Review: The Rising of the Moon by Gladys Mitchell

June 12, 2020

This is a sweet mystery published in Britain shortly after the second world war. The moon creates an emotional backdrop as a serial killer claims young female victims under its surreal brightness.

The full moon is celebrated by lovers, poets, and Witches for its divine beneficence, but in folklore it is known as a maleficence, inciting violence, insanity, disturbing dreams, emotional disturbance, and general bad luck. The novel captures the contradictory nature of lunar energy by telling the story through the eyes of two boys, juxtaposing the innocence of childhood with the evil nature of the killings.

Simon and Keith are orphans living with a married brother, and their life circumstances make them closer than most brothers, while ensuring they are less closely supervised than most boys their age. Brother Jack and his wife are viewed by the boys as interfering, authoritarian, and No Fun, though the couple are young themselves to be saddled with responsibility for boys of this age in addition to their new baby. Probably Simon and Keith’s own parents would have paid closer attention to their activities, but the story also evokes a bygone age that emerged around World War II and continued until the nineties, when most children spent large amounts of time outdoors unsupervised, unshackled by extra-curricular activities scheduled by conscientious parents or onerous duties in farms, households, or industries. The imaginative, marginally acceptable, and faintly dangerous escapades of the boys are charming. Seen from their perspective, a dirty canal becomes a mystical landscape; a jumble of rejected items becomes a treasure trove. While adults in the story are sickened and horrified by the murders, the boys see them as high adventure. They do much of their sleuthing in the daytime after school and on holidays, when no one seems to be keeping track of their whereabouts, but they also sneak outside under the full moon to frighten themselves with dangers real and imagined. Childhood cannot discriminate.

The narrator Simon is the older brother, and at thirteen (the lunar number!) he is on the cusp of adulthood. We can expect that solving this mystery will pull him to the other side and make him an adult. The loss of childhood is something that is universally mourned, despite its near-inevitability, but most of us either grow up or die young. The moon emerges out of fantasy and horror as catalyst of maturity.

Is the Coronavirus in Your Story?

March 6, 2020

One of the big taboos of writing fiction (of which there are many) is reference to current events. Especially in mysteries, the conventional wisdom is that it “dates” your story in a bad way, plus it’s hard to know what people will remember about the time a decade or so later. Personally, I find it disconcerting to see events missing in a story that is otherwise dated by things like bell bottom jeans and primitive answering machines. A story that seems to take place in the early 1940s without a war in the background is downright jarring. I think part of the appeal of twentieth century historical novels, which are quite popular at the moment, is that real-world contextual details are included.

PD James went ahead and included the SARS virus in The Lighthouse to good effect. SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) was a 2002-2003 epidemic with life-threatening symptoms that appeared in 26 countries. The number of cases was considerably smaller than those that have already appeared in the Coronavirus. The quarantine on an island became a technique for keeping modern forensics out of the story, making it a plausible Agatha Christie-type whodunnit.

There are many many rules about what not to do in fiction (and narrative non-fiction). Show don’t tell. Don’t use adverbs. Avoid adjectives. Keep description minimal. You might think this a side effect of the cottage industry teaching “how to write,” with experts spouting these rules to seem like they’re teaching something that really cannot be taught. There’s a little of that, but professionals in publishing seem to have picked up some of these rules and are even guilty of establishing a few.

The Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith spends a lot of time telling the reader what’s going on inside the heads of his characters, a big no-no. Remember: show, don’t tell. I noticed recently that I read a LOT of British mystery authors, to the point where I know the streets of London and the universities in the small towns. I know enough about the food they eat that I could probably cook some of it. The draw is decidedly not the location. I’d like to go to Britain someday, but I’m not an Anglophile. It’s not my spiritual home (at least I don’t think so, never having been). So why do I prefer 21st century British authors? I think it’s because they don’t follow those rules so carefully. I don’t think they have to. Getting published in America is extremely difficult, and the publishing industry in New York seems to be sold on those rules. Otherwise, there would not be so much sameness in the 21st century American novel.

