sometimes driving me crazy, was just another body noise like my heartbeat.
I can’t live without my heartbeat and I don’t want to live without my ears functioning either. But like my heartbeat, I now have hope that my tinnitus will recede into the background, there but no longer as much of an annoyance.
I am very happy that I spotted Rewiring Tinnitus: How I Finally Found Relief from the Ringing in My Ears, bought it and read it. The meditation process and an understanding of tinnitus triggers might help you too.
If you want more information about Glenn Schweitzer, he keeps a blog about tinnitus: https://rewiringtinnitus.com/.
If you’d like to purchase his book go to: https://www.amazon.com/Rewiring-Tinnitus-Finally-Relief-Ringing-ebook/dp/B01MYYV43E/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_product_top?ie=UTF8
The Business of Being a Writer by Jane Friedman
nonfiction, how-to, writing as a business
Now that I’m slowly becoming a writer myself, I’m paying more attention to the business aspects of writing. Writing without getting paid is all very well, but really, if you aren’t getting paid, you might as well be writing in your journal.
Writing is important for self-expression to be sure, but so is getting paid. Self-expression does not cut any ice with the grocer or the landlady. They would like to get paid too and they do not provide their services if they are not paid. I’m reminded of Samuel Johnson: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”
Or Ferenc Molnár: “(I regard writing) Like a whore. First, I did it for my own pleasure. Then I did it for the pleasure of my friends. And now — I do it for money.”
As you may guess, money is near and dear to my heart. I love being able to pay my bills and I love it even more when collection agencies do not call looking for money. It’s an unpleasant experience and I don’t recommend it. Most of all, I love having a savings account as a bulwark against uncertainties, certain to happen these days.
Sadly, writing (a home-based business if there ever was one) does not necessarily pay all that well. It can pay extremely well — look! Look! There’s Nora Roberts! EEEEEEE, look at the size of her bank account. Oh my God! But for every Nora Roberts who, by the way, does not get nearly the respect she should for her business acumen, there must be tens of thousands of lesser writers who barely earn utility bill money. Or even coffee money.
Why is this? It isn’t necessarily the caliber of the writing. A darn good story, loaded with grammatical errors and typos, can outsell better written fiction that is, to be charitable, dull. It isn’t necessarily the genre either. Writers have been able to quit their day jobs by writing in all sorts of genres, from westerns to medieval highlander romances to horror and yes, sometimes even literary.
Do not be deceived on that last point, no matter what you may have been told by some highfalutin English professor at the type of college that over four years costs almost as much as a house (the national median price for a home in 2020 is about $285,000 dollars or about $71,000 per year).
Those numbers make community college look even better, don’t they? You can get a college education and buy a house. But I digress.
Literary is a genre of fiction, higher-brow and more status-y than book-club fiction and considerably higher status than, say, werewolf bondage porn which outsells literary by thousands of copies to one on a daily basis. Why, literary is so high-status that people go to expensive colleges and lay out tens of thousands of dollars to learn how to write glittering, jewel-like prose that wins awards even if it doesn’t win sales.
But it is still a genre.
What so many of those people laying out big bucks on an MFA in writing do not learn, however, is that writing is a business in which the aim is not self-expression. It is to make money by telling stories that people want to read. Publishers like the cachet of presenting novels for the ages to the public, but just like grocers and landladies, they need to earn a profit to stay in business.
Yet so few writing programs discuss the business aspects of writing, something every writer should know if only to be able to read and understand their contract. Astute readers may recall a review I wrote some time back discussing Stephen Goldin and Kathleen Sky’s book The Business of Being a Writer. That title was published way, way, way back in 1982.
Very few books have been published since then that try to help writers keep abreast of all the aspects of their business. Goldin and Sky wrote their book nearly forty years ago, and here we are, having crossed the vast wastelands of time, in 2020 with Jane Friedman’s book with the identical title, The Business of Being a Writer.
To be more accurate, Ms. Friedman published The Business of Being a Writer in 2018. For various reasons, I’m only now getting around to reviewing it in 2020.
Ms. Friedman, however, is targeting a slightly different market than Stephen Goldin and Kathleen Sky wrote for all those years ago. She has her sights set on an even more underserved market than your typical writer who believes that getting paid to tell stories is a great gig and has no trouble with accepting money.
Ms. Friedman aims her book at all those literary writers emerging from MFA programs, ink still wet on their gaspingly expensive diplomas, only to discover that the literary genre earns coffee money at best. She actually spends several pages discussing an aspect of writing I had never once considered: is it vile and mercenary to earn money by one’s writing? To, quelle horreur, sell your work?
I was stunned. Stunned, I tell you.
Apparently, some people believe that getting paid is the equivalent of prostituting one’s art. Obviously, those people have someone else paying their bills. Otherwise, they would strenuously object to being paid with free copies of obscure literary journals rather than with a check. I, on the other hand, expect to be paid, but then I freely admit to being a peasant, descended from hundreds of generations of peasants. There’s no blue blood in my family nor are there glittering heaps of inherited wealth.
Yet despite their exorbitant cost, MFA programs rarely discuss getting paid or how contracts work or the ins and outs of intellectual property. Since Ms. Friedman has labored in the MFA trenches, she is well aware of the enormous gaps in what they teach. Thus, after she discusses the merits of asking for money, she spends over three hundred more pages addressing all aspects of getting published, managing the industrial-literary complex, dealing with editors, and hopefully earning money.
Yet she misses important topics like record-keeping, vital to any writer’s business. Or dealing with the IRS, who have stringent rules about what is acceptable and what is not. Here’s a hint: they tell you what to do and you do it. If you don’t want to decipher the tax code, hire a CPA and let her tell you what to do and then do it. If you do not follow the IRS’s rules, you may find yourself blazing new trails in tax law in court.
On the other hand, Ms. Friedman devotes pages to applying for grants and sinecures. I didn’t know those things existed but if you’re literary enough, they do. They are also highly, highly competitive since MFA programs graduate far more students than there are jobs awaiting them.
It’s an interesting book, chockfull of information that should be discussed in every MFA program in the country and yet doesn’t seem to be. This is why you so often meet MFA graduates who are shocked to learn that royalties will not be paid until after the advance has been paid off in full via sales. Advances are loans against royalties. No sellout, no further money. Getting an contract with a hefty advance does not guarantee you will ever receive another one.
She wrote her book to be used as a textbook in an MFA program and other than being engaging to read, it shows. (Textbooks are usually tedious but hers is not.) You’re constantly being told to refer to another section of the book ten chapters along or to turn back to an earlier chapter.
It’s also $66 for a trade paperback. The University of Chicago Press published this gem and since they cater to a rarified market, they expect to get paid more than $19.95 which is what a print book of this nature would normally cost. Textbook inflation, don’t you know. Students are a captive market so it behooves the publisher to extract every possible penny, simply because they can. Also, extracting every possible penny allows the publisher to subsidize those other literary titles that get printed for reasons of cachet and status but which will never earn any money.
Not having $66 to spare, I got my copy at the library and I suggest you do the same.
This is because of another monetary issue that Ms. Friedman doesn’t consider and that is cash-flow. When she discusses spending thousands of dollars on editing, she must be assuming the presence of plenty of money. I would never make such an assumption. Instead, my assumption would be that you, dear wanna-be writer, are working with an extremely limited budget and you, dear wanna-be writer, have to chose between spending $66 on Amazon Media Service ads and a generic pre-made cover.
You may not be able to afford both. You certainly can’t spend $66 on her book when it’s free at your library. You can find better uses for $66. Never forget: cash-flow means if you can’t afford to lose the money, you can’t afford to spend it.
Since you can’t afford to waste money, you also have to do as much of your own editing as is humanly possible. Fortunately, you can self-edit and every error you catch is one you do not have to pay an editor to catch. Or worse, you won’t leave errors for your readers to catch and point out in your one-star Amazon reviews, causing you embarrassment and wonder over why you didn’t pay for an editor.
Ms. Friedman does not waste pages on self-editing — that being the province of writers on a budget — but that’s not the aim of her book.
So is The Business of Being a Writer for you? If you’re a writer or supporting a writer, I’d say yes. It’s well worth reading. Ms. Friedman is an engaging writer and the book is loaded with useful information even if you don’t aspire to literary heights. I made numerous notes (on my own paper since I’ve got a library copy) of items I wanted to remember.
It’s extremely comprehensive, within the limits of literary aspirations. If you’re writing and self-publishing werewolf bondage porn, you may not find her book as useful since you won’t be seeking out agents or trying to gain exposure in New York literary circles. You’re already earning more money than Ms. Friedman’s targeted audience of MFA students ever will. Yet, while you relax on the lanai of your beach house in Kauai, you will learn things you should know about dealing with contracts.
Are you considering a career as a writer? Then get in the queue at your library to help you prepare for the future. You won’t be disappointed.
Then, if Ms. Friedman’s book is truly useful to you, you can decide if you need a copy of your very own to highlight and mark up.
If you’d prefer the very useful Stephen Goldin and Kathleen Sky book of the same title, despite being 40 years out of date: https://www.amazon.com/Business-Being-Writer-Stephen-Goldin/dp/0060149779/ref=sr_1_2?dchild=1&keywords=stephen+goldin+kathleen+sky+business+of+being+a+writer&qid=1601598611&s=books&sr=1-2
If you’d like to follow Ms. Friedman in her adventures: https://www.janefriedman.com/
If you’d like to self-edit your writing so you don’t pay expensive editors to fix penny mistakes: https://www.amazon.com/Self-Editing-Fiction-Writers-Second-Yourself/dp/0060545690/ref=sr_1_2?crid=IE4P8ZHRI519&dchild=1&keywords=self-editing+for+fiction+writers&qid=1601599190&s=books&sprefix=self-editing%2Cstripbooks%2C146&sr=1-2
So You Want to Publish a Book? by Anne Trubek
Nonfiction, the writing business
This is a charming little book, but quite short. Ms. Trubek does stick to the point so there are few wasted words. Still, it could have been longer. Easily. Definitely. Certainly. There is so much to say about the publishing business, especially for people who are new to the concept. This is a very short book on a huge subject. An introduction, really, instead of a comprehensive tome that would be so much more useful to anyone actually wanting to learn how to publish books.
I suppose newbies learning how to publish will, after learning what they can from Ms. Trubek, learn the rest of the business via the school of hard knocks. That’s a very cruel school with a high failure rate leading straight to both bankruptcy and divorce court if you don’t pay attention to the feedback you receive.
Let’s learn about the publishing business and see if it’s right for your new business venture.
There are two kinds of publishers today. (We don’t include vanity presses who are out to cheat you.) Traditional publishers come in a variety of sizes, from microscopic and publishing less than ten books a year to giants like Hachette who publish hundreds if not thousands of titles each year. Traditional publishers accept manuscripts from writers, convert the manuscripts into books, and then sell the books. At no point does a traditional publisher charge the writer. They pay the writer, maybe only the advance and maybe considerably more, but they do pay.
Indie writers publish only themselves and they do all the work. Indies are publishers, even if they don’t think of themselves that way.
A traditional publisher provides a lot of services for a writer. They edit the manuscript (with varying degrees of quality). They provide cover art (the writer may or may not get any say in the design). They print the books (a huge expense) and try to get the book into libraries and bookstores. They have marketing departments to help the sales process along.
A traditional writer’s job is writing the book, sometimes but not always finding an agent who will find a publisher (not every publisher requires agents), doing the rewrites, and then, after the book is published, working to get their book in front of as many readers as possible.
Publishers do want to sell books; that’s how they stay in business. Nonetheless, publishers expect their stable of writers to go out there and sell their babies to an uncaring public. Traditional writers cannot hide in their garret and let other people do the hard work of selling. Maybe they used to be able to do that, long, long, long, long, long ago but these days, they can’t.
Indie writers have to provide for themselves every service a publisher provides. They have to get editing, arrange for covers, produce the book in varying formats, and when the book is ready, go out and sell their baby to an uncaring public. All these services cost money, money that comes right out of your writing bottom line. Or, you spend oodles of time learning to do them yourself, instead of writing the next book.
If you, Writer, are not a well-organized businessperson, then a publisher is vital. On the other hand, if you are a well-organized businessperson, a publisher may not be so vital. This is especially true since if you take all the risks, you get all the money. The amount of money you earn will vary wildly. Most indie writers make coffee money. A few indie writers make ‘beach house in Kauai’ money.
While it is unlikely, earning ‘beach house in Kauai’ money is still more likely than hitting big in the lottery. Someday, if I work hard, learn how to do proper advertising, and get very lucky, I may get to Kauai.
It’s fairly obvious why some people want to become writers. We all have stories to tell. But why do some people want to become publishers and take on risk and spend lots of money to allow other people to tell their stories?
Because they discover there is a certain satisfaction to be had (along with the money) in helping writers reach their audience. Tell their stories. Inform, educate, entertain; all the things that storytellers have done since we first started telling stories around the fire in front of the cave.
It’s a lot of work being an indie writer and having to be your own publisher. Publishers take on that burden so writers can write. Good publishers — and not every publisher is good — pay a decent royalty rate to their authors, make sure their authors understand the contract they just signed, explain why a tiny advance and a decent royalty can be better career-wise than a larger advance and tiny royalties. A good publisher does not leave his stable of writers in the dark.
