Browsing Books: I Really Miss the Library Edition

“Our library looks like a castle,” Turtle would say when he was small. Above, the main branch as it appeared in his childhood. The impractical stairs, and the complete and open patio at the top, are now completely gone following renovation. William Seward, however, still maintains his watch over the main entry.

Like many places across the country, our public library system is functioning at limited capacity. When this whole mess got rolling, it did actually close for around two months, and I learned about it roughly 30 minutes before they locked the doors. At that time we ran to the library and went on a bit of a mad dash around, stocking up on books, music and movies we wouldn’t otherwise have gotten that day. We had entered in somewhat of a daze, but our departure was marked with adrenaline, supplied by librarians, and our own disbelief, reminding us that we wouldn’t be able to come back the next day: “Stock up!”

Some downplay various subjects, but records of them are a testament to the sense of history within past peoples; that we now know as much as we do on even those topics we take most for granted is nothing short of spectacular.

Now, eight months later, the libraries are still closed, though we can actually check materials out and return them again, thanks to the online system and computerized drop boxes. It’s not as magical as ambling lazily along the stacks, or even through them with deliberation, and for the most part you have to know what you want. Patrons can talk to librarians over the phone, but of course some human contact is lost, because chit chat isn’t really a thing with this setup. There’s no replacing the walk around a certain portion of wall to be able to swing by the desk and say, “Hey, just wanted to say thanks for helping me find that article” or, “So funny, we talked about calligraphy ink last time and look what I just found on the new arrivals shelf!”

I really miss our library.

When my son was about two, I was checking out books one day as he toddled back and forth behind me, along a wall and walkway area. The clerk casually looked over and said, “Wow, he has gotten so big!”

“Oh, you’ve, uh, seen this baby before?” I stammered.

What a great time we had with this book! Growling, rolling, counting, hiding and baking were just a few fun activities we played at under its influence.

“Well, yeah, you only bring him in every week since he was born!” I was really taken aback at that point, because I had no idea library staff might even notice such a thing. My attention, hyper focused on a really terrible time we were emerging from, noticed only the necessary. But it made me really happy to know there could be this sort of back and forth, beyond the casual greetings, authentic as they were.

Over the years, the library and its staff (at least the ones we came into contact with) became an integral part of my little son’s life; he was a reader from the get go and they treated him as if he was the most important patron there. He loved the reading contests, talked to staff about his interests, and one of the supervisors gifted him an Ernest Shackleton t-shirt she’d found in a thrift store. (We still have it.) And the twice-yearly library book sales, which my son used to replicate during his at-home play. Need I say more?

As a teen I was obsessed with Lewis Carroll and intrigued to learn so much about the family and world of the Alice who inspired his famous tale. I’ve ordered it from ILL a couple of times in a fit of nostalgia, and it still makes for fascinating reading.

I was delighted to experience an expansion in our excursions when Turtle wanted to start going to the satellite branches, two in particular. They are much smaller, but it was really fabulous to discover that their collections were just as quality as the main branch’s. Browsing through the stacks led me to such books as Butter: A Rich History or copies of Alexander McCall Smith’s latest book I hadn’t even known was published.

So, I can’t go into the library at the moment, and this may be why I seem to have so many books off my shelves recently. I have always had such stacks as my really-want-to-read-these-next pile, or the at-risk-of-forgetting-if-I-put-them-back-on-the-shelf mound. Just last night I finally sat on the sofa, my gaze moving over the multiple small heaps of books and decided they really do need to be arranged in a way less cluttered, more organized. Becoming overwhelmed would never do.

A number of themes present themselves in Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, and Turtle and I discussed many of them over the years. He often re-enacted scenes by himself or with friends, as children do as a means to better understand their world.

Naturally I browsed as I went along. Perhaps it’s just my grownup version of playing library, separating as I did, into various piles by subject, library or mine, read now or later, take to my room or keep here. It was not unlike the manner in which I stroll through the shelves at the library, and I stopped, memories such as the above and others flooding my mind. The Runaway Pancake, for instance, came with a CD of the author reading to an audience of children. Turtle was enamored of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi and, even as a very small boy, used to recite, “Move, and I strike. Don’t move, and I strike” in a voice he made as menacing as he could, to match that of the wicked she-snake, Nagaina.

I first read A Noble Treason just a couple of years out of high school and promised myself I’d read it annually so I never forgot what the Geschwister Scholl et al. sacrificed, not just for German society, but indeed all. They died in order to preserve humanity’s right to the rich, dazzling beauty of ordinary life.

These moments with my boy, now a teenager, seem like just yesterday, but the day the library shut down—eight months have passed and it seems like so long ago. Neither timeline, really, how it should be. Children grow way too fast and libraries, once one of the pleasantries that filled themselves into many spots within those years, have simply stopped. In a way we still haven’t emerged from the library daze we were cocooned in as we walked out the door that day last March, and saying the words out loud—“We are approaching a year since we’ve been in the library”—only contributes to our continuing disbelief. Sure, administrators try to transition at least some programs into online versions of what they once were, but the truth is that libraries are living, breathing places because they are occupied by people who bring the home of stories—our stories, those of our ancestors and all the good and evil they faced, what they created and all that resulted from their massive curiosity—they bring this home of the world’s stories to further life, knowing that they already beckoned us to their circles, knowing we are programmed, in our very DNA, to want to hear the tales they long to tell us. Stories are living, breathing things, they are in our bones and we nourish each other.

Long may it be.

It’s been awhile, but you can check out the last edition
our my Browsing Books series here

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Focus on Food: Pepper, the King of Spices

I’ve lost track of when, but somewhere along the line at one of our library book sales, I acquired an intriguing possibility of a book called Pepper: A History of the World’s Most Influential Spice (Marjorie Shaffer). I’m not a “foodie,” but I like food, and its history I find rather fascinating. Political events, geography, weather, personal fortunes—up or down—and more all played a role in the travels and temptations of various foods, including spices from tiny plants on the other side, to many, of the known world. Most of us know by now that wars were fought over spices, but I didn’t learn until yesterday some exciting and curious facts about this particular zing. It seems to be underrated because it doesn’t appear to get much press but, if you think about it, has any other spice gotten its own shaker to pair with salt? In kitchens the world over?

From the book—which I will definitely be talking about again in these pages—as well as the mighty interweb, I’ve gathered a few tidbits for you to mull over, then tell friends and family all about. If you haven’t already, give pepper a go!

  • Black pepper comes from the dried fruit peppercorn (piper nigrum) and grows on a perennial flowering vine.
  • These peppercorns aren’t actually spices, but rather fruit.
  • Guess which country is the biggest consumer of pepper? In 2018, Vietnam, India and the United States together made up a combined 41% of global consumption. The United States imported $671 million worth of pepper in 2009, and that number has climbed each year since.
  • About 50% of a typical restaurant’s spice usage is attributed to—you guessed it: pepper.
  • When the Visigoths sacked Rome, their ransom demands included gold and silver—and 3,000 pounds of black pepper.
  • Piper nigrum from an 1832 print (Detail courtesy Wikimedia; click image)

    Pepper is known as the King of Spices: While some today treat pepper in a ho hum sort of manner, they don’t often realize its pedigree goes waaaaay back and is one of the most traded spices in the world. As was the case with other spices, pepper was extremely expensive to buy and ship, in this case because it came only from India. Today it remains a widely traded spice and may be found in the most ordinary of groceries for just a few dollars.