As I was at my desk writing earlier this week, reflecting on my dissatisfaction with the many rules of the game, I looked down at the street and saw a person walking a Smooth Fox Terrier, McCall Smith’s “Pimlico Terrier” in his Corduroy Mansion novels. I took it as a sign that it was time to stop letting other people tell me how to write. I’m not saying that I’ll necessarily write about a virus, but I won’t avoid it, either. The experts are teaching us all how to write the same novel, and that really isn’t healthy.

Dracula and the Human Brain

February 7, 2020

Ah, that wonderful Madam Mina! She has man’s brain—a brain that a man should have were he much gifted—and a woman’s heart. The good God fashioned her for a purpose, believe me, when He made that so good combination.

Thus speaks Dr. Abraham Van Helsing in reference to the heroine in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I recently picked up this wonderful novel which I read as a child. I didn’t remember it at all, except that I recall thinking it rather boring in places. This reading kept me riveted.

I think if I were to get an advanced degree in English literature, I would love to write a dissertation on Dracula. There’s so much in this novel to dissect. But I want to explore here this comment by Dr. Van Helsing, because I didn’t understand it at first.

We are programmed, to the point of brainwashing, to think of the idea of “man’s brain in a woman’s body” in a certain way. This sexed brain idea, mistakenly called postmodernist, is that we must accept, without question or examination, what transgender people tell us about sexed brains and apply this concept. To do otherwise is transphobic and non-intersectional. Accordingly, a “man’s brain in a woman’s body” is a brain that hates the woman’s body inhabited by that brain. The body is experienced as a foreign object that must be changed through hormones, surgery, pronouns, or at least clothing.

Another acceptable view of the man’s brain/woman’s body concept, which doesn’t necessarily negate the body-hating one, is that a man’s brain offers a predilection for experiences and things deemed “masculine” by society: rough sports, trucks, the color blue, etc. In other words, sex stereotypes.

The interpretation of sexed brain as stereotypes can become difficult to apply in any consistent way, because these stereotypes differ across time and culture. The way around this is postmodernism, which posits that we not only can but must superimpose our subjective interpretation, steeped in our own times, onto any event, philosophy, or body of work. This rationale says that I cannot, really, understand what Stoker meant by man’s body/woman’s brain, because I am not a nineteenth century woman, nor am I Stoker. The only correct way to interpret Dracula is by affirming what it means to me.

To me the idea of a man’s brain in a woman’s body is a strange one, at least as it might relate to innate personality. As a psychiatric social worker, my understanding of the brain is that it is plastic, changing as a result of life experience. Learning a new language, taking up a new sport, being in a car accident (even without brain injury), will all change the brain. Thus, any difference in boys’ and girls’ brains at birth, even if it could be measured, cannot help but be overshadowed by life experience. Thus, a woman’s brain is the brain of a woman, reflecting her experiences in her woman’s body, including her experience of fertility and female sexual desire.

A woman’s brain is programmed to regulate a woman’s body, including her fertility, so in that sense it is different from a man’s brain. A woman’s brain recovers faster and more completely from traumatic injury, in general, than a man’s, so there’s another difference. But everything I know about the brain negates the idea that there can be a man’s brain in a woman’s body related to concepts of masculinity or femininity. If you define a man’s brain in a woman’s body as hatred of one’s own female body, that enters the realm of possibility (and also the realm of mental illness).

Not being a narcissist or a doormat, I do have an interest in what other people are saying. I am not a postmodernist. I make an effort to see through and around my preconceptions, and I do not accept unquestioningly the worldview dictated by the self-appointed priests of 21st century justice movements. So I was interested in what Stoker is saying here, once it dawned on me that it wasn’t what I assumed.

