5 Quick Weekend Reads

Smart, Hannibal

Oh, the luxury of weekend reading! It’s a beautiful thing, isn’t it?

We get to curl up somewhere, maybe even between errands and projects, to feast our eyes upon the written word.

As someone who believes it is acceptable to cancel plans over a good book, I have put together five recommendations to renew your creative energy for the upcoming week.

1. Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully – in Ten Minutes by Stephen King

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Everyone writes these kinds of lists now as clickbait but, this one is actually worth your time. King doesn’t throw together fluffy advice to hit a SEO-induced word count. He wrote something real and helpful from his experience with writing failure, and ultimate success.

Why read it?

He writes like he is talking. So, it feels like a conversation with a brilliant friend.

Excerpt:

All of what follows has been said before. If you are interested enough in writing to be a purchaser of this magazine, you will have either heard or read all (or almost all) of it before. Thousands of writing courses are taught across the United States each year; seminars are convened; guest lecturers talk, then answer questions, then drink as many gin and tonics as their expense-fees will allow, and it all boils down to what follows.

2. I Didn’t Laugh For a Long Time by Hayley Williams

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This is one of many discussions about artists and their struggle with mental health. You should read it anyway.

Inside, Hayley Williams describes a state of struggle that she doesn’t want someone to diagnose. Most creative people can relate.

Excerpt:

We wrote and wrote and I never liked what I put to the music Taylor sent me. His stuff sounded inspired. My parts sounded, to me, like someone dead in the eyes. I didn’t know the person behind those words. Probably because I never before allowed her to come out and say how she really felt. I never cared to get to know her.

3.  The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr.

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This one is for a long weekend. Or you can translate “read” to mean “skim.” I love this book and recommend it constantly. It’s not just helpful for writers.

The book can help anyone who wishes to express themselves better.

Excerpt:

It is an old observation that the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric. When they do so, however, the reader will usually find in the sentence some compensating merit, attained at the cost of the violation. Unless he is certain of doing as well, he will probably do best to follow the rules. After he has learned, by their guidance, to write plain English adequate for everyday uses, let him look, for the secrets of style, to the study of the masters of literature.

4. Hey, Computer Scientists! Stop Hating on the Humanities by Emma Pierson

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If it’s not obvious from the title, Pierson makes the argument that numbers aren’t enough to make a good decision. Since the Op Ed was published in 2017, we’ve seen even more examples of how the ability to code something doesn’t necessarily mean you possess good judgment.

Essentially, she points out the Frankenstein-like approach that American engineers seem to be taking to invention. Don’t ask whether you should create something. Just make it.

It’s a fair question because other fields of science, like medicine, require an exploration of ethics.

Excerpt:

I’ve watched brilliant computer scientists display such woeful ignorance of the populations they were studying that I laughed in their faces. I’ve watched military scientists present their lethal innovations with childlike enthusiasm while making no mention of whom the weapons are being used on. There are few things scarier than a scientist who can give an academic talk on how to shoot a human being but can’t reason about whether you should be shooting them at all.

5. Rescue the arts from the budget chopping block by Julie Andrews and Emma Walton Hamilton

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The prolific Julie Andrews and her daughters discuss how the arts can improve learning in all fields of study.

We need it.

We just don’t want to pay for it.

They break that arguement down to show why the arts should be a priority in our culture, especially in education.

Excerpt:

There was the student who sat silently at the back of a playwriting class for the better part of the semester, ski hat pulled low over his forehead, arms folded defiantly across his chest. Who would have thought he would ultimately write an award-winning political satire that was selected for production, and go on to start a student-written and edited section of his local newspaper, before attending journalism school?

What Are You Reading?

I’d love to hear about what you’re reading right now. Is it long or short? Tell me more about it and don’t forget to talk to me on Facebook or Instagram.

 

 

 

 

 

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10 Quick Reads for a Rainy Day

Autumn. It’s the time when we suddenly curl up with cups of tea and short stories. Saturdays beg for quiet comforts like imaginative musings.

Although they aren’t as commercial as novels, short stories remain my favorite form of fiction. Most can be absorbed in less than an hour.

Also, the brevity forces the writer to condense the very best thoughts into a dense tale.

My Top Reads for a Rainy Day

On any dark day, I would curl up to re-read all of the these tales.

Smart hannibal2

Each one is notorious, surprising and thought-proving. They provide something to talk about over dinner or inspire your next project.

1. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Read it here

One of the darkest stories in this list, and a notable example of early feminist literature, the story builds symbolism around the sick room of the unnamed narrator. A modern reader will feel conflicted about her situation as she is held against her will to recover from her recent pregnancy.

It’s not a thriller. And it doesn’t need to be.

There is no real twist. Just a horrifying journey of an unwell mind (or perhaps a mind that has been made unwell.)

Excerpt from The Yellow Wallpaper:

If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency—what is one to do?

My brother is also a physician, and also of high standing, and he says the same thing.

