King Arthur – A Literary Barometer

Writers have been fascinated with the story of Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table for centuries. Each new “biographer” has imbued the King with new life, embellishing and enhancing his legend with experiences wrought from their own lives and their own times. In this way Arthur, through the eyes of a writer, becomes a man of the present rather than a stale hero from the distant past.

Historical Value on a Legendary Scale

King Arthur Pendragon is a unique character in terms of history and literature. His existence is debated, yet his legend has survived for over 1500 years. All major literary works (and there are hundreds) dealing with Arthur are classified as fictional, yet from each tale readers may glean a significant understanding about history: not necessarily the historical time in which Arthur was supposed to have lived, but the time in which his chroniclers lived. The character of Arthur and the tenor of his tales have changed over the years because authors carry Arthur’s legend into the present. Authors ensure his endurance.

Legend - Pixabay

The Legend Laid Bare

King Arthur was alleged to have lived around 500 A.D. when he united the ancient warring tribes of Britain to form a single country.

Despite a lack of proof to back such assertion, the story persists and the details of the tale are surprisingly resilient. All of the stories depict Arthur as coming from humble (albeit royal) beginnings, ascending the fractured and contentious throne of Britain at a young age.  Arthur’s dream is to unite Britain – and he does so by bringing England’s disparate tribes together to form the Knights of the Round Table. Each iteration has Arthur embroiled in battles: sometimes with minor British kings, sometimes with Saxon invaders, and sometimes with enemies of The Crusaders.

Most enduring is that each novel contains the fabled love triangle of Arthur, his Queen Guinevere, and his trusted knight Lancelot. With sadness and trepidation, most of the tales introduce Arthur’s illegitimate and destructive son, Mordred.

The details of this legendary life are surprisingly consistent among the many books published over hundreds of years. The perspectives, however, are anything but.

The great books about Arthur reflect the world in which the author lived far more than the times in which Arthur himself was supposed to have lived.

Sword in Stone - Dreamstime

Image licensed from Dreamstime.com

 

Sir Thomas Malory – Le Morte D’Arthur (as translated by Keith Baines and John Steinbeck)

In my quest to learn more about Arthur, I read two different translations of Sir Thomas Malory. I did not attempt to struggle with the original, which is written in an archaic style replete with Old English spellings and out-dated word usages; however, I am grateful that Steinbeck and Baines were willing to wade through the morass.

I found Malory’s Arthur (as retold by both Baines and Steinbeck) to be shallow and cruel, far different from the fair and gentle child I had come to expect from T.H. White. Malory’s Arthur never struggled with the ethics of war, the value of life. Malory’s Arthur has no long-term goals for his kingdom nor remorse for slayings. I was unable to comprehend a character so devoid of humanity. However, I could not deny the work’s impact: Le Morte D’Arthur was created in the late 1400’s and Malory’s story has been the foundation for most of the literature written about King Arthur since then.

It was not until I learned Malory’s personal history that I began to understand better the Arthur that he had created. Malory (c. 1400 to 1472 A.D.) was reputed to have been an aimless playboy who wrote his book from a prison cell (much as Miguel Cervantes – another Arthurian admirer – later wrote Don Quixote).

In 1453, when The Hundred Year Wars in Europe had finally ended, soldiers returned to Britain after a lifetime of fighting. Given such a long conflict, these men had no profession other than war: they did not know how to farm, they did not know how to craft tools or build the houses necessary for a domestic life. Their lack of these skills set them adrift in the British landscape. Malory was one such disenfranchised soldier.

Malory’s Arthurian Legend emphasizes the quests, encouraging “noble” pursuits – a thinly veiled justification for the continued existence of a soldier’s lifestyle. Malory’s knights glorified righteous killing and welcomed honorable death – those traits soldiers coveted in battle. They knew nothing else. Malory knew nothing else.

T.H. White – The Once and Future King

As mentioned above, my first introduction to Arthur was in the Disney cartoon that took its inspiration from this book. It remains my favorite of the lot.

T.H.White published the first volume of The Once and Future King in 1938. At the time, Britain was rapidly approaching the conflict that was to become known as World War II.

White himself was a pacifist and created an Arthur torn between the dream of a united Britain and an evil invading force which threatened the peace he had built. White saw war as an unnatural state, one which does not exist in species other than Man, and one which brings more destruction than worth. His Arthur is a strong leader who abhors and tries to avoid war, who has been instructed by the wizard Merlyn in the ways of nature which, according to White, opposes war.

Just as Britain was poised on the brink of a conflict with Germany, White depicts the noble Knights of the Round Table positioned against the evil forces of Mordred. Arthur wrestles with the horrors of the battles to come just as Churchill and Roosevelt may have struggled with the specter of Hilter. White saw the problems of the 20th century world little changed from the 6th century Britain of Arthur.

