Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Hippies, the Catholics, and the Middle Class in Northern England

Our Way or the Highway: Inside the Minnehaha Free State is Mary Losure's account of what happened to the anti-Highway 55 movement in the Nokomis neighborhood after those fucking hippies moved in.

I was sixteen and working at the Bridgeman's on Hiawatha next to the old Walgreens location, which is next to the For Pet's Sake and the Chinese restaurant, and on the other end from the Burger King and the gas station. That Dairy Queen across from Minnehaha Falls is around the corner. Jerry and Kathy, the couple who owned the Bridgeman's franchise, were opposed to the 55 reroute. So was I, so were my brother, my parents, the next door neighbors, the across-the-street neighbors, and hundreds of other people who lived within a mile or two of the 55 corridor. I remember a full past capacity meeting in the Roosevelt High School auditorium: Then-mayor Sharon Sayles Belton gave a little speech about "Light rail!" and everyone cheered. The county planning commissioner came up to the microphone and effectively said: "This has been on the books since the '70s. Why are you complaining now?" Then the floor opened up for public comment. People lined up, pro- and anti-reroute, and alternated speaking at the microphone. They ran out of pro-reroute people in twenty minutes. The neighborhood was solidly against the reroute. A few weeks later, I was riding the bus from the U, and I saw a dreadlocked dude walking across the grass, barefoot, in Minnehaha Park. In November. An old lady next to me said, "There are those protesters," and I knew then that the neighborhood had lost because the anti-55 activism had been taken over by unwashed youths who went shoeless to make a point about, presumably, The Man. After that, community meetings stopped being something I went to with my mom and my brother and started being something everyone read about afterwards in the paper.

Our Way or the Highway explains what the protestors were doing wandering around Minnehaha Park for all those months. Apparently, word about the reroute spread to someone who told someone who told someone who was way out West and a veteran of the anti-logging campaigns in Northern California and they and all their friends showed up on Riverview Road, which is one of those weird little roads where the river keeps Minneapolis from being a perfect grid. Several houses on one side of Riverview Road were already slated for demolition; the only hold-out was an older lady named Carol Kratz. The other side of the street was not slated for demolition and remained occupied by good Minneapolitans. Carol Kratz welcomed the Earth First! activists and some tribally unaffiliated Native Americans. They pitched tents and tipis in Carol's yard and along the empty street, drumming and singing all night long and peeing wherever they liked. The neighbors across the street were trying to live their lives and raise their kids. The same neighbors who had been turning up at public meetings for years, saying, "I don't want to look out my front window and see a retaining wall!" were calling their city council members and their legislators saying, "Fine! Get rid of the hippies! We'll take the retaining wall!"

The trouble with the 55 reroute, something that I didn't know until I read the book, and something that the protestors never learned, was that the battle against 55 had been raging for decades. Higway 55 was, on its first imaginings, going to be a major freeway like 94 and 35, ripping through neighborhoods, destroying hundreds of homes and blocking the Nokomis neighborhood from the Mississippi. A couple named Walter and Carola Bratt questioned it. They enjoined neighbors, attended meetings, spoke to every alderman they could find, volunteered on every committee and proposed a four-lane, forty-mile-per-hour, ground level freeway with light rail, which is what it remains to this day. Walter and Carola Bratt saved the city from another massive freeway smashing its way through the neighborhood and ruining everything, and then-Hennepin County chairman Peter McLaughlin respected them as people who could stop a freeway.

The Earth First! camp was raided by police several times, partly for the protestors safety. They had some legislative support until a protestor shoved a vegan cream pie into a 65-year-old, pro-reroute female state representative's face. Ms. Losure's book is well-written and unbiased. She was a reporter for MPR during the 55 shenanigans, and knew many of the protestors well. She weaves an interesting narrative, and fills it in with plenty of history. As we all know, The Man won, as he often does. Honestly, 55 couldn't look better, the green space over the tunnel is seamless and I don't regret the reroute at all. However, it would have been nice to let the neighborhood make the decision itself instead of having the situation wrested from its hands by a bunch of barefoot, dreadlocked, tree-sitters.

Juliet, Naked is no High Fidelity, but it's also no How to be Good. Nick Hornby seems to have his writing powers back, although he's never going to recreate the success of his two brilliant masterworks. Juliet, Naked is a quiet story about British people and an American, who is, thankfully, not as bombastic as British people usually make Americans out to be (see David Lodge). Duncan is obsessed with a reclusive American rock musician to the point of running a fan site. Annie lives with Duncan and works at the local seaside museum. Tucker Crowe is the reclusive American musician. Annie posts an article on Duncan's website and Tucker e-mails her and says, "Watch out for the fan site weirdos," and they strike up a correspondence while Duncan and Annie's relationship falls to pieces. Some great lines, like, regarding Duncan, "“He had never once felt itchy, in the way that two connecting pieces of a jigsaw never felt itchy, as far as one could tell. If one were to imagine, for the sake of argument, that jigsaw pieces had thoughts and feelings, then it was possible to imagine them saying to themselves, 'I'm going to stay here. Where else would I go?' And if another jigsaw piece came along, offering its tabs and blanks enticingly in an attempt to lure one of the pieces away, it would be easy to resist temptation. 'Look,' the object of the seducer's admiration would say. 'You're a bit of telephone box, and I'm the face of Mary, Queen of Scots. We just wouldn't look right together.' And that would be that.” Juliet, Naked is a good, solid minor novel hampered only by a weak ending, when there's a strong tension between what the reader expects to happen and the characters' lack of interest in doing that thing, leading to foreplay by googling health concerns. Nothing sexy. The actors on the audiobook are all perfect in their roles.

And Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, author of Half the Sky, the best hiking novel so far, is kicking ass on religious topics in Leap of Faith. Abby stabs her classmate and is forced to go to Catholic school. This book has so much going on but none of it feels forced. The themes are so seamlessly woven that Brubaker Bradley moves from space-cadet parents to love of theater to sexual harassment to Catholic sacraments to friends' parents to anger and makes it all a whole. Leap of Faith is a nearly exquisite novel about the mundane. I'm feeling a little rushed on the Brubaker Bradley, as Leap of Faith came into work right after I reserved her other book, For Freedom, at the library, so I should read two books by the same author one after the other, which I don't really like doing, if I want to get For Freedom back to the library in a sensible amount of time.  

Monday, November 11, 2013

Two Books Connected Only by a Reverence to Oscar Wilde

Ethan Marxhausen is being far too modest about his short story that's published in this year's Waterstone Review. From what I've heard, it's bloody good. Ethan has a diverse set of influences. He introduced me to Nicholson Baker, and he told me that he can't get Fifty Shades of Grey out of his head. Ethan was reading J-14 magazine the other week (J-14 is the new Tiger Beat), and he showed me an article in which the former star of a Nickelodeon tween show said he doesn't think being gay is a big deal anymore. I looked at the magazine after Ethan was done with it, and this slightly famous nineteen-year-old did say that being gay hasn't earned him any flack since he came out on YouTube several months ago. Hats off to you, child actor whose name I don't remember!

Times have changed, thank God.

Thank God.

My Uncle Paul was gay back when it was a big deal. He died of AIDS in August 1995. His first cousin and god daughter, Margaret, married her wife in the first legal gay marriage in the State of Minnesota this August last. Uncle Paul was my Grandma Jane's oldest child, born in 1945. Grandma Jane and her sisters, Aunt Ruth, and Aunt Mary, then had seventeen heterosexual children between them, and, in 1964, Aunt Mary had Margaret. That nineteen years meant everything to those cousins' futures. Uncle Paul was already well into his twenties when he read about Stonewall in the papers; Margaret read about it in the queer history books. And, we can't get complacent, but things are even better for kids coming up nowadays.

