The Books that Inspired Me (To Fail)

If you wander into my basement, you will find a very ugly built-in shelf that houses books we have read and books we are unlikely to read.  Unlike the teetering piles of books on top of my dresser, stacks under the nightstands of my husband’s and my bedside, the books tumbling off shelves in the kid’s room, and the books tucked into baskets on toilet tanks and in nooks by the sofa, the basement books are abandoned.

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The unread books on these shelves are multitudes.  If they would pull together for form a being to seek revenge on our neglect they would call themselves Legion (largely due to the collection of various religious texts).

Among the unread books are sequels that we just couldn’t stomach after having read the first book.  I’m looking at you Fifty Shades Darker and award-winning literary books that we know we should want to read but could never bring ourselves to muster the energy for.  There are the books abandoned halfway through for being too stupid.  There are the books abandoned halfway through for being too good and triggering a swivet about the fate of a character.  (Sorry, Poisonwood Bible, as a mother I just couldn’t keep reading past the death you had spent the entire first half of the book telling me was coming.)  There are the books given earnestly from family members convinced that this diet or that would fix a body that has spent a lifetime failing me.

The largest collection by far, though, are the books I bought because I thought I would accomplish something.  The books on gardening, square foot gardening, container gardening, and even growing herbs on a micro-scale in my kitchen.  All were purchased in a conviction that I could garden as my father does. He is an old farm boy from Nebraska, who moved to California, got a subsidized college education, and didn’t stop until he had a Ph.D. and a comfortable tenure position.  You can take the boy off the farm and he will bring the farm with him to any suburban home he has.

But, no, buying the book, holding it my hands and wishing never made gardening something I would enjoy.  And enjoy it you must, given the output.  Even if you get a lot of vegetables and fruits, then you have more work in canning. So the books compost on the shelf.

Closely related are the home improvement and home organization books.  They boil A very random selection of books on the built-in bookselvesherculean tasks down to simple steps, glazing over the emotional work in completing projects.  We have long learned that the best of all possible options are for me to be out of the house, preferably out of state, when any home improvement project will be undertaken. I am ill-equipped emotionally for the disasters and messes of project middles. I am an attention-to-detail person with unwilling workers who would rather get the job done fast. It’s always better to not see the grinding of the entrails and the stuffing of the casing and just enjoy the sausage of a fait accompli.

As for the home organization books?  A personal zeal for organizing evaporates quickly when you realize your housemates aren’t going to part with any of their things. It took until my son was nearly 15 for him to finally agree that he might be too old for some of his toddler toys and that the fast-food kid’s meal toys were of no value even to Goodwill.  Someday, when we move, there will be a great dumpster rolled into our driveway and I will shovel all their crap forth (and more than a little of my own crap).  But, that is unlikely to happen anywhere in the next 5 years baring a BRAC (military realignment and base closings).

There are books on dealing with Fibromyalgia and Chronic Pain that languish unread once I realized they were pushing food exclusion diets with little real scientific proof. Having been a larger person my whole life (heaviest girl at any synchronized swim meet, let alone my team) nothing sets of my alarm bells like people making expansive promises from a diet change. The fastest way to get me to question your expertise is to make dietary claims without supporting studies.  The surest way to get me to drop a book like a hot potato is the old “8 glasses of water” chestnut.

In case you didn’t know, you don’t need 8 glasses of water a day, there has never been any evidence for it.  Studies that have looked at dehydration have found that most people do get enough liquids.  Drink when you are thirsty.  Limit high salt drinks.  If your pee is brown or tan, you need to drink more.  If you get kidney stones, drink a lot.  In other words, if I know more about nutrition than the person writing the book, it gets banished to the basement shelves.

