Saturday, December 21, 2013

Looking ahead to next year's historical fiction reading challenge!

I'm really excited to participate in the 2014 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, hosted by Historical Tapestry. I'm thinking I'll probably be somewhere between "medieval" and "ancient history" in my reading volume:

During the following 12 months you can choose one of the different reading levels: 

20th century reader - 2 books
Victorian reader - 5 books
Renaissance Reader - 10 books
Medieval - 15 books
Ancient History - 25 books

Prehistoric - 50+ books

Anyone else game?

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Sneak preview of Downton Abbey Season 4 at the Crest Theater

I'm supposed to be blogging in support of my virtual book tour for Woman of Ill Fame this week...but I can't help but pause and celebrate the new season of Downton Abbey. I was lucky enough to score tickets to the sneak preview showing on the big screen at the Crest Theater in downtown Sacramento tonight. I went with my great friend Diana, and we had a blast.

First, the theater. I have a fondness for old movie palaces! The Crest was built in 1913 as a 2,000-seat Vaudeville house. The theater's website does not mention the architect's name, but I'm betting on Timothy Phlueger, the designer of the Oakland Paramount--there were many design elements in common. It is a show-stopper of a building and I would've been happy just being there.

But there was also Downtown Abbey on offer.....

More on that in a second. I want to thank KVIE for arranging the free showing (yes, by God, it was free) and the Crest for hosting. It was just the most fun night I've had in a long time. There was a costume contest beforehand, and people had the most gorgeous Edwardian outfits on. I didn't mind the line in the women's restroom because there was so much eye candy with the lovely dresses.

The fellow who won the male contest was dressed as a WWI soldier and handily won the most claps/noise from the audience. I was also very impressed with the man in a top hat carrying a white life preserver: he was Patrick, the drowned heir from the Titanic. The woman who won was dressed as Mrs. Pattmore, and got many whoops. I have to admit, I was one of the whoopers. I love Mrs. Pattmore the best of all the characters on the show. I did, however, whoop harder for the woman dressed as Anna Bates, because I had waited outside to enter the theater just behind her and inveigled her to take a photo with me. I'm loyal. I also liked seeing a self-identified Pankhurst with her women's right to vote sash, a friend of Sybil's.

"Anna" and I in the queue outside the theater

Indeed I did leave all cares behind

KVIE showed some previews for upcoming shows which were really entertaining. And then....and then....Downton unfolded.

I have to hand it to Julian Fellowes yet again (I blogged my deep admiration here). In one hour--it was a sneak preview giving us the first half, not the entire enchilada--I was moved to tears several times, gave out great gasps, grinned in pure bliss. I even had to reach over and seize Diana at one point in sheer startlement ("You wicked, wicked half-breed," anyone?). He just is a talented storyteller, and I adore him. I adore Downton Abbey. I adore it all.

Thank you KVIE and the Crest! I can't wait until Jan. 5 when the new season commences on PBS.

. . . .

Monday, December 09, 2013

Virtual tour schedule

For the next two weeks, check out these reviews, interviews and giveaways each day at different book blogs. Thanks so much to Amy Bruno of Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for being my tour guide.

Virtual Book Tour Schedule

Monday, December 9
Giveaway at Passages to the Past

Tuesday, December 10
Guest Post & Giveaway at HF Connection

Wednesday, December 11
Review at Flashlight Commentary

Thursday, December 12
Interview & Giveaway at Flashlight Commentary

Friday, December 13
Review at Historical Fiction Obsession

Monday, December 16
Review at A Book Geek
Review at Unabridged Chick

Tuesday, December 17
Review at Book of Secrets
Interview & Giveaway at Unabridged Chick

Wednesday, December 18
Review & Giveaway at Peeking Between the Pages

Thursday, December 19
Review at A Bookish Libraria

Friday, December 20
Review at CelticLady's Reviews
Review at Confessions of an Avid Reader

Saturday, December 07, 2013

E-tour begins Monday!

