A Somewhat Subdued Book Launch

This has been a difficult week in the household of practical history. My sweet mother-in-law passed away after a long health struggle. It’s been an emotional time of grieving and planning and hosting, and it has not been a week for posting or commenting. I am sorry about that, and I am working to catch up.

In general, I would suggest that one might wish to avoid big, emotionally difficult life events when launching a book.  Of course, since big, emotionally difficult life events are rarely planned, here we are. Because the other thing that happened this week is that my third historical novel launched into the world.

I had originally planned to post that announcement accompanied by some interesting history, a little whimsy, and much fanfare. Instead, I’m just going to post the prologue of the book. If you get to the end of the prologue and you would like to keep reading, you can get the book here: mybook.to/PurchaseOnAmazon or here: https://books2read.com/u/31KjGw I would also really appreciate that if you are on Goodreads and feel so compelled, you go ahead and mark it as “Want to Read”: https://bit.ly/3osuNGV. And, of course, reviews are an author’s best friend. Thanks!

Prologue

August 13, 1837

Even the buzz of the insects hushed as the final preacher of the Sabbath day stepped onto the stage to claim the pulpit. It was this man they’d come to see—the farmers and the merchants, the ladies in their finest silks, the young lawyer who, at the request of his friends, had left piles of work in his office six miles away in Springfield only to hear the renowned speaker.

Peter Akers didn’t disappoint. He was a giant of a man. More than six feet tall and broad with long limbs and large hands that animated his speech, he loomed above the crowd. They leaned into his words in the slick heat of the Illinois summer.

He began his sermon with a text from Zechariah 9:9: Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem; behold thy King cometh unto thee. Akers favored the Old Testament prophets, often preaching from these strange and ancient texts sometimes for hours, diving without hesitation into high-minded allegory and apocalyptic language, inviting his congregation to ascend with him to new intellectual heights.

Also, this happened.
#1 New Release in one fairly obscure category on Amazon. But that’s something. I think.

His were not the emotionally exhilarating sermons of his col­leagues. He neither condemned nor flattered. His words did not in­spire the quaking and contorting otherwise common at camp meeting revivals, yet he held his audience rapt and eager.

Like Jacob of old, Akers wrestled with God, and all who listened came away changed. His sermon danced among the words of God’s prophets, from Zechariah to Isaiah, from Ezekiel’s proclamations of the unrighteous overturned, to the book of Revelation and Baby­lon’s inevitable fall.

And the merchants of the earth shall weep and mourn over her; for no man buyeth their merchandise anymore: the merchandise of silver and gold and precious stone, of wine and oil and fine flour, of sheep and horses and chariots and slaves and the souls of men.

Akers paused here, his eyes raised to heaven and at the same time locked into the hearts of each silent person awaiting the forth­coming conclusion, breaths held in anticipation.

“If we interpret the prophecies of this Book correctly. . .” Though the preacher’s commanding voice lowered to nearly a whisper, not a word could be missed. “There will soon come a time when the head and front of this offending shall be broken; a time when slave-ships, like beasts of prey, will no longer steal along the coast of de­fenseless Africa. When we shall cease to trade in the flesh and souls of men but will instead expel forever from this land the manacle and the whip.

“I am not a prophet,” Akers explained to a congregation that did not believe him. “But a student of the Prophets. American slavery will come to an end in some near decade.”

At these words, shifting and murmuring rose in the crowd, some perhaps angry but most filled with hope and awe at the sheer audacity of the assertion. Undaunted by the excitement, Akers car­ried on, saying, “Who can tell but that the man who shall lead us through this strife might be standing in this presence.”

This was a pronouncement rather than a question. The preacher paused, giving space for the seed of prophetic vision to find fertile soil.

At the edge of the crowd, the young lawyer drew a long breath, rubbed his weary eyes, and reflected on the preacher’s powerful words.

One of his friends clapped him on the back. “What do you think, Mr. Lincoln? Are you glad you came with us?”

“As odd as it seems,” he answered with only slight hesitation, “When the preacher described those changes and revolutions, I was deeply impressed that I should somehow strangely mix up with them.”

He did not wait for a response from his dumbfounded friend, but stood tall and stretched the stiffness from his shoulders and limbs as he thought of the many tasks awaiting him on his desk, and of the much greater work he’d yet to begin.

The Great American Book Cover

In 1925, the world was introduced to a young graphic artist who, up until that time, had remained somewhat obscure. Initially primarily a portrait painter, Francis Cugat was discovered in Chicago by conductor Cleofonte Camanini who connected the artist to numerous opera stars for whom he designed personalized posters.

