I’m struggling to find a term for this. I don’t think it’s metafiction (according to the online definitions I’ve found), but if it’s not that, then what do you call a novel where the author has taken as her/his fictional universe a fictional universe created by an earlier author?

Mr. Timothy book jacketLouis Bayard, in Mr. Timothy, and Lynn Shepherd, in The Solitary House, both clearly know (and love) their Charles Dickens, a master of 19th century plot, setting, and people. A Dickens universe is filled with vivid atmosphere and memorable characters, so why not borrow them for your novel? Bayard sets his novel 17 years after the events in A Christmas Carol, and features a Timothy Cratchit all grown up and the inheritor of E. Scrooge’s substantial estate.  No longer needing that crutch, Tim finds himself weighed down by the love and trust of his late benefactor.

Shepherd, on the other hand, opts for a mystery set slightly before the tumultuous events of Bleak House, where that novel’s villain, The Solitary House book jacketSir Edward Tulkinghorn, requests the assistance of private investigator/“thief-taker” Charles Maddox to determine who is threatening one of his clients.

In both novels, half the fun (for this reader) is anticipating and recognizing how the sort-of remembered details of the originals are incorporated into the homages. It doesn’t hurt that both authors happen to tell a rattling good story on their own.

In Bayard’s subsequent historical fiction, he has switched his settings to actual events and characters (Edgar Allan Poe at West Point, Theodore Roosevelt in the Amazon), while Shepherd has stayed with fiction (killing off a Jane Austen heroine, placing mysterious bite marks on the neck of her hero).

And, if you like your Downton Abbey served with a slice of cheerful snark, don’t miss Bayard’s recaps of each episode in the New York Times.

Protesters in Ferguson, MO August 2014These three words have entered our consciousness, spoken by Eric Garner as he was choked to death by New York City Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo in July 2014.  In Portland, James Chasse, Jr.  died after an encounter with Portland Police officers in 2006

How many have died?

The journalists at ProPublica have analyzed recent federal crime statistics and report that black male teenagers (age 15 to 19) are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than white male teenagers of the same age. The New York Times reported on the increasing numbers of situations where the “police officers find themselves playing dual roles as law enforcers and psychiatric social workers,” often with deadly consequences.

Portland Copwatch tracks local incidents of deadly force by the police beginning in 1992; however, its reporting by race is spotty.

The public outcry and demonstrations recently have been fueled not only by the deaths themselves but by the decisions by grand juries not to indict the responsible police officers.

How do I find out what happened?

When events like this trend, we hear about it at the library. People come with questions:

  • What exactly happened?
  • Where has it happened before?
  • Who is in charge and what is s/he doing about it?
  • Why does this happen?
  • How can I help change things?

We have a wealth of resources here at the library, along with the skills and experience to help identify which are the most relevant and impartial.

Library resources

If you were searching for a comprehensive list of articles and analysis of the shooting death of Michael Brown and the subsequent decision not to indict Ferguson, Missouri Police Officer Darren Wilson, an excellent place to begin is at the library database, Opposing Viewpoints in Context. Just search for Michael Brown.

Dig deeper into Opposing Viewpoints for a broad range of information addressing police violence, including discussions from many sides of this important topic. While police violence is not yet an official (i.e., listed) issue in this database, I believe it soon will be. In the meantime, search for police misconduct or police brutality.

Check out this booklist for more in-depth research. 

A number of other libraries have created research guides to finding out more about police violence and its unarmed victims.

Or, how a holiday celebrating friends and family became an exercise in crass commercialism.

Shoppers at Walmart on Thanksgiving Day 2013. Image from Wikimedia Commons.The confluence of Thanksgiving Day and the beginning of the holiday shopping season is pretty much a second-half-of-the-20th-century phenomenon, spurred by the burgeoning consumer economy that took off following the end of World War II. The Friday after Thanksgiving became “Black Friday” originally in 1961, coined by some disgruntled Philadelphia police officers who grew to hate the downtown traffic jams created by shoppers. It was only in the 1980s that the term took on a economic meaning: Success on this day sends retail businesses into the “black.” Big box retailers attract shoppers with deep discounts on popular gift items, discounts only available on Black Friday.

In this century, Black Friday just keeps creeping forward: 6 am on Friday morning, midnight on Friday morning, 8 pm on Thursday night, 5 pm on Thursday, to the absolute nadir (in this writer’s opinion) of 6 am on Thanksgiving morning. Kmart owns this dubious honor for 2013 and is repeating it this year. Of course, there’s a name for this: Brown Thursday or Gray Thursday.

Small Business Saturday

Using an if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em philosophy, smaller retailers gave into the Black Friday juggernaut in 2010, redirecting shoppers away from the big box stores by creating their own shopping “event,” Small Business Saturday. Sure, this event says, you’ll probably want to take advantage of those big sales at the big boxes, but -- while you’re still in the shopping zone --  wouldn’t you like to support a local business too? And many of these retailers (not all of them small businesses) can’t resist a poke at those open on Thanksgiving Day: We pride ourselves on letting our employees enjoy a day off with their families.