Let me repeat. Not every publisher is good.
If you as a traditional writer would like to have some standards by which to judge a publishing house, reading So You Want to Publish a Book? will explain a lot of the background behind the mysterious and often nonsensical choices a publishing house makes. They aren’t nonsensical when the price of paper is considered. Nor are they nonsensical when the publisher is looking at what the market actually is willing to pay for, as opposed to the book the author wants to write; the book that will have three paying customers not including the author’s relatives.
Ms. Trubek’s book gives you valuable insight. You’ll use it when you hold your traditionally published book for the very first time and can judge if the publisher did a decent job with your baby. Or, if you should reread your contract carefully and then sign with a different publisher for your next book.
On the other hand, if you are an indie writer, reading So You Want to Publish a Book? will help you produce a book that stands next to traditionally published books without shame. Your book will look just as professional. It will fit into its category nicely along with the comps you used to develop it. Your cover won’t end up in one of those ‘worst book cover’ contests. The first sentence of your reviews won’t be ‘oh my God but this writer needs an editor and a formatter stat!’.
So You Want to Publish a Book? has another small group of readers.
Someone you know wrote a novel and is convinced they’ll be the next Stephen King. They can write competently, tell a darn good story, and you loved the book but for various reasons, they need someone to guide them in the business aspects. Traditional contracts are hard to come by these days so they turn to you: capable, organized, money to spare, and looking for a challenge since you’ve already conquered the Matterhorn.
Publishing companies have been built on less. If you’re thinking about publishing anyone’s book for any reason, you should start here. Learn where and how to spend the money needed to get books in hand before you start writing those checks.
So You Want to Publish a Book? pairs very nicely with another how-to-publish book I read recently. Joe Biel wrote A People’s Guide to Publishing: Build a Successful, Sustainable, Meaningful Book Business from the Ground Up. His book is far more detailed than Ms. Trubek’s (over four hundred pages) but he has a different take on many subjects. You should read them both if you’re thinking about getting into the business.
So why didn’t I give this book that oh so valuable fifth sparkler? It isn’t because Ms. Trubek, like many publishers, thinks of writers as talented, necessary but often annoying cattle who desperately need the skilled guidance of a publisher.
It’s because her book is too darn short! She could have gone into so much more detail about cash flow, running a small business when you don’t know how much money you’ll earn until a year after you shipped the books to the bookstores (the dreaded returns system), dealing with printers, and considering Print-On-Demand versus offset printing. And that’s just for starters! We haven’t even begun to discuss who’s going to do editing, layout, formatting, covers, indexing, proofreading, and how you’re going to pay them.
By the way, if you are indie, Print-On-Demand is your friend. With Print-On-Demand, you don’t need to order one thousand copies of your book from the printer. You only order what you need. It is far more expensive per book, but you also won’t fill your garage to the rafters with copies waiting to be sold.
The other point I want to make is that Ms. Trubek, despite being a savvy businesswoman, made a mistake in the back of the book. This is concerning.
She owns and operates Belt Publishing. They are a niche publisher, operating out of Cleveland, and they specialize in books discussing the rust belt in all its permutations. She has a line of books. She spends time in the text discussing how important it is to a small publisher like hers that readers like you order their books directly from her rather than through Amazon or even a friendly local independent bookstore. She makes a lot of money this way, money that when deposited in her bank account tends to stay there and not get refunded because of returns.
She tells you what a signature is and illustrates this concept with a note explaining So You Want to Publish a Book? has several blank pages at the end, bringing the total page count to 160.
There are also blank pages dotted here and there throughout the book. Very elegant, all that white space. Ideal for making notes and I wrote on the blank pages in my copy. But those pages are blank. Empty. Remember, Ms. Trubek and Belt Publishing have BOOKS TO SELL!
She could have removed those blank pages from the body of the book, moved them to the end of the book, and PRINTED HER CATALOG there! She would have still used complete signatures and she would have gotten some advertising for other Belt Publishing titles. I’m positive that she’s got some evergreen titles that would have coordinated nicely with So You Want to Publish a Book? Or she could have shown off what’s new or what’s coming or printed a cross-section of her titles to demonstrate the range of Belt Publishing.
This catalog could lead to more direct sales to readers. It could also lead to writers looking at the catalog and thinking, ‘I should submit to Belt because my writing would be a good match for what they are interested in publishing’.
This is also a demonstration of how easy it is to miss something, even for professionals. Or maybe she wanted blank pages because she had run out of things to say. I find that hard to believe because there was plenty more she could have said. I do know that I put catalogs in the back of Peschel Press titles because you never know what will attract a reader. But those blank pages — when they could have been filled with useful tidbits about the publishing business or a catalog of Belt Publications titles — make me wonder what else Ms. Trubek didn’t address that will jump up and bite a new publisher.
It’s still a good book in a very underserved niche and if you’re interested in entering the publishing biz, spending $16.95 now can save you a heap of money later on.
If you want to follow Ms. Trubek’s adventures, here’s her website: http://annetrubek.com/
If you want to purchase a copy of So You Want to Publish a Book? go directly to Belt Publishing because they make the most money this way and thus manage to stay in business: https://beltpublishing.com/
If you want to purchase A People’s Guide to Publishing: Build a Successful, Sustainable, Meaningful Book Business from the Ground Up by Joe Biel as a companion to Ms. Trubek’s book, go directly to Microcosm Publishing for the same reason: https://microcosmpublishing.com/
If you chose to purchase your copies from an indie bookstore, hurray. They get some money too.
Amazon is also available for both titles, but I’ll let you find them yourself. Remember, Belt Publishing (or Microcosm) won’t earn as much from the sale of an individual title because Amazon takes its cut. That’s how Amazon stays in business.
The Eighth Detective by Alex Pavesi
fiction, mystery, story within a story
I’m not a rabid fan of Golden Age mysteries although I have read my fair share. There are those people who not only read all of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Ellery Queen, and the like but go on to read the more obscure writers from that time period.
I am not one of those people. Nonetheless, I do know something about Golden Age mysteries and the writing styles and tics used in that time period. My dear husband (that would be Bill) is a huge mystery fan and annotates classic mysteries to explain to a modern audience what an audience in 1921 knew automatically. I’m his first reader (the traditional job of a longsuffering spouse) as well as his first editor so I have to plow through pages of this stuff in order for us to publish our books.
It’s a complex relationship.
Why is this important? I read a wide variety of books for a wide variety of reasons. They are written over a wide range of time, going back to the 19th century. Contemporary books — that is, books written in the present day for the present audience (at whatever era this is; don’t forget Jane Austen wrote contemporaries) as opposed to science-fiction, fantasy, or historicals — are relics of their time. When that time passes, the audience’s knowledge passes along with it. If you have ever had to explain to a young’un why Superman changed into his super-suit in a phone booth or where the flashdrive goes in a typewriter, you know how things can change.
Styles of writing change too. Nineteenth century novelists assumed their books would be read aloud to a variety of people of various ages. One person would read in the evening to entertain everyone else keeping their hands busy with knitting, mending, or other such needed tasks. Nineteenth century novelists also had to assume that their audience had never seen elephants or pyramids along the Nile or exotic Japanese kimonos. Thus, a classic novel such as one by Dickens has pages of description of people, places, and things because Dickens could not assume his audience automatically knew what such people, places, and things looked like. He had a genuine reason, as important as the one of being paid by the word. Never forget that our age is awash in visual imagery of every possible variety, including varieties we would all be better off not seeing.
What classic novelists did not do was wallow in the pornography of violence, nor did they go skinny-dipping into the bayou of smut, coming up smeared with bodily fluids. Police brutality may have been alluded to in veiled terms but it wasn’t out there and in your face. Nor were unnatural acts described in detail. People knew about them, but they didn’t discuss them in print.
This is why Charles Dickens — who wrote for adults — can be read by fifth graders today, assuming they have the ability to focus for more than thirty seconds at a time. All kinds of dreadful things happen to his characters and they are realer than real, but he doesn’t swim in filth to make himself ‘relevant’.
And so we arrive at Alex Pavesi’s first novel, The Eighth Detective.
I came across the description of his novel in BookPage, one of those ‘what to read today’ magazines my library hands out to all comers. It sounded interesting and it fit with so many of our interests here at Peschel Press.
A revisit to the Golden Age mysteries of yore!
A mystery within a mystery!
The mathematical underpinnings of mysteries!
Wow. The breathless ad-copy bespelled me and I put the book on hold at the library and waited for my number to come up. Eventually it did and I began the novel with breathless enthusiasm for this new, marvelous, exciting literary sensation.
Well. I didn’t remain breathless for long, probably a good thing since I’d be in the hospital otherwise.
The book is a literary conceit using the classic method of stories told within a larger framework. Thus, the novel opens with the first story set in Spain in 1930. Then, in chapter two, we discover that the first story is going to be dissected by two people; Julia the rediscoverer and would-be editor and Grant, the writer and mathematician who wrote those stories so long ago.
Supposedly he wrote those stories back in 1939 or so and had them privately printed. Julia is here to bring them back to an eager public, largely because of their unusual mathematical underpinnings that explain and define the elements necessary for a mystery. To do this, she has to interview Grant in his cottage located on some island in the Mediterranean.
The novel alternates chapters between the seven stories and Julia and Grant discussing the stories. Eventually, we discover the true reason that Julia is doing this tedious and expensive research which anyone who knows anything about the writing business would recognize as overkill. No publisher is going to spend big bucks to send an editor on a working vacation to some island in the Mediterranean to interview some has-been mathematician/writer who privately published one book that promptly sank into obscurity. Not when writers are banging on the doors and windows begging to be published with new and exciting books for the modern era.
Despite his amazing mystery-writing chops, Grant the writer does not recognize how unlikely this all is. We are given a reason for this, by the way. Eventually. Many, many, many, many tedious pages later.
This is where I come back to true Golden Age mysteries and how they were written. We are told the stories within the novel were published in late 1940 or so as The White Murders.
No one writing in 1940 (or earlier) would refer to a woman on the stage or in the movies as an ‘actor’. That’s a modern affectation. Women on stage were actresses. That’s what they called themselves and so did everyone else. There are a whole slew of similar gendered words, some of which have gone by the wayside. Poetess. Authoress. Comedienne. Waitress. Seamstress. Landlady. They disappear if they aren’t useful.
Stories written in that time frame did not wallow in violence. They did not go into gory detail about beatings, drownings, suffocations, being brained by hammers, or any other details of death. When Dorothy Sayers in Whose Body wrote the Grand Guignol scene involving identifying a body via an autopsy after it was buried and exhumed, she managed to be discreet. Not Mr. Pavesi. He revels in gruesome detail.
I just couldn’t accept what I was being told about these stories being from this time period. It all felt intensely contemporary in vocabulary, settings, characterizations, and attitudes. Mr. Pavesi needs to spend a great deal more time reading Ngaio Marsh or Mary Roberts Rinehart to develop a feel for the time period. For that matter, the framing chapters took place about thirty years after the original seven stories were written. Do the math and the framing story took place in the late 60’s to 70’s. It doesn’t ‘read’ correctly either.
I didn’t like the framing story at all. Both Julia and Grant were so bloodless and uninteresting. I didn’t care one bit about either of them and the big reveals at the very end did not make me care more. People claim Agatha Christie was a passionless writer but her books seethe with passion and emotion. The framing story was about as interesting as watching engineers use their slide rules and logarithmic tables to design a highway overpass in 1966.
The mathematical formulas being discussed were sort of interesting but they got tedious too. If it’s a good story, who cares? And if the story is boring and tedious, then all the mathematical formulations in the world will not improve it. It’s a conceit in the literary genre that glittering, jewellike prose will overcome a tedious story. It doesn’t, which is why low-brow authors whose story engines go vroom, vroom, vroom outsell by millions high-brow authors who can write better but can’t tell a story to save their lives.
I looked up Mr. Pavesi. This is his first novel. I was not surprised to discover he is a software engineer with a PhD in mathematics. It shows. Boy oh boy does it show. He jettisoned humanity in all its complexity and passion in favor of equations and making colorless paper dolls interact on a two-dimensional stage.
If you’re looking for Golden Age mysteries, don’t bother with The Eighth Detective. Reread Dame Agatha or Dorothy Sayers or any one of hundreds of other authors of their time period. They will all be better than this novel.
I’m not sure who The Eighth Detective is written for. I have to suppose it is for readers with a strong taste for highfalutin literature that can be bragged about during dinner parties as a status symbol demonstrating the correct taste and class.
The rest of us can reread Rex Stout and have a much better time.
If, after all this, you still feel like devoting a few hours to The Eighth Detective, visit your library. Your tax dollars paid for it so you might as well take advantage of their collection.
Mr. Pavesi does not operate a website so you cannot follow his adventures in higher mathematics and literature. He does, however, have a twitter feed: https://twitter.com/pavesi_alex
Chaos Reigning by Jessie Mihalik
Third volume in the Consortium Rebellion Trilogy
Fiction, space opera/romance
I (2 1/2)
Jessie Mihalik has finished (for now) her space opera trilogy about the Consortium running the universe (not the galaxy; apparently our unimaginably vast galaxy — The Milky Way — doesn’t offer a big enough scope) and the von Hasenberg family.
