The Lost King of France: Not my favorite

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I want to like The Lost King of France by Deborah Cadbury. It seems like it has the ingredients of a book I’d like: French kings named Louis, history, science, and according to the blurb on the back “royalist plots, palace intrigue.”

Why it didn’t work for me is best summed up in two sentences. The first is the tagline: “How DNA solved the mystery of the murdered son of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette.” Now it’s true, genetic testing does come up in the book, but only in the introduction and the last chapter. Most of the book is focused on the revolution itself and all the god-awful things that happen to the royal family. Like, “Don’t mind me while I sit here and cry and drink my beer,” god-awful things. Most heart wrenching is the story of the little prince himself (called the Dauphin, as all future kings of France were), who was alternately brutalized and then neglected. Had the tagline read, “A rehash of the start of the French Revolution, with lots of lingering over the undeserved-miseries inherited by the current inhabitants of Versailles, followed by ridiculous rumors, with just a dash of modern science,” I wouldn’t have picked the book up. I expected a harrowing tale a scientist looking for funding, or arguing with priests to get a sample, or perhaps even a parallel history of the development of modern genetic testing and the tale of Louis XVII.

My next bone to pick is with this line, “True scientist, Cassiman remained unmoved at the sight—to him it was nothing more than a biological specimen.” It’s just, so, so, very lazy. Needing a bit of imagery, Cadbury opts for the scientist as the automaton trope. While the man may have been putting on a stoic front, I guarantee you, inside he was giddy to receive a sample from the boy that died in Temple Tower. He had DNA from Marie-Antoinette’s family, living and deceased, and now he’s being presented with heart from the supposed Dauphin. The image doesn’t make any sense in the context of the story. No one is spurning Dr. Cassiman on to solve this mystery. This is science for the sake of science, a man stretching his hand out for a goal that may be too lofty. And that heart is anything but “a biological specimen.”

While Cadbury did an impressive amount of research finding out what happened to the royal family while they were imprisoned, and even what became of their captors, the book ultimately feels like a bait and switch. Where is my science?

There’s also a lot of context that’s missing to the French Revolution. I don’t know why the author revealed France’s bankruptcy as a twist to the fairytale childhood of the Dauphin. Versailles was built in fits and starts, due largely to bankruptcy. As someone who’s read a bit about the Sun King and his court and country, I can’t help but to think of him as the father of the French Revolution. Why he’s not in the book is a puzzle to me.

There are just so many interesting ways that I think the story could have been told. Cadbury could have compared the life of Louis XIV (who was said to only have spent fifteen minutes alone in his entire life) to the life of Louis XVII (who spent entirely too much time alone in the Temple Tower). We could have had the thrilling tale of the Dauphin’s heart, which in its day had been stolen, trampled in the mud, and had its guardians make numerous overtures to the royal family in an attempt to return it. Instead of letting the facts be interesting, she tries to make this a tale of suspense, even though we know how it ends. The castle is built on sand, the mob is merciless, and not even children are spared.

Alif the Unseen: It got glued to my hand

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With a sense of glee, I read the lines, “Ignorant monoglots, Abdullah called them when he was in the mood to speak English. They had no idea what it was like to operate in the City, or in any city that did not come wrapped in sanitary postal codes and tidy laws. They had no idea what it was like to live in a place that boasted one of the most sophisticated digital policing systems in the world, but no proper mail service.” I thought to myself, No, Alif, I have no idea, and I can’t wait for you to tell me.

There are some books that make ignorance enjoyable. They take us with them, so thoroughly, that we are grateful they are working on fresh impressions, like sculpting a fantastic snow palace from clean white drifts. As I don’t live under a rock, I had heard of the Arab Spring. As of right now though, I haven’t watched any documentaries or picked up any nonfiction works, my favorite sources for in-depth information. So, it was very general knowledge that Alif the Unseen fleshed out, and it did so beautifully.