I'm going on tour---virtually!--for two weeks, starting on Monday. The cause? The launch of Woman of Ill Fame in e-book form. Forget paper, spines, book glue, prostitute Nora Simms gets to please the fellas in electronic form.

In celebration of the e-launch, we slightly adjusted the book jacket with a new quote...from...yes....yes....I can hardly believe it....Diana Gabaldon. If there is a kinder, more generous, more charming author than her, I'm in disbelief.

I met her at the Historical Novels Society conference this summer, where I read a brief passage from Woman of Ill Fame at the Sex Scenes Readings she hosts annually. She kindly agreed to read my book in the midst of trying to finish her own book, and in between shifting geographically, and in between sharing the constantly-updating news about her Outlander books becoming a Starz series...I frankly can't believe she extended such a favor to me. And then when the blurb came. Oh.My.Goddess! Thank you, Diana, and I owe you a million glasses of Glenfiddich when next we meet.

So on Monday, check with Passages of the Past, where Amy Bruno is hosting a giveaway of the ebook! (If you don't own an e-reader--I've asked for one for Xmas myself--you can always download the free previewer app and read away on whatever device you do have.)

If you prefer, click below to download immediately. Thanks!

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Giving Tuesday--help JLK, a six-year-old fighting a brain tumor

Wrote this on my hand to remind myself to hit the ATM and deposit my friend's check.
Then I cried every time I looked at it.

JLK, who lives in Gilroy, California, is on my mind constantly. She creeps from the back of my mind to the front, and I cry. Then other things enter in, and she subsides to the back again. But she's always there.

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine named Kate responded to my blog post asking people to buy JLK lunch after her chemo treatment. She mailed me a check to pass along to JLK's family.

This woman who sent the check, we went to graduate school together. I knew her for only two years...and that was nearly 20 years ago. We've had no "live" contact since. We are Facebook friends now, but she rarely posts, and that's the extent of our relationship. So what possessed her to send a donation for JLK?


Knowing she can help pure strangers.


(By the way, Kate is not the only one who responded to my blog post or Facebook posts and sent a donation. There were many others, and I thank them heartily.)

I wrote before about wondering whether my grief helps in any way. It's like the tree falling unseen in the woods thing--does it make a sound if no one hears it? Is there a tally-keeper in the sky who can connect up all the tears--mine from Gold Country, Kate's from wherever she lives, everyone in Gilroy and Morgan Hill and around the world now reading JLK's mom's blog--if there are enough disparate events of grief and prayer, can the talley-keeper collect them into a meaningful whole? A helpful whole? Maybe God gets presented a pie chart and that data influences how things go.

Well, whether it helps or not, I can't stop "donating" my grief. The idea of a six-year-old in radiation therapy for cancer is just wrong. As her mom told us all on her blog, she whispers to JLK's unconscious ear just as she leaves her for her treatment: shrink, tumor, shrink.

This is Giving Tuesday. Please give to JLK's family. What do they need it for?
Money for their astronomical medical bills
Money so Tony, the dad, can take time off work and spend it with his daughter and her siblings
Money for a trip to Disneyland, possibly the last chance she will have to go

If you are reading this after Giving Tuesday ends, consider that you could ask people to give a contribution in your name for your Christmas, Hannukah, or Kwanzaa gift. It's so easy. Paypal'ing a donation takes mere seconds if you already have a PayPal account, and mere minutes if you need to set one up. Or you could send me a check and I'll forward it on.

Thanks for considering it.

. . . . . .

Sunday, December 01, 2013

The Perfect Snowstorm, or, Why I'm Obsessed by the Donner Party

Unidentified books in Emigrant Trail Museum exhibit
To me, clearly Tamsen Donner's books

I’m fascinated  by the Donner Party. Believe it or not, my interest has very little to do with cannibalism. That’s of course the attention-getting, morbid fact that initially grabs you by the throat, but after that subsides, what you’re left with is a complex story whose narrative can be almost endlessly examined.