So I take phosphates or phosphites—whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to “work” until I am well again.

Personally, I disagree with their ideas.

Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.

But what is one to do?

 

2. The Red-Headed League by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Read it here or Listen on Spotify

If I were asked to choose a single adventure of the prolific detective Sherlock Holmes, I would select The Red-Headed League. It may not be the top literary choice, or even the most popular. But, it has everything you want in one of Doyle’s stories.

The beginning is light-hearted. The middle showcases Holmes’ deductive process. The end delivers a worthy enemy and memorable action.

Also, it holds some of the most quoted snips like “three-pipe problem” and

Excerpt from The Red-Headed League:

“How, in the name of good-fortune, did you know all that, Mr. Holmes?” he asked. “How did you know, for example, that I did manual labour. It’s as true as gospel, for I began as a ship’s carpenter.”

“Your hands, my dear sir. Your right hand is quite a size larger than your left. You have worked with it, and the muscles are more developed.”

“Well, the snuff, then, and the Freemasonry?”

“I won’t insult your intelligence by telling you how I read that, especially as, rather against the strict rules of your order, you use an arc-and-compass breastpin.”

“Ah, of course, I forgot that. But the writing?”

“What else can be indicated by that right cuff so very shiny for five inches, and the left one with the smooth patch near the elbow where you rest it upon the desk?”

“Well, but China?”

“The fish that you have tattooed immediately above your right wrist could only have been done in China. I have made a small study of tattoo marks and have even contributed to the literature of the subject. That trick of staining the fishes’ scales of a delicate pink is quite peculiar to China. When, in addition, I see a Chinese coin hanging from your watch-chain, the matter becomes even more simple.”

Mr. Jabez Wilson laughed heavily. “Well, I never!” said he. “I thought at first that you had done something clever, but I see that there was nothing in it after all.”

“I begin to think, Watson,” said Holmes, “that I make a mistake in explaining. ‘Omne ignotum pro magnifico,’ you know, and my poor little reputation, such as it is, will suffer shipwreck if I am so candid.”

3. Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

Read it here

If ever there were a short story to reflect the gender tensions of modern American society, it’s Metamorphosis. Kafka himself struggled with ill-health and that challenge his masculine identity overshadows this surreal vision.

Within the first few paragraphs, you will question what you are reading and why you should continue.

Continue.

His stories mean more when you finish them and absorb the entire story like an impressionist painting at a distance.

Excerpt from Metamorphosis:

Gregor hardly slept at all, either night or day. Sometimes he would think of taking over the family’s affairs, just like before, the next time the door was opened; he had long forgotten about his boss and the chief clerk, but they would appear again in his thoughts, the salesmen and the apprentices, that stupid teaboy, two or three friends from other businesses, one of the chambermaids from a provincial hotel, a tender memory that appeared and disappeared again, a cashier from a hat shop for whom his attention had been serious but too slow, – all of them appeared to him, mixed together with strangers and others he had forgotten, but instead of helping him and his family they were all of them inaccessible, and he was glad when they disappeared. Other times he was not at all in the mood to look after his family, he was filled with simple rage about the lack of attention he was shown, and although he could think of nothing he would have wanted, he made plans of how he could get into the pantry where he could take all the things he was entitled to, even if he was not hungry.

4. Desiree’s Baby by Kate Chopin

Read it here

A reminder of how far we have not yet come, this story dwells on the concept of race. The titular character, Desiree, is an orphan who is suspected to possibly have black ancestry. It isn’t much discussed during her life.

After she marries, her dark-skinned baby causes her husband to leave her.

That conflict, and its social implications, will leave you considering the weaker arguments of white nationalism.

Excerpt from Desiree’s Baby:

It was no wonder, when she stood one day against the stone pillar in whose shadow she had lain asleep, eighteen years before, that Armand Aubigny riding by and seeing her there, had fallen in love with her. That was the way all the Aubignys fell in love, as if struck by a pistol shot. The wonder was that he had not loved her before; for he had known her since his father brought him home from Paris, a boy of eight, after his mother died there. The passion that awoke in him that day, when he saw her at the gate, swept along like an avalanche, or like a prairie fire, or like anything that drives headlong over all obstacles.

5. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce

Read it here

You don’t need to be a Civil War wonk to enjoy this tale from Ambrose Bierce. Immediately, you can see how the narrative influences modern storytelling with a non-linear plot and twist ending.

And if you don’t read it, Kurt Vonnegut thinks you’re a twerp.

Excerpt from An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge:

The man who was engaged in being hanged was apparently about thirty-five years of age. He was a civilian, if one might judge from his habit, which was that of a planter. His features were good—a straight nose, firm mouth, broad forehead, from which his long, dark hair was combed straight back, falling behind his ears to the collar of his well fitting frock coat. He wore a moustache and pointed beard, but no whiskers; his eyes were large and dark gray, and had a kindly expression which one would hardly have expected in one whose neck was in the hemp. Evidently this was no vulgar assassin. The liberal military code makes provision for hanging many kinds of persons, and gentlemen are not excluded.