Thank God.

Two Boys Kissing is the most impressive book of the year and you should read it. I don't care how much you cry, and you will cry, this book needs to be read, by you, right now. Bonus points for David Levithan's lisp on the audiobook. I cried driving to and from places for a week while I was listening. Two Boys Kissing is an ensemble cast story about gay teens narrated by a Greek Chorus of gay men who died of AIDS. Harry and Craig get the most page-time. They are attempting to break the Guinness world record for longest kiss. Neil and Peter are fifteen-year-old boyfriends, and the Greek Chorus marvels at them, "To be fifteen and walking to his boyfriend's house." There's amazement. Because to be fifteen. And gay. In their time, you never could. It came later. To be gay, you had to find that bookstore, that coffee shop, that bar, that city. You could be gay there. You could hide there. The Greek Chorus wishes they could have been gay and safe in their childhood homes like Neil and Peter. I found My Son Eric in my grandma's books years ago and read it. It's written by a woman my grandma's age, a mother's story about how it was when she found out her adult son was the homosexual. Peter's parents love Neil, and Peter's mom drives them all over the place, because they can be fifteen and gay, but they can't drive yet.

Ryan and Avery just met. Avery is trans. The Economist put the trans issue well recently in an article about the LA County school system's new policy of referring to all gender-questioning children by their identified, not born, genders. They said that the percentage of trans people in the population is one half of one percent, so in the LA County school system, this policy will affect 30,000 children. In large population, even small minorities are huge in numbers and deserve our respect and recognition. Ryan and Avery are hanging out at the abandoned mini-golf course and run into Ryan's terrible classmate. They walk out unscathed physically, but it's hard and humiliating.

In a flashback passage, Tariq gets his ribs kicked in for being queer. He's Harry and Craig's friend, the one that inspired their record-breaking kiss, and he's the one running the webcams and the Twitter feed while Harry and Craig are kissing.

Cooper is gay and not doing so well. He's all over Grindr but no IRL friends. Two Boys Kissing takes place over a weekend. Cooper's dad sees Cooper's open laptop on Saturday morning. Cooper runs. He's alone, IMing with strangers in a fast food restaurant, driving aimlessly, crying. On Saturday night, he makes a date with a strange guy. The Greek Chorus mourns the old gay meeting places, the bookstores and coffee shops and bars, and the callow internet that has replaced them. (That night, Cooper is disappointed to find out that he's on a date with a man who thinks he's cute and wants to get to know him better before things get too involved physically. Cooper has too many problems to deal with that.)

Harry and Craig are all over the internet by now, kissing. For ten hours. Twenty. A teacher named Tom takes the overnight shift. Harry and Craig are kissing on school property and they need a teacher and Guinness Book verifier on hand at all times. Tom's gay and out and HIV-positive and married and teaches high school. He survived the plague, his symptoms showed up a bit later, and he lived, and he sat by so many beds and went to so many funerals. He needs to stay up all night to watch Harry and Craig, along with a gathering crowd of supporters. They can't unlock lips, can't be touched by other people, can drink through straws, can't take bathroom breaks, can't wear diapers, can't sit down for thirty three hours and eight minutes.

David Levithan keeps invoking gay authors. "Two Boys Kissing" paraphrases a Whitman poem. He several times mentions Oscar Wilde. And who hosted a party for Oscar Wilde in her home in Washington D.C. one night in 1882? Frances Hodgson Burnett. You may have noticed that I've read more FHB novels than necessary in the last months, and that is because I've been working up to a reading of her biography, Frances Hodgson Burnett: Beyond the Secret Garden, by Ann Thwaite. I needed background. I've never read a biography of someone I wasn't already involved with before this (excepting Sam Walton's. Why did I read that?), and I needed to know her work before I got up to Lass o'Lowrie's and was shamed by my own ignorance. The copy of Beyond the Secret Garden I have is a beautiful British trade paperback, and it deserves an appropriate amount of background to be read properly.

From reading Little Princess and Secret Garden, you'd think FHB was a daughter of the Raj, but she was born in Manchester. Young Frances was, of course, a born storyteller, intelligent, precocious, with a way about her, and a love of play. Ann Thwaite has some good anecdotes and plenty of details about Manchester, the mills, the desperate poverty, and the middle-class one high step removed from the poor, until the American Civil War stopped the South from sending slave-grown cotton to supply the British textile industry. Frances' mother immigrated the family to Tennessee, and FHB spent her teen years in genteel poverty. At eighteen, she sent her first stories to the magazines as "my object is renumeration." She quickly became one of the top authors in Godey's Lady Book and her family went from poor to an uneasy middle class. She eventually married the man who'd been courting her for seven years; she shouldn't have. They went to Paris so he could study medicine, and she supported the family by her writing while raising their sons, Lionel and Vivian. The family struggled, but her novels were picking up steam. A few years later, when they were back in the States, Frances was in her early thirties and hailed as one of the best literary authors in America, along with Henry James and some people we've never heard of. FHB and James became friends later, and at one point lived in country houses only ten miles apart, but Ms. Thwaite believes the friendship was rather one-sided; James was better at sending excuses than invitations. In D.C., FHB wrote a Washington novel (who knew?) and plenty of other things. With a marriage swirling the drain, FHB visited, and then moved, back to England.

About halfway through Beyond the Secret Garden, I realized that I was reading a sort of biographical Old Yeller and Frances Hodgson Burnett wasn't going to live past the end of the book. Having written fifty-odd novels and a dozen plays and lived into her seventies, FHB provides enough biographical material that Ms. Thwaite can barely list the books, the places, the plays, the editors, the publishers, the successes, the company, the holidays in Italy. No book in BtSG gets more attention than Little Lord Fauntleroy, and that runs four pages, including Frances' insistences to the public that she understood: childhood is not as saccharine as it might appear in her novels. Ms. Thwaite prints a great letter about Lionel and Vivian hanging out windows and lighting fires and knocking over lamps when they weren't laying their heads on her knee and calling her "darling." Fauntleroy was a twist in FHB's career. Ann Thwaite uses the word "albatross." Before Fauntleroy, FHB was an accomplished adult novelist. After Fauntleroy, she struggled to reproduce the success, while separating her other books from Fauntleroy's reputation as cloying..

After the death of her son Lionel from galloping consumption, FHB was rarely happy, worked hard, loved her garden with more passion than anything but her children, and struggled to maintain her life and household on an author's wages. A Secret Garden and The Little Princess came late in her career, and garnered less praise than one would think considering they're now her best known works. Eventually she moved back to America and died in 1924. Beyond the Secret Garden is a great, but too short at 382 pages, for the amount of work that FHB created. Her best and worst adult novels (Making of a Marchioness and A Fair Barbarian; Lady of Quality) get little space. I am inspired to read more of her novels now, namely Through One Administration and T. Tembarom. One almost wants to get a Kindle to read one's Victorian novels more easily. But, other things in life... I'm at least two books behind in my blogging. We've got feckless hippies and modern fiction coming up. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Top Ten Tuesday

It's Top Ten Tuesday from The Broke and the Bookish:  The topic is Top Ten Books to Read During Halloween.  Here are mine:

1. Harriet's Halloween Candy by Nancy Carlson.  Harriet doesn't want to share her Halloween candy with her brother Walt, but will she?  There's something extremely satisfying about this family of square dogs.

