She’s a Witch! Burn Her!

What better way to celebrate Good Friday and Easter than talking all about my latest read, The Witches by Stacy Schiff, A rollicking good romp about pacts with Satan, possession, and the brutal execution of innocents. Happy Easter!

Schiff’s book is a hefty historical look at the Salem witch trials that I was saving for a some time off. Yup, that’s about as crazy as all my spring breaks get. Reading a nice thick historical nonfiction book I like is truly the most hedonistic act of debauchery I can think of for my college party times.

I was in good company reading this book though because that meant I got to get an in depth analysis of what New England Puritans thought a pact with Satan would entail. Their wildest dreams of Satanic indulgences usually involved getting a nice new dress, and maybe a trip to Europe, or a strange, exotic witch familiar, like a yellow canary, in exchange for their immortal soul. If Satan really had been running around New England back then, I think he would feel like those guys from Pawn Stars, smirking at the camera after getting a schmuck to sell the Declaration of Independence for ten dollars.

Schiff combed through just about every record and period source she could to find out everything about the trials, down to the really human elements, the stuff that really weirds people out and also makes them want to come back time and again to this event.

We see neighbors build up tension with petty rivals in a small rural town that traps everyone together in a puritan lifestyle and no outlet for their growing rivalries, until they get to blame everyone they hate for “witchcraft.” As much as you want to blame the super strict puritan lifestyle these guys had and their strict religious beliefs for this literal witch hunt, when you read Schiff’s story and the research backing it up, what really comes across is how the hate, fear and conviction are all incredibly human drives that could capture us just as easily today as they did in 1692.  For proof, look no further than any news coverage whatsoever of the primaries and upcoming election. The timing was just too perfect for me to deny the evidence right before my eyes that we haven’t evolved much as a people from the fearful, finger pointing mob we find in the Salem witch trials. Not to sound too pessimistic of the United State’s future or anything, but reading Schiff’s book made me feel a connection to the past in an all too authentic way.

As much as I didn’t understand why those puritans all wanted yellow canaries as demonic familiars or what caused the crazy hallucinations of demonic dogs and monkey men, (not when Mountain Dew wouldn’t exist for another couple centuries,) I still connected very personally to the motives that lead to this violent historical event.

So yeah, that’s my spring break so far. You jelly? Jelly enough to declare me a most horrible and evil witch in a New England court hearing? Don’t, please. Please just check out Schiff’s book The Witches instead.

Don’t Read 1940s Comics

C2E2 is coming up this weekend, and I am most definitely attending. I had a blast last year, as you might recall from my post covering my C2E2 experience. I haven’t quite psyched myself up into wearing elaborate cosplay or anything yet, (mostly I just wear my nerdiest t-shirt,) but I still prep each year, in my own book nerd way. This year I took on a truly epic endeavor.

I’m always a bit self conscious about my geek IQ when I profess affection for something nerdy in the presence of other nerds that could be more powerful than me. I’ve read a couple of more recent Wonder Woman comics, like Gail Simone and Brian Azzarello, but I hardly know Wonder Woman’s whole story. I mean, she’s been around since the 1940’s, so it’s quite a long story, but I still feel like a simple newbie when I try to read all those stories that try to weave the backstories of thirty different characters with their own series. It’s a bit intimidating. So, I did the thing I always do when I feel a bit intimidated and overreacted. I found a collection of every Wonder Woman since her WWII debut, and promised myself I would read them all before C2E2, so I would be on top of the history of at least one nerdy thing I like when I walked in that convention center.

I definitely did not make it from 1940 whenever to the present. I may have not made it through even one year. Turns out there’s a reason more people don’t try to reread comics from the forties. The casual racism definitely was a part of it, but not the only bit, not by a long shot.

There’s a reason that comics have had to fight to be considered to be considered a serious, elevated art form, or at least popular in mainstream culture. That reason is comics from the forties, if my “research” is any evidence. Take, for example, this panel I just had to take a picture of when I saw the glaring typo.

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From the Brilliant minds of DC Comics

Yes, that is clew, as in Clew, the board game, or “I don’t have a clew how to proofread. It’s the secretary’s day off.” That clew had to be penciled then inked in, and then the whole thing had to be colored, and they just went with it. That shows a level of general professional disregard that I don’t think even late night Dunkin Donut employees can fathom, or else an early education system that was way worse than we realized.

These things were clearly designed for children by adults that were either highly sleep deprived or else didn’t give a crap. Most likely, they were really high on some sort of drug that is no longer in style, like candy cigarettes or Mary Janes. I mean, I know people from the forties had a very different idea of what was and wasn’t cool, but that’s the only excuse I can think of for them giving her an invisible jet and a giant kangaroo to ride.