  • “The extinction of the dodo is related to the pepper trade[.]” Marjorie Shaffer writes that pepper traders on their way to Asia stopped on Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean, in search of food. Whether with intent or not, these traders introduced a variety of animals to the island and the flightless birds seemed to have succumbed under the invasive species’ presence, for by 1690 they were seen no more.
  • A few thousand years ago, pepper was used as an aid in curing disease and various maladies; it was later that it became popular as a condiment.
  • The branching vines of the pepper plant take several years to mature, and can reach up to thirty feet.
  • Harvesting begins when one or two of the peppercorn fruits begin to turn red. If they are allowed to reach full maturity, they lose their pungent odor and drop off. Likewise, people tend to prefer grinding their peppercorns as they use the spice, rather than keeping a large stock of powder, because the shells retain freshness. Once exposed to air, pepper’s flavor begins to fade.
Roman era trade route: from India across to and around the Arabian Peninsula, then overland until reaching the Mediterranean and across to Rome. (Map courtesy Wikimedia; click image)

Sources

Chef Zieg, Spice Master. “21 Black Pepper Facts You Didn’t Know.” The Chef Zieg Blog, accessed November 20, 2020, http://www.chefzieg.com/21-black-pepper-facts-you-didnt-know/

Intrado: Globe News Wire. “World Pepper Market 2020: Historic review of 2007—2018 with Projections to 2025.” Research and Markets, accessed November 21, 2020, https://www.globenewswire.com/news-release/2020/02/05/1980349/0/en/World-Pepper-Market-2020-Historic-Review-of-2007-2018-with-Projections-to-2025.html

Mattison, Lindsay D. “10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Pepper.” Taste of Home, last modified February 7, 2020, https://www.tasteofhome.com/collection/things-you-probably-didnt-know-about-pepper/

Shaffer, Marjorie. Pepper: A History of the World’s Most Influential Spice. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013.

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Added Note: This entry was edited to include elements (e.g. tags, images) not entered when initially published.

Cover Crush: Knight Assassin by James Boschert

Knight Assassin is the Second Book of Talon by James Boschert, whose experiences and education in places such as Iran cause me to muse about how much of his own stories make their way into these adventures, whether poetic passages or information about secretive, dangerous groups. On this cover we are given closer look at a knight, presumably Talon, and an idea of how these men might have looked circa twelfth century. Beneath the mail and gauntlets I sense a brooding type of personality, perhaps a dangerous one, though not a reckless or casual threat. This is not a person who kills easily, but cross him at your peril.

I was also extremely attracted to the color combination, a swirl of blue and green, my favorite though not, in my experience, often seen in covers for novels set in this era. The thick layers of the knight’s clothing reveal nothing of his physical sense in much the same way his helmet conceals anything at all that he might be thinking, strategies, doubts or possibilities he may be experiencing. The image speaks of yet conceals much, captivates and whets the appetite as we seek more understanding of who this man is, where he comes from and what he is about. The title’s Persian font; a castle, set high on a hill behind him; and moon in the background introduce more intrigue and, paired with Talon’s one indication of to whom he is loyal—the Templar cross—our fascination is sealed.

Book Information and Blurb:

 Knight Assassin: Book Two of Talon by James Boschert

Published: March 14, 2015 byPenmore Press | ISBN 9781942756149

Format: Paperback/eBook | Pages: 520

 A joyous homecoming turns into a nightmare, as a trained assassin must do the one thing he didn’t want to do–become an assassin again. Talon, a young Frank, returns to France with his uncle Phillip, a Templar knight, to be reunited with his family who lost him to the Assassins of Alamut when he was just a boy. When he arrives, he finds a sinister threat hanging like a pall over the joyous reunion. Ruthless enemies, who will stop at nothing to destroy his entire family to achieve their ends, are challenging the inheritance of his father.

Talon will have to depend upon a handful of Welsh Archers, whom he met at sea, and his uncle’s trusty sergeant Max to help him defend his family from this plot. To accomplish that, however, he must also use the skills he learned as a Persian Hashshashin to tip the balance in his family’s favor.

Related posts –
Assassins of Alamut book review
Knight Assassin book review

Previous Cover Crush 

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Check out Stephanie’s Cover Crushes
too, as well as her other great content!

Bullet Journaling 101

Not too long ago, a friend of mine introduced me to a concept called bullet journaling. It instantly appealed to me because the Tube of You personality who outlined it, well, his character is appealing and he presents the idea in a very straightforward and succinct manner. But it also touched very closely to a few points I could really use work on. Have a look and I’ll give you a few thoughts after.

~ ~ ~

First of all, while I love the idea of journaling, I’ve never been good at it—the discipline aspect, that is. I have about a dozen books with a smattering of entries within and the timeline bounces back and forth between them, depending upon which journal appealed to me on any given day I picked it up, having not touched it for months, even years.

I am fairly decent at list making, however, and this may be where my strength and bullet journaling meet. Because I make lists every day, at work and home, and my ability to stick with them is reasonably developed, I can boast some longevity. Bullet journaling takes it a step—perhaps many—further because it’s also got the element of journaling designed into it, an activity I really wish I could develop. In this way bullet journaling becomes more than just a list, but also a reflection and history of one’s life.

Here are some advantages to this technique of journaling as presented by A.J. Kallas, the YouTuber – in bullet form, of course, in the spirit of our topic:

  • There is no limit to the ways in which people can use their bullet journals
  • Bullet journals can help people increase perspective and grow in patience
  • Utilize a bullet journal to track what you are doing: if unsatisfied, you can change that

The ways in which I see straight away that bullet journaling might work really well for me:

  • I can utilize my bullet journal for my to-do listing as well as record my activities
  • Even if keeping a master to-do list, I can write in just a few specific tasks for each day
  • The above allows me to add and cross off the bigger list and avoid becoming overwhelmed or forgetting anything
  • I can record what I did on a daily basis in just a few words and refer back to these entries if I want to pursue them further in writing
  • Making lists and crossing off the to-do portions bestows on me a sense of satisfaction, which in turn can help motivate me to continue on this path
  • The sticky notes—lost and in random, unorganized piles—are forever a thing of the past and my date book is promoted to something more than just a heavy to-do list

I’ve only been utilizing the bullet journaling technique for a few days and, admittedly, have not been 100% on top of it, but I can say I do already see an improvement. Because one of my major goals is to promote accomplishment—even small and even if not everything—things have begun to shift, and I do believe it is because what I am completing is presented as a visual for me, which enables me better to keep in mind things I’ve done from day to day because I can see them, or at least the big blocks of text. Somehow, perhaps, my brain also had recorded the feeling, the serotonin coursing through it or whatever it may be, that comes from this act of writing, preserving the knowledge that I’ve accomplished, even if I have to look to see the precise details.