There are six siblings in the von Hasenberg family and each volume to date focuses on a single sister. They find love, they discover who they are, and they move the plot forward.
Thus, book 1 Polaris Rising focuses on Ada von Hasenberg. She meets her genetically reengineered super-soldier, Loch, and we discover what a hyper-competent badass she really is. She’s able to keep up with him, which does not tone down her insecurities enough. Loch is remarkably like Vin Diesel in the Chronicles of Riddick so it’s understandable that Ada puts enormous time and energy into regularly rescuing him. Who wouldn’t want to rescue Vin Diesel? And have him offer you the traditional hero’s reward in exchange for rescue?
I would rescue Vin Diesel for a chance like that.
I got Polaris Rising through a Bookbub deal so the price was right. I wrote a review for Bookbub but it is lost to the ages. Let’s recap the most important point: I liked Polaris Rising enough to get in the queue for the second book, Aurora Blazing, at the library. Not, you note, enough to purchase Aurora Blazing. This is why our tax dollars pay for libraries. To make books available for everyone to share so we as individuals do not have to purchase and maintain 100,000 volume book depositories in our homes. Far more books get published because we have libraries. If we didn’t have libraries, far fewer books like Ms. Mihalik’s opus would remain unwritten and unpublished.
Polaris Rising set up the Consortium Trilogy with brave rebels (of course!), evil emperors (are there any other kind?), remarkable physics whereby characters can travel and communicate with zero time-lag across the vasty depths of interstellar space (shades of Dr. Who) and, most strangely, no aliens or alien food of any kind (huh?).
These people terraform planets across the ‘verse yet apparently can’t eat anything local. I would think that somewhere in the vastness of space there is a planet that has an indigenous plant even more delicious than chocolate or coffee, but no. The complete and utter lack of aliens right down to cute pets is weird too. Humans make pets of everything. There must have been some kind of cuddly alien critter who make good pets on one of those terraformed planets.
However, there’s always the possibility that I missed where Ms. Mihalik mentioned these things.
Polaris Rising also sets up the idea that the unimaginably vast ‘verse is ruled by three High Houses who are each controlled by one person. One person to rule the vastness of space. I was deeply impressed. I attend my local municipal meetings (you should too and I hope Ms. Mihalik does) and it is hard enough to govern the fractious population of the Township of Derry despite it only being about 27,000 people. And we have a bureaucracy in place to assist citizens, interpret the rules, and act as an interface between us and higher levels of government. There must be a huge bureaucracy in place in the Consortium, similar to the Vogons in size and scope.
Nonetheless, other than the military, I must have missed it. There are other lower houses, forming the aristocracy, but they don’t seem to do much to run their own worlds or participate in governing. They attend parties and conspire and dress well. They provide marriage material for the High Houses since you can’t marry your sibling. I’ll come back to that topic later.
Despite disliking Ada (but not Vin Diesel, sorry, Loch — yum, yum, yum) and thinking the entire premise of the series had serious issues, I moved onto Aurora Blazing. I like space opera, I sort of write space opera, I have plans to do more with space opera, and so it behooves me to know what is current and wildly popular in space opera. Jessie Mihalik’s books are wildly popular.
I liked Bianca, our heroine in Aurora Blazing, better than her sister Ada. She had a real problem, that of being experimented upon by her evil ex-husband. There were plenty of things I noticed as you can tell by my review of Aurora Blazing but I persevered and so here we are at last, with my library copy of Chaos Reigning.
I thought Ada was annoying but she was far more tolerable than twenty-one- year-old Catarina von Hasenberg. ‘Cat’ to her friends. Thank God for small mercies. It wasn’t ‘Cate’, a name I dislike even more than the horribly overused to the point of cliché ‘Kate’.
Cat has a problem that is gradually revealed throughout the text and yes, I would agree that what was done to her was criminal. We get an explanation but I have to wonder what the underlying explanation was. What was the dreadful predicament that terrified the most competent person in history (that would be her father, Albrecht von Hasenberg) into doing such a thing? He has the entire universe to govern so it is possible he has concerns beyond being evil. Since he doesn’t make a conscious appearance, we don’t know. Cat’s mother is also, as per all three novels, scarily competent but we don’t know what she thought of what Albrecht did to their daughter either.
Maybe it was the sudden appearance of aliens, hitherto nonexistent in the ‘verse.
A major issue I have with this book is Cat herself. She’s twenty-one which is probably part of it. Since discovering her real problem at thirteen, she’s spent the next eight years training everyone around her to think bubbly, bubble-brained socialite heiress whenever they think of her. Think Paris Hilton when she was twenty-one. Clothes, hair, parties, fun, interior décor, celebrities, gossip, shopping, travel; whatever is trendy and amusing. Cat makes a point of demonstrating there is nothing more taxing on her mind than selecting the most fashionable color of nail polish.
At the same time, Cat whines constantly that no one takes her seriously. That she is dismissed as a vacuous but extremely well-connected nonentity. That she’s really G.I. Jane, not Malibu Barbie, and why can’t everyone magically see this when it’s convenient for her?
Because you trained them not to, Cat, dear, including your own dear siblings. Pay attention. You claim you have a brain so use it.
She’s twenty-one so one can hope that Cat will grow a brain to go along with her remarkable physical abilities. But, since she was brought up from birth as an entitled princess of the von Hasenbergs, maybe not.
She meets her true love as would be expected and my goodness was it blah. Alex, our hero, is another super-soldier because normal men don’t make the grade here. Not even normal men who are aristocrats. Nope. Sorry guys, you will never measure up despite how hard you work or how talented you are or how funny you can be.
Yet Alex was, was, was, how to put this. Not that interesting. Physically, he was delightful. Again, this might have been me and I missed the details of his sparkling personality because Cat was so whiny and annoying that I was skimming the text at a pretty high rate of speed.
Lest you think this book was a complete waste of Ms. Mihalik’s time and the carcasses of entire forests of trees, there were pluses. You get to meet some members of the other lower aristocracy. You meet Lady Ying Yamato, a very important person. You learn more about the evil Mafia-like criminal organization, the Syndicate. You get battle scenes, deeds of derring-do, political machinations, reversals of fortune, and unexpected allies appearing when least expected.
Sadly, none of this made the book catch fire for me.
But you may be different! Your mileage may vary! As per the Amazon and Goodreads reviews, thousands of people adore Ms. Mihalik’s writing enough to write glowing reviews. You can generally assume that for each review you see (positive or negative) that dozens of people felt the same way but didn’t bother to write a review. Industry and politicians work on this same assumption: every hand-generated letter means one hundred other people felt the same way but didn’t take the time to write.
Here’s another point.
I mentioned earlier about the lower Houses providing marriage partners to the High Houses? And not marrying your sibling? One of the really weird things about this series is that the three High Houses (there used to be a fourth) have been in power for generations. Yet these three High Houses have no relatives. At all. There’s mom or dad (who is the sole ruler of the House; it’s primogeniture but it’s the oldest who inherits, whatever their gender) and the kids. That’s it.
That is not just weird. It is bizarre.
If you look at the royal family of Great Britain, HRH Elizabeth II is queen. She’s got a consort (Prince Philip). She bore four children (Charles, Anne, Andrew, and Edward) who all married and had kids of their own. Those kids are married with kids (William and Harry are at the top of the list). That’s a lot of people.
But wait! There are more relatives! Elizabeth has a sister, Princess Margaret. Margaret had children who had children. Elizabeth and Margaret have cousins who married and had children and grandchildren. Elizabeth and Margaret are direct descendents of Queen Victoria who had nine children, forty-two grandchildren, and eighty-seven great-grandchildren. When you construct the family tree out to William and Harry’s generation, you are talking hundreds if not thousands of relatives of Queen Victoria walking around today.
Since absolutely zero collateral relatives are referenced in the text for High Houses (only mom and dad and kids), I have to assume that Ms. Mihalik turns collateral relatives into lower Houses OR that the High Houses execute their collateral relatives to preserve the peace and keep infighting between claimants to the throne to a minimum. Or, they encourage marriage between cousins since this keeps the power and the money inside the family. This is a very traditional way of doing things in aristocracies the world around and I don’t believe future aristocracies will be any different.
I could be wrong. Perhaps Ms. Mihalik had enough to do and so didn’t want to complicate her plot still further. Even so, a mention of collateral relatives for Catarina and her siblings would have been nice and added a touch of realism. None of us, unless we are the orphaned children of orphans, operate in a vacuum.
The ending is happy, as one would expect. It also most definitely sets up a series of sequels. Our main villain, who’s been operating behind the scenes since Polaris Rising escapes. He must be dealt with.
There’s also the fact that Ms. Mihalik gave a happy ever after to only three of the von Hasenberg siblings. Ferdinand’s happy ending with Evelyn Rockhurst is implied. The issue here is that both Ferdinand and Evelyn end up the leaders of their respective High Houses. This is traditionally solved by merging the kingdoms. That probably won’t happen so Ms. Mihalik will have to come up with a solution.
The other two siblings are Benedict and Hannah. Do they merit a happy ending? Hannah had a terrible arranged marriage so she could get the ‘second chance at love’ ending. Benedict was almost entirely a walk-on during the series so I have no idea what’s in store for him. There are female super-soldiers so he might meet a nice girl who can out bench-press him, outshoot him, and outfight him. Every red-blooded male wants a girl like that; someone who doesn’t need him at all and grinds him into paste to prove it.
Another issue I have with the ending is that our heroes are all adamant that they will ‘make things better for everyone in the ‘verse’. They will ‘set things right’. Not ‘we will leave people alone to find their own destiny’. Since we saw very little of Albrecht von Hasenberg and the other two leaders of the High Houses of Rockhurst and Yamato, we have very little idea of what their ideals were like when they came to power.
It may have been much the same. None of these kids, despite the best education in the ‘verse, seem to have heard of Lord Acton’s famous statement: Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
After all, while emperors may not start out evil, they all seem to end up that way. The emperor’s evil ways encourage the brave rebels to overthrow him. Or her.
Perhaps I am being cynical. Or perhaps Ms. Mihalik is setting up a future series when the brave rebel children of our current crop of heroes realize that dear old mom and dad just don’t understand the needs of the people today and need to be overthrown.
So here we are. I’m ambivalent but you may not be. You, dear reader, must decide for yourself because while I’ll give you my opinion, I don’t just recognize you may disagree with it. I permit you to disagree, something that the Von Hasenbergs, parents and siblings, might not do since they have your best interests at heart.
If you want to follow Jessie Mihalik go here: https://www.jessiemihalik.com/
If, after all this, you still want to read Polaris Rising: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B079DPHHJG/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i1
If you want to continue on and read Aurora Blazing (the one I liked the best): https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07MP75872/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i2
If you want to finish up the series with Chaos Reigning: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07WCPKG1M/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i0
Or get the books at your local library. You paid for them with your tax dollars so take full advantage of their shelves crammed with hundreds of thousands of deserving books.
The Making of Home: The 500 Year Story of How Our Houses Became Our Homes by Judith Flanders
Nonfiction, history, how most people really lived versus how we think they did.
Judith Flanders backed into writing nonfiction histories of how normal people lived because she started out by writing a biography of four Victorian sisters (the McDonalds as told in A Circle of Sisters) who married extremely well. They married ‘up’ and ended up being related to or knowing all kinds of people whose names you’ve heard of such as Rudyard Kipling and Edward Burne-Jones.
But while researching the background of A Circle of Sisters, Ms. Flanders discovered she wanted to know everything about how the McDonald sisters lived in their daily life and so, as she learned more and more and more, she wrote about what she’d learned. Several books later, she got around to writing The Making of Home.
Ms. Flanders is prolific, especially considering the immense amount of research she has to wade through, in order to write her own books. Merely reading the complete oeuvre of Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope must have taken months. The notetaking and research inspired by Dickens and Trollope’s mentions of everyday life must have added another year to her endeavors.
I’m having to watch my spelling; Ms. Flanders is British and so she doesn’t always spell her words correctly for this side of the pond. I’m noticing added ‘o’s and ‘u’s and ‘re’ instead of ‘er’ as I write this review. It’s her influence, I’m sure.
The Making of Home is, as the subtitle says, a discussion of how in certain regions of Europe, the world slowly changed and ‘house’ changed slowly into ‘home’. They aren’t the same. Any realtor will tell you that you sell a ‘home’ and buy a ‘house’. The reasoning is that you sell with emotion; luring in buyers who envision the fabulous new life they’ll have if only they buy your house. Yet a savvy buyer shops strictly on the basis of meeting needs within an affordable budget, close to work, good school district, safe neighborhood, etc. etc. Savvy buyers don’t let their emotions run away with them and fall madly in love with their perfect dream house, pay far too much, and then end up in bankruptcy court when the dream house is revealed to be a nightmare. Savvy buyers transform the logical house into the emotional home.
This is a fascinating book, loaded with tidbits such as the evolution of curtains and drapes and how what you see in the reenactment museum has little to do with reality. As a rule, museums have far too much stuff laying around in their displays. It’s also a lovely exploration of how fad-driven we are as a species, how desperate to ape our betters and how, the minute working-class people can afford plain muslin curtains, the rich move onto heavy brocade draperies layered over lace panels layered over window shades and all heavily trimmed with yards upon yards of sumptuous gimp and tassels. All that folderol costs far too much for normal people and you have to have a fulltime maid to keep up with the maintenance. This is why, despite what you see in decorating magazines, real people never let their draperies and tablecloths puddle on the floor.
