History Rhymes: The Function and Importance of Historical Fantasy*

Within every issue of Historical Novels Review one section of reviews is labeled “Historical Fantasy,” where readers find books like Guy Gavriel Kay’s that introduce magical or supernatural elements into their historical framework. Tolkien is perhaps the most famous writer to have brought the realms of myth and magic into solidly historical contexts. Certainly, one result of this blending of history and fantasy is greater entertainment — escape, if you will. On this subject, Tolkien, in his essay “On Fairy Stories” wrote:

I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which ‘Escape’ is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. (Tolkien, 1947)

Most of us enjoy escaping through fiction and agree with Tolkien’s embrace of it as a virtue of reading. But, along with providing marvelous exits out of the everyday world, historical fantasy also appeals to so many readers because it is a particularly rich and effective medium to explore current social issues.

More than one study shows that the genres of science fiction and fantasy promote deeper empathy in readers who are introduced to the genre at a young age. One study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology quantifiably demonstrates how reading books like Harry Potter increases tolerance and reduces prejudice (Vezzali, et al., 2015). Vezzali explains that the fantasy genres are “especially effective in assuaging negative attitudes [toward social issues] because the genre typically doesn’t feature actual populations and thus avoids potential defensiveness and sensitivities around political correctness” (quoted in Stetka, 2014). Writing fantasy grants authors the creative room to explore sensitive or controversial contemporary issues without triggering readers’ preset ideas and biases. Combine fantasy with the distancing effect overall of any historically set fiction and readers find a potent mix for examining controversy without building mental barriers.

Exploring this mind-opening aspect of historical fantasy with several writers of the genre seemed particularly worthwhile amidst our current social debates. I therefore approached Guy Gavriel Kay, Judith Starkston, Juliet Marillier, Marie Brennan and Roshani Chokshi to get their views on writing historical fantasy that addresses current social issues.  The resulting conversations offer an insider’s view of these authors’ approaches regarding emotional engagement with social issues.

When asked how writing historical fantasy allows him to bring current social issues to his readers’ awareness, author Guy Gavriel Kay (A Brightness Long Ago, Berkley Books 2019) explained, 

I have argued for the universalizing effect of deploying the fantastic. Stories and themes from history cannot be read as specific only to a given time and place. Beyond this, I find it important to explore both the “strangeness” of the past and the ways in which people and lives can offer a startling familiarity at times. Among other things, this can erode an a-historical sense that what we are living through is new. Usually it isn’t.  As has been said, history may not repeat, but it rhymes.

Through historical fantasy, authors highlight issues that continue to concern modern society as well as help readers learn more about a topic. However, as author Judith Starkston (Priestess of Ishana, Bronze Age Books 2018) noted, “Combining history and fantasy has to be done with care.” She explained that being able to lift readers out of the regular world is liberating for both author and reader. Starkston believes when readers experience a book that draws them into its own world, they tend to leave behind the locked, preconceived notions of how things are and how they ought to be. Incorporating fantastical elements into historical events or people lets us 

accept unusual solutions as entirely normal. When I talk about the historic queen who is the model for my main character, people are incredulous that a woman held such power and influence across the ancient Near Eastern world. We harbor a false notion of history as gradually progressive. Things are supposedly better now and worse in the past, but that isn’t accurate.

Starkston added that the best way to accomplish this blend of magic with historical accuracy is to adopt “fantastical elements that arise from the beliefs and practices of the period. That the Hittites practiced so many rites we would call magical made this especially easy for me—I had only to extend their scope.” Fidelity to history even within the magical creates believable historical fantasy. Incorporating elements of reality that lend themselves well to the use of magic helps to carry readers over the threshold of disbelief and encourages new patterns of thought, precisely the area in which historical fantasy excels.

