Please, I need a Favor from You

Two years ago I started writing “The Stories that Follow You Home” also known as “The Istoriaphile’s Corner.”  It’s been fun to write about stories so full of thought and meaning that they ‘ve found a home in my soul.  Still, I have to admit that’s not the reason I started this blog.  I began this because (deep breath) I wrote a book.
A bit more than two years ago, I decided to write a story about a pair of constantly squabbling sisters. This was something I knew about because my sis and I fought all the way through childhood and I wanted to see what it takes for a pair of warring siblings to cooperate and appreciate each other. I called my book The Plucky Orflings and it’s taken me almost as long to finish as it took me and my sis to stop fighting but now it’s ready for an agent to look at it. The problem is, I learned, that having a manuscript isn’t enough for an aspiring writer now.  To get published, you need a built-in audience.
Publishers and agents don’t take many chances on the books that they send to market these days. Between e-books and e-booksellers, many of their traditional customers have disappeared and business is very tight. So, most of them aren’t interested in publishing a book until a prospective author can show them there’s already a bunch of interested customers, or followers.  And if I self-publish, I still need to know who might want to buy it.  All of which brings me to today’s request.
If you look to the right-hand side of this post, you’ll see something that says, “Subscribe if you want a spot in the Istoriaphile’s Corner.”  If you fill this out and submit it, you’ll become a follower and I’ll be a step closer to getting my book published.  Being a follower doesn’t obligate you to buy anything (including my book) and no one will see your name there except me.  And I promise I will only write to you when I have information or news relating to my work. But wait, as the commercial says, there is more.
If you’ve read my blog, you know I think about nature almost as much as I think about books.  To me, some books even go with the seasons.  So I’ve created a pretty register of the books I love that match or adapt to each season and I’ve illustrated it with some of my best photos.  If you become a follower of mine, you’ll get a copy of my register in return.  
So, what do you say?  Help an aspiring author out and get something in return?  I sure would appreciate it.  And it might help The Plucky Orflings get into print.

When a Play Turns the World Upside Down

For most people believe plays are just another form of entertainment. An audience goes to a theatre and pays for the actors to entertain them. If the performance is acceptable, the company is praised with applause.  That’s a fairly simple transaction but it’s also a limiting one.  Theatre, great theatre does more than make people happy, it makes them think.  This would upset the audiences who only want to be entertained, if many of them hadn’t learned to watch a play while ignoring what it has to say.  Then, a play like Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” appears with meaning that can’t be ignored and the world turns upside down.
The world of Europe in the 1800’s could safely be described as belonging to men.  Males held most of the money and power and almost all of the “good” jobs. (Even a monarch like Queen Victoria had substantially limited power.) Women were expected to be decorative, passive guests in mens’ lives. Enter Nora Helmer, a little woman with a big, serious secret.  Years ago when her father was ill and her husband close to death, she took matters in her own hands. She illegally borrowed the money needed to heal her husband and she’s been scrimping and scrounging to pay off the balance ever since. Unfortunately, a man who knows about her crime was just fired by her husband and he’s blackmailing Nora to get him his job back.
If this story happened these days, how would it play out?  Nora might get a slap on the wrist from a judge but since she’s kept up the payments, the penalty probably would be light.  Her husband might be grateful to wife who found a way to save his life. He might even admire how she repaid much of loan without while caring for him and the children.  Well, that might be the situation today but it wasn’t in the 1870’s.  Ibsen based his play on a friend of his who fell into the same situation.  When that lady’s husband found out what happened, he filed for divorce and had her committed to the insane asylum.
Claire Bloom as Nora in
this 1973 Production
A Doll’s House turns out both better and worse than real life. Nora’s husband, Torvald, finds out about the deception and declares their marriage is over. When the blackmailer has a change of heart, Torvald changes his mind, still insisting Nora’s actions weren’t desperate or heroic but just one of those things dumb women do.  Nora realizes their life has been based on assumptions: Torvald’s belief that his wife is a child and her hope that if he saw her as the adult that she is, he’d love what he saw. Reality kills both the assumptions and the marriage and she leaves him at the end of the play, slamming, as one critic said, “a door that reverberated across Europe.”
To say A Dolls House became a pop culture phenomenon is like saying Noah got a bit wet.  It was the scandal of the age with actresses refusing to play the part as written and people fighting about the play over dinner. Nora was praised or condemned in the papers and from the pulpit and, for all the fuss she caused, you would think she had killed a real man instead of leaving a fictional one.  In a way, her character killed something worse; she murdered people’s assumptions about their own lives.
So “A Doll’s House” became a classic and part of feminist literature but that understanding of the play is too narrow. Ibsen’s play resounds in any time and place where one part of humanity fails to recognize the human dignity of another. In the end, it doesn’t matter if we are male or female, gay or straight, and any shade of the rainbow; we are all human with the same capacities to love, need and strive. To discount those capacities or assume they don’t exist because of what makes us different, creates a wall of dangerous assumptions between each of us.  Until, of course, another play comes around that shoots down those assumptions. Then the world turns upside down.