6. Fundevogel by The Brothers Grimm

Read it here

Based on an interesting plot known as a “Transformation Chase,” this fairytale details love between adopted siblings. You’ll find yourself reviewing and trying to decode the symbolism.

Reading this tale puts other Grimm stories in an interesting context.

Excerpt from Fundevogel:

Then Lina said to Fundevogel: ‘If you will never leave me, I too will never leave you.’ Fundevogel said: ‘Neither now, nor ever will I leave you.’

7. Thank You, Ma’am by Langston Hughes

Read it here

The mercy of strangers is a rarity in our society. More so, a societal responsibility to raise our youth as a village has altogether disappeared.

This story reminds me of something I’ve never really seen.

It’s a tome of morals past.

Excerpt from Thank You, Ma’am:

Sweat popped out on the boy’s face and he began to struggle. Mrs. Jones stopped, jerked him around in front of her, put a half-nelson about his neck, and continued to drag him up the street.

When she got to her door, she dragged the boy inside, down a hall, and into a large kitchenette furnished room at the rear of the house. She switched on the light and left the door open. The boy could hear other roomers laughing and talking in the large house. Some of their doors were open, too, so he knew he and the woman were not alone. The woman still had him by the neck in the middle of her room.

 

8. Everyday Use by Alice Walker

Read it here

A culture clash starts this story as the prodigal daughter returns home. If you have every stormed off from a people and place, only to return more “worldly-wise” this recollection will humble you.

The story is narrated in first person by the mother of two daughters. She lives with the younger and they are waiting for the eldest to return.

And when she does, the scene really begins.

Excerpt from Everyday Use:

You’ve no doubt seen those TV shows where the child who has “made it” is confronted, as a surprise, by her own mother and father, tottering in weakly from backstage. (A pleasant surprise, of course: What would they do if parent and child came on the show only to curse out and insult each other?) On TV mother and child embrace and smile into each other’s faces. Sometimes the mother and father weep, the child wraps them in her arms and leans across the table to tell how she would not have made it without their help. I have seen these programs.

9. The Gold-Bug by Edgar Allen Poe

Read it here

While Poe may be better known for his tales of angst, he actually coined many fun adventures and mysteries. This one is a treasure hunt.

The mystery includes cryptograms and secret writing, making them popular devices in modern literature.

Excerpt from The Gold-Bug:

Driving a peg, with great nicety, into the ground, at the precise spot where the beetle fell, my friend now produced from his pocket a tape measure. Fastening one end of this at that point of the trunk, of the tree which was nearest the peg, he unrolled it till it reached the peg, and thence farther unrolled it, in the direction already established by the two points of the tree and the peg, for the distance of fifty feet—Jupiter clearing away the brambles with the scythe. At the spot thus attained a second peg was driven, and about this, as a centre, a rude circle, about four feet in diameter, described. Taking now a spade himself, and giving one to Jupiter and one to me, Legrand begged us to set about digging as quickly as possible.

10. The Birth-Mark by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Read it here

In this story, the main character becomes obsessed with removing his wife’s birthmark. She is otherwise beautiful – nearly perfect.

The dynamic of their relationship, and the overblown role of a tiny flaw, mirror the dystopia that we currently experience through thoroughly modern, mind-bending management of social media personas

Excerpt from The Birth-Mark:

Had she been less beautiful,—if Envy’s self could have found aught else to sneer at,—he might have felt his affection heightened by the prettiness of this mimic hand, now vaguely portrayed, now lost, now stealing forth again and glimmering to and fro with every pulse of emotion that throbbed within her heart; but seeing her otherwise so perfect, he found this one defect grow more and more intolerable with every moment of their united lives. It was the fatal flaw of humanity which Nature, in one shape or another, stamps ineffaceably on all her productions, either to imply that they are temporary and finite, or that their perfection must be wrought by toil and pain. The crimson hand expressed the ineludible gripe in which mortality clutches the highest and purest of earthly mould, degrading them into kindred with the lowest, and even with the very brutes, like whom their visible frames return to dust. In this manner, selecting it as the symbol of his wife’s liability to sin, sorrow, decay, and death, Aylmer’s sombre imagination was not long in rendering the birthmark a frightful object, causing him more trouble and horror than ever Georgiana’s beauty, whether of soul or sense, had given him delight.

Share Your Favorites

I’d like to know your favorite short stories. Tell me which ones you most enjoyed reading, either from the above list or something that you found.

Join the conversation on my facebook page.

The Reason Women Revolted

Broken teacup watercolor

Amid reports of Kirsten Dunst’s next project, directing The Bell Jar, the story has regained relevance. Most of The Bell Jar by Silvia Plath examines with the question of socially acceptable identity and the pressures on a mid-century American woman, echoing current gender role tensions. The main character, Esther Greenwood, begins The Bell Jar by explaining, “I was supposed to be having the time of my life,” contrasting her own feelings with societal expectations. These pressures are revealed early in Esther’s story, climaxing in her breakdown.

