Between the Lines Book Club: Our Next Series!

between the lines book club logoHello everyone! Watch this space on Fridays for Between the Lines Book Club. This is where we discuss one book a month in the comments. On the fourth Saturday of every month those of us in or near Sacramento, California meet at Arden Dimick Library to discuss the books. Arden Dimick is located at 891 Watt Avenue, Sacramento, CA, 95864.

All gatherings are at 10:30 AM. Coffee and pastries are provided.

Here’s the line up!

July 25: Orfeo, by Richard Powers

August 22: Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Sept 26, The Third Plate, by Dan Barber

Oct 24: Among Others, by Jo Walton

Nov 21: Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

See you soon!

Friday Book Club is on Summer Vacation

SWT-Book-ClubsOur book club is taking a break in August, but it will return in September, proudly bearing the name:  “Between the Lines”.  This book club is both online and offline – comments are welcome here on the blog, and if you are in the Sacramento, California area you can come to an in-person meeting at the Arden-Dimick Library.  Here’s the schedule:

September 28:  The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck

October 26:  The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson

November 16:  The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd

All meetings are at 2PM in the Community Room of Arden-Dimick Library, which is located at 891 Watt Ave, Sacramento, CA 95864.  See you in September!


Friday Book Club: Animals in Translation, by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson

SWT-Book-ClubsWelcome to our July Book club – every week in July we’ll be discussing Animals in Translation, by Temple Grandin. This online book club goes hand in hand with an in-person book club that meets monthly at Arden Dimick Library.  In May, June, and July we read books that had to do with animals, in keeping with the “Paws to Read” Summer Reading Program at Sacramento Public Library.  Our previous books were The Call of the Wild, by Jack London, and  The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein.

Join us in person on Sunday, July 13, 2014!  We will be at Arden Dimick Library in Sacramento at 2PM for the Arden Dimick Book Club.  

Temple Grandin is a women with autism who has become famous for her work in making slaughterhouses more humane.  As she became well-known for being able to figure out was bothering animals (often a very small thing, as when she describes a herd of cattle being spooked by a white plastic water bottle on a dark brown dirt floor) she became asked to consult in many areas of the animal food industry as well as zoos.  Temple has an interesting attitude towards her work.  She loves animals but has no problem with them being used for food.  what she objects to is their being made to endure fear, anxiety, or pain.  “I think using animals for food is an ethical thing to do, but we’ve got to do it right.  We’ve got to give those animals a decent life and we’ve got to give them a painless death.  We owe the animals respect”.

Temple Grandin

Temple Grandin suggests that her success with animals is directly tied to her autism, because both animals and people with autism tend to focus on detail.  When Temple is asked to visit a facility and explain why the pigs won’t move through a chute, she gets down on all fours in the chute and tries to perceive what the pig would notice.  In this example it was sparkles of light reflecting off the wet floor that was scaring the pigs, a problem that wwas solved by adjusting the lighting.  She’s able to hone in on small details that most people take for granted as we incorporate the detail into a bigger picture.  “Autism made school and social life hard, but it made animals easy”.

Temple Grandin has gone from being unable to speak (until the age of four) to being a renewed expert on animal behavior and rights for people with autism.  Many of her books focus on animals but several focus more exclusively on her experiences with autism, including Thinking in Pictures:  My Life With AutismThe Way I See It: A Personal Look at Autism and Aspergers; and The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum.  She has a PhD in Animal Science.

Temple Grandin has become not only an animal welfare advocate but powerful advocate for people with autism.  while she recognizes that some forms of autism are terribly debilitating, she is adamant that we should not ignore the fact that autism can confer some advantages:

“In an ideal world the scientist should find a method to prevent the most severe forms of autism but allow the milder forms to survive. After all, the really social people did not invent the first stone spear. It was probably invented by an Aspie who chipped away at rocks while the other people socialized around the campfire. Without autism traits we might still be living in caves.”

