Why You Never Hear Stories about Wicked Stepfathers

You know the story of Cinderella. She’s a princess, dearly loved by her father, the king. When her mother dies, her father eventually marries a widow with daughters of her own. But nothing much changes for Cinderella as long as her father lives and continues to protect her and treat her like the princess she was born to be.

But then the king dies, and Cinderella’s stepmother, the new queen, gains control of the kingdom and the palace. She banishes Cinderella to a life of servitude in the kitchen and presents her own daughters as the princesses of the land.

Yes, we know how the story turns out: the fake princesses are unmasked, Cinderella shines like the true princess she is, and then marries the prince and lives happily ever after. But what I want to focus on here is the stepmother, the one who usurps power and raises her own daughters’ station above that of the true princess, whom she treats like a servant.

Fables and fairy tales supply many examples of the archetype of the wicked stepmother. Often she appears as a witch, such as the one who is jealous of Snow White’s beauty. But there is no male counterpart to this villainess. Why?

The reason arises from the medieval system of laws and customs that gave rise to many of our enduring literary tropes, such as the wicked stepmother archetype. At that time women had very few rights and were dependent on a man to protect them and provide for them. A widow left with children to support—particularly daughters who would need substantial dowries to obtain powerful husbands of their own—would need to remarry. The widow in the Cinderella story would have considered herself quite fortunate to marry a widowed king.

Once a woman was married, she and her children became her husband’s property. A man could treat his wife and children however he pleased. No matter how badly he treated them, he would not be thought of as wicked. He would simply be exercising his rights as a man to use his personal property in whatever way he wished.

No wonder women like Cinderella’s stepmother were so quick to seize power and use it to their own advantage if the opportunity, such as the death of the king, arose. The stories that develop from a particular culture not only describe that culture’s values and beliefs, they also prescribe how people should live their lives. Cinderella’s stepmother would probably have gladly accepted the epithet wicked to describe her actions, as long as she could get what she wanted for herself and her daughters. But she also would have learned, along with everyone who heard this fairy tale, what happens when someone tries to dethrone the rightful heir. She gets her comeuppance in the end, when the glass slipper will fit only the dainty little foot of Cinderella, the real princess. The king may be dead, but his interests prevail in the end.

We have patriarchy to thank for the lack of a wicked stepfather archetype. Those who hold the power control the kingdom, including the cultural narratives. The king is dead. Long live the king!

On Reading

35 books everyone should read at least once in their lifetime

Cover: To Kill a MockingbirdThis article arose from a question posed on Reddit: “What is a book that everyone needs to read at least once in their life?”

Of the top 35 books listed here from the Reddit responses, I have read the following:

  1. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
  2. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
  3. Bartleby The Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street by Herman Melville
  4. East of Eden by John Steinbeck
  5. How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie (hey, it was a requirement of my psych 101 course in college)
  6. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  7. The Stranger by Albert Camus
  8. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  9. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
    Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  10. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  11. Animal Farm by George Orwell
  12. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
    Catch–22 by Joseph Heller
  13. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  14. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
  15. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
  16. 1984 by George Orwell

That’s fewer than half. How depressing.

In my defense, though, I do have several of the others on my personal to-be-read list:

  • Watership Down by Richard Adams
  • For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • Dune by Frank Herbert (I have resisted this one for years but have finally decided I should give it a try)
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick (can’t believe I haven’t read this yet)

So many books, so little time…

Romanticizing the Reader

Writer Diane Ackerman looks at the relationship between writers and their readers:

Nearly every author I know imagines one or more readers while writing a book. It’s a bloom of creative telepathy. The reader is a part of yourself, held at a distance, and becomes an important sounding board for the tone and language of the pages, an intimate ally.

And how do readers react when meeting authors, for example at a book signing? “Having read your books, readers know you far better than you know them — except that authors aren’t always their books.” She continues, “And just as the author romanticizes the reader, so does the reader romanticize the author.”

In the end, both the writer and the reader—and the interaction between the two—are necessary for a book to be successful:

As an author and reader, I like the idea of reading as an indelible spice that transforms a book while the book transforms you.

Literary Idol: Amelia Gray on Shirley Jackson

In conjunction with the recent Los Angeles Festival of Books, the Los Angeles Times asked five participants to comment on the writers who had influenced them. Here author Amelia Gray pays tribute to Shirley Jackson:

The loners in her books appealed to me, the fragile and friendless women in worlds built to appear ordinary that always revealed a more sinister nature.

