Between the Lines Book Club: Hidden Valley Road

It’s a new year and a new book! This month we are reading Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family, by Robert Kolker. We will be discussing the book on zoom (link pending) on January 23rd, 2021 at 10:30AM.

Here’s the publisher’s description:

Don and Mimi Galvin seemed to be living the American dream. After World War II, Don’s work with the Air Force brought them to Colorado, where their twelve children perfectly spanned the baby boom: the oldest born in 1945, the youngest in 1965. In those years, there was an established script for a family like the Galvins–aspiration, hard work, upward mobility, domestic harmony–and they worked hard to play their parts. But behind the scenes was a different story: psychological breakdown, sudden shocking violence, hidden abuse. By the mid-1970s, six of the ten Galvin boys, one after another, were diagnosed as schizophrenic. How could all this happen to one family?


     What took place inside the house on Hidden Valley Road was so extraordinary that the Galvins became one of the first families to be studied by the National Institute of Mental Health. Their story offers a shadow history of the science of schizophrenia, from the era of institutionalization, lobotomy, and the schizophrenogenic mother to the search for genetic markers for the disease, always amid profound disagreements about the nature of the illness itself. And unbeknownst to the Galvins, samples of their DNA informed decades of genetic research that continues today, offering paths to treatment, prediction, and even eradication of the disease for future generations.


     With clarity and compassion, bestselling and award-winning author Robert Kolker uncovers one family’s unforgettable legacy of suffering, love, and hope.

And We’re back…what’s up in January

Happy New Year! It’s already shaping up to be a busy one!

Here are two places you can find me in January:

January 9: 1PM: Romance Book Club

We will be discussing The Duke Who Didn’t by Courtney Milan, one of my favorite authors! Here is the link for more information:

And here’s a review of the book from Smart Bitches, Trashy Books:

January 23 at 10:30AM: Between the Lines Book Club (zoom link pending).

Our book this month is Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of An American Family, by Robert Kolker

Watch our Friday space for more information about this book!

Starlings in Winter, by Mary Oliver

Blessed Solstice, dear readers. This year’s Solstice poem is by Mary Oliver, who sadly passed away in 2019. Starlings were introduced into North America by Eugene Schieffelin in 1890, as part of his quest to introduce every species of bird mentioned by Shakespeare to the USA. You can see these birds all over Sacramento and Natomas in complex murmurations.

Chunky and noisy, 
but with stars in their black feathers, 
they spring from the telephone wire
and instantly 
they are acrobats
in the freezing wind.
And now, in the theater of air, 
they swing over buildings, 
dipping and rising; 
they float like one stippled star
that opens, 
becomes for a moment fragmented, 
then closes again; 
and you watch
and you try
but you simply can’t imagine 
how they do it
with no articulated instruction, no pause, 
only the silent confirmation
that they are this notable thing, 
this wheel of many parts, that can rise and spin
over and over again, 
full of gorgeous life. 
Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us, 
even in the leafless winter, 
even in the ashy city.
I am thinking now
of grief, and of getting past it; 
I feel my boots
trying to leave the ground, 
I feel my heart
pumping hard. I want 
to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing, 
as though I had wings. 

A Schitt$ Creek Tarot Reading

My daughter and I have been binging Schitt’s Creek which, of course, we love, and I took special delight in seeing Twyla make her way through a tarot reading for Ted and Alexis in “The Hike” (Season 5, Episode 13). Frankly this is more of a recap than an analysis, but I love the details of how this reading plays out in the season finale a full season later.

SCHITT$ CREEK FINALE SPOILERS AHEAD

Twlya is an expert reader who learned from the best:

“Oh, one of my mom’s ex-boyfriends was a magician, and a gambling addict. But he was also really good at reading tarot cards. He predicted when he was going to leave my mom, like, to the day.”

The viewer can’t tell what deck Twlya is using or what the cards are, or what the layout is, but Twlya certainly sees a lot in the cards. There is a sinking ship and people dressed in black having a party: “Well, more like a funeral.” Alexis is understandably disturbed by this and leaves. As viewers, we are pretty sure that Ted and Alexis are not going to die on their upcoming trip to the Galapagos Islands, so we assume that Twlya is just not a good reader and that the joke lies in the inaccuracy of the reading.

However, Alexis comes back later and asks for a second reading, to which Twlya responds,

“I’d be glad to do it, Alexis, but I should warn you, I think the deck may be cursed. I predicted four other drownings today.”

So far not great. But then Twlya reveals that Alexis left before Twlya showed her the last card, which was the ten of cups.