From there, exactly how he came to the attention of publisher Maxwell Perkins isn’t really known, but in Cugat’s long career which eventually gravitated to film work, he designed only one book cover, and it is among the most recognizable in history.

In all its original glory.

Perkins asked him to sketch some ideas for a forthcoming novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, tentatively titled Among Ash Heaps and Millionaires. Taking what little bit of information Perkins could give him about the incomplete book, Cugat came back with sketches that included bleak landscapes and various iterations of eyes in a wide expanse of sky.

The publisher then shared the sketches with Fitzgerald who apparently liked them a lot. In fact, after missing a deadline, the writer sent a letter to his publisher in which he wrote, “For Christ’s sake don’t give anyone that jacket you’re saving for me, I’ve written it into the book.”

The 1925 book, which ended up with the title The Great Gatsby, though not initially very commercially successful, has become one of the most critically acclaimed works of the twentieth century and, some would say, is in the running for the label of the Great American Novel. You probably read it in high school. I did. And my son who is a junior just did.

I can honestly say I don’t remember the book particularly well, but I do recall the voice of my junior year English teacher, Mr. K., as he discussed the imagery of the enormous eyes peering, bespectacled, from a faded billboard advertising the practice of T. J. Eckleburg, keeping God-like watch over the unfolding tragedy of Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan, and mimicking the way Daisy’s disembodied face haunted the men who loved her.

I also remember that Mr. K.’s voice was particularly deep and soothing and that even though I adored his class, it was sometimes difficult to stay awake in that period, which immediately followed lunch. So, I have to assume that one of the reasons the imagery stuck with me as the rest of the novel and almost everything else I read that year faded in my memory like a long neglected and weathered billboard, is because of the eyes on the front cover. Not to judge the book by them or anything, but it turns out covers really do matter.

A future classic? Or at least a pretty book.

That’s why I am so excited to introduce to you the cover art for my newest book, coming out in just a couple of weeks. It wasn’t designed before the book was finished, but I think it does capture it really well and I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out.

Fitzgerald must have felt much the same way. The final cover didn’t have universal appeal. Ernest Hemingway, for one, thought it was garish. The Great Gatsby has been published with a few different covers over the years, including one featuring Leonardo Dicaprio, but the original always seems to make a comeback, and it is certainly the most recognized.

Whether the cover of my newest novel will ever become an iconic image remains to be seen. It probably depends on whether the book, in years to come, will be studied in English classes and will be in contention for becoming the Great American Novel. I don’t know that my aspirations are quite that high. But it does, I think, have a pretty nice cover.

Celebrating Family History Month Under a False Bottom Drawer

On June 11, 1837, the ship Charlotte Harper set sail from the United States for the West Coast of Africa where a colony had been established by the American Colonization Society for the purpose of resettling former American slaves. The ship carried supplies for the settlements of Bassa Cove and Monrovia in the colony of Liberia, a handful of ACS agents, a couple of teachers, and one eager twenty-four-year-old Methodist Episcopal missionary physician named Sylvanus Goheen.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a picture of Sylvanus, but this is his good buddy John Seys, superintendent of the Methodist Episcopal mission in Liberia. Smith sc., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Looking back on history, we might have some strong opinions about colonization, most of them probably negative. At that time, opinions were mixed. But this farm kid from Pennsylvania, youngest of a large brood, and fresh from medical school, such as it was in the 1830s, didn’t question the nobility of his intention to help carry the light of Christ to the new colony. He did, however, fear he might not make it there at all.

Watching the waving handkerchief of the one brother who, with tears in his eyes, had come to send him off, the image slowly fading from view along with the coastline of the United States, Sylvanus began to envision looming tragedy that would send him to the bottom of the Atlantic. The newspaper headlines his mother would read began to drift through his mind: Storm Sunk Vessel and All Aboard Lost or She Went Down in the Night, Cause Unknown or She Happened in with a Pirate who Murdered All Aboard. I think it’s safe to say he was freaking out a little.

And this is where, after hours and hours of puzzling my way through the handwriting of my ancestors, I lament the fact that a lot of school children are no longer learning cursive. Public Domain, via Pixabay

I don’t blame him. I’d have probably been freaking out, too. Sylvanus Goheen was imaginative, charming, and pretty funny. He was also sort of arrogant and sometimes kind of petulant, but we all have our faults and, if I’m being honest, he reminds me a little bit of myself.