Juliet Marillier (The Harp of Kings, Ace 2019) also takes a similar approach in her own writing. She stated that her writing has three main purposes: “to teach, to heal and to entertain … Real life challenges (tyranny, cruelty, conflict, flood, famine) might become the dragon, the monster, the fearful place in the dark wood.” Using real life examples of illness or emotional damage brings such topics front and center while at the same time fostering empathy and an awareness of their causes. The capacity to heal in particular has found a vibrant ally in Marillier. Many of her books deal with themes touching on violence, repression, PTSD, or other issues that Marillier draws from historical fact as well as current events. She highlighted the vital role literature plays: 

Storytelling is a powerful tool for helping the troubled (and for helping others understand and support them.). Many other issues relevant to contemporary society find a place in my books – notably, women dealing with domestic violence or other forms of repression. The voice of those characters, whose stories come from long ago and are touched by the uncanny, still seem to ring true for today’s reader. 

Seeing in works of historical fantasy topics that are relevant to contemporary society strikes a chord with readers who may be struggling to make sense of the world and the current events. Ultimately, it can help bring about hope and healing.

Marie Brennan (Turning Darkness into Light, Tor Books 2019) and Roshani Chokshi (The Gilded Wolves, Wednesday Books 2019) both discussed the importance of historical fantasy mirroring reality at least tangentially in order to create a believable and relevant world. Brennan stated that historical fantasy “has the advantage of being able to come at a topic from a slantwise angle. It lets us show how various problems have played out in the past—which encourages the reader to think about how things have and haven’t changed, or what alternatives might look like.” Holding up a mirror of our world through the lens of historical fantasy does, indeed, allow authors to look at our own world, society, or beliefs in new ways. By doing so, Brennan goes on to say, showing a world “in the context of a society that’s not the one we currently live in, it can slip its points in under the radar, instead of having to come at them directly.” Chokshi’s position also meshes with Brennan’s in that she finds that historical fantasy “allows me to take an issue and breathe life into it by tangling it up with a character’s emotional stakes and placing it beneath a lens of magic. A story is nothing if it evokes no feeling. I want to make my readers feel even as they’re thinking, and hopefully that inspires my audience to research an issue further.” Inspiring feelings and igniting curiosity in a topic seems to be a unifying goal for these authors, even if they know their role is not to solve the questions their works may pose. Rather, they seek to “make it a present question in the minds of my readers,” as Chokshi explains. This is an important point because authors have the platform to effect change and influence society. Consider the changes that were inspired by novels such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Jungle, or Beloved. What we read has a definite impact on what we think, and authors have the power to influence societies. 

Other influential authors, including Zen Cho (The True Queen, Ace 2019), Mary Robinette Kowal (The Fated Sky, Tor 2018), and Nalo Hopkinson (The Salt Roads, Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy 2015), impact the way readers think by incorporating an abundance of diversity in their novels. Their novels have a focus on the strength of women, the second-class role of women and people of color, sexism, and narratives of freedom, highlighted beautifully by fantasy/speculative elements. On her website, Cho states that she writes in the genres she does because “It’s as good a form for understanding the world as any other” (Cho, 2019). Kowal, in a blog post, makes an excellent point: homogeneity in historical literature is a choice, for the fact is that Europe and the UK had a “wide range of classes and abilities/disabilities. … People of color were throughout the UK and Europe and had been basically since people started to travel, which means always” (Robinette, 2012). Hopkinson draws on the deep traditions and narratives of the people brought as slaves to what is now Haiti, exploring various themes of freedom, linked by elements which bind women across the world: blood, sweat, tears, birth fluids, and sex. On her website, Hopkinson states that certain genres “…allow us to step outside our known reality and examine that reality from a different perspective. They do so by creating imaginary worlds as lenses through which we can view our world” (Hopkinson, 2019). 

Historical fantasy holds a striking place in literature through its universalizing effect to allow readers to internalize new views on social issues and to understand the ways in which history “rhymes.”
References

Hopkinson, Nalo. “FAQ.” Nalo Hopkinson, Author, 2019.

