Refuse to Be Done: How to Write and Rewrite a Novel in Three Drafts

Honestly, I wasn’t super enthused going into this one. Matt Bell’s Refuse to be Done was the first title from my TBR that I found at a bookstore in Chicago and that was enough for me to declare my errand done rather than force my hosts to languish in the bookstore longer than necessary. (Not that they would have called it languishing, but still.) I finished it on a bus between Albany and the Port Authority Bus Terminal.

This book just isn’t for me. Only a few of the tips or tricks in here are ones that I could apply to my own writing, and the promise of the title (“how to write and rewrite a novel in three drafts”) is 100% a bait and switch. If you follow Bell’s advice, you will definitely write more than three drafts, but “three drafts” is a much more enticing promise than “three stages.”

The three drafts promised in the title boil down to:

  1. What Bell calls the “exploratory draft,” or what I think of as “the NaNoWriMo draft.”
  2. The “rewrite, don’t revise” draft, whose goal and purpose seems a bit unclear and muddled. I think part of the reason the book has no table of contents is because it would become very clear how little meat and potatoes Bell has to offer for this section. (The chapter on the exploratory draft is close to 70 pages; this one is around 16 pages. The last chapter is around 50 pages.)  As far as I can tell, this is where he thinks you should carry out major structural and story revisions. But then he sums up his advice as:

When in doubt, rewrite instead of revise.

How do you know if you’re rewriting versus revising?

Some clues: the presence of new typing (or at least retyping) and the absence of merely copying and posting.

When in doubt, rewrite instead of revise.

Trust me.

And at first blush that seemed like the exact opposite of what he was trying to convey in this very brief chapter? “Just spit and polish that dreadful scene you have instead of fundamentally changing it.” After multiple re-reads and several days of reflection, I think what he means is something like: write over scenes from scratch instead of just trying to tweak what’s there. The problem is that “rewriting” and “revising” never get very clear definitions; it’s the equivalent of being told “cribble, don’t tralapse.” This chapter might as well be called “draw the rest of the fucking owl.”

3. The last stage, or draft, sounds like a “spit and polish” draft where the focus is on language rather than narrative, but again he doesn’t really give it a name or clear purpose so who knows.

In addition to the bait-and-switch title and the “draw the rest of the fucking owl” vagueness in the middle, like any book on writing there is the obligatory list of the author’s personal pet peeves presented as Objectively Bad Writing mixed in with helpful exercises. At least at this point in my life I know to just skim those sections rather than live or die by them.

To his credit, Bell cites a lot of interviews and articles from other authors describing their own process. He also gives a lot of concrete examples of well-done prose and unique narrative structures for curious readers to investigate, as well as in-depth reference books on more niche elements of style. As usual, finishing one non-fiction book on my TBR only led to me adding others.

Really, this would have been better as a library read than a purchase. The only reason I don’t regret plunking down money on this book is that it went to support a local indie bookstore. Refuse to Be Done might be the book that gets someone started on their very first novel, but I am not that person.

Motorcykel genom Sverige

I’ve mentioned before that my reading habits as an adult have largely moved from “obsess over one author and read everything I can get my hands on” to “sample as many authors as possible in the time I have left on this Earth.” There are a few authors I still binge on, and one of them is Ester Blenda Nordström. It’s nice to have a reliable comfort read in a foreign language, someone you can trust to write in language accessible to your limited capacity, which is probably why the authors I binge on anymore are all not in English.

With Nordström in particular it seems like publishers have yet to really make the bulk of her work readily available to the public. Bakhåll has put out some collections, of which Motorcykel genom Sverige is one, but it seems that her reportage from other trips—Chile and Argentina, Japan and China, France and Spain—hasn’t been collected in the same thematic releases as Amerikanskt or Byn i vulkanens skygga. Indeed, contrary to its title, Motorcykel covers more than just her 1914 motorcycle journey throughout Sweden with her father. It also functions as a “greatest hits” collection from those aforementioned travels, an appetizer or sampler tray before the main course. We catch glimpses of her crossing the Andes on mule, attending a bullfight in Spain, surveying the damage of the 1925 North Tajima earthquake. Arranged in what appears to be chronological order, the collection also rather poignantly includes Nordström’s last published article, a reminisce about life out in the countryside. The timeline seems to encompass most of her active career.