I think G. Willow Wilson created a very real character in Alif. In fact, I don’t always like him, unlike his faithful sidekick, Dina. Beside her, he seems often fickle and immature. At least he’s tries to do the right thing. That, combined with his sincerity, make him likable. His frustrations, his malaise, his hopes and fears, feel at once new and strange, but familiar.

We all understand heartbreak, and baser emotions like anger and jealousy. It’s hard to know how to relate exactly to a young man whose romance has been broken off by an arranged marriage. I’m never really sure what to make of his mother and father’s relationship, and his father’s relationship with him. In his own house, Alif seems to be both the treasured son and layabout.

I certainly know what it’s like to take pride in one’s work. I’ve felt the rush of gratitude too at the unexpected kindness of the stranger. My job doesn’t involve protecting the free speech rights of dissidents, nor do I know any jinn.

Wilson anchors us with familiar emotions and story arcs while showing us a world we’d never imagined, but millions live in every day. The constant clash of cultures, the just middle-class s Alif and his rich girlfriend, the unconventional Dina in her veil, the American convert and the lackadaisical Muslim, the jinn and the mortals, reminds us that we’re far from home. And I can honestly say, wherever Wilson went, I followed. To the Immovable Alley, the black prison cell, and into the chaos of a nascent revolution, I followed.

One of the most amazing things about this book, to me, is that Wilson started on it before the Arab Spring. In response to the way Westerners tend to blow off political activity on forums like Twitter and WordPress as forms of slacktivism, Wilson wrote a book showing how they weren’t. And in the end, despite the magic and the jinns, she wrote a story that is in many ways true.

It also answers something I’ve been wondering about for a while. Is the salon dead? Clearly, if an author is writing about current events that have yet to happen, then salons must be alive and well. They’ve simply moved out of the drawing rooms and cafés and on to the Internet.

I’ve got a bag of frozen corn jammed between my wrist and the bottom of my keyboard shelf

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It’s pretty much my bag of corn at this point. Every now and then, I grab it out of the freezer, wrap it up in a tea towel and press my aching wrists to it. “Every now and then” translates to whenever I get my period. It makes my tendinitis so much worse. I take diuretics sometimes, which helps with the swelling. I’ve got physical therapy in my future. If they hurt like this all the time, I would have been in there long ago.

It’s not self-pity that prompted this blog post (I’ve already napped on my husband and dog, which is as good as moping), but rather alarm. Here I am wishing for another bag of corn to make a cold wrist frozen corn sandwich, and I’m reading about people typing on tablet keyboards and laptops. I worry about the ergonomics of it. I worry about chiclet keyboards and angles and stretching breaks. I worry whether people have health insurance to pay for physical therapy if they need it, and how easy is it for them to get there and whether they can get any decent recommendations.

I worry because I wrecked my wrists when I was twelve or thirteen, and again when I was thirty. In some ways, it’s probably not fair of me to assume that others will make my mistakes. But just in case anyone is, I’d like to talk about them.

My first and original sin was simply typing too much. Ergonomic keyboards were just starting to come out then, and as soon as the doctor suggested it, we got one. I still needed a round of physical therapy. I remember being relieved I didn’t have carpal tunnel, doing a nice cozy paraffin treatment, and also a series of physical exercises and stretches which I still do.

The second time it happened, I should have seen it coming. I mean, the obvious conclusion of my love affair of sitting on the couch, writing with my netbook was my wrists breaking. At least in hindsight. Now, I use Dragon dictation software. The thing is though, I still need my wrists. I click around the Internet, make awful covers on GIMP (not for this pen name), and other non-computer related activities, like making dinner and digging around in the dirt. So, Dragon isn’t really the panacea to my tendinitis, but rather another tool.

For the people who are reading this, who aren’t at the point where they’re snuggling with frozen vegetables, I’m going to make a list of tools I use. I would pick them up now, and get familiar with them, and hope this will ever keep you from needing them in earnest. In no particular order:

Take breaks. Watch a video or something, but do something that doesn’t involve your wrists to give them a break.

