Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Brothers Grimm

Today marks the 200th anniversary of the Grimm Brothers' Children's and Household Tales, commonly known as Grimm's Fairy Tales. It's a little foolish for me to recap their life and work on this blog, when the narrative is available in so many other places, but I think it's a perfect day to celebrate their tremendous contribution to the world of storytelling, and to consider the current state of the fairy tale as well.

The great news is that the form is still thriving. One can find a plethora of websites and zines devoted to the form, from Enchanted Conversation to World Weaver Press to Cabinet des Fees, where criticism and study live alongside new iterations and creations. I personally take a great deal of inspiration from fairy tales, and my short story The General Slocum combines a tragic incident in New York City history with a sort of re-telling of the Pied Piper. In it, I imagine how spirits of the "old world" may find their way into the new world, even if uninvited.

Today also marks what is, for many, likely the next-to-last work day before a little holiday, and so perhaps it wouldn't be so terrible to take a moment to lose yourself in your imagination for a while. To that end, I suggest checking out the aforementioned fairy tale blogs and stories, or taking a brief pretend holiday to your own fairy tale land, or reading this insightful analysis of what exactly about the Grimms keep us so enthralled. Here's to fairy tales, and another two hundred years of stories... 

Monday, December 17, 2012

A Christmas Carol

Just a quick one today, as I'm feeling a bit "meh" but still wanted to point out a splendid anniversary in literary history.

Today in 1843, A CHRISTMAS CAROL was first published in London by Chapman and Hall. The novella was greeted with fairly instant acclaim, and has never been out of print.

Naturally, it’s one of my favorite Christmas ghost stories, and has even been credited with reviving the English interest in the tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas. Dickens even comes up on my New York City walking tours, since he actually gave a reading of A Christmas Carol at Cooper Union’s Great Hall on his last American tour in 1865.

What I find most interesting about the story is how actually frightening it is. I was having a conversation about it the other day in which the subject came up, and I defy you to find me anyone who hasn’t been genuinely terrified by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Despite its joyful finale, there is genuine fear to be found in A Christmas Carol, so let’s take today to celebrate Dickens’ mastery of the classic ghost story, as well as his canny marketing: capitalizing on the novella’s success, the author published a Christmas annual every year thereafter.

Excerpts of this post have been cross posted on Boroughs of the Dead, where you can find plenty of my musings on Christmas and ghost stories. Incidentally, it's not too late to buy the book for a ghost story lover this Christmas!

See what I just did there? (Why do I have the feeling my own personal Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come would show me a horrible vision of a world where I just work at marketing self-published books all day? Note to self: avoid that fate.)

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Ghost Stories Live! Christmas Edition

'Tis the season to be WARY...!

Especially on Thursday Dec. 20th when we present our special holiday spooktacular!

Featuring TRADITIONAL ghost story fare from the master of the genre: M. R. James. On this fabulous, festive, and fearsome one-night-only event, we'll be screening (along with some ghostly cartoons) a digest-version of the black & white classic horror film
THE CURSE OF THE DEMON, adapted from James' "Casting the Runes" and then presenting a full-cast dramatization of James' short story: "There Was a Man Dwelt by a Churchyard" with a brand-new puppet from the chapped & bloody hands of SidMarty Lovecraft!!!
And your very own Spinster Aunt will be reading both a NEW ghost story and moderating our TRUE ghost story segment, including our new OPEN MIC ghost story FEATURE. If you have a haunted holiday tale to tell, please do come!

All this and creepy holiday decorations, moody viola music played LIVE! and of course, presided over by your host PUGSLEY THE FIENDLY GHOST, will delight your eyes, ears, and livers! So come for the grog, stay for the ghosts, and join us at Bar 82 on Dec. 20th, for Ghost Stories Live!

Must be 21 or older to attend. Admission: $5

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

In Honor of the Library of America's Pictureless Little House Box Set

"A children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest. - C.S. Lewis*

I'm sort of thrilled that the Library of America release of the Little House box set has spurred an interest in Laura Ingalls Wilder and, what's more, that people seem to be taking her seriously as a writer (well, her and Rose, I guess), even if I am a little appalled at the idea of reading the books without the Garth Williams illustrations. Still, if that gets a new audience to approach the books, I'm fine with it. (I know the people over at LofA are overjoyed to hear it. I'm sure they've been waiting on me to weigh in.) Anyway, there's been a lot of chatter about the books online lately, and a great post over at The Millions, and frankly, I want in on this conversation.

So I'm re-posting my readings of two books in the series that normally don't get a lot of attention: On The Banks of Plum Creek and By The Shores of Silver Lake. Little House on the Prairie and The Long Winter get the most attention, for being the best-known and the most devastating respectively, though The Long Winter may be tied with Little House in the Big Woods for the way they both seem to stick in readers' memories (say it with me now: pig bladder). But Plum Creek and Silver Lake are both really interesting in their own right, especially, in my view, Silver Lake, since there seems to be a whole lotta subtext happening that I certainly missed the first time around.