― Temple GrandinThinking in Pictures, Expanded Edition: My Life with Autism

If you want to learn about Temple Grandin’s life, you can turn to the biopic from HBO which starred Claire Danes: Temple Grandin.  Here’s a trailer:




Friday Book Club: The Art of Racing in the Rain vs To Kill A Mockingbird

SWT-Book-ClubsThere are so many things to love about The Art of Racing in the Rain.  This book is wildly popular for a reason – it’s expert at eliciting emotional response.  I love the racing stuff.  I love the philosophy, though I find it somewhat simplistic (which, since it’s being understood by a dog, actually makes sense).  I love the dog, because you’d have to be completely devoid of heart not to love the dog.  There’s just one thing that sends me into such a rage that I practically froth at the mouth and it’s this:

WTF is going on with the subplot about statutory rape?  Why am I the only person on the entire Internet who finds this entire subplot to be contrived, stereotypical in the worst way, offensive, and wildly improbable?  For the initiated, the subplot goes like this:

Denny, our hero, is falsely accused of statutory rape by his in-law’s teenage relative.  Enzo, the dog, is the only witness and Enzo knows that really that brazen hussy threw herself at Denny, who nobly turned her down and drove her home.  The in-laws want custody of Denny’s daughter and conveniently the teenager presses charges for statutory rape.  During the entire ensuing legal battle the in-laws have the kid.

There are all kinds of problems with this storyline, the biggest of which is that it takes a very real problem and makes it into the old “Teenage hussy” cliché.  That cliché was tired and ugly when it was used in To Kill a Mockingbird and it’s even older and uglier here.  Let’s compare how To Kill a Mockingbird made it work while Art of Racing does not.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Mayella, the young woman who accuses Tom Robinson of rape, is an ugly character, but she is at least a character.  She has some background and some personality and a motive.  Her accusation has consequences that affect her adversely – it’s understood that this is serious business, even if she didn’t understand what she was getting into at first.  It’s explained why, even though she knows these consequences will befall her (not to mention Tom, of course, the victim of her accusation), it’s still worth it to her to make the accusation.  She’s a horrible, horrible person – but she’s a person, one Atticus even has some sympathy for even as he utterly destroys her on the witness stand.

Everything in To Kill a Mockingbird is told from the point of view of the child named Scout, who has an advantage over Enzo in that she can get into the courtroom.  Still, most of what Scout knows about Mayella doesn’t come from the courtroom – it comes from adults explaining things to her or talking in her presence.  Enzo, the narrator of Art of Racing, can’t get into the courtroom, nor is he present when the in-laws talk to Annika.  But he is around the in-laws after the case begins, and of course he’s around Denny often.  So there’s no mechanistic reason why Enzo couldn’t know more about Annika – for instance, the in-laws could discuss how they made her testify, or Denny could speculate about her personality and motives.  Enzo is also around Annika quite a bit before the evening on which Annika attempts to seduce Denny occurs, so Annika could have talked to Enzo then and given the reader a better sense of who she is, even if the topic had nothing to do with Denny.

But alas, Annika has no personality at all except that of a completely one-dimensional seductress.  It’s implied that the in-laws somehow convince her into making the accusation, but we never see how.  And while I’m willing to believe that sometimes people make false accusations, the idea that this is an easy and painless thing to pull off is a lie.  Annike can look forward to being backed up by her family, because they are making her do this in the first place, but in real life often the victim’s family doesn’t believe them or blames them.  Some of Annika’s friends might support her, some might envy her, but many people at school will vilify her as a whore.  She can expect to have her life scrutinized in court right down to the exact length of her skirts and the number of buttons on her shirt.  She’s not in for an easy time.

The author, Garth Stein, has taken a real problem and treated it irresponsibly, and that has two consequences:

1.  It’s a harmful  thing to do to the hundreds of victims who struggle to be believed but are told they must have really wanted it, and probably deserved it, and are probably lying anyway.

2. It’s sloppy writing.  My personal gender politics aside, having a one-dimensional character in a book diminishes the book.  One reason that To Kill a Mockingbird is such a classic that it refuses to take that path.  Not all the characters are nice people, or even remotely decent people, but they are characters.  We might loathe Mayella with every fiber of our beings, but we have some sense of why she is who she is, and some sense of her as a human being.  Annika, in The Art of racing in the Rain, is a caricature.

If you are interested in some stories that deal more realistically with sexual assault, here’s a short list, feel free to add to it in the comments:

Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson

She’s Come Undone: by Thomas Lamb

Jailbait:  The Politics of of Statutory Rape Laws in the United States, by Carolyn E. Cocca

Yes Means Yes:  Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valent1

White Oleander, by Janet Fitch



Friday Book Club: “The Revenant”, by Billy Collins, and The Art of Racing

SWT-Book-ClubsGarth Stein credits several things for giving him the idea to write “The Art of Racing in the Rain”.  Here’s how he describes the process (from his website,

Q: Where did the idea for the book come from?