What reenactment museums and movies get wrong, over and over, is they show how rich people live. When you dutifully plow through hundreds of years of wills and tax records, as Ms. Flanders did, you discover that normal people didn’t regularly own chairs until the 17th century. They were too poor. The man of the house got a stool and everyone else in the family ate standing up. Eventually, everyone got a stool or shared a bench and the head of the house got a chair. Chairs cost money.
She devotes a lot of space to Dutch painters of interiors, making the point that those paintings which resemble the insides of real homes, are nothing of the kind. They’re studio portraits that tell a story and frequently, that story is lost on a modern audience. That loose shoe on the floor? That man in the shadowy corner? Evidence of adultery. She notes that one of the great advantages to a researcher today with 16th and 17th century Dutch interior paintings is you can now easily study image after image after image on your computer without traveling the world. When you do, you start seeing themes over and over along with the identical carpet in a dozen different paintings. The painter owned the carpet, not the supposed patron of the painting but you would never know that if you didn’t see the painter’s entire life’s works one after the other.
What does a home have to do with late marriage? With nuclear families? With the happy married couple earning money for several years prior to their marriage? Everything, as it turns out.
This was a fascinating book, but not as fascinating as it should have been.
I do have quibbles, which is why I only give The Making of Home three-and-one-half sparklers instead of say, five. It’s got a lot of full color plates but it really needed more illustrations. There are so many, many instances in the text where an object, house, or region is referred to and there’s no picture.
I like pictures. A picture is worth a thousand words. This extra art didn’t have to be full-color plates either. Period black and white line drawings would have been appropriate. A map or two would have been nice since I don’t remember exactly where the Netherlands lay in relationship to England or how close together every part of Europe actually is.
My other issue was organization. This is a very readable book yet I couldn’t always follow Ms. Flanders’ logic. The text isn’t arranged by time periods or regions or technological developments. It’s more stream of consciousness which, while fluid, isn’t the best system if you want to use her book to help your research. The chapters are very long and meandering. Again, interesting but not always useful.
Luckily, The Making of Home has got plenty of footnotes and an extensive bibliography and an index. You have some hope of finding what you’re looking for if you’re using this book to research your Victorian murder mystery or that romance set in the Netherlands in 1605. You’ll be able to look with more discernment at what the museum diorama is trying to tell you and how it might be wrong. Most people were poor and they didn’t own houses crammed with stuff. Even rich people didn’t own that much stuff, although they certainly owned more than their servants.
Ms. Flanders wants you to understand that people back then thought differently and lived differently than we do today. She doesn’t judge them for living differently and thinking differently than we do today which is nice. The past is not just a different country. It’s a different world.
Should you read The Making of Home? If you are at all interested in history and how people lived in their daily lives, absolutely. If you write about any of her time periods (16th to early 20th centuries), it’s a good tool and her extensive bibliography will lead you to an entire world of background material you didn’t know existed.
If you would like to learn more about Ms. Flanders and her other, eminently readable books, visit her website: https://www.judithflanders.co.uk/
If you would like to purchase The Making of Home or any other books by Ms. Flanders, visit her Amazon author page at: https://www.amazon.com/Judith-Flanders/e/B001HMUGV8%3Fref=dbs_a_mng_rwt_scns_share
The Business of Being a Writer by Stephen Goldin and Kathleen Sky
Nonfiction, Writing, Business.
I’d give it Five sparklers if it was up-to-date.
I’ll get the most critical piece of this review over with right away. This book was published in 1982. Yes, you read that right. 1982. I was twenty-two years old that year and the concept of becoming a writer needed another thirty-two years to gestate.
- Almost forty years ago.
Do you know what’s really, really sad about this book being published in 1982? Other than Jane Friedman’s book The Business of Being a Writer published in March of 2018, there’s still very little on the business aspects of writing for a living. There’s plenty on marketing and even more books addressing craft, but on negotiating contracts? Crickets.
I’ll get around to reviewing Jane Friedman’s book later, when my number comes up at the library. Ms. Friedman’s book (from the University of Chicago Press) is $66 bucks so you can bet I’m not paying for a copy of my own when the library is available. See, that’s the problem with so many books aimed at writers: they don’t address cash-flow.
What is cash-flow? It’s recognizing that $66 bucks out of my extremely limited supply of $$ can buy a tiny round of Amazon Media Service (AMS) ads I can use to sell my own books and hopefully generate some income whereas the library doesn’t supply AMS ads. The essence of cash-flow is don’t spend it if you need it more someplace else and definitely don’t spend it if you have to borrow to pay it back.
Thus, we come to Stephen Goldin and Kathleen Sky’s book. You can request this immensely useful book via your library, or since it is so useful, you can buy your very own hardback copy via abebooks.com or alibris.com for about $7. The great benefit of having your own copy is that you can refer to it whenever you need to, and you can mark it up with margin notes and highlight passages you found particularly useful.
There are a lot of those passages in this book. My copy is riddled with my notes, including the index. I read it slowly to my husband (and publisher and editor — it’s a complex relationship) over breakfast, day by day, and we discussed the contents as we compared the text to modern-day writing careers.
If you’re a 100% joyfully self-publishing indie author, you may think most of this book doesn’t apply to you. It still does, because what if Hollywood comes calling? You’ll need to know some of what this book addresses with regard to negotiating contracts and managing your rights.
So why do I recommend a forty-year-old book? Let’s review using the helpful (and very detailed) table of contents:
1) A career in writing including part-time vs. full-time, work habits, and pseudonyms. You may already know this part.
2) The Mechanics of Submission. This hasn’t changed that much in 40 years other than you aren’t mailing photocopies. It’s all online files today. The key, as always, is to submit exactly as you are told.
3) Marketing your work. There are loads of changes since 1982 but the basics remain the same: if you want a writing career, you’ve got to do the legwork of selling yourself. No one else cares like you do (except your longsuffering spouse).
4) Dealing with Editors. Surprisingly little of this material is dated, other than everything being done with hardcopy by mail. Everyone in 1982 used a typewriter and if they were wealthy, they bought IBM Selectrics. Photocopying costs really mattered as did postage. Today? Not so much. Even so, the revolving door for editors at publishing houses remains the same as it ever was. The editor who loved your stuff at XYZ publishing moves to GHN publishing and your book is abandoned out in the cold. Editors live in a small ecosystem, they all know of each other, so don’t piss off an editor. Word gets around.
5) Rights and Copyrights. A lot of this material is dated because of changes in copyright law but keeping track of your rights and copyrights hasn’t changed one bit. It’s still on you. If you plan on selling your intellectual property, i.e., selling your writing, then you really need to keep track so you remember what you sold to whom, when, where, and for how long. If Hollywood comes calling, wouldn’t it be nice if you had a complete listing of everything you ever wrote, who you sold it to, what circumstances and so on and so forth so if they ask “do you have any more great ideas?” you can say “why yes! I do!” Then you pull out that file of ready-to-go money-makers.
6) Legal Matters including Fair Use, Obscenity, Libel, Wills & Estates, and Public Lending Rights. That last topic matters in the European Union (an unheard-of concept in 1982) because libraries over there pay the writer a few cents every time their book gets checked out. If you’ve got books in overseas libraries, make sure you’re getting paid when they’re read. The United States still doesn’t pay writers when their books are checked out, although writers’ groups regularly lobby for this perk. On the subject of wills and estates, your heirs own your hard work until seventy (70) years after your death. Do they know? Your publisher and your agent won’t care enough to inform your relatives. You are supposed to do that, via your will. Keep your will up to date.
7) Magazine Contracts and Permissions. A lot has changed, starting with the fact that there aren’t very many magazines out there for fiction anymore. But there are still some magazines and they do still pay. Except the online ones who expect your hard work for free. Do you really want to work for free, being paid only with ‘exposure’? ‘Exposure’ always makes me think of lost hikers freezing to death in the woods.
8) Book Contracts. Read this chapter carefully. A few concepts have changed but overall, it is your responsibility — let me repeat that — it is your responsibility to read your contract, understand exactly what you are signing, and to negotiate a better deal for you. The minute you sign the contract, you lose all negotiating ability. As long as you haven’t signed and are willing to walk away, you have some power. After you sign? Nothing. If your contract is unclear, pay your own lawyer to explain it to you before you sign. Plenty of writers have discovered the hard way they’d signed away all rights to their worlds, characters, and formats (hardback, paperback, trade paperback, audiobook, ebook, methods of book transmissions yet to be discovered, etc.) If you read your contract before you sign, you can avoid this little problem.
As with the rights chapter, the book contracts chapter doesn’t address ebooks, graphic novels, large-print editions, or any other of the modern permutations. It does sort of address audiobooks: way back when audiobooks were big, clunky recordings intended for the blind, along with your book being translated into Braille. When you read these sections, mentally add ebooks, graphic novels, audiobooks, and the like to the text. Make doubly sure that your contract is clear as to who owns what and for how long. It should be you and not the publisher owning all the rights in perpetuity in formats yet to be discovered.
9) Agents. Agents have their uses and in this modern world, most publishers won’t talk to writers. They talk to agents. The assumption is that the agent sifts out the wheat from the chaff so the publisher doesn’t have wade through those heaps of manuscripts looking for a winner. Agents have contracts and you need to negotiate with your agent just like you do your publisher. If you don’t understand your contract, don’t sign.
10) Vanity publishing vs. Self-Publishing. A short chapter since very few people in 1982 self-published. Vanity publishing is as large and scam-like as it ever was. There are plenty of people out there looking to separate you from your money. Don’t believe anyone who tells you they can turn your book into a bestseller.
11) Record Keeping. If you write a lot and sell in a lot of venues, you need to keep track of who, what, when, where, and for how long. This chapter provides information on how to do this very important task. Remember your will? Your rights? Knowing what you own depends on your record keeping.
12) Taxes. You must follow the current IRS tax law. Much of this chapter is extremely dated due to changes over the decades. Tax law is complex and you’ll probably want a CPA to take care of you, preferably a CPA who’s used to working with home-based businesses (which is what writing is). Follow your CPA’s recommendations on record keeping to the letter. In the end, even though your CPA files your taxes, it’s your signature on the 1040. You get to meet the IRS auditor. You get to go to court and blaze new trails in IRS tax law.
13) Publicity. If you want it done right, you’ve got to do it yourself. Just like 40 years ago, the publisher does the minimum necessary to sell your book. It’s on you. If your publisher gives you an enormous advance, you’ll get more help. If you get a tiny advance, the publisher’s public affairs people will help you but only so much. They’ve got bigger books and bigger authors to work with than you.
14) Aid and Comfort. This chapter addresses writer’s groups and the like. Some of those groups are still in existence. Others fell by the wayside years ago. Thanks to the miracle of the internet, you can network far more easily than you could in 1982.
The appendixes contain two sets of very outdated listings but they also contain a comprehensive and handy list of proofreaders’ marks. If you edit on paper (letting you see errors you can’t see on your computer screen), proofreaders’ marks are nice to know.
As I said at the beginning, there is plenty of outdated information inside The Business of Being a Writer. There’s also plenty of information that you just won’t find anywhere else about the business of being a writer. The plain English discussion of clauses in contracts and what they mean is worth the cost of the book all by itself.
Stephen Goldin is still alive and has a website. If you want to see what he’s doing today visit him at: https://parsinapress.wixsite.com/website-3
His co-author, Kathleen Sky, doesn’t have an online presence other than her Wikipedia page.
If you don’t want to drop $7 on a used copy of your own, check your library or request a copy via your library’s interlibrary loan program.
If you want to purchase a copy of The Business of Being a Writer from the evil empire, here’s your link: https://www.amazon.com/Business-Being-Writer-Stephen-Goldin/dp/0060149779/ref=tmm_hrd_title_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=
Otherwise, you might get lucky at your favorite used bookstore or you can visit abebooks.com’s website: https://www.abebooks.com/
Or go to alibris.com’s website: https://www.alibris.com/
If you’re not familiar with them, both abebooks.com and alibris.com are aggregators of used bookstores. They don’t always carry the same books so it’s worth checking both sites if you’re looking for a title and you’re having trouble finding it.
A People’s Guide to Publishing: Build a Successful, Sustainable, Meaningful, Book Business From the Ground Up by Joe Biel
Do not be put off by the presence of a typo in the book’s title (!) on the cover (!!) and other typos and grammatical errors sprinkled about (there were enough for me to notice but I’ve seen far, far worse examples from much bigger publishers). I refer, naturally, to the completely unnecessary comma inserted between the word ‘Meaningful’ and the word ‘Book’. It’s proof positive of how very difficult it is to make an error-free book; even when, as Joe Biel has, you’ve published plenty of them. Joe Biel owns Microcosm Publishing. He’s been a successful publisher for over twenty years and he knows whereof he speaks.
The typos are not why I gave this book four and a half sparklers; we’ll get to that subject later on.
A People’s Guide to Publishing is a fascinating book, simply packed with information and anecdotes about the publishing business and publishers. It is highly readable and amusing. It took me a long time to read it because I read it aloud to my long-suffering husband over breakfast, day after day after day. When I wasn’t reading it aloud, I was underlining portions of the text for the benefit of our miniscule publishing house (https://peschelpress.com/). I learned a lot. No submissions, please. We’re not there yet.
