Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Poor, Sad, Mediocre Books

It was a cold and dark winter in England, 1977.  Rain fell nearly every day, making the sidewalks slippery and the houses damp, especially the ones without central heating. Old age pensioners went about in tatty sweaters and complained about the price of coal. The war was long over, but they still remembered the Blitz, the rationing, the boys leaving for France, never to return. They needed comfort and solace that the 1970s could not give them. They were old. They shook their canes at the nascent punk scene. They wanted something safe and quiet. Something amusing. Something to read by the light of a 50-watt bulb. James Herriot released Vet in a Spin that year, but it was a skinny volume, not like the American Herriots, which are each two British Herriot books put together in a single volume (If Only They Could Talk, It Shouldn't Happen to a Vet, etc.). So what were the elderly of Britain to read? Mr. Smith, who ran the bookshoppe on the high street, recommended it to them: Bless Me, Father by Neil Boyd and blurbed by James Herriot himself.

Bless Me, Father says “hilarious bestseller” on the cover, and I'd believe it. It's the sort of wholesome memoir that old people like. Those old people are dead now, and so are the memories of Bless Me, Father and its sequels. More people might know the TV show Bless Me, Father, broadcast on the BBC from 1978 through 1981, but I'd never heard of it until I googled the book just now. It's available on DVD, if you're curious. It might be one of those rare TV shows that's better than book. Bless Me, Father would benefit from the episodic structure and quick pacing of a television re-telling. Each chapter is an anecdote and each anecdote runs for twenty pages, leaving plenty of time for the antics to wear thin and the reader to get bored. It's not a bad book by any means. If you know any old people, Catholics especially, this book would make a great gift. A young curate comes to the parish of St. Jude's in South London where he meets Father Duddleswell and the housekeeper, Mrs. Pring. Father Duddleswell and Mrs. Pring have an antimony that's never as funny on paper as it must be in the author's head. Take this, when Father Duddleswell is feeling unwell:

“I'd be much obliged if you would be after keeping to yourself your untutored opinion on the state of me health.”
“And who'll lay you out if you cop it, tell me that?”
“You should humor him, Mrs. Pring,” I whispered.
“Let his back go on itching, I say.”
Another outburst. “Leave the lad be, or I'll shoot you to shivers.”

Confusing, kind of mean, not particularly witty. But then the book has its moments. Father Boyd's first time hearing his first confession, his first confessant says, in a high-pitched child's voice, “Bless me father, for I have sinned. This is my second confession ever. I've committed adultery three times.” Father Boyd wonders if the person behind the screen is a midget, or putting on a false voice. “No, wait. Adultery's that funny one. I stole three pennies from me mum's purse.”

Bless Me, Father also reminds one of the mysteries of faith. Not the nature of God, but the weird stuff we do. In one story, a Dominican priest rings up to ask if he and some students can celebrate mass at St. Jude's on their pilgrim's way between Tonwell and Our Lady at Walsingham. Father Duddleswell poo poos the Dominicans' heretical ways and goes off to do whatever priests do on weekdays. When the Dominicans turn up, Father Boyd invites them to use the chapel for their mass. The Dominican priest says, “No, no,” and leads the pilgrims into the parlour, along with a loaf, not Communion wafers. Scandalized, Father Boyd retires to his study for reflection and prayer until he hears the Dominicans banging out and goes down to check on the damage. The parlor is in disarray and, to his horror, there are crumbs, crumbs!, on the table. He gathers them up one by one, making a particular point to separate the crumbs from the normal dust. And then he looks down and realizes that there are crumbs on the floor as well. He has been walking on the literal flesh of Christ! Hoover in hand, he makes plans to vacuum it all up and burn the vacuum bag in a sacred fire, but, after vacuuming, Father Boyd looks at the bottom of the vacuum and realizes that it has crumbs in the brushes. He's a priest, how was he supposed to know that vacuums have brushes? There's only one thing to do. He waits until cover of night, digs a hole in the back garden, and buries the vacuum cleaner in freshly consecrated ground. The next day, while Mrs. Pring is banging around wondering what happened to her vacuum cleaner, the Dominican priest calls up to say, “Sorry we left a mess last night. The lads were famished from all the walking and we needed a place to eat our sandwiches.”

Still in the category of books that are okay but not great and might make good gifts for the elderly in your life (old men, this one), I present to you Explorers of the Nile by Tim Jeal. I was inspired to grab it out of the backstock audiobook flat at work and check it out because I had just seen James May discover the source of the Nile on Top Gear and I wanted background. Explorers of the Nile is about those who came before, but mostly about James Hanning Speke and his rightful, right-track thinking that the led to Livingstone's discovery of the source, at the expense of Richard Burton. To put it another away, I'd never heard of James Hanning Speke until I listened to this book, and Tim Jeal thinks that's a damn shame.

(“Discovery” is a strong word for these white men. These explorers travelled, with unspeakable hardship, true, from village to village, and traded trade goods for food and passage from the people who already lived near the bodies of water they were discovering, assisted by tens and hundreds of porters, many of whom had already been there assisting Arab-Swahili traders who had already travelled there. “Mapping,” I would call it, and there's nothing dishonorable about mapping.)