There isn’t much need to review Nordström herself here. It’s a collection chosen to represent the best of her writing, so of course it’s good. Any one piece would qualify as a stand out selection, but the first that springs to mind right now is the account of her “hat pin” tram journey, a small piece of undercover reportage during what the above Smithsonian link calls “the hatpin terrors.” Another really excellent chapter is the bullfight, with no punches pulled about its inherent brutality. If I were a comparative literature professor I would probably assign this chapter as reading alongside Hemingway.

It’s a fun collection, though as an introduction to Nordström it might need extra context or explanation. It’s also a shame that the main course feels so incomplete. While all of Nordström’s reportage for papers like Vecko-Journalen, Dagens Nyheter, Stockholm Dagsblad and so on is probably well archived for academics,  the collections that are readily available for general consumption only seem to be new editions of the ones already published as collections in Nordström’s lifetime.

The Dawn of Everything

What a doorstopper!

The reason I meticulously note (almost)* everything I read here is so that I remember reading it. I don’t know enough about the brain to know if writing about things really helps it transfer over to long-term memory, but I’ve already had the experience of completely forgetting something I said or did until I re-read a journal entry about it, so I assume the same holds true for books.

All of that to say, I don’t think I’m capable of doing The Dawn of Everything justice here. In a nutshell, David Graeber and David Wengrow look at archeological and anthropological evidence to (in their own words) “ask better questions.” The paradigm that they’re trying to upend is actually quite similar to the one that Stephen Jay Gould also sought to demolish in Full House:

The argument Gould makes in Full House is basically one against the teleological framework of evolution: that things evolve for some higher purpose, or more specifically deliberately towards complexity; that complexity is somehow the best, most special, or most desirable form of life.

(quoting my own summary there)

But instead of deconstructing a teleology with complexity as the end goal, here Graeber and Wengrow are deconstructing a teleology with agriculture and the state as an end goal; that agricultural was an instant revolution that inevitably led to an apparatus we currently call “the state,” and that the world we are living in now is more or less the inevitable end state of things. They also occasionally take the time to dunk on Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens and Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel.

The whole book is something like 400, 500 pages to argue against this conclusion, and frankly I don’t have the recall or the comprehension to reconstruct it here. Like David Graeber’s Debt, I’ll have to read this one multiple times to really be able to confidently explain its premise. What I can say after one read-through is that they believe the archeological evidence points towards a history of mankind that experimented with flexible and novel arrangements of power that, even on a large scale, preserved what they call the three basic freedoms: the freedom to make promises, the freedom to disobey orders, and freedom of movement (the freedom to leave a place if the situation becomes too onerous).

There’s a lot of non-fiction that I read because I have weird niche interests, or because I ran across it at the library and it seemed interesting. There’s also non-fiction that I tackle because I want to better understand the world I live in, and The Dawn of Everything falls squarely in that category. More than that, there’s a category of non-fiction that I wish were required reading so we could start building consensus reality again and so we could maybe learn something from history. The Dawn of Everything is one of those books.

*Some are so niche and special interest that I don’t really see the point in including them here in my public record of reading. My commonplace book, as it were.

Historiskan 4/2023

Since I’ve made such a deliberate point of trying to summarize what I’ve read in the Delayed Gratification magazine that I subscribe to, I thought I would do the same for Historiskan, another periodical I subscribe to.

1. A brief essay from Cecilia Nordlund about founding Popkollo.

2. A highlight on three women—Gerda Meyerson, Maria Forsell, and Emma Anstrin—who were part of fighting for Deaf rights alongside an article about plans for a Museum of Deaf Culture that will open in 2026.

3. An interview with Eva Dahlman about her upcoming book about women photographers in Sweden from 1848 to 1968.

4. The cover story: Eva Bonde writing on basically A League of Their Own, aka the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Bonde points out that part of the post-war decline of the AAGPBL was the advent of television and televised games: people who enjoyed watching the sport no longer had to actually attend games, but could watch from the comfort of their homes. An interesting point I didn’t think much about before, though I also never thought much about women’s baseball in the US except with respect to, well, A League of Their Own. And it was of course segregated, so Black women weren’t included and instead played alongside men in the Negro Leagues. (I remember reading about the Negro Leagues in elementary school but not finding it all that interesting as a ten-year-old; it’s since become one of those things that I feel like I should read about now as an adult, in part because I’m more interested in baseball now than I was as a ten-year-old.)

5. A bio of author Maria Gripes by Lisbeth Håkansson Petré in honor of the centennial of her birth. The headline called her one of Sweden’s most read authors of children’s and young adult novels but I’d never even heard of her until this, so I guess that’s another cultural gap filled. A big part of the reason I subscribe to these kinds of magazines.