This article contains links to lots of related coverage of the Festival of Books.

The eeriness of the English countryside

Writers and artists have long been fascinated by the idea of an English eerie – ‘the skull beneath the skin of the countryside’. But for a new generation this has nothing to do with hokey supernaturalism – it’s a cultural and political response to contemporary crises and fears

Robert Macfarlane has written a fascinating look at how the English landscape continues to be used artistically to represent the eerie:

that form of fear that is felt first as unease, then as dread, and which is incited by glimpses and tremors rather than outright attack. Horror specialises in confrontation and aggression; the eerie in intimation and aggregation. Its physical consequences tend to be gradual and compound: swarming in the stomach’s pit, the tell-tale prickle of the skin. I find the eerie far more alarming than the horrific…

He finds evidence of this eerie use of landscape in many artistic areas:

In music, literature, art, music, film and photography, as well as in new and hybrid forms and media, the English eerie is on the rise. A loose but substantial body of work is emerging that explores the English landscape in terms of its anomalies rather than its continuities, that is sceptical of comfortable notions of “dwelling” and “belonging”, and of the packagings of the past as “heritage”, and that locates itself within a spectred rather than a sceptred isle.

Although some of his references may be lost on those unfamiliar with both the English countryside and English history, his explanations make his meaning clear. He cites examples of such eerie works across literature, film, and art. Many of the current works call up earlier art and artists, from the 19th century forward. Many of these earlier works employed ghosts and corpses as symbolic of the decay underlying the seemingly tranquil pastoral landscape.

But engaging with the eerie emphatically doesn’t mean believing in ghosts. Few of the practitioners named here would endorse earth mysteries or ectoplasm. What is under way, across a broad spectrum of culture, is an attempt to account for the turbulence of England in the era of late capitalism. The supernatural and paranormal have always been means of figuring powers that cannot otherwise find visible expression. Contemporary anxieties and dissents are here being reassembled and re-presented as spectres, shadows or monsters…

As a Daughter Becomes a Teenager, a Mother Becomes a Vampire Novelist

Heather K. Gerken, the J. Skelly Wright professor of law at Yale Law School, has written eight novels, and is working on the ninth, that only one person will read:

My daughter is growing up, which means I’m losing her. Anna is 12, all eyes, cheekbones and imagination. Every now and then I catch a glimpse of the glorious 17-year-old just around the corner, and it makes my heart ache with the anticipation of loss.

Gerken started writing the books for her daughter because

I hope to encase Anna in the only form of armor that I trust — stories. I have written Anna as a heroine in the hope that she will feel the tug of her own heroism inside her.

Even though Anna hasn’t yet grown up, she’s now writing her own story, which Gerken takes as a good sign.

Her Stinging Critiques Propel Young Adult Best Sellers

You may have never heard of Julie Strauss-Gabel, but you’ve almost certainly heard of one example of her work, the novel The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Strauss-Gabel is publisher of Dutton Children’s Books.

Amidst all the chest-thumping about the decline of the publishing industry, children’s books have been the bright exception: “In 2014, revenue from young adult and children’s books rose by 21 percent over the previous year, while adult fiction and nonfiction fell by 1.4 percent, according to the Association of American Publishers.”

Strauss-Gable has contributed significantly to the rise of YA (young adult) literature:

Ms. Strauss-Gabel’s unconventional taste and eye for idiosyncratic literary voices have helped her identify and build up some of young adult fiction’s biggest breakout stars.

Many adults now buy and read YA literature:

Adults aged 18 to 44 made up 65 percent of young adult book buyers in 2014, according to a recent Nielsen Books & Consumer survey, and men accounted for 44 percent of young adult book buyers in 2014, up from 31 percent in 2012. And 65 percent of adults buying young adult books reported that they were purchasing the books for themselves rather than for children.

What Your Favorite Books Tell You About Your Writing

My major life activities are reading (usually fiction) and writing (always nonfiction). So I’m delighted when I come across something that combines the two: something like Marcy McKay’s writing challenge What Your Favorite Books Tell You About Your Writing. Marcy runs The Write Practice, a web site and newsletter aimed at fiction writers, but even though I write nonfiction, I often find her insights helpful. But this one I just have to try. I’ve been saving it, and today is the day.

Here’s Marcy’s four-stop process and my responses.