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Teacup Watercolor, Verderamade

Esther was supposed to be notable. She won an internship with a New York magazine at the beginning of the story. Although she was included in a feature, the end of the experience was anti-climactic. Upon completion, Esther mourns that her experience in New York didn’t turn into something more.

Esther was supposed to be stylish. She was surrounded by beautiful women with a passion for fashion. Esther appeared to be a careful consumer but, the pressure of keeping up her appearance fatigues her after a while.

This can be seen at the very beginning, “I was supposed to be the envy of thousands of other college girls just like me all over America who wanted nothing more than to be tripping about in those same size seven patent leather shoes I’d bought in Bloomingdale’s one lunch hour with a black patent leather belt and black patent leather pocketbook to match.”

Esther was supposed to be happy. Upper middle-class and presented with great opportunities, Esther experiences guilt for feeling empty. Her mania builds from a desire to correct discontentment. Her peers and parents condemn her as both unbalanced and ungrateful.

The end of the story is unsettling, as her fate is still being determined. She is “analyzed” and may possibly be sent out in the world, supposedly cured. However, if one applies Plath’s real-life conclusion as an epilogue of Esther’s story, the ending takes on a tone of hopelessness. The institution boxed her into a role, “recovered”.

Do you ever get stuck focusing on what you’re “supposed” to be?

Upon reading this often-referenced, near-memoir, I endeavored to seek out universal meaning of The Bell Jar beyond the teen angst punchline. This is not a story about a weak woman, a torn person, or a thinly-veiled autobiography of an addled author. It’s a screech in the darkness, a song with no words. Plath picks at the question, “Why does society get to decide who young women are supposed to become?”

Appearance Is Reality

Chronicling a period in Esther’s life, starting with an internship at a women’s magazine, moving through an agitated summer where she unsuccessfully attempts to draft a novel, and ending with a phase of outdated psychiatric treatments, the book takes on serious subject matter with the flippancy of modern journalism.

The descriptive colors, tastes and scents of the story, leave me with the same impression as watching Gidget or something with Frankie Avalon singing exposition. The only difference is that this story is frustrated by the Technicolor emptiness behind the drama. Basically, it makes the reader sit there and think, “Even killing yourself really doesn’t stir things up.” She’s tired of being watched, judged. She’s not tired of failing expectations so much as tired of people putting expectations on her. All of these components create the metaphorical titular terrarium, under which she feels trapped, “in sour air” of paranoia.

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Women Must Procreate When They’re Young

After years of being scolded by hypocritical pastors, listening to health advice from unhealthy doctors, and tolerating unsolicited opinions from dysfunctional adults, I have developed an interest in stories that focus on shared delusions.

In modern American culture, there are still people that consider me selfish and wrong to delay procreating. It’s the big picture that bothers me… the fact that people think they may assert control over another person’s decisions. Esther sums this up in her meeting with her first, entirely inept doctor, ““What did I think was wrong? That made it sound as if nothing was really wrong, I only thought it was wrong.”

Dysfunction is Limited to One

One of the themes in Girl, Interrupted by Susana Kaysen, questions whether institutionalized individuals are the only dysfunctional component of a family. In that memoir, it becomes clear that Kaysen’s mother, may have even more of a personality disorder. However, Kaysen’s mother has the social power, allowing her to force the main character into therapy. Kayson proposes that dysfunction groups of people, but the “weakest”, compliant individual who enters treatment.

Similarly, I have often found, when confronted with a group of dysfunctional people, one who does not accept the lie will be seen as a threat. This is revealed in phrases like, “You haven’t been around long enough…” or, “All of us agreed…” with the false reality supported by stories about situations. Often, these tales started with some truth, or at least the perception of it. But, the extrapolations extend beyond the actual applications. People divulge and withhold information based on their own agendas. Those who refuse to admit it, are terrifying to the dysfunctional group.

The cycle repeats as people with their own massive problems will attempt to control others in an effort to keep their made-up world from crumbling. This ranges from small-scale social bullying to nefarious political agendas. Sometimes, the sheer presence of someone who raises an eyebrow at a mutual, agreed upon lie– made up in an effort to manipulate outcomes– puts the untruthful party on the attack.

And then more lies follow–lies about the eye-brow-raiser– who “obviously doesn’t understand, never could, and should be put in place” before they disrupt the false order of a micro-universe. And although one can assure them, “I have no interest in your drama,” they will seek to discredit and destroy, lest we see the mold on the gingerbread house.

This is why women revolted in the last century. That’s why we will never dismiss Plath or her work.

Are you excited about the upcoming film?

All Belle Breaks Loose

Ariel mermaid painting

“Feminism is all about giving women choice. Feminism is not a stick with which to beat other women with. It’s about freedom. It’s about liberation. It’s about equality. And I really don’t know what my tits have to do with it,” responded Emma Watson in an interview about her Vanity Fair cover.