6. A history of political protest music in South America by Bella Stenberg. A lot of it focuses specifically on nueva canción in Chile and the women involved with the movement: Violetta Parra, Margot Loyola, Gabriela Pizarro, and Mercedes Sosa.

7. A brief biography by Karin Tegenborg Falkdalen of Kristina av Holstein-Gottorp, a queen of Sweden. Not my favorite Drottning Kristina but still an interesting read nonetheless.

8. A brief on the “tickle torturers” (les chatouilleuses) of Mayotte by Victoria Machmudov. It’s kind of wild to read about a colony rejecting independence, but maybe my brain is melted from being American. Some of the major players in the movement to break away from the rest of the Comoros archipelago and retain a connection with France were women, including Zéna M’déré. Unsurprisingly, things aren’t going great in Mayotte at the moment. Their wealth relative to their neighbors in the archipelago has led to a lot of immigration, but they’re still the poorest departement in France.

9. A look at the women in the animal rights movement by Camilla Bergvall: Lizzie Lind af Hageby, Leisa Schartau, Princess Eugénie, Elna Tenow, Ellen Börtz, Birgitta Carlsson, and Ruth Harrison.

10. Another historical biography, this time Olga of Kiev, by Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson.

11. A look by Pauliina Räsänen at what the circus life entailed for women at the turn of the 20th century and its role as a space of relative liberation: a break from gender norms, the ability to travel freely, being able to support one’s self (and out-earning a lot of men, at that). Too many names for me to bother listing but I thought Laura Madigan was interesting if only because of the tragedy surrounding her and her family.

12. Mette Hardenberg and her encounter with a demon, as summarized by Julia Håkansson. It’s a mildly interesting story, certainly moreso than that skeletal Wikipedia entry makes it out to be, so I’ll summarize the summary here:

Hardenberg got married off, as women tended to do back in the 1500s. Her husband published an account, in which he claims that his wife is unwilling to share the story herself but that he thinks it’s worth telling. For a period of six weeks, she was tormented by an evil spirit that beat the shit out of her if she mentioned God. Then she had a vision (in a dream?) of God, who told her to make a pilgrimage from Totterupholm to a tower in the Vallø castle. It was a trip of thirty kilometers and she went disguised as a beggar, and then at the end she had a showdown with the demon in said tower, where she won thanks to her knowledge of the Bible.

It’s hard to know what to make of the account today. The go-to explanation is that it was some kind of mental health struggle, and historians point to similar problems that had afflicted other members of her family. Others have more recently suggested that it could have been a form of marketing as a show of Hardenberg’s spiritual strength in conquering a demon—and modesty in not wanting to talk about it—that would win her esteem in the eyes of the church.

13. And finally, a longer piece by Sari Nauman on the first refugees in Sweden: from then-Swedish Latvia to Sweden proper during The Great Northern War which lasted over twenty goddamn years, what a grim thing to consider. (People were already fleeing religious persecution before The Great Northern War, of course, but the first time the Swedish word for refugee—flykting—appears in text it’s in connection with a woman fleeing Russian aggression in the Great Northern War.)

Delayed Gratification No. 52

One of the reasons that my book reading is taking a temporary dip is because I had some magazines to catch up on. Since I think those are just as important as books—and just as prone to otherwise getting lost in the void—I decided it was worth summarizing them. For posterity’s sake, and also to help me retain what I read.

Background: Delayed Gratification is a UK publication put out by an organization called Slow Journalism. It was recommended to me after I mourned the loss of the English language arm of the incomparable De Correspondent, a news project that is unavailable to me because I don’t read Dutch. De Correspondent features long-form stories focused on underlying causes or trends rather than rapid-fire news updates, and after a successful launch in the Netherlands they expanded into the English-language market as The Correspondent in 2019. Things went well until the economic fallout from the pandemic kneecapped their “pay what you want” subscription model, and rather than selling adspace or short shrifting the writers and graphic designers, they closed the project down. All of the English-language stories they published are still available on their website if you’re curious.

Enter Delayed Gratification! It scratches a similar itch and carries a mix of longer form journalism and shorter interviews/explainers (called “Moments that mattered”), along with more infographics than I really would care to read. Nobody’s perfect!

Every issue features a different artist on the cover, and opens with an interview as well as some of their other work. This quarter it was Robin F. Williams, with “Matched.” None of her other pieces are really a….match…for the painting featured on the cover (pictured above), nor was hers the most interesting or insightful artist interview I’ve read:

Starting a fire with a match requires precision, care and timing. It’s an individual action with the potential for a profound impact.