The reason I highlight accomplishment right now is because of two things:

  • I have a teenage son who is terrific, smart, kind and hopelessly messy, which means I’m spending way too much of my rare spare time cleaning up after both of us
  • My brain has difficulties with filters: if my environment is cluttered, I have a difficult time focusing—and I’ve got paid work to do as well as writing projects (and that doesn’t count all the myriad other things I have to do)

For various reasons we have a lot of cleaning up and clearing out going on in our house, and we’ve also made a few changes to how we approach things. So as we are getting things physically settled and organized, I have celebrated the things we’ve accomplished to get us as close to back-on-track as we can be (nothing is ever 100% perfect, and that’s ok). Simultaneously I’ve been trying to do other things so it all doesn’t become mere existence—recall Kallas’s bullet entry regarding having a life. To that end, here’s a sample from a recent bullet journal entry:

Wednesday, November 11—Accomplished

  • Made master to-do list in back of date book
  • Started blog entry for bullet journaling
  • Paid bills
  • Cleaned under stove and managed to get broiler drawer put back in on the track
  • Helped Turtle make Flädlesuppe for German class

Saturday, November 14—To Do

  • Hang remaining framed pictures on the wall in bedroom
  • Clear out piled-up stuff on other side of the bed
  • Read one poem
  • Finish blog entry—bullet journaling
  • Read [this comes after posting!]

Ah, yes, poems…one of the forgotten beauties of life. I’ll have more on this and how my bullet journaling is progressing in an upcoming blog. Perhaps more thoughts about how to do it and use my journal will further develop. I think I will let anything occur organically rather than trying to brainstorm further changes or additions, but whatever the case, I will let you know. In the meantime, I hope I have inspired you to something that will be as beneficial (or more) as I think this will be for me.

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Many thanks to Stephanie for the vid suggestion,
and A.J. Kallas for creating it.

Cover Crush: The Liminal Zone by Richard Abbott

Today’s entry really lights a spark in our somewhat dormant Cover Crush series – from the moment I saw it. I’m far too greedy and undisciplined to actually carry a package home and unwrap it like in the movies. So of course I tore it open in the car, at first expecting the black of the previous two covers in the series, instead gasping at the lovely coloring of this one.

Like the other Far from the Spaceports covers, this one is a dead giveaway to its sci-fi content, which I never was a fan of until I began this series. But it moves away from run-of-the-mill coverage with the lovely green, darker toward the top, transitioning to a lighter shade as the eye moves closer to the image of the person in a spacesuit. What lies to their right is included in the picture: a somewhat stark environment also reflected in the suit’s visor, bringing us to understand that this landscape stretches before and beyond the person, with a tension further conveyed as the image spills onto the back cover.

The contrasting sandy brown at bottom serves to divide the cover roughly in half, its distant horizon adding to the barren feel, and is replicated in the visor’s reflection. What is this world? it makes me wonder, an inquiry only to be answered by opening the book.

The Liminal Zone – A Far from the Spaceports novel

Author – Richard Abbott

Selkies in Space? Nina Buraca, investigator of possible signs of alien life, has heard tales of mysterious events on Pluto’s moon Charon, where a science outpost studies extrasolar planets. Facing opposition from her colleagues, she nevertheless travels from Earth to uncover the truth. Once there, she finds herself working with a team of people who have many secrets. To make progress, she has to take sides in an old dispute that she knows nothing about. Can she determine who – or what – is really behind the name “selkies” that the station’s staff have given to this uncanny phenomenon?

The Liminal Zone, a novel in the Far from the Spaceports series, takes you a further twenty years into the future – and out to the edge of our solar system – for an encounter with the unknown.

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Reading Mind, Roaming Mind and a Little &tc.

I’ve got way too many books on my currently-reading list. Not that that’s a bad thing. Well, it’s just that once I reach around six or so books that I’m trying to read at once, I start to feel sort of shifty. Just as “multi-tasking,” all the rage in HR circles, isn’t really possible, so do I sometimes wonder that I’m not even taking turns with all the books on my list at any given time. In reality, I probably just am currently refusing to remove at least one or two neglected titles because that might mean they won’t get back on for another year or more, and we can’t have that.

I suppose, though, one saving grace is that at least three of them are long-term reads and won’t be off this list for a long while – on purpose. Plus I’m nearly finished with one.

What I call “currently on my night table,” even though the entire pile often travels with me on round trips throughout my house – click the image for further book details or current reads as they update

That means six remain, though, which still leaves me hovering around my uneasy number, which in turn translates to all day tomorrow reading. Now, this isn’t solely because I want to crank out the finish-line moments, but rather a result of the past week in which I really have had slim chances to stick my nose into a book, and have fallen asleep or turned away most nights when trying. Some weeks are just like that, you know? Not only the time factor – this is an issue for most readers. But that icky state of being in which you pick up a book or even drag it all over the house as you keep doing other things in prep for your moment when you can curl up in a corner.

Fortunately for me, this week it hasn’t been so related to what I have complained of in the past, i.e. basically lacking the will to read: I pick up a book or even prep an area to sit down, and end up letting my plan fall by the wayside because I really just don’t want to engage. Instead, I get interrupted at lunch, and actually allow it in many instances, because even though I’ve been an introvert most of my life, this doesn’t mean I want to be alone 24/7. Indeed, I have never wanted that. However, this CV-19 insanity has torn apart the fabric of social connections, leaving many of us with reduced contact. Therefore I often find myself wanting to read but also craving social interaction and getting it when I can.

But this thing about spending tomorrow reading – who knows if that will happen? It would be nice but the reality is I have difficulty sitting still for long periods. It wasn’t until recent years that I could actually watch a movie at the cinema without falling asleep, because typically I would have been walking around doing things at home while a movie played. So reading a book? My secret is that I sometimes walk around as I do it, although that kind of gets in the way of running my finger across the words—another little thing I discovered long ago that helps me read faster; I think it has something to do with the brain seeing the key portions of words and sentences without one actually having to read them in their entirety. I think I may have just made that up, but I’m not really sure.

I’ve learned these pages are called “deckle edges”

I do read more deliberately at times, though, and aloud, particularly with dense reading, or else I get caught up looking at the page edges and thinking of something a professor told us about them from the olden days, which goes something like this: The pages of brand spanking-new books (made by hand) used to be folded together, so the weighty work of having lots of books on display was compounded by the need to actually read them – company  could tell if you’d done that or not by whether the foredges, head and tail were sliced apart, leaving them with a wavy, uneven look. So posh people used to direct their servants to go through the books and slice each page open, and no one was the wiser…maybe. I suspect there was an unspoken awareness that many people did this, but today the look apparently has some fans because not a few books’ pages mimic this style. I personally like it quite a lot, so if a book has it I might sometimes stare at it for longish periods.