In a not-surprising but, still-disappointing reaction, the internet pinned an H for hypocrite on Watson during her promotion of the live action Beauty and the Beast remake when she posed in a revealing, high-fashion top. Her feminist path, and the re-inventive path of the film, presented a juxtaposition that feminists, literati, film critics, and conservatives all struggled to compartmentalize from social context. This post explores the dynamics and discussion that have followed this fairytale remake.

Disney Princesses in 2017

To see if Disney Princesses can work in our world, I gave them all modern careers. Details on each at the bottom of the post.

Watson’s Awakening

Watson has bloomed into an enigma, defying stereotypes in the best way, yet struggling to garner widespread approval. First, she shot to stardom with her screen-stealing portrayal of the precocious Hermione. Then, she quietly pursued a college degree with nary a scandal. From there, Watson has gracefully stepped into a role as feminist spokesperson, beginning with her presentation to the United Nations several years ago.

Yet, Watson seems plagued by an inability to present with the typical starlet catastrophes. Instead, she focused on creative projects with nary a crash or burnout in sight. This un-called-for diligence and humanity, probably resulting from decent parenting, makes her a troll-able target. Thus, the Beauty and the Beast film, and subsequently Watson, became subject to critique.

To some, she presents a conundrum. She’s progressive and liberal. Yet, partnered with Disney project that hearkens back to anti-progressive tropes that this remake has tried to reinterpret for a modern audience. Throughout promotion, critics have questions what Watson is doing in the film. Watson herself has reviewed the role of the fairytales in our modern culture. The public, in general, seemed generally underwhelmed by both the film and its surrounding controversy. In fact, some bloggers seemed perplexed at the homophobic hype. So, I found myself asking, “Why did all Belle break loose?”

Original Synopsis

Although each incarnation of this “tale as old as time” attempts to ground the narrative within the current cultural climate, Belle’s journey is problematic for modern viewers. In the original story, a widower merchant raises his six children in a life of luxury. The most beloved daughter, Belle is both the most kind and the most beautiful. These recurring traits present in most European princess stories and typically dominate both the themes and story arcs.

Later, unfortunate circumstances send the merchant home from a business trip with no money, and the family’s lifestyle lessens with time. However, when the merchant finds that his fortune may be recovered, all of his children, except Belle, make lavish requests. Belle requests a single, perfect rose. This request is symbolic for her own purity and beauty.

However, the merchant’s journey is fruitless. He returns home during a storm, seeking shelter in a palace. The home of the titular Beast, the merchant finds inside both coldness and wealth. Disguised, the beast offers, shelter, comfort, and gifts. However, the merchant oversteps and steals the most perfect rose he can find in the Beast’s garden.

This results in a confrontation, wherein, the merchant opts to trade one of his daughters as a wife for the beast in return for the mistake.

When the merchant relays his plight to his children, Belle volunteers to pay her father’s debt and moves into captivity with the beast. From there, the story follows the general relationship arc seen in the modern versions. The Beast starts with aggressive, crass tactics to win over Belle. Then, they eventually form a bond that leads to a deeper relationship.

The original synopsis contains several elements common to princess stories that have questionably returned in the Disney retellings. First, beauty, kindness, submissiveness, and youth are all paramount traits in a fairytale woman. In fact, I have only read one fairytale (The Twelve Dancing Princesses) where the leading man has intentionally chosen the eldest as his mate. Second, daughters are used as tools to barter debts, restore a family’s name, or raise in social class. This is why the stories must often start with a tragic backstory to create the initial conflict. Third, princesses function as ambassadors of comfort, wonder, and beauty. In difficult situations, they make homes, attract magic or magical creatures, grow gardens, and raise attractive offspring. Therefore, the stories often end with a “happily ever after,” signaling that turbulence has been transformed to peace through love, marriage, and homemaking.

The Problem with Princesses

“Everything’s a story – You are a story – I am a story.”

― Frances Hodgson Burnett, A Little Princess

Capitalizing on our nostalgia, Disney (and other clever studios) are going to continue making fairytale films, live-action or otherwise. And critics will continue to voice skepticism. Yes, the stories have stood the test of time because they communicate universal truths about the human condition. Yes, the plots and many of the themes are oddly rooted in the conventions of the feudal system. No, we don’t need to crap on everything you loved from your childhood. No, we don’t need to just accept something because of tradition.

You see, the problem with fairytales is a problem with princesses as an archetype without modern analog. Currently, our political princesses have not lived fairytale lives. Some are generationally royal, and a few are social-climbers. They fill a political role and function like businesswomen and politicians. The required traits of a modern princess don’t align with the beauty, virginity, and submissiveness valued in the old tales.

Additionally, those traits also don’t lead to success, or even necessarily contentment, in the modern world. Yet, the stories we tell children, and the stories we cling to as young people, shape our view of the world, ourselves, and the future. Wishing for a fairytale ending? Now, that’s wishing for disaster.