Portland, being Portland, has created its own version of Small Business Saturday: Little Boxes. Shoppers are gently encouraged to “welcome in the holiday season by discovering the quality and variety of Portland’s indie and local retail shopping scene.” Only in Portland do we have an “indie” shopping scene. Still, there are prizes.

Buy Nothing Day

A countermovement to Black Friday’s unfettered consumerism sprung up in the 1990s with Buy Nothing Day, created in Canada and spreading to the United States and elsewhere in the West over the past 20 years. Its founders encourage waggish bits of civil disobedience such as “whirl-mart” -- a conga line of empty shopping carts making its way through a mall or big box store (see video) -- and the “zombie walk” -- staggering through retail establishments with a blank stare.

For those of you who prefer to spend that Friday enjoying a roast turkey sandwich, some leftover pumpkin pie and a good book, here’s a reading list about shopping (or not) in America. And never fear, the library will be open!

Signing the Equal Suffrage Amendment in 1912Each election, Oregon’s “initiative” system of government produces a number of hot-button issues requiring the decision of our ever-patient voters. (My theory about vote-by-mail is that we didn’t want to spend all the time required to vote on our myriad measures hunched over our ballots in those rickety cardboard “booths” when we could do it in the comfort of our own homes.) Others have addressed driving "cards" for undocumented residents, labeling of genetically modified foods, legalization of marijuana.  I want to talk about a less glamorous amendment to the Oregon Constitution proposed under Ballot Measure 89:

Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the State of Oregon or by any political subdivision in this state on account of sex.

Most of the muted discussion on this issue has been about whether or not it is necessary.  The American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon (ACLU) says not. “[T]he Oregon Constitution already has the strongest possible protection against sex discrimination and the Oregon Supreme Court has enforced that protection.”  The ACLU identifies Article 1, section 20 as this protection: “No law shall be passed granting to any citizen or class of citizens privileges, or immunities, which, upon the same terms, shall not equally belong to all citizens.”

Supporters of the measure caution that Supreme Courts can change; best to be on the safe side. They also point to the symbolic value of those words in the state’s Constitution, and express the hope that this vote will somehow compel our federal legislators to vote to begin the process to amend the U.S. Constitution. (According to equalrightsamendment.org, such bills have been introduced to every Congress since 1982 [when the ERA failed to meet its deadline for ratification by 2/3 of the states].)

Vote however you please this year, but for goodness sake, vote!  And take a look at these books and websites about the fight for equal rights for women in the past 100 years.

Before I lived in Oregon, Columbus Day was that nice three-day weekend that took the edge off the long working weeks between Labor Day and Thanksgiving (unless you work for an employer who believes Veterans Day is a holiday*). As a newly minted Oregonian, I had a job talking up workplace giving (most commonly associated with the United Way, although I was working for EarthShare) and I started out my pitch on October 8, 1990 mentioning that as an Italian-American, I was really missing the Columbus Day holiday. I cannot express how completely I lost my audience.  Welcome to Oregon, where the arrival of the Italian explorer, Christopher Columbus, to the Caribbean in 1492 is viewed a little more skeptically than it is on the Eastern Seaboard. (They have a parade in New York!)

Columbus Day is not a holiday in these parts.  Other cities or states have replaced it with recognition for the people who were residing on this continent when Columbus arrived, most recently our Seattle neighbors.  Most of Latin America celebrates the day as Día de la Raza (Day of the Latino [mixed Spanish and indigenous] People), commemorating the initial meeting of the two.  According to the article from the President of Mexico’s website linked in the previous sentence, the relationship between the indigenous people and their Spanish conquerors was different than that between the native North Americans and the northern Europeans who settled in what is now the United States, and is still worth celebrating.

The new United States held a small celebration in 1792 and a larger one 100 years later, according to the Library of Congress. This latter celebration ultimately led to the establishment of the national holiday by Franklin Roosevelt in 1934. But as the 500th anniversary approached in 1992, the eagerness to celebrate the “discovery” of the Americas had waned. Perhaps it’s time for the day to be consigned to history, or at least “downgraded” to a holiday a la St. Patrick’s Day (there’s another New York parade on that day, but it’s not a national holiday).

Take a moment this weekend to remember a great storm, Thanksgiving in Canada, other things Italian, or even Leif Ericson. Better yet, take a look at these books to see what life was like in the Americas before the arrival of Columbus.

In spite of everything, I'd still like that three-day weekend back.

*My employer, Multnomah County, believes this to be the case, but at the library we’re open on Veterans Day; we take an “official” holiday on the day before Christmas.