Do You Write in Your Books?

I still remember the first time I saw it.  I was browsing through a used book store and re-reading The Great Gatsby for pleasure, (hey, you have your pleasures, I have mine) when I saw it at the end of Chapter three.  
Someone had underlined the last sentence in the paragraph and drawn a star beside it at the end. They wrote in a book.  A book full of someone else’s words.  I wasn’t aware people did that.
Not that my family tried to safeguard our books; you can’t safeguard possessions you love and use daily. Our books were tattooed with coffee-cup stains, dog-eared and limp with wear.  A few loved storybooks suffered with fractured spines and key pages had to be turned carefully.  We were hard on the books we loved, but we never wrote on their pages.
I bought the used book, partly because I love the story  and partly because I was curious about the previous owner’s additions.  The check marks and dashes seemed like someone else’s coded commentary that expanded my vision of the story.  I wanted to decipher the code.
I never quite succeeded in that but I learned why some folk annotate text: they tell you to do this in school.  In high school, teachers encouraged us to highlight or underline key points and by college, the rumor was used text books were better because the previous owner had already done the highlighting.  By the way, this only works if the original owner marks the correct passages.  
And that’s the issue of annotated text: if the extra comment makes a reasonable point. I hated seeing a beautiful descriptive passage marked with a vertical line and then dismissed with the written comment “B.S.”  That has no place in Madame Bovary.  
But text annotation continues, even into electronic texts.  Kindle has an option of seeing where other readers annotated their copies of your book and lets you read their commentary.  Sometimes the comments are thoughtful and succinct; sometimes they’re verbal graffiti.  Like reading the comments on an internet article, at best it’s a mixed bag
So no, I don’t usually write in my books, and I don’t like most of what other folks add. But I make one big exception to that rule.  It’s not hard to  guess what that is.

Unpredictable Mary Chase

Once upon a time a woman named Mary decided to write a play.  A war was going on at that time and many people were sad so Mary wanted to make them laugh.  Now Mary knew something about writing and she’d written plays before but she had a hard time writing this comedy. Not only is it hard to make people laugh when they’re sad, it’s hard to find time to write when you’re raising three boys and freelancing to bring in a paycheck. (Mary’s other plays had not been successful.) So in the evenings, when her boys were asleep, Mary scribbled away at her story.  It was an unusual tale about a gentle man named Elwood who turns his conventional town upside down when he insists his best friend is a Celtic spirit, or pooka.  A pooka that looks like a rabbit.  A six-foot-three, tie-wearing rabbit. 
Mary spent the next two years perfecting her play.  She read it aloud to anyone who would listen and rewrote it at least 50 times.  (Plays are as tricky as chemistry experiments; one mistake can make the whole thing explode.)  Eventually, a producer read her play, and liked it enough to have it performed on Broadway.  Then, fate intervened: people loved Mary’s play and turned it into a hit.  It ran for years, became a movie and got Mary the Pulitzer Prize. Now she had people who believed in her and enough money to write full-time. The only problem was everyone wanted more funny stories about gentle people, must like her hit play, Harvey.  Mary wanted to write something else.

