The Top 100 Tales

In 2018 the folks at the Beeb (BBC) came out with the Top 100 Stories that have influenced the world.  “Good on ya!”  I love lists: by definition, they’re always controversial.  It’s true that scholars very seldom throw punches (I’d pay money to see that!) but normally a list such as this would generate more than a few white wine arguments over which book is where and why.  Unfortunately, this particular list does not fulfill that basic requirement because, even at first glance, it’s obviously total bullshit.

Yeah, yeah, yeah! All lists are subjective; however, there are some things in this world that are just dead wrong.  Let’s take an objective look at what the Beeb is trying to pawn off on us.

The Odyssey (#1) — No problem.  (You’ll probably get a fight from the Shakespearians, but they’re always pissed off about something.)
Uncle Tom’s Cabin (#2) — We can all agree on Simon Legree.  This book may very well have caused the American Civil War, which not only changed the social structure of Western civilization but also gave us the first glimpse of the military-industrial complex.
Frankenstein (#3) — This is where things start to get a little weird.  It’s true everybody knows who Frankenstein is — although most people get him confused with the monster.  But I’m pretty sure Frankenstein is not as big an influence on young lovers (anybody who ever lived) as Romeo and Juliet which doesn’t show up ’til #13.  And from there, everything just goes sideways.  According to the list, Beloved (#11) is a bigger influence on the world than Animal Farm (#18) and Ulysses (#17) — which no living person actually understands — is ahead of To Kill A Mocking Bird (#27).  Meanwhile On The Road (the universal anthem of rebellion) is nowhere to be found!

And what about the other sins of omission? — OMG!  There’s no The Great Gatsby, no Grapes of Wrath, no Fahrenheit 451, no Brave New World, nothing by Hemingway, nothing by Hardy and nothing by Kipling who sent two generations of imperial Brits out to change the world.  Paradise Lost and Le Morte D’Arthur are conspicuous by their absence, and where the hell is Dr. Seuss?

However, it’s not what’s missing from the list that’s burning my bacon: it’s a couple of titles that the Beeb included.

JK Rowlings’ Harry Potter series (#15) — Yes, we all read these books (or saw the movies.) Yes, we all thought Harry (and eventually Hermione) were hot; and yes, Quidditch is now the national sport of Nerdovia — but #15?  That’s ahead of Aesop’s Fables (#29) and Cinderella (#52.)  I don’t think so!  If nothing else, Aesop and Cindy have about a 1,000 year head start on that little wizard.  They were bedtime stories for millions and millions of children, long before Millennials decided that they were the only generation that mattered.  And besides, everybody knows Rowlings didn’t write seven Harry Potter books; she wrote two Harry Potter books — three and a half times.

But, my biggest bitch is The Handmaid’s Tale (#16).  WTF?  This little ditty is ahead of King Lear (#33), The Canterbury Tales (#58) and A Christmas Carol (#73)?  Basically, the BBC is telling us Margaret Atwood has a bigger influence on the world than William Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer and Christmas!  Not bad for a book one reviewer called “paranoid poppycock.”  You want some serious grins?  Walk down any street in the English-speaking world and ask people if they’ve read the book — the book!  Chances are good you’ll get an overwhelming NO.  Why?  Because the vast majority of people who have even heard of The Handmaid’s Tale have only seen the TV series.  For the first 30 years of its existence (before Hulu pick up the option) The Handmaid’s Tale was about as influential as Pinocchio — probably less.  And here’s the kicker: the TV series isn’t even written by Margaret Atwood!  It’s written by Bruce Miller, whose last outing was The 100; Leila Gerstein, who wrote for Gossip Girl and a bunch of other people who don’t even have Wikipedia entries.  So much for spreading Margaret Atwood’s influence on the world around like marmalade on cold toast!

The bottom line is this list does serve one purpose, and one purpose only: it clearly confirms we’re living in the shallow end of intellectual history, dominated by cultural illiteracy.  Harry Potter, my ass!