“Skill issue” was a friend’s glib response to that quote. “Grant for writers to take a wilderness basics course…”

Longer pieces

1. “Nahel Merzouk is buried amid riots in France.” The article by Rob Orchard highlights the work of French journalist Valentin Gendrot, who went undercover as a cop and wrote about it in the book Flic. French cops seem to resemble their American counterparts, is my takeaway, though perhaps they aren’t quite so heavily militarized (yet). Flic also ended up on my TBR: a French language and non-fiction two-fer!

2. “The coming storm.” Joint reporting by Matthew Lee and Rob Orchard on the bankruptcy crisis for many UK councils, whether current or looming. In some cases, poor decisions were made (going all-in on commercial real estate investment in the name of “development”). In others it’s just bad luck—shifting demographics is one reason highlighted in the article, where national funds are allocated to councils at the local level based on population data that is wildly out of date. Upon reflection, maybe that’s less bad luck and more “this is what happens when you kneecap actually-useful parts of bureaucracy.” Some areas are full to bursting with families with young children, for example, but not seeing the national funding to provide schoolingfor them because demographics statistics at the national level haven’t been updated.

3. “Metropolis now.” Marcus Webb, with photos by Nick Hannes. Projects to move national capitals: Egypt, South Korea, Nigeria, Kazakhstan. The people designing and paying for these new cities all gush about Dubai,  striving to emulate it in their city planning. This story, in combination with the previous article about bankrupt councils and a later one in this issue about rich people who want to live forever, is rich grist for the dystopian science fiction mill: wealthy, powerful people trying to build self-sustaining isolated little enclaves for themselves, away from unwashed masses, for all eternity.

4. “What lies beneath.” James Montague. Last July the loading ramp from the MS Estonia was pulled out of the Baltic, sparking renewed interest in assorted Scandinavian and Baltic conspiracy theories about why the cruise ship really sank. I didn’t know much about the topic going in, since it’s never come up in my life here—just that the MS Estonia had been a cruise ship that sank with absolutely catastrophic fatalities, and that there are a whole raft (if you’ll pardon the pun) of conspiracy theories about it. Montague interviewed several people with different relationships to the disaster: a Swedish survivor, a former Swedish politician from the Green party who remains convinced that Russian espionage was involved, the Estonian son of a couple who were lost in the sinking, and another young Estonian guy who was so fascinated with the sinking he grew up to become an expert in analyzing shipwrecks.

5. “Who wants to live forever?” Matthew Lee. This one touched a nerve with me. I can’t find the topic of “eccentric billionaires who want to live forever” interesting or entertaining—all I can think about is the tremendous exploitation and waste of resources involved. It also seemed clear that Lee doesn’t have the requisite background in science to really contextualize “longevity research.” (I’m directly quoting their language but I’m also making the scare quotes gesture with my fingers.) The project is painted in a mostly optimistic, friendly light and most of the people Lee interviews are of basically the same opinion. This is in contrast to the article on the MS Estonia, where Montague included a variety of perspectives that kept the speculation distinct from what could be asserted based on facts and data. To Lee’s credit, he also made sure to speak with a noted critic of the movement along with its cheerleaders, but the bulk of the article is concerned with the longevity research’s possibilities and proponents.

The last thing worth mentioning about this one is that one of the longevity companies Lee discusses is The Methuselah Foundation, and he makes a point of drawing the explicit (inoffensive and even vaguely favorable) connection between the foundation and its star backer, Peter Thiel. Yet nowhere does Lee see fit to mention this interest—not only longevity research generally, but Thiel’s participation specifically—has become one of the richest veins for Qanon conspiracy theorists to tap: tall tales about wealthy elites preying on children in pursuit of eternal youth, Thiel shooting up adrenochrome, God knows what else. Nor does Lee mention Thiel’s more unsavory, anti-democratic activities, which include limiting journalistic freedom as best he can. Is that relevant for a journalist to bring up in an article about longevity research? Do I just have a particularly strong personal antipathy towards Peter Thiel? Maybe it can be both?

6. “A wolf at the door.” Harriet Salem. The reintroduction of wolves to Europe is tricky going. Most frustrating seems to be that the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, could just unilaterally decide to undo years of wildlife preservation work by greenlighting wolf culls.

In absolutely, definitely, for sure unrelated news, der Leyen’s prize pony was killed by a wolf a few years ago.