Reading On The Banks of Plum Creek as a child, all I thought was, "Neat, they live in a sod house! Just like a hobbit hole!" Now all I see is an opening sequence riddled with regret and dark foreshadowing as the family rolls their covered wagon into Minnesota. When Pa trades the mustangs, Pet and Patty, for two stout oxen, he tells Laura, "Pet and Patty like to travel. They are little Indian ponies, Laura, and plowing is too hard work for them. They will be much happier, traveling out west. You wouldn't want to keep them here, breaking their hearts on a plow." Of course anyone but a dunderhead could see those two little ponies are Pa and Laura.

Not only does the series get darker at this point, but the writing becomes more self-consciously literary, like Laura's warming up with practice (she really loves foreshadowing, and perfects it in The Long Winter). Incidentally, the first two books were rather fictional -- recollections mixed with historical research, muddled dates -- whereas from this point on it becomes more accurate, with fixed dates that line up with actual events.

From page one, Plum Creek stews in an atmosphere of sadness and dread. There are some amusing episodes, like fixing up the dugout house and swimming in the swimming hole and sliding down haystacks, but for the most part we're just bombarded with Pa's sense of regret at no longer living out west, Ma's dissatisfaction at living in the dugout, and the great deferred reward of the first wheat crop which we all know will never come as soon as we read this passage:

"I never saw weather like this. The old-timers call it grasshopper weather." "Whatever do they mean by that?" Ma asked him. Pa shook his head. "You can't prove it by me. 'Grasshopper weather' was what Nelson said. I couldn't make out what he meant by it." "Likely it's some old Norwegian saying," Ma said.

As if we weren't 100% sure disaster was coming, Pa builds a magnificent house for Ma, all with lumber he got on credit. Credit! He'll pay it back after the first wheat crop comes in. Everything will be all right after that first wheat crop comes in. Oh, Pa.

More in the continuing man-versus-nature metaphor series: When Laura is compelled to go into the rising creek during a flood -- she simply has to feel that strong, rushing water around her -- and nearly drowns, she develops a newfound appreciation for almighty, terrible nature:

"Laura knew now that there were things stronger than anybody. But the creek had not got her. It had not made her scream and it could not make her cry."

Life goes on by the Banks of Plum Creek. School. Nellie Oleson. Church. And then, two summers in a row, terrible plagues of grasshoppers. Grasshoppers everywhere, destroying everything. And drought, terrible drought. Laura couldn't get the creepy feeling off her skin. Pa had to walk 300 miles east in his old, patched boots and work on a farm for a dollar a day to feed the family. The girls are alone without him for weeks at a time. Devastating stuff. And I complained when I found one little old cockroach in my bed.

The book ends with Pa spending four days in a snowbank during a terrible blizzard and coming home just in time to spend Christmas with his family. He had gone to town to get Christmas candy and oyster crackers but had to eat them all to stay alive during the blizzard. (Ironically, the snow-bank shelter was mere feet from the house! Oh, Pa!) But none of it matters, because Pa comes back and the family is together again.

But, characteristically, the sweet ending is merely a brief reprieve from more devastation.

The first two chapters of By the Shores of Silver Lake reduced me to tears on the subway: Mary's gone blind from scarlet fever, and Jack the Bulldog dies. The family moves west to South Dakota, settling in a railroad camp, where Ma gets more uptight than ever. And who can blame her, with teams of rough men using rough language around her curious, pubescent daughter. More than once she and Pa warn Laura away from those rough men, and when they take in boarders, Ma gives Laura a sliver of wood to wedge beneath her bedroom door.

Silver Lake is all about Laura hitting puberty, from specific pronouncements of "being grown up now" (after Jack dies) to the horror she feels when she discovers a girl her age had been married, to this slightly mysterious passage wherein Laura is compelled to follow a path of moonlight late at night, and runs straight into a wolves' den:

"I had no idea you would go so far," Pa said. "We followed the moonpath, Laura told him. Pa looked at her strangely. "You would," he said. "Poor girl. You're as nervous as a witch and no wonder," Ma said softly.

Whoa, what's going on here? Is this just more of Laura's irrepressible spirit? Or is it something else that leads Ma and Pa to whisper earnestly once she's out of earshot? Is their wild daughter bursting at the seams with unbidden adolescent yearnings? Did she get her first period? Something is happening. The book is riddled with allusions to Laura's burgeoning maturity and sexuality, and it's no coincidence that it is here we finally see her life intersect with future husband Almanzo Wilder's (she first sees his strong, handsome team of horses and admires them, before she learns whom they belong to... wait, doesn't Freud have a thing about horses? Is that why there's a chapter about her wild older cousin teaching her to ride a horse? Oh my gosh! I never realized the Little House books were so sexually charged!).