Writer’s Block — A Cure

writing a blog

I realize that talking to a bunch of bloggers about writing is like trying to teach a dolphin how to swim.  (It isn’t really necessary and annoys the hell out of the dolphin.)  However, here I am because I know that anyone who’s ever touched pen to paper has suffered from writer’s block, writer’s cramp and — that worst of all literary maladies — writer’s fatigue.  I’m sure even the great Billy Shakespeare sat around, on more than one occasion, twiddling his quill and thinking, “I’m going to quit this bullshit and sign on with Drake.”  (Sir Francis, not the other guy.)  So, in the interest of keeping literature alive in these troubled times, here are a few tips to get the ink flowing again, when, for some reason, it gets stuck in the pen.  (I know, I know!  Nobody writes with a pen anymore – but I like the metaphor.)

Walk Away – It took Margaret Mitchell 10 years to write Gone with the Wind.  Turning your computer off for a couple of hours isn’t going to kill anyone.

Make a Cup of Tea – The Brits, who are the most literary people in the world, use tea as a cure-all for everything from a broken leg to a totally botched Brexit.  And they’ve been doing it since John Milton versed out Paradise Lost in the 17th century.  (That’s a lot of words under Tower Bridge, my friend!)  What tea does is slow you down.  It separates you from the real world.  It gives you a wall or a window to stare at.  It’s warm, it’s cozy and it forces you to think.  Which leads us to Item #3

It’s About You – Instead of trying to forge a Brave New World out of thin air, you need to get back to basics.  Start with you, because even though you might be the most kale salad, whole wheat, Friday night Netflix, middle-class-dull person in the history of ordinary … life has happened to you.  You have memories.  A red house.  A stupid Tweet.  A grocery clerk.  Morgan Freeman’s smile.  Grab one (it doesn’t matter which one) and write it down.

Ask The Questions – Every story from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to Niall Ferguson’s The Square and the Tower is merely who, what, where, when and why.  It’s not brain science or rocket surgery – that’s all there is.  Answer those questions and you have a story but …

Don’t Paint A Picture – Insisting on the exact right word ad infinitum eats up creative energy, so keep it simple.  Lose the adverbs; lose the adjectives.  This isn’t War and Peace, for God sake!  Call it a sleigh not a seasonal horse-drawn transportation device.  Less is more.  Tell the tale.

Some Things Don’t Matter – I don’t know how long it took Herman Melville to come up with “Call me Ismael” but he could have written “Call me Brenda.” and Moby Dick would still be unreadable.  So, don’t waste time sweating the details.  Your job is to get words on paper.

And finally:

Remember – If you have the audacity to string words together, you have a responsibility to your audience.  Because, as Galadriel said to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, “This task was appointed to you, and if you do not find a way, no one will.”

And that’s a sin.

Roman Holiday (an excerpt)

roman holiday

And as she fell asleep, Denise remembered.

The European spring had been brilliant, unplanned to the last mishap.  Twenty-three kids from Mr. Marshall’s History and Civics Class, off to conquer Europe.  They had saved their pennies all year and a month before graduation had set out to boldly go where no eighteen year old had probably ever gone before.  In fact, given the complete lack of planning and supervision, it hadn’t gone too badly.  They lost Ms. Reynolds and most of their luggage in London, missed any number of buses and trains, had four cases of food poisoning, one serious illness, two and a half arrests and a traffic accident.  They lost tickets, they lost passports, a couple of times they were robbed and Jerry Painter got stabbed in Seville.  There was one serious drug overdose (the rest were minor), six or seven declarations of undying love, at least two fistfights, somewhere around nine cases of post-virginal depression, one pregnancy and one defection.  And that didn’t include all the minor scrapes, bumps, arguments, tears and swearing.  Stranded in Amsterdam, the bus happily chugging away without them, Mr. Marshal quietly gave up and took to drink and so, by the time they got lost in Rhiems, Mr. Marshal’s friend Call-Me-Janet was spending her days clucking and Wendy Sherwood and her clique were running the show.  It became Lord of the Flies with museums.