The thing I noticed in this article was how many of the concerned farmers who want to bring back wolf culls are self-described “hobby farmers.” It reminds me a bit of Marie Antoinette pretending to be a milkmaid at Versailles, though to be fair, maybe hobby farming is how we slowly start to decentralize food supplies so that we have more food ready at hand. (But then maybe it’s more practical to grow grains, fruits, and vegetables than to raise livestock? In which case wolves are irrelevant?) Plus, left to their own devices with a normal mix of population, cattle (and I assume sheep) are a pack animal that have interesting strategies for surviving attacks from predators. There’s really interesting material about how cattle fared after wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone, which I don’t have the time to look up right now. Not to mention that, as Salem also points out, domestic dogs are more of a threat to livestock than wild wolves.

7. “Derna is a city drowning in sorrow.” Interview by Marcus Webb with photographer Mohamed Nabil, Zainab Chamoun interpreting. An on-the-ground look at the flooding in Libya. Hopefully they’ll put at least the photos from this story up and I can come back and link to them because I think it’s difficult to understand the scope of this flooding—especially considering other huge geopolitical crises going on at the moment—without seeing pictures of the damage.

Moments that mattered

1. “Lahaina is destroyed by wildfires.” Interview with Crystal Mitchell, Lahaina resident and business owner, by Matthew Lee. It seems that incompetence was a huge contributing factor into the fires becoming as bad as they were, as well as the scope of the damage. Unlike previous wildfires, the Mitchells (and many others) received no warning to evacuate and had no time to prepare. The escaped with their lives, but they lost two pets in the fire and Mitchell’s husband suffered pretty serious burns. Lots of events in the last few years, including the Lahaina fires, have me thinking about the inherent fragility of tourism-based economies.

2. “Luis Rubiales forces a kiss on Jenni Hermoso.” Interview with Verónica Boquete, former Spain women’s national football team captain, by Harriet Salem. A short summary of the state of misogyny in women’s football in Spain. Spoiler: it’s pretty awful.

3. “Azerbaijan takes control of Nagorno-Karabakh.” Interview with Laurence Broers, co-founder of the Caucasus Survey, by James Montague. Speaking of stories that get swallowed in huge geopolitical crises, how about this one? I had a vague sense of violence in Azerbaijan at some point recently but that was about it. This wasn’t a huge in-depth explainer of the history of the relationship between Azerbaijan and Armenia, but still informative. The major takeaway from me was how much Turkey’s support made a difference, especially as Russia’s presence in the region is basically nothing now that they’re caught in the quagmire of Ukraine.

Other

1. “Saddam and the supergun.” Marcus Webb with art by Carol Adlam. A sort of graphic novel visual narrative of the life of Gerald Bull. All the conspiracy theory talk with the MS Estonia and Qanon when there’s much more fertile (and likely) ground right here, with briefcases full of cash and assassinations and everything!

Rätt och rättfärdigande: en tematisk introduktion i allmän rättslära

After I walked out of Kammarkollegiet’s auktorisationsprov last October, I sent a joke about going to law school to a friend married to a lawyer. Her response was, “It’s OK, we all have intrusive thoughts sometimes.”

Not that I would actually make a huge life-altering decision just because I found a particular translation assignment appealing, of course. I sent the same joke to the lawyer husband of the aforementioned friend and he observed that legal texts will probably the least likely to get outsourced to machine translation, so not necessarily a bad career move. He’s certainly not wrong!

After I found out I failed the legal translation portion of Kammarkollegiet’s auktorisationsprov, the joke became a bit more serious. Again, I wouldn’t actually make a huge life-altering decision just because I failed a test… but if it was the legal text (and specifically, incorrectly using legal terminology) that knocked me out of the running, I could at least make sure to be better prepared. I found the reading list for an introductory course in business law and dutifully added the most relevant volumes to my TBR, including Christian Dahlman’s brief introductory text Rätt och rättfärdigande: en tematisk introduktion i allmän rättslära.

This one might be even more niche than Den högsta kasten or Språkets myller so literally the only point to me noting it here is for my own recollection. It’s short and it’s nothing I didn’t already have in the back of my head thanks to a background in philosophy, especially since one of my intro courses was taught by a member of the philosophy department who specialized in law. Worth having the vocabulary in two languages, I suppose? Though I don’t think anything in here is the kind of terminology I need for Kammarkollegiet.