I now better understand why publishers make some of the ridiculous decisions they do and why traditional publishers have those year-long lag times and why they have some of their cash-flow issues. It’s the structure of the business, it’s the U.S. tax code, and it’s the money. It’s the fact (which so many writers don’t seem to know) that while publishers publish books, they don’t do the actual printing of books. That’s a very different kettle of cats. Publishers are all about acquiring properties from authors (aka annoying but talented cattle) that they think will sell. No publisher who plans on staying in business wants to buy a manuscript that loses money. If the manuscript looks like it will sell (an ‘if’ the size of an iceberg), then Publisher assigns it to marketers, designers, and editors to massage the manuscript into the correct size, layout, and appearance to match good-selling comparisons already in bookstores.
You will notice that marketing comes first. Again, I repeat: if Publisher doesn’t think the book will sell, Publisher will throw it back onto the rubbish bin with all the other rejected manuscripts. It doesn’t matter in the slightest if the manuscript might become a massive worldwide bestseller if only the stars align. That’s a great big if that rarely comes true. Although, as J.K. Rowling will attest, sometimes it does.
Comps (short for comparisons) are something I’d never heard of until I read People’s Guide to Publishing. A comp is what the industry uses to help determine if your manuscript will sell. Publisher looks over the marketplace first, identifying desires waiting to be filled and what’s selling right now. Next, Publisher studies the manuscript, seeing if it fills a hole in the catalog. If you’ve ever wondered why publishers seem to work in unison, this is one of the reasons.
For example. Publisher decides that if cats solving mysteries sell well, then ferrets solving mysteries might sell too. Why would Publisher go out on a speculative limb like this? Publisher has noticed that cats solving mysteries don’t sell quite as well as they used to, meaning the buying public is moving onto something new. Publisher needs to fill this upcoming need but without a huge amount of risk. Thus, Publisher prints one-tenth as many copies of the new title as usual because the population of ferret lovers who read mysteries about ferrets is assumed to be ten percent of the size of the population of cat lovers who read mysteries. Then, Publisher cuts another fifty percent off the initial print run because Publisher isn’t actually sure if ferret lovers as a group know how to read. But they could read voraciously and hope springs eternal and other people might adore ferrets even if they’ve never met one, so Publisher looks at the gaping hole in the marketplace for ferret lovers and goes for it. If the cover and title are appealing and are similar to cats solving mysteries yet still different enough to appeal to ferret lovers too and if the marketing is good and if the book is displayed face-out at the front of the store instead of spine-out in the far back corner and if the seasonal catalog gets looked at by those impossible-to-please bookshop buyers and if Oprah decides she likes ferrets solving mysteries, the stars will align and the book will sell by the thousands and a new genre will be born. That’s a lot of ands.
If Publisher guesses right, the money rolls in. If Publisher guesses wrong, the money flows out in a vast surge of red ink.
Publishers have to make these decisions for every manuscript. Does this book fit into what we already publish? Is there already demand for this type of book? Will this book sell forever or will the fad vanish overnight? Can our marketing people drum up enough interest prior to setting up the print run so we have an idea of how many copies we’ll actually sell? Are we a similar price, size, and look to what’s already out there that is selling? Will the book be different enough to stand out but not different enough to discourage bookshop owners, reviewers, library buyers, and readers?
Then there is the whole issue of actually printing the book. Specialty manufacturers print books. They have a language of their own that Publisher has to learn in order to receive books that meet Publisher’s vision at a cost Publisher is willing to pay. Printers have long waiting times because their presses run continuously. Publisher has to negotiate over size and number of books and then get a slot in Printer’s schedule. Economies of scale mean that Publisher pays a lower price per book (sometimes much lower) for 10,000 copies than for 1,000 copies but 10,000 books take up a lot of warehouse space. Space that has to be paid for. Publisher may not be able to sell all 10,000 copies.
In fact, Publisher rarely does. This leads to the amazing concept of returns. Bookshop Owner takes a chance on Publisher’s new line of ferrets solving mysteries solely because Bookshop Owner knows that she can return the unsold copies for up to a year. No questions asked. Full refund. Publisher gets back thousands of unsold ferrets solving mysteries and they stack up in the warehouse by the pallet load. Decisions have to be made. Remainder them and hope to make back at least the cost of the printing? Or pulp them, thus saving the warehouse fees.
Details like these rarely enter the mind of a writer, yet for Publisher, they are paramount. Or they should be if Publisher would like to stay in business.
So why should you, Writer, care? Because knowing how publishing works can better explain some of the odd decisions such as paltry advances or marketing choices or covers that match top-sellers down to the font spelling out the author’s name or why your 250,000-word manuscript had to be cut down to 100,000 words despite how it mangled the story. It’s also why Publisher won’t buy your Dark Ages Highlander/Zombie romance even though you love writing in that particular area. Dark Ages Highlander/Zombie romances don’t currently sell enough for Publisher to recoup their costs. It’s not personal. It’s just business.
Knowing how publishing operates isn’t just for traditionally published authors. It matters even more for indie writers. If you self-publish your books, you are a publisher. Not just a writer. You are responsible for editing, covers, layout and formatting, pricing, and marketing. Those are all publishing jobs. Cash-flow is just as important for you as it is for one of the big publishing houses. If you aren’t making money, you either subsidize your expensive writing hobby with someone else’s money or you quit writing. Reading A People’s Guide to Publishing will give you a much better understanding of the choices you’ll make along the way.
So let’s talk about why I didn’t give this wonderful book that every writer (and serious reader) should read that last half sparkler. Joe Biel, publisher, doesn’t like indie authors. He confuses indie writing with vanity presses which will print anything if they’re paid. He believes that writers need publishers (despite being annoying but talented cattle) in order to properly fulfill their destinies.
Well. Publishing is his business and he is not going to encourage writers to go it alone. He wouldn’t remain in business very long if all of his writers went indie. He could find new ones, because not every writer wants to be their own publisher. Good publishers do plenty of work for their authors, freeing up their time for creative writing. Not every author is cut out to run a business. Even more authors don’t want to run their own business.
Joe Biel also has a serious issue with print-on-demand. I fully understand his point. Print-on-demand is a much more expensive way of producing trade paperbacks than working with a dedicated printer. However, print-on-demand means you, indie author, only have to store a few books at a time for events. You don’t have to purchase 10,000 copies of each title of your book in order to get the lowest possible price per copy and even more, you don’t have to store those books somewhere. You don’t have to do fulfillment with bookstores across the country. Instead, with print-on-demand, every book ordered is a book that is sold. Your basement is not filled with thousands of copies of your book waiting for a buyer to come along.
If you are an indie author, print-on-demand is the way to go. You pay (extra!) for only the physical copies you need to hand-sell at events. You do not have to warehouse books. You do not have to do fulfillment. You do not make as much money per copy sold either. It’s a trade-off.
My other issue is that A People’s Guide to Publishing does not have an index! It needs an index! Yes, the table of contents is detailed and yes, the book is well laid-out with plenty of subheadings in the text. Nice charts and illustrations, too. Nonetheless, to be most useful, a book like this Needs. An. Index. I have no idea why Joe Biel thought an index wasn’t needed. Maybe his comps for A People’s Guide to Publishing didn’t have one or perhaps, he didn’t think the cost of indexing (a professional subspecialty that publishers contract out) was worth it when he figured out how much A People’s Guide to Publishing would cost to produce versus how much it would earn.
He was wrong. But Joe Biel is right on so many other topics about publishing.
I highly recommend A People’s Guide to Publishing for writers (traditional and indie) and readers who are interested in the publishing business. Most of all, if you want to start a publishing house because of the sad lack of ferrets-solving-mysteries titles, you need this book. Badly. It might save you from bankruptcy. At the very least, you’ll understand what you’re getting into before you start throwing money into holes in the ground with very little hope of a return on investment.
Here are the links:
If you want to purchase the book directly from Microcosm Publishing (since that’s how they make the most money thereby keeping the company afloat): https://microcosmpublishing.com/catalog/books/3663
If you insist on ordering via Amazon (and they’ll take their fair share of the sale price too): https://www.amazon.com/Peoples-Guide-Publishing-Successful-Sustainable/dp/1621062856/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_product_top?ie=UTF8
If you want to learn more about Joe Biel and Microcosm Publishing (they have a very esoteric line of books you won’t find elsewhere): https://microcosmpublishing.com/
Inside Charlie’s Chocolate Factory: The Complete Story of Willy Wonka, the Golden Ticket, and Roald Dahl’s Most Famous Creation by Lucy Mangan
Nonfiction, movies and literary works
I’ve always liked Roald Dahl’s children’s books. Like Doctor Seuss, he has a wonderful sense of the absurd along with more than a touch of the macabre. Nonetheless, I hadn’t given him much thought recently, especially as my children aged out of reading his books.
So it was a serendipitous moment when I was at the library and spotted the brilliant, dare I say, Oompa-Loompa orange cover of Inside Charlie’s Chocolate Factory beaming at me. What a find, what a treasure, I’d give it more sparklers if I could.
As the title indicates, the book addresses every aspect of the fantabulous novel, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, originally published way back in 1964. How long ago that was! I was four years old then so I think I’ve always known about Charlie. His story has held up remarkably well, although I can’t say that for many of the children’s novels I read when I was a kid. Tastes change.
The book leads in with an introduction by Sophie Dahl, Roald’s granddaughter and then we get to one delightful, informative, lavishly illustrated chapter after another. I did not know that while Roald was writing the book, he was also dealing with his four-month-old son’s injuries from being hit by a taxi or his daughter’s death at age seven from severe complications of measles. It must have been a much-needed escape to write Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, since the text gives no indication at all of his grief.
There are chapters devoted to adaptations for stage and screen, along with more detail on both movie versions. I had no idea that there are numerous stage versions or that it had been adapted to radio. I only knew about the two movie versions. Even better is a discussion of the four illustrators who left their mark upon the book: Joseph Schindelman, Faith Jaques, Michael Foreman, and Quentin Blake. It is utterly fascinating to see all four illustrators’ versions of the same scene, side-by-side. Each artist’s interpretation is radically different and yet each brings out the joyful lunacy in the text.
As an added bonus, there’s a lengthy discussion of the notorious review written by Eleanor Cameron in The Horn Book Magazine in 1972. Ms. Cameron was a children’s librarian and the author of numerous children’s books. She considered Charlie to be one of the most tasteless books ever written for children; sadistic and phony, and like candy, sweet-tasting and bad for you. She actually compared it (see page 186) to A Clockwork Orange since both books destroy the human spirit. One wonders what she would think of Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants series. She didn’t like Oompa-Loompas either (colonialism, don’t you know) which is rich considering her own book The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet and its sequels involve brave, white, ten-year-old boys demonstrating their mental superiority to the benighted inhabitants of said Mushroom Planet and saving the aliens from their enemies. I read those books as a kid, remembered them, and I must admit, I wouldn’t read them today. But I would read Charlie again.
Reading Inside Charlie’s Chocolate Factory inspired my dear husband and me to watch both movies again, one on Friday night and one on Saturday. If you enjoy movies, it’s always interesting to watch the same story retold and see where the director, writer, and actors changed things. The two versions (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory from 1971 and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in 2005) are very different in tone, styling, emphasis, appearance, how well they portray children and their parents, and most of all, in the two Willy Wonkas. Gene Wilder nailed Willy Wonka. I can’t say the same for Johnny Depp’s version.
This is a terrific book, especially if it inspires you to reread Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or any of Roald Dahl’s other wonderful, loopy books.
Here are the links:
Inside Charlie’s Chocolate Factory by Lucy Mangan: https://www.amazon.com/Inside-Charlies-Chocolate-Factory-Creation/dp/0147513480/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=lucy+mangan+inside+charlie%27s+chocolate+factory&qid=1586898171&s=books&sr=1-1
I will assume you already have a copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. There are dozens of editions available in every possible format at every library, bookshop, thrift shop, and yard sale.
The movie versions are:
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1972): https://www.amazon.com/Willy-Wonka-Chocolate-Factory-Wilder/dp/B002YNGNG6
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005): https://www.amazon.com/Charlie-Chocolate-Factory-Johnny-Depp/dp/B0012DT9VK
If you would like to read what Eleanor Cameron thinks is acceptable children’s literature (it’s good for you!): https://www.amazon.com/Wonderful-Flight-Mushroom-Planet/dp/0316125407
If you want to read what Eleanor Cameron would most assuredly deem unacceptable children’s literature (it’s bad for you!): https://www.amazon.com/Adventures-Captain-Underpants-Dav-Pilkey/dp/0590846280
Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson
Non-fiction – Information, history of food
One of the few constants across the amazing variety of human culture since the dawn of time is eating. We all eat, sometimes more and sometimes less. What we eat varies wildly depending on location, accessibility, and wealth. Three meals a day — spaced out at regular intervals — is a wonderful, modern invention based on copious supplies of food, available year-round. How else can you enjoy fresh strawberries in December, fresh apples in April, or fresh lettuce in August? Or for that matter, fresh eggs in February. True seasonal eating, is by its very nature, limiting.