Rosemary Sutcliffe – The Sword at Sunset

In her 1963 novel The Sword at Sunset, Rosemary Sutcliffe introduced “Artos” – a pragmatic personification of Arthur. Sutcliffe threw out the magic of Merlyn (such character does not appear anywhere in the pages of Sutcliffe’s book) and creates an Arthur who is an economist, a strategist, and a politician. Gone is the flash of magic and the righteousness of The Crusaders. Artos is obsessed with uniting his small isle against the Saxons to ensure its survival. He mourns the losses among his fighting men and the losses of his scarce war horses alike, both of which give strategic superiority to the Brits. He watches the budget and rations the food. Instead of being the devout Christian of Malory’s and White’s tales, Artos is opportunistically religious: he worships Christ when his allies are Christians, Mithras (an ancient god of strength and bravery) among his men, and the Old Religion of the Druids when the need arises. His sense of right and wrong are weighed against how best to accomplish his goal. He does not question war, merely recognizes its existence and necessity. He grieves for his Companions (Sutcliffe’s embodiment of The Knights of the Round Table) and suffers their miseries in battle at their sides.

In the time of Sutcliffe, the Korean War was behind us and Viet Nam was brewing. Wars began to look less like rescue missions and more like political maneuvers. No longer was our mission to save millions from certain death – we were saving millions from the elusive oppression of communism. Hardly the same thing. Our “crusades” took on a decidedly practical bent: we no longer captured and held territory, we racked up body counts. Our “victories” no longer had the pull of righteousness – expediency and practicality won the battles. Sutcliffe captures the philosophical wasteland of a 1960s war in her Arthurian tale.

Mary Stewart – The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, The Last Enchantment, and The Wicked Day

In 1970, Stewart brings the magic back to the Arthurian legend. Told through the eyes of the wizard Merlyn, Arthur’s existence is seen to mark a renaissance — the dying of old ideals and the birth of new principles. Stewart’s Arthur lives at a time when Christianity comes of age and the old religions are dying in its wake. Arthur, as king, leaves the bawdy, selfish ways of his father King Uther and embraces the concept of country first. Justice and peace are the answers to a continued existence for his kingdom.

A comparison of the 1960s to the 1970s shows some remarkable regressions. Where the 60s ushered in an age of protest and rage against the status quo, the 70s saw those same protesters become part of the establishment. The bubble-gum tunes of disco replaced edgy rock music in popularity. Where once TV praised All In The Family for its political acuity, The Brady Bunch became the new barometer of urban life. Sutcliffe’s Arthur reflects that retrogression.

Thomas Berger – Arthur Rex

Berger’s Arthur is a man of paradoxes, reflecting the good and evil that exists simultaneously in the world, in the kingdom, and in people. The Arthur of Berger’s Arthur Rex is both strong and weak, mature and youthful, wise and foolish; Arthur is capable of monumental good as in the unification of his country, and equal evil as in the incestuous relationship with his sister. His strengths immortalize him; his weaknesses destroy him.

Even the minor characters of Berger’s book are complex: clergymen adamantly teach the laws of God and just as adamantly break them; Sir Kay (Arthur’s foster brother) is a pompous bore as well as a vital necessity to Arthur’s kingdom. Queen Guinevere is both wise and impetuous. Sir Lancelot is brave and true at time – and weak and disloyal as well.

Arthur Rex was published in 1978: a time when complexities were becoming evident to all. The late American president John F. Kennedy, much beloved and idolized during his life and for years after his death, was exposed as a womanizer; countries which had once been friendly to the US were now enemies and vice versa. The corruption of elected leaders throughout the globe was daily exposed.

 

A Reflection of the Times

Reflection of times - Dreamstime.

Image licensed from Dreamstime.com

There are other books about King Arthur, although I have not read them all. I plan to, some day.

Whether Arthur is a historical figure or a creature of myth, his story has attracted much literary attention for hundreds of years. His worth as a historical barometer is evident in the changes which have taken place in the nature of the character and the themes that the tales convey when viewed against the backdrop of each author’s decade, experiences, and beliefs.

What is next for the aging legend? Where will his story lead us?

Or rather, where will our future lead him?

Featured Image and all other images (unless otherwise expressly noted) courtesy of Pixabay.com

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The Local Buzz – at Hicklebee’s of course!

Front

December 7, 2013

Keeping It Local

Hicklebee’s is an independent bookstore in Downtown Willow Glen (a district of San Jose, California) that has been catering to the reading tastes of its community for over 30 years. That type of longevity is remarkable for any business, but especially for a book shop in the age of Amazon.com.

What is their secret? Mary Ann Hill, the curator of Hicklebee’ popular Local Author Program, credits Hicklebee’s success to the store’s focus on local support of the community and businesses as encouraged by Valerie Lewis (Hicklebee’s original and current co-owner, together with her sister, Monica Holmes).

“Hicklebee’s,” says Mary Ann “is a living place; a community center.” It is a destination for local readers.

The emphasis on “local” benefits authors too. In addition to the thousands of well-known book titles carried by the store, Hicklebees tenders books independently published by San Francisco Bay Area writers.

