So a good Muslim girl meets a guy through her parents, the only “dates” they have are chaperoned, and sex before marriage? Forget about it.
“I’m an unmarried, Muslim non-virgin,” writes Insiya Ansari, a writer from San Francisco. “I’ve said it aloud.”
“And no, I wasn’t married or engaged to be married, or even in an exclusive relationship,” writes Zahra Noorbakhsh, a first generation Iranian-American comedian.
And then there’s Tanzila Ahmed, who has an affair with a Muslim punk rocker with a Mohawk whose band she follows across the country. And Tolu Adiba, who fights her homosexuality, then moves in with a girlfriend, who was herself married to a man.
This Valentine’s Day, peek into the love lives of 25 American Muslim women navigating love and religion in “Love, InshAllah,” an intimate, brutally honest anthology by writers Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi. The stories sweep aside stereotypes about subservient Muslim girls entering into arranged marriages and show the myriad ways Muslim women look for – and find – love. (The word “InshAllah” in the book’s title is Arabic for “God willing,” a phrase frequently used by Muslims.)
After successfully pitching their idea at Pitchapalooza 2010, a literary festival in the Bay Area where writers get a few minutes to pitch book ideas to a panel of industry veterans, the pair secured agents and then a publishing contract with Soft Skull Press in Berkeley, Calif. When they began soliciting submissions from across the US, mainly through social media, Mattu and Maznavi were astonished by the response. They got around 200 submissions, from women with origins in East Africa, the Middle East, the subcontinent, and American converts, with a range of ages, professions, and sexual orientations. And the essays displayed a candor typically unseen in the Muslim community, an openness that surprised even the book’s editors, Mattu and Maznavi.
“I felt like we hit a chord,” Mattu told the Religion News Service.
Adds Maznavi, there “really hasn’t been the space to discuss these issues publicly, and openly and honestly…There’s been a lot of fear in the community – fear of judgment, fear of disapproval, and I think that manifested itself in a lot of self censorship and people not feeling comfortable to talk about these issues, even with very, very close friends.”
By the time submission calls came for “Love InshAllah,” “I felt like women were ready to talk about these stories,” says Mattu.
And talk they did, from a heartbreaking story by Leila Khan about losing her fiancé because he condemned Islam and lumped all Muslims together as terrorists, to a sweet tale by Huda al-Marashi, a first generation Iraqi-American, about adjusting her fairy tale expectations of love when she enters into a semi-arranged marriage.
The book, says Mattu, challenges pre-conceived notions about Muslim women by allowing the women to speak for themselves.
“There are still misconceptions about Muslim women, because Muslim women, their bodies, their lives, have been so caught up in political debate,” she told the RNS. “I feel like this is a way for people to connect with women who are revealing their full humanity.”
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.
Considering that he spent 12 years studying the history of American railroads, you might assume Stanford University professor Richard White would be delighted to take a bullet train from nearby San Francisco to Los Angeles in the time it takes to watch a Harry Potter movie.
After all, it's a dusty 6.5-hour trek by car and a hassle of security lines and cramped seats by plane.
But Richard White, the author of last year's well-received "Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America," is no fan of the state's mammoth high-speed rail project, which is scheduled to break ground this year. He warned in the New York Times last month that "it will become a Vietnam of transportation: easy to begin and difficult and expensive to stop."
White's opposition to the bullet train is unusual since he comes from the political left rather than the right. [Editor's note: In this sentence White was originally – and incorrectly – referred to as "Wilson."] (Many of the project's political opponents are Republicans.) I called him and asked why he sees the nation's railroad history as a cautionary tale instead of an inspiration. We also talked about the railroad baron he considers to be an airhead – the one whose name graces Stanford University, where White works.
Q: You write that the transcontinental railroads weren't needed but got built anyway on the public dime. What happened?
A: The basic thing is that no one would invest in them to begin with. You’re building a railroad into the middle of nowhere – railroads starting nowhere and ending nowhere. There's no traffic on these things, so that's why they have to be subsidized. You need all this public money and then borrowed money to get these things up and running.
They went bankrupt once, twice, three times, but the men running them got tremendously rich. Railroads become these containers for speculation, collecting subsidies and selling bonds, and financial manipulation.
