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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

November is a Month for Silly Affectations

It’s finally November, which just means many of us are rethinking our grooming options. That’s right, we’ve reached that one month out of the year when for some inexplicable reason, otherwise clean-cut men (and sometime women, too) decide not to shave.

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Lincoln in 1858, in need of a beard. By T.P. Pearson, Public Domain

And really, do we need a reason not to shave? Sure, smooth skin might be nice, but shaving takes a lot of time—time manly men all over the world could spend washing and combing and stroking thoughtfully the facial hair that is their genetic legacy. They don’t need an excuse.

But at least one famous man did. On October 15, 1860, a little girl from Westfield, New York gave him one when she wrote to then presidential hopeful Abraham Lincoln that he would “look a great deal better” if he let his whiskers grow. Lincoln responded to eleven-year-old Grace Bedell within a few days inquiring whether she thought “people would call it a silly affectation” if he were to begin a beard at this point.

There’s no record of whether she wrote to him again of this matter, but like so many men of the last few years, Lincoln stopped shaving that November. By the time he took his inaugural journey from Illinois to Washington D.C. the new president’s face was sporting some stylish hair. And with it, he’d picked up a pretty adorable story.

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An artist’s best guess. Original portrait by T.P. Pearson, Public Domain. Beard added by my 14-year-old son, used with permission.

Not particularly pleased about the development were the portrait artists working to make a buck off the famous visage of the newly elected leader. Before the days of presidential Twitter feeds and helpful Instagram filters, the rumor of recently sprouted whiskers were all many artists had to go on, and so they had to guess.

But Abraham Lincoln certainly has gone down in history as a bewhiskered gentleman, his signature close-trimmed beard possibly the most recognizable in US history. Still, historians don’t all agree on his motivation for taking Bedell’s advice.

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Bewhiskered Lincoln in 1863. It takes a wise president to embrace criticism about his hair. By Alexander Gardner, Public Domain

He did make a stop along his inaugural journey to show little Miss Bedell his whiskers, which surely won him some favorable press. It’s always possible he could have just reflected on the advice of a concerned citizen and realized that she might have had a point.

It’s also true that in Lincoln’s day, close-trimmed facial hair was common among the highly sophisticated gentlemen of US cities and Honest Abe probably wanted to shed his rep as kind of a country bumpkin from the middle of nowhere in Illinois.

Or it could be that Abraham Lincoln was a man ahead of his time and he just decided November is not for shaving.

WU (What’s Up) With this ARE (Acronym-Rich Environment)?

It started out like any morning, with me rushing to get the kids out the door in time for school. That’s been a little harder lately as the days have gotten shorter and the mornings darker. But we were on track. Lunches were sorted, backpacks were loaded, and we were just stepping out into the garage when my 14-year-old son said, “OMG, BRB.”

I don’t know what he’d forgotten (besides the English language), but he ran quickly into his bedroom and back again. We were on our way, still with enough spare time that I could stop and ask, “What?”

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It’s shocking, really, how much time we waste in classroom teaching kids basic spelling and speaking skills. Like they’ll ever use them IRL. photo credit: PlusLexia.com Spelling via photopin (license)

He rolled his eyes. Probably—it was still kind of dark. “It means ‘be right back.’”

I rolled my eyes. Definitely—because he deserved it. “I KNOW what it means. I just think it makes more sense to speak actual words.”

Yes, I will freely admit that in that moment I sounded like an old person. I might as well have told him his favorite music was nothing but a bunch of loud noise or that he needed a haircut because he looks like a felon. BTW, one of those statements is true.

He shoved his stuff into the car next to his little brother and said, “Everyone uses text speak. It’s a thing you’re probably just going to have to get used to.”

Here I should clarify that my son is not generally disrespectful and this was said with a charming LOL.

And the thing is that the more I thought about it, the more I realized he might actually be right. Language does evolve, usually in ways we don’t really anticipate and, no matter how hard we try, not always for the simpler.

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I wonder if whatever he’s typing with his thumbs has the recipient responding with a ROTFLUTS. Though personally I’ve never seen anyone rolling on the floor laughing unable to speak because of a text message, I’m sure it happens.

In March of 1906, American steel magnate Andrew Carnegie certainly tried. That’s when he recruited twenty-six influential men of letters to form the Simplified Spelling Board. Included among the membership were Melvil Dewey, who organized all the library books, and Mark Twain, who wrote quite a few of them.

The board combed through some of the most oddly spelled words in the English language to determine when and why they came to be spelled as they did. Then, so as not to confuse a change-resistant American populace, they recommended a list of just three hundred words that could be immediately simplified by influential organizations.