1. List your five favorite books. Write them down as fast as possible. Don’t overthink this. Just trust your instincts and write. If need be, make two separate lists: one for fiction and the other for nonfiction.

Five Favorite Novels:

Five Favorite Works of Nonfiction:

2. Find the common themes on your list. Are you drawn to redemption, self-discovery, forgiveness, good versus evil, transformation, love conquers all or triumph of the human spirit? It doesn’t have to be something boiled down to one word or even one theme. Just look for the common denominators between your books.

Common Themes:

  • the search for family
  • self-discovery
  • the search for personal identity
  • enduring and learning from painful personal experience
  • making meaning in one’s life
  • the meaning of love

3. Reflect on the stories from your childhood. What are the most important moments of your formative years, growing up? Happy or sad, think back on them all, then write them down.

I do not feel comfortable publicizing the events of my formative years here, but I do incorporate them, in a general way, in the next section.

4. Study the overlapping links between your lists. It is where your most powerful inner stories reside. These are the stories of your heart. If your lists do not connect and you’re struggling with your writing, this may explain the problem… . You should be telling stories you fell compelled to write. That’s where your passion lies.

My childhood included disrupted family life fraught with much verbal and emotional abuse. There were, however, spots of light that showed me other possibilities did exist.

People talk about “finding themselves,” but this exercise has made me realize that we don’t find or discover our self as much as we create it. Many years ago I realized that I had lived much of my life in an attempt to define myself in negatives, in saying what I am NOT—such as “I am not a victim.” When I realized this, I thought it was, well, a very negative thing to do, a negative way to live my life.

But doing this exercise has made me realize that such concentration on negatives—what I am not—is not truly a negative approach to life because understanding what I did not want to be helped me to become, or create, the self and the life I wanted. Acknowledging who I did not want to be enabled me to create the identity I wanted, one that embodies the values and beliefs I’ve come to hold dear because of the knowledge I’ve gained from my personal experiences.

In my recent focus on improving my writing I’ve frequently come across the concept of “finding one’s writing voice.” This phrase always bothered me in some vague way because it suggests that we’ve somehow lost our writer’s voice. But I now realize why I dislike the whole notion of “finding our voice.” We don’t find our voice, we create it, just as we don’t find or discover our self but rather create it.

Marcy says that this exercise helps us look at our inside stories vs. our outside stories. Our inside stories are the ones we carry internally, whether we’re aware of them or not. These stories often come from our childhood experiences and influence both how we think of ourselves now and how we behave in the future as we attempt to conform to the internal notion we have of ourself. Some children grow up feeling loved, accepted, and encouraged; those children move forward with confidence and a sense of self-worth and potential achievement. But other children grow up being told that they’re bad and that they’ll never become any better or accomplish anything; those children tend to live out their lives fulfilling this self-concept that they’ve incorporated into their sense of identity.

It is possible, however, to transform and transcend the identity story that our previous experiences have given us. One way to do this, the way that I have pursued all my life without even knowing why, is to read. These outside stories can show us other life possibilities and can thereby encourage us to edit our inner story.

My great thanks to Marcy for this exercise that can help us understand ourselves better and appreciate ourselves more. Doing this exercise can change your life.

“Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”

Poster: Extremely Loud & Incredibly CloseI finally got around to watching the film Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2012), based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel of the same title. Our book group read the novel several years ago and loved it, so I’ve been looking forward to seeing the film adaptation.

The story involves 10-year-old Oskar Schell, whose father died a year earlier in the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. The precocious Oskar finds an envelope, labeled “black,” containing a strange key among his father’s things. Oskar decides that black must be a name, so he sets off to interview everyone named Black who lives in the five burroughs of New York City to find the lock that the mysterious key will open.

I have to admit that my memory of the details of the novel is sketchy. But one aspect of the film that I don’t remember specifically from the book is the emphasis on storytelling. Oskar’s grandmother, who lives in an apartment building across the street from Oskar’s building, has rented out a room in her apartment to an old man. When Oskar finally meets The Renter, played by Max von Sydow, he finds that the old man does not speak. The Renter carries a small notebook and pen with him and communicates only by writing short notes on the little pages—except for the words yes and no, one of which is written on the palm of each hand.

When Oskar realizes that he’s not going to get the man to break his silence, he asks, “Then how will you tell me your story?” The old man shrugs, and Oskar continues, “Then I’ll just have to tell you my story.” He then pours out the story—frantically, non-stop, and with great agitation—of his search to find the lock that the fits the key that his father left behind. But what he’s really pouring out is all the grief, fear, anger, and guilt he’s been trying to deal with since his father’s death.