The first seed for this book was planted in my mind about ten years ago. I was no longer working in documentary films, but a friend asked me to consult on the U.S. distribution of a film he knew about from Mongolia, called “State of Dogs.” I took a look at the film and the press material they had on it. I didn’t end up getting involved with the film, but the idea really stuck with me. In Mongolia, there is a belief that the next incarnation for a dog is as a man. I thought this was a cool concept and I tucked it away thinking I might some day do something with it.

Then, in 2004, I saw Billy Collins speak at Seattle Arts and Lectures. He’s a great poet and a terrific reader. He read a poem, The Revenant, which is told from the point of view of a recently euthanized dog as he addresses his former master from heaven. The poem begins, “I am the dog you put to sleep…come back to tell you one simple thing: I never liked you–not one bit.” I loved this poem. When Billy Collins finished reading, I knew I had to write a story from the point of view of a dog. And my dog would know the truth: that in his next incarnation, he would return to earth as a man.

So I had the character and the goal, but I still needed the framework of a story. A close friend of mine, who is a semi-professional race car driver but who supplements his racing by working behind the counter at an upscale automotive repair shop, was going through some personal difficulties. His plight wasn’t Denny’s, but it gave me some ideas about what happens to families when one member suddenly passes away. I developed a story that would really put my main character, Denny, through his paces, and then it was all there for me.

Q: What inspired you to tell the story from a dog’s point of view?

Using a dog as a narrator has limitations and it has advantages. The limitations are that a dog cannot speak. A dog has no thumbs. A dog can’t communicate his thoughts except with gestures. Dogs are not allowed certain places. The advantages are that a dog has special access: people will say things in front of dogs because it is assumed that a dog doesn’t understand. Dogs are allowed to witness certain things because they aren’t people and have no judgment.

I was able to work with this idea a lot in terms of giving the reader a unique viewpoint into the action of the book. Enzo goes off with Zoë, and while Denny, her father, doesn’t know what happens, we see through Enzo’s eyes and so we do know. In that sense, it was a lot of fun playing with this “fly on the wall” point of view. Especially since the “fly” in our case, is Enzo, who has very keen powers of observation.

This link takes you to a TED talk of poet Billy Collins reading two of his poems about dogs:  “The Dog on his Master” and “The Revenant”.  You can follow the link (who also leads to print versions of the poems) or watch the reading below.  Enjoy!

If you are in the Sacramento, California Area, don’t forget to visit our in-person book club on Sunday, June 22, 2014 at 2PM at the Arden Dimick Library.  In the meantime, comments are welcome below!  What did you think of The Art of Racing in the Rain?

Friday Book Club: The Art of Racing in the Rain

SWT-Book-ClubsWelcome to June’s Book Club!  This club meets here every Friday and in person at Arden Dimick Library in Sacramento, California on June 22, 2014.  We meet at 2PM in the Community Room and we welcome comments here as well as in person on June 22!

This month’s selection is The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein.  The book is told from a dog’s point of view.  Enzo (the dog) is an old dog who looks forward to reincarnating as a man after his death.  Meanwhile Enzo supports his beloved owner, Denny, through a death in the family and a horrible custody battle for Denny’s daughter.  Denny is a race car driver, and Enzo formulates a philosophy of life from hearing Denny talk about the art of driving.

Garth Stein has an extensive website which include a bio, facts, and merchandise, among other things.  There’s even a music video of “Enzo’s Song”, by Martin Odstrcil:

This book has hit a nerve in audiences and it inspires passionate engagement.  A look at fan comments tells us that this book speaks to people in very personal ways.  I may be the only person on earth who didn’t like it – and even my reaction was one of raw emotional response instead of intellectual detachment, so clearly it did affect me powerfully (more on my problems with the book in later weeks).  If you’ve read it, did you like it?  Did you feel a sense of emotional connection to the story?  What does this book mean to you?

Friday Book Club: Jack London and Science Fiction

SWT-Book-ClubsWelcome to Friday Book Club!  This month we’ve been reading The Call of the Wild by Jack London.

Jack London is most famous for stories of adventure and for social commentary.  But he was also a science fiction writer.  In fact, the first paycheck he ever received as a writer was for his story “A Thousand Deaths”, about a mad scientist who kills and resurrects his son, which was published by The Black Cat in 1899.  He wrote fifteen short stories that contain some science fiction or speculative fiction element.

