Boredom and oversharing on the frontier

Like many people, I loved the Little House series growing up, and read the books many times. I even read a number of the ephemeral books, like The Little House Cookbook, A Little House Sampler, and On the Way Home. Thus, I expected to enjoy this book too.

Was I wrong.

What didn’t I like about this book? Let me count the ways.

1. It moved SO slowly! This is one of those books where 200 pages feel more like 800. This wasn’t an engaging, gripping page-turner.

2. Ms. Miller needs a lot more practice writing third-person. Her previous novels were first-person present tense, so the classic third-person past tense is quite a departure for her. I never felt fully in Caroline’s head, because the prose was so emotionally detached and distant.

3. Overdescribing the dullest things, with the same detached prose. How does it either move the story or character development along to know every little detail about rope burn, fording rivers, drying the wagon canvas after a storm?

4. Over half the book depicts the journey from Wisconsin to Indian Territory. Apart from a few people the Ingallses encounter along the way, the only four characters are Ma, Pa, Mary, and Laura. Books about, e.g., the Oregon Trail work best when there are many other people besides the main family.

Those books also feature gripping emotional, dramatic events, like disease, drought, exhaustion, childbirth, quarrels with other pioneers. This is just a boring, long-drawn-out travelogue.

5. I REALLY did not need to read sex scenes with Ma and Pa! I feel so uncomfortable reading sex scenes with real-life people. Unless we’re talking about someone like Casanova, how do you think they’d feel knowing a total stranger, 100+ years later, would depict the imagined details of their most private, intimate moments for the entire world to read?

6. Ditto reading about Pa tasting Ma’s breastmilk!

7. I’m not sure what the point of this retelling was. This is little more than a direct retelling of Little House on the Prairie from Ma’s POV.

8. Enough already with the excretory scenes! Reading about real-life people relieving themselves squicks me out even more than reading about them having sex! I did not need to read so many scenes of Ma and the girls using the necessary, digging holes and squatting over them, and emptying chamber pots!

9. Lots of purple prose and weird metaphors. Enough said.

10. Was the real Caroline really that dour, serious, depressing, and joyless? I get that Laura wrote the books from her POV, and didn’t have personal insight into her mother’s feelings, but Ms. Miller’s Caroline seems really off the mark. Pioneer women had difficult lives, and were the product of a much different society and culture, but there were still moments of joy!

It also feels like stereotyping of Victorian women in general, who were anything but prudish and repressed.

11. Spending way too much time describing things that don’t move the story along. Not every single day, week, month of a story needs detailed!

12. Ms. Miller doesn’t use enough commas. Where was her editor?

Overall, I’m tired of the trend of hist-fic about real-life people. So many of these books would work so much better were they about fictional people with similar circumstances. Then there’d be more leeway to stray from established history and personalities. At least in alternative history, there’s a reason for characters to do things they never did in real life!

At least Ms. Miller accurately depicts the Ingallses as voluntarily returning to Wisconsin because the man who bought their cabin reneged on his payments, instead of, as Laura depicts, being forced out by the government.

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How to write a book in the style of Beatrice Sparks

It’s been too long since I wrote a post ripping the late fraud “Dr.” Beatrice Sparks a new one. So, let’s do that!

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t care if someone wrote books I didn’t click with. One person’s lousy writing is another’s treasure. But in the case of “Dr.” Sparks, this isn’t just about bad writing or books that aren’t my style at all. Since more than a few people, esp. in her target audience, believe these are true stories, she was dangerous and unethical in addition to a fraud.

Some of her books are marginally better than others. They’re not all pure horse dung. But with the obvious exception of the 25 real entries from Alden Barrett in Jay’s Journal, they all read like the work of an over the hill, extremely conservative and religious person pretending to be a teen.

We now know Sparks lied about her training, education, credentials, experience, etc. People who know what’s what also understand she was the true authors of all those books, and what she did to the poor Barrett family.

I have NO problem with either a real-life or fictional teen being religious, frequently praying, having a close-knit relationship with her or his mother, trying to live a G-rated life, being conservative, etc.

What I DO have an issue with is how Sparks injected this into each and every one of her books, making her characters clones of herself. The way her characters express these things is so unrealistic, ridiculous, over the top, identical.

How to write in the style of “Dr.” Sparks:

1. Always give the time of day at the start of each entry, and every time you return to an entry later in the day.

2. Everyone loves RANDOM CAPS! In fact, readers have even more love for ENTIRE SENTENCES IN ALL CAPS, or, better, yet, COMPLETE PARAGRAPHS IN ALL CAPS!