“And I saw your family with this big… golden ring of light around them. Like you all had something to celebrate. It’s gonna be a good year, Alexis. You’re on the right path…And that golden ring means prosperity. Hm. Either that or it’s a stain from a beer bottle. Because my mom’s ex gave me the cards.”

Twyla’s reading is actually pretty spot on, beer bottle stains aside.

AGAIN, SPOILERS!

Ted going to Galapagos sinks the “relationship” and the relationship dies, and that is very sad. David and Patrick get married though, and there is a big party, and everyone wears black except for Moira and Alexis, and the family is, more or less, on the right path. They have increased prosperity and they have grown together as a family and as a community.

So I suppose the moral of the story is that readers make mistakes, but the cards don’t lie, not even cards with beer bottle stains on them. I loved how this reading turned from funny to touching, and how perfectly it played to the series finale.

For a lovely post on the ten of cups and this episode, try this Tumblr post.

And here’s a clip of Twlya being Twlya, with a glimpse of the reading at the very end!

Book Review: The Lady and the Highwayman, by Sarah M. Eden

Every now and then I write a review that can’t be published elsewhere because it doesn’t fit the site or because the book has been reviewed already or because the stars forbid it. Here’s one of those reviews!

The Lady and the Highwayman is three books in one. It involves a romance between two writers of penny dreadfuls, so we get the romance between the writers as well as peeks at each of their books. I found this story to be enjoyable but bland. 

The plot: Elizabeth Black is a writer of respectable literary fiction and the headmistress of a girl’s school. Both jobs depend on her maintaining an appearance of propriety. However, in secret she writes extremely popular penny dreadfuls, using the name Mr. King.

Fletcher Walker is not respectable at all, having grown up on the streets. He has financial success as a penny dreadful author and is a member of a club of other penny dreadful authors. This club is devoted to aiding the poor children of London through action as well as alms. They rescue children from abusive masters and find better placements for them, which is sometimes illegal (depending on the work status of the children) and always dangerous (due to furious masters). 

Fletcher is very annoyed when his popularity as an author is eclipsed by that of Mr. King and he is determined to discover Mr. King’s identity. This puts him in Elizabeth’s orbit although he does not suspect her. The two end up collaborating on saving some children while Elizabeth agrees to help Fletcher in his search so that she can throw him off her trail.

There’s a glaring, horrible problem with this book, and that is that Fletcher is the most obtuse man on the face of the planet. He does not suspect Elizabeth of being Mr. King even when he finds that, among many other clues, the following:

  1. Mr. King’s stories begin to echo conversations Fletcher has with Elizabeth (Fletcher assumes Elizabeth must know Mr. King and has reported the conversations to him).
  2. Fletcher finds a manuscript of a penny dreadful in Elizabeth’s drawer, in her handwriting (Fletcher assumes she helps him with dictation and transcription).

Lord Jesus, give me strength. This parade of obtuseness by Fletcher, and for matter by Elizabeth who might as well have “I’m Mr. King” tattooed on her face despite wanting to keep King’s identity a secret, makes an otherwise enjoyable book drop dead in its tracks. It’s a shame since the book is otherwise pleasant though not life-changing.

While Fletcher and Elizabeth are both oblivious when it comes to, respectively, detecting and hiding secrets, they are otherwise intelligent and I enjoyed seeing them work together. Both have a great sense of compassion and empathy for others and an enormous amount of mutual respect. They are both level-headed in an emergency and sweet with each other as their romance develops. The on-page physicality doesn’t go beyond kissing, and there’s not a great deal of steamy lust in the air, but it’s easy to picture them as an old married couple with a combination of birth children and adopted children and piles of manuscripts all over their house. The only conflict between them is that Elizabeth doesn’t trust him to know that she’s an author until the very end of the book, and he’s too dim to figure it out. 

Of course, the penny dreadful excerpts are the best parts of the book, and I wish we got more of them. Fletcher’s story, The Vampire’s Tower, is about a pair of street urchins who try to save a larger group of urchins from a menacing kidnapper. Mr. King is the author of The LAdy and the Highwayman, in which a woman must find courage to protect her ward and to discover the true motives of a dashing and polite highwayman. These stories aren’t nearly lurid enough to be true penny dreadfuls. Where’s the gore? Where’s the sex? However, the stories are suspenseful – much more so than the romance between Elizabeth and Fletcher.

