Mistress of the Art of Death (2007), Ariana Franklin (Diana Norman)

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Quickly she knelt and asked the dead beyond the door to forgive her for handling their remains. She asked to be reminded not to forget the respect she owed them. “Permit your flesh and bone to tell me what your voices cannot.”

 

It is the year 1170. The city of Cambridge is tense. Four young children have been tortured to death. The people of the town have accused the Jewish community of blood libel and the perpetrators of the murders, causing them to flee their homes for protection in the castle. Henry II is angry and concerned. Imprisoned, the Jews are unable to pay the heavy taxes by which the king finances his realm. Henry does not believe the murders are the work of the Jews and must find a way to exonerate them. Henry writes to his cousin, the King of Sicily, who presides over the world renowned medical school in Salerno asking him to send his best “investigator of death.”

Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar is the Mistress of the Art of Death, a combination modern day coroner and police detective. When she arrives with her Arab assistant Mansur and fellow investigator Simon of Naples, a Jew she must hide her true vocation. Though the cultural, religious and gender diversity of Salerno allows women in the medical college, Adelia’s specialty conflicts with the Church’s teachings on both women and dissection, so she is used to passing off her findings to her foster father. While in England Mansur becomes the doctor and she his assistant. At least at the beginning. From enlightened city to crude backwater, the trio of friends reluctantly make the journey. The moment they arrive in Cambridge, however, they are besieged with a multitude of illnesses and accidents untreatable before now. But the bodies of the children need to be examined and with some restrictions on her gender, the investigation begins.

The stabbing around the pelvis had left distinctive marks; she had seen knife wounds before, but none like these. The blade of the instrument that had caused them appeared to be much faceted. She would have liked to remove the pelvis for leisurely examination in better light, but she had promised Prior Geoffrey to do no dissection.

It is fascinating to watch how Adelia studies the bodies of the children and how she deduces their killers. It is like watching a Medieval version of a CSI episode. Body by body and clue by clue culminating in a frightful incident where Adelia almost meets her own end. But she succeeds in discovering the culprits responsible.

I was incredibly drawn to this story as it ticked many of the boxes I enjoyed studying in college. As the ‘king’s persons” Jews were England’s bank account being taxed to unbelievable degrees financing everything from the building of castles and cathedrals, the bankrolling of crusades to the general running of the realm. Thus, the king’s castle was their safety zone when attacked. They were an easy target when anything abnormal occurred. Leaving their homes and fleeing to the castle for the protection of the king was often a precarious situation. As illustrated in this story, anti-Jewish sentiment is so high with the townspeople, even when it is pointed out the Jews have been in the castle for a year and children have been killed during this time. The townspeople cook up an elaborate fantasy that the Jews leave by night and return to the castle early in the morning to commit the crimes. Never mind there are townspeople stationed at every entrance day and night which would make escape impossible.

Franklin also describes the diversity of students and teachers that peopled the medical school of Salerno, which included Arabs, Jews, Africans and others from across Europe, as well as women. The medical training here surpassed the other schools on the continent. Adelia, who was orphaned and fostered by a couple from the medical school, acknowledged her intellect from a young age and encouraged her studies. Adelia’s skills come from her training and investigative experience, which included time spent at the pig farm, a medieval version of the modern-day body farm.

Adelia was forcing herself to see a pig [not a child]. Pigs were what she’d learned on. Pigs—the nearest approximation in the animal world to human flesh and bone. Up in the hills behind a high wall, Gordinus had kept dead pigs for his students, some buried, some exposed to the air, some in a wooden hut, others in a stone byre…Most of the students introduced to the his death farm had been revolted by the flies and stench and had fallen away; only Adelia saw the wonder of the process that reduced a cadaver to nothing.

One of the strengths of this historically dense novel is constructing a story with a protagonist who is foreign and unfamiliar with the culture in which she is thrust. The reader learns along with Adelia, Mansur and Simon, so prior knowledge of the period is unnecessary and Franklin’s narrative makes it easy to follow the story. And to further this point, Franklin uses the British to further our knowledge. Though most of the townspeople are portrayed as suspicious and ignorant of foreigners, the novel opens with a band of pilgrims and crusaders having just returned from the Holy Land. Several of the knights are familiar with the customs and culture of both the Arab and Jewish worlds and of Europeans in general. Franklin uses their knowledge in usually positive, but sometimes humorous ways to make points about the cultural and dietary habits of Mansur, Simon and Adelia.