At least one additional powerful man agreed whole-heartedly. In August of 1906, then President Theodore Roosevelt ordered the implementation of the changes throughout all documents coming from the Executive Branch of the US government.

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President “Rucevelt,” who IMHO may have overreached a little in this instance. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The press wasn’t having it and launched into sarcastic attacks on “Mr. Rucevelt” and the “notis” he’d taken of this truly important movement. The public largely agreed, and by December of that year, the House of Representatives, controlled by the president’s own Republican Party, issued a resolution supporting their strong preference for established dictionary spellings. They also said Teddy’s hair was too long and his music was too loud.

The president eventually gave up the fight and by 1920, the Simplified Spelling Board had dissolved, leaving behind a Handbook of Simplified Spelling and a nation that wasn’t particularly sorry to see them go.

But, some of those original three hundred new recommended spellings actually did get adopted into American English, including gram instead of gramme, maneuver instead of manoeuvre, and hiccup instead of hiccough. Because language evolves, and I guess I better get used to it.

For now, TYSM for reading and not marking this post TL;DR. I’m going AFK. TTYL.

See? I can evolve.

JK. I don’t textspeak.

Research, Cannons, and Great Big Nerds

On March 10, 1842 president of the short-lived Republic of Texas Sam Houston overstepped the limits of his office when he ordered the national archives to be removed from the capital city of Austin and taken to Houston.

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Sam Houston, a man who is no match for a determined archivist with a cannon. By National Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans. Philadelphia: D. Rice & A. N. Hart, 1854., Public Domain

A few days earlier Austin had been the site of a camp of nearly a thousand invading Mexican troops under the command of General Rafael Vásquez, but the army had been run out of the city by the time Houston issued his order. And when the wagons arrived to finally carry it out in December of that year, the danger had certainly passed. Since Houston’s goal was most likely to move the capital to his namesake city, that didn’t much matter to him.

It did, however, matter very much to the people of Austin who took their responsibility to house and protect the archive material seriously—so seriously that vigilante Angelina Eberly (not an archivist by trade but certainly one in her heart) led the charge by firing on the government thieves with a cannon.

Few shots were fired overall in what came to be known as the Archive War and no significant blood was shed, but the documents remained in Austin as did the distinction of being the capital city, even after the Republic of Texas became the State of Texas.

Archives are serious business, as those who care for them will not hesitate to tell you. Personally, I am grateful for their vigilance. Because I’m going to confess something to you, dear reader, that you probably won’t find too hard to believe.

I’m a great big nerd.

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Darth Vader. Also probably no match for a determined archivist with a cannon.

I don’t mean that I spend all my time playing video games on YouTube or that I collect replica medieval weaponry or that I know every detail there is to know about the Star Wars Galaxy. Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with those pursuits. Except maybe the YouTube thing.

My brand of nerdiness mostly shines through in my obsessive research. I know, if you’ve read this blog much then you are probably giggling about now. It’s true that most of the posts in this space are only sort of researched, and frankly, kind of shoddily. But I make a distinction between what I do in this space and what I do when pursuing the details that inform my historical fiction projects.

I can’t promise I never make a mistake, because I’m sure I do. I probably even overlook the occasional silly anachronism. Some reader somewhere will call me out on it one day and say I should write in a different genre if I can’t even manage to take thirty seconds to Google the etymology of the phrase plays it close to the vest to discover that my character wouldn’t have said that in 1834. As a reader of the historical fiction genre myself I can go ahead and admit we’re a little nerdy and occasionally a little mean.

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I probably won’t face cannon fire to gain access to the archive material I need, but if I make a historical mistake in my novel all bets are off.

So, I do my best to pursue the research as far as I can. For my current work-in-progress, I especially wanted to put my eyeballs on a diary written by one of my historical persons of interest. He’s not a widely known figure and I only discovered the existence of the unpublished diary because of a reference in the bibliography of another book. When I contacted the university library where the source was said to be housed, they couldn’t find it.

I assumed I’d have to give up. Then, not long back, while searching around on the Internet for something else, I found a blog post (some blogs can be a valuable sources of information, just usually not this one) that briefly mentioned the existence of the diary. That’s when I kind of nerded out.

I contacted the library again to find out that the archivist who had written the blog post is now at a different university. I reached out to him there, sent him the link to his post, and a few days later, I had the complete record in my inbox. All I had to do next was send it back to the original library and hope.

And wait, which is what I’m doing now. Because the archivist currently in charge of the diary in question is consulting with an expert to determine whether the physical integrity of the document will allow for safe scanning. If it doesn’t, I may have to travel to the library, which will require a possibly unreasonable amount of effort on my part.