Kowal, Mary Robinette. “Don’t blame the homogeneity of your novel on historical accuracy. That’s your choice, as an author.” Mary Robinette Kowal, 2012.

Kowal, Mary Robinette. “About the Lady Astronaut series.” Mary Robinette Kowal, 2019.

Stetka, Bret. “Why Everyone Should Read Harry Potter.” Scientific American, 9 Sept 2014. 

Tolkien, JRR. “On Fairy Stories.” In Essays Presented to Charles Williams, compiled by CW Lewis, Oxford University Press, 1947.

Vezzali, Loris, et al. “The Greatest Magic of Harry Potter: Reducing Prejudice.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 45, 2015, pp. 105-121.

*Originally published in Historical Novels Review, issue 90, Nov 2019.

Priestess of Ishana – free for a limited time!

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Judith Starkston’s PRIESTESS OF ISHANA is available free on Amazon Oct 2-6 in anticipation of the Oct 14 launch of the next book in the series, Sorcery in Alpara. An award-winning historical fantasy, Priestess of Ishana draws on the true-life of a remarkable but little-known Hittite queen who ruled over one of history’s most powerful empires.

A curse, a conspiracy and the clash of kingdoms. A defiant priestess confronts her foes, armed only with ingenuity and forbidden magic. 

“What George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones did for the War of the Roses, Starkston has done for the forgotten Bronze Age Hittite civilization. Mystery, romance, political intrigue, and magic…” -Amalia Carosella, author of Helen of Sparta

Arrr, Ahoy Me Hearties! Books for International Talk Like a Pirate Day*

Mateys. Why be pirates so mean? I don’t know, either, they just arrrrrr. 

I know, I know. Sink me, it’s awful. But I know two jokes and that be one of them. I wasn’t goin’ to be passin’ up the chance to share it with ye. Ye’re welcome. Since September 19 be International Talk Like a Pirate Day, it’s also a jest worthy of the day. Why be there a Talk Like a Pirate Day? Well…why not? It all really started as a parodic (parrotic? Do pirates really have parrots?) holiday for jolly good fun by two silly scalliwags who thought it be a good idea. Nothin’ more to it than that. And really, what better reason be there to drink grog and read about some of the finest swashbuckling crews on the high seas? 

There be pirate books a’plenty, far more than those penned by those most renowned authors Robert Louis Stevenson or Daniel Defoe (or Jonathan Swift, Herman Melville, Jules Verne, Bernard Cornwell, or Patrick O’Brian).  So if ye want to be learnin’ about talkin’ like a pirate so ye sound more like an old salt instead of a sprog, have a gander at some of these fine volumes. Just don’t go droppin’ ‘em in the briny deep or ye’ll be keelhauled. Savvy? 

And yes, I expect all ye landlubbers to talk (and write) like a pirate all the live long day. 

1958775Sea Witch by Helen Hollick. The first in the Sea Witch series featuring fictional pirate Jesamiah Acorne. Hollick’s research be impeccable and many other real life pirates have roles in these tales. This high seas rollicking adventure makes it easy to see why pirates be romanticized so often.

Lost Boy: The True Story of Captain Hook by Christina Henry. This be the story of Peter Pan, told from the perspective of Captain Hook, a Gentleman ‘o fortune who has been mightily abused by literature and that scoundrel Pan.

Winterwood by Jacey Bedford. A cross-dressing lassie privateer captain discovers she has a younger half-brother, inherits a magic winterwood box that might save all of the rowankind (like the wee fairy folk), and has a shapeshifting wolf courting her, to the great annoyance of her husband’s ghost. Read it anon!

32620311._sy475_Hook’s Tale: Being the Account of an Unjustly Villainized Pirate Written by Himself by John Leonard Pielmeier. As the title suggests, this be the autobiography of the illustrious, dashing Hook himself. 

