Making a Difference

“There are probably words addressed to our condition exactly, which, if we could really hear and understand, would be more salutary than the morning or the spring to our lives, and possibly put a new aspect on the face of things for us. How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book!”

— Henry David Thoreau, “Reading,” Walden

The fourth Saturday in October is “Make a Difference” Day. It’s a great time for neighborhood cleanups, planting flowers in public spaces, or doing a bit of volunteer work. But, like all days, it’s also a great day for reading.

If you have any doubts as to what difference one person can make, take a gander at one of these tales and be inspired.

1. Sewing Hope


Perhaps, like everyone else with Internet access, you’ve seen Kony 2012, the story of the LRA in Uganda. If so, maybe you’ve wondered whatever became of all those devastated landscapes and broken lives.

Some of those people were lucky enough to meet Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe, who founded St. Monica’s Vocational School in Gulu, Uganda. She takes girls discarded by society and actual trash and turns them into something truly amazing. Sewing Hope explains how this happened and (bonus!) your purchase helps it to keep happening.

Sister Rosemary was named to Time magazine’s 100 most influential people list in 2014 and was awarded CNN’s “Hero” title in 2007. Somewhere along the way, she offered to punch Stephen Colbert in the face.

Before or after your reading, check out to get a head start on that Christmas list.

2. Three Cups of Tea


There is plenty of controversy about this book and, while not wishing to whitewash things, I think it is important to stress that this guy built 55 schools in places that really, really need schools. (If you have some feel for the difference knowing how to read and write has made in your life, imagine the impact on the children in 55 schools.)

Essentially, this fellow tried and failed to climb a very big mountain. While recovering from a spectacular failure, he found another (I would argue better) goal. Mountains do not, I think, have a deep need to be climbed, but children do have a deep need to be educated.

Perhaps most astonishingly, the book comes in at just over 300 pages or, at my rate of reading, exactly three cups of tea. That’s some precision.


3. A Path Appears

pathappearsNicholas Kristof is a world-changer all by himself. When he profiles someone in his NYTimes column, things change. (His profile of Dr. Tom Catena’s work in the Nuba Mountains generated enough donations to strain the capacity of the organization trying to account for them all.) With Sheryl WuDunn, Kristof has followed the amazing Half the Sky with a book that walks through the lives of ordinary people and highlights the extraordinary difference they have made.

Alert: The first chapter is kind of a gut punch. I had to set the book down for two months before I could forge ahead with it.

Kristof and WuDunn make it seem simple to make the world a better place. Not easy, but simple. Maybe it is.


If none of these are tempting and you have no difference-making plans for the day, at least dust off (or Google) a copy of Walden and consider taking a walk in the woods. (Try to turn a blind eye to the fact that Henry David lived just two miles outside the town of Concord while making it seem as though civilization was light years away. He did have to do without Internet, so it was no, well, walk in the woods.)

National Read a Book Day

OK, friend, why are you here? It’s read a book day.

How can you do that surreptitiously while at work? I can’t suborn such behavior, but you already know about this:

You probably have seen this:

You might find this new:

And you doubtless have this already:

(I mean, c’mon, it’s literally “”)

So, open one and read a page. Just a page. It could even be this page:


Enjoy, fellow Pheniacs!

Frankenstein Day

Given the sad news of Gene Wilder’s passing, I’m sure some of you are pronouncing the above in a non-traditional manner: Good for you. However, in a *spooky* coincidence, August 30 has been designated Frankenstein Day because it is the birthday of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, who penned the classic over a weekend on a dare (more or less) to the undoubted chagrin of her cottage-mates: husband Percy and King of Jerks Byron. So full marks to the lady for that.

Here’s a nod to some of the best monsters in the literary landscape:

1. Dracula


Lugosi and Karloff are forever linked in my mind for their contemporaneous and masterful portrayals of the two biggest baddies ever. Bram Stoker’s Dracula built upon the legends of Vlad the Impaler, an all-around unpleasant fellow from Wallachia, who did win the admiration of many civic leaders and even the pope for stemming the onrush of Ottomans into Europe, thus keeping it some sort of Christian. (Authorities vary on how Christian you can call a man who likes to impale 30,000 people on the lawn while he breakfasts. In fairness, he did not partake of the roasted children, saving that dish instead for their mothers, whom he then had killed.)

