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Write Enough Of These Things And You'll Have A Book

Jacquelyn Bengfort

I'm excited to share that I recently received an honorable mention in Easy Street's "Great American Sentence" contest. This result is officially the best I've ever had in any writing contest ever, so suffice it to say I'm jazzed. You can read my sentence, along with the other honorable mentions, finalists, and winners, here.

Now I just need to come up with [x] many more sentences and string them all together in just the right way...

An Arc in 95 Characters

Jacquelyn Bengfort

I write really short fiction. This is probably because the element of writing craft I find most difficult is plot. I think this stems from my personal aversion to conflict, but that's another post for another place (like an entry in a therapy journal or something).

Usually I just try to write and revise and not worry too much about any single aspect of craft. I'm not a "credentialed" writer--I don't hold a degree in creative writing, nor am I in pursuit of one. (That this lack of a degree seems somehow rebellious probably says something important about the American literary scene; I'd rather not get into that.) But sometimes, instead of just mucking about and seeing what happens, I do try to work in a more formal way on the weaknesses I perceive. Other times, though, I find calls for submissions and contests that make writing mostly very short things a strength, and that can be a lot of fun.

Two such recent opportunities came in the form of the Great American Sentence Contest, still in the judging phase, from Easy Street, a new online journal of books and culture, and a call for "Ad Stories" from online flash fiction magazine matchbook.

What are Ad Stories? They are stories that fit the requirements to run in the Google AdWords program: three lines, maximum 25 characters on the first and 35 (spaces included) on the latter two, followed by a link. matchbook has now published three rounds of such stories, which they do in fact run as advertisements, and I was excited to have one my ad stories, "Madeline And The Shark," chosen for Volume 3.

In all I wrote probably half a dozen of these stories, and submitted four. The biggest challenge in a form this unforgivingly brief is finding a way to fit in some sort of traditional narrative arc--some hint of plot--into a character span so short that it can be hard even to write an entire sentence. Still, I figured, trying to do so would both capitalize on my writing-short-things strength while exercising my sad little plotting muscles.

So I wanted to share how I tried to write these tiny stories, while also sharing my three leftovers.

First, the one that's currently live as a potential Google search result: "Madeline And The Shark." If you go to the matchbook website, you'll see that this story does not, in fact, even consist of a complete sentence. It's a title, plus a sentence fragment. This is the last of the Ad Stories I wrote prior to submitting, and it works entirely by implication. Based on what I've given you as the reader, you can make a few assumptions: 1) Madeline was the victim of a shark attack. 2) Madeline survived the attack (because the story is the act of remembering it). 3) Madeline is haunted by the attack (the memory of the attack seems to be sensory and its recall involuntary).

Here are the other three stories I submitted:

While at the time I was just writing, as I do, and striving to meet the technical requirements of the call for submissions, I've enjoyed looking at how each of these functions differently in restrospect.

"From When The Fish Died," for example, is essentially character-driven. You get a snippet of speech here, which is fairly revelatory (I think) of who the speaker is. You get the hint of a scene: at least two people, standing around a toilet, trying unsuccessfully to flush a dead pet. And you're left with a little something extra--while the speaker seems to be saying that either the fish or the silent owner is unlucky, he or she is having to deal with a toilet backup.

"History Lesson," meanwhile, works by massively compressing and simplifying a story that spans millenia: nothing less than the beginning and end of the world, with a single intervening event. Of the four, this was my personal favorite, and bears some similarities to another longer-but-still-very-short story I wrote last year and am working to place. Playing with time and the relative importance or unimportance of human events, plus thinking through the implications of mortality: some of my favorite things to do as a writer.

"Mirror Image" is my least favorite. Like "From When The Fish Died," it's character-driven, but without the speech element, I think we learn a lot less about the "he" in question. The "she" is completely reduced to an object, something to look at (or not). Still, we can get an idea of the relationship between these two people, and predict an unhappy future.

After reading through the other fourteen stories published alongside "Madeline And The Shark" a few times, it's been instructive to go back and more closely examine how other writers rose to the challenge. And looking at them again, I'm struck by how important the titles are, how even the title has to do a good deal of work to set up the story.

So that's my little miniature self-tutelage in writing super-short stories and trying to get them to arc. If you want to seek out "Madeline And The Shark" in the electronic wild, try these search terms: shark, shark attack, feeding frenzy, shark week, shark frenzy, shark sounds. If you do find it, please, take a screenshot and let me know; clicking on it costs money that will run out and cause the story to go into retirement, so try to avoid doing that! And thanks for reading.

East of Eden

Jacquelyn Bengfort

Suicide. Prostitution. Murder. Love. False accents. True wisdom. This is East of Eden by John Steinbeck.

"She's in Heaven," said Aron. "Why would Father tell a lie?"

How I got the book: the Steinbeck Centennial Edition has been on my bookshelf for an embarassingly long time and had not been read until now. Flog away, all ye better readers/human beings.