They’re much like the companies we're familiar with now that have gone into bankruptcy but have made people rich.
Q: What was the legacy of the railroad boom?
A: We're still dealing with the consequences of what the railroads set in motion. They’re a disaster politically and environmentally. They begin modern American corruption, when corporations infiltrate the political system and make politics an instrument of corporate policy.
My argument in the book is that this is not a happy story.
Q: What do you say to skeptics who will say you're just another left-leaning academic bashing capitalism?
A: This is a book that proceeds mostly by quoting the people who did it. They make a far better case for what happened then I did. It's full of quotes, oftentimes very funny, about how they invent this kind of corporate capitalism.
If you don't believe me, the book is full of footnotes. For me footnotes are what give me protection. It's like smell to a skunk.
What’s interesting is that I'm attacked sometimes as being a leftist, which I am, and I am often attacked as being too conservative by people who want subsidies for these large infrastructure projects.
Q: You're not flattering about the brainpower of Leland Stanford, the railroad baron whose name graces your own university. What did you find out about him?
A: Stanford was not the sharpest tool in the shed. A lot of this stuff has to be explained to him.
His wife Jane realized exactly what was in his papers and she destroyed them all, but the story is in the papers of other people.
Q: What have your overlords at Stanford thought of all this?
A: I don’t think they really suspected that he was much more than how he's portrayed in the book.
Stanford University has been very nice to me, but I will never speak at Founders Day.
Q: How have your findings affected your perspective on the California bullet train project, which is estimated to cost almost $100 billion?
The writing of the book led me to question it in the ways I wouldn’t have before. This looks like pretty much like transcontinental railroads: people demanding a huge public subsidy for a railroad that will be extraordinarily expensive.
The public seems to be taking all the risk, and the gain will go to the contractors and people who build it. What they’re trying to do is make hard questions go away through all this gauzy public relations about how this is the future.
Q: How should the public look at projects like this?
A: You should be very leery of giving public money to large corporations on the promise that everything will be fine. The legislation has to be carefully written, and you should never have it that all the risk is public and all the gain is private.
Often the private sector pretty much protects itself and is confident that the public will come in and bail them out if things goes wrong. These public-private kinds of endeavors very often will lead to an exploitation of the public.
Randy Dotinga is a Monitor correspondent.
In July of 1994, when I interviewed Eudora Welty at the home in Jackson, Mississippi where she had lived almost continuously since childhood, Welty expressed only one regret as she reflected on her life and work.
Welty, then 85 years old and in frail health, lamented that as her body had declined, her garden had declined along with it.
“The garden is gone,” she told me with a slight sigh in her drawling Southern voice. “It makes me ill to look at it.”
But what the celebrated matriarch of Southern letters didn’t know at the time – and what I didn’t know, either – was that help was just around the corner.
During the 1980s, Welty had donated her house to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, with the understanding that the house would be turned into a museum after she died. In August of 1994, Susan Haltom, who worked at the department and had an interest in garden design, showed up at Welty’s doorstep along with other department employees. With the assistance of other volunteers, they offered to slowly restore the garden that Welty and her late mother had once tended to perfection, creating an Eden of daylilies, roses, nandinas, camellias, azaleas and other Southern horticultural favorites.
Welty was excited about the restoration plan, though impressed by the amount of work that Haltom and her team had ahead of them. “It would be like hell to do,” Welty said of the job.
Haltom, along with landscape historian and garden writer Jane Roy Brown, tells the story of that restoration in "One Writer’s Garden: Eudora Welty’s Home Place," a new coffee-table book from University Press of Mississippi that also includes lavish pictures of the garden by photographer Langdon Clay. Welty family photos of the garden from its inception in the 1920s into the recent past complement Clay’s handiwork, creating a lovely pictorial record of an intimate landscape over time.
Although the subject matter gives "One Writer’s Garden" natural appeal to green thumbs, the book is really about how Welty’s gardening informed the creative life of one of the most distinguished American novelists and short story writers of the 20th century. Welty (1909-2001), best known as the author of short story collections such as "A Curtain of Green" and novels such as "The Ponder Heart" and "The Optimist’s Daughter," drew critical inspiration from her gardening when she sat down at the writing desk, according to Haltom and Brown.