Destiny’s Captive by Beverly Jenkins. Noah Yates sets off on the high seas, seeking adventure, not a wife. And then he be captured and tied up by a woman. Literally. A woman who be descended from pirates. Who then steals his ship. All manner of great, grand adventure ensues. 

Hurricane Dancers by Margarita Engle. A boy be traded from pirate ship to pirate ship as long as he can remember, used as a translator between Spanish and his mother’s Taino Indian language. Then a ruddy hurricane sinks his ship, he escapes, and he gets to decide the fate of his former captors. To keelhaul or not to keelhaul…

33643994._sy475_Daughter of the Pirate King by Tricia Levenseller. A 17-year-old pirate captain allows herself to be captured so that she can search her enemy’s ship for a secret map to a hidden treasure. A true pirate will go to any length to seek treasure and adventure.

Blackhearts by Nicole Castroman. A fancy rich merchant’s sprog wants to flee his strict social class and go to sea to make his own way, while a young orphaned woman wants to return to her mother’s home in Curacao. They meet, fall in love, and must decide whether to follow social rules or not. A pirate would tell rules to walk the plank. The young man grows up to be Blackbeard, the most fearsome and renowned pirate ever to sail the seven seas… 

49851Under the Black Flag by David Cordingly. Written by the former head of exhibitions at the British National Maritime Museum, this novel be all about the fact and fiction of a pirate’s life. Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life for me…

One Piece by Eiichiro Oda. Pirate manga! Monkey D. Luffy wants to be the Pirate King. Instead, he accidentally gained the power to stretch like rubber, at the cost of never being able to swim again. Now, he and some pirate sprogs are on a quest to find the One Piece, which is reputed to be the greatest treasure in all the wide world.

*Originally posted on Book Riot. 

The Bookish Life of Nina Hill

47163589The Bookish Life of Nina Hill* by Abbi Waxman (website)

Her Grace’s rating:  3.5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Contemporary fiction

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Emily Rankin

Source: my  own collection/Audible

Length: 9:03:00

Published by: Random House Audio (9 July 2019)

Nina Hill is the only child of a single mother who never told her anything about her father. Imagine Nina’s surprise when she receives word via lawyer that her father has recently died and has a provision for her in his will. Along with suddenly gaining a dead dad, Nina also learns that she has a huge extended family. To introverted book nerds like Nina, that is horrifying. She likes her life just the way it is, with her job at the neighborhood bookstore, her trivia team, movie nights, her cat Phil, and solitude to read to her heart’s content. Nina’s world is thrown into upheaval as she learns to navigate a world in which she isn’t alone and has people who she can learn to lean on.

I enjoyed this book as a light, fluffy read. It wasn’t mind-blowing, it didn’t make me reevaluate my worldview or anything, but that’s ok. It was what I wanted it to be. I liked Nina – identified with her a great deal, actually. As an introverted, self-confident book nerd who prefers my own company to anyone else’s, I get where she’s coming from. I thought it was great of Waxman to show an introvert who is self-confident. So often, introverted characters are also insecure in some way or lack self-confidence, as though introversion and insecurity go together, which is bullshit. By the end of the novel, Nina does learn how to embrace a more open and spontaneous life, but I like that she struck a balance between learning and exploring new things about herself and not losing herself in the process. Nor did anyone, like her boyfriend or family, make her change who she is. I HATE when that happens, whether in books or real life. It could be my indifference to most humans speaking, but I just can’t imagine or believe stories where, for example, a super introvert becomes the life of the party and loves it by the end of the book, and changes to make another person like a lover happy. I would not change my basic nature for anyone else. Nope. Fuck that. I am who I am, take it or leave it. So seeing Nina find that good balance is affirming, at least to me, on a deep level. 