So. We all eat. What we choose to eat, how we cook it, and the utensils we use can vary hugely depending on our culture. While none of us would dream of eating without forks today (unless we use chopsticks), somebody had to think of a fork and invent one. Someone had to figure out how to make a container in which to boil water and then make pottage and then cook otherwise inedible grain into gruel. That’s after someone figured out how to make fire reliably and control the flame.
Similarly, someone had to look at that bag of salty snot sitting inside an ashtray and say “hey, that looks delicious. We’ll call them oysters.” Whatever we eat today, wherever we are in the world, someone had to go first, hopefully not poisoning themselves along the way. Over time, our ancestors refined what they ate, how they cooked it, and then they used what and how they ate as cultural markers to say ‘this is us’ and ‘those savages who eat that funny-looking, evil-smelling stuff are not us’.
Thus today, we have an entire world of foods and cooking styles to choose from. We are not limited to what bits are locally available, in season or carefully preserved, that our great-grandmothers ate.
Douglas Adams said it best: “The history of every major galactic civilization tends to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Enquiry, and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why, and Where phases. For instance, the first phase is characterized by the question ‘How can we eat?’, the second by the question ‘Why do we eat?’, and the third by the question ‘Where should we have lunch?’”
Bee Wilson’s book in concerned with all three of those questions. She begins with the evolution of pots and pans. Did you know that a Roman set of cookware isn’t very different from what we use today? I didn’t. An entire chapter is devoted to knives and their use at tables. Ever thought of why table knives are so terribly dull? Because prior to the invention of sets of flatware, every diner used his or her own knife, razor-sharp, and used for other things as well. Table knives were deliberately dull since they weren’t supposed to be used to stab other dinner guests, no matter how much you wanted to. Dull table knives are a safety feature.
Ms. Wilson addresses the use of fire and devotes pages to the English history of roasting just about everything over huge fires. Why did the English specialize in roasting? Because they had an abundance of two things: a huge variety of animals and plenty of wood to burn. Why don’t the Chinese roast everything? Not as many animals and a severe, chronic, unrelenting scarcity of fuel to use for roasting.
How do we measure our ingredients? By weight or by volume? Both have their problems. How do we show our wealth by what we eat? If you’re rich, you eat out of season and you eat things that show you can afford to pay someone to slave in that kitchen for hours. How do we preserve food so it can be eaten out of season? More importantly, how do we preserve food so it can be eaten when there is nothing much available. Any culture that has to deal with winter and agriculture has to manage ‘the thin time’. That’s the season of late winter to early spring when nothing grows and you’re eating whatever you stored up during the bounty of the summer and fall harvests.
You get very hungry during the thin time. That’s why, historically, rich people carried some fat. They could afford to eat when other, poorer people could not. Today, being tanned and scrawny is a sign of wealth and self-control. Scrawniness used to be a sure marker of poverty and being tanned meant you slaved in the fields all day.
Ms. Wilson also goes into some detail on certain, selected kitchen items: rice cookers, mezzalunas, tongs, molds, and the like.
It’s a terrific, readable history of what and why we eat. Its focus is primarily on the Western world, which is understandable since Ms. Wilson is British and not Thai. There are plenty of great, historical details that could be very useful to historical fiction writers. If your opus is set in 16th century Wales, your characters are going to be roasting almost everything they’re eating. 16th century China? Nope, completely different style of cooking and eating and wildly different ingredients.
So why don’t I give this terrific book five sparklers?
It needs pictures. Lots and lots of pictures. Ms. Wilson describes many, many kitchen objects but let’s face it. A picture is worth a thousand words. There are tasteful line drawings scattered here and there in the text. They are not always identified, nor is it always clear how that mysterious object is being used.
This book needs pictures and plenty of them. It is not a cookbook, by the way, so it does not come with recipes. Recipes are easy enough to find but a good picture of the clockwork mechanism on a roasting spit is not that easy to locate.
Other than the lack of pictures (in the next edition, please!), this is a great addition to your reading list. Ms. Wilson has written a number of other books about food and eating so if you like Consider the Fork, you may want to peruse those titles.
Here are the links: https://www.amazon.com/Bee-Wilson/e/B001HD3T5M%3Fref=dbs_a_mng_rwt_scns_share
Teresa on 31 March 2020
Quilt As-You-Go Made Modern: Fresh Techniques for Busy Quilters by Jera Brandvig
Nonfiction- how to book
I make quilts, although my quilts aren’t sewn like anyone else’s. Technically, they are not even quilts although the finished product looks like a crazy quilt. I’m working out my procedures and eventually will write it up book form and before you ask, it’s not foundation piecing. In the meantime, I read quilting books to see how other authors approach their subject.
Thus, I discovered Jera Brandvig’s first quilting book, Quilt As-You-Go Made Modern. Ms. Brandvig is a quilter, blogger, mom, and fabric designer based in Seattle. I’d never heard of her — no surprise as I don’t follow quilt blogs — but she’s worked out an easy way of making quilts faster than the usual cut out a thousand teensy diamonds and piece them back together.
Her book gives complete instructions on her piecing method and it looks fast. Her piecing style is improvisational, which I happen to like very much. I love the serendipity of piecing a quilt without knowing exactly what the finished product will look like. A quilt kit or explicit directions and fabric choices guarantee a fixed result but that’s boring for me. I like that high-wire act, without a net. I’m willing to risk time, effort, and material to see what I end up with.
You may not.
Being the cheapskate that I am, even if I don’t like my results, I still use the quilt. If it keeps the sleeper warm and it can be successfully washed, any quilt is a success, no matter how jarring the color choices turn out. You’ll never catch me ripping and resewing. If it’s really bad, layer the ugly quilt underneath another, more styling one.
Ms. Brandvig provides a number of techniques to design your own quilts as-you-go from start to finish. Each piecing variation results in a quite different looking quilt, even without taking fabric choices into account. No one else’s quilt will look exactly like yours. If you don’t feel as brave, you can use one of her thirteen projects to test the waters. You really can stop and start these quilts as they’re sewn and quilted a block at a time. Her blocks are manageable in size and can be easily finished in stolen moments and easily set aside when life interrupts. It’s only at the end, when you’ve pieced and quilted all the sections you want that you sew them together into the final, finished, bound quilt.
Ms. Brandvig’s method also lets you use up plenty of scrap from the stash, always an important consideration when your long-suffering spouse gives you the fish-eye when you come home from the fabric store with more gorgeous, must-be-bought cloth because you’ll just regret it forever if you don’t.
Why don’t I award Quilt As-You-Go five sparklers?
Remember that I said I like designing on the fly. I like working without a net. I like interesting pattern and color juxtapositions. I take design risks because I am going to use up that scrap from the stash and I am not going to buy more fabric for any reason. But even so, I try hard to make my quilts look good.
I did not like Ms. Brandvig’s finished quilts. At all.
Her book provides plenty of color photographs of each of her thirteen projects, along with pages of lavishly illustrated techniques to design your own. She has zero color sense nor does she have a designer’s eye based on the copious evidence provided. Her finished quilts are so random, even when she’s using a limited fabric palette. I look at the photographs of Chief Sealth or The Emerald City and I cringe. They should have been better.
I want my asymmetry to be symmetrical and balanced. I want my colors to be evenly dispersed across the quilt surface and not bunched up in one corner as if I threw them there in the dark. If I have a piece of blue hippos wearing spacesuits in the upper-left corner, then by God, I’ll have a corresponding piece of blue hippos wearing spacesuits in the lower-right corner and probably the other two corners as well. I want the observer’s eye to flow across my quilt, spiraling across the surface instead of getting trapped in muddy, unrelated dead ends.
I don’t think that she spends enough time considering what the finished quilt will look like. Even with the limited fabric palette, she sews each block as a one-off. But they are not one-offs. They have to work with each other as a unified whole. Ms. Brandvig would be better served if she sewed up her blocks and then laid them out on the carpet to work out the best arrangement. Then, she could see if she needed to make a few more to square up her design. As it stands now, the individual parts do not add up to a greater whole.
When I make my quilts, I’m always spreading them out on the carpet to see if my design idea is working. I don’t believe Ms. Brandvig ever gave a second look at her quilt designs. She sewed them up, photographed them, and that was that. One and done. First draft material, for you writers out there, without bothering to run spellcheck.
Obviously, you do not have to do this. I wouldn’t. Her method is fast enough that some time could be spent on studying the finished blocks, laying them this way and that, and choosing the most pleasing array. It would not be wasted time.
I like this book. I like her methods. I can easily adapt them to my own color and design sense. I don’t like her finished designs. But you might! This is a good book to add to your quilting library, especially if you want to try something different, fast, unique, and that has a good chance of success if you’re paying attention to your fabric choices and layout.
Here’s Ms. Brandvig’s website if you want to follow her adventures: https://www.quiltingintherain.com/
She’s also got a Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/quiltingintherain/
Here’s the book if you want to purchase a copy: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1607059010/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i0
Ms. Brandvig wrote a follow-up book called Quilt As-You-Go Made Vintage: 51 Blocks, 9 Projects, 3 Joining Methods if you want to explore her methods further. Here’s the link: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1617454729/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i1
Teresa on 24 March 2020
Mind Your Manors: Tried-and-True British Household Cleaning Tips by Lucy Lethbridge
I’ve always been interested in how people actually live; not just the ones who make the history books. Most people never make the history books. Most people are support staff for history-makers. After all, do you really think that Queen Victoria washed her own laundry or scrubbed her own chamberpot?
She did not. She had servants.
Lucy Lethbridge, our intrepid author, wrote a fascinating, in-depth book a few years back titled Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times. That was a much better book than this one.
Mind Your Manors distills out the first-person reports, the drudgery, the endless scutwork, the attitudes of our betters towards their servants (no modern devices “because we don’t want you being lazy, now do we?”), the resentments, and finally, the slow, forced changes because the servant class found better alternatives. Servants went into great detail on all those subjects. Without that immense attention to detail, Mind Your Manors is a skimpy book.
It also doesn’t contain nearly as many household tips as you would expect from the subtitle. There should be a lot more pictures and diagrams too, along with a bibliography for further reading.
So who is this book for? I’d have to guess someone being introduced for the very first time to the reality of servant life. This same someone doesn’t really care about the immense day-to-day drudgery an English country house requires to keep it clean, properly fed, clothed, and staffed. That someone wants a quick overview and nothing more.
Don’t misunderstand me. Minor Your Manors is an amusing little introduction to the subject; quick and easy and enjoyable to read. Since it doesn’t have a bibliography, the reader cannot explore further. Another tip for you: this book was originally published in Great Britain as Spit and Polish: Old-Fashioned Ways to Banish Dirt, Dust, and Decay so don’t be deceived into thinking Ms. Lethbridge wrote three books on the servant class.
If you are genuinely interested in learning how a mansion is maintained and the lives of the army doing the work, I highly recommend reading Servants instead. My copy is heavily underlined throughout; one amazing tidbit after another. When I was reading it over many breakfasts, I would read passages aloud to my long-suffering husband. I was particularly taken with servants’ memories about their upper-class suffragette employers railing on about the rights of women while completely oblivious to the laboring housemaids who made it possible for them to go out and march for the vote. As with Queen Victoria, those ladies didn’t beat their own carpets or brush down their own clothes or scrub the soot off their light fixtures.
There are none so blind as those who will not see.
Servants provides plenty of raw material for background and even plots for all you writers out there. It comes with an extensive bibliography too, for further education. I would give it five sparklers.
If you’re still interested in Mind Your Manors, get your copy from the library.
If you want a good, involving, genuinely useful resource, get Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times. Here’s the link for purchase since the library won’t like you underlining and making notes in their copy: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0393241092/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i0
Teresa on 20 March 2020
Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time by Sarah Ruden
( (I’d give it more if I could)
This is an astonishing book that changed my views of Saint Paul. We all think we know who Saint Paul is. He was touched by God on the road to Damascus, changing him into the great missionary, founding Christian churches all over the Roman world. We think we know how Saint Paul thinks, based on the books he wrote in the Bible.
But do we really?
It’s hard enough to understand an era of history that is still barely within living memory (say, the 1930’s in the United States during the long, slow, grinding run-up to World War II when no one and I mean no one in 1935 had any idea of what they’d be doing seven years later) and is reasonably well-documented in the language we speak today.
How much harder is it to understand the world two thousand years ago, with an enormous language barrier and cultural and behavioral barriers that are even larger. The Greeks and Romans at 1 A.D did not think like us. They didn’t act like us. Their entire social structure was wildly different from ours and not just because it was a world built almost entirely on human and animal muscle.
This was the world of Saint Paul.
Why then, do we think that Saint Paul should have thought like a modern person and fault him when he doesn’t? Judging people of the past by the standards of today is chronocentrism and it gets in the way of understanding better what actually happened as opposed to what we think should have happened if only those unenlightened savages knew better, like we do today.
So meet Sarah Ruden, a classical scholar and a Quaker, who decided she needed to understand Saint Paul better. Fortunately, as a classics scholar, experienced in ancient Greek and classical Latin, she could go to the source materials. Even more interesting, she chose to examine the written records we do have of the world that Saint Paul actually lived in. That is, Ms. Ruden translated all kinds of writing, from Juvenal to Ovid to Petronius (and a host of others) to help us understand a very different world. Then, she uses her translations to explain how Saint Paul was influenced in his writings by the world he lived in.