Also, like I said good God were they casually racist. The Germans, Japanese, or anyone else even a little “foreign” were crude caricatures that I won’t show here, as a decent human being. As much work Wonder Woman did breaking that glass ceiling for women,  there’s still plenty in the oldest issues that was not exactly helpful in the forward march of human compassion and tolerance.

That’s not to say I didn’t have any fun reading those campy old issues. There were some amusing pieces, like the token fat friend Etta’s silly attempts to help Wonder Woman, (fat people being a rare oddity before science made food taste good and we stopped boiling everything.) The sometimes surprisingly kinky nods at bondage, from men and women compelled to do whatever Wonder Woman tells them to do when caught in her magic lasso, to the fun and games of Etta’s sorority sisters, was an interesting touch. Also, there were really funny, over-the-top villainous plots, like the guy poisoning water sources with a drug that makes people do the opposite of whatever they are told to do, which was apparently supposed to sabotage the American military until Wonder Woman figured it out and they just played “opposite day” until everyone got better. That right there was the plot of an entire issue. I can’t make this stuff up.

Well, I finally had to stop reading after that really racist issue about vaguely Asian bad guys killing elephants in a circus so the circus couldn’t perform a benefit charity for the military. No! Everyone knows the 1940s US Army got 90% of their funding through circus charity benefits! Drat those probably Japanese baddies. Regardless, I still learned a lot from delving into the past of Wonder Woman.

Really, it’s no use trying to feel extra elevated or smart because you’ve read the most and know the most about any given superhero. If you go far enough back, everything was giant kangaroos and racism. These stories are supposed to be fun and enjoyable because they can be fantastical and out of this world. They’ve certainly evolved over the years, but doesn’t mean they are any less fun, just that people enjoy making up different sorts of stories about Wonderful women or Super men.

In the end, I’m going to C2E2 knowing I’ve read and loved a few comic books and graphic novels by a few authors I like, about a few heroes I love. I may know more than the person next to me, or I may know less, but that nerd cred doesn’t matter. What matters is we all enjoy whatever parts we have of a bigger story, a story told so we can enjoy ourselves, and enjoy myself I will, even if I’m not ready to run around cosplaying in my Wonder Woman Underoos just yet.

Happy Birthday Douglas Adams!

Right now, there’s probably no better words of advice for me than “Don’t Panic.” Luckily, today is the perfect day to remember these words because Douglas Adams, creator of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, was born on this day in 1952.

If you aren’t familiar with Adams or his work, here’s a crash course so you too can properly celebrate the birthday of this magnificent man. His most famous series, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, actually started out as a radio show he and some friends worked on, but soon he turned it into one bestselling book, and then another. First The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy itself, then The Restaurant at the End of The Universe, Life, the Universe and Everything, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, and finally Mostly Harmless. You can also find HG2G as a stage play, TV show, film, and 1984 text-adventure based computer game. Needless to say, this series definitely left a significant cultural mark.

Read these books, and you’ll be privy to all sorts of inside jokes and references you might have noticed before but never recognized. The cult following of “hitchhikers” Adams’s work can boast has really ingrained tons of references to HG2G into our collective cultural consciousness. You’ll find out why I encouraged everyone not to panic at the beginning of this article, why May 11 is Towel Day and, perhaps most importantly, you’ll finally get why the answer to life, the universe and everything is 42. Really, though, Adam’s gave sci-fi and pop culture far more than these precious tidbits. Sure, he also worked on Doctor Who and a number of other quintessentially British master-works, but I’m talking about more insubstantial, broader effects here. His visionary perception of the human condition, a gift any great sci-fi writer can extrapolate into something marvelous, and his bitingly British wit create a unique voice that has wormed its way into the minds of many people and sci-fi writers, forever shaping the works that came after it. While Adams unfortunately passed away in 2001, his work is definitely going to stick around for a great while longer.