3. We all love random italics too!

4. The best of both worlds is RANDOM CAPS IN ITALICS!

5. Who doesn’t love excessive exclamation points!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

6. PUT THEM ALL TOGETHER REGULARLY FOR EVEN BETTER, MORE INTENSE WRITING!!!!!!!!!!

7. Repeat words thrice for emphasis; e.g., “We’ve heard he’s loud loud loud” and “My mom is soooo very wonderful. I love love love her.”

8. Randomly use advanced, fancy-sounding words while pretending you have no idea where you heard them. Even better if you use distinctively Mormon concepts and terminology while feigning ignorance about their meanings.

9. At the same time, talk like a preschool kid, with beyond-babyish language. Who wouldn’t believe a 15-year-old ex-gangbanger would say “Goobly-goop-poop”?!

10. Make up baby words and sprinkle in lots of connected nonsense syllables even a doo-wop song would reject, like kit-kit-kit-kat-kat-doodle.

11. Oversimplify complex issues, and solve them in record time.

12. Use the stock line, “Ooh, I’m sooo glad my dear, sweet, precious Mom is MY dear, sweet, precious Mom!”

13. Engage in hardcore, fetishistic maternal worship, where all things Mommykins and mothers are pure, holy, angelic, never negative.

14. Make sure your character comes from a broken home, and depict divorced families as the worst moral crisis ever, bound to lead to all manner of social ills and sins.

15. Trawl through psychology textbooks and after school specials for “serious” lines to sprinkle in, like a mean girl quickly admitting she only acts like an aloof snob who doesn’t want friends because she’s insecure and afraid of rejection.

16. Pack in as many problems as possible, no matter how disconnected.

17. Make your characters mentally much younger; e.g., a 14-year-old who sounds like a 3-year-old.

18. Your characters are never drawn into drug use, premarital sex, pregnancy, gangs, cults, etc., through their own actions. It’s always the fault of bad friends tricking, abusing, exploiting them.

19. Everything is always Magickally alright again after your narrator tearfully confides in Mommykins, who’s amazingly loving, forgiving, accepting, an angel on Earth.

20. Use lines no teen ever would utter, like, “Wowee! Now I know what hormones are!”

21. Immediately apologize for cursing; thinking negative, unappreciative thoughts; or saying less than worshipful things about parents. E.g., “Ew, Mom! You are such a gross bitch!” (Five minutes later.) “ZOMG! How dare I curse at my dear, sweet, precious Mommykins in the pages of my own journal! I’m worse than Hitler! I might as well kill myself now!”

22. Jump into relationships at lightning-speed, and act like you’ve already got a serious, eternal pair-bond with a total stranger.

Beatrice Sparks, I hate you. May you continue to be exposed as the vile fraud you were. Teens learn best by honest examples delivered respectfully, not by being lied to, preached at, scared, and emotionally manipulated.

A complicated woman who deserved better

I was quite excited to stumble across this thick historical novel about Mary Todd Lincoln. I’ve been deeply interested in the Lincolns since age eight, with the interest waxing and waning over time. So many books focus on Pres. Lincoln and his youngest sons Willie and Tad, but not too much attention has been paid to the long-suffering Mary.

Overall, I think I’d give this a 3 out of 5. I read every word, and overall was held by the story and Ms. Newman’s writing, but there were a number of things which disappointed me.

1. While the wraparound segments in the mental hospital were an interesting idea, I don’t think they fit so well with the main text. I personally don’t like being jerked back and forth between past and present. There needs to be more balance with such a structure. I’ve also found out there were no bars on the windows, and no records of patients being killed by overdoses of medication like laudanum.

2. It was jarring to see the R-word used several times, even as a medical term! That word wasn’t even used in that way in the 19th century. Did Ms. Newman not think we’d understand a bygone classification like feebleminded, moron, or imbecile?

3. Robert Lincoln is portrayed as the antagonist, a complete villain, with no human emotions or sympathy. From birth, he’s depicted as cold, unfeeling, distant, antagonistic towards his mother and later wife, cruel, etc. In real life, two recesses had to be called at Mary’s insanity hearing because Robert was crying too much to testify. He also stayed by his baby brother Tad on his deathbed, and was very grieved to lose his final surviving sibling.

4. Speaking of, the wrong age is given for Tad at one point.

5. I obviously know the focus isn’t supposed to be on Pres. Lincoln, but some rather important events of his life are left out. Why wouldn’t his wife mention he started growing a beard, for example? Or how about him sneaking into Washington in disguise, on another train, for fear of assassination during the final leg of his journey to the White House?

6. Based on what came before, I honestly didn’t realise at first Ms. Newman was actually describing the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. I thought Mary was having another drug-induced hallucination or dream!