And then there’s the sniffing. Some people have joked about my predilection toward glue, but that’s just a vicious lie. I also love the smell of peaches and bananas. And vanilla candles. And if it’s one of those fabulous new sort of magazines that started out helping people to live a more hygge life or catering to paper lovers but now sadly have become cash cows, well, they often have those lovely glossy pages that smell of lavender. Or very thick and heavy leaves with a grainy feel and that make an equally lovely, stiff-sounding noise when you flip through.

OK, but it’s not always distraction that pulls me away. For instance, I’m currently researching for two different projects (actually three, but one is on the shelf at the moment and it’s got some of the same research material as one of the remaining two, so I’m not falling as behind as I could be), so some of my reading is online or in books I look through only for particular information. I also sometimes get a little overwhelmed because I have a few different angles to examine and occasionally go back and forth, especially if I’ve found exciting information that works for more than one angle. In these cases I have found I just put everything back and leave it all alone for at least one or two days. I’m not sure it’s some super wise technique, but even if it is, I didn’t set out to do it in some informed fashion; really it was more a coping mechanism that just happened.

In other instances I go back to that teaching concept of “the right book at the right time,” an idea that I know many can relate to. You want to read but nothing is doing it for you and you act all shiftless and people get tired of seeing you mope around the house, or stare into space for long periods. Believe it or not, what often helps me snap out of this funk is a young adult book. YA has rescued me so many times that now, when I feel that wishy-washy “I don’t know what to read,” the first thing I go for is a teen book to see if we just can’t get past this moment of drag. Ygraine the Brave (Cornelia Funke); Company of Fools (Deborah Ellis); Emil and the Detectives (Erik Kästner) and The Midwife’s Tale (Sam Thomas) are some that have told me a great story while relaxing my mind, putting it at ease and giving it a little rest.

Like the protagonist in Vikram Seth’s 1993 novel, my first friend ever was called Lata

Of course there is the exact opposite problem in that when I’m reading an amazingly fantastic, wonderful, gripping book (e.g. A Suitable Boy), I don’t want to hear from anyone. I vaguely recall Vikram Seth telling an interviewer once that when he’s on a reading binge, he “scowls at people who talk to [him],” waiting impatiently for them to finish so he can put his eyes back on the page. This is so totally me in these moments I almost can’t believe I’m the same person as the one described in the paragraphs above. These, ahhh, these are the books I have in mind when I talk about what makes a great book and ones that certainly retain a place on my bookshelves so I can see them as I go by. I dust them lovingly and take in the covers (if they are wonderful) and tell anyone who will listen they have to read this book. Some of these titles I buy repeatedly because they have a new or different cover (I love foreign covers), or just so I can give them away. Of course, I don’t have the money to be doing this quite as much as I would like to, but some books circulate a lot so I see them in thrift stores and find myself following a pattern: buy, distribute, buy distribute. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Currently I find myself somewhere in the middle of this reading geography, which is a very good thing because, even though I still need to do a few hours’ worth of hard labor to wear me down enough to sit still for an hour or so, it’s at least a break from one pole or the other. I also have been doing a ton of cleaning, so I’m somewhat well-positioned for reading and/or note taking as I’ve managed to eliminate the chaos that defined my living room for a week or so, and which ordinarily distracts the heck out of me.

A tale featuring friends of many kinds, including the bond between story and reader

I think what I will try to do, is just work on the books on my currently-reading list, the ones pictured at the top of the page, and just pretend no other books exist. This can be a whopper of a task because no matter where I go in my house I’m surrounded by books, and something always catches my eye, setting off the internal oooooooooh. But I’ve set myself to these books, and at least two of them are “right book, right time” reads. Plus, I chatted with someone today who mentioned a work that appears to be one that would fit in quite well with my research. It’s a bit pricey, so it’s just going to have to wait, but I’ve requested it from Inter Library Loan. So, as if I were reminding myself of some small exercise in order to move forward, I made the request, told myself it’s done and that there’s nothing more for it now but to wait. So that book checked on my list – I’m a total list maker – and my mind is yet a bit calmer.

When I can go from Not that that’s a bad thing to And that’s a good thing, well, this just may end the day as a very successful one.

*********

I found a rather intriguing brief article and video about the pages I 
speak of above, which I have learned are referred to as “deckle edged.”

Stepping Back into Saxon England: Who Was the Lord of the Mercians?

I am so pleased to have been asked to host a stop within the Stepping Back into Saxon England tour from authors Annie Whitehead and Helen Hollick. Anglo-Saxon England is a fascinating place to explore, and there is never a shortage of amazing figures, events – even understandings –  to discover and wonder about.

Today Annie Whitehead focuses on Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians, a mysterious individual who seemingly comes from nowhere to occupy a powerful position and secure his place in history.

Who Was the Lord of the Mercians?
by Annie Whitehead

My first novel, To Be A Queen, tells the story of Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians, whose life was extraordinary. Only one other woman in Anglo-Saxon times ruled a kingdom, and she was ousted after a year at best. So to have led a country in times of war for nearly twenty years, Æthelflæd must have been an incredible woman.

Statue of Æthelflæd, erected in 1913 to commemorate her fortification of Tamworth. She is shown with her nephew, Æthelstan.

Her husband, though, was equally interesting. And the fascinating thing is that although he was a crucial ally for Alfred the Great, no one knows for sure where he came from or how he came to be in a position of such great power. Between them this couple fired my imagination.

So who was Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians? Certainly he was someone very different from the man portrayed in The Last Kingdom. For a start, he wasn’t a king. So where did he come from, and how did he get to be ruler of a kingdom?

Tracking down pre-Conquest people isn’t easy, and we rely heavily on the charter witness lists. If an authentic record exists of a certain land grant, then we can look at the witness lists to see who was there at that particular meeting. And since the names go in strict pecking order, it’s possible to see folks – men, usually – rising up through the ranks over the years until they reach the top slot. So it should be easy enough to check Æthelred of Mercia’s progress up to the point where he became Lord of all Mercia, right? Actually, no. He simply cannot be identified on any charters.

It’s thought that he might have been associated with the Hwicce, a people whose territory sat mainly in modern-day Gloucestershire. We first hear about them from an entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in the record for 628, when the king of Mercia fought the West Saxons and it’s assumed that at this point the area around Cirencester, that of the Hwicce, came under Mercian control. Whether it had hitherto been independent, or whether it just swapped one overlord for another, is hard to tell. But the Hwicce had their own kings and we know that the royal line continued into the 780s. 

It’s not certain where the name itself came from, although there might be links to the landscape around the valley between the Cotswold and Malvern Hills, and a ninth-century charter refers to woodland in the west of the region called Wychwood Forest (Huiccedwudu). They were described by one chronicler as ‘the people who live beyond the River Severn towards the west.’

So we know where they were, but can we ascertain who they were? Bede tells us that they had their own bishopric, so even if they were subordinate to, or dependent on the support of, the Mercians, they clearly had their own territory, their own diocese and their own royal house.  