Photos taken by the author

Entrance

Buzzing About the Author Community

Without a large publishing house to arrange publicity and advertise a book’s existence, independent authors stand little chance of seeing their creations on store bookshelves. The inventory of behemoth bookstores like Barnes & Noble or, until recently, Borders has traditionally been dictated by corporate headquarters: the public is offered books from The New York Times best-seller list, volumes by the most well-known and popular authors, and new publications deemed “worthy” by the publishing industry. Small publishing houses or self-published works are left struggling for attention.

Responding to requests from these grappling authors, Hicklebee’s launched their Local Author Program in 2008, offering talented independent writers a chance to have their books on store shelves, generate buzz about their creations, and meet the book-buying public, just as any well-known author might do.

Original Sign

By Popular Demand

Now, nearly five years later, Hicklebee’s boasts 25 authors participating in their Local Author Program.

One of them is Julie Jackson who, along with her husband Scott, created Great Giants Stories Every Young Fan Should Know (true stories about the World Champion San Francisco Giants). Jill Zabkar Martin, author of Froggy Boots Go With Everything, is a veteran of Hicklebee’s Local-Author Program after several years of participation.

Some Local Author Program participants such as Michelle A.B. McKenzie (Beaver’s Big Problem and Beaver’s Big Discovery) and Linda Ulleseit (Novel Central 2 and On a Wing and a Dare) boast multiple volumes at Hicklebee’s.

The most famous of Hicklebee’s Local Author Program alumni is Jennifer Fosberry, whose “Isabella” series (My Name is Not Isabella and Isabella: The Star of the Story, among others) has since been picked up by a big publishing house.

The photo to the above right is the original sign from Hicklebee’s previous location – which was exactly the width of this sign!

Book Selections

Local Success

The details of Hicklebee’s Local Author Program are in a brochure available through their website, in their newsletter, and at the end of this article. Or you can learn more about the program as the authors of Great Giants Stories Every Young Fan Should Know did: drop by the store. That’s how the program started, after all: authors visiting Hicklebee’s to request a review and placement of their book.

When Great Giants Stories was released in 2011, Scott and Julie Jackson went looking for venues to carry their creation and found Hicklebee’s with its youthful clientele (the perfect audience for their book) and Local Author Program. The Jacksons became participants.

Julie has been thrilled with the results: Great Giants Stories is one of Hicklebee’s best selling consignment books. In fact, Julie claims that her consignment sales at Hicklebee’s (and elsewhere in the area) outpace the book’s sales on Amazon.com.

Although bookstores in the San Francisco Bay Area will accept select self-published works on consignment (usually those with obvious local appeal), few of these stores have a formal program specifically designed to promote the works of local authors. Having published my own book, Embracing the Elephant, in August of 2012, I found placing my historical fiction adventure in Bay Area stores, despite its California-centric subject matter (the California Gold Rush), to be a challenge – most stores reserve coveted shelf space for books with novelty appeal or big-publisher backing.

I learned about Hicklebee’s Local Author Program by accident: my friend Diane (who lives in Willow Glen) knew of my quest to get Embracing the Elephant on bookstore shelves. After reading an announcement in her local newspaper of an author event at Hicklebee’s, Diane called me with the news. I attended the event, met Mary Ann, and for a year and a half Embracing the Elephant was among the books offered at the store (its golden spine can be seen on the upper left shelf of the picture above).

Not all entries are accepted, however. In her role as curator, Mary Ann conducts a rigorous review of the submitted books to ensure the quality of production and determine if it is the type of book Hicklebee’s wants to carry, given their clientele.

Once accepted, however, Local Author Program books are given special treatment. Mary Ann places “Local Author” stickers on the books themselves, creates “shelf talkers” (stickers attached to the shelf that provide additional information about the book) and, prior to the Author Events, highlights the books by placing them in one of the large front windows of the store. To augment the program, she is contemplating a “Local Author Corner” and briefings to the Hicklebee’s staff on the subject matter and availability of these home-grown productions.

My own local success…

Publishers Weekly calls it “historically evocative.” ForeWord Reviews says it is a “journey worth taking.” The Historical Novel Society highly recommends it, stating: “Beninger’s skillful use of language pulls you into the story, and makes the scenes come alive.”

Independent bookstores such as Green Apple Books in San Francisco carry Embracing the Elephant! Please consider stopping by soon.

However, even if you don’t live in or near San Francisco, please consider visiting your local independent bookstore to get a copy of Lori Hart Beninger’s historical fiction novel. If they don’t stock the book on their shelves, they can usually order it for you.

For alternative channels (including other independent bookstores in the San Francisco Bay Area, visit OnTrackPublishing.com and click on “Titles.”

Children's Selection

Hicklebee’s Local Author Program Features – The Basic Program

  • For a small fee of $25 per year, Hicklebee’s will take 4 books on consignment for 3 months, contacting each author if and when more inventory is needed
  • 60% of the sale price of the book goes to the author
  • The fee covers all of the work Mary Ann does (Local Author stickers, shelf talkers, inventory control)

The Website Program:

  • For an additional $30 per year, Hicklebee’s will list the book on their website, making it easy for readers to find these local books and order on-line

The Event Program:

  • For an additional $100 authors can participate in Local Author Events held by Hicklebee’s up to 4 times per year (depending upon interest from the authors). Here, 3 to 4 local authors meet the public, talk about their creation, give short readings, and sign books.
  • Prior to the event, local-author books are featured in Hicklebee’s store window.
  • The fee covers the cost of the event, including announcements via Hicklebee’s email newsletter (which is distributed to a readership in excess of 4,200), on the Hicklebee’s website, and in local newspapers.
  • For those authors who might be intimidated by the fee, it is important to note that big publishing houses pay for advertising and special displays whenever an author they represent attends any local event.

Diagon Alley

Hicklebee’s – Providing the Local Buzz for Over 30 Years

Originally a children’s bookstore occupying a narrow box-car sized shop on Lincoln Avenue, when Hicklebee’s moved across the tree-lined street to its present location (1378 Lincoln Ave, San Jose, CA), they more than doubled their square footage and their inventory.

Inside, Hicklebee’s is vibrant with color and eye-catching cutouts of popular book characters: a testament to its roots as the purveyor of children’s books. However, due to customer demand, they now boast an ever-increasing portfolio of select adult and young adult books.

It is that customer demand, and the staff’s willingness to listen and respond, which has helped Hicklebee’s overcome the turmoil of both the economy and the publishing industry. While nearby big bookstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble have come and gone, Hicklebee’s remains. When Willow Glen Books, also on Lincoln Avenue, shuttered its doors three years ago, Hicklebee’s expanded its catalog to address the needs left by such bookstore closures.

Hicklebee’s cheerful blue awning is a beacon of welcome for readers of all ages – buzzing with the vibrancy of community.

A Renaissance for Independent Bookstores

Front

October 29, 2013

Independent Bookstores: Turning a Page in the Book of Community

They really do exist. Quiet and unassuming, they peek through the urban landscape like the delicate ferns and lichen that emerge from a fire-ravaged forest. They don’t shout their existence, but discreetly stand as a testament to endurance and persistence. They are independent bookstores.

I feared they had disappeared, like dinosaurs or Dodo birds. However, unlike the stuff of history and fairy tales, independent bookstores are real and surviving (if not thriving) despite the presence of great giants with crushing purchasing power like Costco, Barnes and Noble, and the late Crowne Books and Borders. These resilient bastions of the printed word have endured the behemoth Amazon.com and, while fewer in number than at the beginning of the century, they are making a surprising comeback.

“How?” you may ask.

I posed this very question to Ms. Leigh Odum, the owner of one of these little pearls: Leigh’s Favorite Books in Sunnyvale, California.

Bookasaurus

Leigh’s Favorite Books

The Little Shop That Could

I discovered Leigh’s Favorite Books by accident – a friend posted a link to her site on Facebook as encouragement to support a small, local business. Since I was in the midst of independently publishing my first novel (Embracing the Elephant ), I was interested in learning more about the independent bookstores that I hoped would carry my book. So I contacted Leigh and asked for an interview.

When I arrived, Leigh suggested that we conduct the interview at one of the cafe tables just outside the shop. The shop was quiet for the moment and, as it was a gorgeous October day in California, both of us welcomed the opportunity to be outdoors. Fortified with coffee from a boutique cafe a few doors down, Leigh and I talked as the locals walked by, some of them waving. In her naturally soft voice, Leigh greeted many by name.

Leigh’s Favorite Books is located on historic, tree-lined Murphy Avenue in Sunnyvale – a city in California’s famous “Silicon Valley” best known for high-tech businesses, high-profile residents like Apple’s Steve Wozniak, and its well-run city government (read the interview with then-city-manager Tom Lewcock in the wake of a 1993 exploratory visit to Sunnyvale by President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore).

Founded in 2004 by Leigh Odum and her husband, Leigh’s Favorite Books occupies a modest 1,600 square feet and carries approximately 40,000 unique titles, both new and used. Considering that a Barnes and Noble megastore averages 20,000 square-feet and carries 80,000 titles*, the size of Leigh’s inventory is impressive (the secret is a basement – a rarity in California – which enables her to buy at optimum quantities, stock one of everything on the shelves, and store the rest until needed).

* Source: The Washington Post, “Independent bookstores add a new chapter” by Neely Tucker, August 17, 2011.

Murphy Avenue

The Beginning

Initially, Leigh offered only the used books for sale, even forming a synergistic relationship with Amazon.com to sell some of the books through Amazon’s partner program. In keeping with the technology focus of Silicon Valley, Leigh’s husband (a software engineer) developed a sophisticated inventory-tracking system which they implemented in 2007. It is so good that the couple recently began to license the program to other independent bookstores. Ye olde book shoppe’s roots reached comfortably into the high-tech arena.

With time, Leigh’s customer base grew and, despite their appreciation of the used-book selection, they requested newer titles as well. In response, Leigh began to stock books from the New York Times Best Seller List. Soon, however, she discovered that her clientele had something different in mind. The focus changed to award-winning publications (Booker and Pulitzer prize winners, for example), more mysteries, science fiction (a lot of science fiction), and real science books such as Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman – books reflective of the tastes and interests of her customers. She took note of the titles that were most on their lips, catered to their requests, and located one-of-a-kind books when possible.

Just as Leigh envisioned, the shop became a place of entertainment – a shopping “experience” both pleasant and instructional. Visitors could enjoy the tactile pleasure of holding the latest bestseller while discussing its merits with the expert behind the counter. Local engineers dropped in as a break from their jobs and to discover what new treasure might be found on the shelving. Hers was a store where lively conversations would lead to the discovery of a corresponding volume the visitor never before knew they had to have.

On-line shopping was convenient and cheap, but it wasn’t nearly as much fun as Leigh’s Favorite Books.

Leigh and Yousef

Reality

Today, Murphy Avenue is a vibrant part of the Sunnyvale community. There are still many bars and restaurants, but they too have been renovated and boast some of the best dining in the city.

Leigh’s Favorite Books is in the middle of it all. Patrons of the neighboring businesses drop in after dinner or lunch; local workers leave the tension of their cubicles and offices behind to browse through the aisles most afternoons; the colorful and ever-changing window displays catch the attention of strollers, beckoning them in.

Inside, the shop is full, but uncluttered and welcoming: an island of calm beyond the busy street. Not long ago, Leigh added some book-related gifts to the store’s inventory, further improving the shopping experience. However, it is clear that the main focus remains books – shiny new novels nestled against the spines of the old. Leigh offers a trade-in plan for gently-used volumes – click here for a description of the program.

The staff is enthusiastic and knowledgeable about their wares. When I ask Leigh what she looks for in an employee, she brightens. When she interviews them, she asks for a book recommendation and then watches as they describe their choice. She looks for someone whose face lights up – I imagine just as hers does when I ask my questions.

Nearly four years ago, Leigh and her husband welcomed son Yousef into their lives and, five months ago, another “child” was born in the form of an auxiliary shop next door to the current one. The new store, Bookasaurus, is devoted to children. Craft classes for kids are conducted weekly and, just as in the movie You’ve Got Mail, regular story time (Tuesdays and Saturdays) is a big event.

Which Begs the Question…

Despite having spent a pleasant hour with Leigh, learning of her background, experience, and vision, I didn’t think I was any closer to understanding how she and other independent bookstores have survived. The obstacles, like Amazon, are enormous. Even huge players succumbed: Borders died in 2011; Crowne Books is ancient history; Waldenbooks is still around, but in reduced numbers; B. Dalton was gobbled up by Barnes and Noble in 1987 and was finally liquidated in 2010. Even gigantic Barnes and Noble is reputed to have dodged the extinction bullet only because of its introduction of The Nook to compete with Amazon’s Kindle.

So how do these small entrepreneurs do it? And, what’s more, how is it possible that The American Booksellers Association (a national trade organization for independently owned bookstores) was able to report 7% growth in 2010. They had 400 members in 2005 – now there are 1,830**. How is it possible that independent bookstores are not only surviving, but growing in number?

Having Borders close its doors last year seems to have helped – former customers now frequent the local independents, like Leigh’s. Mandatory implementation by Amazon of sales tax on California-bound goods this past July reduces the price differentiation Amazon formerly enjoyed. However, it’s still a risky proposition to maintain a bookstore in this environment, isn’t it?

I scoured the notes of my interview with Leigh for clues, reflected on what was happening around us as Leigh and I spoke. I read some great articles (see links below), trying to understand the phenomena.

And maybe, just maybe, I have the beginnings of the answer. Not surprisingly, it is an answer that applies to most successful businesses: personalized customer service that reflects the needs of the community. That’s what Leigh and her counterparts offer – the personal touch.

Leigh listens to her customers, knows many by name, keeps their perspective in mind as she stocks her shelves and plans for that reading area that is not yet a reality (but more feasible now, with the move of the children’s section to Bookasaurus). She provides an environment for her patrons in keeping with her product, but designed with them in mind. She is mindful of and an active participant in the community – when she speaks of her neighbors, her tales were tinged with a warmth that matches the day. Big box and on-line stores simply can’t offer those things.

The survival of bookstores comes at a time when consumers are being urged to “Think Globally; Act Locally,” as local farmer’s markets blossom, and the urge to participate in the success of one’s local community is strong.

Could it be that, with old-fashioned values and customer service, businesses like Leigh’s Favorite Books will continue to exist, to grow, and prosper? Can it be that such stores will not go the way of the dinosaurs but will, instead, be considered cutting-edge and “cool” in light of the local angle? Will we continue to see such small-business concerns grow and prosper, like those rudimentary ferns and lichens after a fire, eventually becoming the lush underpinnings of a strong community?