Ten years later, (though still decades ago) Mary began to write a children’s book.  This tale also had a Celtic spirit but the gentle, kind hero was gone.  In his place stood Maureen Swanson, a grade-school bully that nobody likes.  Maureen is a disrespectful liar and thief but she’s not really brave. Nevertheless, Maureen  usually gets her way until she crosses the Messerman sisters, women who are cold-hearted, powerful and evil. Our bully is completely outclassed.

Fifteen years passed before Mary published the story of Maureen and the wicked Messerman sisters and when it came out it was not a hit.  It was not surprising since this story had no laughs and  people want to cheer the hero and boo the villain, where they’re not laughing.  No one could believe this scary storywas written by the woman who created Harvey.
But Mary’s two stories have one other thing in common; they look at what makes people change. Elwood’s conventional family finally become more tolerant when they realize Elwood’s eccentricities are part of what make him so kind.  Decent treatment won’t persuade the rotten Maureen so she has to learn the hard way that there is always someone stronger and meaner.  Is there a bigger meaning? I’m not sure except never to try to predict or control what a good writer will come up with next.  Just hang on and enjoy the ride.

When your Book Pusher Blocks Your Review

Now I have no use for trolls, whether they live under the bridge or on-line.  My darling passive-aggressive mom taught me to be polite or silent, even if that meant biting my tongue.  So, I never thought I’d be blocked as a troll for telling the truth.  But then I reckoned without the World’s Largest Book Pusher.
WLBP started mainlining me books back when the dot-com revolution was in force.  First I was a regular patron, then a “1-click” shopper and an early participant in their on-line review program. WLBP and I both were happy.  I got a lifeline of books and WLBP got my money.  Then Sandra Worth’s Love & War had to appear.

Love and War is another historical novel based on the War of the Roses.  Now, I became a fan of the losing side of that war before I learned to drive so I tend to scoop up any book on the subject, non-fiction or otherwise.  This one promised to focus on John Neville, one of the supporting players.  Off I go through the pages, happy as a lark until I hit a passage where Neville is writing home to his wife.
Tomorrow we give battle.  Lest I be unable to write you again, I send you this missive so you may know my thoughts when I am no more.”
Wait a minute.  I knew those lines.  I had heard those rhythmic sentiments  before.  I glanced back at the text.  It was a moving testament of love; a soldier’s realization of all that he would lose if he died in an upcoming battle.  Then Neville wished that he and his wife would both live to see their son grown “to honorable knighthood” and I recognized the real source of those words.
That moving passage actually was written by a soldier, but not one in the War of the Roses.  It was written by Major Sullivan Ballou of Rhode Island a week before he died at Bull Run. Ken Burns featured the letter in his Civil War series and I wept the first time I heard it. Now, here were his phrases, word for word, in some misbegotten, romance set in the Middle Ages!

I spent the next hour creating a reader’s review on the book saying what I thought of Ms. Worth’s plagiarism.  I cited sources and dates and prepared a comparison of the two letters with highlighted copied phrases. I admitted Ms. Worth hadn’t broken the law; Major Ballou’s letter was in the public domain and she could copy it whenever she liked. Still, it’s lazy writing and dishonest to claim another’s work as your own and it’s despicable to steal the eloquent last words of a soldier. I thought potential customers should be aware of these flaws before they bought the book.  The computer servers in World’s Largest Book Pusher disagreed.
I submitted my review but it failed to appear, the only time that has happened. After five minutes of waiting, I assumed the computer hit a glitch and started rewriting my essay, furious but sure I was right.  I submitted again, after saving the text of my essay. Again, my commentary disappeared. I rebooted, and checked everything worked before submitting the essay a third time. My other reviews were uploaded immediately but my Love and War review was apparently blocked. I started to get the message.
Now, if I submit a review to the World’s Largest Book Pusher, I remember to be direct and bland. I don’t want to be voted off the island.  If that happens, I’ll have to move to the underside of some bridge and hang out with the other trolls.