But savvy historians may observe a modern-day note of rebellion in Stoker’s work. A villainous foreigner’s bloodlust devastates a countryside, making people despair of both life and afterlife? Any bells? Does it help to recall that Stoker was Irish and writing at the turn of the 20th century? Could he be brought up on terrorism charges for suggesting that the only remedy was a stake through the heart (much the technique favored by the Fenian Dynamite Campaign)? Read and tremble anew.

2. It


The master of horror really phoned this one in. He made a teenage girl terrifying in Carrie, a car haunted in Christine, and a lovable mutt the town terror in Cujo. Scary clowns? Why not just tell us a story about the homicidal maniac who escaped from the federal pen and now has hostages in the chainsaw store? Fish in a barrel, tsk.

Like just about anyone who disguises themselves, clowns have been scary since before they dug up John Wayne Gacy’s crawl space. [Fun fact: Gacy’s Wikipedia page has a subhead “Businessman and community volunteer.” This is horrifying. It’s “businessperson,” people. Get with it.] I’m not sure why so many cultures feel the need to frighten their children in this way (there are never stories about men in vans or diptheria, but clowns, dolls, houses [anything otherwise like to make a  young child feel safe] abound), but it’s near the top of the list of human hobbies.

Also, Mr. King, we’re all still waiting for the followup, Poundfoolish. I’m imagining a Brit afraid of weight gain and money loss…ah! you’re too right, the Times has that well managed.

3. Grendel


Not wishing to cast aspersions on what I’m sure is a fine and horrible monster, the scariest part of Beowulf for me was the Old English. But you can get Seamus Heaney‘s translation these days (Be careful: There are a lot of mismatched products linked here.) and even some excerpts read by himself on audio. Who likes to fall asleep listening to monster stories? This girl.

I found it interesting as an undergrad that we used so many details of this poem to illuminate the Anglo-Saxon life. We know that the Heroic Code was a pillar of social relationships and that wirgild was a culturally appropriate way to compensate for having killed someone. Hrothgar’s hall was emblematic of the times and Beowulf was the ideal warrior. If it was in the poem, we could be sure there was some correlative in the culture. I regret that I did not think to ask: So, were there monsters?

I hear there was a movie, too, with Angelina Jolie, presumably as Grendel’s mother. I did not watch the film, but if I had small children—particularly if they were ethnically varied—I would find that very scary indeed. Unfairly, perhaps, I imagine it lacks some of the poetry of the original.

4. Nyarlathotep


Somewhere in adolescence, where two roads diverge, one to conventional thinking and social success, the other to the rarer perks of geekdom, there is a signpost made entirely of the works of H.P. Lovecraft.

Unknown in life, he has posthumously become the godfather of horror. If you have never heard of him, you have a nerdy friend who has.

Among his many creepy creations, my favorite is the Crawling Chaos, Nyarlathotep (also a pet name for the hall closet). While the Old Ones—the ancient gods of the Lovecraftverse—are sleeping (while yet remaining extremely frightening), Nyarlathotep roams the world, taking many guises. He is sort of the waking caretaker of the Old Ones, but no scrivener he. He is too terrifying to describe precisely, but Lovecraft describes how those who encounter him feel, and that does the trick. Having met this beast, can you imagine the unfathomable, next-level horror of Cthulhu? Yes. Yes, you can. Keep the lights on.

That’s my off-the-cuff report of what’s frightful in fiction. Noticeable for its absence is the truly scary way an observant reader can scry to the page when John Grisham’s editor called and reminded him of his deadline or the far scarier parts of the world where people do not read at all. We’ll leave such imaginings to braver souls.


Long Live the King!

On this day in 1977, the undisputed king of rock ‘n’ roll was found to have abdicated while yet on the throne. Sad times. But, in the one respect in which monarchy passes the Turing test, it is self-replicating. So here are some recommendable authors who specialize in kings, queens, and the odd regent. And the really odd Lord Privy Seal.