“References to flowers and gardens colored her fiction and correspondence,” the authors write. “Their consistent presence in her writing reveals that the flower garden lay at the heart of her inner world, sustaining her creativity and stirring her imagination.”
I learned about Welty’s deep connection with flowers during my 1994 interview, when she recalled her winter days as a graduate student at Columbia University in New York – and the joy Welty felt when her mother relieved her homesickness by shipping camellias to Gotham.
“It was wonderful to be up there with the ice and snow, and these lovely tropical flowers would come,” Welty told me. Later, safely ensconced back in Jackson, Welty revived the tradition, shipping homegrown camellias to her snowbound friends up North.
“I sewed the stems to the inside edges of the boxes so they wouldn’t move about or jostle and hit each other. It was my own invention,” Welty said. “I only tried to send four or five blooms in a box on overnight express. I’d wrap the stems in wet cotton. In those days, you could go down to the train station and put things on the express and they’d get to New York the next day.”
Welty’s meticulous precision in stitching blossoms for shipment exemplified the kind of exactitude and eye for beauty that she brought to her prose.
When Welty died on July 23, 2001, Haltom, at the request of Welty’s family, arranged a bouquet of summer flowers “gathered from her yard and mine.”
It was a fitting send-off to a writer who grew both and stories and flowers with equal brilliance.
With her Book Lust series, “One Book, One City” campaign, and tireless promotion of literacy among youth, she’s done as much for the book world as say, Oprah. So why is everyone mad at Nancy Pearl?
Weeks after she signed a deal with Amazon to publish out-of-print favorites under the Book Lust Rediscoveries series, Pearl is still facing vehement opposition for partnering with the online mega-retailer many in the industry consider “the enemy.” (Just take a look at a recent cover of Bloomberg Businessweek, which shows a book in flames with the headline, “Amazon wants to burn the book business.”)
Reports The New York Times, “The Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association, which just gave Ms. Pearl its lifetime achievement award, described the reaction among its members as ‘consternation.’ In Seattle, it was front page news. ‘Betrayal’ was a word that got used a lot.”
According to The New York Times, one Twitter user, referring to a Nancy Pearl bobblehead doll, even tweeted, “I might have to burn that superhero doll.”
Not surprisingly, Pearl is shaken by the intense reaction.
“I knew the minute I signed the contract that there would be people who would not be happy, but the vehemence surprised me,” she told The New York Times. She even avoided Facebook, Twitter, and other social media to protect herself from the angry comments, the Times reported.
Folks in the book world are questioning Amazon’s motives, too. “Was Amazon sincerely trying to rescue lost classics or was it cynically buying a local hero’s endorsement to cover up its aggressive tactics?” asks The New York Times.
Earlier this year Amazon announced “Book Lust Rediscoveries," a series of Pearl’s favorite, out-of-print books that will be published and made available for sale via Amazon.com. Each of the books is personally selected by Pearl and will include an introduction, discussion questions, and list of recommended readings from her.
Pearl makes only “a couple of hundred dollars” per book that Amazon republishes, Sanders told the Seattle Times.
Pearl’s agent, Victoria Sanders, had shopped the idea to 20 publishers, none of whom were interested. Then Amazon jumped at the opportunity.
At the time, Pearl said she was thrilled, commenting, “Helping these wonderful books find new readers is, for me, a joy and a delight. I was blown away by Amazon Publishing’s enthusiasm for the project and the extent to which they really understood what I wanted to do.”
But it turns out she’s also been blown away by the negative response.
“By aligning herself with Amazon, she’s turning her back on independents,” Seattle Mystery Bookshop owner J.B. Dickey told the Seattle Times. “Amazon is absolutely antithetical to independent bookselling, and, to many of us, truth, justice, and the American way."
Wow. Who knew the anti-Amazon passion would burn hot enough to singe even industry icon Nancy Pearl?
Would she do it again if she could?
It’s “a hard question,” Pearl told the Times.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.
One of the most memorable aspects of the "Series of Unfortunate Events" books is its author, a man who goes by the name Lemony Snicket and frequently inserts himself in the narrative, admonishing us not to read the horrible story he is about to tell or providing dire warnings about the fate that awaits his main characters, the three Baudelaire orphans.