A Personal Observation

I have missed out on many richly drawn historical novels. Early in Medieval studies it was drummed into our heads that we couldn’t take fictionalized accounts of historical events seriously and were discouraged from books and other historical “reconstructions.” “This could never have happened.” “That is just historically inaccurate.” I can remember classmates mocked for their interest in the King Arthur mythos or those students who participated in the activities of the Society for Creative Anachronism. The only contemporary Medieval fiction we were encouraged to read was Josephine Tey’s, The Daughter of Time, because it was about research. It has taken me a long time to reject those voices critical of historical fiction. And that’s too bad. I have a lot of catching up to do.

In this regard, if those professors of mine were still alive I would make them read this book! While obviously some license has to be taken in the way a story like this is told in order for a modern person to understand it, historical accuracy does not have to suffer.

The novel is a page turner, a fascinating mystery and manages to dispel ignorance about the Middle Ages many people may have.

____________
Challenges: RIPXIII, RBRTBR

 

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Looking Toward 2018

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I don’t have a great desire to do a recap of 2017. I want to look forward. But I do want to mention two things that were important to me this year:

  1. Favorite books of 2017: I am making myself choose only four, three classics and one historical novel, even though it is an impossible task! Dracula, Northanger Abbey, House of Mirth, and Radio Girls.
  2. “Enriched by reading the reviews” of other bloggers’ books is one of the ways I would characterize this year as well as reading your comments on mine.

Number 2 brings me to my plans for 2018. I am going to concentrate on what I would call the foundational classics I have not yet read, like Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, and books by Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot and Oscar Wilde. I want to read Rebecca and find out why it is on so many top ten list of favorites. And maybe I’ll tackle a Woolf.

And I want to read some American foundational classics like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Moby Dick and books by Willa Cather and Henry James. Maybe do some traveling with Charley. Louisa May Alcott wrote so many other books besides Little Women…time to dust some off? And I want to find out more about Sarah Orne Jewett whose The Country of the Pointed Firs I so enjoyed in 2016.

 

 

In order to help with these deficiencies, I am taking part in a number of (overlapping) challenges, including Roof Beam Reader’s TBR, Back to the Classics and the Victorian Reading Challenge. These will also help me with my Classics Club list.

Since I can’t deny my attraction to the 19th century, I am also going to read more historical fiction that takes place in that time period, so I have signed up for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The second emphasis for the year is to expand my awareness outside the UK and US by concentrating on Reading all Around the World that I neglected last year,  participate in the European Reading Challenge and Doing Dewey’s Nonfiction Challenge. I can’t promise I will stay out of the 19th and early 20th centuries with these challenges, however, but more history and different perspectives and experiences is always a good thing!

I am also doing a personal challenge on the American Civil War with thanks to Jillian who helped me craft the categories.

Good gracious, this is a lot! And I know there will be readalongs and other events throughout the year that I will participate in…well, a good way to stay out of trouble!

I wish you all a Happy and Prosperous New Year!

In Search of the Round Table

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I am happy to let you know I have a guest post up today for WitchWeek, at The Emerald City Book Review, In Search of the Round Table.

This year the theme is Dreams of Arthur and Lory has done a smashing job of organizing this event around all things King Arthur.

I thoroughly enjoyed researching the early sources for the Round Table after reading an article about researchers in the UK who wondered if this famous table was actually a table at all!

Caerleon
Is this the Round Table?

 

There is More to Me than the Classics: A Conundrum

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I am wrestling with the focus of my blog. I fear I have limited myself to writing almost solely about 19th and early 20th century classic literature (which does make up the bulk of fiction that I read) and wonder if there is room for the history, pop culture and religion I also read?

The phrase relevant obscurity has always been directed at me personally, because the emphasis on the above nonfiction for most of my life made me so suspicious of fiction (I would like to write a post on that) that I am discovering classic literature for the first time. The relevance of these books and how they help me see the past and a period of history I love has added so much to my life.

IMG_4775And yet, I have been reading books on religion and spirituality since I was 12 when I was given a book on Hanukkah; that brought God into my heretofore agnostic worldview and set me on a seeker’s path of which I still walk. And the Medieval history I majored in and the American studies courses I took later still figure strongly in what I read now, though I don’t share any of that here.