As an example, why does Saint Paul tell women to cover their hair in church? Because at the time, there were two classes of women: upper-class ladies with wealth and family backing and everyone else. Everyone else means poor women, slaves, and whores. Those categories are not mutually exclusive either. If you were poor and female, you got zero respect of any kind and if some wealthy man wanted you, well, you complied. One of the ways to distinguish upper-class women was they were veiled in public. Poor women didn’t cover their hair.
Covering your hair in church meant that poor prostitutes got treated with respect, almost as though they had the status of upper-class women.
Why did Saint Paul tell women to remain silent in church? The scandal here was not women remaining silent. It was that women were in church in the first place! Again, a very different world, one in which women – unless they were slaves or whores or desperately poor – didn’t normally go out in public to socialize or work. They stayed home. Behind walls and closed doors. Certain public functions were acceptable but not very many. The Romans were more accepting of women in public than the Greeks were, but not by much.
Thus, Saint Paul allows women in a public church at a time when this was shocking. He asks that they remain silent basically as a sop to contemporary mores and get their questions answered afterwards. But he expects them to be there and he expects them to have questions that should be answered. Groundbreaking.
Another fascinating aspect of Ms. Ruden’s book is how nasty so much of the classical writings were. Those Romans didn’t censor themselves. I’m reminded of Catullus #16 which is so viciously obscene that it is still almost never translated into English. I didn’t know that little ditty even existed until a few years ago, when I was looking into Catullus’ poems for another project. In Paul Among the People, Ms. Ruden provides her own translations and she keeps close to the invective-laden spirit of the original writing. She thoughtfully provides an extensive bibliography so you can brush up your Latin and Greek and check for yourself.
Paul Among the People also answered one of those questions I’ve had for years. As we head deeper into a post-Christian world, it becomes harder and harder to understand why Christianity swept the world, moving from an obscure Jewish sect in 32 A.D. to becoming the official religion of Rome as per Constantine in 313 A.D. This took less than three hundred years and during an era when most people never traveled more than a few miles from where they were born. The world at that time had many, many religious sects and movements to choose from.
Why Christianity? Because it offered hope, for the very first time, to huge numbers of people at the very bottom of the social ladder, people who were used to being treated as worth less than dirt. Christianity valued those people, many of them for the first time ever. Christianity and the gospel worked. Prayers were answered by the living Christ as they still are today.
If you are interested in the early church, in Saint Paul, Christianity, or in the classical world, I can’t recommend Paul Among the People enough. It is very readable, lively, and fascinating. Expect to be alternately entertained, horrified, and challenged.
If you’d like to learn more about Sarah Ruden you can visit her website: https://sarahruden.com/
If you’d like to learn more about Paul Among the People: https://www.amazon.com/Paul-Among-People-Reinterpreted-Reimagined/dp/0385522576
If you’d like to read Catullus #16, here’s the original text (get out your unabridged Latin dictionary from graduate school) along with a translation if you didn’t attend graduate school for classical studies: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catullus_16
Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale by Adam Minter
Nonfiction – How To
I have a longstanding interest in garbage, recycling, waste management, and sustainability. The culture of unknown civilizations can be deciphered by their garbage heaps. That’s what archeologists are: history’s garbage analysts. What we throw away shows what we use. How we discard objects and their condition demonstrates our wealth. We are the wealthiest society on the face of the earth, ever, and our garbage proves it.
Thus, I was thrilled to discover that Adam Minter had written a new book, Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale. Minter is a longtime business journalist with a special interest in the waste stream, due to coming from a family that owned a scrapyard. I read his previous book Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade with great interest. Since he grew up in a scrapyard, he has a much better feel for what recycling really is as opposed to someone who tosses cans into the bin and never gives them another thought.
We talk about recycling all the time but most of us don’t understand it. Yes, your recycling bin is a harvest point for materials. However, if those harvested materials cost more than virgin materials, recycling doesn’t mean a thing. Cost always wins because manufacturers are primarily concerned about how much they’re about to spend on feedstocks for what they make.
So when do you recycle?
When you’ve done all the other steps.
This is the correct order if you are serious about being sustainable, saving money, reducing your carbon footprint, and saving the environment:
Reduce, reuse, repair, repurpose, recycle.
You recycle last; when there is zero life left in the object.
In Secondhand, Minter takes us around the world (as he did in Junkyard Planet) to see how other people reuse, repair, and repurpose our discards. It can be heartbreaking. He starts with those firms that cleanout other people’s houses. If you’ve ever wondered what to do with your parents’ 3,000 square-foot house packed to the gunwales with stuff (I certainly do), cleanout firms will take care of your problem. Does everything get carefully reused and restored for eager buyers?
Not a chance. Most of what we hold dear isn’t dear to anyone else and it goes straight to the landfill. Even Goodwill can’t sell everything that gets donated and they try, first in the main store and then in their bargain bins. Then it goes to the landfill.
There’s just too much stuff.
Too many clothes, especially poor-quality fast fashion. Too many books. Too many outdated electronics that were never meant to be repaired.
Yet much of this avalanche of stuff can be reused in the third world. Goods we wouldn’t carefully disassemble and rebuild using cannibalized parts such as old TV’s are routinely rebuilt and reused.
Minter explores the secondhand market in the US, Japan, Mexico, Malaysia, and Africa, dispelling myths and wrong ideas along the way. He also proposes a potential solution to the tsunami of stuff: make better stuff that can be repaired.
Yes, as you suspected, plenty of things are designed so they cannot be repaired. I’m looking at you, Apple products. Clothing made to fall apart after four washings with 1/4-inch seam margins and fabric so cheap it can’t be reused. Did you know that lightbulb manufacturers got together in 1926 to enact standards so that lightbulbs failed quicker so they’d sell more? I didn’t. Minter also spends some time discussing why car-seat manufacturers insist that a car-seat is only good for six years and then poof, it expires and will kill your kids. There is actually no proof and no government standards for this position. It’s designed to sell more car-seats.
I could go on and on but you’d be better off reading Secondhand yourself. Then, go back and read his first book, Junkyard Planet, for a look into what actually happens to that scrap paper and those cans you tossed into the recycling bin. Both books will open your eyes to a world you didn’t know existed, quietly humming away as it reuses what you don’t want anymore and makes money doing so.
And after you’re finished reading? And you’d like to make a change in your own life? Reduce, reuse, repair, repurpose, recycle. Buy less stuff, buy better quality stuff so it can be reused (clothing that can be worn more than a few times), repair your stuff (replace those lost buttons and resew those seams), repurpose your stuff so it gains another life (felt that wool sweater and turn it into potholders), and then recycle what’s left.
You can find both of Adam Minter’s books in most libraries or bookstores.
Or, if you want to go online, go to https://www.amazon.com/Secondhand-Travels-Global-Garage-Sale/dp/1635570107/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=
For Junkyard Planet: https://www.amazon.com/Junkyard-Planet-Travels-Billion-Dollar-Trash/dp/1608197913
If you’d like to visit Adam Minter’s minimal website: http://shanghaiscrap.com/
The Natural History of the Rich: A Field Guide by Richard Conniff
If you’ve ever wondered about the habits and mores of the rich, look no further than The Natural History of the Rich: A Field Guide by Richard Conniff. This is a gossipy, amusing investigation by a long-time science writer who specializes in human and animal behavior.
And boy, oh boy, is it gossipy. Sadly, Mr. Conniff frequently doesn’t reveal the names because of embarrassment to the gossipers or, more likely, the threat of lawsuits. There are amazing stories about the denizens of Palm Beach, the luxury retreats in Aspen, the Hamptons—all those places that mere mortals like me only go to in order to scrub the toilets.
And this would be after I signed a non-disclosure contract prior to donning my rubber gloves and picking up my scrubby because God forbid I should reveal my employer’s total lack of personal hygiene. Or the array of pharmaceuticals in the bathroom or the ahem, astounding array of personal toys in the bedrooms all of which need to be washed. If you doubt me, there are now loads of this kind of photographs online courtesy of Jeffrey Epstein’s death. He can’t sue anymore, making him fair game.
As a named name, here’s a sample anecdote from page 69: Alva Vanderbilt in 1899 owned a “cottage” in Newport, RI. She sponsored the first car race in North America on the lawn. The race was “an obstacle course of dummy policemen, nursemaids, and babies in carriages. Biographer Barbara Goldsmith writes that the driver who killed the fewest innocent bystanders won the race.” DeathRace 1899, folks!
A relative of Alva, Consuelo Vanderbilt, wrote a memoir of her life among the moneyed and titled elite (she was an American heiress married off to the Duke of Marlborough who didn’t like her but he sure loved her multi-million-dollar dowry). She didn’t worry about being sued so her memoirs are apparently quite the read. Our intrepid author quotes her frequently.
The book comes with a marvelous index, so if you’re looking for a specific name, you can go right to Seward L. Johnson numerous pages or the multiple pages devoted to the Getty family or to the Gates family. Make sure you don’t skip the index, or the footnotes either (Wilt Chamberlain among other tidbits). There’s also plenty of anecdotes devoted to Viktor Kozeny who knew rich idiots when he saw them and stole plenty of money from them.
Why did Viktor Kozeny go after the wealthy elite? It wasn’t just because that’s where the money was. It turns out that hitting the financial lottery (by luck or hard work or choosing your parents wisely) does not confer intelligence or common sense. Who could have guessed?
What comes through loud and clear is that Scrooge McDuck types of piles of money does change behavior. The lucky recipient starts to wholeheartedly believe that they are better than the rest of us. That they are superior in every possible way because, well, they must be! Why else would a beneficent providence grant so much money to the Rockefeller clan? Because they deserved it and you didn’t.
I devoured this book, reading large chunks of it aloud over breakfast to my own dear, longsuffering husband. The parallels between monkeys and rich people, warblers and rich people, insects and rich people were all fabulous and funny.
If you’re looking for an amusing read to better explain our elites and their behavior, this is a very good start. If you write about rich people, you’ll get some terrific inspirations from page after page of hijinks and oh-my-God-can-you-believe-this stories. Since the anecdotes are heavily footnoted, you can track them down yourself via the extensive and detailed bibliography. The bibliography – if you omit the biology textbooks – provides even more sources for bad behavior among the wealthy.
What a great read this was. I highly recommend The Natural History of the Rich: A Field Guide.
Check your library or, if you’re rich, head on over to Amazon and buy your own copy: https://www.amazon.com/Natural-History-Rich-Field-Guide/dp/0393019659/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=
If you’d like to see what else Richard Conniff does in his spare time, he’s got a website: https://strangebehaviors.wordpress.com/
Teresa, Dec 2019
Violence: A Writer’s Guide by Rory Miller
This book is excellent. Even if you aren’t a writer, it’s worth a read to get a better understanding of violence in all its forms. If you are a writer, well! What a fabulous resource.
The author, Rory Miller, is a long-time corrections officer, Army vet, and a martial artist. He knows violence and violent people and what violence does to mind and body. He also knows how little reality there is in movie and book violence.
If you’ve ever wondered, like I have, how tiny Scarlett Johannsson (she’s five-foot three-inches tall) could possibly whip a dozen goons into submission, the answer is she can’t. Not ever. No amount of girl power and coolness factor will make the vast majority of women able to tackle and subdue a typical man. Not without a gun, training, plenty of ammo, and probably not even then. It’s amazing how much punishment a motivated crook, fighter, or warrior can endure and keep on fighting.
Rory Miller discusses this currently fashionable idea and how wrong it is.
He covers everything a writer (or anyone else) could want to know: viewpoints of criminals, the elements of an act of violence, the stages of an assault, what violence does to the mind and body; the list goes on and on in sometimes stomach-churning detail.
He doesn’t pull his punches, based on the reality of what he sees in the real world so if reading that a five-foot three woman can’t outfight a group of men gets your knickers in a twist, don’t read this book.
He covers a lot of ground in this book and there’s plenty of online resources in each chapter to see, via the miracle of modern surveillance technology, what actually can happen in a fight when your body armor fails. When the bad guy doesn’t go down with a single shot (hint: most of them don’t). How hard it can be to actually stop someone from fighting. Most of these videos are gruesome and come with warnings. Even MMA bouts don’t accurately convey how fast, brutal, and messy a street fight can be. MMA has rules, such as no fish-hooking (catching your opponent’s open mouth so you tear the cheeks open) or eye-gouging. In a real street fight, those are definite risks. Real street fights and real wars have terrible odors and horrible sounds to go with the bloody visuals, the pain, and even the tang of blood in your mouth.
We’re a violent species. Get over it. We’re violent today; the difference between modern American life and ye bad old days is that we pay the police and lawyers to be violent on our behalf so we don’t have to do that dirty work ourselves.
That said, not being involved in that kind of dirty work means that as writers, we can get our details seriously wrong. Artistic and acrobatic leaps look good in the movies; they don’t work in the real world. Nobody dies ‘instantly’ unless you guillotine them. If a nail-gun to the head won’t stop someone, why would you assume a bullet will? What will kill your villain (or hero) will be sepsis from poorly treated injuries which takes time. Even bleeding out from a slashed artery takes a few minutes. A vein takes longer so don’t mix them up when you write that battle scene.