But I get it. I do believe that archives are important enough to protect and maybe even defend with cannon fire if necessary. Because I’m a great big nerd.

 

The Queen of Strength and Beauty

Just two years after he organized what is largely considered the world’s first bodybuilding competition in 1901, acclaimed German muscle man Eugen Sandow met his match in a woman. The story goes that it was at a performance of feats of strength in New York when strongwoman Catherine Brumbach challenged anyone in the audience to outlift her.

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Also known as the “Lady Hercules,” Katie Sandwina was known for being feminine as well as uncommonly strong. University of Washington [Public domain]
Sandow allegedly jumped onto the stage and proceeded to lift a 300-pound barbell to chest height. Catherine then lifted the same weight over her head with one hand. Some historians question the truth of the tale that pits the two heavy lifters against one another. When one considers that Katie spent much of her life working for master promoter P.T. Barnum, it’s easy to suspect it may be little more than a load of hogwash.

But there’s no question Catherine Brumbach, whose stage name became Katie Sandwina after her rumored victory over one of the world’s strongest men, was a powerhouse. Katie grew up in a circus, performing with her very large family. When she was a teenager, her father offered a prize to any man who could outwrestle her. None ever did, but one man did fall in love and propose.

Happily married for more than fifty years, Katie incorporated her husband Max into the show, lifting his 165-pound body above her head with one arm and then tossing him about with ease.

I’m impressed by this woman, whose 5’9”, 200 lb. frame was considered by many to be the ideal image of perfect womanhood. She was even known as “Europe’s Queen of Strength and Beauty.”

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She’s lifting three grown men. And she’s wearing heels. I’d say the title of queen is well deserved. Bain News Service, publisher [Public domain]
I can’t exactly relate, but I have recently begun lifting with my husband. Of course I don’t mean that I’m lifting him over my head like Katie Sandwina would do with her Max. But we do try to get to the gym together about three times a week where he lifts the kind of large weights a large man might lift and then I show him how it’s done by lifting much lighter weights. Super impressively.

And I am getting stronger, though I’m pretty sure no one is referring to me as America’s Queen of Strength and Beauty. Or even Missouri’s. Yet. Katie still has quite a bit of size and strength on me, and I’m a lot more interested in being a little bit healthier and a little bit stronger than I am in becoming the strongest woman in the world. She was, by the way, her record unbroken until 1987 by American weightlifter Karyn Marshall.

Katie performed with Barnum & Bailey’s Circus until she was sixty years old. Then she and Max retired to run a restaurant in New York. There this queen of beauty and strength cooked up a storm and occasionally acted as formidable bouncer until her death in 1952.

Perhaps that should be my goal. By the time we retire, I plan to be strong enough to literally throw someone out of my kitchen should the need arise. Like a queen. And of course, I’ll look beautiful doing it.

Ford, Edison, and the Quest for the World’s Largest

I love that my children are back in school and that our sense of routine has returned. Still, a couple weeks in, I also have to admit that I miss the open road. This was a summer of lots of travel for us.

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Unfortunately, due to time constraints and general lack of family interest, I once again missed the Spam Museum in Austin, MN. photo credit: Dick Thomas Johnson Monty Python’s Spamalot at Akasaka ACT Theater via photopin (license)

We didn’t go the huge distances we have in some years, but we made it to New Orleans so my kids could cross Louisiana off the list of states they’ve visited. We spent family time in Minnesota fishing and exploring. We took off to Madison, Wisconsin to participate in an Insane Inflatable 5K, and later the boys and I spent a week in Chicago. Rarely did a week pass us by when we didn’t set out in the old family truckster for an adventure at least a couple hours away.

I really couldn’t imagine passing the summer any other way, and I’m not alone. According to a 2019 AAA poll, 100 million Americans planned to vacation this year. Sixty-eight percent of those had plans to travel during the summer months and more than half of all travelers intended to pack up their cars and hit the road.

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Henry Ford and the original family truckster. New York, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It makes sense. A road trip is almost certainly cheaper for a family than air travel, there’s plenty to see across this great big country, and a good car trip means hours of forced family togetherness searching for state license plates. Plus there’re plenty of convenient amenities along the way like gas stations and restaurants and hotels. And how else are you going to see all those quirky tourist attractions like the world’s largest turkey?

A hundred years ago or so when the American road trip was just getting its start, life on the road wasn’t quite as convenient, nor were there as many roads to choose from. Prior to the invention of the automobile, the average American never traveled more than 12 miles from his or her home. I’d probably travel that far to buy a bag of my favorite potato chips.