Learn stretches. Make use of that information now, lest you be forced to use it in the future.

Learn about posture. We know enough know about these types of injuries that you should be able to look at yourself while you’re typing and identify what you’re doing right or wrong. When I was using my netbook, my hands were always very close together, with my wrists at a somewhat awkward angle. I should’ve stopped typing on it long before I did.

Get the right equipment. You know the drill, wrist braces, ergonomic keyboard, etc. Maybe the problem is, you’re not thinking about it right. Your ability to write stories is your bread and butter, and by extension of that, so are your wrists. If you want to succeed in writing, you’re going to need to write. I still write, though I do my best to avoid typing.

Dragon dictation software. You’re going to have to be patient with it, and buy a new headset, but it’s worth it.

Pay attention. If your wrists start bothering you, pay attention to the type of pain, and pay attention to what makes it worse. Modify behaviors as necessary (even if that means holding your beer bottle with two hands, like a creepy ball-jointed doll). And if you can, ask for help.

Don’t be stubborn, go to the doctor. If you can, for reals, just get your butt in there. Yes, this is the ultimate case of the pot calling the kettle black, but I think of it as speaking to my brethren. Also, the previous step is important here. You’ll need to be able to describe the type of pain you’ve been experiencing to your doctor so he/she can figure out whether you have tendinitis, carpal tunnel, or some other fun thing.

I hope, at the very least, after reading this, you assess the commodity attaching your hands to your forearms. They are important. You do need them. You should make sure to take good care of them.

Tea Tree Oil: Follow Up

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I got this back from the company:

Thank you for your email, Antoinette.   We hope this email finds you and Popeye doing well today.  We are very sorry that you had to contact us. We will definitely forward this information to the appropriate department so they are able to look into adding this information to the label. We do apologize for any inconvenience this has caused.

Please feel free to contact us if you require further assistance with your account.

We look forward to helping you and Popeye again.  Please give him a big hug for us.

Thank you,

Your friends at 1-800-Petmeds

I’m glad I got a quick response, and I hope they edit the labeling on the advertisement, as the real concern is people wanting to save some money, and using their tea tree oil (the bane of all butt pimples) on their dog. Still, good to see they care.

PSA: Tea Tree Oil is Toxic to Cats and Dogs (and people if you ingest it…)

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Like most dog owners, in the spring I take a moment to assess my stockpiles of Heartguard, Frontline—the normal prophylactics one uses to ensure the health of one’s furry companion. Flipping through the catalog included in my shipment from 1-800-PetMeds, something caught my eye: A medicated shampoo containing tea tree oil.

The substance is quite familiar to me. I’ve been using it on pimples for years. You have to be careful though, because if you use it straight, you can burn your skin.

Now, we’ve got a dog prone to skin problems (mostly white, bully breed). I wondered if one of my favorite home remedies would work for him. The answer was, “No. In fact, be careful with that. Don’t get it on your dog, and sure as shit don’t let him ingest it.” I classified this information where I keep other important pieces of information, like don’t feed your dog chocolate or grapes. I made sure my husband knew, and afterwards, I was more careful with tea tree oil.

That was the end of it, until I saw shampoo advertising a soothing cure for bacterial and fungal infections. While I do understand that often times the difference between a therapeutic drug and a toxic chemical is the dosage (see nicotine), I believe this is a case where caution is warranted. Animals lick themselves and can poison themselves that way. From PetMD:

Although tea tree oil is effective in treating certain skin conditions in pets, it has not been proven to be superior to other traditional medications. In fact, the concentrations of tea tree oil suggested for many skin problems far exceed the concentrations found in most pet products (.1%-1%). The attraction of using a natural product as opposed to a man-made synthetic treatment may not be worth the risk. The use of dilutions of 100 percent tea tree oil should be avoided in pets. It is too easy to miscalculate the amount of oil to use. Finally, oil should be safely stored away from pet access, especially the ingenious, inquisitive cat.