We know the names of several of their kings and one, Osric, ruled in the 670s but, while in a charter relating to him he is called rex, he is acting with the consent of the king of Mercia, so already there is a sign of subjugation. Osric is associated with the founding of Gloucester Cathedral, although in those days the foundation would have been an abbey. In the eighth century, a leader of the Hwicce attested a charter of King Æthelbald of Mercia only as a subregulus. Although Æthelbald referred to the ‘not ignoble royal stock of the Hwiccian people’ it is clear that by his reign (716–757) the rulers of the Hwicce were no longer kings, but subkings of Mercia. 

Their status further diminished to that of nobleman, and in the very beginning of the ninth century we hear of an ealdorman of the Hwicce, Æthelmund, who was killed attacking the people of Wiltshire at Kempsford in 802. Æthelmund was described by King Ecgfrith of Mercia merely as a faithful princeps.

The name did not die out though. 

A charter of King Edgar’s dated 969 demonstrates an awareness of the distinction between Mercia proper and the territory of the Hwicce, and between 994 and 998 King Æthelred the ‘Unready’ had only five ealdormen witnessing his charters, and one was Leofwine of the Hwicce, although it’s likely that given the small number of ealdormen at this time, Leofwine was responsible for the whole of Mercia.

Let us go back, though, to the incident in 802 when Æthelmund ‘rode from the province of the Hwiccians across the border at Kempsford.’ He was met by an ealdorman of Wiltshire and a ‘great battle’ ensued. Why were two ealdormen fighting? Well, it coincided with the death of the king of Wessex, and may offer a glimpse of the kind of turmoil which could occur around a succession, with loyal armed men ready to defend the status quo, or perhaps even to take advantage of the uncertainty.

In Wessex, ealdormen were appointed by the king, and not necessarily given titles over their local area. In Mercia, which grew up out of a federation of various tribes such as the Hwicce, the political set up was different and it seems that the ealdormen were the chiefs, or members of the erstwhile royal families of these smaller subkingdoms. Looking over the Mercian regnal lists, we can see that sons hardly ever succeeded fathers, and if they did, they often didn’t survive for very long.

And by the height of the Viking raids, when Wessex badly needed allies, Mercia had pretty much run out of kings. Alfred’s sister was married to a Mercian king, but he had fled when the Vikings overran part of Mercia and his rival and successor had a short reign. So, seemingly out of nowhere, a man named Æthelred, with no previous record of government and no royal links, is suddenly the man to go to for an alliance and, oh, he’s deemed worthy of marrying Alfred’s firstborn daughter, too. 

Historian Barbara Yorke has suggested that he was, in fact, descended from that ealdorman who rode out at Kempsford in 802. If so, it’s likely that he was therefore one of those ‘tribal’ leaders who formed part of the witan as ealdormen. It doesn’t explain his absence from the records up to this point though, nor how he came to be leader of a kingdom. But he must have been a man of exceptional qualities to have been elected. He’s mentioned by name in the records as part of the campaign against the Vikings, fighting alongside Alfred and Alfred’s son Edward. 

Æthelred is a figure not soon forgotten.

For these reasons, I suspect that he was a lot older than his wife. He had proven himself militarily and must have had a track record for the Mercians to have elected him as leader. Some think he was Alfred’s puppet, but I think not.

In my novel, I gave him boundless energy, with a mantra of ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead’, but also moments of self-doubt. He was a clever strategist, giving (if we believe the Irish annals) his wife clear and detailed instructions about how to oust the Vikings from Chester, and happy to work in concert with her at a time when women, though they perhaps had more freedoms than their later medieval counterparts, still were not considered strong enough to rule. 

Deerhurst is a tiny place in the heart of the Hwicce homelands, and there is a church, St Mary’s, which retains much of its Anglo-Saxon architecture. It’s still in use, so has seen well over a thousand years of continuous worship. I set a couple of scenes there, knowing that it would have been a spiritual centre for Æthelred and when I visited, I got a real sense of the past, sitting quietly on my own knowing that there was every likelihood that my characters had actually been in the same building. If Æthelred really was associated with the Hwicce then he’d have rightly been fond of this lovely church. Whoever he was, wherever he came from, I think he was a canny military leader, and a good husband. A perfect partner for the Lady of the Mercians.

About Annie Whitehead

Annie has written three novels set in Anglo-Saxon England. To Be A Queen tells the story of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians. Alvar the Kingmaker is set in the turbulent tenth century where deaths of kings and civil war dictated politics, while Cometh the Hour tells the story of Penda, the pagan king of Mercia. All have received IndieBRAG Gold Medallions and Chill with a Book awards. To Be A Queen was longlisted for HNS Indie Book of the Year and was an IAN Finalist. Alvar the Kingmaker was Chill Books Book of the Month while Cometh the Hour was a Discovering Diamonds Book of the Month

As well as being involved in 1066 Turned Upside Down, Annie has also had two nonfiction books published. Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom (Amberley Books) will be published in paperback edition on October 15th, 2020, while her most recent release, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England (Pen & Sword Books) is available in hardback and e-book.

Annie was the inaugural winner of the Dorothy Dunnett/HWA Short Story Competition 2017.

Connect with Annie at ~
Amazon
Casting Light Upon the Shadow
Twitter
Annie Whitehead 
Facebook 

Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom

“Many people know about Wessex, the ‘Last Kingdom’ of the Anglo-Saxons to fall to the Northmen, but another kingdom, Mercia, once enjoyed supremacy over not only Wessex, but all of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. At its zenith Mercia controlled what is now Birmingham and London ‒ and the political, commercial paramountcy of the two today finds echoes in the past. Those interested in the period will surely have heard of Penda, Offa, and Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians ‒ but remarkably there is no single book that tells their story in its entirety, the story of the great kingdom of the midlands…”  …but there is now!
Available in paperback from 15th October or pre-order now!

Follow the tour:
joint venture with 
Annie Whitehead
and
Helen Hollick

1st October: Annie Whitehead – hosted by Helen Hollick
Lady Godiva – Who Was She, and Did She Really?
Let Us Talk Of Many Things

2nd October: Helen Hollick – hosted by Nicola Cornick
Why Do We Do It?
Word Wenches

3rd October: Annie Whitehead – hosted by Lisl Zlitni
Who Was the Lord of the Mercians?
Before the Second Sleep

4th October: Helen Hollick – hosted by Tony Riches
Undoing The Facts For The Benefit Of Fiction?
The Writing Desk

5th October: Annie Whitehead – hosted by Pam Lecky
Murder in Saxon England
Pam Lecky

6th October: Helen Hollick – hosted by Derek Birks
King Arthur? From Roman Britain To Saxon England
Dodging Arrows

7th October: Annie Whitehead – hosted by Samantha Wilcoxson
Æthelflæd’s Daughter 
Samantha Wilcoxson

8th October: Helen Hollick – hosted by Cryssa Bazos
An Anthology Of Authors
Cryssa Bazos

9th October: Annie Whitehead – hosted by Elizabeth St John 
Anglo-Saxon Family Connections
Elizabeth St. John

10th October: Helen Hollick – hosted by Judith Arnopp
Alditha: Wife. Widow. Mother.
Judith Arnopp

11th October: Annie Whitehead – hosted by Brook Allen
Roman Remains – Did the Saxons Use Them?
Brook’s Scroll

12th October: Helen Hollick – hosted by Amy Maroney
Emma Of Normandy, Queen Of Anglo-Saxon England – Twice
Amy Maroney

13th October: Annie Whitehead – hosted by Simon Turney
Penda: Fictional and Historical ‘Hero’ 
Books & More

14th October: Helen Hollick – hosted by Annie Whitehead
The Battle Begins…
Reads Writes Reviews

15th October: A joint post hosted by both of us
Annie – Casting Light Upon The Shadow
and 
Helen – Let Us Talk Of Many Things

We hope you will enjoy
Stepping Back Into Saxon England’ with us!