Snicket (the pen name for Daniel Handler) has been continuously mysterious about his past, occasionally dropping enigmatic hints about his life within the books. So young and old Snicket fans will doubtless be intrigued that his new series doesn’t center on any of the Baudelaire friends or enemies featured in the "Series of Unfortunate Events" books, but rather on Snicket himself.
The first book in Snicket’s new four-part series, titled “Who Could That Be At This Hour?,” will be released this October through Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. The series will be titled “All The Wrong Questions” and follows “events that took place during a period of [Snicket's] youth spent in a fading town, far from anyone he knew or trusted,” according to the publisher. “Snicket chronicles his experiences as an apprentice in an organization nobody knows about. While there, he began to ask a series of questions – wrong questions that should not have been on his mind.” The book, according to the publishers, is the first “authorized” account of Snicket’s childhood.
Seth, a graphic novelist whose real name is Gregory Gallant, will be illustrating the new books. A million copies have been ordered for the first printing.
“These books are questionable and contain questions,” Snicket said of the new series. “I, for one, question why anyone would be interested in reading them.”
Snicket’s biography on his official website, titled “The Afflicted Author,” hints at events like a scandal that disgraced the author and his investigations into the Baudelaire orphans.
“His family has roots in a part of the country which is now underwater,” the biography states of Snicket’s early years. “And his childhood was spent in the relative splendor of the Snicket Villa which has since become a factory, a fortress and a pharmacy and is now, alas, someone else's villa. To the untrained eye, Mr. Snicket's hometown would not appear to be filled with secrets. Untrained eyes have been wrong before.”
Molly Driscoll is a Monitor contributor.
You don't want to mess with Anna Pigeon, the park ranger who's starred in author Nevada Barr's best-selling mystery novels for more than a decade. But she wasn't always a tough customer.
In fact, as Barr's new novel "The Rope" explains, Pigeon arrived at her first job at a national park with little more than emotional scars. But soon, she would find herself tested by darkness, including the kind that lurks in others.
As the book begins, she's trapped in a deep hole near Lake Powell, a sprawling reservoir in Arizona and Utah. She is injured, naked, and alone. And the time is back in 1995, before she had learned the ways of the wilderness on the job.
As always, Barr expertly captures the beauty and savagery of the natural world and the creatures (human and otherwise) that are part of it. This time around, Barr – a former park ranger herself – focuses on themes of obsession and redemption. In a phone interview from her home in New Orleans, Barr spoke about the strange national park in the Southwest where the action takes place, how her own life experiences affect her fictional sleuth, and why she began writing murder mysteries in the first place. ("There was someone I just really thought should be dead").
Q: What made you think of sticking Anna into a hole in the middle of nowhere?
A: I was inspired by the actual "solution holes" that I saw for the first time at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. There are hundreds and hundreds of them. They are so cool, and I wanted to make Anna really helpless. I wanted to crash her into the wilderness before she was Anna Pigeon.
Q: Why are they called solution holes?
A. There was some stuff in the ground that was softer than the sandstone. As water seeped in, it melted into a solution, like pouring a drop of water into a bowl of sugar. It just liquified and leeched away, leaving a hole.
Q: Lake Powell, the humongous reservoir where the action takes place, turns out to be quite an amazing place. And it was 600 feet deep in 1995! What drew you to it?
A: It just had all these ingredients of absolute gorgeousness and human disaster.
They build the Glen Canyon Dam, a huge gigantic dam, and basically filled up the Colorado River basin. You've got this weird teal-green lake in the middle of the Red Rock desert. It's very controversial because they took this incredibly beautiful desert canyon and just flooded it.
[This question will spoil a small part of the story, so you might want to skip to the next one if you plan to read the book.]
Q: Anna ends up making friends with a baby skunk. As a person who has a nasty habit of screaming when he sees a skunk – that's not recommended, mind you – I found this especially intriguing. Have you had experience with friendly skunks yourself?
A: The guy who owned the gas station where I grew up in Susanville, Calif., had a skunk. They’re kind of like a cat. I’ve learned since that they don’t make the best pets because they are not domesticated. But they can be friendly little guys, and they’re pretty and soft things when they're young.
Q: Just about every person in "The Rope" is obsessed with someone. Is obsession the book's theme?