 

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So, I am going to try some new kinds of posts throughout the next few months to see how comfortable I am about sharing more of my life through the various books I read, the thoughts they provoke and even some non-book-related musings, because while I have thought hard about starting another blog in addition to this one, oh man, that seems like a lot of work! But also, like many other bloggers and readers, I am multifaceted offline, so why pretend otherwise online?

 

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I would love to know if anyone else feels their blog, either by its title or focus, is too restrictive to the broader range of what they want to share?

What did you decide to do about it or are you still wrestling with it?

A Domestic Tale as Wartime Propaganda: Mrs. Miniver (1939), Jan Struther


Mrs. Miniver was “more powerful to the war effort than the combined work of six military divisions.” Prime Minister Winston Churchill

What effect can a book made up of the vignettes of simple family life have on a world in conflict? Can descriptions of dentist visits, a mother/daughter shopping spree in search of the perfect doll, Christmas stocking treasures, the almost sacred responsibility of finding the right engagement planner, and feeling the joys of Spring, turn apathetic nations into a call to arms? Apparently, one did.

First published as a series of columns in The Times (of London), the Minivers are a fictional middle class family living an idyllic life in Kent. Mrs. Miniver details her life as a wife and mother to architect Clem and their three children Vin, Judy and Toby. Her days, though simple and common, are observed with a depth of wisdom and poignancy that grows as the world’s crises encroach into her life. Through all her normal activities she is aware her world is in that liminal time between the peace and stability of ordinary daily life and the upheaval of the war to come.

When Mrs. Miniver goes doll shopping with her 12 year-old daughter she wonders whether the “modern unbreakable dolls, which lasted for years, were more, or less, precious to their owners than the old china ones, whose expectation of life had been a matter of months.” On the day the family must give up their old car, she feels its loss deeply because she is a “fool about inanimate objects…She did not pretend to herself that cars had souls or even minds…No, but a car, nowadays, was such an integral part of one’s life… that it had acquired at least the status of a room in one’s house. To part from it, whatever its fault, was to lose a familiar piece of background.” As the car is driven away, she cannot bear to watch and turns on the bath tap, lathers up her ears and begins to sing at the top of her lungs.

Though her days are spent like any middle class wife and mother in child rearing, lunches, teas and weekend parties to ascribe to her a stereotypical superficiality or ignorance of the larger world, would be a mistake. And while many of her activities are light-hearted and relatable, as when she obsesses over the design and feel of a new engagement planner and purchases her second choice only to return minutes later for the one she really wants, or the annual New Year’s Eve fortune telling party where liquid lead is dropped in water to harden as the oracle device, Mrs. Miniver notices little things and ponders their power and worthiness.

But the world’s problems do encroach and she is forced to come to terms with their effect. When she takes her niece to Switzerland and the rumblings of war are apparent she experiences a moment of great universality when a little boy takes her hand to show her his rock collection, which makes her think of her own son and his “c’lection” of rocks.  She wonders at the ridiculous war talk, “when little boys in all countries collect stones, dodged cleaning their teeth, and hated cauliflower?”

As she passes a newsstand in her little village, she sees the word ‘JEWS’ plastered on the front page of the evening newspaper and winces. But she catches herself. She must not get to that point of not thinking about it. “To shrink from vicarious pain was the ultimate cowardice…it was a sin. Only by feeling it to the utmost, and by expressing it, could the rest of the world help to heal the injury which had caused it. Money, food, clothing, shelter—people could give all these and still it would not be enough: it would not absolve them from the duty of paying in full, also, the imponderable tribute of grief.”

As the prospect of war with Germany looms closer she and her family must be fitted for gas masks. And by the end of the book, the Minivers are living in their home in the country and fostering 7 children from London families to safeguard against the bombs.

The Film

miniver

The power of the book and the release of the film version in 1942 cannot be underestimated. When the book was published in the United States in 1940, it topped the bestseller list and Jan Struther was sent on a lecture tour throughout the country.  President Roosevelt thought the film so important he ordered it rushed to theaters all over the US. As with Churchill, he believed it struck a chord and hastened America’s involvement in the war.

I have to admit I am a big fan of the film. And while it is very different from the book, its impact has been a lasting one garnering awards and placement on best and favorite movie lists. In 2009, The Library of Congress added it to its film registry as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant and will be preserved for all time.