2. Scratch and Sniff Halloween from the good people at DK.  I got mine years ago and it's still sniffy.  The apple smell is particularly apple-ish.  Why read when you can sniff?

3. The Ghost of Borley Rectory or something by Jane St. Anthony.  I don't know the exact title and it's not for sale anywhere, but I kept my light on for three nights after I proofread the bloody thing.

4. Our Way or the Highway by Mary Losure has nothing at all to do with Halloween, but I'm reading it here on October 28th and it's quite good.  More on that later.

I didn't quite make it to ten, but thank you for your patience!


Friday, October 25, 2013

Short Takes

I've gotten behind on my blogging this last month, so here are some short reviews:

The first is for Gimme Shelter! by Mary Elizabeth Williams. I shoulda known from the title! that the book wouldn't be as good as I hoped. Gimme Shelter! is a book about the housing bubble as experienced by one New Yorker with no insights. Ms. Williams mostly takes her husband and two daughters around to different open houses on weekends. If we're lucky, the houses and condos she's visiting are comically messy, but mostly they're just empty like houses are when people sell them. Occasionally she throws in statistics about skyrocketing real estate prices and future foreclosures, or tells stories about her friends who moved to Ohio and bought a house for $200,000. Ms. Williams and her husband can spend $350,000 and they cannot find a two bedroom in New York for that money. Ms. Williams knows she's in a bubble, but homeownership is an American need and she has two kids. She and her husband finally buy a two bedroom co-op unit and she gets an ulcer in the epilogue. Ms. Williams is a freelance writer in New York, and the reader can tell that one night she went to just the right party: a man from Simon & Schuster was there, thinking, "If only I could find someone to write me a timely book about the housing bubble," and he saw Ms. Williams across the buffet table and said, "What have you been up to, Elizabeth?" and she said, "Jeff and I just bought a house. It's been crazy. I could write a book about it..."

I consider Pyongyang by Guy Delisle to be mandatory reading. Burma Chronicles, was good but not quite as good. It's hard to beat North Korea.  Pyongyang and Shenzhen are memoirs of Guy Delisle's time as a supervising animator for a French production company subcontracting to Asia. Both books are frequently funny stories about trying to get along alone in iffy places. North Korea being the most bizarre country on Earth, the book is better. In Burma Chronicles, Mr. Delisle is easier in his element, which makes a less wacky travelogue. Burma was a British colony, so the architecture is familiar and he meets elderly Anglophonic Burmese apologizing for the country being in such a state, as though he got to Myanmar and its socks were on the floor and it hadn't dusted. Since his last book, Mr. Delisle has got married and had a baby named Louis. His wife works for an NGO, hence the posting to Burma. Louis is more popular with the Burmese than Mr. Delisle is, and he learns the Burmese for "Louis' dad" pretty quickly. Between walking around the neighborhood waving at people who know Louis and spending time with diplomatic wives and their toddlers, Mr. Delisle has less material than when he was leaving flowers at the feet of a giant statue of Kim Il Sung. Mr. Delisle devotes space to the humanitarian crises in Burma, and he's able to spend some time outside of the capitol with his wife, looking at Medicens Sans Frontieres facilities. Mr. Delisle doesn't get a firsthand look at the horrible oppression that Burmese ethnic minorities are victim to, but he meets plenty of people who've seen it, and he tells some of their stories. Burma Chronicles is certainly worth reading, but read Pyongyang first.

I finally read Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton. I saw the movie in the theater ages ago and I've always been intrigued to read it. I was in a peripatetic reading mood a few weeks ago and I wanted something unputdownable, which I figured Michael Crichton would be, considering how much Americans like him. However, this was Ibn Fadn as told by Michael Crichton so pretty good but it was written in the style of a chronicle: This happened, then this happened, then this happened, these Vikings are filthy, then this happened. Ibn Fadn is a scholarly fellow who's sent on an embassy to the Bulgars but, on the banks of the Volga, he runs into a group of Vikings and is recruited to be the lucky thirteenth in a band going north to fight an unspeakable evil. The wendol, which is like a grendel or, Crichton posits, a Neanderthal, is raiding an ostentatious settlement and eating people. On the way up, Ibn Fadn records a bit of Viking ethnography, for realsies. I ran into his account of a Viking funeral years ago in the most salient part of an old book called Daily Life of the Vikings. Free love.

Whether or not Ibn Fadn and twelve other guys slaughtered the mother wendol in the sea cave is historically less interesting than the low but devious fortifications on the great hall and the Vikings' blase attitude toward death. Herger, the Viking who speaks enough Latin to serve as Ibn Fadn's explainer, comes out a good character and there's a lot of randomly chosen description and some adventure spots, but it's all in cloud of befuddlement that the Vikings don't wash or behave like the good Muslims do in the City of Peace, the most civilized place in the world at the time, which is, of course, Baghdad.

Roddy Doyle's A Greyhound of a Girl is a forking beautiful book, but it's a 181-page short story. I was looking forward to it a little too much. The Deportees killed me, as far as his new stuff goes, but cor the jaysis dialogue was left behind for A Greyhound of a Girl. Roddy Doyle is still good, but who wants to read Standard English when you can read an Irish brogue? I liked Mary, and Scarlett, and Emer, and Tansey, but he's getting a little bit too good at describing people.  One page of dialogue, and you already know their hopes, dreams, aspirations, and fears.  And they were all similar to each other, being a great-grandmother, grandmother, mother, and daughter.

As for my contention that AGoaG is a short story, here is the plot: Mary's grandmother is dying in hospital, so her dead great-grandmother appears to her and her mother takes them all to visit the family farm one last time. There are other things, details, reminiscences, a hatred for greyhounds, brothers, wide margins, that make up the 181-pages, but I would've got more out of this if it was called A Greyhound of a Girl and Other Stories.

Then there's the first installment of the Saga graphic novel, Brian K. Vaughn's new opus, which everyone I know read quietly sometime in the last year. They are all sitting on the edge of their bottoms now waiting for the second installment to come into work used so they don't have to buy it for full price.

Quick! Name the bestselling American author in 1908? Surprise! You have no idea. You've never even heard about her, and there's nothing wrong with that. Her pseudonym was Frances Little and the book was The Lady of Decoration. I didn't read that, but I read her other book Little Sister Snow. Japan spent two hundred years in isolation so that Sunday school teachers wouldn't write books like this about it. Little Sister Snow manages a dollop of information on top of a big condescension pie. It would be easy to underestimate the Japanese army and their long-range flight capabilities if your first impressions of the country was a prosaic descriptions of peasants failing at globalism. Yuki-chan's parents wanted a child more than anything and eventually got a live one when they were already old and poor because of Yuki-chan's father's ununderstanding of the new economic order.  The book opens with Yuki-chan's favorite sparrow being eaten by a cat. Yuki-chan chases the cat, intending to drown the motherfucker, when an American boy in a rickshaw knocks her down in the road, and, Dick Merrit, smiling, his eyes crinkling, with his nice blond hair hanging in a charmingly carefree way over his forehead, tells her not to drown that poor puss. Then Yuki-chan grows up to become Yuki-san and receive a letter from Dick Merrit, the American boy all grown up, asking if he could stay in Yuki's parents' house for some time, as he is coming to Japan on business and there are no hotels in the area. After I was extremely confused, Ms. Little backtracks to explain that the boy was the son of a teacher at the mission school Yuki-chan attended and they hadn't just met the once in a chance knocking-over. Adult Dick stays with Yuki-san and her parents. He is as loveable and charming as ever an American was and he and Yuki have some jolly times together. He teaches her English, she teaches him Japanese, they walk in the garden. There are some ham-fisted conversations where Dick explains the ever-loving kindness of the Christian God. Yuki falls in love with Dick, of course, although she's engaged to marry an officer she's never met. Duty, obedience, filial piety, and Dick's engagement to a woman offscreen in San Francisco prevent Dick and Yuki from getting together, but when he leaves, he leaves his diary behind and Yuki-san starts her own diary in the broken English that is her inner dialogue: "Ah, Merrit San, you the one big happy in all my life and I never forget all your kindful. You give me the good heart, like sun make flower-bud unclose. You telled me what is soul and purely, and you say be very good wife." Yuki, despite the American leanings in her heart, burns her diary and, at the end of the book, is going to the general's.