For myself, I much prefer to stay safe and learn the ins and outs of violence from writers who do have firsthand experience, such as Mr. Miller. This book was tops. I can’t recommend it highly enough. I did not, I will admit, go looking at the gruesome suggested videos online. I don’t need to see someone being shot to death.
So, if you write scenes of violence and you’d like to make sure they’re somewhat more accurate, add Violence: A Writer’s Guide to your reference library.
Here’s Rory Miller’s website so you can learn more about him:
Here’s the book link for purchase (he self-published so you probably can’t get it via the library):
97 Orchard: The Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement by Jane Ziegelman is a valuable addition to your library if you’re interested in how normal people lived in the past. Not the aristocracy. Real people.
Ms. Ziegelman is the director of the Tenement Museum’s culinary center. Her well-researched book covers the lives of five immigrant families, starting with the Glockner family in 1864. Lucas Glockner, a German immigrant, saved his pennies and built the tenement house which his family then lived in. He rented out the rest of the building to everyone else.
The tenement, now a museum, was five stories high, with no running water. Subdivide that building into twenty-two apartments, each about 325 square feet with three rooms, and you can imagine how many people were crammed into this one building.
Yet 97 Orchard was not unique. Plenty of tenements were built in New York City, all similar to this one. Five stories seemed to be the maximum height a building could be, without elevators or pumps to move water up to the top floor.
Tenements were cheap housing, and eventually, if a family could afford better, they’d move on. More light, more space, running water, the shifting ethnic composition of the neighborhood; families moved in and out. Sometimes they moved because they were skipping out on the rent.
There were many more than five families residing at 97 Orchard Street, but the focus on five families lets the author go into depth about the different ethnicities flooding into New York City from 1860 or so on up to the 1930’s, their different eating habits, and their different futures.
These families had a few things in common. They were all desperately poor and they all needed to eat and survive in a strange new world.
After the Glockners and an in-depth discussion of early German immigrants, we meet the Moore family (Irish, utterly destitute, 1869), the Gumpertz family (poor German Jews, 1870), the Rogarshevsky family (destitute Russian Jews, 1908), and the Baldizzi family (poor Sicilians, 1928). Although the author doesn’t tell us, it’s likely that these families, especially the first three, knew each other.
Tenements are crowded. The residents can’t avoid each other, even if they want to.
The author uses each of her chosen five families to describe a much larger picture of immigration, culture clash, foodways, upward mobility, and managing poverty. There are recipes too, although this is not a cookbook. It’s a series of snapshots of a vanished world, one that usually doesn’t get addressed in fiction or history because these snapshots are of normal, poor, working-class families. They didn’t make history. They weren’t famous. They existed and did the best they could, while struggling to ensure their children had a slightly easier time of it.
These people were tough. They had to be. It’s hard for us today to imagine a world in which salt and pepper are considered luxuries. Fortunately, 97 Orchard brings that notion to life.
I really enjoyed reading 97 Orchard. I have a much better picture of the swirling, crammed, dirty, noisy neighborhoods in New York City as it grew by leaps and bounds and immigrants poured in from everywhere else. If you’re interested in the time period (the history of some of the immigrant groups starts earlier than 1864), this is a great resource.
You’ll get a much clearer picture of how people actually ate, day to day, and how hard they worked to get that food, and how grateful they were to have it. There were huge differences between ethnic groups, leading to different outcomes over the years. Eventually though, most people made it up the ladder, at least a rung or two.
What the five families had in common was culture shock. What was normal back home was unavailable or very different in New York City. At one and the same time, there was amazing abundance (if you could afford it) yet you couldn’t find what you were used to eating back home in the old world. Jewish families had the additional burden of having to find food in a strange new world that was kosher.
What you won’t find in 97 Orchard is a discussion of the Chinese (or any other Asian) immigrant experience, African-American, or anyone from Spain, France, Scotland, or any of the other myriad groups that settled in New York City.
Every one of those groups deserves a history of their own.
If you’d like learn more about 97 Orchard Street and you can’t get to New York City to tour the Tenement Museum, here’s their website: https://www.tenement.org/
If you want a copy of the book: https://www.amazon.com/97-Orchard-Immigrant-Families-Tenement/dp/0061288519/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_product_top?ie=UTF8
The Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage: Queen of Pulp Pin-up Art by Stephen D. Korshak with J. David Spurlock
Nonfiction, biography, history
Wow. Just wow. This is a gorgeous, lavishly illustrated history of one of the great, forgotten cover artists of the 1930’s pulp magazines.
Artist Margaret Brundage lived an interesting, challenging life but what she is remembered for today are her pulp magazine covers, mainly for Weird Tales. This history reproduces virtually all of her Weird Tales covers along with covers done for other pulps and a smattering of other art.
If you’ve always believed that magazine covers of the 1930’s were dull because kinky sex didn’t exist way back then (postal regulations don’t you know), you are wrong. Sex has always sold magazines and lurid stories need sexy covers. In 1932, Margaret Brundage, purely by accident, stepped onto the scene with her lush pastel chalk artwork of virtually or entirely naked women being menaced by other virtually naked women, savages and barbarians, demons, evil statues, snakes, and predatory beasts.
The publisher of Oriental Stories was smitten when she walked in one day with her portfolio. Where had she been all his life with her carefully detailed, luminescent-fleshed damsels in distress? He didn’t know until that moment he had been looking for soft-focus, softcore porn to sell magazines. How he got those illustrations past the post office censors and onto newsstands across the country is a mystery.
Leafing through the book is an exercise in saying over and over “Oh my God. Look at this one.” After the initial shock wears off, you’ll be able to see how Weird Tales liked to pair Margaret with Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft, August Derleth, Seabury Quinn and a host of other pulp greats. She matched them so well! What would Conan the Barbarian do without terrified naked damsels to rescue? Her cover art for Howard’s story Red Nails is definitely one for the ages.
Nobody illustrated curvaceous flesh like Margaret; sensuous, living bodies captured in that most fragile of mediums, pastel chalk. Her men look good too.
If you need to justify gaping at naughty pictures by reading, there is plenty of text to go along with the full-page illustrations. You’ll find Margaret’s biography, information about the pulp era, the difficulties faced by Weird Tales and the move to New York that damaged Margaret’s career (pastel chalk doesn’t ship well), interviews, even an extensive discussion of the radical politics in 1930’s Chicago. Margaret lived a fascinating life.
If you’re interested in the pulps, Chicago in the 1930’s, or book and magazine covers, this is a terrific resource.
Why do I give this book four sparklers instead of five? I wanted to see more of Margaret Brundage’s art. Unfortunately, chalk pastel is probably the most fragile art medium there is and pulp magazines were ephemera to be read and thrown out. Who knows what Margaret Brundage treasures still lurk in attics, waiting to be rediscovered? She also had a career after Weird Tales left Chicago, but not much of it was reproduced in the book. I understand. The focus was on her pulp magazine covers. Nonetheless, if there was space for radical Chicago politics, there was space for more of her other art.
If you’d like to learn more about Margaret Brundage, here are some places to start.
Meet the Frugalwoods by Elizabeth Willard Thames.
The information contained within the book is critical to everyone’s financial independence journey but the author wasn’t truthful about her own personal finances.
I’ve done a lot of reading about thrift, self-reliance, and financial independence over the last two decades. It’s a subject near and dear to my heart as what could be more interesting than being able to do the work I want to do and not be a slave to some job I hate?
Financial independence is so important to me and my family that I changed how we lived so we too, as a household, could gain some freedom. I’ve established regular ways of doing things so we stay on our track of not spending any money we don’t have to. Despite everything I’ve learned, I still keep an eye out for new books on the subject as you never know when you will learn something new and useful. Also, reading about thrift and financial independence as achieved by other people helps me stay focused.
It’s inspiring. Other people’s hard work reminds me to keep going and that thrift, like physical fitness, has to be maintained.
You don’t get there and then stop, finished forever. Like life, it’s a process and you’ll never, ever be done until you pass onto your reward.
So I was very interested when I discovered Meet the Frugalwoods: Achieving Financial Independence Through Simple Living by Elizabeth Willard Thames. Naturally, I got the book from the library.
I had never heard of these people before but they, Mr. and Mrs. Frugalwood, live a happy, debt-free, self-sufficient lifestyle on their sixty-six-acre homestead in the woods of Vermont. Mrs. Frugalwood keeps a blog and has since 2014 or so. It details all their adventures in thrift and how this thriftiness enabled them to flee the city (Cambridge, Mass.) and made their current lifestyle possible.
It’s an interesting book, both for what it says and for what it doesn’t say. I fully agree with Mrs. Frugalwood’s basic themes.
Here they are: Nobody cares about your family and its well-being like you do. You may not control the amount of your income, but you can control how you spend it. There are nearly always cheaper alternatives to buying new. Plan for the long haul. Distinguish clearly between needs and wants. Many needs are actually wants in disguise. You need a place to live in, but does it have to be in a special part of town? You need a car for transportation, but does it have to be brand-new? And finally, you can do it, if you really want to and you set your mind to it. But you gotta wanna. Financial freedom won’t drop into your lap without plenty of effort on your part.
This is all 100% true.
Doing all those boring, mundane things such as hanging winter laundry and saying ‘NO’ continuously helped my household so when my husband got laid off, we weren’t thrown into an instant panic. Instead, he became the full-time writer he always wanted to be, and I’m writing too.
Here’s what I didn’t like about the book.
Despite all Mrs. Frugalwood’s self-flagellating discussions of her ‘privilege’, she carefully glosses over the most important privilege she and her husband have. A quick survey of Google shows that they are rich. They may not claim to be rich, but when the median income of a U.S. household in 2017 is about $58,000 and their annual income (based on public records since Mr. Frugalwoods still works for a non-profit and she used to) is over $200,000; well, you do the math.
We’ve never earned more than the median income for our entire household. In fact, it was a happy day when we made a taxable income of $53,000 in 2012. We couldn’t believe we’d broken $50,000. Then my husband got laid off and since then we’ve lived off our savings as we make a go of the writing business. Let me tell you, this would have been impossible except we’d paid off our house and we had zero debt. I’d be standing behind a supermarket cash register right now, instead of writing this review. Even so, we’re burning through our savings and it has been damn difficult to compress our spending still further. Life insurance? Bye-bye! One car for four licensed drivers? That’s us. Free lunch program at school? You bet! Keeping the house at 64 degrees during the winter? Put on a second sweater and quit complaining.
I think very few of us have to spend every nickel that we do; there are always choices. But it is hard and the smaller your income, the harder it becomes to cut back spending still further to save up an emergency fund and to pay off debt. Money is freedom from hassle. Money is a safety net. More money means you have more freedom of action. The closer you live to the bone, the less room you have to make mistakes. If your income is below the median, you already know this and it’s hugely, enormously irritating to have some rich woman tell you to be thrifty and all your dreams will come true and financial freedom is within your grasp.
Don’t misunderstand me. Mrs. Frugalwood isn’t wrong.
But she also isn’t admitting how the lower your income is to start with, the longer it will take for your household to get to financial freedom. She’s also not talking about how you, if you are starting way down on the food chain, may never get there. But you can get closer; closer so you have some money tucked away in an emergency fund to fix the car when the transmission falls out. Closer so you can take an unpaid day off from work when your kid gets sick. Closer so you can afford the upfront price of giant, economy size packages of toilet paper that cost so much less per roll than buying the small packages, just like the giant, economy size jug of laundry soap costs far less per load than those teensy, cheaper bottles cost when you price out what you are really paying per use.
If you look at what she says about how they got to Vermont by their early thirties and look around at your life and wonder why you haven’t been able to save half your income; well, you probably weren’t earning six figures either. Don’t compare yourself to Mrs. Frugalwood. She didn’t start at the start line like the rest of us; she and her husband began their race with a lap already under their belts.
But don’t discount her either. She’s not wrong. You can get closer to your goals by controlling how you handle your income.
It’s still hard to save serious money. Nothing in our culture encourages thrift. Reward yourself! You deserve it! Treat yourself! You’ve heard every one of those messages your entire life (I know I have) and those messages do not encourage staying home to eat frozen pizza and watch a DVD from the library. There are plenty of six-figure income people who live paycheck to paycheck. Unbelievable, I know, but it is true. It takes self-discipline, team effort, and a vision of a better future to say ‘no’ all the time. It’s so much easier and so much more fun to say ‘yes’.
So as for Mrs. Frugalwood’s book: should you read it? Sure, why not. She’s not wrong. However, get your copy from the library (she doesn’t need your money and your tax dollars already paid for that book) and read those one-star reviews online carefully.
The book you should buy is Amy Dacyczyn’s The Complete Tightwad Gazette published way back in 1998. The prices are dated and so is some of the information but Amy’s book is still the best guide to achieving financial freedom I’ve ever found. You can easily find a copy in most libraries or online at abebooks.com starting at $6. She made it possible for my household to get there. Start by reading the success stories at the back of the book if you don’t believe me. Those people made it and you can too.
The other book you should think seriously about is Your Money or Your Life: Nine Steps to Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin. It’s been revised a few times since its original publication. The edition doesn’t matter since the important information remains the same.
If you want to visit Mrs. Frugalwood’s website go to:
If you want to purchase her book online:
Here’s the link to the book you should buy (Amy Dacyczyn’s):
Or, for more philosophy and less practical how-to: