St. Petersburg Has a Luxury Library

In St. Petersburg, Russia, publisher Alfaret has opened a Gothic-style library that is more a book-themed experience than a place to read or check out books. In fact, I don’t think you can check out anything from Book Cappela‘s over 5,000 edition collection.

What you can do is pay about £100 for a four-hour visit to study the collection or buy an annual card, making you a “Book Apostle,” for £3,209. Life-long members are also available.

For these prices, you can review Alfaret’s collection of Russian and international masterpieces in leather chairs under the kind gaze of the apostles.

“Book Capella is not a library in the traditional sense, and it is not a museum, although elements of the museum are presented. It’s also not the bookstore, although you can buy our books here. [It] is a new way for people to communicate with rare books,” Irina Khoteshova, the project director, told the Guardian.

“Library hand”

Library joined hand

A character I had to read a lot about in the previous couple years was Melvil Dewey (a spelling reformer, he reformed his own first name), the father of modern librarianship and inventor of the Dewey Decimal System. He was a crank generally, but he left his mark.

Atlas Obscura today has an article about another of Dewey’s projects — he didn’t invent it, but he promoted it heavily. “Library hand” was a form of handwriting librarians were expected to master before typewriters became ubiquitous.

Influenced by Edison and honed via experimenting on patient, hand-sore librarians, library hand focused on uniformity rather than beauty. “The handwriting of the old-fashioned writing master is quite as illegible as that of the most illiterate boor,” read a New York State Library School handbook. “Take great pains to have all writing uniform in size, blackness of lines, slant, spacing and forms of letters,” wrote Dewey in 1887. And if librarians thought they could get away with just any black ink, they could think again real fast. “Inks called black vary much in color,” scoffed the New York State Library School handwriting guide.

My MLIS training was deficient. They didn’t teach us a thing about this.

Recovered Essay on Extraterrestrial Life

Who comes to mind as a public figure who has written an essay on the possibilities of life on other planets?  Not a high school paper, but a fairly scientific essay that concludes, “With hundreds of thousands of nebulae, each containing thousands of millions of suns, the odds are enormous that there must be immense numbers which possess planets whose circumstances would not render life impossible.”

Would you believe Winston Churchill wrote these words?

The essay written in 1939 reportedly has a strong understanding of contemporary astronomy and how scientists would approach the question of extraterrestrial life. It was found by Timothy Riley, director of the National Churchill Museum at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. He recommended the essay to astrophysicist Mario Livio, who was thrilled to examine it.

Churchill did his homework, Livio reports. Though he probably didn’t pore over peer-reviewed scientific literature, the statesman seems to have read enough, and spoke with enough top scientists—including the physicist Frederick Lindemann, his friend and later his official scientific adviser—to have had a strong grasp of the major theories and ideas of his time.

Burned-out Author Forges On, Lands Deal

Nancy Peacock has done well as a novel writer, and her path has been a challenging one. Speaking of her mindset about ten years ago, she writes,

At the time, writing and publishing another book was the last thing on my mind. Although, even as I say it, that feels like a bit of a lie. I think publishing is always on a writer’s mind; I also think we have to forget about it. We have to write without feeding any fear regarding the future of a book, how we’re going to publish, how we’re going to reach an audience, and how the book will be received.

She describes how she soured on traditional publishing, chose to self-publish her third novel with professional help, and the key that turned her back to traditional publishing.

How an Indie Author Landed a Traditional Book Deal

Peacock doesn’t talk about her experience with queries, but whatever mistakes she may have made, I’m sure she didn’t make any of the ones agent Steve Laube lists in this post on odd queries he’s received.  Here’s one of them.

An email proposal with a cover note that reads, “I am sure you get a lot of proposals, but this one is worth your time to read.”
But the author claims they looked at what we agents want and then sent us something we specifically say we do not represent. Then says they followed our guidelines for submission but didn’t follow one of them. And then claims the Holy Spirit told them to write it and gave them the words. They must not have read what I wrote a while back “God Gave Me This Blog Post.”

‘The Raven, the Elf, and Rachel,’ by L. Jagi Lamplighter

The Raven, the Elf, and Rachel

Rachel Griffin, student sorcerer, returns in The Raven, the Elf, and Rachel, the second entry in L. Jagi Lamplighter’s Unexpected Enlightenment series. It’s another delightful exercise in exuberant fantasy.

We pick up the story immediately where the last book left off, on a terrible night when rogue magicians nearly succeeded in destroying Roanoke Academy of the Sorcerous Arts. Only the quick actions of Rachel and her friends (but mostly Rachel) prevented disaster. Soon they learn that the evil magician behind that attack, Montague Egg, has escaped. Egg has much bigger plans than the destruction of the school – he wants to destroy the whole world. And various Roanoke students, including Rachel, are his targets in a diabolically cruel scheme that will break down all protecting walls if it succeeds.

Through the course of the story, Rachel comes to understand her own powers better, and receives guidance from potent supernatural entities. She also learns terrible secrets about her own family history.

The story is (pardon the term) enchanting. I take it on faith that Christian themes are being served here, because they’re only hinted at in the actual narrative. One thing that troubles me is a recurring pattern of Rachel disobeying her elders and superiors, and being generally proven right in doing so. That’s somewhat surprising in books that pay occasional homage to C.S. Lewis, both his Narnia books and his Ransom trilogy. I await further enlightenment on that point in the volumes that follow.

I recommend the series highly, though I’m not entirely sure they’re suitable for children inclined to rebelliousness. No objectionable material except for the magic itself.

8 Steps to Revive Christian Fiction

Christian fiction has been pronounced dead in some circle, and E. Stephen Burnett is running with that idea. If it really is dead, how can it be reborn? He offers eight steps.

  1. Figure out what fiction is even meant to do, starting with Scripture.
  2. Find fans who have similar biblical conviction and imagination.
  3. Stride forth with winsomeness, a confident voice, and ‘swashbuckling.’
  4. Encourage bravery about certain words and topics.
  5. However, do nothing for outrage’s own sake—that is the dark side.
  6. Budget each month to buy great Christian novels you’ve heard about.
  7. Don’t ‘ban’ any genres: romance, fantasy, mystery, literary, popular.
  8. This is ‘Christian fiction,’ so let’s see more than generic Christianity.

I like this last one. Let’s write stories with true-to-life people in them, people who attend close-to-actual churches with real theological traditions. I’d be willing to believe many novels depict vaguely Christian characters because their authors have vaguely non-denominational beliefs. But I don’t know what a survey of Christian authors would produce. Perhaps their theological depth is no deeper than that of the reading public.

Killing Cupid

I haven’t written for The American Spectator much recently, because – frankly – I’m having trouble finding anything to say. Mere anarchy, it seems to me, has been unleashed upon the world, and it’s hard to find a side to defend.

But Robert Stacy McCain is a braver man than I, and he wrote a piece for Valentine’s Day that I wish I’d written. Instead, I linked to it on Facebook. I quoted the following passage there:

Of course, even if a young woman today did want Prince Charming to sweep her off her feet, he might be afraid to attempt it. If he admired Cinderella’s beauty, feminists would condemn Prince Charming for objectifying her with the “male gaze.” If a man talks to a woman, whatever he says is denounced by feminists as “mansplaining.” Any man who attempts to initiate a romantic relationship with a woman is guilty of “harassment,” according to feminism, and any expectation that a woman might enjoy sexual activity with a man is “rape culture.”

This excerpt may have been poorly chosen by me. A number of the people who commented on the link assumed I’d chosen it primarily to complain about the fact that I can’t get a date. I can understand the mistake – my almost magically pathetic love life is of course one of the most noticeable things about me.

Maybe I should have quoted the following paragraph, which I almost chose instead: Continue reading Killing Cupid

‘The Day That Never Comes,’ by Caimh McDonnell

I was much taken with A Man With One of Those Faces, by Caimh McDonnell. I praised it here, and we even got the attention of his publisher in comments.

I won’t say that its sequel, The Day That Never Comes, was a disappointing book. It was a pretty good mystery/thriller, with the expected amount of slapstick humor. But… it didn’t work for me as well as its prequel.