Dr. Livingstone, I presume,” was most of what I knew about Nile exploration before I read this book (and watched this series' Top Gear Africa special). I did learn a lot, but I could have read something more basic and comprehensive. This book reminds me of Robin Okey's Eastern Europe: 1740-1985,which also assumes previous knowledge while addressing a broad topic with a title that makes it look introductory. Explorers of the Nile did have raw anecdotes about horrible things that happened to various people, and the ending wrapped up nicely with a rundown on modern Sudan, Niger, and Togo and what European exploration and conquest did to them.  (To be fair, Jeal stresses that Europeans helped to end the Arab-Swahili slave trade and most of his explorers would have been horrified by the results of colonization.)  One could read this book, if one were so inclined, but there are other books out there. I haven't read it, but King Leopold's Ghost seems like a better bet for African history books. It's been a bestseller, so people who don't much about Africa are reading it.  And I'm going to recommend The World and a Very Small Place in Africa: A History of Globalization in Niumi, the Gambia. I've been reading that off and on for a while. It's one of those unfortunate books that's fantastically interesting while also being an powerful soporific. If you start reading it now, you will probably beat me to the end.

N.B. I did handle a first edition book by Dr. David Livingstone several weeks ago and was surprised to find that it was only selling for $6. 1880s, beautiful cover, plates, nice shape, and it still wasn't fetching a price. Once a bestseller, always in excess. You're not going to retire on that first edition DaVinci Code.

Off to read better books.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Here I am copying Missie and doing a Top Ten Tuesday from the Broke and the Bookish.  Here is my list of Authors Who Deserve More Recognition:

Hilary McKay.  Of course.

Rumer Godden. The author of over 60 books and the only one you've probably handled is Holly and Ivy.  I've never read her adult novels, but the kid books are fantastic, especially Miss Happiness and Miss Flower.

Elizabeth Gold. Author of only one book (and a poet by trade). Brief Intervals of Horrible Sanity: One Season in a Progressive School is the only book to read about the failure when good intentions rub up against teenagers.

T.H. White. At least George R.R. Martin's been telling people to read Once and Future King. Everyone needs to.

Julia Voznesenskaya. In telling the story of Soviet Women, she tells everyone's story. With funny jokes as well.

Leo Edwards. You know how most books from the 20's and 30's are boring but some are so uniquely funny? Leo Edwards it the latter. (Except for the Andy Blake series. Those are boring as hell.)

Bjorn Kurten. Glyptodons roamed North America for millenia, you know. He will tell you about them.

Kevin Callan. He tells you how to camp with Canadian flair.

Judith Martin. I know she has a widely syndicated advice column, and you probably read her while holding your paper newspaper and sipping your morning coffee. But you need to own all her books and treat them as reference tomes.

Jane St. Anthony. Come on. Have you not read anything at all?

Friday, July 5, 2013

Where's My Elephant?

If an elephant falls from the sky, it is probably an allegory, but it still makes a splat. The kind of splat the elephant makes can help us analyze what the elephant means and why that elephant landed. If the elephant is large, as in The Fifth Elephant, then the elephant, metaphysical though it may be, accounts for the deep fat mines beneath Uberwald. If the elephant is small, it might land on the lap of the Countess Quintet during a magic show without crushing her torso, because that is what happens in The Magician's Elephant, which, full disclosure, was written by Kate DiCamillo. So what we have here are two books with “elephant” in the title that I read this June. One is madcap and hilarious and the other has no madcappiness nor hilarity to speak of. Both books made me happy.

The Fifth Elephant is part of the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett, which everyone knows is awesome. It's one of the ones about the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, but it takes place in Uberwald because, several books ago, Samuel Vimes, the captain of the Watch, married Lady Sybil, making him a reluctant duke. The dwarves are crowing a new king so Sam Vimes must attend as Ankh-Morpork's ambassador. Werewolves, dwarves, vampires, diplomatic negotiations, tumbling down a waterfall while being chased by said werewolves, and Sergeant Colon burns all the paperwork. Worth it. So while the elephants hold up Discworld and the dwarves mine the fat under Schmaltzberg, the elephant itself represents an ideal of economic-political cooperation between the republic of Ankh-Morpork and the feudal city-states of Uberwald, as well as a metaphysical splat.

And on to smaller elephants. Full disclosure, I listened to this book on audio so I may not have absorbed everything as thoroughly as I could have, and I missed out on stunning illustrations by Yoko Tanaka and one of the most attractive fonts I have ever seen. Ms. DiCamillo has brought us back to the bleak, Dickensian landscape that lives inside her own head. In the market of the city of Baltese, a gypsy tells an orphan boy named Peter Duchene that his sister lives and he must follow the elephant to find her. Peter says, “I am but a small boy in a fictional European city. Where would I find an elephant?” and just then an elephant comes crashing through the roof of the opera house, conjured by a magician who generally intended violets but had a moment of wanting to show the world what he could do. Landing on the countess, the elephant is jailed. Poor elephant.