All images courtesy Annie Whitehead

Book Review Rollout

And so here we are – 2020. It’s a long way off from 2012, when I first started this blog, and I’ve come into contact with some really fabulous people. Most of the time this site has been going I’ve done book reviews, and at one point I stopped, picking up again with other ideas and topics I wanted to talk about or delve into. To be honest, I still want to do this, but it’s kind of hard to stay away from the stories. This, of course, has happened before, and I periodically opened up to accept a few reviews. When I started contemplating things again this time, I decided to do shake it up a bit. Some aspects will stay the same, though, because the goal is to make it easier for all involved.

One of my current reads

As a child and teen I was enamored of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Crystal Cave and anything by Lewis Carroll. These days I still read all that, plus memoir, ghost stories, historical fiction, various non-fiction, young adult, time travel and lots of indie books.

So here’s how I’m opening up the works ~

While I used to ask that authors shoot me an email to see if I’ll do a review, I decided to just do away with that. Since I have a lot more on my plate than I used to (at least it feels that way—it could be that some things were just replaced with others), I’ve given myself permission to respond with very brief emails or not at all. If you receive a brief email from me, please do not take it personally; it is sheer necessity. The “not at all” category used to be something like authors sending me e-copies of their books without asking if I would review them. 

To be honest, these authors were onto something, even though I’d always said, “Don’t email me your books; I’ll delete them.” But they had a good idea because lots of stories looked quite intriguing and I thought, “Actually, this could be pretty efficient.” So I sort of took this idea like a piece of clay, rolled it around a bit and created my own shape to it. Out of this and past experiences, I developed these guidelines:

  • If you are interested in a review, just go ahead and send me your book. Please note the following caveats:
    • I only accept hard copies. Extended electronic reading gives me a headache and I’m done with it, so paperback or hardback are fine. I will provide my address below.
    • I do not guarantee I will review your book once I read it. Unless I become inundated, I will start every book I receive. If I finish and decide to write a review, I will let you know, so please be sure to provide your email address.
  • I work really hard on my reviews and aim to make them quality pieces. Because these entries really are joint efforts—you write the book and I do the review—I have an expectation that we don’t fall into a one-sided association here. Indeed, you wrote the book, and so you should get the kudos and income from it, and my goodness I hope you make heaps of dough! (I don’t say that sarcastically; I know it’s fashionable to demonize success these days.) However, for the blog part, I’ll be posting my reviews to Amazon, Goodreads and linking on Twitter (possibly one or two more). So I’m bringing into the mix that part of the deal is that you help promote the review and link to it and the blog—and please, not just as a one-off. Doing this makes it a win-win situation and is a very small way to help a blogger to help authors, especially indie authors, whose marketing departments often need frequent infusions of caffeine. Seriously, though, the more viewers any given book blog gets, the more people are going to be seeing your book(s!) reviewed, and the better chance this level of exposure advances to a higher one.
  • I work full time and am currently engaged with a few of my own projects. I am carving out very specific time to spend on reading books for the blog, but I’m just one person with a family who takes priority. If you wish to send an email to let me know your book is on its way to me, that’s a great idea – then I can contact you easily for info when moving forward. And I’m not opposed to reasonable emails, for instance to make sure the book arrived (although I will contact anyone who has sent a book, provided you’ve given me contact info). Please recall that “reasonable” is the operative word here – rudeness and pushiness are not received so well. I don’t like having to bring that up but, unfortunately, it’s happened enough. 
  • If you would like to do a giveaway, by all means please let me know; I’d love to host it. Authors outside the United States can, at least in my experience, order from Amazon.com (as opposed to Amazon UK, etc.) to send books Stateside, rather than having them ship overseas. 
  • Please check back here periodically, as there may be updates or additions to the guidelines. 

Be sure to have a peek at my sidebar periodically as it changes to reflect the rotation of reads. I also keep a widget full of blogs I follow – which needs a thorough dusting, to be honest – so check it out when you swing by to see if I’ve cleaned up or added more. For updates on this and other items, go ahead and click that button!  (Upper right on main page or tab at bottom right.) You’ll get a notification—just one, so you won’t be inundated—to let you know there’s something new for you to check out.

You can contact me at scully_dc AT yahoo DOT com; I can also be found at Goodreads.

And, as promised, my mailing address:

Before the Second Sleep Book Reviews
Attn: Lisl
1601 West Northern Lights Boulevard 90032
Anchorage, Alaska 99509
United States

Glad to have you here and I hope each one of you is finding something marvelous in this crazy, mixed-up world.

Updated 2020-11-20

Click image to see 2016’s “Month of Mary Stewart”

A Novel Exploration: The Catcher in the Rye

Not long before I entered official teenagedom, I became aware of The Catcher in the Rye, a book I sought out from curiosity, and put down less than impressed. I couldn’t comprehend what the fuss was all about, and didn’t really care for Holden Caulfield. Super negative, he swore a lot and hypocritically labeled others as phonies when he himself told lies all the time. Pre-teen Me, who herself wasn’t exactly the most positive of people, wanted to experience Great Literature and tried reading other J.D. Salinger books, but it all went nowhere.

Fast forward to one of my seventeen-year-old son’s literary conversations, and guess which book popped into the mix? You know it – The Catcher in the Rye. “Oh, I’m reaaaallly not in love with that book,” I muttered, surprised to read the astonishment in his face. I admitted recalling very little of the story, just that I hadn’t cared for it. “The most I can give you,” I finally responded when he insisted upon some sort of input, “is a passage where Caulfield pretends he’s shot and acts, well, kind of stupid. At least that’s how I recall perceiving his behavior. Oh and a field of rye, where he catches children before they fall.”

Now, the truth is that my son has always been a reader and started first grade, a year he and his classmates were meant to conclude at Level 18 in the reading achievement measurement used at the time, at Level 16. He devoured Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone all by himself that year and collected a fair amount of certificates and school swag from racking up the reading points. So I shouldn’t have been surprised that all the literary experience, from then till now, might be used against me. He drew a breath, recognizable as the sort preceding a very long explanation or perhaps dissertation, and gave me the lowdown on this classic.