I also liked that Nina was a confident and strong woman who also deals with anxiety. I also check that box. My anxiety isn’t as bad as Nina’s was portrayed, but my brain sometimes just doesn’t shut up and it can get overwhelming. Pot helps. So does Xanax. But I appreciated seeing a character like her who could have anxiety and not be depicted as completely unhinged, unbalanced, hysterical, fragile, or whatever else is so often inaccurately associated with women generally. I do think some of her coping mechanisms weren’t the healthiest. I get wanting to be alone to freak out in private, but sometimes being with people who care about you is better. 

Nina listed her Five Perfect Things in the book. Hers were: books, cats, dogs, honeycrisp apples, and coffee. Then she said that everyone has a different five perfect things. I think mine are:

  1. My imperfect daughter
  2. Books
  3. Apples with peanut butter (also honeycrisp for me)
  4. Tea
  5. Dogs 

I could add another, rainy days spent at home, since technically my daughter isn’t a ‘thing’, she’s mostly human. 

What five perfect things would you choose?

 

*Amazon affiliate link.

 

 

GIVEAWAY WINNER

The gods at random.org have spoken and the winner of the Jeri Westerson Shadows in the Mist giveaway is……

LYNN!

Please send me a DM with your address so I can send your book to you!

 

Audiobook Challenge 2019

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I discovered the Audiobook Challenge on The BiblioSanctum recently and decided I want to play, too!

As posted on The BiblioSanctum, here is a quick review of the rules of the challenge:

Challenge Details

  • Runs January 1, 2019 – December 31, 2019. You can join at any time.
  • The goal is to find a new love for audios or to outdo yourself by listening to more audios in 2019 than you did in 2018.
  • Books must be in audio format (CD, MP3, etc.)
  • ANY genres count.
  • Re-reads and crossovers from other reading challenges are allowed.
  • You do not have to be a book blogger to participate; you can track your progress on Goodreads, Facebook, LibraryThing, etc.
  • If you’re a blogger grab the button and do a quick post about the challenge to help spread the word. If you’re not a blogger you can help by posting on Facebook or Tweeting about the challenge.
  • Updates plus a giveaway will be posted twice during the year. The first update will be June 30, 2019, and the last update will take place on December 15, 2019.

Levels

  • Newbie (I’ll give it a try) 1-5
  • Weekend Warrior (I’m getting the hang of this) 5-10
  • Stenographer (can listen while multitasking) 10-15
  • Socially Awkward (Don’t talk to me) 15-20
  • Binge Listener (Why read when someone can do it for you) 20-30
  • My Precious (I had my earbuds surgically implanted) 30+
  • Marathoner (Look Ma No Hands) 50+

Her Grace’s audiobooks:

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Binti
12605487
Fuzzy Nation
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The Winter of the Witch: A Novel
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Neverwhere
43267676
All This I Will Give to You
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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
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Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them
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The Salt Roads
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Magna Carta: The Birth of Liberty
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The Pearl That Broke Its Shell
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Ghost Wall: A Novel
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The Tale of Hill Top Farm

I have no idea why the images are not aligning nicely. Whatever.

So far, I have listened to 12 audiobooks this year. It takes me a long time to get through most audiobooks because I often can’t listen as much as I want to. I usually only get to listen when driving, which isn’t all that often, all things considered. But so far, I am fairly pleased with my progress! I’ve made it to Stenographer status. Hopefully by the end of the year, I will be at Binge Listener.

What are some of your audiobooks you have listened to this year?

GIVEAWAY! Shadows in the Mist

Shadows in the Mist

Shadows in the Mist* by Jeri Westerson (website, Facebook)

Genre: urban fantasy

Length: 296 pp

Published by: May 14, 2019

From the publisher’s blurb: Small town tea shop proprietor Kylie Strange already has a lot on her plate. The last thing she needs is more trouble to spring up from the mystical Booke of the Hidden. Keeping one step ahead of a scheming demon, supernatural assassins, and Baphomet—an angry god hellbent on stealing the Booke—it’s all more than enough for one person to handle. And that’s without mentioning her competing affections for the handsome and human Sheriff Ed and the demon Erasmus Dark. But soon enough, Kylie and her coven hear whispers of new disturbances in Moody Bog. Strange creatures have been stalking the townsfolk through the fog and rumors of violent encounters confirm their deadly intent. Worst of all, the Booke of the Hidden is not to blame, and no one is sure who is. Kylie and her coven of wiccans need to prioritize. Which is worse? The mysterious and lethal figures in the mist, or Baphomet, who—if he gets his way—will unleash Hell on Earth onto oblivious little Moody Bog.