That makes sense to me, because he was the younger brother of my grandfather’s great grandfather. I first encountered Sylvanus on the pages of a diary he presented to his sister Ann around the time of his departure for Liberia. This diary, though shorter on details than I’d have liked, turned up beneath the false bottom drawer of a lawyer cabinet among my grandmother’s possessions. That’s where my aunt found it shortly after my grandmother’s death.

Since I’m the writer in the family, she presented it to me and I placed it on the backburner where it simmered for quite a few years while, though I dabbled with it a little, I spent most of my time with mummies, lost manuscripts, and scoundrels. But now finally it’s quite a few years later. It’s also October, which means that if you are in the United States, this is officially Family History Month as declared by Congress in 2001 because, evidently, they had nothing better to do.

It’s the month for interviewing your oldest relatives, for checking out the genealogical tools available at your local library, for sending off for that kit that tells you how closely you’re related to Genghis Kahn, and for searching the false bottom drawers in your heirloom furniture. Because I bet you’ll find interesting people, who did interesting things, and if you can manage to learn about them, you might even discover hints of yourself.

Genghis Kahn, allegedly among the most genetically successful men of all time. Clara-Agathe NARGEOT (1829 – ?), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

And maybe, if you do a little more research, and a little more than that, and a little more than that until you’ve done quite a lot of research about them, you might someday take them off the backburner and write a book. That’s what I finally did.

My newest novel White Man’s Graveyard will be released in just a few weeks. In its pages, you’ll get to meet Sylvanus, his sister Annie, a dog named Hector, an orangutan named Jenny, and a whole lot of other characters, many of whom come from my own family’s past, and a few of whom come from my head. You’ll also get to explore a controversial piece of not always well remembered American and Liberian history.

And you’ll discover whether or not Sylvanus was murdered by a pirate.

Charles Dickens is in Good Company

On the last day of May in 1837, avid readers of The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club were disappointed. The story had been published in installments by Chapman & Hall at the end of every month since March of 1836 and by this time was approaching a print run of 40,000 for each part. It was perhaps the first truly and widely popular piece of literature to hit the London scene, spawning bootlegged copies, theatrical renditions, circulating jokes, and a wide range of merchandise.

Charles Dickens was living the dream. He’d hit the publishing market just right and given the reading public exactly what it wanted at exactly the moment it wanted it. Then in May of 1837, as it so often does, life happened and Dickens missed a deadline when his sister-in-law Mary, to whom he was close, died suddenly. He also missed a deadline for a new serial novel called Oliver Twist.

A story written by a some guy named Charles Dickens, who, much like author Sarah Angleton, was known to serialize his novels. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Dickens did manage to publish a section of his Pickwick Papers the following month and an anxious readership was happy to get it. The work, which was later published as a single novel, originally reached its readers as a series of nineteen issues published over twenty months.

The idea of the serial novel wasn’t entirely new, but it hit its stride with Dickens who had begun his career publishing his Sketches by Boz in various newspapers before they were later bundled into a single work.

Readers liked the format because it was cheaper to buy a short piece than a full novel. Publishers liked it because it was cheaper and less risky to produce short pieces, which allowed them to respond to market demand rather than try to predict it. And lots of authors throughout the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century did it, including Harriet Beecher Stowe, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Henry James, Upton Sinclair, Ernest Hemingway, and many, many others. All the cool kids were doing it.

Some guy named Charles Darwin who published serialized novels, similarly to author Sarah Angleton. National Library of Wales, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Then serial fiction kind of fell out of fashion, with only the occasional experimental foray by a well-known author here or there. But now it’s making a comeback. It’s happening on blogs, of course, and podcasts, and now on more and more online publishing platforms. Even Amazon decided to get a piece of the action.

Last week saw the launch of Amazon’s newest self-publishing platform Kindle Vella. For now, it’s only available in the US and I don’t entirely understand how it works just yet, but basically, it’s an app to which authors publish their stories an “episode” at a time, and readers cash in-app coins they’ve purchased in order to continue with the next episode. I think it’s supposed to be interactive, too. That’s the part I don’t have quite figured out yet.

But I assume I will figure it out before too long, because I have begun publishing a story on Vella. This novel-in-pieces is a little different than my others that got published as plain ol’ books. Those are historical novels that most likely appeal to the kind of people who like to read historical novels, which I know because I’m so great at marketing.  Or at least they probably appeal to people who like history or novels or who have ever had a conversation with my mom or dad.