Simple daily mundane routines. Family connections, community support and care for your neighbors. What the Allies fought for. What the Germans felt:

Mrs Miniver “shows the destiny of a family during the current war, and its refined powerful propagandistic tendency has up to now only been dreamed of. There is not a single angry word spoken against Germany; nevertheless the anti-German tendency is perfectly accomplished.” Joseph Goebbels

________________________________

My Edition:
Title: Mrs. Miniver
Author: Jan Struther
Publisher: Harcourt, Brace and Company
Device: Hardcover
Year: 1942
Pages: 298
Full plot summary

Challenges: Mount TBR, What’s in a Name, Classics Club

Heroines of Mercy Street: The Real Nurses of the Civil War (2016)

 

My Edition:mercyst
Title: Heroines of Mercy Street: The Real Nurses of the Civil War
Author: Pamela D. Toler
Publisher: Little Brown and Company
Device: Hardcover
Year: 2016
Pages: 287
Summary

I immediately wrote to all the people of influence I knew, begging them to procure me some place in the war as nurse, or whatever I could do, Mary Phinney von Olnhausen[1]

I shall not come home, unless I get sick, while this hospital lasts,  Cornelia Hancock[ii]

 

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The Union took over Confederate private homes and hotels for use as hospitals

The second season of Mercy Street on PBS starts this Sunday. I was hooked from the first episode last year. The program tells another part of the American Civil War from the perspective of the doctors and nurses and the wounded of both sides. The script is based on the biographies, diaries and other writings of real women who volunteered to serve their country as hospital nurse, a profession that was ill-defined for women up to this point and whose presence in war-time hospitals often met with condescension at best and suspicion at worst. Their presence in military hospitals challenged the medical establishment’s concept of female sensibility to the horrors of war, until the women proved not only their worth in the hospital setting, but that their work was vital to the overall war effort.

I have been a ‘female nurse’ since a year ago last October…I went with many misgivings—but now I know what women are worth in the hospitals. It is no light thing to hear a man say he owes you his life and then to know that mother, wife, sister or child bless you in their prayers, Ella Wolcott[iii]

The Heroines of Mercy Street, by Pamela D. Toler, a companion to the PBS series, tells the stories of many of these women and about what it meant for nursing to grow from something done by women at home for family members as the knowledge was passed from mother to daughter, to a skilled profession in hospital and other outside-the-home settings. Toler explains that during the early days of the Civil War it was recovering soldiers who aided the doctors in caring for newly injured and sick, as female nurses were not well-accepted or were considered unable to perform the physical and medical duties as required. It was also thought the sights of the wounded and their care was not a respectable job for the mothers, daughters, wives and sisters of middle and upper class families.

…and in the late war we saw the most delicate women, who could not at home endure the sight of blood, become so used to scenes of carnage, that they walked the hospitals and the margins of battlefield, amid the poor remnants of torn humanity, with as perfect self-possession as if they were strolling in a flower garden,  Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner [iv]

Florence Nightingale changed this perception with her work in the Crimean War after which she published Notes on Nursing to high acclaim. Her school in London drew women from all classes of society, including American women, giving skills to  thousands of women willing to nurse the wounded and ill on the front and in hospitals.

Toler profiles many well-known women, including Dorothea Dix, Louisa May Alcott and her experiences at Union Hospital and the work of Clara Barton. Mary Phinney von Olnhausen, a major character in the series, features prominently in the book as well.  The comprehensive endnote section includes many others through their letters and journals, their conversations and documents that describe their back-breaking and emotionally-wrenching work.

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Scenes like this are portrayed in the series

All these women, the famous and the unknown, were pioneers, who felt called to a profession in its infancy. They stood up for themselves and their vulnerable soldiers for whom they fought to get the best medical treatment, food and the cleanest environment possible. Their dedication proved their necessity to the war effort. As a result of the War, these skills also paved the way for women to work after the war ended, which according to Dorothea Dix advanced women “at least fifty years beyond the position they would have held had the country remained at peace.”[v]

I wonder what I shall do with myself when the war is over. I never can sit down and do nothing…I never expect to live at home again, I shall always be working somewhere or other, I hope. Work is my life. I cannot be happy doing nothing, Emily Parsons[vi]

_________________
[i] 51.
[ii] 175.
[iii] 143.
[iv] 121.
[v] 221.
[vi] Ibid.

Library Love Challenge

Looking Backward 2000-1887, Edward Bellamy (1888)

