A Modest Variorum Darwin (Primary vs. Secondary Sources)

As I sort through yet more questions raised by my current line of research, I glance at this sheet of paper for encouragement.

My mother, the Cornell professor and author who did decades of primary research herself, shared it with me and many of her students. I don’t know of a better illustration of why you should never completely trust a secondary source on historical events. Let alone a movie, or a novel… don’t get me started.

Okay, it’s a bit academic. It may not be obvious to everyone why the differences between the first entry and the last entry are important. Look at it this way: what is introduced over time are dramatizing motivations and actions that didn’t exist in the original. They make a good story, but they aren’t true. Which makes them bad history.

I’ve applied all my research librarian skills to locating another source for this, and failed. All I have is this aging three hole punched handout. So in placing it on the internet, I hope the internet will be just and cite its scholarly author: Mary Ellen Roach-Higgins, October 14, 1994.



Ah, blogs of my youth

John Scalzi posted a happy 21st birthday to his blog today that nicely summed up a lot of what is best about blogs, and worst about the transition to the current social media scene.

“…regularly-updated personal blogs are now something of a rarity these days, as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook handle what blogs do at least as well for most people, at the mere cost of your privacy and the privacy of every other single person you know. I use Twitter and Facebook myself so this isn’t really a complaint, just an acknowledgement.

I do miss the heyday of the blogosphere but I also admit that missing of it is more based on a feeling than the practical day-to-day reality of the social media era. What I went to blogs for — catching up with friends, seeing what they think about things — is what Facebook and Twitter and other social media offer, so no real loss there. The real difference is feel. For lack of a better way to express this, blogs are free-standing houses, designed by the occupant. Social media are apartment blocks, where the floor plan is exactly the same for everyone. I guess I miss going to someone’s house and wondering how this funky place even actually holds together.”

I loved that internet of crooked houses with purple walls and fifteen fonts, cozy misaligned twig nests, and noisy salons full of regulars who would welcome you in if you had something interesting to add.

He goes on with thoughts about why it’s worth having your own site and your own blog, even now. If you like that idea, I find him a good role model, if only because there aren’t a lot of active skillful bloggers who have been around so long, are still at it, and reflecting on it.






Walking On the Ceiling by Ayşegül Savaş

Nurunisa’s father died, her mother withdrew, and in her bereft and solitary Istanbul childhood, she never developed any central organizing principles for her life. Well into adulthood, she lives suspended between her deep loneliness and her inability to connect with others. And like most people, she tells stories to make sense of it all.

She reflects on her memories from the perspective of her current life in a changed and changing Istanbul. “I know that the city is saying something and that its message is growing louder….It’s a futile exercise, this inventory I’m making of a vanished friendship. It’s a way to pass the short time before something else takes over.”

As a student in Britain and Paris, she invented and reinvented herself for others, and wistfully admired those with more solid personal relationships and philosophies. Most of the people she has known talked in lists and theories, simplifying and composing reality. At university, she created an “invented intimacy” with her boyfriend, and allowed the affectionate relatives of a friend to imagine her Turkish family as large and loving. In this fictionalized life, “I thought that I had put things in order and that I could keep them in balance, so long as I kept a distance.”

In Paris, she meets M., a much older novelist she admires, and they develop a platonic friendship “with its particular logic, its detachment from the world.” They walk through the city together, talking, stopping for meals. She is open and honest with him about many things in her life, but she never makes eye contact with him, and never tells him she has read his books. But he sees more than she wants him to, or at least, she thinks he does. “He was troubled, he told me one time, by the difficulty of making his students understand the difference between art and artifice. He said that what his students thought of as style was an unwillingness to tell a story. He wondered whether he was only teaching them the illusory mechanics of craft, by which they could conceal the absence at the heart of their writing, trying to make up for all the things they were not able to confront. I nodded in agreement, but I wondered, feeling uneasy and embarrassed, whether M. was trying to tell me something in his particular way.”

In time, he threatens to illuminate too much of her deceptions, and self-deceptions, her bitterness and solipsism.  “During my friendship with M., I began to remember something about myself I had been looking away from…I told myself I would allow it to emerge, when the time was right. But that is no different from keeping it at bay.” Eventually, she runs from him as she does from everyone.