Yet the spring had indeed been brilliant.  Everything was new and they were immortal, fearless gods and goddesses with bright big eyes and smooth skin.  They knew everything, saw everything, tasted, smelled and felt everything.  And Europe did its best to help them.  Hot humid days, sticky to the touch, and nights dark and silky, shivering with promises.  Unknown narrow streets shadowed in grey stone and smooth cool white marble.  Holy chanting churches and painted pagan rituals.  Strong spices, sweet fruit, dark eyes and lisping vowels.  Their families and bedtimes and televisions oceans away, they reverted to adolescent savagery.  They ran mad over the cobblestones, each catastrophe binding them closer together, until they became a primitive tribe.  Teenage warriors marauding across the continent, looting with their senses and brawling with their emotions.  Their passions bubbling alive, their nerves high and open, dripping with hormones, they fought and danced, laughed, sang, kissed and hated.  Then they all sobered up and went home.  All of them — except Denise.

The next morning Denise woke up early.  She brought her coffee out to the cool of the balcony and watered her plants.  It was going to be a hot day, and she wondered what to wear.  Amsterdam had been hot, brilliant-sunshine warm, not like Paris, close and muggy and irritable.  It had rained in Paris and the group couldn’t get away from each other.  The hotel smelled of onions and old pee.  Karen and Denise, fighting with Wendy and flung out into the streets.  Long overcast walks and chilly dingy cafés and the crying cold midnight at Jim Morrison’s grave.  She stopped it there.  That was ahead of it; Amsterdam was first.  Nothing she remembered could remember Amsterdam.  Jerry Painter slumped over his shoes, drooling.  Tammy Tamara dancing in the streets with the German boys.  No, it was all blind stoned and stumbling on black beer and harsh sweet smoke and the night she pulled Wilcox — he was still Wilcox then — through the hot neon streets, kissing and touching and watching, until they couldn’t stand it anymore.  In the hard shadows of some brick broken alley they groped and grabbed and slipped down the stones like thickening oil, twisting and pulling at their clothes until they were on the ground.  Then, barely on top of her, their tightened adolescent energies simply overflowed against each other.  That she remembered, and moved slightly in her chair: the weight of him on her.  She teased him unquenchably, holding herself to him, provoking and promising, watching the want of her in his eyes. And he so loved her, like a warm sleepy puppy.  He wrote her sweet notes and poetry.  She still had them — somewhere.  He opened doors for her and gave her advice, secretly planning his – uh — their future.  And she loved him back, but not that way.  She knew that, even at the time.  She loved him because he was nice, because he loved her, because unconsciously he taught her how to be adored, how to be enjoyed, and how to use power — not hers — she already knew that — his. The male power of him moving through a crowd so she could see, dominating the background so she could win arguments.  The tall shoulders beside her that made it easier to wait on a corner or walk at midnight or swear at cab drivers.  And she showed him the power of the secret, more intimate than desire or sex or love itself.  The secret shares a single soul so holy you dare not speak its name.  It entangles and binds two people together so completely that forever, they are never alone in the world again.  But that was later; that was Paris.  She finished her coffee and set the cup down.

“Spanish blue dress, red purse and sandals,” she thought, “Generic Italian: simple, cool and sexy.”  The dress touched in the right places but didn’t cling, and the sandals had enough heel to tighten her calves, but she could still walk easily.

She stroked her shin and decided against another cup of coffee.

“And not too flamboyant” she thought.  After all, she didn’t want to scare anybody.  But then she needed a hat, wide brim with a red band, to match the shoes.  That was for Cat.

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Available as an individual story here or as part of The Woman In The Window collection at Amazon