Gentle racism should ruin books for you, and I almost stopped listening to Little Sister Snow multiple times because of the eeeeeegh. But despite the charming pidgin inanities Yuki speaks in response to Dick's chummy exposition, Yuki is a good, strong girl character. Frances Little's biggest sin is presenting her in isolation. Japan was on the ascendant at the time, and showing a lonely little girl with absolutely no contact except two elderly parents does not do the country justice. With no community or context, Yuki is an inconsequential waif waiting to be rescued by an American's smile, and not a Japanese person living on a dynamic island full of Japanese people. Yuki must face a non-choice between a gay (you know what I mean) American and an officer in the service of the Emperor whom her near-invalid parents have somehow managed to match her with. In the end, Little Sister Snow is not a book about Japan and the Japanese, it's only a book about American concepts of foreign foreigners (the kind who aren't European) in the decades before those foreigners started asserting themselves.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Two Strong Women

Then I read a hiking book that absolutely nailed it. Wow. The only problem with books this good is that they end too quickly, and this one is short to begin with. Halfway to the Sky by Kimberly Brubaker-Bradley is a hiking book, but I bet people in the multiple sclerosis community think it's an MS book with a hiking bent. I keep complaining about books where people go hiking because they have Problems and Pain and Tragedy and Loss, but Halfway to the Sky makes it work. (I may not be complaining about those books in my blog because I always throw them against the wall after one chapter, Cheryl Strayed.) The twelve-year-old protagonist Dani, short for Katahdin, is young enough not to know better than to walk two thousand miles to solve her problems, while still being smart enough to do her hiking homework. Dani's brother died and her parents divorced and everything is horrible and she's twelve, and she's such a damn twelve-year-old in the book, but she pulls it together. A twelve-year-old can research, and train, and buy boots. A twelve-year-old can choose a camp stove and forget matches.

Dani leaves a message for her mom saying that she's going to her dad's house and gets herself to Springer Mountain, start of the Appalachian Trail. She's twelve. People give her funny looks. She tells a seventeen-year-old that her parents gave her permission to hike the Trail alone, of course she does. He's young enough not to question, and they hike together until in the shelter on the third night Dani's mom wakes her up with a flashlight beam in the face and says, "What the hell do you think you're doing?"

Katahdin and her deceased brother Springer are products of thru-hiking parents who met and married on the Trail, but in recent years have become boring. Dani responds to her mom's, "Why are you hiking the Trail?" with a, "You hiked it." Dani can hike the Trail but she's under-prepared, twelve, and formerly alone. She begs and whines and invokes her brother's death and acts like a stubborn toad, and her mother agrees that they can hike on twenty miles to the next town. They do, mom in tennis shoes and jeans, sleeping in one bag with her mom's coat thrown over the gap where the zipper can't close. Dani is unsatisfied in her little twelve-year-old heart, but she also understands, and her mom reiterates, that she was terrible for running away in the first place and they can't go farther. At Suches, Dani's furious dad picks them up and gives Dani a piece of his mind, though she's entitled to be as angry as she is with him because he left her mom and has just remarried a now-pregnant woman she doesn't much care for. And mom says, "I've been thinking."

Mom's job at the bank allows sabbaticals of up to three months. Mom takes two; it's asking a lot considering that she already took off stacks of time for Springer, and for the funeral, but Dani can have two months. They can go to Catawba but that's it.

Nothing earth shattering happens on the hike, of course. If it did, we would have a rescue book, not a hiking book. Dani and her mom mostly keep to themselves. There's a dearth of over-forties and under-eighteens on the Trail.  Dani and her mom hang around with Vivi, a retired breast cancer survivor, and Trailhead, who's taking a year off from teaching. They meet when Dani is hanging the food at a campsite.
"'I'll have to take your photograph," he said. "I teach high school English and a self-sufficient adolescent is something of a miracle to me." He bugged me, and I guess mom could tell.
'Self-sufficiency is made, not born,' she said."

But Trailhead sticks to them. When he blows his ACL, Dani helps carry him down the mountain and knows his loss: he won't make it to Katahdin and she won't either.

Dani and her mom get into the trail routine. The "eat some oatmeal, witness the miracle of God's creation, tape a blister, eat some peanut butter" of hiking, and then they start having time to talk about Dani's brother who died that winter. Vivi helps. Sullen Dani isn't wandering around sharing the tragedy of her life with strangers but mom is.  Vivi says, "I'm having trouble getting a sense of Springer as a person." Dani resents her mom because she works too much, because she hasn't been there, because her dad left, because her brother is dead. There's an insane only-in-America conversations about health insurance. When Dani and Springer were younger, mom got a job at the bank just to bring in some extra money while they were saving up for the house, and the bank had better insurance so the family switched. Then Springer was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. You can't buy insurance for a terminally ill child, so mom kept working. Dani makes peace, and with Springer not watching her soccer games. She says, "Why wouldn't you let him go to my soccer games?" and mom says, "He didn't want to go. He was embarrassed. He hated it when people stared at him."

When they meet some local kids camping at a shelter, Dani's flattered that they're impressed because they're doing a seven hundred mile segment. They do. They make it. Dani counts herself as one of the AT hiker drop-outs for now, but she has years. She'll go back. Meanwhile, her dad's new child is named Harper and she and her take time to breathe.  I don't know if I've done justice to how splendid this book is, but I can't name a truer book about hiking. Even Bill Bryson's classic A Walk in the Woods doesn't pull you into the act of hiking like Halfway to the Sky. Feet, boots, stoves, water, trees, wind, pack weight, blisters. 