Let’s have a giveaway!

You know you want to get this one. Shadows in the Mist is the third book in the Booke of the Hidden paranormal series by Jeri Westerson. A fantastically fun read filled with strong, salty women, sexy demons, and a witchy tea shop, protagonist Kylie Strange returns with her motley group of friends to save the tiny Maine town of Moody Bog once again.

Honestly, if you have not read this series yet, what are you waiting for? Get thee to Moody Bog at once! Or, you know, enter the giveaway and maybe get the book for free. May the odds be ever in your favor!

Giveaway Rules:

  1. Simply leave a comment on this blog page no later than July 31, 2019.
  2. I will run all participants through random.org to select the winner.
  3. I will notify the winner via a winner’s post by August 1, 2019.
  4. Only US or Canadian addresses.

Let’s play!

Currently Reading – Book Tags

I wasn’t tagged but I came across this post on Feed the Crime and thought it looked like fun. It is hard to resist a book survey kind of post, especially when it comes to books! So here goes…

How many books do you usually read at once?

I usually have at least two going – a book to eyeball read and an audiobook. Sometimes I will have a couple different eyeball books, depending on the genre, so like a fiction and a nonfiction. Usually, though, I can only handle two at once, unless you count the book I always have going with my daughter that we read together at bedtime. Then it’s always at least three.

How do you decide when to switch between multiple reads?

Depends mostly on my mood or on what I need to get done. Right now, I really want to read for fun but I need to get some research done for my book I’m writing, so I am doing a lot of nonfiction reading. I reward myself with tidbits of fiction everyday.

Do you ever switch bookmarks partway through a book?

No. Why would I switch them? Is this a thing people do? I guess it must be. I don’t even always use a bookmark at all. I obviously don’t need a bookmark for audio or kindle books, but for physical books, a bookmark is just a tool to hold my spot, not something I give any actual thought to. I don’t care what I use. That said, I have a whole huge mug full of bookmarks, and I do use them when I use bookmarks.

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Where do you keep the book(s) you’re currently reading?

All. Over. The house. In my purse. On the nightstand. Sometimes in my car, though those are my daughter’s since I can’t read and drive at the same time, with the exception of listening to audiobooks. This is just my TBR pile. My library is in a separate room. It’s a little ridiculous. 

What time of day do you read the most?

Mostly in the afternoon or evening. I work for a living and have no time in the morning during the week. I am also my daughter’s sole parent, so when I get home, she wants to do stuff with me. Sometimes she lets me read while she’s doing her homework. Mostly, I read after she’s gone to bed. Sometimes, I get to read in the morning on weekends before she gets up.

How long do you typically read in one session?

This depends entirely on how tired I am. It can be anywhere from two minutes to “holy shit! The sun is coming up!” 

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Do you read hardbacks with the dust jacket off?

Yes, it gets in my way and I tend to rip them no matter how careful I am with them. Dustjacket definitely comes off.

What position do you mainly use to read?

I tend to sit in my chair with my feet tucked up under me and my legs all curled up. Sometimes I sit cross legged, or sometimes I actually sit like a human with my feet on the ground or my legs crossed, but mostly I perch.

Do you take your current read with you everywhere you go?

Yes. How else am I supposed to get through the day? What would happen if my car breaks down and I have to wait and I have nothing to read? Or if I decide to go to lunch somewhere and I don’t have my book? I take at least one book everywhere – to the store, the movies, social functions. You never know when you’ll get to escape from humans and read by yourself somewhere.