In “The Red One”, a scientist discovers a tribe of people who worship a giant red sphere that seems to come from outer space.  n “A Relic from the Pliocene”, a man in the northern wilds discovers a real-life wooly mammoth”The Shadow and the Flash” is about brother who are bitter rivals, and who race each other to develop a means of invisibility.  “The Unparrelled Invasion” is about germ warfare.  In most of his stores, the peril is human in origin, with mad scientists and unstoppable weapons abounding.  There were apocalyptic scenarios, dystopias and utopias.

London’s science fiction short stories have been collected under the title The Science Fiction of Jack London.  


Book Club Is Back with Five Things You Didn’t Know about Jack London

SWT-Book-ClubsBook Club is back!  We’ll have a post here every Friday.  If you are in the Sacramento area, join us on May 18 at 2PM at Arden Dimick Library for an in-person book club get-together!

Our theme this summer is “Animals Among Us”, and we’re kicking things off with The Call of the Wild, by Jack London.  Jack London was an amazing guy.  I’m not too proud to say that most of the info I’m about to relate comes from Wikipedia and seldom has a single entry contained more drama and mayhem then the one on Jack London.

In honor of our first selection, The Call of the Wild, here’s five facts about its author, Jack London (John Griffith Chaney):

1.  Jack London’s mother tried to shoot herself while she was pregnant with Jack.

Jack’s mother, Flora, was a music teacher and a spiritualist who lived in San Francisco (she claimed to channel the spirit of an Indian Chief).  She was living with and presumably married to an astrologer named William Chaney.  When she told Chaney she was pregnant, he insisted that she have an abortion.  She shot herself but didn’t injure herself seriously.  Baby Jack was raised by Virginia Prentiss, a former slave.  In 1876 Flora married John London.


2.  While in the Yukon, Jack developed a terrible case of scurvy.

Jack London went to the Yukon during the Alaska Gold Rush.  He developed a severe case of scurvy, which was common among miners.  He lost four teeth and had permanent facial scarring afterwards.

Jack London in Alaska

Jack London is reputed to be the one in front without a beard

3. Jack called his first wife “Mother-Girl” and his second wife “Mate-Woman”.

Jack’s first marriage was to Elizabeth Maddern.  They were friends who agreed that although they were not in love, they would make great kids together so would try a marriage.  They did have children, two girls, Jane and Bessie.  Jack and Elizabeth divorced in 1904.

Jack’s second marriage was to Charmain Kitteredge.  She was also a writer, and shared London’s progressive ideals and love of travel (this included a shared interest in having an open marriage, which had been a source of contention between Jack and his first wife).  By all accounts Charmain and Jack were happy together.  Incidentally, Charmain had a brief affair with Harry Houdini after Jack’s death, but Houdini felt guilty about the affair and ended it.

Jack London and daughters

Jack London and daughters

4. Jack was an ardent socialist.

Jack became a socialist because of the hardships he saw around him, especially those he experienced and witness in jail after being arrested for vagrancy.  You can find is essay “How I Became A Socialist” at this link – it’s powerful stuff.

5.  Jack wrote science fiction.

Jack wrote several stories that can be considered science fiction, including one about a tribe under the influence of aliens, germ warfare, a super-weapon, invisibility, and a modern-day man who encounters a mammoth.




Friday Book Club: Get Ready For Summer!

SWT-Book-ClubsWe’ve just concluded our series on humor, and we have a break in April.   But we’ll be back in May!  Here’s the summer schedule for Book Club.  You can follow Book Club online or join us in person at Arden Dimick Library, at 891 Watt Avenue, Sacramento, CA!

Our theme for summer is Animals Among Us.  We’ll be reading a classic, a contemporary work of fiction, and a nonfiction book.  If you are in the Sacramento area, you’ll notice that this ties into the Sacramento Public Library Summer Reading Program, whose theme this year is “Pets”!

May:  The Call of the Wild, by Jack London

The Call of the Wild, first published in 1903, tells the story of Buck, a St-Bernard-Scotch Collie, who is stolen from his home with a family in California and transported to the Alaskan Gold rush to work as a sled dog.  Buck works for several different owners before being taken in by John Thorton, with whom he shares a powerful bond.  But even as his attachment to Thorton grows, he feels connected to the wilderness that surrounds him and is torn between freedom and domesticity.

Original Cover

Original Cover

Meet us in person at Arden Dimick Library on May 18, at 2PM!