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Minnesota is the home to many of the world’s largest road trip attractions, including the biggest ball of twine in Darwin, the world’s largest turkey in Frazee, and this enormous boot in Redwing.

It’s likely not surprising that the American road trip developed in large part because of Henry Ford. When in 1908, Ford began producing the Model T (I think the “T” stood for truckster), suddenly families with modest incomes could afford a motor vehicle and they started to get an itch to see the world’s largest ball of twine.

But it was more than just Ford’s cars that inspired a new freedom to the American public. Along with his famous buddies Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, and John Burrows, Henry Ford embarked on a series of more or less annual road trips across various parts of the country between the years 1914 to 1924.

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Guinn’s book peeks behind the scenes of these early road trips to explore the motives and strong personalities behind them. It’s a great read!

Because I never take a road trip without a few good books to read, I picked up The Vagabonds: The Story of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison’s Ten-Year Road Trip by Jeff Guinn this summer. The book is fascinating and it made me grateful for the amenities I enjoyed along the way. When the “Vagabonds” first started road tripping, it was pretty rough going, even with an entourage of personal servants to set up camp and cook gourmet meals.

In the pre-Kardashian era of the early twentieth century Ford and his gang were what passed for celebrities. As such their highly publicized trips gained a lot of attention. Soon the American public caught on to the idea and as the traffic increased, so did the infrastructure to support it, including the world’s largest light bulb in Edison, New Jersey. Maybe I’ll hit the road and go see that one next summer.

Fruit-Plants, Cheap Coconuts, and the Need for a Brilliant Editor

The kids are back in school this week and I am back in my little hidey hole in the basement where I churn out silly blog posts and the occasional book. It’s a big year for us. My oldest is starting high school. My youngest is headed to middle school. And I’m, well, probably going to pen the next great American novel or something.

Actually, I am pretty busy trying to get back into the swing of things, starting with some novel editing. If you’ve been following along with this blog for very long, you might recall I wrote what I refer to as a lost novel. It’s a long story (the “lost” part, not the novel, which is pretty average length), but basically, a publisher did me wrong and a book that was supposed to come out never did.

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It’s possible that I should also spend some time cleaning up the hidey hole in the basement.

Fortunately, the lost book saga is nearly at an end. The rights will return to me early next year and I hope to release the book myself in February. And that means that right now, I’m spending a lot of time editing.

This is not as difficult as it sounds. Mostly I just have to read through the book for the 4,782nd time and acknowledge that I am incredibly lucky to work with a brilliant editor who calls me out on all my silly mistakes.

She’s also very kind. While I’m sure she rolls her eyes as she corrects my nineteenth dialog formatting error in the space of four pages, not once has she called me idiot, or even made me feel like she might. I really don’t know how she does it. I’d go cross-eyed and just start throwing in commas between every other word.

But that’s why I need a brilliant editor. Because sometimes I do that. And as small and inconspicuous as commas seem, they really do matter.

I recently stumbled on the story of a very important comma that once lost the US government about 2 million dollars. I realize that if you are a politician and not just a normal person, $2 million may not sound like that much money, so let me explain that this was in 1872. Really, that $2 million was more like $40 million in today’s money.commas save lives

Okay, if you are a politician, you’re probably still not all that impressed, but to us regular folk, that’s a pretty pricy comma.

The problem started with a tariff act passed that year which specified that on August 1, 1872, the following imported goods would be duty-free: “fruit, plants tropical and semi-tropical for the purpose of propagation or cultivation.”

If like me, you’re not so great with commas, you might gloss over the fact that this list seems to suggest that all imported tropical and semi-tropical fruits are no longer subject to tariff. Since the previous tariff act placed a 20% tax on lemons, oranges, pineapples, and grapes, and a 10% tax on limes, bananas, mangoes, pomelos, and coconuts, this had people in the business of pineapple importation pretty excited.

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William Adam Richardson, probably not the best Secretary of the Treasury the US has ever had, and definitely in need of a brilliant editor. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Then Secretary of the Treasury William Richardson was less excited as he explained the act contained a clerk’s typo and that the comma after fruit was meant to be a hyphen. It was fruit-plants, he insisted, that were duty free, and not bananas. The threat of litigation made him roll back his statement and it took two years before an angry congress managed to correct the mistake with a new tariff act. In the meantime, a whole lot of potential government revenue helped line the pockets of some grammar enthusiast pomelo importers.

I’m pretty sure none of my comma mistakes are going to cost me that kind of money. Then again maybe my potential book sales are more substantial than I think. Like A LOT more substantial. Just in case, I’m combing through my almost-found-again book at least one more time with the help of a brilliant editor who I’m pretty sure would also not let me get away with using the word “fruit-plants.”