The Stories We Need

As a child, I absorbed both the Disney tales and the historical versions. I relished the fantasy and found myself identifying with aspects of the characters. I wanted to be like them, beautiful, kind, loveable, and valued. I wanted to achieve a place in the world, like those heroines build by the end of each book.

But as I matured, those were not the stories I needed. By kindergarten, I needed to identify with the (petite) Luke Skywalker’s battle against the odds. In middle school, I appreciated the pluck of Amelia Earhart, even with her controversial (excluded from history books) relationships. In high school, I journeyed with Samwise Gamgee as he exhibited the courage of servant leadership. In college, I listened as Marya Hornbacher of Wasted told me I was allowed to take up space in the world. I watched as Betty Suarez of Ugly Betty, Camile Saroyan of Bones, and Echo of Dollhouse navigated male-dominated social structures. Each day, I found myself referencing Moses’ path to leadership or Gladys Aylward’s lifetime of sacrifice.

Later, when I found myself choosing a partner for life, I didn’t reference a Disney story. I considered the toxicity of Riley, Angel, Xander, and Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I weighed the dynamic of Clementine and Joel in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I listened to Regina Spektor as she sang Us. I considered Sylvia Plath as she asserted, “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart: I am, I am, I am.”

Defining my place in the world, so infrequently references the lessons from the Grim brother or Hans Christian Anderson. Instead, I need stories whose value, as humans, is not based in their loveliness or purity, but the actions they take to make the world a better place. As a Christian, I believe this means furthering the Gospel. In our society, I think we can benefit from a mutual care and respect for our fellow humans, even when they are imperfect or damaged.

All Girls are Princesses

I stand by Sarah in A Little Princess as she explains, “I am a princess. All girls are. Even if they live in tiny old attics. Even if they dress in rags, even if they aren’t pretty, or smart, or young. They’re still princesses.” In Sarah’s story, she begins boarding schools as the indulged child of a British officer. With time, she earns a reputation for being dreamy and charming. Later, her fortunes change as her father is reported dead, flipping her from the wealthiest student with the best room to the maid of the school living in the attic.

After the tragedy, the headmistress acts particularly cruel toward Sarah, from lingering jealousy and resentment. Even still, Sarah acts with dignity and treats others with respect. Although, at first, one would assume her princess persona was tied to her wealthy, the reader discovers her wonder and dignity are internalized values that she manifests through her actions in all circumstances. She explains, “Whatever comes cannot alter one thing. If I am a princess in rags and tatters, I can be a princess inside. It would be easy to be a princess if I were dressed in cloth of gold, but it is a great deal more of a triumph to be one all the time when no one knows it.”

Which leads to the conclusion: If all of us are princesses, then actually, none of us are princesses. We all have equal value and it is our daily actions, not our titles, mates, or appearances, that define us. This understanding allows us to fit fairytales back into their natural place. At their best, fairytales explore admirable character traits such as humility, courage, or optimism. However, at times, their original settings warp deeper messages.

My Princess Project

As I considered whether the classic princesses can be the stories that we need, I reimagined them for the year 2017. With their traits and backgrounds, what would each of these young women do in our world? Below are my suggestions.

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Snow White, Health and Safety Inspector

During her time living with the little people, Snow White’s eyes were opened to the necessity of oversight and regulation in the energy industry. This led her to a career in health and safety inspecting, to ensure the well-being of workers.

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Jasmine, Travel Journalist

Once she left the Sultan’s palace, Jasmine caught the travel bug. Immersing herself in the stories of the people that populate small towns, she finds herself documenting the world, one article at a time.

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Ariel, eCommerce Photographer

As an avid junk collector, Ariel took her hobby to the next level by joining forces with a global eCommerce antiquing platform. Her propensity for exploring the provenance of items has led her to become the chief photographer for the website.

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Tiana, Headhunter for Business Incubator

After trials in trying to start a restaurant, Tiana connected with a progressive business incubator. She travels the country, meeting with aspiring entrepreneurs to prepare them for their business pitches.

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Cinderella, Adoption Coordinator

Her disrupted life as an orphan, and deep connection with animals, led Cinderella to join forces with the local humane society. As the adoption coordinator, she reviews applications and homes animals to ensure appropriate placement.

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Mulan, Campaign Manager

After retiring from her successful military career, Mulan became engaged several female political candiates that advocate for women’s rights. Her experiences help shape their campaign messages to support working women, as a necessary cornerstone of modern society.

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Belle, Social Worker

Her dysfunctional relationship with her family of origin exposed Belle to the need for safe havens and intervention. As a social worker, specializing in cases of human trafficking, Belle supports and advocates for the rights of her clients.

 

What do you think of my princess project? Sound off in the comments.

 

 

 

Welcome (Back) to “The Jungle”

Upton Sinclair The Jungle

Business regulation, food or otherwise is currently a hot topic, with literary origins. Often, when politicians talk about deregulation, they are referencing a time after the industrial revolution but, before current policies. Simultaneously, whenever people become aware of their consumption habits, questions about factory conditions. Within this history, the novel The Jungle by Upton Sinclair holds a position of infamy.