As Oskar visits each person or family named Black, he takes photos and pastes them all in a scrapbook. And he remembers the details of each person’s life story. At the end of the film he writes a letter to everyone he has visited that includes references to those personal details.

And finally, it seems, Oskar’s experiences on his quest to find the lock that fits the key become the key for a fitting ending to this chapter of his own story.

Monday Miscellany

LeBron James, open book

Kid readingThe NBA championship, recently won by the Miami Heat, was big news in the sports world. But a secondary story was the focus on Heat star LeBron James, who focused before games by reading. Yes, reading—all kinds of books, fiction and nonfiction.

And lots of sports reporters, including ESPN’s Michael Wilbon here, would like to see that become just as big a story:

Where cynics saw a ballplayer doing something for the cameras, I saw a chance, whatever LeBron’s motivation, for a role model to use his influence to make an impact, intentional or not. According to The Alliance for Excellent Education, only 3 percent of all eighth-graders read at an advanced level. Imagine how many of those eighth-graders want to do what LeBron James does. At 13, 14 years old, they can’t drive the car he endorses, might or might not be able to afford the shoes he endorses.

But they can borrow a book even if they can’t afford to buy one. And if LeBron is reading, then reading must be fairly cool. Is there a better message the world’s best basketball player could send?

Fiction can shape our lives

Writer Diane Cameron sees summer as the perfect time to learn about life by falling under the spell of stories:

Despite being in thrall to information, wisdom comes not from knowing facts but from knowing truths about human nature; it comes from seeing through facts to their underlying patterns. We are shaped by the stories that we read and hear.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning Project

This rather remarkable project, based at the University of North Dakota, is a loving tribute to the works of the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Directed by Dr. Sandra Donaldson, the project fills a gap in the scholarly literature surrounding Browning’s works. In 2010, a five-volume print edition of these works was published, under the editorial direction of Dr. Donaldson. This site presents all the version of Browning‚s heavily revised poems that are difficult to represent in linear print format. These multiple interactive versions allow us to see online how Browning reworked her poems over time. Overall, this is quite an innovative and important resource. The poems made available here include “A Child Asleep, “Loved Once,” and “The House of Clouds.” Further along, visitors can explore the “Prose” area to view different iterations of works such as “The Book of Poets” and “American Poetry.

>From The Scout Report, Copyright Internet Scout Project 1994-2012. http://scout.wisc.edu/

Mother & Daughter Coauthors: Jodi Picoult and Samantha van Leer Talk to PW

Cover: Between the LinesPublishers Weekly features an interview with prolific author Jodi Picoult and her daughter, Samantha van Leer. Jodi was on a book tour when her daughter called and told her she had a great idea for a story. Jodi thought the idea was brilliant and suggested the two write it together.

The result of the collaboration is the novel Between the Lines. Samantha reports that the project taught her a lot about how hard it is to be a writer. Samantha’s next writing project will be her college application essays. But who knows what may follow?

my mom and I both feel that Between the Lines isn’t quite over yet–we left it hanging intentionally, and we’ve talked a lot about what a sequel will look like, and what the characters would do next.

Are E-Books Bad for Your Memory?

KindleLorien Crow offers some disturbing news as ebooks become more popular with both individuals and schools:

Schools and universities are using e-readers and tablets as valuable learning tools, but scientists are questioning their effect on memory.

A small but growing number of researchers are uncovering evidence that readers are better able to remember what they read in printed books long-term when compared to materials read via an electronic screen. The results are raising questions on their value as learning tools, especially as tablets make their way into education.

Some research suggests, for example, that students must read material more times in electronic format than in printed format to remember it. Studies also suggest that students better understand material they’ve read in print than on a screen. But other scientists point out that

new practices around e-reading need to evolve before humans are able to absorb the information held in e-books, as quickly and as fully as before. But this is no new challenge — throughout history, new technologies sparked fierce debate among critics and philosophers, including Plato, who thought writing would ruin focal memory.

Evaluating both sides of the argument for ebooks leads Crow to conclude that “Ultimately, technology is changing the way we think and learn, but it only hinders us if we let it. Being aware of the potential pitfalls is key to success, and 20 years from now, flying cars might be the next big cause for concern.”