1. Alison Weir

lizI didn’t have much in the way of a penchant for royalty until I made a run at Shakespeare’s historical plays one summer. The Bard presents excitement and challenges aplenty without the added hurdle of my not knowing whit one about his cast of characters. Alison Weir to the rescue. For just about every one of the history plays, Weir has one or more fascinating books that lay out the facts of the era, the leading figures, and  more than a few clues as to the long-term impact of their decisions.

My favorite, purely for reasons of sorting out who’s who, is The Six Wives of Henry VIIIWeir takes you beyond the porky religious scofflaw with the turkey leg and gives you the skinny on a man so famously brilliant, athletic, charming, and pious that the whole world was starting to believe maybe there was something in that whole “divine right” business.

2. Margaret George


Margaret George does a truly fine job of fictionalizing a historical figure with such slavish conformity to primary sources that there seems to be no fiction at all. Her portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots, is an exhaustive spelunk into one of the “lesser” royals of a contentious age.

Though typically hefty, George’s books read like novels. If you’re truly ignorant of history: Bonus! You’ll never see the end coming. Mary certainly didn’t.






3. Philippa Gregory

boleynPhilippa Gregory takes rather a few more liberties in her tale-telling, but doesn’t seem to stray to the irresponsible. She tells this tale, for example, from the point of view of Mary Boleyn, and one cannot reasonably expect to extrapolate whether she felt envy over the cut of another woman’s dress. However, Henry does not become a penitent who is eventually raised to the altar, so all the coloring seems to be safely between the lines.

Her specialty is the women of the period who tend to be the more interesting sex (in the days of primogeniture, there was less suspense over how the menfolk would fare). Her writing is truly melodic—perfect for a month of chapters before bed.




4. Christopher Hibbert

victoriaHibbert does a nice treatment of Victoria (would that Shakespeare had been around to manage that one!) here and elsewhere and also, should you care to venture beyond the sceptered isle, such other “luminaries” as Mussolini, the Medicis, and the Borgias.

He also does a line of city biographies, about which we simply must post some other time.

Queen Victoria is all history, but beautifully told, not overly long, and sprinkled with some lovely photos. You’ll leave with a sense of the lasting impact made by this woman (and not merely because she was wider than tall upon her death, poor bereaved dear).



5. Hilary Mantel


True confession: I didn’t fall in love with Mantel’s works because of the reviews, the Booker, or even the writing. As an Irishwoman with a grudge, I was captivated by the opening scene in which a Cromwell has the living tar beat out of him. I accept that this is not OK and firmly resolve to avoid near occasions of political cruelty (no small resolution in these days, Dear Reader).

Wolf Hall brilliantly explains how the best minds of the day could come to all the wrong conclusions. Bring Up the Bodies (which I have not yet finished) is, thus far, equally promising. I took in Wolf on audio and can recommend that as well.



Surely there is room by your throne for a royal bio or two? Perhaps one or more of these might find their way to your porcelain shelf next time you wonder “What should I read next?”

Children of the Lorn

August 11 is Sons and Daughters Day. Which is ludicrous. Any parent can tell you that every minute of every day is Sons and Daughters Day. Even Mother’s and Father’s Days are for the children so that, when we’ve gone to our reward, they can remember all those sweet lanyards and ties they’ve given us and console themselves that they were good children.

That said, being the child of a famous author can be challenging. You’ll often hear authors respond to a question about which book is their favorite with a demurring, “That’s like asking me which child is my favorite!” The subtext being: Please don’t ask me that. I’m not entirely sure I’ll remember their names. Writers’ heads are haunted with the uncreated imaginary casts of their works; they can’t be expected to keep all the details of mundanity at their fingertips.

So, to celebrate the day and those who have borne this particular burden, I give you:

1. What? The Dickens?

Dickensjunior-1874Everything about this photo tells the tale. The way he’s seated on the chair, his back to whatever useless endeavor had recently held his attention; the toothbrush mustache, styled to disguise a permanent frown; the wistful waiting for it all to be over. Poor Charles Dickens, Jr.