Oh, I hope so.

** Source: The Washington Post, “Independent bookstores add a new chapter” by Neely Tucker, August 17, 2011.

More about the survival of independent bookstores

Ten Books That Open Your Eyes to the Golden State

Get to know the real California

Eleven Books that Open Your Eyes to the Golden State

We have Hollywood. We have Disneyland. We have The Golden Gate Bridge and the Transamerica Building, Yosemite and Malibu. We have Giant Redwoods and grizzly bears, sourdough bread and Fisherman’s Wharf. California can boast a plethora of modern “wonders” and ancient beauty.

However, did you know that she is rich in Native American history? That her past includes violent and disruptive conquest by Spanish conquistadors and Catholic missionaries? That she experienced the most massive human migration in world history – and survived? That, in the mid-1800s, she was on the vanguard of economic globalization? That her population represented the most diverse in the world – where representatives from every continent on earth came together during the California Gold Rush?

The books cited below represent only ten examples of works that expose the depth and richness of California’s early history. Give them a try…discover what you may not know about America’s 31st state (before she was a state). If available, click on the title of the book to buy it through IndieBound – in support of independent bookstores throughout the U.S.

El Dorado

1 – El Dorado – The original travel book about California

“Go West, young man!” Such was the directive of well-known newspaper editor Horace Greeley. It is an oft-cited phrase – and may actually have been said in another way, at another time – but it is a fact that Greeley sponsored young Bayard Taylor on a journey to the new territory of California at the height of the Gold Rush in 1849.

Taylor made that journey and wrote about his experiences in El Dorado. The raw beauty of California is revealed. Exposed are the hardships of those living through the troubles wrought by the rapid influx of people into a land that had no infrastructure to support them.

The Victorian flourish of the writing may be cumbersome at first, but Taylor’s wonder and enthusiasm for California shine through.

Three Years in California

2 – Three Years in California (search the web for this out-of-print book)

This is the personal journal of adventurer/miner/merchant/town official William Perkins, a man of little significance to history except as a keen observer. Perkins journeyed to California in the early days of the Gold Rush and left us a full description of the beauty and brutality he found here.

Unlike many diarists, Perkins is an able writer who has captured the wonder of a time in history that shaped California.

San Francisco Memoris

3 – San Francisco Memoirs (search the web for this out-of-print book)

This delightful collection of the writings of various residents of San Francisco (or Yerba Buena, as it was called in the days before the Gold Rush) provide the personal touch to history. Nothing imparts the flavor of a particular time and place like the memories of those who lived it.

At times humorous and always replete with details that make the city come alive, San Francisco Memories was a pleasure to read and a joy to experience.

The Saw the Elephant

4 – They Saw the Elephant

So much of the history of the California Gold Rush is written by and about the men who journeyed to find their fortunes. This wonderful book is a collection of the writings of women who left diverse lands and came to call California their home. Contrary to the myth that Gold Rush women were primarily prostitutes, these women were miners, hoteliers, laundresses and seamstresses, restaurant owners, and entrepreneurs who often fared better than their male counterparts when it came to surviving and thriving in the untamed land of California.

To “See the Elephant” had come to represent the battle-cry of the Gold Rush pioneers – they were going to find their fortune, experience something new, take a once-in-a-lifetime risk. The women of California did all that. They saw the elephant.

The Age of Gold

5 – The Age of Gold

Unlike all of the previous books, H.W. Brands’ epic history of California, The Age of Gold, is not written from the perspective of personal experience. It is a history book – and a fine one at that.

Brands has thoroughly researched and masterfully presented the story of California. He presents rich, detailed accounts of the hardships endured by the travelers, both by land and sea, weaving their stories into the larger historical picture.

This is a well-written and exciting history – a must-read for anyone interested in the Birth of California.

The Rivals (book)

6 – The Rivals

I was so impressed by this book that I wrote a separate review of it (The Rivals: A Book Review).

While not a sweeping saga of California, The Rivals is the (true) story of two of California’s earliest political representatives: William Gwin and David Broderick.

Although both from the same political party, these two could not have been more different: Gwin was born of wealth and power in the southern United States, while Broderick was the New York son of an Irish stonemason who cut his political teeth at Tammany Hall. They had different hopes and aspirations for the new State of California and approached them in diverse styles: Gwin with his political aplomb and Broderick with his fists.

Having never heard of either men before (I am a native Californian, so that is nearly inexcusable), I was riveted by the story of their lives as presented in this book.

Miwok Means People

7 – Miwok Means People (search the web for this out-of-print book)

In 1848 there were still more than 150,000 indigenous people living throughout this westernmost strip of the new American territory. They lived peacefully with each other, for the most part, because California was a land of plenty: game was abundant, seafood easily available, acorns (the diet staple for most of the population, given the widespread growth of oak tree throughout much of the land) and berries and grains were ample.