This story might not appeal to the same crowd. It’s a dystopian, sci fi story I started cooking up several years ago, in which, unsurprisingly, there is a teenage girl who is destined to become a hero and do heroic things, fall in love and possibly become embroiled in a love triangle, and learn something about herself on the way to saving the world.

A serialized novel by Sarah Angleton (aka S. M. Angleton)

Probably. But as I post episodes and get reader feedback, I suppose it could always change a little bit. What I can state with a fair amount of confidence is that I am on schedule to upload episodes far enough in advance that if life happens, as it did last week when I failed to post in this space, new episodes should still drop each Wednesday.

Here’s the description you will find on Vella:

Built on the ashes of St. Louis, Becca’s dystopian world centers on a dark faith dedicated to pushing the limits of the human lifespan. After an unnaturally prolonged childhood, she faces the ritual that will determine her vocation and launch her initiation into adulthood, a ritual that two years prior, her brother sacrificed his life to protest. When Becca’s own ceremony takes a wrong turn, she finds herself in a world preserved by lies and a tangled history that threatens everyone she loves.

If you’re into that kind of thing, please check it out at this link to read the first few episodes for free. It’s an experiment, but I’m kind of excited about it. Maybe by the time I get to the last episode, 40,000 people will be waiting anxiously for it. It might spawn jokes, theatrical renditions, bootlegged copies, and a wide range of merchandise. Someday, I might even publish it as a book. The only thing I know for certain is that I have now joined the ranks of Charles Dickens. And I think he’s in pretty good company.

Authors Recognition Award

If you follow along with this blog fairly regularly you may have noticed that I have been taking it a little easier this summer than I normally do. 2020 has brought plenty of strangeness and with that, I’ve found it useful to have the flexibility of trading my normally weekly post for an every two weeks schedule. At this point I anticipate returning to a weekly posting schedule when school starts at the end of August. But it’s 2020, so I may be carried off by murder hornets or blown away in a dust storm by then. I’m not making any firm promises.

Or maybe I’ll be be eaten by carnivorous plants grown from mystery seeds. What a strange year. Image by MarcosJH from Pixabay

In the meantime, with this “off” week, since I’m not researching any weird historical tidbits to share with you, I’m going to participate in an award/tag that I received recently.

The Author’s Recognition Award was originally created by Beverly at her Becoming the Oil and Wine Blog. She wants to support fellow bloggers who have written and published books, or who are somewhere in that process, to give them an opportunity to write about their work. Thanks, Beverly. That’s pretty super cool of you!

Thank you also to the Dippy Dotty Girl who nominated me for this award, and who is furiously querying agents in hopes of publishing a book about her “dippy-dotty travels through Cornwall.” As somewhat of a dippy-dotty traveler myself, I’m anxious for the someday when I can read it.

This is the image to which the rules refer, but feel free to use the Venus Flytrap picture if it works for you.

Like any blog award, there are few rules:

  1. Create a new post on your blog with the above logo or with one of your own creation.
  2. Include both the purpose of the award and the rules of the award.
  3. Thank the person who nominated you and link to their blog.
  4. Include links to the creator of the award and to the inspiration post Celebrating and Supporting our Fellow Writers.
  5. Write a brief description of the books you have written or the book you are currently writing.
  6. Include a link to your published books or the potential timeline of release.
  7. Nominate at least five bloggers who have published books or who are writing a book.
  8. Support at least one of the bloggers you nominated by either purchasing one of their books or sharing the links to their books. If they haven’t written a book, share one of their blog posts

My books:

Launching Sheep & Other Stories from the Intersection of History and Nonsense is a collection of humorous essays about quirky history, viewed through the lens of modern-day family life. Released in the spring of 2017, it is a celebration of the first five years of this very blog, which was originally called The Practical Historian: Your Guide to Practically True History. The blog title grew up a little as my writing career became more developed, but the posts have not matured at all. You can find more information about the book at this link.

Gentleman of Misfortune is a historical novel about a 19th century gentleman criminal who commandeers a shipment of Egyptian mummies, attempts to make his fortune by taking them on the road, and gets more than he bargained for. You can find out more and read an excerpt at this link.

Smoke Rose to Heaven is a historical novel that tells the 19th century coming of age story of a girl with a unique gift and a dangerous secret. It is a companion novel to Gentleman of Misfortune, but as the timelines intersect, the two books can be enjoyed in either order. You can find out more and read an excerpt at this link.