It’s not a stretch of the imagination to think people could see this and use their full-strength tea tree oil on their dogs. Or even overuse the spray and cause mild poisoning in their dog.

Long story short, it’s probably not worth the risk just to use something that’s “natural.” After all, the world is full of creatures and plants sporting impressive venoms and toxins.

Concerned about what could happen, I wrote the company, and I also hope a few people see this blog post and learn something new. If you’d like to write them too, I’m including my letter for you to copy and paste:

 

Dear 1-800-PetMeds,

I understand you strive to provide your customers with a selection of the best products at reasonable prices. Our family has bought from you before, and will continue to do so in the future. It is with your high quality standards in mind that I ask you to add a warning to the products: “Be Soothed, Tea Tree Oil Skin Relief” and “Be Soothed Shampoo” informing consumers that the dosage of tea tree oil in these products is carefully measured and they should not, under any circumstances, use the full strength tea tree oil that they use for themselves, on their dogs. From PetMD:

 A 10 year long veterinary study of tea tree oil toxicity in pets found that 89 percent of owners who used 100 percent oil assumed that it was safe. The researches felt that the lack of labeling was a major reason for the feeling of safety on the part of American pet owners.

It is toxic, both ingested, and applied topically at concentrations upwards of 1%. Better yet would be for you to remove the products entirely, lest dogs give themselves mild poisoning licking themselves. PetMD has an informative article on tea tree oil toxicity, which can be found here:

http://www.petmd.com/blogs/thedailyvet/ken-tudor/2014/january/tea-tree-oil-safe-pets-31282

Thank you for providing a wonderful service for pet owners, making getting what our pets need easy. I know you’ll give this matter the time and consideration it deserves.

 

Ultimately what needs to happen in the US is for labeling to change. But until it does, we can do our best to speak up about products which may accidentally cause harm to animals.

The Secret to a Beautiful Garden

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I’m fairly certain step one is getting things to grow in the dirt. As we all know, this is not as simple as it seems. My endeavors to plant a shady bed just in front of our porch was thwarted by the fact that the ground was 50% dirt, and 50% rock. Or maybe just a bed of rocks filled in with some dirt. Either way, wholly unconducive to planting. The bed the bulbs went into looks much nicer. Looks can be deceiving. Had I realized how difficult it was to get things to grow there, I would have left the scraggly ferns and hostas that were there alone. Instead, I’m left asking myself, do mole tunnels count as landscaping? They do add some interesting textural details. Thus far, my daffodils have failed me, I suspect most of my crocuses have been eaten, and any other miscellaneous bulb I’ve planted there has done poorly, with the exception of the grape hyacinths. Those guys are running amok.

So what next? Well, the two hostas I planted last year are coming back. I might try some or those, and some ferns. This fall, I’m going plant some winter aconite, silver bells, Turkish glory-of-the-snow, and maybe some bluebells or snowdrops. Given that the bed is right under a pine tree, I’d like to try some gold band lilies too.

Why lilies? I’ve had good luck with them. The ones I planted a few years ago are making babies. They seem to be something that will grow in our beds, as opposed to Coral Bells. I love the foliage of those plants, but it was almost like they refused to root in the bed where they were planted. I’d rake them out with the old mulch and leaves. I don’t think my rosemary plant made it over the winter either.

My one peony, the one I’ve had for three years, is going gang busters. I will definitely plant more to fill in spaces as needed.

So far, this spring, I’ve already added five daylilies (which I don’t kill) and an iris (which I may kill) to the garden. To me though, that’s what a garden is. A place where I put things in the dirt to figure out what I can and cannot grow. Some of it’s the climate. My avalanche daffodils only bloomed the first year they were planted, as it’s just a bit too cold here for them. Some of it’s me. I had no idea roses were so high maintenance. I probably won’t be buying any more, as the two that our house came with are fine with neglect and have grossly misled me about the cultivation of roses.