My Edition:lookingbackward
Title: Looking Backward
Author: Edward Bellamy
Publisher: A Signet Classic
Device: Paperback
Year: 1888
Pages: 222
For a plot summary

 

In your day, riches debauched one class with idleness of mind and body, while poverty sapped the vitality of the masses by overwork, bad food, and pestilent homes…Instead of these maleficent circumstances, all now enjoy the most favorable conditions of physical life; the young are carefully nurtured and studiously cared for; the labor which is required of all is limited to the period of greatest bodily vigor, and is never excessive; care for one’s self and one’s family, anxiety as to livelihood, the strain of a ceaseless battle for life—all these influences, which once did so much to wreck the minds and bodies of men and women, are known no more.[i]

Julian West is a young well-to-do Bostonian with a good life and marriage on the horizon. Living in luxury on the accumulated wealth of his great grandfather, his only pursuit as he tells it is on “the pleasures and refinements of life.” Typically, for a man of his social status, “he is supported by the labor of others and does no service in return,”[ii] which is the way his parents and grandparents before him lived.

There is only one chink in his otherwise comfortable and rich life: his insomnia is so bad he has to enlist the help of the mesmerist Dr. Pillsbury, who comes to his home some nights and hypnotizes him to fall asleep. While the procedure is complicated, the waking up process is not, so Dr. Pillsbury has taught West’s man-servant that procedure and is instructed to wake him up the next morning. On that fateful night of May 30, 1887, something goes awry and the servant does not or cannot wake him up. As West slowly comes to, he finds it is not the next morning, but 113 years later and is found fully intact and functioning in his bedroom by the present occupants of the house after a rainstorm flooded their basement crumbling away the walls of a previous building housing James West’s bedroom.

Looking Backward, is basically a long conversation between James West and Dr. and Mrs. Leete and their daughter Edith as they orient West into the America of the year 2000. Only a few generations away from West’s time, their education has given them knowledge enough to understand the Boston of the 19th century and compare the great changes in governance, education, employment and vision that West will find in 20th century Boston. The book is a primer, from Edward Bellamy’s point of view on how to create a just, economically equal, safe and well-mannered society. While there are a few excursions to eating establishments and to product distribution centers, most of the book takes place in the Leete home between the Dr. and Mr. West.

West learns of the bloodless economic revolution that occurred shortly after he went to sleep where the nation took over all means and manner of the production of goods and services, doing away with small businesses and large corporations, which only engendered competition, waste, and the great divide between rich and poor. Now, society is run by the people, with total financial equality as the hallmark of the new system. There IS no rich or poor, since each citizen is paid exactly the same amount, no matter their occupation. The class divide, the bane of all societies that causes the greatest imbalance of power has now been done away with. Therefore, there is no crime, since no one has less than his or her neighbor; no poverty, because regardless of occupation each is given a living wage; no feeling of alienation because all people and occupations are valued. Some features of this new society:

Education-teachers and parents observe a child’s talents from an early age so they can guide him or her into their chosen occupation.

Employment-everyone enters the work force at age 24 and retires at 45 and is on call for emergencies until 55, when their work life is over and leisure life begins.

Money-There is no physical money. Instead, everyone is issued a credit card that is filled each year. At every purchase the cost of the item is debited from the card.

Goods-clothing or furniture is stocked at distribution centers in each ward (neighborhood). There is enough stock for everyone, because no one over buys in this society where the desire for wealth or ostentation by material possessions no longer exists.

Dinner-each ward has a restaurant building, where every family has their own dining room. Minor meals are taken at home.

Domestic servants have been done away with, as has most household work. Clothes are washed at public laundries and mended at public shops, and electricity takes the place of lighting fires and lamps. Houses are no larger than needed and furnished with simplicity, which make them easy to keep up.

Technological advances-during rain storms a waterproof sheet is let down covering sidewalks so people can walk to dinner or shopping without an umbrella; music is piped into bedrooms and living rooms with the press of a screw.