How much this affects him is unclear–she portrays his life as full of friends and peers, but this could be only another self-justifying story. Her focus is on how he affected her. “What mattered most was that memory was stripped of bitterness and retold with joy.” She takes the experience back to Istanbul, and reflects on it where there is no-one to challenge her version. Is this the author’s intent? That isn’t entirely clear either. And perhaps it is only a gender-flipped version of a classic story, the brief encounter with no consequences but enlightenment.

This is a beautiful, subtle novel of uncertainty and loss, both personal and historical. It has no definite answers, but much to say to anyone who has struggled to understand their past. Or who feels the uneasiness of the shifting world these days, the conflicting stories told by people fighting to recreate the world in the image of their beliefs, to control what is considered the truth. “I feel something for all these lonely people I see–so lonely amidst such crowds. I feel their dislike of the past, their wish to bury it and to look away…It’s a desire for all to be new. It isn’t unlike fear.”




Stone and Stanton and Bloomer

While acting as co-author on my late mother’s book, I got interested in Amelia Bloomer. I had not entirely realized who she was, or that she grew up thirty minutes from my house. And the more I read about her, the more interested I got. So I’m researching her now, and may write about her, that is, write more than the essay on early Muslim influence in “Western” feminism (ideas and trousers) that I’m trying to place right now.

My current reading is a biography of Lucy Stone, published in 1930 by her daughter, Alice Stone Blackwell. I bought it in part because it had a damn index, a pretty good one, which has two entries for Bloomer–one for her, one for the “Bloomer dress” she did promoted and wore, but did not invent.

Stone is mostly remembered for not taking her husband’s name. But she had a very significant career as an activist, was a brilliant charismatic orator, and was friends with Bloomer, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony, among many others in the suffrage and abolition and temperance movements.

She also wore the Bloomer costume for a few years, and a letter from her to Anthony is quoted in this book, scoffing at the idea that the main problem with it was that it detracted from their credibility.  “No, no, Susan, it is all a pretense that the cause will suffer. I wish that the dress gave me no other troubles; but I am annoyed to death by people who recognize me by my clothes, and when I get a seat in the cars, they will get a seat by me and bore me for a whole day with the stupidest stuff in the world. Much of that I should escape if I dressed like others.” And being pursued by hordes of boys in the cities, and the embarrassment when the wind blows up the short skirt–they all gave it up in time, once the hoopskirts came in. Funny to think that hoopskirts were liberating, but they were.

I also loved the story in this of the first, illicit, women’s debate society at Oberlin. They met in secret, out in the woods, with “posted sentinels” and then–well, I put that page on my Instagram if you want to read it.

I did not expect this to be an enjoyable read, but the prose is clear and she seamlessly combines family memories, letters and documents, and interviews. Of course it’s hard to know how much could be corroborated by other sources, but she is a lively writer, is not flowery, and does not romanticize.


Last weekend, I  participated in a little group tour of Seneca Falls led by Laura Free, a Hobart and William Smith historian. She wrote Suffrage Reconstructed: Gender, Race, and Voting Rights in the Civil War Era, coming out in paperback next year, or so the marketing team tells her.

I hadn’t been up there since 1994, and wow, it so much more rewarding now.  I did a drive by of Bloomer’s house afterwards–it does not belong to the National Park Service as Stanton’s does, but there’s a craft shop across the road so I was able to pull over in their parking lot and stare from a moderately discreet distance.

The ranger sitting on Stanton’s porch told us that this horse chestnut tree was alive when she was. I love old buildings. but I love old trees more.


American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

It is wise for readers to be skeptical of the hype machine that drives so much of the book world. American Dirt is due out next January, but is already on “most anticipated” lists. It sold for seven figures, comes with glowing recommendations from Julia Alvarez, Rumaan Alam, and Stephen King, and the movie adaptation is underway.

I found out about it on my weekly volunteer shift at Buffalo Street Books. The manager pressed an ARC on me after reading it herself. This is the author’s fourth book, but I had never read any of the others. In total ignorance, with no special anticipation, I took it on vacation. And then it took over my life for three days, with regular breaks to let my heart rate drop.

Cummins opens with a devastating massacre that could be the climax of another novel. It ignites an inferno of grief and terror that sends bookstore owner Lydia and her eight year old son Luca fleeing their home town of Acapulco north to the USA, through one lion’s den after another, with little time to reflect, let alone bury their dead.

