Gender in books and book marketing… Concerned?

The thing is a lot of little girls DO actually like the pink and the frou-frou, and I’ve certainly seen little boys who love machinery and other stereotypical ‘boy stuff.’ Is it wrong to highlight the pink as pink? And the blue as blue? Would girls really stay away from things for boys just because they are labeled as such? I would be concerned about boys who don’t feel comfortable reaching for the ‘girlish’ things. They should be encouraged to do what is natural for them, whatever it is. But the ‘girlish’ will still be the ‘girlish.’ And if that is what a boy or girl wants, why change it? Why not, instead, just embrace it all? The strictly pink or blue, the purple, the neutral yellow, etc… And encourage children to be whoever they are.

But, what do you think?? I’d love to hear thoughts from readers, parents, ex-children… I’m only two out of three. ;-)

The new little princess has a very pretty but quite annoying name.

At least, that is how I feel about it. And, despite all the loads of gushing on Facebook about how touching the name choices are, I am sure that I’m not the only one a bit put off by this choice.

All the names are wonderfully logical in the way they honor and make reference to recent family forebears. But, the first honors the grandfather who cheated from day one on his young wife, the grandmother. The second name honors the great grandmother who has so often seemed cold and unsupportive of anything Diana-related. Only in last place does Diana’s name come, a position that seems more of an afterthought (well, we have to get the name in there) than an honor. This is less touching than irritating.

This is, at least, how it struck me to first hear the name. My feelings may change. Maybe I underestimate the family. Perhaps the idea was to leave the best impression as the last impression. Maybe they are leaving the name Diana for Harry to use when he has children. Maybe, I’ve just become old and curmudgeonly and cynical in regard to the Windsors.

While I do love the communal celebration and opportunity to share happy new-baby circle-of-life feelings that a royal birth allows strangers to enjoy together, and I do really like this newest Middleton-Windsor branch of the royal family tree, this name choice thing rubs the wrong way. It seems too reminiscent of the old, just a subtle manifestation of the same-old at a time when fresh and new would have been SO appropriate and welcome.

This entry was posted on May 4, 2015. 2 Comments

Remembering Others’ Pasts

If there were dreams to sell,
Merry and sad to tell,
And the crier rang the bell,
What would you buy?

– T.L. Beddoes from Dream Pedlary

I’m not a big fan of novels written in diary form. I do, however, enjoy reading the real thing. I usually have to read a published work if I want to read someone’s account of their daily lives, since diaries are traditionally not a widely shared thing. (Blogs are another matter.)

So, the other night I had a lovely midnight reading fest. I say fest because I feasted on a story written 84 years ago when writing for oneself seems to have been more a genuine effort at pleasurable and reflective engagement with one’s own life than it does now. Today, with all our “reality shows” and YouTube confessionals, personal blogs and ego-based attempts at snatching fame for fame’s sake, it seems as if a lot of published material is conscious of itself – the writer thinking as much about audience as his own experience.

I’m guilty, too, I acknowledge. But, I can appreciate purity of intent immensely. This reading felt pure.

What was lovely in the story that I enjoyed in the peace and solitude of a still house at midnight was the genuineness and simplicity of the account of a man, a retired Captain H.T. Lewis, who was traveling transatlantically with his wife, Madge, onboard the the S.S. Cameronia in 1930. First of all, the captain could actually write. I mean lovely punctuation and everything; he was able to tell a story. I just wished he’d told more of it. (Captain Lewis was always referring his ‘reader’ to Madge’s copious diaries. It took me a bit of time and an obituary to find out Madge was his wife. I’d love to read her diaries.)

Here’s the Captain writing about the experience of the ship bound for Glasgow setting sail from New York:

“With little or no fuss or ceremony we were soon on board, bag and baggage; and then to the rail to see the others, especially those we left on the docks. A bag-pipe band came aboard with some man going back home – they gave him a good send off. The good old Scotch and Irish faces looked up from the dock – smiles, tears: waving, as the ship whistled goodby (three times) and moved out ever so quietly from the pier. Some hearts were just breaking on the dock, though they tried hard to smile through pent-up tears: perhaps leaving for Ireland and Scotland brought up folks back home, and, too, many were probably on board, going back, whom they would never see again.” [Captain’s underlines.]

Sometimes, after a day of fatigue and headaches, one goes to sleep and wakes in the middle of the night rested and peaceful. That’s the way it was when I had the pleasure of reading Captain Lewis’s observations and memories. In my clear frame of mind in a head no longer aching, I was receptive to his words. He brought me back in time. He wrote about the state of England after the war (showing strain and poverty) and of Germany (peace, friendliness, health). It was so interesting to get this man-on-the-street account 84 years after the fact, so different (in the account of Germany) from the bit that I remembered from school. He also took me on board the ship, which sounds like it was a big, warm, snug boat, not of the cookie-cutter variety which he sailed on back home. I remember him spending a day on that second ship and dedicating it, quietly with his wife, to diary-writing.

It’s nice to go back in time, sometimes, especially from the safe warmth of one’s comforter and pillows.

And, it seems a shame to keep the Captain’s ‘log’ all to myself. His voice should be heard, shouldn’t it? Though I was the lucky one to ‘purchase’ this diary, it shouldn’t be – and, really, it isn’t – only mine. So, at some point, when I can scan with care, I would like to put up the used sections of the diary, the part with writing and annotations and pastings of newspaper clips and typed itineraries. I don’t know if anyone will read, but it will be there, free and liberated from the closed covers of this lovely leather book.