The writer: John Steinbeck. He probably doesn't really need to be introduced, at least not to anyone who took an English lit course in an American high school in the last several decades, but: a major American writer of the 20th century; wrote numerous bestsellers and won both the Pulitzer and the Nobel Prizes. For more, click through the link above to his Wikipedia page.

The book: it seems like something of a pointless exercise to review East of Eden, a book pretty much universally hailed as a timeless work of art, and so I'll keep this brief.

In short: this is a novel that should not work.

It has too many characters, many of whom are tangential to the main plot (such as it is) or are introduced very late in the story. It has a first-person narrator who is usually invisible to the point that you forget about him and think you're reading something written in the omniscient third, and in fact the narrator seems to be the author himself. It has a few long sections that are completely focused on landscape, and many of the incidents that occur are as lurid as anything you'll find watching a daytime soap--in some cases, a lot, lot worse.

And yet, it does work. Steinbeck pulls all of these loose threads and more into a whole that seems to capture the pointless, doomed, beautiful, necessary nature of life itself. There's a reason this book has been read, re-read, and re-issued, and that reason is pretty darn hard to explain.

In short, again: read it.

Don't be like me and purchase a copy only to let it languish on your bookshelf for years until you are forced to read it by means of an asinine project you've dreamt up for yourself. Don't be put off by the heft of over 600 pages. Just read the dang book.

Next up: WELCOME TO 1962! Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter is the next stop on this ride, and I've already got a copy out from the public library.

The Silver Chalice

Jacquelyn Bengfort

Adoption and slavery. Life in Nero's court. Miracles and magic. This is The Silver Chalice by Thomas B. Costain.

You will never see His eyes. Never, unless you can clear your mind of everything save the desire to see them. You must love Him as we do. When you have that love, He will come out of the darkness and you will see Him as though He stood before you.

How I got the book: Purchased on Amazon.com for Kindle, $7.99. Like My Cousin Rachel, the book appears to have received recent cover upgrades, so I won't be tormenting you with any drawings of what I think the cover should look like.

The writer: Thomas B. Costain. According to Wikipedia, Costain was a journalist who transitioned to bestselling author of historical fiction in his late 50s. And here's an interesting nugget: four of his novels were made into feature films, with The Silver Chalice serving as one Paul Newman's film debut (he played Basil, the main character in the novel).

The book: More tolerable than The Robe; still not my cup of tea. Set in the years of the early Christian church, the novel follows Basil, a boy of low social standing who is adopted by a wealthy, childless man, only to be cheated of his inheritance and thrown back upon his wits and his talents, in particular his skill as a silversmith.

The book features many of Jesus' disciples, as well as Biblical and historical figures like Simon the Magician, Joseph of Arimathea, and the Roman Emperor Nero, all of whom interact with our young hero as he works to craft a reliquary for the cup used at the Last Supper. There's peril; there's romance; there are love potions; there are camels.

There's also what I'd like to here deem the "shaft of light" effect. Let me digress a bit. Several years ago, my husband and I purchased the DVD The Work and the Glory, which concerns the early years of the founding of the Church of Latter Day Saints by Joseph Smith. We aren't Mormon; it just looked like an interesting movie.

And it was an interesting movie. My only issue with the movie, in fact, was the shafts of light that made their appearance toward the end of the film. When anyone knelt down to pray, a shaft of light would break over his or her head. The symbolism was heavy, and it also nearly forced the watcher to take a side--to believe that the person praying was on the right path, that God was present in the moment, that something like a miracle was taking place. In other words, the film lost the veneer of objectivity and began very nearly to preach.

This is my essential problem with books like The Robe and The Silver Chalice. They have such a strong point-of-view that they limit themselves, and it comes down to metaphorical (or often literal) shafts-of-light moments. Incidentally, this same phenomenon did not occur in The Song of Bernadette, and I have to credit the lack of shafts of light in part for the strength of that novel.

That said, and this happens to me a lot, the last paragraph or so of The Silver Chalice was somewhat redemptive, despite following hot behind a shaft-of-light moment. That's because it spoke so beautifully to the historical moment in which the novel was written: 1952, the midst of the Korean War, the world still adjusting rapidly to the new reality of atomic war. I won't spoil it by quoting at length here. Let's just all agree that I'm a sucker for a strong ending, no matter how hard I had to work to get to it.

A few other notes on the novel:

-Gender dynamics in this book are pretty mad. There's a clear virgin/whore split between the few female characters who appear and I'm almost positive that it fails the Bechdel test (in fact I can only recall one conversation between women at all, and it concerned seduction tactics). There are also beautifully obtuse lines like "[t]he girl had supped with him; lightly, for she was mindful of the danger to the feminine figure in rich food" and "[s]even of them are girls, which is a tragedy." I also learned the phrase "hymeneal lamps." It's difficult to say how much of the weirdness can be attributed to early A.D. Roman Empire simulation and how much can be attributed to early 1950s America sexual attitudes.
-Camel-singing may be a thing; camels may not have the same standard humans have regarding human voices, though. And Costain was a sucker for dropping in other little informational tidbits, like the fact that sorbitio is a barley water considered cooling or that leaves of salsola have a salty flavor or that a rakhala is a concave saddle used on a camel. -There's a short but wild bit when the effects of cannabis use (in a paste form) are described. A banker takes a bit to "[restore] all of [his] powers at once" (basically, as an upper). It seemed...incongruous? Anyway, it got me interested in looking into attitudes about marijuana use in America over the course of history, which led me to this timeline.