How often do you update your Goodreads reading progress?

For sure when I’m finished. Sometimes I enter a book in as “currently reading” when I start it, but not always. I never update my progress. No one cares about the progress I make while reading.

What book(s) are you currently reading?

I’m eyeball reading Medieval Queenship, edited by John Carmi Parsons, A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay, and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by JK Rowling (with my daughter). I am also listening to The Pearl That Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi, narrated by Gin Hammond.

Two Dollar Radio – blind date unboxing

So this is something different. I had actually intended to try my hand at doing a video and starting some video book reviews and such, and this would have been the first of those. But…I am fundamentally lazy and haven’t got round to it yet. I still plan to do that, but just haven’t managed to get over the fear of technologies yet.

But! I did come across the Blind Date Book Sale that Two Dollar Radio was having a while back. Actually, it looks like they always run it? Or it’s just still running? I don’t know, but as of this writing, it is still up on their sales page. As I am a big fan of supporting small and independent publishers, especially ones that have a tattoo club, I had been interested in this publisher for some time. But I didn’t know what books to get! So many looked so good, but I had several reasons for not just getting all of the ones that piqued my interest. Enter the Blind Date sale, a delightful way to discover new books.* This sale lets you get two random, pre-2017 books from their backlist, which the staff at Two Dollar Radio picks for you, for $9.99. That is an excellent deal, so I went for it.

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This came out a little blurry, but I love that someone took the time to actually draw the little boombox on the envelope. It’s the little things like that wot make me keep coming back to a place. I’m just saying.

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Inside the envelope, I discovered Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky by David Connerley Nahm and Radio Iris by Anne-Marie Kinney.

They are a really nice size as well, these books are. They, um, feel good in the hand. I mean, they’re not too big or heavy or too little and hard to hold or… hell. You know what I’m saying, get your mind out of the gutter. Since these are the first books I’ve gotten from this publisher, I don’t know if they are all this size or not, but I hope so. I like it.

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It also came with a bookmark bearing a coupon code and a Two Dollar Radio sticker, which my daughter promptly stole, but then was confused because she didn’t know what a boombox was. “Is it like an iPod, Mama? But big?” *facedesk* Yes, baby, it is like an iPod but bigger. “They didn’t draw it very good. Where is the screen?” I give up.

End result: I would definitely recommend giving the Blind Date Sale from Two Dollar Radio a try. Even though I have not yet finished the books they sent me, I have started them and they are both high quality writing. Supporting indie and small presses is always a good thing, as is helping spread the word about talented new authors.

 

*N.B.: This is also a great way to discover new foods. I like to go to restaurants whenever I go to new places and ask the server to bring me whatever their favorite dish is. They probably hate it when people do that, but I like to try new things and so, unless their favorite thing is, like, salad with dressing on the side and everything extra bland, I am game to try just about anything. Lessons from Tony, know what I mean?

Read What You Don’t Like

I used to write for a couple different places and one of them put out a call for suggestions for some new reading challenges. “Cool,” I thought. I sent in a couple suggestions via their team meeting site and, my job done, thought nothing more of it. Imagine my surprise when I got roasted in said team meeting site for one of the suggestions I had submitted. What was this horrible recommendation I made, you might ask? I said to read a book written by a person not of your political affiliation.

Now, this place where I used to write is generally pretty open and inclusive and tolerant, so it really was a genuine surprise to me that the consensus reaction to my earnest recommendation was “Fuck you. Hard pass.” Particularly considering that they are very politically oriented and want to effect change, bring social awareness and equality, and basically make things better for everyone, not just rich white dudes. It seems logical to me that, in order to change something, you first have to understand what it is that you want to change. How else can you understand the way people think but to read about the other side, the side you disagree with?