But I remember reading somewhere, I think in a Martha Stewart I picked up at my sister’s house, a woman’s reply to the question: How did you get such a beautiful garden? She said something along the lines of, “I plant something, and if it doesn’t grow, I plant something else.”

When you think about it, it’s really the universal secret for success in just about any endeavor. First, fail. Second, try something new. I mean, it’s how I got good at cooking. Goodness knows, I got a lot wrong with writing before I started getting it right.

I suspect in the end my garden will be a haphazard collection of colors and scents, as I favor fragrant plants, and have a soft spot for heirlooms. My hope is that it’s lush though. And also, that I win my battle with black spot. (Although it should be noted, my green rose has a bud on it. If I kill that rose, I’ll probably get another. It’s really cute, and odd.)

Lessons from Philip Glass’s Orphée

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Last Sunday, I went to go see Philip Glass’s opera, Orphée, which was wonderful. It was my first modern opera, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. While it lacked the grand scenes I love in opera, where everyone is on stage singing (like the “Te Deum” in Tosca), the score was lovely and lyrical. I enjoyed the set, and the way the performers moved through it. The singing was of course beautiful. But in between reading the subtitles, enjoying the music, and keeping an eye on the Princess, I found myself thinking of writing.

In this modern retelling of the Orpheus myth, Orphée is a hipster poet. The opera opens with him moping at a raging party in a swank apartment, and unlike any other opera I’ve been to, we stay in the swank apartment. No curtains dropped, no moving scenery. The space changes as the people moving through it change. A boisterous crowd warms the white space. When they leave, the space feels big and empty, setting the stage for death. The subtle marching rhythm of the music takes us on a journey through the underworld. Blatting trumpets accompany the agitated entrance of Aglaonice and the Commissioner. With Eurydice’s unhappy mien, the audience understands they’re witnessing a moment of domestic misery. Three judges on a bench, sitting stiff as boards, holding their teacups, transform a living room into a courtroom.

And what’s the lesson here? With the same story, we can tell many different truths. Who we put in the story, the tone we choose, the way they move through the space, are all tools we can use to shape our stories. A fantasy story with dragons and elves can be about anything, just as much as there will always be a boy meets girl story with a new spin. In many ways, there isn’t really anything new to write about—all the sets have already been built and used if you will. That doesn’t mean you can’t find a new way to use the same space.

Another element handled beautifully in Orphée was the theme of mirrors. With the help of the pair of gray gloves, the characters use mirrors to travel to the underworld. Instead of having the singers pass through a curtain, or simply walk off stage, their doubles join them on the stage. So as we watch Orphée in the Princess make their journey, another Orphée and Princess walk away from them. At times, these doppelgängers expressed emotions that were only undercurrents in the interactions between the two original characters (like when Eurydice and the Princess’s henchmen Heurtebise canoodle in the background). The set itself featured a chaise lounge and lamp set up so they mirrored each other. There was a pair of motorcyclists. When the judges take statements, you can’t help but notice their symmetry—tall, short, tall—whether they’re seated or standing. The production didn’t neglect the most obvious physical aspect of a mirror either. The set featured shimmering cascades of silver beads, adding to the chic look and incorporating the aesthetics of the mirror onto the set. Although, occasionally a bit of reflected light flashed over the audience, so there may have been an actual mirror on the left part of the stage, where I could not see. A glazier also joined the cast during one of their travels through the underworld, and tucked under his arm, was a mirror.

The theme of mirrors is reflected in many different ways, from the physical set itself, to the way the characters travel through the mirrors (their doubling), to even a character carrying a mirror. Likewise, when you want to incorporate a theme like flowers into your text, they are myriads of ways to do it. When describing colors, you can use words like rose-red, violet, periwinkle, and verdant, which all bring to mind flowers. For verbs, you have a variety to pick from: grow, sprout, blossom, bloom, bud, twine, hedge, etc. Nouns also provide you with a veritable bouquet of words that will suit your purpose. Metaphors come easily. I suggest writing a million of them and keeping the few that really work. It’s also quite simple to incorporate the object itself. Your character can receive, or admire, some flowers. And of course, you can work in some larger significance of the theme. Flowers can represent growth and change, or they can be a symbol of love, whatever you like.