This brain that Dr. Van Helsing so admires in the character Mina is not male because it likes boy things. Mina does not appear to dislike feminine things or her woman’s body, and she doesn’t chafe against societal expectations of her. She does foray into activities normally associated with men, but she does so in an unselfconscious way. She most emphatically does not see herself as a man. Her brain is “male” because it is logical, consistent, insightful, and capable of drawing a big picture from a plethora of small data. In other words, Dr. Van Helsing sees her brain as “male” because she is smarter than he is!

Dr. Van Helsing also talks a lot about the “child brain” of the vampire Dracula. This also confused me at first, because of my conceptions of what a child brain is. I think of a child’s brain as being concrete and having limited capacity for abstract thinking. Capacity for abstract thought expands greatly during adolescence. This is empirically documented. A child’s brain is also more limited in its ability to separate fantasy from reality. I found the highly intelligent Dracula to not be hampered in these respects, so I was confused.

Finally, I realized that Dracula has the “child’s brain” in the sense of being self-centered. His personality is primitive and undeveloped. He hasn’t the ability to empathize with others or to understand that other people have different motivations and ways of seeing than himself. This is ultimately his downfall, because Mina and Dr. Van Helsing are able to anticipate Dracula’s movements by guessing at what he wants and what he will do, getting inside his brain so to speak. Dracula, with his “child’s brain,” is unable to anticipate the actions of the people hunting him, so in spite of his numerous special powers, he is at a disadvantage.

The “male” and “child” brains in Dracula illustrates how ideas about the brain are socially constructed. A postmodernist would say that this means the brain doesn’t exist at all, outside of a social or subjective construct. But then, the postmodernist brain has limited inclination to search for understanding outside pre-existing constructs.

I definitely had a child’s brain when I read Dracula as a child, although I don’t think I had a child’s brain in Stoker’s definition. The limitations of my thinking kept me from appreciating this novel when I first read it, despite my childhood fascination with vampires. I enjoyed the rediscovery.

Another glowing review for Divining with Animal Guides

March 8, 2019

In the March 1 issues of PaganPages, Susan Rossi writes:

” I was delighted to discover that Divining with Animal Guides is not a cookbook dictionary, concretizing the “meanings” of animal encounters. Author Hearth Moon Rising has created a manual for learning to observe and discern and ultimately, to shift our strictly human viewpoint. Only when we look at the context in which the animals offer us their messages are we able to fully understand their invitations and gifts. “

Read the entire review here.

Review: The Book of Plots by Loren Niemi

January 25, 2019

I picked up this book at the library and read it to the end, which is unusual for me for a nonfiction book I borrow from the library. I decided to write a review because it seems I’m the first person to crack the book since it was purchased by the library ten years ago. And it’s a useful book for people interested in storytelling.

The Book of Plots identifies nine plot forms which the author argues encompass all stories. Some of these plot forms are unique to oral storytelling; others can be used in writing or cinema. I identified one form that has the potential to be exploited through the Internet; I may write a story for the net someday using this form.

Plot forms are illustrated through stories of the author’s life and through a re-telling of the fable “Jack and the Beanstalk.” Each form structure is conveyed clearly and I had no trouble understanding the author’s logic. The pitfalls of the various forms are laid out, as well as the benefits of consciously choosing the best form for a particular story.

The book could have done with a better copy editor. Typos, word omissions, and grammar errors of the type missed by editing programs detract from the text.

I would recommend this book to anyone, not just professional storytellers, because we all tell stories, and stories are integral to our lives. We all can benefit from learning to tell a better story.

Indie Shaman Review for Divining with Animal Guides

May 18, 2018

Thea Prothero writes: “The book is brimming with wisdom and exceptionally well researched; this in turn guides the would-be diviner to access the natural world form a uniquely well-grounded and refreshing perspective.”

Indie Shaman is always a recommended read. The theme of this issue of Indie Shaman is “Shamanic Lands: The Otherworld,” and there are many in-depth articles about the worlds of the ancestors, from a breadth of perspectives and modalities. I have an article in this issue titled “The Weasel Underground.”