The unfortunate soul, having inexplicably failed to make a living selling tea in Victorian England, cleverly set up shop as a printer. Son of bestselling-author-just-about-ever buys a printing press. Can’t fail, eh? It did. So, his old Pop took him on as editor. Yes, imagine those conversations.

Still, young Charley had some success “in his own right” (as our Olympic announcers are wont to say), especially with Dickens’s Dictionary of London, 1888: An Unconventional Handbook. Had he been anyone else’s son, his life might have been just fine. RIP, Little Boz.

2. Dumassery


Here we have the very portrait of surly resignation: Alexandre Dumas…fils. His father penned a few ha’penny pulps—The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, &c.—and still made time to cheat on his wife with such devotion that, of his 40 or so mistresses, four actually bore him children (clearly, all actually bored him). Being a stand-up guy (despite rarely standing up, as we have established) the elder Dumas “legitimized” his son at the age of 6 and provided for an excellent education. In doing so, he also effectively terminated the parental rights of the boy’s mother, causing her such emotional agony that it became a theme in wee Alex’s writing. [You’re thinking I’m being hyperbolic, aren’t you? In which case, I invite you to peruse his play The Illegitimate Son. Whatever might that be about?] {NB: My efforts to find this for you on Amazon returned only the result for The Man in the Iron Mask. Quelle surprise!}

Education did its task, though, and the younger Dumas turned out to have a good career. His most famous work is The Lady of the Camellias, built around a charming neighbor with whom he may well have been besotted. The novel was rewritten for the stage and sparked the imagination of an Italian gent by the name of Verdi who turned it into La Traviata. If you’re not an opera fan, you may know the plot from Rent (just replace “AIDS” with “tuberculosis”) and the aria from a Heineken commercial.

In true life’s own operatic twist, AD fils is buried in Montmatre, just a stone’s throw away from the grave of that charming neighbor. The monument is considerably more dazzling than famous denizen Mssr James Morrison’s, if somewhat less trafficked.

3. Kingsley and Martin Amis

Kingsley, with what passed for an excuse in his day.

This is a truly remarkable duo for many countable reasons:

  1. Sheer quality. Kingsley had Lucky Jim and The Old Devils (which won the Booker); Martin had Money and London Fields.
  2. Astonishing breadth. Kingsley wrote novels, but also essays, criticism, science fiction (including New Maps of Hell, whence comes the title of a truly excellent Bad Religion CD), poetry, humor, and, just maybe, a few James Bond riffs. Martin is often mentioned alongside some of the leading literary lights of the age, has been dubbed the champion of a style the NYTimes calls “the new unpleasantness,” and churns out shorts and reviews. His voice is like a massage for the psyche and he looks for all
  3. Unimaginable holiday dinners. True to type, Kingsley had rather a hard time keeping the old pen in the right
    The ruthlessly competent Martin.

    inkwell. His wife complained of this in a short note she wrote in lipstick on his back as he napped on a beach—which note was made famous in a photo of same. (You’ll have to Google it; it’s more than a bit rude.)  Less typically, in his dotage, his two sons persuaded their mother to let him move back in with her—and her husband—because the great mind was losing purchase and his public comments were devolving into very unflattering portraits of Americans, Jewish persons, and “hicks.”

Of terrifying note: In 2007, Martin took a post teaching creative writing at Manchester University. Look at that face. Now, here is his own prediction, from the Guardian, of how he thought he might relate to students:

“I may be acerbic in how I write but I’m not how I live. And I would find it very difficult to say cruel things to people in such a vulnerable position. I imagine I’ll be surprisingly sweet and gentle with them.”

It’s nice to see he’s gotten his father’s sense of humor.

Writing may well have a genetic component, for there are many others. Joe Hill (NOS4A2) calls Stephen King “Dad,” for which some medal ought to be forged. (“Tell us a scary story, Daddy…”). I’ve already related (somewhat unsympathetically) the tale of Christopher Robin Milne. William F. spawned Christopher Buckley, John Updike’s son David writes some outstanding short stories, and John Steinbeck’s son (John IV) went to Vietnam to get some street cred. You can still find copies of his In Touch, but check out the author bio: Yep, it’s dad’s.