Meanwhile, I have a few scans to illustrate…

Copy of diary1






Sowing Wild Oats, the Transcendental Kind. Serious humor.

I didn’t expect to call it hilarious when I picked this book up, but it’s true:  Louisa May Alcott’s short satirical ribbing of her father‘s ‘commune’, Transcendental Wild Oats, is hilarious. All those times you read books with a humorous hippie holdover from the ’70s or watched Dharma’s parents clash with Greg’s, you probably never knew that poor Louisa went through the experience first and for real.

And, while there are probably many ways one could approach this work, one thing that flies off the page when reading this story is the oppressive patriarchal dynamic that existed and, unfortunately, too often still exists. I’d suggest we not be too sensitive about the idea that stubborn male brains have often caused family pain. We all know some people lord their power over others in their circles; the Y-chromosome has just historically made it easier for some members of the human race to do this. Beware: many times it comes from good and honorable intentions. It just doesn’t work, and a husband-wife checks-and-balances system, had it been in place, may have. Even, if it only happens rarely, it hurts when it does. Most of us have some sort of experience with it.

And that’s what hit me when reading this surprisingly funny, sharp, readable story and the supporting material in Transcendental Wild Oats and Excerpts from the Fruitlands Diary, published by the Harvard Common Press.

I’d always heard Louisa  was practical, the one who picked up the financial pieces when her father couldn’t and who probably rejoiced when she was finally old and autonomous enough to help her family. She bought their then state-of-the-art sink, I believe. That’s truly an exciting thing as anyone knows who’s experienced looking on helplessly as the powers that be in the family made one or more bad choices. I suspect Bronson Alcott made many, and his wife and daughters, including Louisa, suffered for them.

This book is separated into four parts. The first is background on the Transcendentalist movement of the mid-1800s, the second the parody, the fourth snippets from Louisa’s journals and the fourth eye-rolling explanations of the Fruitlands endeavor written by Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane, the commune’s founders. Louisa was about 10 or 11 in during the short period at Fruitlands when her family and a few other people went super-ascetic and attempted to eschew anything product that came from a non-human living thing, get back to the most basic of basics and lose all friends by evangelizing on their new lives.

In Transcendental Wild Oats, you can really hear Louisa’s frustration with the unrealistic, impractical thinking that can make lives miserable for those who must obey.  Life’s easy when someone else is doing the work, as the two head honchos of the Fruitlands commune would find out, if only they weren’t too busy pontificating to ferry passengers after they bum a ride. (They couldn’t pay as they shunned money.) But Brothers Lamb and Lion, the names Louisa May Alcott gives to the Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane characters, do not seem so quick on the uptake. Despite being fast to rewrite their principles when the work’s too hard, they just don’t see the light. So, out goes the vow to avoid using animal labor and in comes the ox to pull the plow. I got the feeling that since Lamb and Lion weren’t cooking dinner or doing the laundry, they probably forgot that they weren’t the only ones with fatigue problems.

Mrs. Lamb gets no helper to ease her labor. She refers to herself as a ‘beast of burden’ because, like many women through history, she was the creature weighted down with work that pie-in-the-sky-thinking husbands  delude themselves to think is a joyful love labor for a mother’s tender heart. In actuality, it’s a backbreaking, pack mule burden that is, arguably, unconsciously abusive. No money for her, no meat to cook with – only veggies and grains, no coffee or tea – only water, no shoes for her children until she blew that idea out of Brother Lion’s head, no clothes made from animal products, a proselytizing husband and his equally preachy buddy. And, we  think it’s bad when we don’t have a working dishwasher…

The idea comes through even in modern times: the silly menfolk made life burdensome for their families with their wild ideas (again, admittedly well-meaning) and, frankly, they burdened themselves with a ridiculous scheme that nearly kills one of them. He learns his lesson, of course. This is, after all, a parody written by a woman who I am sure loved her father but was, nonetheless, the long-suffering child of an extreme thinking family head in a strongly patriarchal time. She knows to teach his character a lesson. If you don’t mind the spoiler, I’ll tell you Brother Lamb rises from his foolishly self-induced deathbed realizing that food is actually a gift from God and he has a responsibility to his family, not just his highfaluting ideals.

That’s the nice thing about rewriting a part of your life, you get to be the one who preaches. Only, this time, the preacher was right.

(I originally posted this a long while back on an Open Salon blog I started, but I hardly use it, and wanted to post the piece here, too.

Armchair literary tours?

I just discovered the Street View feature of Google Maps. What a kick! I took a tour of a Hungarian city that I last visited 20 years ago. It brought back so much of the flavor of the place for me, and I thought, ‘What a great tool for traveling from your desk!’

Now, I am thinking about applications to literary interests. When I really get into a book that takes places somewhere far off, now I could, conceivably, not only look at pics of the place and look at online author comments and snapshots of their geographic inspiration, I can take a little “walking” tour of the place. A new way to “Let your fingers do the walking,” to use an old Yellow Pages (remember using those – in hard copy?) slogan. As long as Google trucks have photographed the place, I guess it’s an option until I win the lottery, which, face it, is hard to do when you don’t play.

Any A Discovery of Witches fans out there? Here’s Google Maps Street View of Oxford, England.