My Work in Progress is another historical novel that does have an actual working title, but one never knows how it will go with titles. It was inspired by a 19th century diary discovered by my aunt in the false-bottom drawer of a desk that once belonged to my grandmother. Close to completion now, this novel will soon attract an influential agent, a large advance from a major publisher, and inevitable fame. And since I’m dreaming big anyway, I might as well sell the film rights, too.

Now for the nominees:

  1. Jane Olandese (Book ‘Em Jan O)
  2. M.B. Henry
  3. Steven Baird (Ordinary Handsome)
  4. Tammie Painter
  5. Matthew Wright

I know a lot of writers, many of them wonderfully creative people I have met virtually in the blogosphere. I’ve listed five here, and I suggest you check them all out because they’re great. But please also know that if you are a writer and I didn’t list you, that was in no way an intentional slight. I know we’re all busy blogging away about anything other than our books so people don’t get sick to death of us writing endlessly about our books and begging them to buy our books and love our books and write thoughtful reviews about our books, but sometimes, it’s nice to get to just share. Also, I want to read about your books. So please consider yourself nominated and carry on.

Thanks for stopping by! I promise next week I’ll post something about a little piece of history you never knew you wanted to know, but that might come in handy at your next cocktail party, which will probably be swarmed by murder hornets so you should probably just stay home to be safe.

A Blog Tour in the Bag

A few years ago I unpublished my birthday on Facebook. I didn’t do it because I hate celebrating or because I’m self-conscious about my age. I really don’t care if people know how many twenty-ninth birthdays I’ve had.

But I am a bit of an introvert, which means as much as I love being around people (and I really do), I tend to get a little overwhelmed when I’m the center of too much attention.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate that people want to celebrate with me and wish me well. I just sometimes think that while they do, I’d kind of rather be hiding in a quiet corner with a paper bag over my head.

paperbaghead
photo credit: Flооd How You Doin’? via photopin (license)

Thanks to inventor Luther Crowell who, 148 years ago today, invented the machine that makes folded, flat-bottomed paper bags, I could actually do that.

If you happen to live in Cape Cod (and odds are you don’t), you may have heard of one of the area’s most famous sons, whose more than 280 patents included a flying machine that, at least in concept, resembled the modern helicopter.

Or perhaps you’ve discovered him on LinkIn where you’ll find that this Paper Bag Inventor at Paper Bag Inventor has a skill set that includes paper craft, paper industry, and paper prototyping. I think you’ll also find that there are people in this world who spend way too much time on the Internet.

paperbagcraft
Obviously some people have also spent way more time thinking about uses for paper bags than I have. But this is cool! photo credit: georigami Andrew Hudson’s Nova Bind via photopin (license)

Certainly Cowell is most remembered for the machine that could make a sturdy folded paper bag, an invention that contributed to the newspaper printing (and folding) industry as well as to the grocery checkout line where customers are still regularly given the option of using Crowell’s bags to carry home potato chips and bottles of salad dressing.

These paper bags are also useful for craft projects, making text book protectors, quickly ripening fruit, and occasionally hiding in corners.

That last one might be wishful thinking on my part, because this week I’m on a blog tour, talking about my new historical novel, some of the research, my convoluted journey to publication, my third grade teacher, my first ever fan letter, and my thesaurus collection. Don’t judge. It’s a lot of posts. And trust me when I say you’re not going to want to miss the thesauri.

SmokeBigBook
Me without a paper bag on my head, and feeling just the tiniest bit uncomfortable.

I love talking about books with readers and with other writers (there’s a lot of overlap between those groups). I’m incredibly grateful to my fellow bloggers who have invited me to share their space and for all those who have interacted with me on the posts and shared them on social media. It really has been a lot of fun.

It’s also been a little scary and a tiny bit exhausting putting myself out there and basically demanding attention. So I am going to invite you to take a look at the tour, to check out the blogs of some wonderful new friends, and to read my ridiculous posts about myself and my writing. You could even win a copy of my new book Smoke Rose to Heaven for Kindle if you leave a comment on any of them.

Smoke Rose to Heaven Virtual Tour

While you do that, I’m just going to sit quietly in this corner over here with a paper bag over my head.

Bigfoot, Mormons, and Smoking Guns

Earlier this year, on January 22, the Washington State Department of Transportation made an unexpected discovery. While reviewing footage from a camera near Sherman Pass on State Route 20, they spotted…something.