Books have been highlighting my inability to get things done since I was a child.  I think I was maybe 12 when I bought a book on how to build a fort in my back yard.  I read that one from cover to cover.  I paced out where I would place the fort.  I wrote out a supply list. If any adult in my life had been interested, or even aware of what I was doing, that might have been the start of an amazing family project.  My father had carpentry skills and we certainly had the money.  Instead, I made plans and it went nowhere because I was 12, and buying 2x4s and getting them home was not even in the realm of possibility.  I suppose it is all for the best.  I still have 10 fingers.

When I was 14, my father told me earnestly that he knew it was natural for kids to want to experiment with drugs, and if I wanted to do illegal drugs to let him know.  He knew people who could get safe drugs and tell me how to use them.  And most importantly, he wanted me to use them at home.  This emphasis on safety was not at all characteristic for my father.  I was allowed to roam free in our college town, unsupervised.  After a few scares, I was required to leave a note to where I was going, but it was rarely where I ended up.  I spend endless hours alone on my bike or the public buses that crisscrossed the town.  I don’t think the lecture had the effect my father had hoped for.  Since illegal drugs were so dangerous that my father, who considered any day a child didn’t lose an arm in a thresher a parenting success story, was concerned with safety, illegal drugs were not for me.  Instead, I went out and found a book on “legal” drugs.  On the inside cover, where the dedication usually is found was the line ” Everything not forbidden is compulsory,” attributed to Merlin instead of T. H. White.  I read that book cover to cover and believed every word.  It was a surprisingly honest book about side effects.  Perhaps too honest.  It was all well and good, as I suspect many of the uses touted as legal might have already been illegal in Ohio. I had no urge to spend a night high and peeing my brains out on a toilet.  I certainly wanted to avoid things that would make me vomit.  That narrowed the choices down to zero.

The last category on the shelves downstairs is the one I’m most ashamed of.  Unread books on the craft of writing.  A few of these fall into the category of random gifts from family members who don’t know there is a difference between fiction and nonfiction writing, between contemporary and genre fiction writing, and between novels and short stories.  Most were bought like those home organization books as if owning the book would somehow magically erase the very real barriers to why I hadn’t already become a more successful writer.  A good number that I abandoned halfway through were like the books on pain management that touted information as a proven fact that was dated or just never true.  Even more landed like the home improvement books, making the steps to becoming a great writer sound simple, but ignoring the emotional work and skill-building necessary to get the results they were offering.  And last are the books that I’ve read cover to cover and never implemented for lack of resources or just fear.

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The basement has been for several years now an all guy zone.  The few times I’ve ventured down it has smelled like it, too. If you are ever in my house, and are willing to wade into the male abyss, you can enter the catacombs of where the dead bodies of books are laid out to wait for either a resurrection or the day the dumpster is parked in my driveway. Feel free to take a few if they interest you.  I won’t miss them.

Hannibal Lecter is a Fairy

I have been rewatching the Hanibal TV show (2013-2015) on Netflix.  At the time it originally aired I was amazed it was on broadcast TV. It was, after all, so much of what your average American audience doesn’t want: a surrealist tone poem on the nature of evil. It the network sensors’ nightmare wouldn’t want: a body horror show that had psycho-sexual undertones. It is like watching a long drawn out temptation of Christ.

Hannibal behind Will, like he's about to whisper something in Will's ear.

I loved the food-porn scenes that create tension as the audience knows Hannibal is a Hannibal standing over a roasted pig.cannibal. You suspect he has killed someone and you don’t know if what he is serving up to our heroes is pork or “long pig.”  And the food-porn. Oh, the food. There were a few of those meals so beautifully presented and filmed that I might be tempted to eat even if I knew it was human flesh.

The food-porn angle was such a central piece of the TV show that Hulu ran an April Fool’s joke in 2014 that was shots of Hannibal cooking, announcing a new spin-off show “In the Kitchen with Hannibal.”  It remains to this day my favorite corporate April Fool’s joke.

There are some very specific rules to surviving contact with Hannibal.

  1. Be polite. Hannibal cannot abide a rude person.
  2. Don’t eat any food he offers you.
  3. Don’t accept any gift. Everything comes with a price.
  4. Don’t confide in Hannibal.
  5. Don’t let him sniff you.

