Between The Covers

By Terri Schlichenmeyer, May 2020 Issue.

Calamity: The Many Lives of Calamity Jane by Karen R. Jones
c.2020, Yale University Press $28.00 / higher in Canada 303 pages

You can call yourself whatever you want.

Nobody says you can’t have a different name every day if that’s your wish. Reinvent your life, create a new past, change your birth year, and tell new stories, nobody cares if you do. Become whoever you want to be but just know that, as in the book Calamity: The Many Lives of Calamity Jane by Karen R. Jones, the truth might catch up.

When one thinks of women of the Wild West, the list is short. It’s likely that Calamity Jane is toward the top.

Born the first of May in 1852, or possibly 1856, Martha Jane Canary was the oldest child of a “gambler and a ‘woman of the lowest grade,’” says Jones. Her parents left Missouri when Martha was a child and moved to Montana to take advantage of the gold rush there, but they didn’t even get a taste of its wealth before they both died.

Martha was a teenager then, and, to her credit, she did whatever was needed to survive, never staying in one place for very long, living hand-to-mouth in what became a “pathologically itinerant lifestyle” that she maintained on and off for her whole life. It’s how she likely got her nickname: calamity followed her from campsite to saloon to jail cell.

By the time she was out of her teens, Calamity Jane’s reputation was as wide as the prairie. She boasted about having been a “female scout” but some claims don’t follow facts. Canary said that she drove stagecoaches and rode for the Pony Express, but dates don’t always match up. In early adulthood, she got into a habit of wearing men’s clothing, which caused scandal and titillation for much of her life and which leads to questions of gender fluidity today. There are so many instances where truth differs from legend, in fact, that we may never know the whole story about her.

It’s this aspect of Calamity that will keep you on your toes: as author Karen R. Jones sifts through the myths and mysteries of Martha Canary’s life, we, too, begin to see not just a complex woman but also fascinating (for a western-novel fan) slices of fiction-crushing facts about the Old West.

Perhaps not surprisingly, much of the former centers on Canary’s cross-dressing, which Jones admits was common in Canary’s day, and not just for her; the difference, perhaps, is that she was unabashed about it. Because she was an anomaly by way of reputation and fame, Old West denizens gossiped about Canary; newspaper accounts mention her mode of dress quite often, and Jones hints at unknowns in her gender identity. Since Canary loved to embellish and because she seemed comfortable with a foot in many worlds, concrete evidence either way is elusively slippery.

Hollywoodization aside — and there’s plenty of that, when it comes to Calamity Jane — it seems that the question may remain open. As for something that pulls this tale all together, though, and offers tantalizing reading, find Calamity and call it good.

Good Boy: My Life in Seven Dogs, A Memoir by Jennifer Finney Boylan
c.2020, Celadon Books $26.99 / $36.50 Canada 272 pages

Can you name them in chronological order?

The first one might be hard: you were small when you loved that dog. Later ones recall easier and, naturally, you remember the first pup that was all yours. Think: the names come one after another because there was always a dog and in Good Boy: My Life in Seven Dogs by Jennifer Finney Boylan, there was always love.

Like any other history, your life can be separated into “B.C.” and “A.D.” That’s before canine and after dog or, as Boylan says, “My days have been numbered in dogs.”

For her, before James Boylan became Jennifer, there was a dalmatian named Playboy, a “troublesome hoodlum” and escape artist who seemed mostly to ignore Boylan. Playboy showed that it’s possible to love someone, despite their faults.

On James’s eleventh birthday, Penny entered the family. She was also a dalmatian, and an overeater who grew sausage-like, drool-y, and messy, but Boylan adored that chubby dog until childhood things were put aside, and Penny resignedly went with them.

There was Matt the Mutt, an out-of-control mongrel who taught Boylan that “sometimes the happiest people are the ones that cause the most pain to everyone around them.” An “adorable brown fluff ball” named Brown showed that scars can be healed “if you know love.”

Alex was not Boylan’s dog at first, and he almost never was. The Gordon Setter’s heart had always belonged to Boylan’s best friend, Zero — although Alex was there when Boylan fell in love, and again when James Boylan revealed that he was transitioning to fully be Jenny. Then there was Lucy, who disliked everyone; and Ranger, the last “family” dog.

“When I was young,” says Boylan, “I was haunted by the person I imagined I could never be.” The surprise was that the boy and the man she was “still live within my heart, along with every last dog that ever helped them on their way.”

Not to quibble, but Good Boy is not just about a good boy.

It’s also about a couple of bad boys, a few good girls, a host of hilarious family stories, and author Jennifer Finney Boylan’s life, told without any dark corners of insincerity. So, it’s not about a single “Good Boy.” S’okay, we’re good.

You won’t even mind that you sometimes forget dogs are supposed to be the reason for this book but that they’re hijacked by Boylan’s most delightful memories, many of which are so evocative and universal, they feel as though they were pulled out of some kind of Late Baby Boomer Handbook. You might not even notice that dogs are just half this book, the other half being a funny, awkward hike toward insight, love, and love of.

This is the sort of book that you want to last just a few more pages. It’s trite to say that you’ll laugh, you’ll cry —  but you will. It’s one to read with a furry baby lying on your feet. For right now, Good Boy is good to order.