That’s right folks, Bigfoot is alive and well and living in the mountain passes of Washington State. Maybe. It’s a fair bet that people are paying closer attention to the WSDOT twitter feed these days and that’s a good thing. These cameras are supposed to show potentially dangerous environmental conditions along the state’s most treacherous roads. They are not necessarily intended to reveal the presence of cryptozoological creatures, which lends maybe the smallest hint of sort of credibility to the video.

The WSDOT certainly isn’t staking its professional reputation on the discovery. After all, they are only “a little stitious,” but I suppose it’s possible they have found the smoking gun in one of the world’s greatest mysteries.

Not a literal smoking gun, of course, though that does seem to be how the phrase may have originally been used. One of the earliest examples is found in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1893 short story “The Adventure of the Gloria Scott” in which a “smoking pistol” in the hands of a criminal demonstrates his guilt beyond any reasonable doubt.

smoking gun
photo credit: AppleDave Smoking Gun via photopin (license)

The phrase didn’t gain much traction as a metaphor for another eighty years when the US press pretty universally adopted it in reference to the hunt for evidence in President Nixon’s impeachment case.

Since the more metaphorical resurgence of the phrase in the 1970s, its use has blossomed to incorporate that one missing piece of crucial evidence that supports not only a criminal case, but also a scientific assumption, or even a conspiracy theory.

I do love a good conspiracy theory. And the best ones seem to all be missing just that one smoking gun. If only the public could finally see the alien technology kept at Area 51 or the original unedited film from Stanley Kubricks’s moon landing hoax.

My new novel Smoke Rose to Heaven, which came out this week, was inspired by a smoking gun from history. In 1830, a man named Joseph Smith published a new sacred text called The Book of Mormon: An Account Written by the Hand of Mormon upon Plates Taken from the Plates of Nephi.

He claimed to have found these golden plates buried in the Hill Cumorah in New York State and to have translated them from “Reformed Egyptian” by divine interpretation made possible with the use of seer stones thrown into a hat. Once he was finished, the plates were taken up to heaven.BoMSmoke

As you might imagine, not everyone was quick to swallow this unusual story. Though Smith’s book won him followers and started a religious movement that continues today, it also garnered a number of detractors. One of those was newspaper editor Eber D. Howe who in 1834 published Mormonism Unvailed. Howe’s book includes a large collection of affidavits swearing that Smith’s sacred text was really the plagiarized work of an unpublished and by then deceased novelist named Solomon Spalding.

Like most conspiracy theories, the claim is supported by a lot of circumstantial evidence, a few assumptions, and possibly some questionable motives, but also like most, it is plausible. At least it’s plausible enough for fiction.

SmokeFrontCover
Available now!

Because if true, this theory, which has come to be known as the Spalding Enigma, would be well served by the existence of the original manuscript of the Spalding novel, allegedly titled Manuscript Found. This particular smoking gun has thus far been lost to history.

But it’s not lost to historical fiction. My novel is the coming of age story of a woman who comes to possess that manuscript. It begins with the Spalding Enigma, but in the course of the story also seeks to explore the unique cultural environment that allowed several new religious movements to begin. The book is fiction. It’s intended neither to convince nor convert, but rather to look at an interesting moment in history.

I mean it’s certainly no Bigfoot caught on a Department of Transportation camera, but I’m pretty proud of the book and I hope you’ll consider checking it out.

 

Want to help me spread the word? If you’re willing to share about the book on social media, I’d be so grateful. You can share this post, the Amazon link, or the book trailer. Really, any mention at all would be great! I even have some ready-made tweets if you’d like to use them. Thanks!

Tweet this“A fascinating look at a historical mystery that spell-bindingly blends fact with fiction.” Smoke Rose to Heaven. #bookrelease #tbrlist #amreading

A girl abandoned becomes a woman pursued by a dark past, a dangerous secret and those who would kill to keep it hidden. Smoke Rose to Heaven. #bookrelease #tbrlist #amreading

A woman with a unique gift and a tragic past holds the key to unravelling one of history’s greatest deceptions. Smoke Rose to Heaven. #bookrelease #tbrlist #amreading

 

Four Score and Seven Words to Go

On November 2, 1863, a man named David Wills, writing on behalf of the governor of Pennsylvania, asked then president of the United States Abraham Lincoln if he might consider making “a few appropriate remarks” at the November 19th consecration ceremony of a new cemetery for the many soldiers who had died at the Battle of Gettysburg.