Besides dealing with Laura's transition to adolescence/adulthood, the book is also unique for introducing, for the first time in the series, an impressionistic interior monologue. When baby Grace goes missing under Laura's watch and she's terrified that the child might have wandered into a slough, we get the following:

"Oh, Grace why didn't I watch you," she thought. "Sweet, pretty little helpless sister... Grace must have gone this way. Maybe she chased a butterfly. She didn't go into the Big Slough. She didn't climb the hill, she wasn't there. Oh, baby sister, I couldn't see you anywhere east or south on this hateful prairie."

This is the only instance I can find of first-person narration anywhere so far in the series.

Laura will be up to her old literary tricks again in The Long Winter, foreshadowing like crazy. I have to stop here for tonight, and probably won't re-read the book (having devoured it this winter, along with my weight in cheese curds) but if you just can't get enough Ingalls-ania, you might do worse than check out Lizzie Skurnick's compelling reading of it here. 

For the first half of this post, and my musings on Little House in the Big Woods, Farmer Boy, and Little House on the Prairie, click here. Literary critics will be stunned when I refer to LIW's plain-spoken style as sensuous and tactile! I'm provocative like that.

* Found this quote today over at The Marlowe Bookshelf, a blog devoted to children's lit, and thought it seemed apt.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Musings on Women and Beer

In addition to loving bourbon, as the title of this blog suggests, I who know me will attest that I am equally passionate about beer. Lately I've been pondering the relationship of beer and feminism, or at least beer and gender, and when I came across a blog post on the subject, well, I just had to talk about it! You can find the whole post over at Queen City Drinks, and I've cross-posted it here as well for those too lazy to click on stuff. And hey, I welcome the lazy reader! So make yourself at home and read up about beer, will ya?



A recent post on this blog caught my attention, since I’ve been thinking, reading, and writing a lot lately about women and beer. I’m a woman who genuinely loves beer, and I don’t do it to “be one of the lads,” or to show off, or to look cool in front of guys. I’ve loved the beverage ever since I can remember. As a kid, I begged for sips of my dad’s beer (he only ever let me have the tiniest sip of the foam); as a teenager, I visited the Czech Republic, where my mom is from, and reaffirmed my love of beer. Now, I trade feats of connoisseurship with my husband, who is only too happy to while away hours poring over the selection at our local emporium and spend entire holidays in Belgium with me. I love beer so much that when I meet someone who doesn’t care for it, I sort of want to convert them. So I understand the impulse behind “Women, Don’t Fear the Beer.” I believe it was a well-intentioned missive that came from a good place and had an honorable goal – to see more women get into craft beer. Still, there were a few missteps that rightfully irritated some of the commenters, and I wanted to address them here in a little more detail.

First off, The Brew Professor admits that his post contained “generous helpings of broad assumptions and stereotyping. Most of this is observational ‘fact’ that I have experienced personally.” This weakened his argument upfront, which is a shame, since literally two minutes of research would’ve yielded some statistics that might have strengthened his position. Let’s take a look at a recent Gallup poll for starters: the alcoholic beverage most consumed by men is, by a wide margin, beer (55%); for women, it’s wine (52%), followed by a fairly even split between liquor (22%) and beer (23%).
[Click to open a larger copy of chart]
[Click to open a larger copy of chart]
So instead of throwing out some nebulous anecdotal evidence, he could’ve started with something a little more concrete, and then maybe we could’ve had a real conversation about those numbers, and what they mean.

Secondly, he chose absolutely the wrong wording in the wrong forum. On this blog, you’re dealing with a constituency of beer drinkers, male and female. To speak to this audience from the position he took, e.g. that women need instruction on the ways of beer, was somewhat poorly thought out. Granted there are some spaces where this might be appropriate, but this blog wasn’t one of them. Furthermore, statements like “The problem with experimenting with real beer is that the selection process can be extremely intimidating” are in no way gender specific. It is no more intimidating to women just getting into craft beer than it is to men just getting into craft beer, which many commenters pointed out.

Finally, and this speaks again to the issue of research, The Brew Professor says:

“Okay, ladies. Why is the craft beer movement mostly driven by men? What is holding you back from trying more beer? In my experience, it is inexperience.”

Hmmm, wrong. The craft beer movement isn’t where the women aren’t (if you follow me). There are plenty of female brewers, sellers, journalists, and drinkers in this milieu. There is still a small imbalance to address, granted, but advocacy groups like the Barley’s Angels and Girl’s Pint Out are working to educate and empower women to buy, drink, and order beer with confidence. On the consumer side of things, it’s the macro brewers who have much, much more of a gender problem than the craft beer world.

But. (There’s always a But.) The idea that introducing gender into the conversation is inherently unnecessary or somehow offensive is a little off the mark. And this is where I have to stop taking issue with The Brew Professor’s post and see where he’s coming from....

The second half of this post will appear on Queen City Drinks tomorrow!