The contrast between the intention of the author and the reaction of to his novel, inspired me to read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. I had first heard of the tome during an American history lesson for its contribution to food safety regulations. During Sinclair’s time, critics dismissed the author as a sensationalist. However, public outcry after the novel’s publishing fueled food regulations shortly after the Great Depression in America.

Uncomfortable Questions

Upton Sinclair quote from The JungleInside the reader discovers squeamish sentences such as, “…and as for the other men, who worked in tank rooms full of steam, and in some of which there were open vats near the level of the floor, their peculiar trouble was that they fell into the vats; and when they were fished out, there was never enough of them left to be worth exhibiting,—sometimes they would be overlooked for days, till all but the bones of them had gone out to the world as Durham’s Pure Leaf Lard!” The Happy Meal experiment pales  in comparison to these assertions.

“I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach,” Upton Sinclair said in an interview with Cosmopolitan Magazine about The Jungle, 1906. Although the conditions of the meat packing facility are secondary to the drama of the main character’s trials, they became the focus after the novel was published. In reality, the novel is a melodrama detailing the underbelly of European immigration to America around the turn of the century. All of the characters meet horrible fates, notably including:

  • Dying in childbirth
  • Working as prostitutes
  • Sleeping on the streets
  • Being eaten to death by rats

Synopsis

The story begins with the main character, Jurgis, arriving in America with his young wife and extended family. They are tired, unskilled, and hopeful. Soon, they fall prey to Chicago’s harsh meat-packing district. Corruption and greed controls the city. Jurgis naively fights against it for most of the tale. Eventually, he caves in to the corruption as his family falls apart. His morality must be sacrificed for the sake of survival. His trials include:

  • The meat-packing factory
  • Prison
  • Theft
  • Becoming a hobo
  • Joining the graft
  • Working for the union
  • Turning on the union
  • Working as a con artist
  • Begging
  • Day labor

It is in the socialist movement that Jurgis finds his passion for work and life again, although he still mourns his dead wife and children. At this point, the story concludes with a hopeful and determined protagonist.

Fear and Food Safety

These rats were nuisances, and the packers would put poisoned bread out for them; they would die, and then rats, bread, and meat would go into the hoppers together. This is no fairy story and no joke; the meat would be shoveled into carts, and the man who did the shoveling would not trouble to lift out a rat even when he saw one—there were things that went into the sausage in comparison with which a poisoned rat was a tidbit.
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

Even though Jurgis does not spend the entire book working with meat, it remains the most jarring and referenced part of the story. The inhumanity of slaughtering animals, grinding up all their parts, and mixing toxic chemicals into the food of unsuspecting consumers is bleak. Also, food safety concerned privileged members of society. Even the elite need to eat. In an era of minimal oversight, pure capitalism devolved into nauseating greed.

“In 1904, Sinclair spent seven weeks in disguise, working undercover in Chicago’s meatpacking plants to research his political fiction exposé, The Jungle,” Wikipedia states. Contaminated food scandals are familiar to a modern reader. However, during the late 1800s, people assumed that their food was clean and safe, without added chemicals. In our generation, people can rightly assume that much of their food has been processed. Wikipedia notes that the novel, “…exposed conditions in the U.S. meat packing industry, causing a public uproar that contributed in part to the passage a few months later of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act.”

Quality of Life

As the story progresses, many of the main characters perish. Interestingly, the family traded a simple, healthy existence for a competitive life.  Previously, they lived in a rural locale and worked with their hands. However, in coming to America, they found a situation that perpetuates poverty with a lower quality of life. At first, the family falls prey to ignorance, as big businesses and unscrupulous people take advantage of their naivety. Later, Jurgis understands that those same people act unethically for their own survival. As the story continues, the family finds that their simplicity and hardworking attitudes will not help them survive.

Other immigrants try to explain the phenomenon to the newcomers. Basically, the companies wear employees out. Then, hurt and unable to work, each employee succumbs to homelessness. Indeed, Jurgis’ family does fairly well until they start to one-by-one become injured by dangerous working conditions. The danger of living in America is contrasted by the situation in Lithuania.

Their children were not as well as they had been at home; but how could they know that there was no sewer to their house, and that the drainage of fifteen years was in a cesspool under it? How could they know that the pale-blue milk that they bought around the corner was watered, and doctored with formaldehyde besides? When the children were not well at home, Teta Elzbieta would gather herbs and cure them; now she was obliged to go to the drugstore and buy extracts—and how was she to know that they were all adulterated? How could they find out that their tea and coffee, their sugar and flour, had been doctored; that their canned peas had been colored with copper salts, and their fruit jams with aniline dyes? And even if they had known it, what good would it have done them, since there was no place within miles of them where any other sort was to be had?
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

The lack of social programs compounds the issue as workplace injuries result in debt, prison, or death.