Gettysburg address
Lincoln’s in there somewhere making a few appropriate remarks. Just upper left of center, I think. Photographer attributions vary from unidentified (William Frassanito) to Mathew Brady (NARA) and David Bachrach (1845-1921) (Center for Civil War Photography). [Public domain]
The main speaker was to be Edward Everett, who allegedly spoke eloquently for nearly two hours, as everyone pretty much expected. History books rarely recount what he said. Then it was Lincoln’s turn. The president spoke relatively few words. Not even three hundred, in fact. And, diagnosed not long after with smallpox, he probably wasn’t feeling very well at the time. Still, most American school children could recite at least some of them.

Rumors have long circulated that the president dashed off the speech while on the train to the event, but that probably isn’t quite true. I don’t doubt that he fine-tuned and finalized a little of his phrasing on that train, but he’d known for a couple of weeks that he’d have to say something. Various observations place him scribbling notes between photo shoots and presidential responsibilities in the days leading up to the event. Most likely he thought a great deal about the words he would say.

I can’t speak for all writers and orators, but I know that for me much composition occurs in my head, swirling in the background of whatever essential tasks I’m completing. Sometimes I dash off a note or two to help me remember later, and then when I finally get a few dedicated moments, I have someplace to start and a great deal to pull together.

I think this is probably how it worked for Lincoln when he delivered what has become his most remembered address.

I was hoping something similar would happen with my blog post this week. You see, it’s been busy around here. I’m getting ready to launch a new book in a little less than a week, which means I have been spending a lot of time preparing. I’ve been upping my game on social media, sending off press releases, scheduling events, cranking out posts for an upcoming blog tour, and designing graphics. I even made a book trailer.

And then there’s my family, still busy doing all the many things they do while also expecting to occasionally eat and/or spend time together.

So, I was definitely hoping for some inspiration for this week’s practical history blog post. Unfortunately, if ideas were swirling somewhere in the background while I was busy elsewhere, I didn’t get them scribbled down.

But Abraham Lincoln is pretty inspiring as historical figures go. And though I think I can be fairly certain that “the world will little note, nor long remember” what I’ve written here, I can at least say I got it done.

5 more days until publication! Follow this link to check out more information about the book, or follow this one to sign up to receive occasional email updates.

Bravely Throwing Out a Piece of the Soul

In 1936, celebrated American author F. Scott Fitzgerald made a list. He’d hit a big rough patch in a life full of rough patches, drinking too much and living in a hotel in Asheville, North Carolina to be close to his institutionalized, schizophrenic wife. After an alleged suicide attempt and a nasty shoulder injury, Fitzgerald hired a nurse named Dorothy Richardson to care for him.

attachments
A romance I quite enjoyed in 2019.

As they got to know one another, Fitzgerald made her a list of books he thought she ought to read. The list includes some William Faulkner, Theodore Drieser, Leo Tolstoy, John Keats, and such—twenty-two works in all. Some I’ve read. Most, I admit, I haven’t.

But that’s okay, because F. Scott Fitzgerald didn’t make the list for me, and suggesting a book for people can seem like kind of an intimate thing. You’re asking them to pour hours of their time into an experience, one they will engage with during their personal downtime, maybe while they’re drowsy and wearing their pajamas, or lounging on the beach in a swimsuit they feel just a little bit too chubby to wear, or nervously waiting for their loved one’s surgical procedure to end and hoping no waiting room strangers will strike up a conversation.

mymothershouse
A memoir I read this year and liked a lot.

You hope they’ll like it. You hope they won’t think you have no taste, or that you think they have no taste, or that they think you chose this book because it says something to you about them or that you think it says something about yourself and you’re hoping they’ll notice. It’s a little like offering up a piece of your soul.

But just once in a while it works out. You read a book and it makes you think of one of your friends, who then absolutely loves the book you recommended and is touched that you just seem to get her, at which point she asks you for another recommendation and the stakes become higher.

And that’s why I am especially grateful to have so many wonderful friends who are willing to put themselves out there. Earlier this week, I was thinking about what books I wanted to pick up to finish out my year in reading. Looking over my To-Be-Read list on Goodreads, I realized I had fallen behind a little on my pace if I was going to meet my year-end goal. Most of the list in front of me included books that were either going to be hard to get hold of quickly or were probably not going to be quick reads.

boneshaker
The best steampunk I read in 2019.

I asked Facebook for suggestions of light, fast reads. And boy did my friends come through! As of right now, about four days later, my plea has received eighty responses. And that doesn’t count my librarian friend who texted me directly with several titles.