Isolated from the Native Americans in the rest of the continent that was to become the United States, and isolated from each other by the diverse geography of California, the California tribes spoke 100 different dialects stemming from 21 distinct language groups found nowhere else. The life of a true California native could not have been more different from that of the Plains Indians who have come to represent America’s standard image of an “Indian.”

One such California tribe were the Miwok – whose territory stretched from the Sierra in the East to the shores of the San Francisco Bay. Miwok means People is a rich look at a way of life like no other.

The Other Californians

8 – The Other Californians

California is rich in cultural and ethnic diversity, even today. The roots of that diversity began with the California Gold Rush – when people from every continent traveled to “See the Elephant” and make their fortunes in the goldfields of the new territory. But humans will be human and, therefore, with such diversity also came prejudice.

The Other Californians highlights the issues California faced when so many cultures collided.

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9 – Embracing the Elephant – Experience the California Gold Rush!

Unlike all of the other books above, the next two (Embracing the Elephant and A Veil of Fog and Flames) are works of fiction. However, if you want to experience the feel of California at its inception, this adventure is the answer.

Publishers Weekly calls it “historically evocative.” ForeWord Reviews says it is a “journey worth taking.” The Historical Novel Society highly recommends it, saying: “Beninger’s skillful use of language pulls you into the story, and makes the scenes come alive.”

A historical fiction adventure set against the backdrop of the California Gold Rush, Embracing the Elephant follows young Guinevere Walker from her home in Boston, to Rio de Janeiro, around the treacherous Cape Horn, to the new city of San Francisco and, ultimately, the California mountain range called the Sierra Nevada, known for both its beauty and brutality.

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10 – A Veil of Fog and Flames

Heroes and scoundrels are not born – they are forged in the crucible of experience. Nothing anneals like living. So claims the next novel, A Veil of Fog and Flames.

At fifteen, Guinevere Walker and Jack Moylan are not yet galvanized for the future. In the roiling cauldron that is San Francisco of 1851 – a city devastated by suspicious fires, a dangerous brand of justice imposed by vigilantes from its formidable business community, and the cloud of slavery – the two face issues and questions that thrust them into adulthood and mold their very nature. Do they conform or rebel? Do they succumb to social conventions and restrictions? Or do they pursue their dreams in defiance of the pressures?

A Veil of Fog and Flames is a tale of young lives poised on a tightrope of right and wrong, their stories woven into the fabric of a city that forges rules as it pleases – and breaks them as easily.

The Rivals: A Book Review

The Greatest Politicians You’ve Never Heard Of

The Rivals

Ever read a great non-fiction book about someone you’d never heard of?

Neither had I until I picked up The Rivals during my research into California’s history for my up-coming historical fiction novel A Veil of Fog and Flames (the second in the Embracing the Elephant series.

What brought this book to my attention was the “Birth of California” in the title. What kept me riveted was the tale of two political pioneers, both from the same party (Democrats), but seldom of the same mind.

The Rivals (book)

Both men arrived in the new territory of California in 1849 – just as the frenzy of the Gold Rush had begun. Both men left an indelible mark on the history of the place that was to become the State of California under their tutelage.

U.S. Senator William Gwin was born into power: a moneyed Southern gentleman who saw potential greatness in a California tied to the American South both economically and, if and when possible, physically with the advent of a transcontinental railroad that would come into the newly formed state from a southern route: through the Mojave Desert.

State Senator David Broderick was born on the hardened streets of New York: a former bartender, the son of an Irish stonemason, who saw California as an egalitarian mecca where working-class men could shrug off the yoke of the moneyed and powerful (who controlled the American political system) to grab their fair share of the American ideal.

Arthur Quinn’s The Rivals is the remarkable story of the fight for the very identity of California. Both Gwin and Broderick had the best interests of the new state in mind with all of their political machinations, but their view of what constituted “the best” often clashed with one another.

Well researched and well presented, Quinn brings these two little-known historic figures and the vibrant but flawed City of San Francisco of the early 1850s to life. It is one of the best history books I’ve had the pleasure to read.

Where once the nation drew its wealth and power from agriculture, the 1850s ushered in a modern era of technological advancements, entrepreneurship that resulted in overnight fortunes, and the advent of a truly global economy.

To experience early California was like looking into the future of America. Nowhere were modern mores and marvels more evident than in the early days of California’s Gold Rush. And Senators Broderick and Gwin were there to usher that future in.

Buy this book on IndieBound.

The author receives NO remuneration for any sale of this book.

Ladybug Girl and Bumblebee Boy: A Book Review

A review of an exceptional children’s book.

Ladybug Girl

Ask “The Expert”

Who do you ask when you want to find the best children’s book? The expert, of course — a child!

In my case, that child happened to be my youngest granddaughter, Avalon. By the time she was four, I didn’t have to ask what her favorite book was. I already knew: Ladybug Girl and Bumblebee Boy by Jacky Davis, with colorful illustrations by David Soman.