They begin this journey wanted by the head of a drug cartel, but with the advantages of education, Mexican citizenship, and significant cash in hand and in a bank. Other migrants they encounter are from other nations, underage, penniless, illiterate, chronically ill. Two are middle class deportees with their lives and families established in the USA.  All of them are interesting and vivid individuals, and all are hounded by constant threats of murder, torture, rape, dismemberment, capture by traffickers and death by constant physical risks and deprivations. Sometimes they escape, sometimes they do not.

It feels heartless to call this novel a road trip thriller, based as it is on journalistic research and the real lives of so many people. But that is part of what raises the stakes so high: the knowledge of just how bad the reality can be. That one of the protagonists is an eight year old child raises them even higher. If she has to jump onto a moving train, so does he. If they are traveling with a group of migrants that runs into the “police,” there is no way for her to control what Luca sees, or suffers. He knows it, and for her sake, as children do, he tries to pretend he is just fine. Meanwhile they have not begun to absorb their extraordinary initial losses.

Cummins writes the effects of traumatic shock like someone with personal experience of it. Her prose is clean and effective, and when her research pokes through here and there, it gives only a faint pause as the story charges forward.  This is not one of those books that opens with a bang and then sags in the middle, or transforms into a disappointment by the end. It is a wild ride straight through, with genuine emotional depth, and new characters and fresh concerns introduced well past the halfway mark. It is crowded with tragedies, but it does not end with one. However, Cummins makes it clear that she is letting the reader off easy.  Early on, Lydia remembers how she loved the Choose Your Own Adventure books as a child. “At the end of each chapter you’d have to decide what to do next…When Lydia didn’t like the outcome of her plot, or sometimes even when she did, she would backtrack and make a different choice.”  Like a good coyote, Cummins guides the reader along one of the safest possible versions of this terrifying story, but wrong turns loom on every side, and not everyone makes it through.

This book may not be a good choice for anyone who is has experienced comparable traumas, or is close to others who have. For everyone else, it is not to be missed. And if an epic social novel can help attract public sympathy to the millions of undocumented immigrants who have too often been vilified and dismissed as subhuman, this could be the one.


Drag Story Hour

The Drag Story Hour at my bookstore certainly isn’t getting 200 protestors. Has there been one?
But I’ve been amazed watching the backlash to these programs, and the resistance to the backlash, develop across the country.
I’ve been through so many conversations in my life about how theater can have significant social and political influence. Here’s an example of that discussion. Relevance! So often only the mind of the producer, preaching to the choir.
I’ve seen an awful lot of art that tried for it, and failed. But this–I think this is brilliant.

M.A.P.s (Multi-Animator Projects)

My teenage daughter is an artist. For a while I thought it was a phase, and at this point I am resigned. She’s deep into animation, puts in long hours, and wants to get a day job as a storyboard artist when she grows up.

A couple of years ago we got her a decent tablet and basic (but still expensive) professional software. She has been teaching herself to use them, and learning all kinds of animation tricks (smearing, for example), by hanging out with other animators online, mostly on Youtube and Discord.

The gateway to this world for her was a love of the Warriors book series by “Erin Hunter.”  There is an intense and prolific international YouTube scene creating Multi-Animator Projects based on Warriors characters and story lines. They’re about cats, but cats put through operatic plots, suffering all kinds of pain and loss. There can be a lot of blood. Here’s one of the prettier examples she sent me this week.

 Other M.A.P. themes exists now, but Warriors is where they started, with this video, in 2012, by an artist who is still at it, and draws with a mouse.

MAPs are a little like music videos made by 20 to 40 animators, each taking a part assigned by the project editor. There are a variety of styles (scrolling is one). Some projects have strict requirements, including short deadlines and assigned color palettes. Some are first come first serve, some are very competitive–you apply and hope to be selected. An animator on one project may be the editor of another.

Animators build reputations and relationships and fan bases through these projects, and success is, as in the real world, based on both skills and professionalism. There is a crazy amount of talent involved, and professional animators have launched careers from this scene. So many articles about YouTube, and I’ve never seen one on this community.

My home animator says this is the king of them all: a MAP that was selective but not extremely restrictive, took as much as three years, runs over nine minutes, and has over 2 million views.

The internet can still be a creative and generous place, off the beaten track.