In this outing our heroes, Paul Mulchrone, Brigit Conroy, and police detective Bunny McGarry, have just failed to start a private detective agency. It seemed like a good idea. Paul has finally moved out of his late aunt’s house, Bunny has been forcibly retired from the force, and Brigit has always wanted to be a detective anyway. But it all fell through. Paul sent Brigit… unfortunate photos from his cell phone on a drunken night, ending their engagement. And Bunny has now disappeared, his beloved car abandoned at a spot where many people commit suicide. But Bunny wouldn’t kill himself… would he?

Meanwhile Paul, left alone in the detective office, is approached by a Raymond Chandler-esque leggy blonde in a red dress, who wants him to follow her boyfriend, something he’s not actually sure how to do. And Brigit is certain Bunny wouldn’t commit suicide, so she’s looking for him. Though they don’t realize it at first, both their cases are related to the trial of three property developers who swindled thousands in the collapse of the Irish Celtic Tiger boom. After those three are acquitted, one of them is tortured to death. And that’s just the beginning of violence that will convulse all of Dublin.

The Day That Never Comes wasn’t a bad book, but it disappointed me. It was as if someone sat down with author McDonnell and said, “Now this time, tone down the funny writing. Concentrate on character development, back story, and social awareness.” There are plenty of humorous situations in the book, particularly slapstick arising from Paul’s adoption of a flatulent German Shepherd with an attitude. But the funny lines aren’t here. McDonnell’s Wodehouseian gift for hilarious phrasing isn’t much on display.

But it’s a perfectly fine humorous mystery. I recommend it, with cautions for the usual stuff.

Happy Valentine’s Day

My love for you is like a slough
of water flowing out
that soaks the town of Kilkey Down
whose folks pray for a drought.

That one’s for you, dear reader, but here’s another bound to enliven a lover’s heart. From Ogden Nash.

A flea and a fly in a flue
Were imprisoned, so what could they do?
Said the fly, “let us flee!”
“Let us fly!” said the flea.
So they flew through a flaw in the flue.

Isn’t that sweet? Here’s more on Ogden Nash in The Hindu.

Mimi Matthews has a few creative verses for telling someone who may or may not be interested in you to seek other pastures.

Don’t credit the advertisements
In paper or in serial,
You cannot manufacture charms
With ugly raw material.

Exploitation in Humanities Departments

There’s an idea that college professors should be free to pursue whatever interests them, to go wherever their professional curiosity takes them without concern for the market, but that’s close to the fantasy of fan-fiction, stories written for the fun of it without an eye on their publication (even though that too is changing).

Adjunct professor Kevin Birmingham brings up this point among others in his talk on the native exploitation by college humanities and English departments. On the one hand, adjuncts aren’t paid well.

An annual report by the American Association of University Professors indicated that last year “the average part-time faculty member earned $16,718” from a single employer. Other studies have similar findings. Thirty-one percent of part-time faculty members live near or below the poverty line. Twenty-five percent receive public assistance, like Medicaid or food stamps.

These teachers are easily hired, easily dismissed. Funding for actual classroom instruction has been declining, but administrative roles are increasing. Apparently, teaching students is a declining priority for many of our universities, which makes news of another closure more tolerable.

On the other hand, graduate programs are milling out Ph.Ds at a rate that far exceeds the need. Universities, Birmingham explains, have the only job market for these graduates, but they produce roughly four times the number of candidates for the available jobs and availability is shrinking.

English departments do this because graduate students are the most important element of the academy’s polarized labor market. They confer departmental prestige. They justify the continuation of tenure lines, and they guarantee a labor surplus that provides the cheap, flexible labor that universities want.

Like a migrant worker system.

Many market principles could be learned here. One broad one would be morality cannot be based on market realities (or just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should). Colleges exist to teach, and qualified teachers should receive the honor and compensation they are due. When you have the money to pay them well, you should.

But another one may be that if some universities don’t care to teach, others should be able to pick up that slack and grow, keeping a focus on their students’ well-being in mind and not treating them like grist for the sake of the program.

In person, one night only

In case you’re in the area…

I will be speaking on The Viking Sagas on Monday, February 13, 2016 for the Vennekretsen Lodge of the Sons of Norway in Anoka, Minn. They meet at Zion Lutheran Church, 1601 4th Ave., Anoka. The time is 6:30 p.m. for the lodge meeting, 7:00 for the program. I will be selling books.