Next up is John Steinbeck’s classic East of Eden, the last of the bestsellers from 1952. I've been promised by a friend that I'm in for a treat, so stay tuned as I continue to slowly make my way through 50 years of New York Times #1 bestselling fiction.

My Cousin Rachel

Jacquelyn Bengfort

Cornwall. Love (or lust? or hate?). An unreliable narrator. This is My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier.

I looked on her in profile. She was always a stranger, thus...But full-face, when she smiled, a stranger never. The Rachel that I knew, that I had loved.

How I got the book: The DC Public Library. The copy I received was a 2009 reprint of the book, originally published in 1951. Thus I feel no compunction to remake the cover to suit a contemporary audience--numerous covers for numerous recent editions exist. Mine had a moody picture of an English manor home on the cover, which I think was wise--many feature a woman, and given the importance of Rachel’s appearance in the story, I think it is better to leave her wholly to the imagination.

The writer: Daphne du Maurier. I’ve long been a fan, having read her most famous novel, Rebecca, on at least two occasions over the years. Strangely, I never realized she had written other books, when in fact she was seventeen novels and a clutch of nonfiction books. (Full disclosure: I shrieked a little in excitement when I got to the list for 1952 and saw her name there. And I’m equally excited to read her again for 1962.)

The book: A gloomy, moody, claustrophobic first-person tale of passion and mystery. Unlike the last book I read for this project, the plot is very straightforward and holds, I would argue, only a few key surprises. All the tension here comes from our limited point-of-view, specifically that of Philip Ashley, sole heir of his cousin/guardian Ambrose, whose death abroad leaves Philip the head of a rich Cornwall estate while leaving Ambrose’s recently-taken wife, the distant cousin Rachel of the title, unaccounted for in his unchanged will.

Philip suspects Rachel is implicated in the death of his beloved guardian, but when she arrives at his home in Cornwall he quickly changes his mind, not only accepting her as family but coming to long for the older woman to become his own. His naivete, his limited access to information, his inability to consult with the deceased Ambrose about the circumstances of the latter’s death, his quashed suspicisions that begin once again to grow--these are the stuffs of du Maurier’s novel, and she deploys them to devastating effect.

To say much more would be to rob other readers of the enjoyment of this novel. Some may find it a bit slow, though I did not mind lingering in Philip’s troubled mind. In the project, this book proved the first unqualified delight, and I look forward to reading more of du Maurier’s novels.

Next up is The Silver Chalice by Thomas B. Costain. Since this book is, it seems, mostly highly recommended by fans of The Robe, I’m anticipating a slog. But I’ll be rewarded with John Steinbeck’s classic East of Eden afterwards, so that’s some motivation. Until then, read on!

Drivin' Woman

Jacquelyn Bengfort

Meet America. And her sisters, Palestine, Arabia, and Andorra. This is Drivin’ Woman by Elizabeth Pickett Chevalier.

She was about to call out again, when she saw approaching around the parlor chimney, a weather-beaten Confederate soldier. He was perhaps thirty years old. Even in rags he was the handsomeest man America had ever seen.

How I got the book: Purchased from a used bookseller via Biblio.com. I got a nondescript hardcover edition from The MacMillan Company, which gave away none the book’s secrets--just the title and author’s last name. It came complete with a lovely bookplate on the page facing the inside front cover: a domestic scene of reading before a roaring fire, the original owners’ names in ink, and a quote, “Old wood to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to trust, old books to read,” attributed to Alonzo of Aragon.

The writer: Elizabeth Pickett Chevalier. Click on her name to read the brief Wikipedia entry. Drivin’ Woman was her first novel, though she’d been writing for the movie industry for over two decades when it was published and subsequently promoted as book similar to Gone with the Wind.

The book: Ok, so I’ll give Chevalier this much credit: the lady knew how to turn a plot, and she was not scared to give it a twist any time her main character begins to get a little comfortable. The book centers on America Moncure, who at the time of the novel’s opening in spring 1865 is pondering whether she can restore her family’s Virginia plantation in time to secure advantageous marriages for herself (teetering on the brink of spinsterhood at eighteen) and her sisters, teenaged Palestine, nine-year-old Arabia, and little Andorra, aged four.

She figures she has two years, “if she was not to break the family tradition that Collier women married before they were twenty.”

And by the end of the first chapter, all hopes of achieving that dream are dashed, though some measure of peace is restored to the Moncure girls and their mother and the few remaining former slaves in Chapter 2 by the return of an unlooked-for family member.

And so it goes. The novel ends in 1911, following America all the while (with often-inelegant switches of point-of-view that will drive readers with an eye for writing craft just a little bonkers) and on occasion a man of her acquaintance, Tugger Blake. What begins as a post-Civil-War novel somehow transforms into a labor-and-tobacco novel somewhere along the way.

I can’t say I exactly enjoyed this one. Especially in the early pages, the perspective taken of the Black characters who populate the edges of the story can make it truly painful to read, though the nasty racial commentary does fade out as you continue through the story. (It never completely disappears, though. There’s a blatant blackface incident painted almost as heroism almost three-quarters of the way into the book, and it’s not until page 602 of 652 that America concedes inside her own head that slavery may have been wrong and possibly evil.) It was difficult for me to read a protagonist with whom I so fundamentally disagreed, when the text betrayed no indication that she might be, to say the least, wrong-headed on this point. We are meant to be unshakably in America’s corner, but Chevalier makes that hard.

On the other hand, the later pages go into great detail about the tobacco trade at the turn of the century, and this part of the book proved especially fascinating to me.

And, like I already said, the plot twists aren’t exactly masterful but they are entertaining. My poor husband got to hear all about it: and you wouldn’t believe what happened next. Despite what I consider serious flaws in the novel, I can see why people in 1942 might have been reading it--especially caught as they were in the midst of their own war and uncertain of what will come when it finally ends.

Next up is My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier. When I saw this author’s name on the 1952 list, I was immediately excited, her famous Rebecca being an old favorite of mine. And I wasn’t disappointed. Stay tuned!

The Song of Bernadette

Jacquelyn Bengfort

Trying to recreate a review tragically lost during my recent website transfer. This is The Song of Bernadette by Franz Werfel.

When distances between men are shortened and their wealth of words increased, then will superstition, fanaticism, war, and tyranny disappear and it may be that the next generation or, at latest, the next century will witness the coming of the Golden Age…

Before I jump into the review, I want to apologize for the long break between posts. I actually already wrote a review of The Song of Bernadette, but I transferred my website and it was one of the posts that I lost (actually the only one I’m certain I lost). And I’ve yet to go back and manually add the photos that used to accompany the majority of my posts. I’ve actually read two more books for the project, but I’ve held off on those reviews until I could try to get something together for this book, which was actually great and deserves to be reviewed.

How I got the book: Purchased from a used bookseller via Biblio.com. I got the unabridged, softcover Pocket Book edition, complete with the original owner’s name and address penned on the inside front cover. I love used books. I wonder what Mildred on Cliff Street made of the story.

The writer: Franz Werfel. Click on his name to read the full Wikipedia article. Werfel, a Jewish writer born in Prague, was fleeing from the Nazis in 1940 with his wife when they arrived in Lourdes. He vowed that if he escaped he would write the story of Bernadette that he might “magnify the divine mystery and the holiness of man.” By May of the following year, safely ensconced in Los Angeles, he had done just that.

The book: A gorgeous tribute to the mysterious events that took place in the late 1850s in Lourdes. The Song of Bernadette would probably be classified as historical fiction that hews closely to the events that took place in 19th-century France: that starting in February 1858, fourteen-year-old Bernadette Soubirous, a poor and rather dull girl, claimed the first of several visions of a “beautiful lady,” later determined by the Catholic Church to be a true evocation of the Virgin Mary.

Like the other books from 1942, the pacing of this novel is slower than what it might be if written today. However, unlike the last two, I found myself unable to stop reading, thinking, and talking about it. Werfel handles the entire chain of events with such delicacy that it doesn’t seem to matter whether the reader believes in Bernadette or not. Despite its religious nature, this is not The Robe. Werfel does not try to convince you. He simply tells the story.

And it’s a fascinating story. Werfel doesn’t shy away, either, from the political elements of the story. Bernadette was, in fact, an embarrassment and a problem for the powerful men of Lourdes, who worried that the rest of France was laughing at their gullible peasantry as the crowds come to witness Bernadette’s ecstasy swelled into the tens of thousands. Their machinations are as intriguing as the question of whether Bernadette saw what she claimed to see. Bernadette’s thwarting of her detractors is delightful, as when “the State” sends a psychiatrist, with “both charm and a red beard,” to examine Bernadette for evidence of madness. She answers all queries with a simple manner and no sign of duplicity. Watching a teenager run circles around authority with such ease adds much levity to an overall quite serious work.

Werfel also uses some scenes to highlight the barbarism of the age in which he lived in a subtle but excruciating way. The quote above, regarding a Golden Age of man, takes much of its poignancy from our knowledge of what Werfel escaped in departing Europe, and its very innocence remains no less obvious or heartbreakingly sad in our own era.

In all, this book is the first in the project that I wholeheartedly endorse and urge you to read.

Next up is Drivin’ Woman by Elizabeth Pickett Chevalier, a novel set in the aftermath of the Civil War. After that I’ll be jumping forward into 1952, reading first My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier.

New tumblrs

Jacquelyn Bengfort

I finally thought of something to do with tumblr: organize and curate my collection of photos from around the city. I'm now the proud owner of five new blogs, each with its own theme. Head to my main tumblr to find the rest.

Gatsby? What Gatsby?

Jacquelyn Bengfort

I've said it before: like many a displaced North Dakotan, my life is based at least in part on a willful misreading of the character of James Gatz. And this is how I prepare for a rare night out with old friends. (This is a Twitter thread. It works best if you read it from the bottom, in the order each tweet was published.)

Bonus points if you get why I went with "trousers" over "pants."

Five Thoughts Without A Common Thread

Jacquelyn Bengfort

1. I used to feel bad about having a cleaning lady come to my house every two weeks, but then I realized she makes more on average per hour than I do, and now I feel a little better. Also, it's incredibly nice to have a clean house for two days a month. Badum-ching. 2. Someone in my neighborhood has been sticking dead purple bears to various street signs and lights. I like it more than I probably should.

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3. I was briefly known around my neighborhood as "the one who counts yard signs for Twitter." There's a contentious development to the north of Bloomingdale on a disused sand filtration site, and I was attempting to get a sense of the level of support by what people say with their front lawns. The war of the yard signs continues unabated. The latest chess move is putting "I SUPPORT CORRUPTION" stickers on the "CREATE MCMILLAN PARK" (pro-development) signs. Reportedly one neighbor got pictures of the perpetrator and turned the evidence into the cops. But what I really want to know is whether the person placing the stickers is in favor of or opposed to the proposed development. Because if the person is in fact in favor of the development and is using the stickers to get neighbors enraged at the opposition, then, bravo, sir. Check. Mate.

4. Please don't let this be the only comment on my website this month.

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5. Finally, if you're still with me, I had two new pieces of writing go up online last week, one on the EdTech website and one at Tirage Monthly. If you read them both you should get a pretty good idea of my range as a writer. (Ahem, hire me.)

Chainreading

Jacquelyn Bengfort

Not so long ago, I got in a bad habit of not reading. I know this admission might shock those who knew me as a child (most especially my parents, who find it hilarious that I still don't know how to get from my hometown to Fargo, ditto my hometown to my aunt and uncle's house), but it's true: I haven't been reading much, for quite some time. Blame Twitter, blame smartphones, blame a minor television addiction--but it's simply a fact. But I've found the best way to overcome this particular inertia is to have several reading projects going at a time. To wit, I have my New York Times Bestseller Project and the bookclub I joined at the beginning of the year, both of which continually provide me with no-brainer next books. I also try to keep up with current lit, adding books I hear or see reviewed in a variety of venues to my library cue and reading them as they come in to my local branch.

I recently added another gambit/project to my "a reader in motion stays in motion" bag of tricks: the alphabet. I'm working my way through the stacks at my library, choosing one book at a time based on the author's last name, starting with one from A and working my way, letter by letter, to Z.

Won't lie, I'm deliberately picking short ones.

The first two I read were A Death in the Family, the Pulitzer-winning posthumous novel by James Agee. Then I read The Development, a series of nine linked stories by John Barth. For short reviews, be sure to stop back at the end of the quarter, when I sum up my most recent three months in books.

Next up: Double Indemnity by James M. Cain, Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo, and Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlife by David Eagleman. You know, alongside reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo and Bark by Lorrie Moore for bookclub, The Song of Bernadette by Franz Werfel and Drivin' Woman by Elizabeth Chevalier for the bestseller project, and the two or three other random selections I have out at the moment, plus a healthy dose of board books for the benefit of the pre-reader set in the house.

Do you have any secrets for maintaining forward momentum in your reading that you'd care to share?

Spritz Away

Jacquelyn Bengfort

Spritz is a Boston-based startup hoping to revolutionize reading one word at a time--literally. Their app breaks text into single-word chunks and displays it for the reader at rates starting at 250 words per minute (much faster than the average reading rate). Like most new reading technologies, my initial instinct is no, no, no. I resisted e-readers right until I received one for Christmas and started reading far more than I had been--and what a help my device proved in my sea-going days, letting me take a small library onto my ship.

And yet. Spritz promises that, given time with the app, you'll be able to read at rates that would let you blast through long books in a matter of hours. It has the potential to be revolutionary. Imagine being able to read classic novels in an afternoon, textbook chapters in a matter of minutes, and most of your day's worth of emails in seconds.

If you want to try it, Spritz has teamed up with Oyster, the book subscription service, to place The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People online. (Click here to give it a shot.) 6% of the way in after 28 minutes, reading at up to 350wpm, my impression is that it takes some getting used to--I get a bit unsettled, almost like an edge of motion sickness, but I think that might fade as I adapted to the technology and stopped trying to move my eyes (Spritz works in part by centering each word at an optimal point, allowing you to read without moving your eyes over a page). I will also have to relax and stop trying to silently read aloud in my head, if that makes sense--I think you almost have to just let the words wash over your eyeballs to achieve higher speeds. And they have to figure out how to deal with text that asks you to refer to diagrams on other pages or that is footnoted (as demonstrated early on in Habits, when the author starts talking about a well-known optical illusion, and the Spritzer is unable to "turn to page X"). Still, as a slow reader, this technology could change the way I operate. I can imagine Spritzing through things before returning to them in book form to reread and savor--or not, if I found the book not to my taste.

So--would you Spritz?

The Robe

Jacquelyn Bengfort

Jaci B.: reading late into the night to bring you a review of a bestselling book (from 70+ years ago). This is The Robe by Lloyd C. Douglas.

There was no limit to the credulity of unsophisticated people. Indeed, they rather liked to believe in the uncanny.

How I got the book: DC Public Library. As I mentioned before, by rights this should have been the fourth book in the project, but because it was a library book I bumped it up to read it before it needed to be returned. If you want to read it, there are three more copies available here in the city to anyone with a library card.

The writer: Lloyd C. Douglas. Click on his name to read the full Wikipedia article. Douglas was a very popular writer in his time--in fact, this isn't the first of his books I've read. One of my mom's favorite books is Magnificent Obsession (1929), and she gave me a copy several years ago. Douglas was a Lutheran pastor before he became a writer, and that previous calling strongly influences the tone taken in the latter.

The book: Bible fanfic. Seriously, though, if fan fiction is defined in large part by practitioners who take minor characters or pre-existing settings and spin new stories from those materials, the term suits this book really well. Douglas dedicated the book to Hazel McCann, "who wondered what became of The Robe," and the back of the edition I read (a 1975 reprint) elaborates, explaining that McCann was an Ohio department store saleswoman who wrote Douglas to ask if anyone knew the fate of Jesus' robe, famously won by one of his Roman executioners in a game of dice.

Two years later, Douglas had produced the story of Marcellus, a Tribune who is punished by being sent to the Roman fort at Minoa when he offends Prince Gaius, presumptive heir to the throne, and who while in Palestine is charged to crucify a certain Jewish carpenter. Marcellus, drunk and heartsick, wins Jesus' robe, a fateful event that changes the course of his entire life.

In the course of the novel, we meet many Biblical characters--not just Jesus but also Simon Peter and Saul of Tarsus, as well as many of the people who witnessed miracles, and two separate emperors. Given this fact, the other possibility for classifying this novel would be, I suppose, historical fiction. And it runs into one of the main problems I have with historical fiction--that we know how things turn out, so it becomes a bit of a game, making some characters prophetically wise and others tragically short-sighted, based on the audience's foreknowledge of events to come. For example, during the crucifixion Demetrius, Marcellus' Greek slave, thinks regretfully that Jesus "had paid a high price for his brief and fruitless war on wickedness"--but later he will come to see things quite differently. Marcellus, who later returns to Palestine, muses that if the Christian idea spread, "all of the armies could be demobilized," which must have seemed like even more of a dream in 1942. Surprisingly, it is Emperor Tiberius who perhaps sees things most clearly: "It will collapse--after a while. Soon as it gets into a strong position...[t]hen it will squabble over its offices and spoils--and grow heady with power and territory." Marcellus and Demetrius come across as hopeless idealists (and in some ways prod Douglas's readers to imagine what could be were they to take more seriously their Christian burden), while Emperor Tiberius' realisms seem quite damning, coming as they do from the mouth of an infirm lunatic. Douglas writes with a point of view and a teaching, preaching intention that has fallen entirely out of style, at least in literary fiction--but I'd read him over contemporary Christian fiction any day.

A few other notes:

  • The Romans all "drawl," in this book. He drawled, she drawled. Also, things are "vasty." A breathtakingly gorgeous young woman is "adorable," an adjective we now apply to small cute animals. And rather than say "bitch," Douglas charmingly writes "a kennel word."
  • In light of the Holocaust, well underway in Europe at the time this book was published (and at least moderately well publicized in the United States, according to this article from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum), there are a few mentions of violence against Jews that stood out as I was reading. According to the captain of the ship that delivers Marcellus and Demetrius to Minoa, "The Emperor could send in all the legions that Rome has under arms, and put on such a campaign of slaughter as the world has never seen; but it wouldn't be a permanent victory. You can't defeat a Syrian. And as for the Jews! -- you can kill a Jew, and bury him, but he'll climb out alive!...Yes, sir -- he will climb right up the spade-handle and sell you the rug he died in!" I actually flinched, reading that. Other parts of the book focused on the Jewish hope for a Messiah. Benjamin, a Jewish weaver in Athens, explains it to Marcellus: "All of our great prophets have foretold the coming of the Messiah...In periods of national calamity there has been much talk of it. In times of great hardship and persecution, the Jews have been alert to discover among themselves some wise and brave man who might give evidence of messianic powers." Those lines seemed especially poignant as I reflected on the time, not to which they refer, but in which they were written.
  • I didn't often quibble with Douglas on details, but I was surprised that in a letter from Demetrius to Marcellus, Demetrius talks about being robbed by Bedouins and finding a general lack of hospitality. The Middle East as a whole has a long-standing reputation for hospitality, reportedly bred of the harsh landscape. It struck me as an off-note.
  • Finally, there is much in the novel about slavery and master-slave relationships. Demetrius outright refuses manumission at least twice, in order to better serve the master he loves. Douglas seems more influenced here by Biblical depictions of slavery than the form that ended in his own country only a few years before he was born.

Next up is the Song of Bernadette, which should be quite interesting given its genesis as the product of a vow undertaken by the writer during his flight from Nazi persecution in 1940. Until then, here's my quick cover redesign sketch.

IMG_5811

Like the New York Times Bestseller Project? Read along, share with your friends, and don't forget to write (in the comments box below)!

Never Go Down the Writing-Jobs-on-Craigslist Alley Alone

Jacquelyn Bengfort

I use Craigslist. I buy things, occasionally; I sell things. I peruse "Missed Connections" from time to time because, well, I'm an anthropologist and interested in everything human, and find longing especially fascinating. And, like the proverbial moth, I'm drawn time and again to the flame that is "writing/editing jobs."

Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 11.28.23 AMWhat a sucker.

There's no place more treacherous, I think, than the "writing/editing jobs" portion of Craiglist. (Caveat: "writing gigs" may in fact be worse.) Let me break it down for you. "writing/editing jobs" [sic] include the following sorts of posts:

  • requests for unpaid interns
  • people with "bestseller" ideas who want to split the "massive profits" after you've completed that pesky writing bit on spec
  • poorly-punctuated, all-caps invectives screaming "LETS MAKE MONEY TOGETHER" from unnamed "successful companies" or "high-powered consulting firms"
  • sundry likely scams I'm too lazy to confirm as verifiable scams (but I'm looking at you, "don't use the Craigslist email relay system" posters)
  • the occasional, apparently-legitimate seeker of a professional writer or editor

In short: a quagmire. A cesspool. A wretched hive of scam and villainy (see what I did there?).

By the time I drag myself away, I'm definitely a bit down, a bit blue, a bit defeated. And feel a bit dirty, not in a good way.

So...anybody looking for a writer?

The Bad Bourbon Challenge

Jacquelyn Bengfort

My husband likes to throw parties. People inevitably, on purpose and not, leave things behind: vegetable peelers, assorted Tupperware, cheap sunglasses, etc. (Sometimes things also disappear...things like the toilet paper spindle from the guest bathroom.) After the last one, someone whose identity is known but whom I shall not name left a bottle of execrably cheap bourbon behind. Note: if you're trying to offload offbrand liquor at a party, I recommend putting it in a decanter. I expect that doing so would be a powerful demonstration of human psychology. However, in its original bottle, no one touched the stuff.

Since said husband declared that bourbon undrinkable (a position seconded by my own father), and since the same man recently had A Significant Birthday Ending In A Zero, I thought it would be fun to use the bourbon in a recipe and create something to eat in celebration. So I adapted this cookie recipe and came up with Chocolate Bourbon Peanut Cookies. Recipe below.

A chocolatey cookie laced with bourbon and studded with peanuts.

P.S. "Hey Jacquelyn, I thought this website was about your freelance writing business." Go ahead, complain about me sharing a recipe for cookies. I've already explained how vital they are to my creative process.

P.P.S. If you still have cheap bourbon left over, Smitten Kitchen has a delightful recipe for milk punch. Which obviously goes perfectly with cookies of all sorts.

Screen Shot 2014-04-08 at 11.13.26 AM

And Now Tomorrow

Jacquelyn Bengfort

Last week I finished reading the first book for my New York Times Bestseller Project, And Now Tomorrow by Rachel Field.

Give me any plague but the plague of the heart.

How I got the book: Kindle (affiliate link), $2.89. It was unavailable at the library and given the cost of shipping, an e-book was the most economical option. The formatting was crude but it was perfectly readable.

The writer: Rachel Field. Click on her name to read the full Wikipedia article. Interestingly, she died the year And Now Tomorrow was published, in 1942. She won the Newbery Award in 1930 for the children's book Hitty, Her First Hundred Years, and her novel Time Out of Mind won a National Book Award in 1935. She was awarded a Caldecott Medal posthomously in 1944 for picture book Prayer for a Child. (Bonus fact: And Now Tomorrow was turned into a screenplay written by Raymond Chandler and was released in late 1944!)

The book: Ah, I thought, it's about the death of the protagonist's mother. No, it's about World War I. No, it's about the death of the protagonist's father in World War I. Finally, around a third of the way in, I discovered what the book is really about--love, labor rights, and hearing loss.

First lesson from this project, it seems, is that books moved at a different pace in 1942.

Part medical thriller, part romance, the bulk of the story takes place in 1931, as Emily Blair, the main character, discovers that her absence of a few years' time as she has pursued a cure for a disability brought on by a bout of meningitis has left her estranged from her fiance of several years, also a supervisor at her family's textile mills. Prohibition is as much a character in the tale as the Great Depression. Given that the U.S. was well into World War II when this book took the first-ever top spot on the NYT list, it seems almost as if it's an escape into the problems of the past, which may by then have taken on a bit of a nostalgic sheen.

There's a lot to be said about character's attitudes toward women in this book. Emily and her sister were raised mainly by their unmarried aunt Em. Cousin Eunice, depicted as a flighty women obsessed with society, nags her younger cousin Emily to marry, concerned because, as Emily nears the age of 21, she doesn't have a romantic interest in her life:

That comes of an old main like Em bringing you up. Not that Em isn't a remarkable woman, but then what woman wants to be remarkable?