Learning what the other side of any argument, position, religion, political party, what have you, thinks in order to bolster one’s own defenses  is certainly not a new strategy. For example, the ancient Stoic Seneca learned a great deal about the Epicureans; when asked about why he knew so much about a rival school of thought, he said, in his Moral Letters, “I am wont to cross over even into the enemy’s camp, not as a deserter, but as a scout.” He knew the value of learning what others thought, whether he agreed with them or not. Seneca was a man who valued wisdom, regardless of its source, and was not ashamed to quote from an author or source he generally disagreed with if he felt the bit of wisdom itself was valuable. That is something people today tend to forget all too frequently. I’m an atheist, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still bits of wisdom in the Bible or Quran that I can find meaningful or valuable; I’m straight but that doesn’t mean a lesbian can’t write something meaningful to me. Dismissing something out of hand seems not only narrow-minded, but dangerous as well. To paraphrase Captain Picard, when people learn to devalue one group, they can devalue anyone. See? Just because that came from a sci-fi TV show doesn’t make it any less true or valuable. We have to be careful not to fall victim to a myopic view of the world where we only see things from one point of view – our own – and forget that there are many well reasoned and cogent arguments from the other side. When you get stuck in this kind of feedback loop, it is easy to fall victim, too, to confirmation bias in our thinking and not remain open minded or willing to learn new things.

So, because I am a liberal Democrat, I should make an effort to read books by a not!Democrat on occasion. I have a couple books below that were recommended to me by a Republican I know and trust, and who isn’t rabid like Ann Coulter. He recommended them as a good starting point for a variety of reasons and I will give them an honest read in the spirit of open debate and exchange of ideas. The notes after the titles are from my friend’s email:

  • The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America by Arthur Brooks. Brooks is the president of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. It is a fun read, and doesn’t get into name calling or demonizing. It is a thoughtful and optimistic look at what true conservatives believe. This is about as far away from Ann Coulter as you can get, both in terms of its tone and its intellectual rigor.  
  • Economic Facts and Fallacies, 2nd edition by Thomas Sowell. Don’t be scared by the title [he knows me well], there aren’t any formulas and graphs. Sowell is a brilliant thinker and takes complex issues regarding gender, race, and education explains them in a narrative style using research. He basically uses available economic data to look at some of the biggest social issues of our time, often calling out the big discrepancy between good intentions and actual results.

Since I am also an atheist, there are plenty of religious books I could read as well, but I’ve read a ton of them already. I have read the Bible four times, cover to cover, using three different editions (King James x1, New International Version x1, and Douay Rheims x2), not counting the hundreds of times I have dipped into it to look up a specific verse for writing papers and whatnot. I also translated Genesis from the Latin Vulgate when I was taking Latin in one of my college classes. So I have read the Bible more times than a lot of religious folk probably have. I’ve read the Quran once, cover to cover. I’ve read the Book of Mormon in bits and pieces but never all the way through. Maybe I’ll do that one of these days. I teach college level World Mythology, so I have read all the Greco-Roman myths, all the Norse myths, most of the Celtic myths, and various Native American, various African, various Asian, and various South American myths more times than I can count. So, since any religious text is, to me, from an opposite point of view from what I hold, I can recommend the below:

The Holy Bible: Douay-Rheims Version (I prefer this version as this is translated directly from the Latin Vulgate, translated from the Hebrew)

The Holy Qur’an

The Upanishads, 2nd Edition

Buddhist Scriptures (Penguin Classics)

World Mythology: An Anthology of Great Myths and Epics edited by Donna Rosenberg. This is the one I use in my World Myths class and it is a really good text, very diverse and it connects to modern life very nicely.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, of course. I picked politics and religion because those are two hot topics for a lot of people and I think it is easy to forget that both sides can have valuable points, regardless of whether you agree or not. So maybe try reading some books from a different point of view from your own and see what you can get out of it. What books would you recommend adding to the list?

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