Political parties during West’s time tried to right the unequal wrongs, but were not strong enough to change the whole of society, since their focus on class discrepancies was too narrow. Once a higher ethical basis for the rearrangement of industry and society was recognized the national party rose up. Taking that name to nationalize the functions of production and distribution, moved Americans into a union, a family with a common life; the most patriotic of parties, raising patriotism from instinct to devotion “by making the native land truly a father-land, a father who kept the people alive and was not merely an idol for which they were expected to die.”[iii]

The book has much to offer as a construction of the ideal state for that time. I say, “for that time,” because it fails on the role of women. Granted, Bellamy was writing in the late 1880s and gender binary ruled the day. Still, this is a book about the future. He couldn’t use his imagination and take the present day women’s reformers and suffrage movement to their obvious next level? Instead, he kept women in their proverbial place using the same attitudes about their physical and emotional sphere as they did in the 1880s. Only men rise to a higher consciousness in his future while women are only thrown a bone: they are ‘permitted’ to work, but only amongst themselves and as an allied force not integral to the actual importance of society. Continues Dr. Leete:

Under no circumstances is a woman permitted to follow any employment not perfectly adapted, both as to kind and degree of labor, to her sex. Moreover, the hours of women’s work are considerably shorter than those of men, more frequent vacations are granted, and the most careful provision is made for rest when needed. The men of this day so well appreciate that they owe to the beauty and grace of women the chief zest of their lives and their main incentive to effort, that they permit them to work at all only because it is fully understood that a certain regular requirement of labor, of a sort adapted to their powers, is well for body and mind, during the period of maximum physical vigor. [iv]

And just when I thought Bellamy was advanced for his day by at least acknowledging the innate desire of women to contribute to society through work, my hopes were soon dashed when through Dr. Leete he says:

In your day there was no career for women except in an unnatural rivalry with men. We have given them a world of their own, with its emulations, ambitions and careers, and I assure you they are very happy. Women are a very happy race nowadays, as compared with what they ever were before in the world’s history, and their power of giving happiness to men has been of course increased in proportion.[v] * (See below)

Ah, the old ‘separate but equal’ was alive and well in the year 2000.

This is a short book, but is packed with political and social theory. The flimsy tale of James West’s arrival in the future is a device for Edward Bellamy’s dissertation on the perfect and just society. Due to this main objective, however, the book is short on a wider picture of his future world, for example there is no discussion on modes of transportation, what entertainment looks like, what is the style of dress for men and women, and so forth. I realize Bellamy is not a science fiction writer, but a little more creativity would have enhanced the story.

As it was, Looking Backward made a huge impact on many people and at its publication the book sold some 200,000 copies. By the end of the 19th century, it had sold more copies than any other book published in America besides Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The utopian society created by Edward Bellamy struck a chord and a movement was started to spread the ideas of his book. When Bellamy was asked for his blessing on these clubs and the ‘Bellamyites’ he wrote: “Go ahead by all means and do it if you can find anyone to associate with. No doubt eventually the formation of such Nationalist Clubs or associations among our sympathizers all over the country will be a proper measure and it is fitting that Boston should lead off in this movement.”

Although the movement all but vanished by 1900, at its height at least 165 Nationalist Clubs existed  all over the United States.

__________

*Similarly, Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Blythedale Romance, published in 1852, decided his utopia would keep its gender boundaries in the area of work when Zenobia declares, “we women will take the domestic and indoor part of the business, as a matter of course. To bake, to boil, to roast, to fry, to stew,–to wash, and iron, and scrub, and sweep,–these, I suppose must be feminine occupations, for the present. By and by perhaps when our individual adaptations begin to develop themselves, it may be that some of us who wear the petticoat will go a-field, and leave the weaker brethren to take our places in the kitchen” (pp. 43-44). Written 45 years later, Edward Bellamy’s women sure didn’t move very far.

[i] P. 146.
[ii] P. 6.
iii] P. 166.
[iv] P. 167-168.
[v] P. 170.

 

This book qualifies for my Classics Club Reading List, Back to the Classics and Reading New England.

The Case of the Silent ‘W’

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Specifically the ‘w’ in sword. I like to pronounce it when I am talking to myself or reading aloud an old poem. Speaking the ‘w’ sounds more noble and knightly and easier to see in my mind’s eye two brave knights fighting for the honor of their queen wielding their s’w’ords, rather than their ‘sords.’knight1

Why and how did we make this change, losing the ‘w’ in sword, if we still say swindle and swan, sweater, swoop and swivel? Was it a pronunciation issue or a linguistic change? Because if we can move our mouths to form toward and forward, we can easily say s’w’ord.