Unless you want to stay home and get married. Amelia Alderson Opie wrote Adeline Mowbray in 1804, partly inspired by her friend Mary Wollstonecraft's extra-marital union with a minor radical. The subtitle The Mother and the Daughter references Adeline's submission to and rejection by her mother, which takes up less page space than the scandal but weighs on Adeline's soul. Mrs. Mowbray is a self-educated woman of no discretion: "For her, history, biography, poetry, and discoveries in natural philosophy, had few attractions, while she pored with still unsatisfied delight over abstruse systems of morals and metaphysics, or new theories in politics." Her daughter Adeline is early inducted into the theories of these radical new men, and, taking the season in Bath, the mother-daughter pair meet one of the authors they so admire, a Mr. Glenmurray, who at nineteen penned a tract against marriage which has rumbled him out so that he leads a lonely existence on the margins of high society while trying to recover from consumption. Adeline's mother, being socially obnoxious and out of touch, visits Mr. Glenmurray and allows Adeline to socialize with him, shocking though it is to the better inhabitants of the town. They also make the acquaintance of Sir Patrick, a scoundrel, and it is in this company that Adeline announces that she agrees with Mr. Glenmurray: Marriage is wrong. A tumult of events follow: Sir Patrick says dishonorable things, he and Glenmurray duel even though Glenmurray wrote a tract against dueling, Mrs. Mowbray marries Sir Patrick, Sir Patrick assaults Adeline, Adeline runs away and into Glenmurray's arms, Mrs. Mowbray disowns Adeline, and Sir Patrick dies on a boat. So Adeline and Glenmurray are together, friendless, in a town by the sea waiting to make the crossing to France, when, walking in the park, they run into Glenmurray's old school friend and his wife and sister. The school friend is charmed by Glenmurray's dear wife, and shocked when Glenmurray writes him a letter explaining that Adeline is not his wife at all and that they have fled in the night. This happens again in France and the friend who has met Glenmurray and Adeline walking together feels so deeply that allowing his sisters to meet Glenmurray's mistress has besmirched their honor that he wants to fight a duel with Glenmurray, but Adeline and Glenmurray have fled again. Adeline's maidservant quits and can't find a new position because her old mistress is a mistress. A Quaker woman agrees to hire the maidservant and tells Adeline about the wages of sin at the same time. These passages made me take an inventory all the dishonorable women I know, because speaking or otherwise associating with a dishonorable woman dishonors even the most honorable woman. Fornication, of course, is not limited to the marital, as it were, act, but includes the suspicion of such an act, or similar acts, or letting a certainly-not-a-gentleman-friend sleep over because he respects boundaries. I know who's been doing that lately. The shame! From now on I can only talk to fifteen-year-olds, and Laura because she's married to a girl.

Glenmurray dies willing to marry Adeline, but Adeline believes in Glenmurray's principles and won't call his bluff. On his deathbed, he implores her to marry his cousin Douchemurray and she concedes for his sake. The marriage is an unhappy one, as husbandface has jerky habits that Glenmurray never noticed at Thanksgiving. He doesn't respect Adeline and Adeline, rather than realizing that she was right all along and 1804 marriage is a ridiculous institution, takes her husband's treatment as punishment for her former sin. Their daughter is born and he's disappointed. When business calls him to Jamaica, Adeline realizes the ideal of a "protector" six months away by sailboat and lets him go. But worsening health and a series of mix-ups cause Adeline to lie dying penniless in a cottage near the estate where her mother lives. When the Quaker woman is careening down the road in a runaway oxcart quite nearby, Mrs. Mowbray grabs the reigns. Finding that they are concerned with the same wayward woman, Adeline's mother having long forgiven her, they search for Adeline and find her in time to watch her die. Because that's what happens when you break the rules: you die.

Adeline Mowbray expands and contracts randomly. Big events happen in tiny paragraphs, minutes of conversation take pages. Sir Patrick dies mysteriously on a boat and one assumes he'll be back for a final sword fight, but he stays gone. Despite that, and the crazy moral backwardness, Adeline Mowbray was a good read. How often does one get any insight into the life of a free-thinking woman in 1804? The author refused to articulate Adeline's arguments against marriage, and arguments against marriage are different nowadays, but Adeline's arguments for marriage at the end of the book translate to problems of our time. Marriage for protection and control is a terrible thing and one weeps at the hardship Adeline went through because she did not succumb to a half-hour ceremony mandated by the Church of England to happen before breakfast. A few hundred years before, marriage was contracted between two individuals and the church had nothing to do with it. Adeline has legal autonomy as an heiress, but none as a wife. Because she was one man's life partner, every man she meets thinks she is sexually available. In that kind of world, one understands why marriage is mandatory and cursed. For a better analysis of Adeline Mowbray, please read the Evening All Afternoon blog (

I have a theory that will blow English literature wide open. Remember when the Quaker woman was careening down the road in an oxcart and Mrs. Mowbray caught the reigns? Adeline's only two friends in the world? What are the chances of that happening? Remember when Nicholas Nickleby overheard those blokes talking about his sister? Remember when the Indian gentleman found Sara Crewe next door? Remember when Darcy and Elizabeth turned up at the same country house? Remember how quickly Sherlock Holmes solved those crimes? How likely is any of that to happen in a normal country full of people? Not very, huh? But, I've figured it out: England only had five hundred people living there during the nineteenth century. Some scholars will argue seven hundred, maybe even one thousand, but the population must have been tiny for coincidences like that to happen with such regularity. And how else did England manage to colonize Arabia, Australia, the Bahamas, Bahrain, Barbados, Belize, Borneo, Botswana, British Guiana, Brunei, Canada, Egypt, the Falklands, Gambia, Ghana, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Jamaica, Kenya, Kuwait, Malawi, Malaysia, Malta, Minorca, Namibia, New Zealand, Nigeria, Palestine, Rhodesia, Samoa, Sierra Leone, Singapore, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, and the Virgin Islands and leave that many people at home? As long as the colonial population was sending money and letters, they wouldn't be missed. The middle 97% must have gone abroad, leaving the top one and bottom two percents at home to do the things that people do in nineteenth century British novels. Am I right or are Opie, Hodgson Burnett, Conan Doyle, Austen, Dickens and countless others ineffably lazy authors?

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

I Read Minor Frances Hodgson Burnett Novels So That You Don't Have To. Also, Audiobooks and Poverty!

Ethan asked me recently why I choose to read the fiction books I do. Crunching my "read" list, I discovered that I mostly choose to "read" fiction when it's less than five hours or seven discs long and available on audio. How's that for literary discretion? There is good stuff out on YA audio nowadays. Incredible stuff. Specifically, listen to The Vine Basket by Josanne La Valley. Seriously. It's good. It has a Uyghur narrator. You'll spend five hours in your car listening to words like Uyghur (wee-gher; you've heard them say it on the BBC) pronounced correctly. Uyghur is a language with uvular vowels. As an English language speaker who didn't know that humans could gain control of their own uvulas until last year, listening to this lightly-accented audiobook was a pleasure and an education about the sounds of language from the region of the world where people do throat singing. And the story is fantastic. The Vine Basket is a modern day book about a Mehrigul, who's been pulled out of school to work on the family farm. (That was another tangentially important thing about this book: it is still really hard for me to conceptualize pulling a child out of school for the family's economic gain. A realistic presentation of the effects of global economic circumstances in northern China underlay this book.) Mehrigul's brother ran away for political reasons and Mehrigul, as the next oldest, needed to help on the farm and bring the family's produce to market, because Mehrigul's family is poor. (The snobby girl in her class with the pretty red shoes has borrowed some learning English CD's from the teacher because her family has electricity and some disposable income.) Mehrigul is minding her family's market stall when an American lady asks, through her Uyghur translator, about the pretty but non-functional vine basket Mehrigul made last year and stuck for decoration on the market cart. The lady is a buyer for an ethnic handicraft store in San Francisco and she offers Mehrigul one hundred yuan for the basket and another hundred yuan each for any more she can make in three weeks time.

When Mehrigul gives her father the hundred yuan and explains what happens, he is drunk and he thinks it's ridiculous and the lady can't be trusted and she's a woman anyway and Mehrigul is better off helping on the farm, but she'd earn more if he sent her south to work in a Chinese factory, which he might do. Mehrigul negotiates between a strong sense of filial piety and a trust that her potential basket-making earnings will benefit her family and her future more than any of the other options available to her in constrained circumstances. She makes baskets secretly in her sparse free time, between farm work and caring for her happy little sister Lyali, who just doesn't get it.