The themes to get the most airtime within The Catcher in the Rye were alienation from society and loss of innocence. Vague as my memories were, I could recognize this, though I did find myself thinking, Why didn’t I see this back then? To be honest, I was a bit of a reading snob as a youngster and probably believed I ought to have read a book that literary types lionized. However, I clearly took very little away from the experience, with the possible exception of even more of a bad attitude, though I do recall some semi-successful attempts to bring back some of the old-fashioned colloquialisms. (This was also true of my experience with The Pigman, a book I liked much better and constantly borrowed “You’re such a card” from.)

In the end, I decided I might give Salinger’s novel another go, and when I did, I wondered how on earth I could have missed so much that was so obvious. For starters, on a surface level The Catcher in the Rye is about a teenage boy roaming alone around New York City. But we begin to dig deeper into it all simply by understanding that this is his hometown, yet he feels so alone and frightened. It isn’t exactly a fear for his physical self, though that is there; more at the heart of his anxiety is the psychological warfare he seems to battle against, with others as well as himself the enemy. As he wanders through subways and parks, rides in taxicabs and tries to make connections, he asks people questions, their answers always falling short of the world Holden desperately tries to hold on to, while simultaneously aware that his transition into the next is inevitable.

This internal conflict, along with Holden’s perception of the adult world as poisonous and corrupt, plays a large role in his frequent school expulsions, the most recent of which drives him to these wanderings, owing to his desire not to see his parents before the school’s letter will reach them in a few days. With the security of a red hunting cap he loves and some money he had saved, Caulfield tries to make connections with people, known and unknown, often telling absurd and unnecessary lies or inviting them to the movies or for a drink. Time after time he is rebuffed or disappointed, and he sees the world as filled with people intent on the “game,” as a teacher had labeled Life, their phoniness and players’ attitude something he wants no part of.

Holden has a poor relationship with his parents, but loves his ten-year-old sister, Phoebe, and sneaks into the family apartment to see her. He tells her of the one and only job he truly aspires to, as a catcher in the rye, that is the individual stationed in a field of rye tasked with the job of catching the children playing there before they fall off a nearby cliff. By this time we are able to read this as the metaphor it is, and understand that Holden is so intent upon preserving innocence, his own and others’, that it has affected his outlook and behavior, even though this causes him to stay in place rather than move forward. This is exhibited in a passage in which Holden re-visits his younger childhood.

I walked all the way through the park over to the Museum of Natural History…I knew that whole museum routine like a book. Phoebe went to the same school I went to when I was a kid, and we used to go there all the time. We had this teacher, Miss Aigletinger, that took us there damn near every Saturday…The best thing…in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole, with their pretty antlers…Nobody’d be different.

Of course, everything staying as it is when he was younger is what he wants. He admits to being immature, despite his tall stature and possession of a fair amount of gray hairs. But Holden’s narrative raises the issues that lay behind all this, or at least part of it. We never know for sure if he may have been predisposed to such emotional sensitivity, or if the environmental factors of his experiences—such as the untimely death of his brother Allie, who succumbed to leukemia, or a classmate’s suicide—exacerbated or initiated his perilous state of mind. Either way, these deaths represent an end of innocence, particularly in the case of Allie, whom Holden had perceived as the perfect child.

Because he desires most of all to preserve childhood, he clings to the past as he moves forward into this world he neither likes nor understands. Simultaneously, he tries to keep his sister safe. When he decides to run away, he sends a note to her school, requesting she meet him one last time. Holden and Phoebe walk around for a bit, ending up at a carousel, and though Phoebe herself says she’s too big, her brother persuades her to ride it. “When she was a tiny little kid, and Allie and D.B. and I used to go to the park with her, she was mad about the carrousel. You couldn’t get her off the goddamn thing.” He recalls the carousel always playing the same music and, like the museum setup, this static existence appeals to him because it will aid in keeping his sister safe from the world he himself so fears for her.

Though certainly not an exhaustive examination into Salinger’s novel, even this little bit I seem to have skipped in my elementary school reading. I would have been in around seventh grade, and I recall at that time also reading about Lewis Carroll, Arthurian legend and the Salem witch trials, the last of which I used as backdrop for a short story. Plus there was perhaps a bit of Nancy Drew still in there. All of this tells me I was likely not in the mindset of this sort of reading, nor mature enough for it.

One work’s visual interpretation of Holden Caulfield (Click for details)

Still, I went looking for more. As mentioned above, I moved on to Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, neither of which I remember a thing about. I do recall, however, reading about Salinger, who had become reclusive and refused to grant interviews. Very little information on him was available, but I did learn he had served in the European theater and saw some of the worst of the violence and cruelty war could offer, including Utah Beach and, later that year, the Battle of the Bulge. According to a video my son provided me with (which I’ll embed below), he also was one of the first Americans to help liberate a concentration camp. Yet other works—war novels such as Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five—were authored by men who had seen far less of the war’s brutality. For all his witness, Salinger understood that for the vulnerable, “normal” life could also impose a terrible ruthlessness if these individuals are unequipped or without the resources to handle it.

Pre-teen Me might have scoffed at such a sentiment (although I was actually a rather sensitive child), and even some grownups today might. However, this re-visitation of The Catcher in the Rye re-awoke something in me and I found myself feeling for Holden as he is angered by the F word graffiti’d on a wall, or crying when his sister loans him some of her saved-up Christmas money. As an adult now, I don’t get worked up, but can feel the affinity for what his emotions undergo even while understanding there’s a bit of naval gazing going on there.

The thing is this: Today’s insane world of relativism, lack of responsibility and consequences, and looking-glass ethics kind of crushes the idea that any of this is, at least anymore, as obvious as some might see it as. In literary examination, however, as John Green in his video points out, there can be more than one character. Here we have two Holden Caulfields: one living the story at age sixteen, and the one recounting, at seventeen, what happened the year prior. Green briefly discusses one of many angles not covered here, that of language usage as technique to bring readers into the story, something Salinger does with amazing skill. Through figurative language, for example, we are able to connect with Holden’s experiences and “see the world through his eyes”—and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it can enable us to better see the real world as well. Green seems to agree: Despite Holden’s battles being fought within ordinary city settings and not Hürtgen Forest, he says, we care about them. “That’s the miracle of language, especially effective figurative language…When students complain about reading critically, about having to do ‘all this English class stuff,’ that’s what they’re forgetting. All that ‘English class stuff’ is a way into empathy; for Holden and for all of us, it’s a way to hear and be heard.”

The world has never been a safe place for the uninitiated; in this way our times are not unique. At a certain point in the lives of all, loss of innocence is an inevitability and we have to find new ways to operate, understand and appreciate—Joy’s grape and all that. Still, I’m pretty certain we are unleashing some fairly horrible new realities on the innocent, so that catcher in the rye gig Holden wished for himself might come in handy after all.

Many thanks to Turtle for leading me to re-read
The Catcher in the Rye and introducing me to Crash Course

Overlooked Gems: Picks from My Playlist

Recent months have held a lot of talk about music in our house. Not that it’s a rare topic, but all the extra indoor time my teenage son had to spend spurred a bit of a shift for him. His passion is film, and this has not changed, and he has always loved music (who doesn’t?). However, he began to examine it a bit more lately, and we spent many hours discussing lyrics as literature, how they match the music, what the various rhythms spark in the soul and very much more.