Good books allow an avid reader to live many lives. Often the price of this gift is the writer’s own life—not just the long and lonely hours of writing and rewriting, but the collateral damage of a well-honed sense of human motivation. So many of the daily courtesies that make human society civilized show false to the writer’s eye. We are reluctant to take “Good morning” and “Have a nice day” at face value and are loath to insult others with facile and farcical expressions. We try so hard to respect the truth in others that we invariably insult them. And then we have children, who have no hope of withstanding such treatment.

Spare a thought for the poor, toiling, well-meaning author next time you ask yourself “What should I read next?”


Book Lover’s Day

Fish in a barrel, my friend.

You love books, I love books. It’s our day! We can’t always run to the bookstore and spend all our grocery money on books. (I have run the experiment: Continued pursuit of that practice means we eat less, which reduces our muscle tone, which makes it harder to run.) Here are some ways to get books that won’t empty the coffers:

1. The Thrift Shop


Yes, get out there and pop some tags. My local sells hardcovers for a quarter and paperbacks for ten cents. Most of them are about the Celestine Prophecy, but there’s good stuff if you dig. Keep your eyes open for church rummage sales—there are Comboni Missionaries in my area that will let me have an entire paper grocery bag of books (and these are prime-quality, well-loved treasures) for six bucks. Six bucks!

2. Craigslist


Typically, these offerings are either last year’s edition of that bio text you need or some true crud. But there are gems. People move, they downsize, they go to that great bookstore in the sky. And they need someone to cart away their beloved friends. Set up a Google alert and keep the trunk empty—you never know when it might start raining books.

[NB: While I’m not sure I approve of books as pure decoration, this image makes me think how convenient it would be to have my current read hovering eight inches over my eyes. See you on Shark Tank.]

3. Little Free Library


This is a thing. When I first saw one, I thought, At last, I’m living in the future I always knew would come. Then I looked up, noted the absence of flying cars (Where are my flying cars? We were supposed to get those in 2000.), and knew it was today’s reality.

The site has a map so you can find one near you. It also explains how you can build one. You know you want to do this. Imagine bringing the sort of delight you are experiencing right now to other book lovers. What better way to celebrate the day?

I won’t insult you by mentioning your public library. If you’re like me, you have a suite of library identities that would make Jason Bourne envious. If you don’t currently owe the library a mint, you might need to be reading Bibliophilia. Or Bibliolike. Or even Bibliomeh. We’re hard core up in here. If you’re a true Pheniac, you should already be the office go-to for unwanted books and you should be polishing your funeral elevator speech: “So sorry about Uncle Joe. Have you thought about what you’re going to do with all those heavy, dusty books of his?”

Share your tips here and let us know how we go about finding what to read next.


Look on my works, ye Mighty, and Despair!

Today is the birthday of Percy Bysshe Shelley. He’d be 324 today, which means he’s been dead nearly ten times as long as he was alive. But that is not the central mystery of this poetic life.

Shelley was one of those souls I describe as “too great to be good.” I concede his literary brilliance and I salute his personal commitments.  He was a vegetarian, committed to social justice, and such a trailblazer in the field of nonviolent resistance that Gandhi credits him as a source. (Gandhi!)

But he was also a Grade-A, Extra-Large jerk. When a romance with a first cousin, Harriet, fell apart, he settled down with a 16-year-old adorer (also named Harriet). Some charitable sources suggest that Shelley married Harriet because he thought he’d die soon and wanted to leave his fortune to someone. Some more critical sources say that he later accused her of marrying him for his money. In any case, about three years into the marriage, Shelley took Mary (nee Godwin/Wollstonecraft), the daughter of his mentor (who became his mentor only after much lobbying and possibly some bribery), and a mere 16 (seems to be a trend), to Switzerland. Harriet was pregnant and Shelley’s stated reason for abandonment was that he needed more intellectual stimulation. One shall have to consult the OED for variant 19th-century meanings of “intellectual.”