A. It's about obsession and redemption, coming face to face with what and who are you, and overcoming helplessness, whether you're helpless because of your obsessions, your memories, or your physical state.
Q: Why did you decide to focus on obsession?
A: I was going through a really tough time in a legal situation. It was all lawyers, and I was being reduced into a helpless little female by people talking over and around me. You could never have your say, and you always had to be like a trained monkey.
I became interested in the emotions of having something that's obsessing you day and night.
I funnel everything into Anna, but [the circumstances are] totally changed around. If I'm obsessing about something, it's almost impossible for Anna to be able to escape my obsession, she being at the end of my pen and all.
Q: Do you think the average person misunderstands what park rangers do, especially those on the law enforcement side of things?
A: I think so, and I love it.
For the most part, you think rangers will tell you what kind of flower that is and warn you to keep your dog on leash. For the law enforcement rangers, it's more about more search and rescue, putting out fires, and emergency medicine.
Q: What about the level of crime in national parks? Is that misunderstood?
Anything that happens in the world can also happen in a park. But usually, criminals are a lazy bunch and don't like to go too far from their cars.
Q: You were a park ranger when you began writing about Anna Pigeon. What made you decide to focus on mysteries?
A; I started the way a lot of mystery writers start: There was someone I just really thought should be dead. I started to think to of ways I could kill him and get away with it.
Q: Did you ever kill him in print?
I put someone in print that reminded me of that person so I could channel all of my evil properly. Writing is therapy!
Q: Anna travels to national parks around the country. Where's she headed next?
A: I haven't decided yet. I'm in that marvelous fallow period after touring and speaking for four or five weeks. I'll probably garden and veg out for another couple weeks, and look out and see what’s what.
Randy Dotinga is a Monitor correspondent.
Crisis of confidence in American parenting? Final reaches of globalization? Marketing gimmick? Whatever it is, in America, parenting has gone global.
Just as we’ve extinguished the final flames from the firestorm that was Amy Chua’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” which extolled the virtues of high-expectation Asian parenting, comes another foreign parenting manual, this one from France.
It’s called “Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting.” In it, author Pamela Druckerman, an American writer who moved to Paris with her British husband 10 years ago and has since had three children, describes the Gallic method of parenting, which she says may be “the perfect foil for the current problems in American parenting.”
“They assume that even good parents aren’t at the constant service of their children, and that there’s no need to feel guilty about this,” Druckerman writes in her book, which hit shelves Tuesday. “While some American toddlers are getting Mandarin tutors and preliteracy training, French kids are – by design – toddling around by themselves.”
According to Druckerman, la mère française preaches the importance of fixed meal times (complete with salad and cheese courses) and banishes snacks. They rarely breast-feed for more than a few weeks, happily put their children in state-run daycares while they resume normal routines, and typically let children cry themselves back to sleep at night.
It’s a method the Wall Street Journal calls “a combination of unyielding expectations and an insouciant, hands-off approach.” French parents, writes the WSJ, “are determined to counter the squalor and disorder of life with small children and preserve the ‘rights’ of parents to enjoy adult existence."
Of course, French women don’t get fat and they know how to raise good children, but if you’re not content to be a Tiger-Mère, there’s always “How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm.”
This delightful book by Mei-Ling Hopgood explores parenting customs from around the world, from allowing children to stay up late in Argentina to letting schoolkids “fight it out” in Japan to allowing children to play by themselves in Polynesia. Hopgood speaks with physicians and parenting professionals to back up the efficacy of the sometimes unexpected parenting customs, many of which run counter to traditional American parenting wisdom – and bring surprising results.
Tiger Mother and Chic Maman don’t know everything about parenting, but we’re thinking a little international influence can’t hurt. What’s next? We’re envisioning a new and revised “What to Expect When You’re Expecting – Global Edition.”
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.
As the topic of inequality reemerges in the national conversation and stirs controversy on the national airwaves – from “Occupy” protests to the “I don’t care about the very poor” Mitt Romney gaffe – a contentious new book by social scientist Charles Murray is adding fuel to the firestorm.
“Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010” boldly describes an America that is “coming apart at the seams.” Murray paints a picture of a deep social and cultural schism dividing Americans into an upper class defined by educational attainment, professional productivity, traditional values, and shared cultural norms, and a lower class characterized by the opposite – lack of education, lack of industriousness, a breakdown of traditional values like marriage, and a widespread political and social disengagement. The result, writes Murray, is a social balkanization of American society that has political ramifications and is only bound to deepen over time.