It re-awakened a bit of something in myself as well. When I was a little younger than my boy is now, I was still discovering a lot of different styles and artists, then current or not, and had an older brother who played an instrumental part in this. By this time I’d long been introduced to the Beatles, who held my absolute and unquestioned loyalty. I’m serious about that loyalty thing: because I listened to almost nothing else except the Fab Four and sometimes the radio, I didn’t really know much about a great portion of the music world.

An afternoon nosing through my brother’s music library changed that because one book I settled in with contained photography of the sort that makes you contemplate life and the worlds of others. I wanted to know who these people were and what was important to them that they wanted to sing about to the world. I came to regard their creations as not unlike the poetry I read and wrote, and my period of examination began.

Fast forward now. My son loves the Beatles (something about the apple not falling far?), but can’t understand why my devotion seems to have shifted to Pink Floyd. I was rather tickled when he announced his love for Led Zeppelin’s “The Immigrant Song,” even though I suspected that might wane as the Thor Ragnorak movie he’d recently watched stepped aside for other films he considered higher caliber. “Now ‘Kashimir,’” I mentioned one day, “that is more than a song.” As time went on my recall drove me to play songs I loved but thought he would not likely hear on the radio, at least not as often as most artists’ and bands’ megahits.

And so I find myself here, making a list of songs that tend to be somewhat overlooked, even if they are nevertheless well known. They were at times the B-sides or what some regarded as fillers, though many took on a life of their own. In other instances they were quite famous, but just don’t seem to be recognized or played as much as their fellows, resulting in next generations making a lesser, or sometimes no, connection. Still others may be absolutely unknown by those who don’t dabble in music outside their own personal mainstream. There are probably loads of reasons why some truly great songs go overlooked, and I’d like to do my small part in changing that.

The following five choices, which will likely be joined by others, are in no particular order except what you choose.

 

“Letter to Hermione”  (David Bowie, David Bowie, later renamed Space Oddity) – Long before Hermione Granger and her friends inspired Muggle schoolchildren to cut classes and read books about the magical universe, David Bowie’s romantic breakup from a girl with the same name resulted in one of the loveliest set of lines he ever wrote. Revealed to the world in a song of loss, Hermione Farthingale unwittingly persuaded David Bowie to show the raw, awkward side, the one to which I related – and always remembered, despite the personas he’d developed that I later discovered (thanks to that music book). I didn’t know at the time I first heard the song, you see, that its confessional style was not at all Bowie’s preferred, which may be why it clung to me long after I found the rest of his catalogue. He has many musical acts of magic that combine so well with lyrics (especially within “Golden Years”), but this gorgeous, haunting act of wizardry has never left my mind.

 

“Fearless” (Pink Floyd, Meddle) – This may come as a surprise to some, given the disparate differences, but this one almost lost to “See Emily Play.” As a teen I had a curious fondness for Syd Barrett, and the circus-like music and sweeping melody that carried the lyrics of “borrow[ing] somebody’s dreams till tomorrow” intrigued me to no end. So what broke the stalemate? Well, when I hear “Emily,” I still feel why Past Me was so attached to it, but these days I go for Meddle a lot. Simultaneously introspective and ambitious, it energizes me yet still disperses calm. Within it, “Fearless” speaks to the understandable anxiety of standing by one’s conscience, and every single note plays this out in a perfect emotional match. It fit Past Me (within those teenage years of dissent), but is particularly relevant today. Honestly? Listen to the entire album.

 

“Isis” (Bob Dylan, Desire) – A lot of people don’t seem to know it because I simply never hear this song discussed or on the radio, but “Isis”—the story of a man married to Isis and what happens when he meets up with a mysterious tomb-raiding stranger — is one of those tunes that makes Dylan the absolute lyrical mage he is. Consider the following exchange were it to be in a novel:

She said, “Where ya been?” I said, “No place special.”
She said, “You look different.” I said, “Well, I guess.”
She said, “You been gone.” I said, “That’s only natural.”
She said, “You gonna stay?” I said, “If you want me to, yes.”

Sung in Dylan’s iconic, grainy voice (at times characterized as “like a dog with his leg caught in barbed wire”) with his distinctive pitch changes (also referred to as “affectation”), the song swings listeners around so much that mundane words become something special. None of the lyrics have the standard rhymes of some of Dylan’s other tunes, such as “Like a Rolling Stone” or “Tangled Up in Blue,” partly because it’s a folkie ballad backed up by an acoustic piano. But as the singer’s storytelling abilities are revealed, his voice also utterly brings to life the emotions the narrator feels, and we sense them too. We don’t need no rhymes.

“I Will” (The Beatles, The Beatles, commonly known as The White Album) – Even by the time my teenage years rolled around and the Fab Four were long in the past, people were still picking their favorite Beatle. (My teen son even made his choice.) Paul was definitely not mine; that honor went to George, who wrote, in my opinion one of the best Beatle songs ever. Still, this one confounded me as to why no one ever seemed to have heard of it, or it never came on the radio. Beautiful in its simplicity, it needs absolutely nothing else, not a single note or echo more than it contains to be the perfect song, love or otherwise, and the phrase “your song will fill the air” followed by “sing it loud so I can hear you” is bold but not ostentatious (unlike the nuance that generally comes with that second phrase when uttered today). John’s maracas along with Paul’s melodic “da da da da da” brings the song and its wonderful experience to a perfectly satisfying conclusion.

 

“Battle of Evermore” (Led Zeppelin, untitled album, commonly known as Led Zeppelin IV or Zoso, after a symbol on the album cover) – People are generally attracted quite a bit to alliteration, and “Battle of Evermore” showcases it stunningly, reaching into our past (e.g. with “angels of Avalon”; “dragons of darkness”), awakening us to what magic arises from that place. Inspired in part by reading of a series of Anglo-Scottish wars and Celtic mythology, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page’s ballad does utilize verbiage that might today seem a bit fantasy cliché but for the multitude of angles from which it comes at us. Their imagery, boosted by the pairing of words and duet singing (Plant and non-bandmember Sandy Denny), recreates a narrator and town crier, and we are the townspeople urgently listening for the outcome of events involving the Prince of Peace and Queen of Light.

The dark Lord rides in force tonight
And time will tell us all.
Oh, throw down your plow and hoe,
Rest not to lock your homes.
Side by side we wait the might
Of the darkest of them all.

 Adding connection to our experience is Page’s mandolin, filling in and around the voices, at times in turn, others together, as we tune in to a tale of spiritual warfare, the battle of good and evil fought on a plane we cannot see, but will be affected by nonetheless—forever.

“Battle of Evermore” might not, strictly speaking, fit into this list as it may not be quite as overlooked as it seems to me. Nevertheless, I have rarely (if ever) heard it on the radio and its visibility tends to be obscured by “Stairway to Heaven” and that song’s May Queen. However, it is a tale that touches the deepest parts of ourselves and where we come from.

Stay tuned for more to come from overlooked gems.