I liked that this book reflected a nuanced understanding of global and local economics. The Uyghur people used to be economic players on the Silk Road, until a combination of Mongols and improved sailboat technology, and later, Communists, ruined that for them. Lately, they are governed by the Chinese, who seem bent on destroying them. Mehrigul is a fiercely proud Uyghur and you should learn about Uyghurs by reading this book.

Speaking of poverty and the vicissitudes of economic privation, being poor in medieval France would be even worse than being rich in medieval France, although both would be terrible by modern American or Uyghur standards. Mehrigul at least, is literate and began the book with an eighth grade education, and if she had spinal tuberculosis, would receive passable care at a Chinese medical facility, whereas Amelot de Chambly went out begging literally bent double with her face about eight inches from the ground every day for two years until she was miraculously cured at the tomb of Saint Louis at St.-Denis outside of Paris. Surviving Poverty in Medieval Paris: Gender, Ideology, and the Daily Lives of the Poor by Sharon Farmer is an academic book, and as such it's part of a long conversation between academics and loaded with footnotes that look kinda interesting. Surviving Poverty compares the surviving accounts of miracles done by Saint Louis, formerly King Louis IX, after his death in 1270. Louis the deaf-mute was sent or left on a country estate when he was eight years old. He learned how to do a number of tasks and to clasp his hands in prayer, although he did not know what it meant. At twenty, he was sent to a different, less amiable, estate. When the procession carrying King Louis IX's remains back from the Holy Land went by, he decided to follow it. He walked over a hundred miles to Paris, living on alms, then stayed outside the chapel at St.-Denis until he was miraculously cured of his deafness. Sharon Farmer says this is an example of boys, even disabled boys, being sent out to make their own way at earlier ages than girls. Many of the people cured by Saint Louis are migrants to Paris, and the migration patterns show more men and younger men than women, some from as far away as England but most within one hundred miles of Paris, most migrants settling in the same neighborhoods as others from their rural districts. Sharon Farmer doesn't go into the details of surviving poverty in medieval Paris, one assumes that it was a constant battle to stay warm, but she does explain the general economics of the situation. A man with no property working with his hands did not make enough to support a family, consequently a wife would also be engaged in productive labor. A disabled wife of an employed husband would go out begging if she could do nothing else. A single woman or widow doing a woman's job like seamstress or laundress would not make enough money to support herself, but Nicole of Rubercy relied on her friends Contesse and Petronelle when she was taken with a paralysis for two months, and there are other traces of women's mutual support. The poor are always with us, and they are always being judged by the affluent. Sermons and other surviving writings from the 1200s describe them as lazy, dirty, and unworthy, although there were alms and charitable pushes, including hosting of meals at funerals and the delivery of money and clothing, a tradition carried on centuries later by pious maiden aunts:

Aunt Clotilde, in Frances Hodgson Burnett's Little Saint Elizabeth and Other Stories, lived a secluded life of prayer, fasting, and charity, at her chateau in France and she brought up her orphaned niece Elizabeth in the same holy seclusion until she died and Elizabeth went to live with her gay uncle in New York City. "As Bertrand de Rochemont was a gay bachelor, fond of pleasure" busy with his affairs, he thought Elizabeth queer, but he let her be until his very good friend came to stay. The friend, a doctor, described his charity work in the poorest slums while Elizabeth was at the dinner table. Elizabeth prayed all night, and in the morning, snuck out to do good works, but she wandered far afield, into the notorious Five Points. She bestows a bit of charity on a deserving poor mother, has her cloak stolen by an undeserving poor, and collapses from exhaustion (she was up all night praying, remember?) just as her uncle, who has been convinced by his friend to come and look at the people he could be charitablizing, walks down the street and sees her swoon. She is taken home and, in proper FHB fashion, everyone learns Moderation. Uncle Bertrand learns to help the meek when he is not busy being fancy free, and Elizabeth learns to romp and play like other children and not stay up all night in prayer and fasting quite so often. The other stories in the collection, The Story of Prince Fairyfoot (the small-footed heir to a crappy monarchy where merit is based on foot size), The Proud Little Grain of Wheat (arrogant carb) and Behind the White Brick (a girl meets the main character in the book she is reading, Santa Claus, and her a talking version of her pre-verbal baby sister) aren't worth mentioning beyond what I just did.

In a brutally honest and less twee novella, Mrs. Burnett tells of a man about to shoot himself in the face in such a way that his features will be unrecognizable so that none of his servants or colleagues (he has no family or friends) will identify him, and he will be buried in a pauper's grave and erased from this earth. In his crippling depression, he has seen doctors and been prescribed 1880s antidepressants, and tried, but nothing has helped, and he is going to buy a pistol from a pawn shop and end it all. He stumbles out into the London fog, that choking yellow stuff that makes finding one's way impossible, and ends up taking a wrong turning and finding a river to jump into, when a bundle of rags at his feet reveals itself to be a cheerful beggaress who says, "Are you going to do it, mister?" The man has some money to give away so that he can be buried a pauper without the things being investigated too closely, and his new friend Glad tells him that she would like some money to help Polly, a country girl cum fallen woman cum prostitute who was at home crying because a john knocked her about last night. Mr. Suicidal says he would like to meet this Polly and, in this weird Edwardian story where depression and sex are treated like they exist and happen, Polly says, "Are you going to keep company with her, mister?" and when they are arrive at the rented room, Polly starts crying the harder, because she assumes Glad has found her a customer. Bread, cheese, soup, coffee, and coal later, Glad starts to tell a story about Mrs. Montaubyn, who professes a mystic brand of Protestantism. Suddenly there's a commotion, Drunken Bess has been knocked down by a cab!, and Mrs. Montaubyn herself holds her hand through her death throes. The curate is summoned and a whispered conversation with the only gentleman in the room tells our hero that Mrs. Montaubyn has a faith the curate cannot rival with his learned insecurities and doubts, and that these are good people in need. The curate is quietly passed a pistol, with instruction to take it away and drop it in the river. Back in the sad little lodging room, with Glad, Polly, Drunken Bess' newly orphaned baby, Mrs. Montaubyn, and the curate, the depressed man reveals himself to be Bill Gates! (or the fictional, Edwardian equivalent) and helps everyone because he is wealthy enough to do so. This is a surprising good story in its predictability and uncanny honesty. The women get pregnant, the beggars smell awful, and depression wipes out everything good. Even the London fog is a terrible choking cloud and not a romantic inconvenience. Well done again, FHB.

And, hiking, I read Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett, because you can't bring a book that might not be good into the forest, as you would then be stuck with nothing to read. Monstrous Regiment is naturally good. There's a little Joan of Arc flair, some gender politics, and a little bit of Sam Vimes.

Last blog, I promised you a theme of the letter C. That didn't happen. C books are long and boring, but I will keep you updated.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Tales from the Recycling Bin

We recycle books at work. Some of our customers wonder why we don't donate the books instead. Short answer: No one wants them. Some of the gently used James Patterson and Nora Roberts could be donated, true, but no one's asked us for them. And I promise you, nobody wants to be donated anything water-damaged, business books from the '80s (watch out for Japan, guys), novels that nobody's ever heard of, and four out of five copies of Twilight. But occasionally, something good goes into recycling. Not earth shattering good, but something that's worth bending slightly and extending my arm for. If, on holding the book, I decide it's worth not throwing back into the bin immediately, I carry it all the way to the break room, where I decide if I actually want to read it or just leave it sitting on my hold shelf for months until I decide I won't read it anyway and finally send it to its reincarnation as cardboard.