About two years down the road, in October of 1816, Harriet’s very pregnant, 21-year-old body was fished out of the river where she had drowned herself. Two months later, Mary’s half-sister, Fanny, despondent over Shelley’s ill treatment of her, killed herself. [Always leaving them wanting more, was our man.] Three weeks after that, Percy and Mary were wed. Some family party that must have been.

At 29, Shelley died when his bespoke sailboat, the Don Juan, sank in mysterious circumstances. [Well, it sank in the sea, but amid mysterious circumstances.] George Gordon, Lord Byron, the King of the Jerks, upon hearing the news reportedly said, “I never knew a man who wasn’t a beast in comparison to him.” So now I understand the Irish.

However, he wrote some nice things. Here are a few:

1. Ozymandias


Shelley wrote this in competition with his friend Horace Smith. I think Horace ought to have won the bet, whatever it was, because Shelley cheated. It’s a sonnet: Where are my octet and sestet? Making up the rules as you go along, eh? Then again, if Byron is to be trusted [NB, Byron is not to be trusted] Smith must have been a beast, so fair play.

And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains.

Percy, how do you write something like this and still manage to be a jerk? Though not mighty, I do despair.

2. Prometheus Unbound


There is a lot of hubbubbery around what gets taught (and what doesn’t) in public schools these days. “Why can’t our kids boil an egg or balance a checkbook?” [You can buy already boiled eggs these days. And what’s a checkbook?] Why does not one get miffed over the lack of the Greek and the Latin? “Why can’t our kids write believable sequels to Aeschylus?” [asked no one ever.] Back the the 19th century, this was all the rage. It was the Pokemon Go of its era. And Shelley did rather a nice job of it. He compares his hero to Milton’s Satan, but better, of course, because he, Shelley, is Milton’s Satan and has rather a surfeit of pride.

Thou art omnipotent. ­‏
O’er all things but thyself I gave thee power…

That sounds like someone we know, doesn’t it? But there are moments, rapturous moments, when you start to see what Byron must have seen:

To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates…

Oh, Percy! If only your mother had taken the time to raise you properly.

3. The Necessity of Atheism


No surprises here. Were I Shelley, I would find atheism entirely necessary. Sadly, his theological sensibilities were dull compared to his poetic gifts. He argues eloquently against what he imagines theistic claims to be, but no points for burning the straw man:

“Jesus Christ would hardly have cited, as an example of all that is gentle and beneficent and compassionate, a Being who shall deliberately scheme to inflict on a large portion of the human race tortures indescribably intense and indefinitely protracted; who shall inflict them, too, without any mistake as to the true nature of pain—without any view to future good—merely because it is just.”

One must suppose that the casual threats of a few Oxford dons are behind this misapprehension of soteriology. What is clear to this theist is that God was merciful indeed in allowing Shelley to live in ignorance. His appetites were incompatible with Christianity and not susceptible, it seems, of being curbed. Let us hope mercy’s hand reached out somewhere between the deep blue sea and the devil.

4. The Triumph of Life


Swift as a spirit hastening to his task
Of glory & of good, the Sun sprang forth
Rejoicing in his splendour, & the mask
Of darkness fell from the awakened Earth.

So begins Shelley’s last, and unfinished work. The lyricism is as gorgeous as Milton’s, the conceit that of Dante. [I’m not sure Rousseau makes the best tour guide of the metaphysical, but there are worse choices.]

Bonaparte, Plato, and Bacon are shown as those who tried different paths in life and all are seen to fail equally. Rousseau tells his own tale and leaves the narrator wondering what it’s all about.

“Then, what is Life?” I said . . . the cripple cast
His eye upon the car which now had rolled
Onward, as if that look must be the last,
And answered …. “Happy those for whom the fold
Of …

Always leaving them wanting more, was our man.

Extra English-major credit: When speaking of Don Juan, the legendary libertine, one pronounces it as one imagines one would. When speaking of the epic satire written by Lord Byron (and which Shelley encouraged him to write), one pronounces it Don JEWan. I’m not entirely sure why, but I think it relates to the British worldview during the colonial era. The same reason the capital of China was moved from Peking to Beijing.

I hope you enjoyed this taste of the delectable and devilish Shelley. Join us again when you find yourself asking, “What should I read next?”