“The people who run the country have enormous influence over the culture, politics, and the economics of the country,” Murray said in an interview with NPR. “And increasingly, they haven’t a clue about how most of America lives. They have never experienced it. They don’t watch the same movies, they don’t watch the same television shows – they don’t watch television at all, in many cases – and when that happens, you get some policies that are pretty far out of whack.”
Of course, to understand “Coming Apart” is to understand the man behind it, a libertarian social scientist who has become a pariah of sorts for his 1994 book with Richard J. Herrnstein, “The Bell Curve.” The 845-page book about race, class, genetics, and I.Q. was denounced by social scientists, liberal academics, even, writes The New York Times, “a little-known Chicago civil-rights lawyer named Barack Obama, who in a commentary on NPR accused the authors of calculating that ‘white America is ready for a return to good old-fashioned racism as long as it's artfully packaged.’”
In contrast, "Coming Apart" focuses only on whites (to show class divisions transcend race), painting a picture of an America “increasingly polarized into two culturally- and geographically-isolated demographics,” as the NYT explains. In upscale Belmont, “divorce is low, the work ethic is strong, religious observance is high, and out-of-wedlock births are all but unheard of.”
“Meanwhile, in Fishtown, where the bottom 30 percent live, what Mr. Murray calls America’s four ‘founding virtues; - marriage, industriousness, community and faith – have all but collapsed.”
In the book, Murray calls for more interaction between “Belmont” and “Fishtown,” specifically for upper-middle class Americans to “drop their nonjudgmentalism and start preaching what they’re practicing.”
It’s a stark contrast with a controversial prescription. Not surprisingly, “Coming Apart” has sharply divided readers.
“I’ll be shocked,” writes noted conservative and New York Times columnist David Brooks, “if there’s another book this year as important as Charles Murray’s ‘Coming Apart.’”
He goes on to praise Murray for bursting the ideological class-divide bubble both parties have been blowing hot air into: “Republicans claim that America is threatened by a decadent cultural elite that corrupts regular Americans, who love God, country, and traditional values,” Brooks writes. “That story is false. The cultural elites live more conservative, traditional lives than the cultural masses.”
“Democrats claim America is threatened by the financial elite, who hog society’s resources. But that’s a distraction…The liberal members of the upper tribe latch onto this top 1 percent narrative because it excuses them from the central role they themselves are playing in driving inequality and unfairness.”
But New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait calls Brooks’ argument, above, a “sleight of hand” that Murray’s latest work has enabled conservatives to perform to “safely steer the [inequality] debate back onto comfortable conservative terrain.”
“The appearance of income inequality on the political agenda has left conservatives casting about for a response,” writes Chait, "and after several months of floundering, it has increasingly narrowed down to two words: Charles Murray.” Chait goes on to write that the focus on deteriorating social norms is simply “an attempt to change the subject” from “the problem of income inequality.”
Frum calls “Coming Apart” “an important book that will have a large influence. It is unfortunately not a good book,” he writes, arguing that Murray details the social problems that have burdened the working class with “remarkable – and telltale – uncuriosity as to why any of this might be happening.”
“'Coming Apart' is an important book less because of what it says than because of what it omits,” he writes, “less for the information it contains than for the uses to which that information will be put."
No doubt “Coming Apart” will continue to divide readers. But if it sparks awareness, conversation, and hopefully, action towards uniting Americans, then perhaps it will have accomplished what it was after.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.
Charles Dickens was an undisputed creative genius, a rock star of his era, and one of the brightest lights of Victorian England. And yet the author of some of the most beloved novels in the history of English literature was also an unrequited lover who spent much of his life nursing heartache and pining for a consoling love that he never found.
Perhaps it all started with his father, John Dickens, a charming ne'er-do-well whose stint in a debtors' prison forced his his young son into work in a horrific bootblacking factory. As readers, however, we owe a debt of gratitude to the improvidence of John Dickens, because it was that brush with those on the bottom rung of England's economic ladder that filled son Charles with a burning sympathy. "Hard Times," "Bleak House," "Our Mutual Friend" – in fact, almost all of Dickens' novels, in one way or another – were at least partially inspired by Dickens' keen desire to right the wrongs of society and to bring comfort to the have-nots of his world.