June:  The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein

The Art of Racing in the Rain was published in 2008 and is told from the point of view of a dog named Enzo.  Enzo belongs to a race car driver (loosely based on the author and on one of the author’s friends).  Enzo hopes that if he lives his life properly, he will reincarnate as a human being, and he carefully studies the humans around him to prepare for what he hopes will be his future life.


Meet us in person at Arden Dimick Library on June 22, at 2PM!

July:  Animals Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior, by Temple Grandin

In this nonfiction book, published in 2005, author Temple Grandin talks about how her autism helps her see the world the way animals might see it.  Temple Grandin works with the beef and poultry industries to improve the lives and deaths of animals who are raised for human consumption.  She also works with zoos and other organizations to improve conditions for animals.  Additionally, she’s a world-renowned activist for people with autism.


Meet us in person at Arden Dimick Library on July 13, at 2PM!

Friday Book Club: Billy Crystal Saves the World

SWT-Book-ClubsAs you know, we’re reading 700 Sundays this month, by Billy Crystal.  Billy Crystal seems like a decent human being who really likes to help people out.  One of the ways he does that is through his involvement with the USA non-profit organization Comic Relief.

Comic Relief was founded in 1986 by Bob Zmuda.  It featured a televised fundraiser on HBO with all the proceeds going to help the homeless.  This broadcast happened with new entertainers and skits every year from 1986 – 1998.  In 2006 Comic Relief did a benefit for survivors of Hurricane Katrina and in 2007 they did a benefit to save animal habitats.   Billy Crystal, Robin Willams, and Whoopi Goldberg have hosted all the shows to date.

Thanks to the efforts of Billy Crystal and others, Comic Relief USA has raised over 2.5 million dollars for charity.  Here’s a clip of Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, and Robin Williams introducing the 1994 Comic Relief broadcast:

If you are in the Sacramento area, join us at Arden Dimick Library in Sacramento at 2PM on March 23rd to talk about 700 Sundays!

Friday Book Club: 700 Sundays

SWT-Book-ClubsThis month we’re finishing off our humor writing series with a thoughtful, bittersweet memoir by Billy Crystal, 700 Sundays.  If you are in the Sacramento area, come to our in-person book club at Arden Dimick Library in Sacramento, on March 23rd at 2PM.  There’s no book club in April, but we’ll be back with a three month series about animals in May!

700 Sundays, a book based on Crystal’s one-man, Tony award winning play, is about Billy Crystal’s life from early childhood through college.  The main focus of the book is Crystal’s relationship with his parents.  His father worked six days a week, but spent Sundays with his family.  Crystal’s father died of a heart attack when Crystal was only fifteen.  He later calculated that he had 700 Sundays with his father.

Crystal talks with great appreciation and affection about how his father exposed him to some of the most prominent jazz musicians of the day, and encouraged Crystal’s love of baseball and, of course, comedy.  He also admires his mother, who, after a lifetime of being a homemaker, found a job and supported the family after his father’s death.

The other two books in our humor series (Thank You, Jeeves and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) took a madcap approach to humor, with lots of physical humor and farce and satire.  Crystal’s humor in 700 Sundays is more gentle and reflective.  His humor is a force for family bonding and for healing.  Here’s my favorite passage, from the week after Crystal’s father’s death:

And then one day, I heard laughter.  Big laughs.  Everybody was having a great time.  I had to come out to see who was working my room.  And it was my crazy Uncle Berns.  Performing for the family.  He was making everybody laugh, even my mother was smiling.  He was carrying on, making everybody else feel a little bit better, and taking some of the pain out of his heart as well.  Berns was making people forget just for a few moment why they were there, and it was OK.  He had just lost his brother, the person he was closest to in the world.  And the message to me was profound, because it meant that even in worst worst pain it’s still OK to laugh.


Friday Book Club: Douglas Adams Saves the World

SWT-Book-ClubsThis month in book club we’re reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  If you have a comment on the book, leave it here, and better yet join us on 2/23/14 at 2PM at Arden Dimick Library in Sacramento for a book discussion and movie screening!

Douglas Adams is most famous for the Hitchhiker’s Series, but his favorite book was Last Chance to See.  In this nonfiction work, Adams traveled the world with Mark Carwardine (a zoologist) in search of endangered species.  The book accompanied a BBC radio documentary about their travels.