“Beheld: A Novel” by TaraShea Nesbit
c.2020, Bloomsbury $26.00 / $34.99
Canada 275 pages

Either you are a Have … or you are a Have Not.

If you Have, you feel secure, knowing that what you need is close. If you are in the latter category, you may want for much and own very little. It’s not fair, it’s not equitable, and in the new book Beheld  by TaraShea Nesbit, it gets worse.

She should have known it was coming.

The signs were all there, but while Alice Bradford noted them, she paid little heed. With three small children to tend and a household to run, she had no time for worry — although worry crept into her mind often.

It was “the year of our Lord sixteen hundred and thirty,” a decade since a small handful of English landed at Plymouth and the colony had first settled. Alice wasn’t among them then; she came later, after her best consort, Dorothy, died; and after Dorothy’s husband, William, called for a new wife.

Life in Plymouth had gone well for Alice, although she missed the children she had by her first husband, boys who’d been left behind in Holland. William promised that both their sons would be brought soon; in the meantime, there was much to do — including things that, as the wife of the leader of the colony, were necessary but regretful. Alice did not want to confront her nearest neighbor’s wife, or to tell her things she must know.

Like her husband, John, Eleanor Billington came to Plymouth as an indentured slave. For seven years, she dressed, fed, cleaned, and cared for the colony’s wealthier citizens, figuring that at the end of servitude, she’d become a full and equal member of the village, with cows, goats, acreage, and a home like everyone else’s.

Alas, William Bradford and his soldier, Myles Standish ensured that that didn’t happen, and though Eleanor chafed, she worried more about John.

She’d seen the dangers beyond the colony’s fence. She knew what was inside the compound could be worse.

For weeks now, you’ve been stuck inside, and you’ve read everything from serial to cereal box. You’re antsy. You’re restless. So, here’s your next book.

Don’t judge it by its cover, though. It may appear that Beheld contains healthy sips from a handmaiden’s novel and peeks of stuffy puritanical life but it’s really more of a mystery on top of a mystery on top of a feminist tale on top of a story of rich-versus-poor. Here, you’ll meet people that history treats with heroics, but that author TaraShea Nesbit makes relatable as humans who lie, cheat, abuse, lie some more, and act with lasciviousness.

And that mystery … ?  From the first paragraph, you know something dreadful has happened, but Nesbit makes readers wait to find out, while a cold fog rolls over and skin-crawling doom creeps in. That shivery-ness makes this a perfect staying-in novel.

This is one of those gasp-y tales that can hold you enthralled until it’s time to shock you good, and if you need something different, find it. Indeed, Beheld is a book you must have.

“How Contagion Works” by Paolo Giordano
c.2020, Bloomsbury $4.99 / higher in Canada 70 pages, e-book only

Like nearly everyone, you’re on lockdown.

You can get out, strategically. Mostly, you stay home a lot, watching movies and doing more puzzles than you have in the last 10 years, combined. Your hands are raw from washing, and you’re wondering how this all happened. Author and physicist Paolo Giordano explains in his new book How Contagion Works.

COVID-19 (or “Co V-2,” as Giordano refers to the disease) is unique, but not too much: SARS, for example, was a coronavirus, too, but Co V-2 is the “first virus to spread this quickly on a global scale.” It’s also the first virus to show us how we act as a modern social species. This virus takes us “above identities and cultures …”

That’s not to say that we can pretend this virus hates us; viruses don’t have brains, so we can’t make the mistake of blaming it as though it was a sentient entity. Co V-2, says Giordano, “Doesn’t care about us, our age, gender, nationality, personal preferences.” A virus like this just is.

Epidemics, however, “are mathematical emergencies first and foremost” and contagion is a “chain reaction” that grows exponentially, and with speed. Scientists use the symbol R0 (pronounced R-naught) to indicate a level of contagion; to put Co V-2 in perspective, it’s R0 is 2.5. Measles has a R0 of 15. The Spanish Flu’s R0 was 2.1. The spread is halted when R0 is at 1. Social isolation “equals dragging down the R0 value” and if we stop isolating too soon, there is a “high likelihood” that the virus will return.

That’s hard to do; by nature, we hate altering our behavior and self-isolation is a big alteration but, says Giordano, we have two choices here: we either find a vaccine or we have patience. We are more connected than we realize, we move around too much, and “we know that the epidemic changes if we change.” And speaking of that, he says we should take a hard look at climate change because he blames a lot of this virus on “our aggressive behavior toward the environment …”

If we’re not careful, “what is happening with Covid-19 will keep happening more often.”

Even as you read this review, says author Paolo Giordano, “the situation” is different than it was even yesterday. Some understanding of how we’ve gotten here is key to enduring and surviving this pandemic, and this book helps.

It also helps that you don’t need a PhD to understand what’s inside this skinny book: filled with examples and stories, the science inside is broken down in steps that are graspable for anyone with even the slightest grasp of this virus. Giordano also addresses the myths and rumors of Covid-19, and he’s not afraid to upset his readers with truth.

That means that there may be parts of this book that you might not like. There are also parts that’ll give you hope and blow your mind, too, and since well-informed is well-armed, read it.How Contagion Works is a book to lock down.  


BIO_TerriSchlichenmeyer_WEB