Adams’ sense of humor and sci-fi preference means he is right up my alley, as far as reading preferences go. It would be pretty much impossible for me to not like him as a writer based on the description”funny British science fiction writer” alone. I still took way too much time to start reading his books, because of course almost everyone and everything that could recommend books to me has been telling me I should check him out immediately since middle school, at the very least. Who can deal with that kind of pressure? Anyhow, I finally did check his books only a few years ago out and was not disappointed at all. I can do nothing but recommend his works with the highest regard to anyone and everyone. He’s a funny man that knows exactly how to write enjoyable science fiction that really lives up to the genre’s fullest potential. Read the books. Read them all. Read them now, and whatever you do, don’t panic.

douglas adams inspired "Hitch hikers guide to the galaxy" H2G2

Douglas Adam. photo courtesy of Michael Hughes

How To Read Multiple Books at Once

Sometimes, you simply have to read multiple books at once. Whether your schedule or your own voracious reading appetite demands it, literal double or even triple booking remains a necessary companion for many book lovers. I myself find that, for these next couple weeks, I’m definitely going to have to be juggling many reads, so I decided to vent about this by writing down some useful advice for people attempting to undertake similar mounds of reading in a similarly over-booked fashion. This has absolutely nothing, I repeat, nothing to do with the fact that my finals week is coming up. I’m totally prepared for that. Everything is fine, and no one (especially me,) needs to panic. Don’t panic…

Gah… panicking…

1.Prioritize Titles.

I gave advice like this in my entry about catching up on reading. This is to a similar but slightly different purpose. You’d do well to pick the titles that need to be returned to a friend or library first, or the text you need to write the most dangerously imminent paper about first, then stack your order accordingly. You may have to start by reading three books or so because this one’s due back soon, you’re book club’s meeting to discuss that one next week, and you just have to find out how this one ends.

As much as I try, I usually can’t help but let the books I like the most slip to the beginning of the list and get a disproportionate amount of focus. As long it doesn’t threaten my GPA, I usually let that happen. Really, even when it does, I usually cave to my favorites. Ideally, though, you really should evenly distribute the books you like most among all your other to-reads so you aren’t left with all the stuff you hate but have to read in one big, unappetizing lump at the end. Do as I say and not as I do in this situation, people, if you can.

2.Try to Separate Similar Reads

I never do this on purpose, but sometimes I find myself reading similar books either at the same time or one after the other. It gets me into situations where I blur the characters together then start to ask myself, “Wait, did this plucky young Victorian lady already refuse to marry the boring farmer, or was that the other one, and was it a farmer or a woodcarver?”

I mean, I guess sometimes you just get a taste for similar books, but it gets really inconvenient and eerie if you try to read too many similar books at once. By now, I’ve learned to try and avoid this, or take other later mentioned measures to at least make this less confusing.

3.Assign a Book Schedule

A really good way to not get all these books mixed up is set a schedule for them. That way, you start to associate each book with a a certain time or place. No matter how similar your books are, that should help you separate the story thread. “Wait, The farmer was in the morning commute audio book and the woodcarver was in the evening paperback. I’ve got this.”

Apart from that, it also helps with the favoritism bit. Making yourself devote a certain amount of time to each book you are reading gives books you don’t like so much a chance to actually get read. The human mind’s preference for patterns and routine is one of my only weapons against books I just have to read right now. “Oh, I’m really loving the chemistry between plucky Victorian lady and farmer guy, but gosh darn it if it just feels weird listening to that audio book when I know I’m not in my car and the sun is setting.”

4.Always Carefully Mark Your Spot.

Maybe this is just my own terrible memory, but I find that reading multiple books makes me lose track of my place in different books so easily. If I’m lazy enough not to put bookmarks on different pages, (which usually happens when I’m reading texts for school,) or accidentally skip around the tracks on an audio book, I can get lost and accidentally re-reading or hearing large sections of a book. I mean, usually with books I like I can stop myself and fix the error really quick, but with required reads that I can barely pay attention to anyway, I can usually barely tell.

For textbooks or other assigned texts, I usually mark my place to the very line, just to be sure, with post-it notes or even special bookmarks you can buy from office supply or book stores. I mean, if you’re going to be a serious bibliophile, you’ve just gotta have the right gear ready in your book nerd utility belt.

5.Try Taking Notes.

This seems like something you should do for assigned reads and textbooks, and I say should because I often don’t. What? I have to read three classical books about plucky Victorian ladies at a time and you want me to take notes on them all to? That’s too much you guys, too much.

Theoretically though, I’d be helped immensely by taking at least some notes on books I have to read for class. That theory may also extend to for-funsies books too, right? Not anything crazy, like you need to write a paper on them, but just bits so you can keep track of the plots and subtleties. Some books have really detailed summaries on Wikipedia, but others don’t and, honestly, I sometimes get lazy enough just to go “Well, that subplot probably wasn’t that important anyway,” when I can’t double check these things on Wikipedia. Taking notes might help.

 

Okay, I’m afraid that’s all she wrote. I have to read my midday poetry collection, and then definitely not start writing my final paper that counts as twenty five percent of my class grade. Any idiot would’ve started that way earlier than the weekend before it’s due. Bye now!