More Than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor

While I was on my last library errand of 2023, I happened upon this one in the shelf alongside Språkets myller. Since I’m an incurable fan of George Lakoff and his work on metaphor I figured “why not?” and threw it on the pile. I finally finished it last week and here’s to hoping this will uncork the backlog of reading I have for the year. I accept my long-term 600+ book TBR as something like a calculus limit, to be approached but never quite reached, but the acute TBR has hit critical mass where I now have an inner urgency to do something. The current acute TBR: the English translation of Frère d’âme, Homeboy (borrowed from a bookish friend), Händelsehorisonten and Singulariteten (ahead of another bookish acquaintance’s panel moderation with author Balsam Karam in May), and a pair of niche but mercifully brief Swedish reference books before a test in October (and ideally before a third English reference book arrives sometime next month). Until last Friday, More Than Cool Reason was also on the list. One down, five to go.

More Than Cool Reason is a much briefer work than the highly specialized Philosophy in the Flesh (what book isn’t briefer than that one) and also slightly shorter than the general interest Metaphors We Live By. This time Lakoff and cowriter Turner…turn…their attention to metaphor as it is deployed in poetry. Here their stated audience is undergrad-level literature students, so the book functions as an introduction to Lakoff’s theory of metaphor, with poetry specifically as a test case. They begin by dissecting a few short poems (or selections from longer ones), mixing familiar classics like Shakespeare sonnets and Dickinson with some translations from outside the classic English language canon, and note how the conventional metaphors we have for understanding everyday concepts make for effective poetry (“People are plants,” “Death is a journey,” “A lifetime is a day,” “A lifetime is a year,” etc.). There’s also discussion of what makes metaphors effective versus nonsense and some philosophical discussion of Lakoff’s theory, criticisms of it, and Lakoff’s response to the criticism. The book ends with a close reading of William Carlos’ Williams “To A Solitary Disciple” as well as some Chinese proverbs.

The other reason I picked up More Than Cool Reason was because I don’t get poetry. At the end of the day I’m just too literal minded to really be receptive to most of it, I think, so I thought that this kind of nuts and bolts approach to poetry would help me be a better reader. Did it? Unsure. I don’t know that I’m a better reader of poetry now, having finished the book—I would have to go out and actually read poetry with this insight fresh in my brain—but the approach Lakoff and Turner take in this kind of literary analysis is so thoroughly grounded in the text and in the concrete that I at least feel like I’m a better reader of the poems they dissected in the book.

I would rank Metaphors We Live By as the better general interest introduction to the topic. Not everyone is interested in becoming a more informed reader of poetry, but I think most of us are vaguely interested in becoming better communicators and in better understanding how other people think. I also wish that More Than Cool Reason had been course literature for my poetry class in undergrad (no shade on Fussell’s Poetic Meter and Poetic Form). For all I know, it would have helped demystify poetry for me twenty years earlier.

Empty Mansions

According to my arbitrary rules for the blog, I’m cheating with this pick since I haven’t finished reading Bill Dedman’s Empty Mansions yet. It’s a biography, though; there’s no shocking twist or reveal to be had in here that might cause me to revise the opinion I’ve formed so far. It’s fair game to have an opinion now, even if I’m only a third of the way in.

Back in January I got lost down an Internet rabbit hole that I am now utterly unable to recreate and ended up listening to some author talks from the Amagansett Free Library released as podcast episodes over on The Internet Archive. The episode I found was a double header with Pam Belluck and Bill Dedman, each promoting their own new (at the time) book.

Back in 2009, looking at real estate in New England prompted Bill Dedman to investigate the mystery of a very empty and very expensive mansion in New Canaan, Connecticut. Who owned it? Why were they selling it? Why was it empty? These questions led him to stupendously wealthy heiress Huguette Clark (now deceased, though still alive in 2009) and Empty Mansions is Dedman’s attempt to trace not only Clark’s life story but the historical context that shaped it.

To the extent that there is a mystery or hook in the book, Dedman resolves it fairly early on: Clark maintained the New Canaan mansion, and several other properties, as a place for the hired help to retreat to in case of unimaginable emergency. (The original mansion that sent Dedman on his quest had been purchased during the height of Cold War “Duck and Cover” paranoia, to give some context to her thinking.) I appreciate that level of honesty with readers: “I sold you this book based on a mystery but gave away the answer right away. If that’s what you wanted, you can put it down now. But I think the story behind the answer is a really fascinating one, so I hope you’ll let me tell it to you.” My words, not Dedman’s.