7. I was quite disappointed such short schrift was given to the Lincolns’ White House life. How about some descriptions of dinners and teas with important dignitaries and generals? Mary’s young friend Julia Taft, the older sister of Tad and Willie’s friends Bud and Holly, all of whom were regular visitors?

8. This is one of those books where so many pages are devoted to the subject’s early life, not much room is left to properly delve into the middle and later years.

9. I don’t want to read sex scenes with real-life people! I’ve zero problem reading or writing sex scenes in general, but I don’t want to picture Pres. Lincoln of all people getting it on! Forget the famous or heroic aspect; what person wants complete strangers, 100+ years later, writing about her or his most private, intimate moments for the whole world?

For that matter, I don’t want to read about anyone (real people or fictional characters) relieving themselves either! Both of these things are trends that need to go away!

10. Is there any evidence Mary seduced her husband before marriage to force him into marrying her, and her family into accepting the relationship? I’m well-aware premarital sex has always existed, but the way this storyline was handled seemed so unrealistic and bizarre!

11. Ms. Newman depicts Mary as sex-obsessed and Pres. Lincoln as frigid and undersexed, with this imbalance of passion deeply affecting their relationship. She even has Mary thinking about sex when her husband’s on his deathbed! In an earlier chapter, she depicts Mary having an affair when she’s shopping in New York.

Overall, I did enjoy a good portion of the book. I truly felt for this woman who suffered so much, and lived in a time when there wasn’t much recourse but a mental hospital and “medicine” that made her condition worse. It’s just that the execution was lacking, and I felt like a voyeur reading the sex scenes.

A novel of tedium and infodump in Medieval France

I was excited to find this among the $3 books at a used bookstore. My parents bought me the second book years ago, for my birthday or Chanukah, but I’d never read it. Sadly, I yet again had the exact opposite reaction from the crowd re: a very popular recent hist-fic.

Why might that be this time?

1. Ms. Anton gets an A+ for research, a D for storytelling. It’s a bunch of ideas and historical facts patched together. The narrative plods along tediously, with no compelling, well-developed characters or strong prose to compensate.

2. Showing off her research. Ms. Anton dumps in detailed information that has nothing to do with the purported main story, like Medieval French politics, parchment-making, wine-making, and Rashi’s mother’s diary.

3. Stilted, infodumpy dialogue conveying said details. Enough said.

4. Head-hopping deluxe! When we’re in too many heads, too close together, for not enough time each, we’re ultimately in no one’s head, and can’t care about the characters. The trick to handling an ensemble cast is to weave the POVs, just as a great figure skating program weaves the elements in and out instead of clustering them.

5. By the time an actual plot finally emerged (over 200 pages in), I was long past caring about anyone. At least in A Farewell to Arms, I felt bad for the baby for about two seconds!

6. The sex scenes are like Medieval Jewish porn fantasies! I also call BS on Rashi giving fairly graphic sex advice to his own daughters and son-in-law and giving the latter intimate details about his sex life! And enough already with the unrealistic trope of virgins having a mind-blowingly awesome first time!

7. I call BS on men waiting outside the mikvah for their wives and gossiping about who went there! Taharat hamishpacha, family purity, is an extremely private mitzvah, which even many women didn’t discuss with other women till a few decades ago. You’re not supposed to know who went there, esp. if she’s your sister, mother, or rabbi’s daughter! A brother also wouldn’t oversee his own sister’s immersions!

8. Was it really common for women to regularly come to synagogue, not just for holidays and the Sabbath, in the 11th century?

9. The word “gender” is anachronistically used in place of “sex” six times, including twice in dialogue. People in the 11th century DID NOT use that word in that way, EVER! It only became a euphemism for “sex” in the late 20th century, thanks in large part to the vile Dr. John Money and his grotesque experiment with poor David Reimer. The freaking Victorians weren’t afraid to say “sex” when referring to being male or female!

10. Either someone confused the dating, or Ms. Anton SORASed her characters. The timeline says Joheved was born in 1059, yet she’s twelve when the story opens in 1069. Miriam’s birth year is given as 1062, yet she’s nine when the story opens. Joheved’s husband Meir is depicted as four years older, yet he was born circa 1060.

11. Speaking of, I had no sense of these girls growing up. I know there was no concept of adolescence in the Middle Ages, but I never had a feeling for how old they were at any given time, or of going on a coming-of-age journey with them. It felt more like SORASing.

12. Zero character development. Enough said.

13. I call BS on the premarital kissing and making out! Traditional Orthodox couples aren’t even allowed to be alone without a chaperone or hold hands before marriage.