Disclaimer: The ideas and opinions expressed in this lecture do not necessarily represent the ideas and opinions of Vennekretsen Lodge, the Sons of Norway, or of real persons, living or dead.

28 Recommendations of Black Children’s Books

For Black History Month, librarian and poet Scott Woods likes to recommend children’s books that don’t focus on boycotts, buses, or basketball. Here’s his list of “28 children’s picture books, most of them featuring Black children doing what all children do: play, make up stories, learn life lessons, and dream.”

These titles look like great fun for a library afternoon in the short seat section. I wonder how many of these my library has. (via K.A. Ellis)

Nevermore to forget…

Edgar Allan Poe

A book I’ve had for many years is Louis Untermeyer’s A Concise Treasury of Great Poems, English and American, published in paperback in 1958. In his introduction to Edgar Allan Poe, Untermeyer notes, “The quality of his gift as well as the tragedy of his life is indicated in the words of Sir Francis Bacon which are on the Poe Memorial Gate at West Point: ‘There is no exquisite beauty without some strangeness in the proportion.'”

Oddly enough, that gate is not mentioned in Atlas Obscura’s list of 10 Places That Rejected Poe in Life but Celebrate Him in Death.”

Edgar Allan Poe pioneered a distinctly American brand of gothic horror and romanticism, and introduced the short story to the literary tradition. Yet throughout his career he never received much fame or money. “The Raven” was his best-known work, for which he was paid $9. Poe spent his life traveling up and down the Atlantic coast, working odd jobs and performing parlor readings to make ends meet, going from one failed relationship to the next. He ultimately died with no family, raving mad in the streets of Baltimore.

As if in an attempt to rectify Poe’s lack of success, numerous locations of import during his lifetime have been posthumously dedicated to him, or at least honor his presence there. Here are 10 places in the Atlas that trace the footsteps of America’s master of macabre.

Caimh McDonnell Listens to Audiobooks

Lars’ review of Caimh McDonnell’s first novel yesterday drew the attention of McDonnell’s publisher on Twitter. That lead to my discovery of this interview of McDonnell posted yesterday. Blommin’ Brilliant Books asked the comedian what genres he preferred.

Typically most of the novels I like to read either fall into the crime or sci-fi genres. Having said that, quite a lot of the ‘reading’ I do is actually audiobooks. I can often spend 16 or so hours in a week driving to gigs and I fill that time by devouring audiobooks. I think the influence of that can be seen very clearly in my writing. I write to be read out loud and I believe dialogue is usually the best way of conveying information. I have also read hundreds of TV and film scripts as I’m completely self-taught as a TV writer. People have said that dialogue is my biggest strength as a writer and I guess if you’ve spent as much time as I have forensically examining the work of Aaron Sorkin, that’s no great surprise – not that I’m anywhere close to his level.

He also said he drew one of his characters from an actual, living being. “Phil Nellis is heavily based on my friend and fellow comedian Phil Ellis. In fact, I did it specifically to annoy him.”

‘A Man With One of Those Faces,” by Caimh McDonnell

A Man With One of Those Faces

She was not a bad looking woman, truth be told; a couple of years older than himself, short brown bobbed hair, decent figure – she wouldn’t be launching a thousand ships any time soon but she’d undoubtedly create a fair bit of interest in a chip shop queue.

Paul Mulchrone is “A Man With One of Those Faces” – a face so ordinary that people frequently mistake him for other people. This comes in handy when he helps out in a Dublin hospice, sitting with dying old people, holding their hands, letting them imagine he’s a family member or a friend. He does this to fulfill the terms of his aunt’s will, which allows him to live in her house on a small stipend so long as he puts in a certain number of public service hours every month. It’s all fine until one night when Nurse Brigid Conroy persuades him to stay a little beyond his time with a particular old man, in return for a drive home. In the event, the old man tries to murder Paul with a knife he’s somehow acquired, and then drops dead.

Turns out the old man is a gangster whom everyone thought dead years ago, one who was involved in a legendary unsolved kidnapping. And his old partners in crime don’t know what he might have told Paul in those last moments. Best to kill him, just to be on the safe side. And Nurse Brigid too. Continue reading ‘A Man With One of Those Faces,” by Caimh McDonnell

Book Reviews, Creative Culture