Chaos and Calamity

Throughout the story, Jurgis finds himself unable to cope when he is hurt or abused. He is continually falling prey to dangerous and difficult circumstances. Occasionally, a employees would disappear and people would wonder about their fate.

It was said by the boss at Durham’s that he had gotten his week’s money and left there. That might not be true, of course, for sometimes they would say that when a man had been killed; it was the easiest way out of it for all concerned. When, for instance, a man had fallen into one of the rendering tanks and had been made into pure leaf lard and peerless fertilizer, there was no use letting the fact out and making his family unhappy.

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

As the people are treated like animals, they begin to act like animals. Jurgis finds himself moving from a muscular, ethical family man to a scrawny creature that leaves his extended family to starve. The main woe of the book is that Jurgis is not unique. All of the meat workers behave like this, leading to larger social problems.

They lodged men and women on the same floor; and with the night there began a Saturnalia of debauchery—scenes such as never before had been witnessed in America. And as the women were the dregs from the brothels of Chicago, and the men were for the most part ignorant country Negroes, the nameless diseases of vice were soon rife; and this where food was being handled which was sent out to every corner of the civilized world.

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

Believing America’s establishment has failed them, the immigrants begin to favor the new socialist movement. Jurgis, seeing how he has been ruined by the New World, begins to dream of a different life. The story ends on a positive note, as Jurgis bonds with fellow socialists and tries to resist the injustice around him.

Deregulation and Class Systems Today

In America,” Drewnowski wrote in an e-mail, “food has become the premier marker of social distinctions, that is to say—social class. It used to be clothing and fashion, but no longer, now that ‘luxury’ has become affordable and available to all.” – Lisa Miller, WHAT FOOD SAYS ABOUT CLASS IN AMERICA, Newsweek

Today, food is still one of the biggest indicators of class divide in America. Those of better means are more likely to have access to, and knowledge about, better food. Conversely, food deserts separate low income communities from healthy options. Starting with Paltrow’s SNAP gaffe a few years ago, several journalists experimented with living on food stamps or trying to stick to small food budgets. While talking heads debate whether it is possible to eat healthy on a low income, we can all agree that it is difficult. Eating healthy takes energy, knowledge, money, and time.

Personally, I believe the ability to make changes in this area is one of the distinctions between being broke versus being poor. Broke people have a way out of food deserts. Poor people cannot leave. For example, I started my adult life as low income with entry level pay and student debt. However, I was college-educated, growing in in my ability to earn, and knew that I would eventually have better access to healthy options. Even while I was technically living on the poverty line, I  wasn’t systematically poor . This is why I have never classified myself poor even when I didn’t have much money.

From those experiences, I have started to understand that essential priorities often compete with other essential priorities. That strain, over a lifetime, becomes exhausting.

Below are food insecurity areas that need greater awareness for change:

  • Limited resources and lack of access to healthy, affordable foods
  • Cycles of Food Deprivation and Overeating
  • High Levels of Stress, Anxiety, and Depression
  • Fewer Opportunities for Physical Activity
  • Greater Exposure to Marketing of Obesity-Promoting Products
  • Limited Access to Health Care

Because of our current climate of deregulation and recent push for smaller government, The Jungle maintains some relevance. Certainly, Sinclair’s style is alarmist. However, the story relates to modern discussion about food, work, and class in America. The emotions of Jurgis’ struggle mirror the emotions of modern low-income families, especially those trapped in a multi-generational cycle of poverty. The story still uncovers the same questions about our society and why it is structured to place barriers between our citizens and access to healthy food, safe working conditions, and fair wages.

Do you think The Jungle maintains any relevance today?

10 Books that Influenced My Childhood

floral crowns by Danielle Verderame

I was perpetually grief-stricken when I finished a book, and would slide down from my sitting position on the bed, put my cheek on the pillow and sigh for a long time. It seemed there would never be another book. It was all over, the book was dead. It lay in its bent cover by my hand. What was the use? Why bother dragging the weight of my small body down to dinner? Why move? Why breathe? The book had left me, and there was no reason to go on.― Marya Hornbacher, Wasted

Childhood is built through a series of unimportant moments. There were many books that I liked or loved but, this is not a list about them. This is a list of stories that affected me, deeply. Continue reading

Selfish Careers and the Pink Ghetto

Pink Ghetto Pointy Shoes

Every career field needs people with a heart to love and change the world for better. – Sarah Bell, Isn’t Fashion Selfish?

After reading Sarah Bell’s post, Isn’t Fashion Selfish? I was reminded of how the attitudes from the “Pink Ghetto” affect women in all industries. In her post, she talks about criticism for going into the fashion industry. While the point of her post isn’t sexism, I reminded me of some sexist undertones perpetuated by the “Pink Ghetto”. To summarize, women who reject the “Pink Ghetto” are often criticized as selfish because they aren’t traditional caregivers.

Continue reading