14. Every time a conflict appears, it’s quickly resolved, like when Rashi catches Joheved and Meir making out before they’re married.

15. The blurb makes it sound like the story is about Meir’s disapproval of Joheved’s Talmud study, but he’s totally cool with it after his initial shock. It was extremely unusual for Jewish women (and even most men) to be so educated in this era, yet we never gauge any long-lasting reactions to this from anyone!

16. The depictions of births and midwifery aren’t accurate, as a reviewer on Amazon and Goodreads explained in detail.

17. Constantly interrupting the narrative to define or explain things!

Rashi and his daughters (who really did study Talmud and pray with tefillin) deserved so much better. I’m told the second book depicts Miriam’s husband Benjamin as openly gay, and the community anachronistically accepts this.

One Imperial pretender, two very different books, Part VI (Final thoughts)

Rereading Kurth’s book, over 22 years later, in tandem with rereading King and Wilson’s book, was such a study in contrasts. I wanted to see if I’d interpret all these things much differently, now knowing the truth. So many things uncritically presented as factual by Kurth are reported far differently, and more damningly, by King and Wilson.

King and Wilson make it clear, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the claimant was one and the same as Franziska Schanzkowska. Not only that, they show how she seemingly pulled off this charade for so many decades and fooled so many people who supposedly knew the real Anastasiya very well.

She relied on her incredible memory (which was never as shattered as she pretended it was), taking advantage of all the books, magazine articles, captioned photos, and personal stories that were offered up to her in good faith. To avoid blowing her cover, she carefully controlled whom she interacted with and what she said.

After such a dark, bleak life, Franziska saw in the Romanovs the kind of ideal, loving family she’d been denied. She wanted, needed to identify so strongly with their happiness, privilege, close-knit bonds. Taking on this pretended identity, even with the dark cloud of Yekaterinburg, was preferable to her own real life.

People who quickly, unthinkingly dismiss her, without knowing much else about her, fail to understand how complex her story really was. Franziska was more than just another pretender. Once she realised the enormity of what she’d set in motion, she knew she could never back out of it and return to being Franziska.

Not only was she guilty of fraud, but so many good people had become personally involved. They’d opened their homes, paid for her medical care and legal bills, given her priceless mementos, publicly and prominently defended her. She wasn’t like any of the other countless Romanov pretenders, whose claims quickly fizzled out and who never became international celebrities.

Countless DNA tests, from multiple labs, genetic samples, and countries, have proven over and over again she wasn’t a Romanova, nor a maternal descendent of Queen Victoria. Instead, her mtDNA has always matched Franziska’s sister’s grandson.

Though U.S. and Russian forensic scientists disagree on which daughter was missing from the mass grave and finally found in 2007, DNA tests have proved all seven members of the Imperial Family are now accounted for.

Taken together with all the unarchived documents disproving so much of what the world was led to believe for decades, the truth is obvious. However, there remains a small, committed band of Anastasians, still clinging to wild conspiracy theories and refusing to accept new evidence.

The most bizarre conspiracy I’ve heard is that she was a chimera. A. Freaking. Chimera.

People in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution wanted, needed to believe someone survived. Even today, people without any monarchist leanings or Russian blood are struck by the heartbreaking tragedy. This gave them hope to cling to, however delusional.

Thus, they were able to overlook troubling things like her refusal to speak Russian, blatantly false memories, obvious mistakes, strikingly different physical appearance, lack of response to things the real Anastasiya would’ve been deeply affected by or at least recognised, all the holes in her rescue story.

Of course it’s wrong to steal the identity of a girl who was murdered when she was barely seventeen, and to take advantage of so many good people for decades. But given the harsh life Franziska came from, this role of a lifetime was a golden ticket to go from a nobody to a somebody.

She probably didn’t think it would ever go so far, but once she was so firmly ensconced in it, with so many other people involved, it was impossible to end things. Admitting her fraud would’ve made her life even worse.

At the time of the Revolution, Tatyana (left) was the most famous and popular of the Tsar’s daughters, because of her prominent nursing work and exotic, regal beauty. Thanks to Franziska’s decades-long pretending act, Anastasiya is now the most famous by far.

If Franziska hadn’t claimed her identity, it’s very likely Anastasiya would’ve remained a footnote in history. Had she lived, she would’ve married a foreign prince and led an ordinary royal life, even if she’d married a prince from a country that fell under Nazi occupation or fascist rule.

Franziska had a much more interesting life than Anastasiya seemed destined for, precisely because of her pretending act.

There’s a Jewish teaching that parents have a moment of prophecy when they name a baby. It’s indeed eerily prophetic how Anastasiya means “resurrection.”