I pulled The Shelter Trap out of recycling because it was clearly a novel about a nuclear fallout shelter, and I have a thing for those. It all started when I saw the movie Matinee in junior high. What could be better than being trapped in a fallout shelter with a cute guy? And the planet will need repopulating. Tee hee. And once you got out of the shelter, there would be all sorts of cool looting and survivalist opportunities. My dreams were somewhat dashed when I read Z for Zachariah. The girl is all alone after the nuclear holocaust and that man shows up and he is creepy and not her soulmate. What's the point of a nuclear holocaust if that's going to happen? Then my ideas were dashed completely when I read an aside somewhere that said imagining being stuck in that fallout shelter with the cute boy was everyone's fantasy during the '50s, and I learned that my idea wasn't just weird, it was unoriginal and forty years too late. I still read and reread Alas, Babylon in high school, even though the characters are slightly disappointing Floridians. It's a good book. The nuclear holocaust (not to be confused with the zombie apocalypse) is still interesting even if, like my ideas, the experience is slightly disappointing, even to those who have never imagined an exciting fallout shelter, or whose fallout shelter reality is so boring that they disown their old ideas.

Lester Hendrix is the hero of The Shelter Trap. The book has an odd rotating point of view. Lester takes 70% of the chapters, Miss Barrett has a few, and Dorothy, a girl, has one random chapter towards the end. It's a queer shifting and there's not much point to it, except, in Dorothy's case, to reveal that she's taken a fancy to Lester and is competent enough to bust out of a fallout shelter on her own. How Lester, Dorothy, Miss Barrett, and the rest of the gifted and talented class who couldn't weasel out of the multi-day field trip to the Education Festival get into the fallout shelter is a bit unlikely, but everyone needs to be in the fallout shelter or there wouldn't be a book, would there? The gifted and talented class is browsing around the booths boringly and Beulah Battlebro and Stanley "Tub" Snell assume the fallout shelter is an educational demonstration of a fallout shelter. Beulah climbs in, Tub fats his way in after her, Miss Barrett tells the other youths that they "must stick together," and Lester climbs in last, late enough to hear a workman shout, "Anyone down there?" and close the hatch. Lester tries to shout, but Miss Barrett rushes back into the decontamination chamber and reprimands him. Miss Barrett is basically a Victorian by wont and upbringing. There are still uptight teachers out in the world, but they haven't made them like Miss Barrett since the '70s happened. Once she's ascertained that she and her seven gifted students are indeed trapped in a fallout shelter, she orders the kids not to turn on the TV because it doesn't belong to them. Slow hours later, she allows them to try it, but because they are trapped underground in a concrete chamber, they can only get Education Festival closed circuit television, which broadcasts a documentary called How to Read a Book, then a documentary on California ground squirrels, loops to How to Read a Book, and another viewing of ground squirrels. After three viewings of both documentaries, Miss Barrett agrees that, circumstances being what they are, the gifted youth might eat tinned salmon and survival biscuits in a tidy and organized way. Dorothy, who has had home ec as well as academic training, is allowed to superintend the sandwiches. Lester suggests they try to escape the fallout shelter, but Miss Barrett is convinced that the authorities will rescue them in due time. Miss Barrett is extremely confident in the authorities.

I assumed that fallout shelters were openable from the inside. How else are your fully inbred grandchildren supposed to emerge into the pale light of a red sun and start the world anew? In The Shelter Trap there is no push-handle to open the shelter hatch, which seems like bending truth for fiction. If the Russians win the war, don't you want the only door handle on the side of the Americans? Regardless, this is an entertaining forgotten minor 1960s teen novel and I have rescued it from the recycling bin and will keep it for always, or at least put it in a wee free library so that someone else can enjoy it.

The Kids of the Polk Street School: The Beast and the Halloween Horror by Patricia Reilly Giff went straight back into the recycling bin. It's a good book, but the spine was warped and crumbling. I have no pain in throwing away children's books that are falling apart. Yes, we could donate them to a school library, but isn't it insulting to give poor kids books so thrashed that the pages are falling out?

I've been reading The Kids of the Polk Street School series as they come through work. I loved it when Mrs. Gonzalez read these to us in second grade and, as eighty-page chapter books, I can read one in about forty-five minutes. In this thirteenth in the series, Richard "Beast" Best is quickly doing his spelling homework because he forgot it the night before, while Ms. Rooney reads the class a Halloween book. (I wouldn't have forgotten to do my homework in second grade, but I get it now.) Next day, Ms. Rooney gets out paper and tells the class that they will all write letters to the author. I was surprised by this, as the author I know doesn't love it when whole classes of dispassionate children write her forced fan mail. Sending a personal note to every child exacerbates her carpal tunnel. But maybe Patricia Reilly Giff likes getting mail in bundles of thirty. Regardless, Richard and his best friend Matthew weren't paying attention when Ms. Rooney read the book. Richard writes in his letter, "I liked the dog named Rufus. I am going to dress up as Rufus for Halloween." After the envelope is licked, Matthew says that maybe there wasn't a dog named Rufus in the Halloween book. Then Ms. Rooney announces, oh no!, that the author will be visiting her class on Halloween.

Richard is sure he'll be expelled and jail is possible. His fear is real. His childish morality is strong, and he knows that telling lies is wrong and he will be punished. He goes to extreme lengths to mask his lie. He trades his scary Halloween mask for Matthew's crappy dog costume, and thinks about faking sick even though he was really excited about the Halloween parade. His sister Holly, a fourth grader, says that's even worse, and she comes up with a plausible story, that Richard likes dogs so much he made up a dog because he wished there had been one in the book.

Halloween is more horrible than Richard could imagine. The author asks Ms. Rooney if Richard can help him bring in a box of signed copies from his car. Richard is quaking in his boots and knows he's busted, but the author only tells Richard to watch the falsehoods and gives Richard an inscribed copy of his book, which is so underwhelming for a second grader. So Richard marches in the Halloween parade, sins forgiven, head high. All in eighty pages. This is good. There aren't many books that address that intense sense of right and wrong that kids have and the resultant perpetual shame. For some reason, shame and fear are constantly recurring themes in The Kids of the Polk Street School. I don't know if, as a child, on some level, I liked The Kids of the Polk Street School because I was troubled by sins like, well, one time there were multiple worksheets in stacks at the front of the classroom and we were supposed to take one of each, but I didn't hear that part, so I just took one worksheet and then, when I didn't have the first worksheet that the teacher was talking about, I had to go get the rest of the worksheets in front of everybody, and it was terrible. The truly salient part of The Kids of the Polk Street School for little me was that Richard's friend Emily Arrow had the same initials as me, and a plastic unicorn like I did. These books are being reissued by Scholastic with less attractive covers, but the illustrations are the same.

Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog was only in the recycling bin because nobody wants it ever. I got it coming out of clearance in pristine condition, probably because it had never been read. This is the book that baby boomers who had nuns as teachers give each other as gifts. I was going to give it to my mom because she was taught to diagram sentences by nuns, but she already had a gift copy. I actually did read it. I was hoping to learn how to diagram sentences, as that's one of the few arcane grammatical skills I don't know, and I learned the basics here, but this book was not instructional, more of a reminiscence on sentence diagramming itself for the baby boomers who loved it. However, it was an interesting wee bit of a didactic instructional history and rather charming, although the chapters on celebrities who enjoyed diagramming sentences at school ran a bit long.