Really, this is the power of a blank page, of an empty stage. You can fill it however you like. You can turn conventions on their heads, or follow the rules. And the whole world is there for you to take inspiration from—be it the kipple that constitutes reality TV to a chance encounter with a stranger to a museum full of saucy Greek vases.

Valentine’s Day Gift Hop: An Ode to Thorns

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ValentinesDayGiftHopWelcome to my stop on the Valentine’s Day Gift Hop! Keep reading for instructions on how to win a $5 Amazon gift card and the other grand prizes.

Valentine’s Day is fast upon us. A time for red roses wrapped in tissue paper and sticky chocolates. For those of you who need a break from Cupid’s saccharine smile, I provide this bit of bitter as a counter note to the sweet, and give the rose back its thorns when I consider some less savory facts about this famous flower.

Heliogabalus smothered his guests in them

In an attempt to one up the famous sensualist and politician Cleopatra, Heliogabalus showered his guests in roses. Only, there was such a profusion of flowers, his guests suffocated under the heady blooms. Please note: this little factoid comes to us from the ancient equivalent of the National Enquirer.

The Cherokee rose is anything but

It’s from China. Yup, that’s right, you heard me. From China. Not native at all. Just like those goddamn stinkbugs.

Red roses are for love

Yellow roses are for infidelity. What? A Japan rose is for someone who’s just a pretty face. Okay… A dried white rose for “death is preferable to loss of innocence.” And thank you, Lucy Hooper. Not sure when I would need that one.

Dr. Livingston presumes…

To complain to London’s Horticultural Society about William Kerr’s pittance of a salary.

Who’s William Kerr? Only a young Scottish man who sent 238 new species of plants (including his namesake, the Kerria japonica) back from China during his eight and half years there. Shipping plants overseas in 1803 was quite difficult. It took Kerr five months to travel from England to China, and the plants that he brought with him mostly perished. Three at least made it to China, though what happened afterwards can only be guessed (cough cough dead cough).

So, of the 238,000 plants young Kerr packed up and shipped back to England—I’m going off of Livingstone’s math here—238 made it, including the white Banksian rose, a flower still much admired and grown today.

TheLoveOfVioletta-AntoinetteM-1333x2000So, what’s sad about this story? I’ll quote Jennifer Potter’s The Rose here: “So Kerr was drinking and perhaps worse, ground down by poverty and loneliness.” At this time in history, China restricted the movement of European traders in their country, isolating them, and according to Livingstone, Kerr didn’t even have enough money to buy new clothes and spent much of his time navigating congested streets instead of working. Eventually, his employers decided to make him superintendent at the King’s new botanical gardens in Sri Lanka. It sounds lovely, except he died shortly after arriving. While Potter indicates a fever, Wikipedia suggests opium.

Now you need some sugar, I know. In honor of all the flowers getting ready for their big day, I’ve dropped the price of The Love of Violetta from $2.99 to $0.99.

Violetta learns the bitter truth that, like the roses in the garden, young love fades. What sweetness can she find treading the halls where her love once walked? Who will kiss her, now that he has refused?

Available at Amazon and Smashwords. You can read the first part here for free.

To enter to win the Grand Prizes:

BloghopPrizes

And the $5 Amazon gift card, comment  below with your email address and the bouquet you’d love to receive for Valentine’s Day (mainly your email address though). After you’re done, don’t forget to comment on other blogs for more chances to win the Grand Prize! Every comment equals an additional entry.

Click here to get back to the list of participating blogs!

As far as what bouquet I’d want, it would be full of messy old garden roses, cabbage roses and dog roses and moss roses. I’d also like to thank Jennifer Potter for her lovely book, The Rose, which has helped me to natter at family members about an even wider variety of plants.

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