When I was a child my father bought me Faeries by Brian Froud and Alan Lee. I must have been very young because my parents divorced with I was five and I remember my mother having to leave the room when my father would crack open the book and start reading off the darker and older folktales about the faire folk.

A drawing of Jenny Greentheeth about to pull a child into the water by Brain Froud.

The rules of Fairy were never directly enumerated in the book, but rather doled out as dire warnings at the start of descriptions and morals solemnly rendered at the end of tales.  One of the earliest warnings of the book is respect fairy space.  And the lessons follow from there.  Do not go where not invited.  Do not eat fairy food.  Do not, for love of god, offend the ears of fairies with bad singing. Be polite, very polite. Accept no gifts for they all come with a price.  Make no bargains you aren’t willing to die to keep. You are safest avoiding fairies all together.

The stories of fairies are to remind people to be humble and careful in their dealings with strangers.  They are not unlike the few surviving Noris myths of Odin, where our trickster god lowers the vain and elevates the kind. But I think there is more there, it is a primer in dealing with the powerful.

Hannibal is from a posh background, boarding school, an expensive and extensive education. The people around him are common; he is something other.  He’s intelligent, multigifted.  Even when he find someone with talent that rivals his own, they are still less than.  He’s always two steps ahead of the heroes and only made vulnerable by his unnatural tastes, his confidence that he is smarter than everyone, and occasionally by random bad luck.  Despite the force of the FBI behind the heroes, Hannibal is the true power in the room.  Viewing himself as the natural master of all those around him.

Like fairies, he is bored. He seeks something to entertain.  Will, our fragile and talented profiler, is a very entertaining toy. Hannibal is a cat playing with a mouse, an predator.

Hannibal defines acceptable behavior, what should be punished and what shouldn’t. He, like any good royal, is the taste maker and the person to define the consequences of offending the sensibilities.  But don’t think for a moment that being polite is enough. Even if you do everything right in Fairy, you catch the wrong creatures in the wrong mood and you are lunch.  So goes it with Hannibal.

Like any lord with complete dominion over their subjects, the people are Hannibal’s to do with as he pleases.  Just as Adam is free to eat of the flesh of animals because god gave him dominion, any number of fairies will kill and/or eat humans.  It is not by accident that libel spread against royals generally involved the drinking or bathing in human blood.  The fewer rights subjects have in a feudal system, the more monstrous their lords appear.

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In the area of carnal activities, Hannibal appears to be asexual.  This is the one realmAlana Bloom from season 4 in sexy black where he veers away from the myths of fairies and feudal dark lords.  But those who come into close contact with Hannibal are transformed from every day humans into slick and sexually enhanced beings. Alana Bloom, the ever careful therapist, who never allows herself to be alone in a room with Will, is transformed over the seasons from a conservative professor with fluffy hair to wearing tailored suits that mimic Hannibal’s wardrobe, red lipstick, and hair smoothed within an inch of its life.  Her body language evolves into something more sexual.  She says she has been warned that the long term effects of an injury might “alter her thinking” and the audience is left to no doubt in which direction it has been bent.

It isn’t so much that Hannibal is modeled after fairies.  Or cats stalking prey animals.  Or a king from the a time when a king was above the law because the king’s word was the law.  Hannibal is an expression of privilege. Hannibal uses gifts as a lure for what he wants.  He uses food as an entertainment.  At one point even feeding a human as the Romans fed their pigs to improve the quality of the flesh.

There are things that will predictably irritate him but it matters not if you can predict it or not. If Hannibal has a need, he will take it out of the flesh of the handiest person who is of the least value to him.  Hannibal is an embodiment of the aristocracy and plutocracy. He is every rich man taking his “rent” of those he has claimed as his subjects.

Take your warning.  It never pays to be a poor man in debt to a rich one, a beggar in Fairy, or a feeder-goldfish in a tank with a turtle.  You never know when they will turn on you.