Mild deadliness

the white gliding ghostliness of repose, sharks, abs, romance novels

REQUIN, n. This is the French word for “shark.” It came up in Chapter 42 of Moby-Dick, which is the chapter on whiteness. It’s a whirlwind tour of our societal associations with the color, plus discussions of a bunch of white animals like sharks and polar bears, and how actually, whiteness is creepy as hell and lots of dangerous and deadly things—one whale in particular—are white. Our narrator Ishmael has this to say about sharks and French Catholics:

As for the white shark, the white gliding ghostliness of repose in that creature, when beheld in his ordinary moods, strangely tallies with the same quality in the Polar quadruped. This peculiarity is most vividly hit by the French in the name they bestow upon that fish. The Romish mass for the dead begins with “Requiem eternam” (eternal rest), whence Requiem denominating the mass itself, and any other funeral music. Now, in allusion to the white, silent stillness of death in this shark, and the mild deadliness of his habits, the French call him Requin.

This, like so many things that Ishmael presents as fact, is not true! I know because I wrote about the word “requin” in this very newsletter six months ago:

The French word for shark is requin, and because everything I look up this week is amazing, basically it comes from a verb that means “to grimace while baring teeth, to make an ugly face.” French people looked at sharks and were like “you know, the fish with the teeth.” Can’t fault that logic.

The Old French verb in question is reschignier. (The history of “shark” in English, also discussed in that newsletter, is great too.)

Anyway, love to see a folk etymology in the wild. Let this serve as one more reminder that Ishmael is not a reliable source.

In the two small-r romance (or romance-adjacent) novels I read this week, things got mildly deadly, as Melville would say.

Harvest of Sighs (f/f, m/f, m/m, m/m/f, all cis and bi, fantasy, erotica) by Sierra Simone. I didn’t expect this book to make me think really hard about Göbekli Tepe and Maeshowe but here we are. Ancient landscaping! Graves and temples and altars and doors! I can’t say much about this book without spoiling the previous two, but this series continues to be brilliant and sexy and heartwrenching and mysterious. Sierra Simone can have all my money. Content warnings: not sure I can get all of them because they are numerous, but suicide, human sacrifice, murder, sibling incest, rape (in the past), PTSD from rape, emotional abuse (of a child by their parent, in the past), sex, BDSM, no happy ending within this book.

Slippery Creatures (bi m/gay? m, both cis, historical) by KJ Charles. My love of KJ Charles is well documented in this newsletter, and when she announced a trilogy of 1920s-pulp-inspired spy romances, there was no way I wasn’t going to love it. This book follows Will Darling after he comes home from WWI and inherits his uncle’s cluttered bookshop. His uncle apparently had some sensitive information hidden away in the shop, and dangerous people begin threatening Will for it. In the middle of all this, Will makes the acquaintance of Kim Secretan, a gentleman with a lot of secrets, and they’re drawn to each other even though they might be on different sides of the unfolding mystery. This book makes masterful use of single-character point-of-view—we only know what Will knows, and no more. Will wants very badly to trust Kim, no matter how sneaky he is, and I was right there with him. The whole thing is delightfully twisty, and I can’t wait to see more of not only Will and Kim in future books, but also Miss Phoebe Stephens-Prince and Will’s best friend Maisie, wonderfully vivid supporting characters. There is really great 1920s slang in this, too—I looked up enough words for several newsletters, so perhaps this will come up again next week. Content warnings from the author: The 1918 flu pandemic and the spread of infectious disease. Violence/death. Kidnapping. Discussion of war. Mention of suicide. Death of family members (off page, one by stroke). **Please note that there will not be a full HEA until book 3 of the series.**

In things that are neither Romance nor romance, I read Daniel M. Lavery’s memoir of transition, Something That May Shock and Discredit You, which was moving and funny. Lavery is better read than me, so there are occasional jokes I don’t get, but I love the way he remixes vaunted, foundational literary texts into contemporary, informal speech (“Jacob and the Angel Wrasslin’ Till Noon At Least”) and the self-aware, hyper-specific voice in “How I Intend to Comport Myself When I Have Abs Someday”:

When I have abs someday, no one will ever know about it, just a little secret between me and my torso. Unless they find out by accident, like if I happen to be reaching for something above my head in front of a couple of people—maybe I’m reaching for a jar of lentils for a dear friend who can’t reach it but I can, because they’re five foot five and I’m five foot seven and three-quarters inches tall, and I’m the sort of friend who will happily grab a jar of lentils for a dear friend as we prepare a wholesome, simple meal together—and my shirt rides up, and accidentally now a couple of (just a couple of, not all of them, I have lots of friends) my casual friends (not my closest friends) see that I have abs, and it’s sort of a moment—not a big one, but definitely a few of them say under their breath, “Did you know that he even had abs?” and “I never would have guessed that he had abs, because he’s so engrossed in his work and laid back about body stuff” and “Wow, abs,” and then I’d have gotten whatever I was reaching for (lentils, or another equally filling pulse or legume), and the moment would sort of pass without remark. Probably no one would say anything out loud, because it would be obvious to them I don’t make a big deal out of having abs, so nobody wants to be the one to make a big deal out of it.

(An early version of this piece appeared in Lavery’s newsletter.)

Also in things I read this week that have brought me a lot of joy, Robert Pattinson’s chaos pasta is the funniest thing.

I hope you encounter no sharks this week, even ones whose habits are only of mild deadliness. See you next Sunday!