In the course of his research, Dedman was contacted by one of Clark’s extended family members, Paul Clark Newell, Jr., the co-writer listed on the cover (now also deceased). Newell was in frequent telephone contact with Clark in the 90s and until her death in 2011, and the book includes several excerpts from these conversations in punchy little asides: Clark recalling a particular dinner party, or a family trip to Hawaii, those sorts of things.

I’m reading an ebook copy from one of my US libraries, and the short sections make it an excellent choice for phone reading on a commute. Empty Mansions is very easy to dip in and out at a moment’s notice, the same as with The Big Balloon. That’s probably the reason that it’s the book I’ve been reading the most at the moment, to be honest. I was originally fairly ambivalent about checking it out. I felt like I had a good enough sense about what it was and who it was about just from the podcast episode. Reading the whole book—when I have over 600 books on my TBR! oof—felt like…a bit of a waste of time? Or not a waste as such, but more like a book-length treatment of the concept was unnecessary. Thanks to the podcast episode, I now knew who Huguette Clark was, so I had already gotten to the end, so to speak. I don’t know, it’s hard to explain. At any rate, every checkout is a win for your local library’s circulation numbers and therefore its funding, so in the end I figured it was at least worth it in that sense!

But Dedman also provides an account of Clark’s father, W. A. Clark, which makes for an interesting if breakneck tour of US history from the frontier days up to nearly the present day. Clark was born in 1906, when W. A. Clark was already in his sixties: he had been of age to serve in the American Civil War (though dodged the conflict by heading west to prospect).

Empty Mansions is thoroughly researched, and Dedman makes a point at the beginning to not put words in the mouth of a dead woman he had never met himself (she had passed away before the book’s publication). In that respect, it’s a stark and noteworthy contrast to A Lenape Among the Quakers, though Dedman had the incalculable advantage of abundant primary resources. That said, there’s nothing particularly earth-shattering or enlightening in here, either. Dedman doesn’t break new historical ground or propose any revolutionary new theories, and while several of the family photographs had never before been published, they’re not necessarily of historical import. At the end of the day, Empty Mansions is more entertaining than educational, but that’s what makes it such a great commute read.

Språkets myller

I went on a small library binge at the end of 2023 to stock up on holiday reading. With my goals for 2024 already in mind, I walked out with one book off of my TBR pile and two books in French (plus one spontaneous selection).

More accurately, I picked a book adjacent to my TBR pile. The title I was after was Margareta Westman’s Språkets lustgård och djungel, which the Stockholm library website assured me was available at Stadsbiblioteket. Alas, it was nowhere to be found, but another book by Margareta Westman was readily at hand, so I took that one instead. Språkets lustgård originally ended up on the TBR after it was referenced in another Swedish essay collection on translation that I read, though if I had any other thoughts besides “Hm, that sounds interesting” they’re lost to me now. We’re talking six, maybe even seven years ago at this point. And since Språkets myller is, unsurprisingly, on the same topic of linguistics, I’m willing to count it as a win for my TBR goal.

Westman was a (popular?)* professional language nerd and, among other achievements, head of the Language Council of Sweden. She wrote a lot about the Swedish language, and after her death the Council decided to collect several of her essays into one place: Språkets myller.

It’s hard to get too excited about a collection where the average age of the  content is older than me (collected and published in 2000, but original publication dates ranging from the 1960s to the 1990s), especially when it focuses on a topic that evolves as quickly as language does. Westman’s ideas are interesting and expressed with lucid prose, but any of the chapters about how young people express themselves “these days” are now historical relics rather than au courant observations. Other topics are a bit more timeless, like thoughts on the purpose of writing instruction in the classroom and how to structure it, or reflections on shifts in attitudes towards linguistic norms and mistakes.

Overall, trying to review, summarize, or even just discuss Språkets myller in English was a lot like trying to do the same with Den högsta kasten: it’s simply too Swedish. What’s the point? But at least with Westman I learned a thing or two along the way—and I crossed a book off my TBR—which is a lot more than I can say for Rydberg!

*Since I’m not Swedish I have no idea how Westman’s reputation lands in the general popular culture: was she a popular and accessible language authority akin to Susie Dent in the UK? Or…I’m not sure who in the US, actually. Or is she a name for nerds? I queried a very unscientific sampling of Swedes around my age who are all to greater or lesser degrees interested in language. The first answer I got (from someone who had studied linguistics at the university level) about whether they were familiar with Westman was “no, not at all.” The same pattern emerged as responses rolled in from others.