For two years, the only story Avalon wanted to hear was one about Lulu, otherwise known as Ladybug Girl. I could read The Cat In The Hat or Disney’s Best Friends or anything “Olivia,” but the evening was not complete (and sleep would not come) without a Ladybug Girl story (there are several, see below). Avalon wanted only Lulu and, as you can see from the photos below, she wanted to be Ladybug Girl.

The Real Ladybug Girl

The Premise

Lulu is an active, imaginative child of 4 or 5 (not yet reading) who loves to dress up and explore her world: counting the number of “L’s” on the books in her family’s library, imagining sharks in the neighborhood pond, dancing in the leaves that litter a nearby pasture, conceiving of the neighborhood playground as a place of dragons and monsters that need taming by the invincible Ladybug Girl (and her friends). She is big in her little world, despite what her older brother says. In her favorite costume, she is Ladybug Girl and she can do anything.

The Ladybug Girl series is a celebration of the everyday things in a pre-school child’s life – watching ants, making new friends, inventing games, and overcoming the indifference of an older sibling or the rushed life of a parent. The books (there are ten actual books, not including the activity books and other merchandise) are colorful and simple, with a common thread: a child can do anything with a little imagination.

Avalon and I first came upon this series with Ladybug Girl and Bumblebee Boy (which remained Avalon’s favorite of the series) in which Lulu meets Sam. With the help of their vivid imagination, the dynamic duo become the eponymous super heroes who save their playground from sure destruction.

There is a strong message of cooperation that threads through each book; however, it is the power of the creative mind that captures the hearts of children. When Avalon got to know Lulu, she knew she could do anything too.

Buy this book on IndieBound.

The author receives NO remuneration from any sales of this book.

John Adams: A Book Review

A review of David McCullough’s warm and engaging portrait of one of America’s most under-sung Founding Fathers

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A Recalcitrant Patriot

John Adams, the second president of the United States, described himself as a farmer, sometimes a lawyer. Perhaps he would have been happier had he spent his life on his Massachusetts farm or practicing law in the countryside around Boston, but America would not have been the same.

Intelligent, irascible, and egalitarian, John Adams was among a handful of brave individuals who shepherded a fledgling country along its path to liberty, guiding her through her first steps as a nation.

In his outstanding novel John Adams, David McCullough brings this stalwart patriot to life.

John Adams

A Winning Biography

Representative from Massachusetts to the First Continental Congress, eloquent debater for the cause of freedom, staunch supporter of social equality, and steadfast man of integrity, John Adams was one of the most important politicians in the history of the United States. He worked with Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin to pen the Declaration of Independence, and stood firm as it was endlessly debated and ultimately ratified. He was America’s ambassador to France during the crucial years when the fledgling United States needed France’s support (and money). John Adams was one of the most influential and steady patriots of the American Revolution, risking his life in the pursuit of his country’s freedom.

Simultaneously, John Adams was a lawyer (famously — and successfully — defending the British soldiers involved in what came to be known as The Boston Massacre), a farmer, and a devoted husband and father. Gauging from his writings, this was the life he preferred over politics.

In John Adams, the large and small of this man are presented by Mr. McCullough as a three-dimensional portrait of a great patriot.

Taking much of his material from the letters Adams wrote during his lifetime — to his beloved wife Abigail, to his fellow statesmen, to his friends and relatives — Mr. McCullough’s vast talents as a writer work to resurrect an important historical figure from the archives. What emerges from the pages of John Adams is the story of the flesh-and-blood man who would be America’s second President.

The Appeal

There is much to recommend this book: The narrative is fluid, the details informative and inspiring without weighing upon the reader. Although well researched and reliant on actual documents produced at the time (or shortly thereafter) for its educational richness, there is nothing dry or lifeless in its pages.

Mr. McCullough easily guides his readers through Adams’ philosophy on the role and importance of government: his adamant insistence upon the separation of church and state (a certainty wholeheartedly shared by his fellow patriot and sometimes rival Thomas Jefferson), his belief in a bicameral Congress and a clear and distinct separation of the three branches of the new government: The Executive, the Legislative, and the Judiciary.

Through Mr. McCullough’s smooth narrative style, we learn of the complex relationships and political struggles Adams maintained (most notably with Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton) and, using the intimate letters the couple exchanged during their many years of politically induced separation, we catch a glimpse of the vast love and trusting partnership Adams maintained with his wife Abigail — an intelligent, gracious, and opinionated woman who lived during a time when only graciousness was valued in females. Two hundred years before there was “open marriage” (defined as an independent relationship) there was the partnership of John and Abigail.

This is an inspirational book, well researched and well written. Mr. McCullough does not try to hide the warts, but the picture that emerges from his pages of this argumentative and logical man of integrity does more to highlight the strengths than dwell on the weaknesses. The author even intimates that Adams is fully aware of his own shortcomings and uses this knowledge together with the coaching of his wife to find ways to overcome.

Mr. McCullough has been criticized by some historians for being too light with his subjects (see the list of other biographical works by David McCullough below). However, as a more casual historian, I found the book to be one of the best biographies I have ever read.

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The author receives NO remuneration from any sales of this book.