The lack of conflict between Fletcher and Elizabeth, not to mention a fairly low-key level of sexual tension, makes for a book that is soothing but not gripping. The concept of love between penny dreadful authors is a fun one, but again the lack of rational deduction on Fletcher’s part and the tame nature of the penny dreadfuls themselves makes for bland reading. I’m fine without sex and gore on the page, but a little more tension, story expansion, and consistent character behavior would have elevated this tremendously.

Thanksgiving, by Kate Seymour Maclean

This beautiful poem was written by Kate Seymour Maclean, a Canadian poet who lived from 1829 – 1916.

 The Autumn hills are golden at the top,
        And rounded as a poet’s silver rhyme;
    The mellow days are ruby ripe, that drop
        One after one into the lap of time.

    Dead leaves are reddening in the woodland copse,
        And forest boughs a fading glory wear;
    No breath of wind stirs in their hazy tops,
        Silence and peace are brooding everywhere.

    The long day of the year is almost done,
        And nature in the sunset musing stands,
    Gray-robed, and violet-hooded like a nun,
        Looking abroad o’er yellow harvest lands:

    O’er tents of orchard boughs, and purple vines
        With scarlet flecked, flung like broad banners out
    Along the field paths where slow-pacing lines
        Of meek-eyed kine obey the herdboy’s shout;

    Where the tired ploughman his dun oxen turns,
        Unyoked, afield, mid dewy grass to stray,
    While over all the village church spire burns–
        A shaft of flame in the last beams of day.

    Empty and folded are her busy hands;
        Her corn and wine and oil are safely stored,
    As in the twilight of the year she stands,
        And with her gladness seems to thank the Lord.

    Thus let us rest awhile from toil and care,
        In the sweet sabbath of this autumn calm,
    And lift our hearts to heaven in grateful prayer,
        And sing with nature our thanksgiving psalm.

Between the Lines Book Club: Virginia Hall

This month in Between the Lines Book club, we are reading A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell. We will meet over zoom to discuss this book, at 10:30AM Saturday November 21, 2020. A zoom link will be shared closer to the date.

For information about more female spies in WWII, try these articles:

https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2016/11/allied-world-war-2-female-spy-movies

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/06/female-spies-world-war-ii/588058/

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-52574750

And here are two videos about Virginia Hall. The first one includes and interview with her niece.

In this third video, Helen Taylor Thompson talks about her experiences with the SOE, a fascinating first-person account:

Fun News

I’m not blogging much in November or December because despite my best efforts Thanksgiving, Christmas, and my daughter’s finals aren’t cancelled. But here’s a link to an article I wrote for Clarkesworld Magazine! I love writing these English Major Nerd pieces. Well, actually, to quote Dorothy Parker, “I hate writing, but I love having written.” So here’s something I have written!

http://clarkesworldmagazine.com

http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/sessarego_11_20/

Between the Lines Book Club: A Woman of No Importance, by Sonia Purnell

This month in Between the Lines Book club, we are reading A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell. We will meet over zoom to discuss this book, at 10:30AM Saturday November 21, 2020. A zoom link will be shared closer to the date.

A Woman of No Importance is a non-fiction biography of Virginia Hall, a spy who helped the French Resistance during WWII. Here are some discussion questions to consider:

1. A charismatic woman of great intelligence and resourcefulness, Virginia Hall is an inspiration from the very first page of A Woman of No Importance. She clearly had a similar magnetic pull in person, drawing people from all walks of life to stand for freedom, their country, and the Allied effort, often at great peril to their families and themselves. 

Did the book change your ideas about what one person can accomplish? In what ways did her grit and courage inspire you? 

2. Since birth, Virginia was expected to marry well and become a society wife; instead, she chose a male-dominated career path in which she constantly found herself either underestimated or overlooked, even after the end of her illustrious war career. Do you feel like views on where “a woman’s place” is have changed? In what ways do you feel society has progressed when it comes to gender equality—and in what ways has it not?

3. Did you (or anyone you know) have a course set for you since childhood that you were expected to follow? Have you (or they) since rebelled from that course? If so, what obstacles did you (or they) have to face, if any? Was it worth it?

4. At the young age of twenty-seven, Virginia lost a leg to gangrene after a devastating hunting accident. She somehow found the resilience to not only survive but thrive, both for herself and for her beloved France. She mentions that she had a spiritual experience on her sickbed, seeing a vision of her father that told her she must survive, she must go on.

How do you feel this experience shaped the rest of her life and her adventures? What drives you to keep going in the face of hardships, great and small? 

5. Sonia Purnell asks a pressing question: “One of my great interests is motivation—why did Virginia take insane gambles with her own life for the sake of another country?” 