Once Emily finally ("finally") falls in love just before her birthday, it's hardly surprising that she makes a mess of it. Looking back on her love affair--the entire book is framed as though she's writing it after triggering some memories going through a storage room--she recalls how she made excuses for Harry's moods.

It's different with a man, I would reason; he doesn't have to make his whole world of a single person.

Indeed, except for the first summer of their romance, Harry treats Emily as though she is little better than a child. My impression was of a narrator who finally realized that she had sold herself short through most of her early 20s. She's constantly asking about what's happening at the family textile mill, where the workers are striking for better wages while the management watches business dry up in the face of the national economic collapse. In fact, Emily and her sister are the product of a marriage between their millhand mother and their mill-owner father. From my vantage point, her ability to empathize with both sides could have been a boon, were she brought in and educated to run the mills, but everyone else sees her as just a muddle-headed, soft-hearted woman who shouldn't worry herself about things she'll never understand.

Only Dr. Vance sees the potential in Emily. Only he challenges her and her tendency to behave automatically as is expected of her:

You put me in mind of something I read in a book once when I was a kid. It was about Marie Antoinette going to the guillotine, and how she stepped on the executioner's foot and begged his pardon--

So is And Now Tomorrow a feminist novel? Probably no more than it's a pro-labor novel--but Field definitely bring empathy to her writing, and while it's not a comedy of manners in the Jane Austen sense, she definitely manages to put across a point of view that leaves the reader feeling that Emily could be (and will be) more than she has been.

A few additional observations:

  • Prohibition seems to be the one thing that everyone can agree on: no one, regardless of class, is teetotaling. Early on in their affair, Harry and Emily share a bottle of bootleg Chianti Harry got off one of the millhands, who is making it in his woodshed and selling it in "catsup" bottles. Harry lectures Emily about how women don't really understand drinking as she tries not to let on just how bad the wine is. She asks him how it feels to be drunk. He replies, "Kind of like a god until you pass out."
  • Another character in the novel? Cigarettes, without any moral implications on their smokers. Emily and Dr. Vance smoke together following a tense night of impromptu surgery on the table in a poor family's kitchen. The novel is littered with ashes and lighters. Emily is the opposite of edgy and cool, but she smokes a lot. It's not a marker of any sort of status.
  • There's a lot of excitement about antibiotics in the novel, given the medical focus. Field would have known the difference that antibiotics were beginning to make in the treatment of infection as she was writing, and the lack of antibiotics, which are in development but not commercially available, plays a role in two major plot points in the book.
  • I've written on this site before about how it seems to me that Google has taken the mystery out of life. Reading this book showed me that mine is not a groundbreaking observation. Field has Emily say something similar: "Miracles are out of fashion nowadays. Or perhaps it is only that they have been explained away from us. Radios and newsreels and words have shorn them of their mystery."
  • Another constant in life is, apparently, the influence parents have on their kids. Emily's father charged her as a young girl to always do what's expected of her while admitting he hadn't done what was expected of him, and to be happy for her aunt's sake. Trying to fulfill these imperatives has a lot to do with how Emily tries to live in her early adulthood, and it doesn't work out very well.

I'll return to And Now Tomorrow when I sum up 1942, but first I have to read the other three novels from the list. Up next will likely be The Robe, since it was the only one I was able to get out from the library and, therefore, the only one with a due date. Until then, here's a quick sketch of my cover update--a very rough idea of how I would repackage And Now Tomorrow were it to be reprinted for an audience today. I chose to focus on the car that is so a part of the plot, as it illuminates what is to come. Enjoy!

Rough indeed. Not a real artist and not a lot of time...

 

The Quick Guide to Punctuation in Email: "Thanks" Edition

Jacquelyn Bengfort

I got an email yesterday. It looked like this:

Thanks...

 

[First Name redacted]

To which I responded (open-letter style, expecting, of course, that the sender will never see it)

on Twitter. (Three retweets AND one favorite? In my world, THIS IS BLOWING UP, PEOPLE, THIS IS VIRAL.)

But maybe you're asking yourself, "How do I send an email of acknowledgement and avoid giving the recipient heartburn and a lingering sense of self-doubt?"

Here's a handy guide. It all comes down to punctuation (and a little bit to capitalization, too).

Thanks...

See above.

Thanks

You're in a hurry. You're a bit terse. You got my email. I get it.

Thanks!

In this instance, the best option, I think. I'm not usually a proponent of exclamation points, but here, it takes the edge off your message. You're in a hurry, but you're still happy to have heard from me.

Thanks?!

"How unexpected! I think you've sent me something I need/want! But I'm not sure! But thanks!"  I suspect you've responded without reading. Hey man, it's cool. No bigs.

thanks

Here I just think you send a lot of emails from your phone, you sent this one from your computer, and autocorrect has made you a little lazy. You probably tried to double space for a period, too. Oh Apple, what you have done to us?

Thanks.

Have I done something to offend you?

~*{thanks}*~

You're eight. Or a unicorn.