Adams and Carwardine

Adams and Carwardine

Carwardine said, “We put a big map of the world on a wall, Douglas stuck a pin in everywhere he fancied going, I stuck a pin in where all the endangered animals were, and we made a journey out of every place that had two pins”.


Twenty years later, Mark took Adams’ friend, comedian Stephen Fry, on a second trip to see how the endangered species were doing.  This TV documentary (also called Last Chance to See) can be found, among other places, at the Sacramento Public Library.

Adams did not confine his environmental efforts to Last Chance to See.  He was particularly active with the organization Save The Rhino.  In 1994, Adams participated in a hike up Mount Kilimanjaro while wearing a rhino suit to raise money for the organization.  The organization hosts a yearly lecture by prominent scientists in memory of Douglas Adams’ work.

Here’s Stephen Fry and Mark Carwardine sharing some memories of Douglas Adams, the birth of Last Chance to See and it’s impact on Adams, and some footage of Adams in the rhino suit:

Friday Book Club: Prepare For The Hitchhiker’s Guide!

SWT-Book-ClubsThis February we’ll be reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams.  You can participate here, and/or come to the Arden Dimick Open Book Club in person on February 23rd.  We meet at the Arden Dimick Library at 2PM, and this month we’ll be following our discussion with a screening of the 2005 movie version starring Zooey Deschanel and Martin Freeman.

So grab your guide and start reading, and meet us here next week!  The Hitchhiker’s Guide is one of my favorite books and I can’t wait to share it with you.  As The Guide advises, grab your towel, and don’t panic.

Friday Book Club: The Art of Being Jeeves

SWT-Book-ClubsWelcome back to Friday Book Club, where we’ve been reading Thank You, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse!

Although some recall Jeeves as a butler, they are mistaken.  Jeeves “can butte with the best of them”, but his primary occupation is that of valet to Bertie Wooster.  So what exactly does a valet do?  I’m referring here to an ordinary valet.  “Rescue your employer from a continual series of farcical mishaps” is not generally part of the valet’s job description.

A valet is the male equivalent to a lady’s maid.  Basically, the valet is the gentleman’s personal assistant.  He lays out his employers clothes in the morning and makes sure they stay clean, ironed, and dust-free.  He may personally order new clothing for the gentlemen.  He helps the gentleman dress and undress and lays out and cleans shaving implements.  He may also be the gentleman’s barber.

A valet may help arrange travel for the gentleman and will certainly pack and unpack the gentleman’s clothing.  While other servants will usually clean the gentleman’s rooms, the valet ensures that the rooms stay tidy and comfortable (lighting a fire on cold day, airing the rooms, etc.

A valet is not a butler, but in many households a valet will do double duty and fill both roles.  Jeeves fills in as a butler on several occasions in the P.G. Wodehouse novels, and he does it well, as he does everything well.  The difference between a butler and a valet is that a valet attends to the personal needs of one person, while a butler is the head of male staff and may in some cases manage the entire household.

Want more details?  Here are links!

Jane Austen’s World lists the duties of a valet in great detail, using information from these sites:
The Book of Household Management, Mrs. Beeton, 1881 edition, page 978

The Encyclopedia of Domestic Economy Thomas Webster, Mrs. William Parkes, Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1852

And the duties of a valet don’t seem to have changed much.  Here’s an ad from an agency, TriState Domestic, that will help you hire your very own valet.  Please note that I am NOT endorsing this agency – I don’t know anything about it.  I mention it because I found its very existence to be fascinating.  One assumes that the modern valet uses modern technology to achieve his aim, but the actual job requirements seem pretty much the same as those in the 1800’s.  Note that “computer literacy” is a must if you wish to be hired as a valet by TriState.

Friday Book Club: P.G. Wodehouse and Race

SWT-Book-ClubsOf all the books and stories about Jeeves I could possibly have picked for our book club (and there were 35 short stories and 11 novels to choose from) I accidentally picked the one where Bertie Wooster uses That Word (read on to find out which word, if you dare).  The bad thing is, I suspect I put a lot off people off Wodehouse for life.  The good thing is we now have an opportunity to talk about the many different meanings one word can have.

In Thank You Jeeves, much of the plot involves the fact that a group of minstrels of African descent is performing at the country estate where Bertie is staying.  Bertie expresses nothing but admiration for this troupe and is quite eager to meet them, because he expects they might be able to advise him on his banjolele playing.  But he uses the word “nigger” to refer to them.  He uses the word three times, completely matter-of-factly.  I considered using “the n word” or something similar in this post to avoid causing offense and above all to escape my extreme discomfort with typing it, but it seems foolish not to stare that word, with all its ugly history, right in the face, and that means I have to spell the damn thing out.