Sexism, racism, ageism, personal responsibility, survival tactics, starvation, greed, murder: all of these big topics fall under the Donner umbrella,  as well as the more mundane (but no less worthy of scrutiny) topic of group dynamics and how people get along—or don’t—during a multi-month road trip.

I was recently talking with historian Kristin Johnson about what fuels our interest in this long-ago community of emigrants. I told her I loved high adventure stories, like Shackleton and crew stuck on a ship in the frozen Weddell sea (well, until it was crushed by the ice and destroyed, whereupon they began living upon an ice floe), or the Everest teams beset by weather in 1996. Two words: Beck Weathers. The Donner Party faced incredible struggle, and roughly half of them survived.

But I realized later that that was only half my answer. When I thought about it more, I realized that a huge part of what appeals to me is the “perfect storm” (or in this case, perfect snowstorm) aspect. In Sebastian Junger’s book The Perfect Storm, the titular concept is that many small mishaps combine to form a huge tragedy. If only one of those would have gone differently, either the disaster could have been averted, or at least significantly abated.

I’ve always loved that child’s nursery rhyme about how a single nail (or lack thereof) brought a kingdom down.

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Tiny actions have amazing and significant consequences. In the case of the Donner Party, any number of small adjustments (or large) could’ve meant none of us had ever heard of the Donners. The same is true for the sinking of the Titanic, another story I’ve been fascinated by since I was a young girl and read Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember.

Let’s take a look at my rough list, off the top of my head, of the small events that gained potency in numbers, in a perfect storm scenario.

If only…
  • The binoculars had been in the lookout as they were supposed to be
  • Captain Smith paid better attention to the ice warnings instead of glancing at them and putting them in his uniform pocket
  • The Marconi operator of a far closer ship than the Carpathia hadn’t turned off his machine and gone to bed (he was not negligent in doing so, by the way, but it would have been nice for all involved if he’d pulled an all-nighter)
  • (relatedly) The Titanic had struck the same iceberg during daylight hours
  • The crew had performed their required boat drill on April 14 and were confident enough to fill the lifeboats to full capacity (there were still not enough seats, but the loss of life would have been diminished)
  • There were enough lifeboats for all passengers (again, not negligent: the Titanic was abiding by the absurd shipping rules of its era—one nice effect of the sinking was that it forever changed these archaic rules and ensured each passenger would have a seat on a lifeboat should the ship sink)
  • Some would add, if only J. Bruce Ismay wasn’t aboard and therefore urging Captain Smith to dangerous speeds on the ship’s maiden voyage
  • If only they had kept full engine speed to successfully turn the ship, rather than killing the engines
  • The iceberg had struck a different spot on the ship, so that each of the watertight compartments wasn’t breached
On and on, a slew of factors which all went wrong, but if any one of them had gone right, we might have a far less dramatic tale to tell about the Titanic.

And here’s the same listing for the Donner Party:

If only:
  • They didn't take the Hastings Cut-off, which ironically added weeks to their time
  • They didn't waste a week waiting for Hastings to come back and guide them through the Wasatch mountains
  • They had located the hidden cut-through that would have gotten them through the Wasatch just fine
  • Indians hadn't stolen and killed so many of their oxen and cattle (both slowing them and also deleting their food stores)
  • Hastings had correctly given the time required to cross the Salt Desert, rather than halving it; they might've better provisioned themselves before the attempt and not lost so much livestock
  • George Donner's wagon wheel hadn't broken
  • George Donner's hand hadn't been significantly injured by trying to repair the wheel (infection set in and ruined him...wish I could slip him some penicillin)
  • Snow had fallen just three or four days later; they were so close to crossing the mountains to safety
  • The emigrants had somehow fastened their cows so they weren't lost when literally buried by snow
  •  They had backtracked and wintered in a more forgiving landscape
  • Stanton had allowed the snowshoe company to continue forward instead of keeping a foolish promise to protect the mules over the emigrants (the mules died anyway, and so did Stanton...hindsight is so deliciously wretched, as well as 20/20)
Now, you'll notice I don't say:

  • If only they hadn't stopped for the funeral of Sarah Keyes and other stops others have subsequently objected to. As Kristin Johnson points out, cattle need to rest.
  •  If only they hadn't gotten such a late start. They caught up to other westbound trains and made up for their late start. If they hadn't taken the Hastings Cut-off, they would have been fine.
I have to admit, I love/agonize over the "coulda, shoulda, woulda" of the Donner Party's circumstances. I'm the kind of person who dissects my failures and falls prey to self-recriminations; the Donner Party narrative rewards such a personality. I'm sure that for the rest of their lives, the people who survived the trauma never ceased their sleepless nights, their burning feelings of "Why didn't I....?"

The women in particular must have suffered helpless self-excoriation, for they truly did not get a vote. It's always said of Tamsen Donner that she was sulky or grumpy about the choice--made by men of the party--to take the cut-off. She must have chastened herself that she wasn't more persuasive, that she couldn't gain George Donner's ear the way she would've wanted to.

To me, one of the most poignant exhibits at the Emigrant Trail Museum near Donner Lake shows several school books. Almost without a doubt, they must have been Tamsen's, as she planned to set up a west coast school. (The plaquing at the museum does not specifically identify the objects in that case, although I'm sure somewhere in their records the books' provenance is logged .) She was one of those women who bristled at the constraints her century forced upon her gender. The decision-making of the wagon trains did not permit women's voices to be heard. 

As she tended her husband, dying from a simple hand wound that traveled up his arm to kill him from an infection we'd swiftly derail with medication today, did she have to bite her tongue to not question him for the fatal choices he'd made--not only on his behalf, not only on grown women's behalf, but on the behalf of the dozens of small children that composed the Donner Party?

And that's what wrenches me most about the Donner Party story. There were kids involved. Newborn babies who died because their mother's milk dried up. Toddlers who starved to death. Young kids who tried valiantly and just couldn't make it.

There's a great morbid interest around the Donner Party, especially for those who read the harrowing accounts of body parts and organs left stranded around the camp. But those bodies weren't strewn because of a ghoulish lack of concern. It was because the residents of the camps were so close to death themselves. They were weak--it's hard to carry or drag bodies even when you are in full health. They needed to leave the bodies close by enough to cut tissue from them to eat. In Keseberg's cabin, it's said the bodies were left where they died. A horrible fact to contemplate, as the living continued their fragile existences mere inches away--but the cabin was so buried in snow (above its roof) that the unhappy inhabitants had had to carve snow steps up out of the snow. How on earth do you pull a corpse up those steps when you yourself have eaten nothing, or simply trace amounts of, say, buffalo hides, for days?

Prisoners liberated from Mauthausen concentration camp, 1945

When I think the people at the camps, I picture people from another kind of camp. I think of the photographs of starved, gaunt Jews from the concentration camps. The hollow cheeks, the sudden architecture of the forehead, the eyes so stark and large...that's what I believe the Donner Party victims looked like too. In fact, it is said that when the snowshoe party wandered into a Native American village, the inhabitants there were terrified and thought the Donner Party people were ghosts. 

I feel pity for the Donners and the other families stranded in the Sierra that terrible winter of 1846. They perhaps didn't make the most savvy decisions--but they were pioneers in every sense of the word, doing something very few had done before. And let's be honest: the snows of the Sierra are so much more heavy/deep than anything these midwesterners had ever seen before. They knew snow; they just didn't know snow. They thought they were doing fine. 

And they would've been fine, if only one of the myriad things that went wrong had instead....gone right.

. . . .