Remember, you can be notified every time I post a blog entry if you type your e-mail address into the box on the right. Next blog: Things that begin with the letter "C."

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

More Books

Box of Matches is a quiet novel like I've never read. It was a delight. Emmett gets up at 5:00am every day and lights a fire in the fire place while his family is sleeping.

“Good morning. It's 5:36am. I'm finding that a flat slab of junk mail dropped in the mail-slot created by two hot logs can sometimes get an unwilling fire to take the next step.”

“Good morning, it's 4:03am, early, early, early. I did something new while the coffeemaker was snuffling and gasping: I washed a dish that I'd left last night in the sink to soak.”

“Good morning, it's 5:44 am, and I'm up late again, but I've got four big old logs on the fire, each with a layer of burn-scabs from yesterday evening that break off when I arrange them.”

Somehow, it's great. It's so simple, so kind. This book demands nothing but our willingness to sit by a fire and watch the logs crackle. Emmett has things in life that he thinks about while he's sitting in the dark in front of the fire: his wife, his daughter and son, his cat, his duck, his 1700s Vermont house. He is an editor of textbooks. He once tried to write a mystery novel. He is a thoroughly ordinary New England person, and New England is a foreign country. I don't think about New England very often because they don't vote wrong and they're quiet folk, but New England is a land of three-hundred year old houses on winding roads amid maple forests where people keep to themselves and the only thing surprising about them is their affluence and the way that they manage to find extraordinarily gainful employment in the hinterlands of Vermont or New Hampshire. I've yet to figure that out.

Emmett stares into his fireplace, contemplates, describes, breathes, drinks coffee, wonders about the circumstances that brought him to this quiet life.

Mariko, a Japanese housewife who was 45 in 1993, also lives quietly in print. But Mariko is real. The Secrets of Mariko: A Year in the Life of a Japanese Woman and Her Family by Elisabeth Brumiller, honestly, I knew it would be good because books about Asian women always are: Factory Girls and A Tiger's Heart. Read them. Japan is interesting. And I mean that Japan is famous for its deviant sexual exports, but Mariko was not of the Japan that dresses up like sexy Pikachu on weekends. Mariko is the older generation, and her family is culturally conservative, so Mariko is something of a traditional Japanese throwback. She says when she first married she used to bow and lay three fingers on the floor when her husband came home from work every day. She stopped doing that pretty quickly, but it was a reasonable demonstration of respect for her husband that she would have kept on doing if he wasn't annoying her.

Ms. Brumiller stopped seeing Mariko as a typical Japanese housewife early on, but Mariko did the jobs of a Japanese housewife perfectly, her attitude was atypical. One of the questions that came up: Who is worse off in Japanese society, men or women? Women have limited social status, limited career opportunities, almost no chance to maintain both career and a family, they do all household chores, and they are responsible for educating their children when they're not at school, including teaching them to read the hiragana alphabet before they start kindergarten. Men work the same job at the same company their entire lives. They leave for work at 7:00am and get back between 10:00 and midnight, and their leisure time is spent drinking with colleagues. Mariko had two part-time jobs: meter reader and typist for a tourism firm. She was a PTA mom, and baseball mom, an American football mom, on the junior high graduation committee, on the God-carrying committee for the neighborhood festival, she took samisen lessons. Her husband would never have time to take samisen lessons.

Ms. Brumiller spent time in her book talking to people of national influence in Japan about the factors that shape Japanese lives, Mariko's included. The only problem with this is that the book is from 1993. What was a study of the modern Japanese woman is that it's now a study of the Japanese woman in the early '90s, and most of the studies Ms. Brumiller cites are from the late '80s. In 1993 a Japanese parliamentarian called Americans lazy, Americans said, “No, we're not,” and there was an international kerfuffle about it. Does anyone remember that?

The Secrets of Mariko and A Box of Matches are middle-aged lives, quiet and calm. The passions are over but they still have spirit and a self-determination unachievable by the young. As I drift through my thirties, maybe the calmness of a life well-lived will guide me in my reading to more mature books about adults and their meditations, but it hasn't yet. I read Tangled. Not the novelization of the Disney movie, but Carolyn Mackler's recent one. Carolyn Mackler won a Parent's Choice Award for The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things and she did Vegan Virgin Valentine. Tangled is her best ever. Carolyn Mackler is an adolescent's YA writer. She's great. Tangled has four protagonists telling the story in four chronological segments, and each one of these teenagers is the most alone person on the planet, they all have unspeakable pain that no one else could possibly understand, and everyone around them is cool, adept, and has it all together while they, Jena, Dakota, Skye and Owen, are all alone fumbling through a cruel universe. So it's realistic. Jena starts the book off when her mom makes her go on an island vacation with her mom's friend and her beautiful, actress daughter Skye, who Jena's always getting put with because they're the same age. Dakota is a jock, wracked with guilt because the girl he was about to break up with died in a car accident. Skye is a teen model/actress who is not doing so well. Owen is Dakota's little brother with a pain-of-being-me blog. The narrative is impressively structured. All the characters are heartbreakingly well-written, and some characters plot resolutions come as asides in other characters' stories.

Carolyn Mackler knows that teenagers do not have sex on the 90210 model. For those readers who did not watch Beverly Hills 90210 on DVD last year because they weren't allowed to when they were nine: Brenda and Dylan decide to do it. They make an assignation for a hotel during prom, start closed-mouth smooching, Dylan takes off his suit jacket, and the camera fades. Then there's a consequence episode where Brenda's mom finds a pregnancy test in the trash. I have no personal expertise in the area of sexual conquest, of course, but from what I've heard third-hand and read on fornication blogs, sex happens in a gradual and unscheduled way. Jena and Owen sure as hell nervously think about doin' it when they're alone together in Skye's empty apartment, but Jena finally says, "Do you think we could save some stuff for next time?" Owen, who's never touched a girl before, is over the moon because there's going to be a next time. Then they canoodle and probably get to second-and-a-half base. I was thrilled that Mackler doesn't present sex as a sitting-next-to-each-other-in-chilly-silence/vaginal-penetrative dichotomy, as sex is presented to teenagers that way too often.

Going in reverse chronological order by age of character, I listened to Navigating Early by Claire Vanderpool on audiobook. I can't recommend this book, but I did finish it and that's saying something.

In 1946, Jack Baker meets autistic savant Early Odden (I couldn't decide if the kid was named Early to make the near-pun in the title) at a Maine boarding school and helps him go up the Appalachain Trail in a boat to find Early's dead brother, who isn't. This book has literary themes crawling out of its ears. Some of the themes are: fathers, friendship, World War II, the Appalachian Trail, boats, brothers, bears, autism, astronomy, astrology, π, pirates, reading, lost & found, timber rattlesnakes, and the quest for belonging. If your sixth grade teacher tells you to write a book report using themes in literature, Navigating Early is your obvious choice. In the end, everything is resolved through a series of unlikely coincidences, including the Swedish ex-pugilist outdoorsman who went to the woods after losing his lady love the librarian who taught him to read; Jack has to go back to school to find out that librarian Miss LeFleur's first name is Belle and she has been waiting for Sven in a maiden state since 1928 or so.

Up next: Good books from the recycling bin.