But when it came to the opposite sex, Dickens found little justice and even less comfort. His first great love, Maria Beadnell, left him for a more prosperous suitor. He would idealize her as Dora in "David Copperfield." (Later in life, however, he reencountered Beadnell and thought her fat and ridiculous. His revenge on her was the character of Flora Finching in "Little Dorrit.")
After Beadnell left him, Dickens sought consolation in marriage with the sweet and amiable Catherine Hogarth. Catherine bore Dickens 10 children but he later said that early in the marriage he knew they were badly mismatched. In fact, they had only been married a year when Dickens became profoundly infatuated with her younger sister Mary. Mary fell ill and died – in Dickens' arms – shortly thereafter and many biographers believe that he considered her the great unfulfilled love of his life. She is also believed to have inspired the character of Little Nell in "The Old Curiosity Shop."
The tragedy of the late chapters of Dickens' life was his passion for actress Ellen Ternan. Ternan was still a teenager when they met. Dickens lost his head over the young actress and shortly thereafter quite cruelly pushed his wife out of their home, leaving himself free to pursue an affair that some biographers insist was never consummated. Others argue that it was, but Ternan herself was reported to have said that she felt great remorse over the experience and, as a result, made herself and Dickens very unhappy.
Some of Dickens' late, great works – including "A Tale of Two Cities" and "Great Expectations" – are believed to have been inspired by his agitated feelings about Ternan.
Dickens died at the age of 58, exhausted and still suffering ill effects from a train accident he was in while traveling with Ternan and her mother.
Dickens was also a man of great enthusiasms, an eager traveler and explorer, a socializer never too tired to make a new friend, and a humanist never unwilling to investigate a worthy charity. But when it comes to the dark side of his work, it is most often the heartache that he never stilled that seems to have been the driver.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's Books editor.
Books-a-Million and Canadian bookseller Indigo Books and Music have announced that they joined ranks with Barnes & Noble in refusing to sell Amazon-printed books in their stores.
“In our view Amazon’s actions are not in the long-term interests of the reading public or the publishing and book retailing industry, globally,” Indigo vice president Janet Eger said in an email, according to the Canadian Globe and Mail.
Last Thursday Barnes & Noble made a similar announcement, saying it would not sell Amazon-printed books in its brick-and-mortar stores in an attempt to cut off access for the online books behemoth that it says “undermined the industry” by signing exclusive agreements with publishers, agents, and authors.
But, according to reports from the Good E-Reader blog, Amazon is striking back with a plan to open its own retail stores. That’s right, the store that built its business model as an online retailer and put many bricks-and-mortar booksellers out of business is looking to get into physical retailing.
The company plans to open a retail store in Seattle, where Amazon is based, within the next few months, Amazon sources told Good E-Reader. “This project is a test to gauge the market and see if a chain of stores would be profitable,” writes Good E-Reader. “They intend on going with the small boutique route with the main emphasis on books from their growing line of Amazon Exclusives and selling their e-readers and tablets.”
This isn’t the first time rumors have circulated about Amazon opening a retail store. In 2007, similar speculation arose when Amazon filed a patent for a retail building, but the building never materialized. This time, however, Amazon has already contracted the design for the store through a shell company to avoid tipping off suspicion.
According to reports, Amazon will model its retail store after Apple’s highly popular showroom-style boutiques – not after big box retail booksellers like Barnes & Noble. Amazon is “not looking to launch a huge store with thousands of square feet,” writes Good E-Reader. “Instead, they are going the boutique route and stocking shelves with only high margin and high-end items. Their intention is to mainly hustle their entire line of Kindle e-Readers and the Kindle Fire.”
Amazon has always approached the physical retail question with trepidation because it would have to pay taxes on sales wherever stores are located. This time it seems to be striving to keep its physical presence small to minimize taxes, as well as taking the time to work out tax loopholes before it launches. If the store is successful, it would mark a new chapter in Amazon’s sales strategy and deepen the divide between it and other booksellers.
Stay tuned – the test store may open soon after the Kindle Fire 2 is announced and before this year’s holiday season.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.