Our philological history is evident in the many words and letter combinations retained in modern English we no longer pronounce; remains from our Anglo Saxon and Germanic linguistic forebears. Light, enough, brought come to mind, though there are many others; hard to grasp for English speakers let alone explaining to those learning the language.

Imagine hearing Benjamin Franklin who, according to H. L. Mencken in his remarkable book, The American Language, pronounced the ‘l’ in the words would and should?!!

Mencken, in fact, mentions the issue of the silent ‘w’ in sword, explaining that American colonists pronounced it s’w’ord long after the English abandoned it. That is just over a couple of hundred years ago and in linguistic history, a blink of an eye. I think this bolsters my cause as ammunition enough to reclaim the lost letter. If history is on my side and surely if we can say swore, we can say s’w’ord. En garde!

 

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The Bookman’s Tale, Charlie Lovett (2013)

My Edition:Bookmanstale.jpeg
Title: The Bookman’s Tale
Author: Charlie Lovett
Publisher: Penguin Books
Device: Paper book
Year: 2013
Pages: 369
For a plot summary

 

When I read a book I want to be affected in some way, to think differently, maybe to investigate a part of the story that captivated me. At the very least, I want something to have shifted.

Charlie Lovett’s The Bookman’s Tale, satisfied all of the above, with intriguing subject matter and his ability to tell a grand, complicated story.

This is a book about books and those who care about and conserve old ones and the sometimes dirty and dangerous world of antiquarian book selling; it details the practice of historical document forgery; the provenance, over centuries, of one particular book that concerns whether Shakespeare did or didn’t (write his own plays); there is one murder and almost three; two love stories and the beginning of another; there is a centuries old family feud; and a main character with social anxiety disorder, who creates a fruitful life anyway. Throw in intrigue, blackmail and people dying before their time, this is a book I could not put down.

How did this book affect my world? Where do I start? With the pros and cons of the legitimacy of Shakespeare as the writer of his plays? Learning to forge historical documents? Or perhaps a trip to an antiquarian bookshop in hopes of finding a mysterious picture stuck inside a book? (Although, that did happen to me, sort of) And what about rare book conservation and restoration? Should I learn how to do it? What a noble vocation!

The idea of provenance strikes me as well: imagine coming across a centuries old book with a list of the owners marked inside the cover, who just happen to be well-known historical figures?

This is the kind of book I didn’t want to end and rationed pages to slow down the inevitable…What a way to spend the weekend!

 

Surprised by Leif Erikson

One of the things I love about living in Southern California, is our racial, national and religious diversity. I have the choice of food and culture from possibly every country in the world. I can listen to conversations about the news of global hometowns, and I can share in celebrations of holidays and events from countries I will probably never get the chance to visit.

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On Fairfax Blvd. It’s even Vegan!

Scattered over the vast miles of the LA Basin and surrounding counties are statues and plaques celebrating people and events that were or are important to the variety of immigrant populations, who now make this area their home.

Like this: a bust, located on the warm, sunny grounds of Griffith Park commemorating the discovery of America by the Viking Icelander, Leif Erikson!

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I stumbled upon it last Saturday, while taking a walk at the bottom of Griffith Park. I am a huge Viking fan—the People, not the football team—and quite an Icelandophile. I was happily surprised to see this larger than life-sized bust of the famed explorer overlooking Los Feliz Blvd., but I was also intrigued and puzzled. He would be appropriate, it seemed to me, in the Midwest or the East where large communities of Scandinavians settled earlier in the last century.

So, I was very surprised to learn of the large Scandinavian community here—80,000 people by 1936 when the bust was dedicated, according to an LA Times article on October 4th of that year. And apropos of this gift presented by the Nordic Civic League, the California governor proclaimed October 9, 1936, Leif Erikson Day.

Events at this inaugural* celebration included a Norwegian quartet singing ‘The Star Spangled Banner,’ and a group of ancient Icelandic songs. Congratulatory messages were sent by the governments of Denmark and Norway, and included this one sent by radiogram and cable from the Icelandic government to the mayor of Los Angeles which read:

“On the occasion of your celebration of Leif Erikson Day by unveiling a statue in his honor, we extend to you and your city our heartiest congratulations and felicitations upon your recognition of our famous countryman, the discoverer of America.”

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Boston’s Leif

 

Do you have any statues or celebrations of Leif Erikson where you live?

* Apparently we still celebrate!