Why do you think she did? Would you do the same in her place?

6. During the war, Virginia was often a rebellious figure, known not only for her courage but often for her disregard of directives, accurately believing herself capable of playing a larger role than she was given. Still, in her personal life, rather than cause a possible family upset, she hid her continuing relationship with Paul from her mother for many years. 

What did you think of her decision to do so? What does it tell us about the Virginia hidden behind all her many disguises and bravery?

7. Virginia was wise, discerning, and perceptive beyond belief—her life depended on deciding whom to trust and how much. Against all odds, it seems she always made the right choice—except for Alesch. Given the skepticism that others around her had about him, why do you think she trusted him as she did?

8. Virginia had to put on many personas during the war, from the journalist she played during her first foray into France to the elderly peasant woman she pretended to be when she returned. She played all her roles with finesse and, apparently, very convincingly. 

Do you think her ability to commit to character was innate or a carefully acquired skill? What do you think are the key characteristics of a spy?

9. Virginia and her compatriots all across France faced heavy losses during the war. Some were tortured to the point of death, others faced the firing squad, and still others suffered from injuries incurred in battle for the rest of their lives—including Virginia herself. 

Were these sacrifices worth it? What did Virginia’s life teach you about the importance of fighting for your beliefs? And against tyranny? Do you have a cause that you would be willing to die for? 

10. Virginia Hall was a very private person, whether because she had noted what happened when her fellow spies had loose lips or because of her nature. If you could meet Virginia, what is the foremost question you’d want to ask her?

11. Talk about the good-old-boy office politics underlying some of the decisions to place under trained personnel in the field, and some of the fatalities those decisions led to.

12. What about Hall’s post-war life in which she had to fight another type of tyranny: sexism? Discuss the offer of a low-level clerkship at the CIA despite Hall’s brilliant performance in the field. Or recall the man who referred to Hall as a “gung-ho lady left over from OSS days overseas.” Talk about the other women who made untold (literally) sacrifices for the Allied forces during the war. For examples:

https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2016/11/allied-world-war-2-female-spy-movies

Poem for Halloween, Courtesy of A.E. Houseman

assorted pumpkins

Her Strong Enchantments Failing, by A. E. Houseman

Her strong enchantments failing,
 Her towers of fear in wreck,
Her limbecks dried of poisons
 And the knife at her neck, 

The Queen of air and darkness
 Begins to shrill and cry,
"O young man, O my slayer,
 To-morrow you shall die."

O Queen of air and darkness,
 I think 'tis truth you say,
And I shall die tomorrow;
 But you will die to-day.

Book Review: A Night in the Lonesome October

A Night in the Lonesome October was brought to my attention by io9, which has an excellent review of it here. Since I know we have both animal lovers and Lovecraftian horror people in our midst, I read it and I absolutely intend to add myself to the ranks of those who read it one chapter a day every October. It’s horror, not romance, although there’s a bit of a romance, sort of, and a lot of comedy.

The setting is a village outside of London in the late 19th century. Our narrator and sole point-of-view is Snuff, a dog. Snuff is the companion of a man named Jack. Jack suffers from a curse that makes him have to “do much of his work at night to keep worse things from happening.” Here’s Snuff on page one:

We are the keepers of several curses and our work is very important. I have to keep watch on the Thing in the Circle, the Thing in the Wardrobe, and the Thing in the Steamer Trunk-not to mention the Things in the Mirror. When they try to get out I raise particular hell with them. They are afraid of me. I do not know what I would do if they all tried to get out at the same time. It is good exercise, though, and I snarl a lot.

Snuff and Jack are players in The Game. We are dropped into The Game when it is already well underway, and the purpose and rules of the Game and its players gradually come into focus, some early on and some not until the very end. All of the human players have animal companions, and these companions are the focal points of the story. They are introduced little by little, but I think it fair to say that the characters, but not necessarily the players, are:

Jack and Snuff (a dog)

Crazy Jill and Graymalk (a cat)

The Vicar and Tekela (a albino raven)

Rastov the Mad Monk and Quicklime (a snake)

Morris and McCab and Nightwind (an owl)

The Count and Needle (a bat who is a Vampire Bat in the sense of the company he keeps but  Fruit Bat in the since that fruit is his preferred food)

The Good Doctor and Bubo (a rat)

Owen the Druid and Cheeter (a squirrel)

The Great Detective and a male human companion

Larry Talbot

The Good Doctor

The experiment man

Watching these characters emerge and play their roles with twists and turns and alliances and betrayals is remarkably delightful, especially since almost everything is revealed through the interactions of the non-human animals who make their own alliances. 