The word “nigger” has become so incredibly inflammatory in our society that I can barely bring myself to type it.  Its ugliness brings us right out of the story.  Bertie is supposed to be an affable, sweet, dim but soft-hearted guy – how could he use such an ugly slur?  I think the answer to that is that in the context of the times and the country, that word was slang (and we know Bertie loves slang) but it doesn’t seem to have had the full pejorative meaning that it developed later on, at least not in the self-consciously pejorative way it would be used today.

In terms of historical usage, the word in question was used to describe any person who was not from the British Isles and who had dark skin – this included people of Asian descent as well as African and Middle Eastern.  The word was still in common use in the 1950’s – for instance, there was a brand of candy cigarette with that word in the title (sort of a perfect storm of cultural norms that have fallen out of favor for excellent reasons).  By the 1970’s the word was universally considered an insult in Britain much as it is in the United States, although in the USA it fell out of semi-acceptable common usage much sooner.

There are a lot of clues in Bertie’s behavior that he is not particularly racist despite using a word that today practically defines racism.  He doesn’t look down on the minstrel troupe.  He admires them.  He can’t wait to meet him, because he acknowledges that they are better than him at music and he hopes they will teach him how to play his beloved banjolele better.  He never makes fun of them or insults him other than using a word which today is a great insult.  We never see the minstrels so there are no insulting scenes of he minstrels bowing or scraping or otherwise having to behave in a demeaning fashion.

To me, the most compelling evidence that neither Bertie the character nor Wodehouse himself does not intend to cause offense is that Bertie (and Wodehouse) almost never intend to cause offense.  Bertie is  a kind person, but he’s not a thoughtful or intellectual or introspective person.  He uses whatever slang is popular at the time with no thought of its connotations.  Jeeves, who is more formal and more thoughtful about social niceties, does not use that word.  He uses the word “negro”.  Although the word “negro” has fallen somewhat out of modern favor, it was considered to be the most polite word available for a person  of color at the time.  It’s still used today by civil rights organizations such as “United Negro College Fund”.  Although we sympathize with Bertie throughout the series, our admiration goes to Jeeves, so it’s significant that the true hero of the series uses the most courteous language at his disposal.  This suggests that Wodehouse is not trying to be hateful in his attitudes in general.

But despite his lack of malice, Bertie is not completely off the hook, and neither is P.G. Wodehouse.  When I look up the history of the word “nigger” in England, I find frequent references to it being a generally accepted word, one that was in common usage well into the 1940’s.  It seems to have been used as a commonplace word, not as a calculated insult.  The problem is, I can’t seem to find anything about how people reacted to this word who were actually black, and I also know that racism was a huge problem in England’s history.  I’m less interested in what Bertie meant than in what the minstrel group would have felt if they had heard Bertie address them using that word – and they have no voice, so I don’t know.

There’s a phrase I hear a lot these days:  “Check your privilege”.  It means, take a look at your words and actions and make sure that you aren’t overlooking the viewpoint and/or struggles of those who have to struggle for respect and survival.  P.G. Wodehouse and his characters are all about privilege and they have no interest in checking it.  If a modern white character called a black character “nigger” than we could assume that a calculated insult was being delivered (the term is used in hip-hop culture in ways that I’m not well-educated about, but in any other context an insult would be pretty much guaranteed).  In Wodehouse’s day, the word may have been used innocently by Bertie, who doesn’t want to hurt anyone but just wants to practice his banjolele.  Even when he puts on blackface, it’s not to make fun of anyone – he just wants to escape his captor (and the fact that then he can’t remove the boot polish he used makes it something of a cautionary tale).

But just because Bertie isn’t trying to hurt anyone doesn’t mean he doesn’t hurt anyone, and the same could be said for P.G. Wodehouse.  As Spiderman says, “With great power comes great responsibility” and when it came to social issues, P.G. Wodehouse assiduously avoided great responsibility.  Reading classics lets us see the values and norms of an earlier age – and sometimes those values and norms aren’t pretty.

Here are a couple essays that helped me formulate my thoughts (I also looked up some language background on Wikipedia which was both interesting and depressing):

FreeThoughtblogs:  Bertie and the N-Word

Wodehouse and Racist Epithets, by Neil Midkiff