Isian News Reviews Divining with Animal Guides

May 4, 2018

Cover photo from Beltane 2018 issue of Isian News. Lady Olivia Robertson by Ishtar Klaus.

Review of Divining with Animal Guides in the latest Isian News, a Fellowship of Isis quarterly news magazine. Linda Iles says

The author, Hearth Moon Rising, is very attuned to the natural world and brings a clarity and dignity to the animals she writes about, that only comes from many years of observation, magical practice and a deep love of all beings, whether four-footed, winged, swimming, crawling or slithering.

The review is on page 13. Also of interest in this issue are articles about the goddesses Hestia and Sedna and an article about ley lines.

An In-Depth Look at Germanic Lore

April 20, 2018

The Norsemen: Myths and Legends, by H.A. Guerber.
First published 1908. (This review is from the 1994 Senate edition.)

I recently finished a cover-to-cover read of this book, which I have perused often over the past ten years. It’s a summary of information (in English) contained in medieval texts on Germanic mythology, as well as some of the work of the Grimm brothers. First published in 1908, it has a lot to offer in terms of comprehensiveness, organization, and readability.

First the comprehensiveness. Norse mythology is all the rage now, but twenty-first century authors, in an attempt to focus the massive unwieldy material, weed out the minor extemporaneous aspects. As in, almost all the goddesses and women. They also highlight the more interesting and exciting aspects of the mythology. As in, the violence.

Don’t get me wrong: Norse mythology is patriarchal and violent. It was recorded by early Scandinavian Christian men seeking to glorify their Pagan heritage in ways acceptable to the Church. But apparently twenty-first century audiences need more violence and more male dominance, though the part about sexy Freya sleeping with all those dwarves manages to slip in. Hence there is a need for serious students, seekers, and practitioners to move beyond selective texts, which almost always highlight and enhance a male focus.

Archeology suggests Norse culture, though violent and patriarchal, was less violent and patriarchal than portrayed in early literature. Most Norsemen were fishermen or farmers, not full-time warriors, and women were the custodians of the religion. Shamanic power was expressed more through magic spinning than through magic spears. If selectivity is to be used at all in presenting the Norse legends, it seems that it should bring the women’s sphere into sharper focus.

Next the organization. The chapters are well conceived, and they are divided into many sections that have titles across the top of the page. The index is quite detailed. I imagine most people use this book as a reference rather than reading from page one.

As for readability, here is an excerpt:

These three sisters, whose names were Urd, Verdandi, and Skuld, were personifications of the past, present, and future*. Their principle occupations were to weave the web of fate; to sprinkle daily the sacred tree with water from the Urdar fountain, and to put fresh clay around its roots, that it might remain fresh and ever green.

Some authorities further state that the Norns kept watch over the golden apples which hung on the branches of the tree of life, experience and knowledge, allowing none but Idun to pick the fruit, which was that with which the gods renewed their youth.

The Norns also fed and tenderly cared for two swans which swam over the mirror-like surface of the Urdar fountain, and from this pair of birds all swans on earth are supposed to be descended. At times, it is said, the Norns clothed themselves with swam plumage to visit the earth, or sported like mermaids along the coast and in various lakes and rivers, appearing to mortals, from time to time, to foretell the future or give them sage advice.

*Some consider this characterization overly simplistic.

(The chapter on the Norns runs for six pages.)

Problems? Sometimes I disagree with Guerber’s interpretation of a myth or deity, and occasionally so does feminist scholarship. She conflates deities and myths among European cultures in a way that was fashionable a century ago but is frowned on now. The text is not footnoted, and reviewers on Goodreads and Amazon complaining of errors seem to be unaware that there are multiple, sometimes conflicting, sources for the material presented. Sometimes she is simply wrong, but not often, and the same could be said for any work of this scope. A hundred years later, The Norsemen still holds up well.