A Lenape Among the Quakers: The Life of Hannah Freeman

One of the things about living abroad is that you end up feeling more like you’re from a particular place than you did when you lived at home. Maybe it has something to do with the desire to distinguish yourself from other people from the US, maybe it’s homesickness, maybe it’s a lot of things.

Whatever the reason, I’ve found that living in Stockholm has made me interested in filling in the gaps of my local history. The biggest gap is probably where the Lenape are concerned, so my reading started there. A reference to Hannah Freeman, or “Indian Hannah,” came up along the way and that’s how A Lenape Among the Quakers: The Life of Hannah Freeman ended up on my TBR.

The title (A Lenape Among the Quakers) and the subtitle (The Life of Hannah Freeman) pretty aptly describe the two parts and goals of the book. Author Dawn G. Marsh sketches out the events of Hannah Freeman’s life, interweaving it with the evolving (or maybe more accurately, deteriorating) relationship between Pennsylvania and the Lenape. Marsh is a professor of history at Purdue University, but the book is popular history written for a lay audience rather than a scholarly text. Still, it includes footnotes, a bibliography, and a small appendix with relevant historical documents, so there are avenues there for curious readers.

The framing device of Freeman’s life is a great way to examine standard fare Pennsylvania history from another perspective and level some well-deserved criticism. In terms of A Lenape Among the Quakers, the book is pretty solid. The benevolence and moral authority of Pennsylvania’s Quaker settlers compared to some of the other colonies is part of the commonwealth’s identity and mythos; pointing out that they weren’t cutting fair deals with their Lenape neighbors, even when William Penn was still alive, is a bitter and necessary pill to swallow.

When it comes to The Life of Hannah Freeman, however, the book deflates. In the absence of a robust historical record, Marsh hypothesizes about what life might have looked like for Freeman and speculates on how she might have thought or felt about particular events. While these suppositions are always clearly marked as such, and based in fairly reasonable historical assessment, it still feels like a stretch. On the one hand it’s important to be reminded of the human face of history, but in the absence of anything like journal accounts or other primary sources it’s pretty slim pickings. Black Tudors, which is a similar project in structure with even scantier primary sources, nonetheless engaged in far fewer creative exercises. However, Kaufmann had the advantage of ten biographies to include in the book rather than just one; there was enough material for a book without too much creative license.

And while Marsh is justified in criticizing the myth-making of Hannah Freeman by Chester County residents and Pennsylvania historians, it’s not clear that what Marsh is doing in this book is necessarily anything different. The last chapter focuses on Hannah Freeman’s memorial in Chester County and the public pomp and circumstance surrounding it in two different ceremonies (the first one in the early 1900s and the second one around a hundred years later). The memorial boulder, Marsh points out, isn’t even where Freeman is (most likely) buried. And the dedication events both times around were, let’s say, clunky.  The original ceremony had a lot of romanticizing of “the Indian,” with poetry and dramatic reenactments based on the “noble savage” stereotype; the re-dedication ceremony in 2009 included a smudging ceremony carried out by a member of the Cherokee, rather than Lenape, nation. (I don’t know enough to know whether smudging is even part of Lenape spiritual or religious practice.) Marsh criticizes both of these as events that miss the point and that flatten Hannah Freeman into a symbol to serve a myth-making narrative instead of treating her as a complex human being.

Yet Marsh herself has spent all of the rest of the book “[moving] Native American women’s history away from a narrative of loss and victimization toward a framework of resistance and adaptation.” It’s one thing to invite readers to reflect on what this moment may have meant or felt like for a human fellow traveler—it might not have value as reportage of historical fact, but it does have value in reaffirming the complex humanity of historical figures to readers who usually just think of them as names and maybe a handful of pertinent facts. It’s also one thing to recognize the biases inherent in the available historical record and seek to correct them or at least adjust for them in your interpretations. But it’s another thing to set out on a project with the goal of elevating a historical figure to a symbol of resilience and entrepreneurship. It still reads like the same symbol- and myth-making Marsh comes to condemn in the memorial dedication ceremonies.

It’s a fine line to tow, in the end. If you want to write a biography of someone like Hannah Freeman, you know from the beginning that much of the scraps of primary sources you have will be biased against your subject, maybe even outright hostile to them. On one level because of their gender, and then an additional level because of their race. As a result, these firsthand accounts need to be taken with a grain of salt. But it seems like Marsh set out to write the The Life of Hannah Freeman portion of the book to justify her own opinion rather than chronicle a life.