I do find it pretty gratifying that a lot of the suggestions are books I’ve read or that were already titles I’d come across and wanted to read, an indication that my friends and I probably know each other fairly well. But I’m even more impressed that so many people took the risk and put their opinions out there.

I read broadly, and with few exceptions, I’ll give anything a try. Maybe then, I’m not a terribly intimidating person to offer book suggestions. I also definitely recognize that the reading experience is largely an individual one and that I myself might view a book differently were I to read it today or a month from now, so I’m never going to judge a person based on the recommendations he makes.

equation
Best mathematical mystery I read this year. That’s a thing, right?

And I’m not assuming that the list of books offered to me are the essential books that should be read by everyone, which Fitzgerald may have implied to his nurse, mainly by virtue, I think, of who he happened to be and also because he was probably a little drunk. It should be noted that there are some fairly universally accepted greats missing from his list, including Shakespeare. Any high school English teacher would probably be pretty quick to point out that particular oversight.

So, dear blogosphere, it’s your turn. What should I read? I can’t guarantee I’ll follow every suggestion, and I’m sure I won’t get to them all by the end of the year, but I promise I won’t think less of you for throwing it out there.

By the way, if you are on Goodreads, let’s connect!

Why Does My Wrist Hurt?

Not too long ago I celebrated a big birthday. Okay, it wasn’t really that big. It didn’t end in a zero or anything, but it did feel kind of significant only because once upon a time I read Douglas Adams’s funny little five book trilogy that begins with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

hitchhiker'sI even reread the first book in honor of the occasion. I’d forgotten what a trip it is. The book, which started as a BBC radio play, is unapologetically weird and wildly imaginative. If you haven’t read it, you probably should, if for no other reason than just so you can catch all of the pop culture references you’ve been missing for years. It’s a pretty quick read, and you’ll learn how useful it can be to travel with a towel, why you should have more respect for mice, and of course, the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything.

It’s this last bit that convinced me to pick up the book again, because I recently turned 42, which according to Adams, is the answer to that ultimate question. There’s been a lot of speculation from fans over the years as to why Adams, who died in 2001, chose the number.

Some suggest he was paying homage to Lewis Carroll who included the number in a variety of ways in his works, including Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which in this writer’s humble opinion, should probably not be read at all.

dontpanic
Good advice for 42-year-olds as well as intergalactic hitchhikers. photo credit: artnoose Don’t panic with blue envelope via photopin (license)

Others suggest that it is mathematically interesting because it’s a pronic number, an abundant number, and sphenic number, which I’m sure is super exciting to those who speak mathematics a bit more fluently than I do. Quite recently it also became the last possible number under 100 to be expressed as a sum of three cubes, a solution which much like the answer 42 in the book, was many years in the making and came about as the result of an awful lot of worldwide computing power. It also led to a fair bit of excitement for the people who get excited about such things.

If Adams had some grand and elaborate reasoning behind his choice for the number in the book, he wasn’t telling. He said he chose it because it seemed like a funny number. And that really probably is all there is to it.

Personally, I was hoping for a little wisdom from it. I mean from reaching the ripe old age of 42, not from the Douglas Adams’s book, which is most useful for the clever jokes.

douglas adams inspired "Hitch hikers guide to the galaxy" H2G2
Douglas Adams, the man behind the universe’s nerdy obsession with the number 42. Michael Hughes [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D
In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the second most powerful computer that will ever be spits out the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. The problem is that no one knows the question, so the most powerful computer that will ever exist is created. Complete with a biological component, this computer is called Earth, and it gets demolished in preparation for the construction of an intergalactic highway seconds before it spits out the long-awaited question.

Now, I’ve given this a lot of thought. The series does go on to reveal that the question is “What do you get if you multiply six by nine?” which I do speak enough mathematics to realize is a pretty funny punchline. But in all my gathered wisdom from my 42 years on this supercomputer we call Earth is that the question is more likely one of the following:

Why is it now such a struggle to lose a few pounds?
Why am I tired by 8:30 every night?
Why do I cry when other people’s kids leave for college?
Why does my wrist hurt?
Why, even though I feel a little bit more rundown than I did at 15, or 25, or 37, or even 41, do I also feel a little bit wiser?

Granted I don’t know what it’s like to turn 42 on any other planet out there in the wider universe so I can’t say for sure that it’s the answer to absolutely everything, but right now, 42 feels like a pretty good age to be, and I suppose contentment is as good an answer as any to the question of life.