There are 31 chapters in the book, leading up to the 31st chapter in which All is Revealed. Thus the tradition of commencing the book on October 1 and reading one chapter a day until October 31. I was too impatient for that last year and I read the entire book in one day. Doubtless all first time readers will want to do the same. However, I rather look forward to this year, and to the slow unfolding of who is doing what and why, and the development of the pace and tone of the book as the chapters progress. Opening chapters are very short and generally humorous. Final chapters are longer and have more explicit, as opposed to implied, horror. 

While the animals are often in danger, no lasting harm comes to them. There’s a very scary chapter that animal lovers may wish to simply skip (October 23). The book develops a strange bittersweet poignancy as friendships between human and human (Jack and Jill are quite fond of each other) and animal and animal (Snuff and Graymalk become good friends). Because of the nature of The Game, people on opposing sides, such as Jack and Jill, can become close before they have to take serious antagonistic action – but it is well known that whoever loses The Game suffers.

I adored this book so much that it would qualify for Squee did it not have some outdated, offensive tropes. The word “Gypsies” is lavishly used, and they are not associated with the good guys. Snuff likes to hang out with them for the music. Also one villain and one hero cross-dress which may once have added to the general weird tone of the book but now just seems bewildering in a “what were they thinking?” way. No one ever makes much of it, it’s just there. The association of albino coloration with evil is also problematic, and there are only two female characters. The book was written in 1993 and while that seems like a million years ago one hopes that even back then we knew better.

I recommend this with reservation for animal lovers who are also fans of Lovecraftian-inspired horror and the Victorian horror classics. People who like a mystery with a slow build, very dry humor, and point-of-view characters who have a limited point of view may also enjoy this book. It can be hard to find but my library came through and Amazon has some copies.

Between the Lines Book Club: Copy Boy Discussion Questions

Our book club this month will be held over zoom (link pending) on October 24 at 10:30AM. We are reading Copy Boy, and will be joined by the author, Shelley Blanton-Stroud.

Here are some discussion questions (they can also be found in the back of the book):

  1. Scientists suggest that our experiences and those of our ancestors live on in our DNA, affecting our and our children’s health and behavior. Is that true for Jane? Can she escape biology? Can any of us?
  2. What influence does Daddy have on Jane? What explains the way she circumscribes her loyalty to him? How do you feel about their reconciliation and his disappearance afterward?
  3. What do you think about Momma after learning what happened when she delivered the twins at fifteen years old? Does this sufficiently explain the way she treats Jane? Should Jane continue to tie herself to such a parent? Why or why not?
  4. Jane says the voice in her head belongs to her dead brother, Benjamin. What do you think? How else can the voice be explained? How does this voice affect what she does and who she becomes?
  5. What do you think about Jane choosing to raise Elsie? What kind of mother would Jane make? Would it have been better to leave Elsie with Momma?
  6. Does Jane really have to pretend to be a boy to succeed? Could she have earned the same opportunities as a girl? Why or why not? Does any part of her situation seem familiar today, or does it live in the past?
  7. What do you expect a masculine character to do and be? What do you expect a feminine character to do and be? How do the characters in the novel match or diverge from these expectations?
  8. Jane becomes a skillful liar about her parents generally, the fight that sends her to San Francisco, and her very identity. These lies lead to her lifelong career success. What do you think about her lying habit and skill? How does it help her, and how might it hurt?
  9. Grete Wright crosses boundaries to make the best, most moving, most powerful photographs, arguing that facts are less necessary than truth. Are documentary photographs or stories more useful with or without artistic framing? What do you think about the relationship between fact and truth?
  10. Some characters in the book concern themselves with basic survival in a time of poverty and hunger. Others work for worldly success. How do they get what they want? What are they willing to discard to win? Is it necessary? Is it worthwhile?
  11. Vee may be the only character who risks herself solely on behalf of others, trying to report the death of the hungry man. How do you explain what makes one person altruistic when others focus only on protecting themselves and their family?
  12. The Okies living along the side of the road are generally despised and blamed for local problems. How might ongoing generations of such families feel about field-working migrants today, and why?
  13. Though the active story ends in 1937, we learn that Jane will write for many decades, becoming an iconic San Francisco gossip columnist. In what way is someone like Jane particularly suited to weather the decades in such a field? What do you imagine for the stories she writes under a different name?
  14. How are the lessons of 1930’s California applicable today?