The Magician's Elephant is an unusual book in that plot builds by characters, instead of the usual means where things happen to the characters. All the characters are sketches, and as each archetypal Victorian –orphan, soldier, beggar, countess, dog– is presented, the plot rolls forward until all eleven or so protagonists are standing outside in the falling moonlit snow watching the elephant dematerialize back to the southern climes, as she was both allegorical and homesick.

Kate writes a haunting, vivid book about relationships, families, and the need to belong. Some legs, crushed by elephants, will never heal, but we can build on those by moving in with a policeman and his barren wife, who will love us for ourselves and not encourage us to become soldiers because we're a weird fevered old man with PSTD. The plot by character made this a fantastic book, but a bit slower and experimental-er than Ms. DiCamillo's other award-winning books, my favorite of which is The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. Some writers make you marvel at the beauty of their world even when it's covered in an eternal muddy snow. Some writers spend twenty solid minutes describing your personal failings on a piazza in Rome, and you still love them and their pig and elephant books.

Some writers make you sniffle in your car while pissing you off because their dying teenage characters are completely implausible. John Green's The Fault in Our Stars was the most popular and anticipated book of last year among people I know. I like John Green's vlog, but I can't read his books. I enjoyed the jacket copy on An Abundance of Katherines, but I had to put it down with disdain after two chapters. I did read Will Grayson, Will Grayson because Kate DiCamillo gave me the ARC, but I only managed it because John Green's over the top flamboyant unrealisticism was balanced by David Levithan's nihilistic kid of ennui. I was chuffed because I found The Fault in Our Stars at the library on audiobook months before I thought I would have the chance to read it, and by “chance to read it,” I mean months before we would have enough used copies at work that I wouldn't feel bad wresting it from the hands of people who actually like John Green.

Other people loved The Fault in Our Stars, and it is about youth with cancer, but John Green is constantly yanking me out of my suspension of disbelief with terrible dialogue. His characters go back and forth between normal English and over-written, non-standard, “Look at me, I'm using grandiloquent words” voice. The plot is formulaic to the extreme, especially the novel within the novel. I ended up resentfully grieving this unrealistic dead chunk of handsome, youthful dialogue named Augustus because he dies, and death is sad, and the other characters were sad, and it's sad when kids die, even when they are fictional and they keep on reminding you that they are such by holding an unlit cigarette in their mouth at all times to explore the metaphoric resonance of a cancer-causing agent unlit in the mouth of a cancer patient. There are other, better books about kids with cancer, namely Before I Die by Jenny Downham, and there are other, better books where kids don't inhale, like Call Me Heller, That's My Name. The hardcover cover, from 1973, has a drawing of Heller holding a long cigarette in a holder.

I had to read Call Me Heller, That's My Name because I actually know a woman named Heller. I bought her a copy, and then I read the library copy and was disappointed on my Heller's behalf to find that this Heller's name is actually Hildegarde, called Heller because she's a little heller. Character's nickname aside, this book has everything going for it. It takes place in the heady days of the 1920's when young men were called sheiks because of that Rudolph Valentino movie and women danced the Charleston and let little kids hold their cigarettes, all except for Heller's aunt who is strait-laced and upright and always after Heller to do things like not hang around the railroad tracks and wear shoes. Meanwhile, Heller's sister is getting married, her best friend is hanging around with someone else, and her world is generally crumbling. Heller ends up in a graveyard at midnight and then she tries to cross the train bridge as a means to impress her ex-BFF and chase her aunt back to where she came from. In the end, Heller is resigned to the life changes imposed on her, and it's a good ending. It has to happen, she has to grow up a little, but she doesn't compromise on the small, important things, like the name “Heller.” This is a great, small middle-grade book.

On the same trip to the library where I got Call Me Heller, That's My Name and the Lulu books, I grabbed Finding Fernanda by Erin Siegal. There's been a spate of good books about modern adoption corruption in the last couple years and I more or less missed it until Child Catchers. Guatemala stopped adopting out children in 2008 following allegations of kidnapping, trafficking, child selling, adoption-related murder, and other horrible things. Finding Fernanda tells one of those stories in an accessible way. I prefer the thick, academic approach in my adoption literature, but Finding Fernanda is something that adoptive parents will read without bitching in Amazon reviews that “it read like a textbook.” Well, yes, research books by academics put out by university presses do read like textbooks; that's why they're so good. Ms. Siegal drops the ball a bit: The titular little girl, Fernanda, is given by her mother, Mildred Alvarado, to a friend's church friend for “babysitting,” which turns out quickly to be permanent and irrevocable. On the same day, Mildred loans out her daughter and signs some blank pieces of paper that later to turn into surrender documents, Fernanda turns up on an American baby-shopping website. Betsy Emmanuel of Tennessee is planning to augment her family of seven (three biological, four adopted) with another orphan. A series of lies and weirdness from Fernanda's adoption broker alerts Betsy that something is wrong and meanwhile Mildred risks literal death to find Fernanda and her infant baby, who is cut out of her womb and offered for adoption on the same website. Betsy provides key evidence in finding Fernanda and her baby sister, who are being shunted around a network of foster homes, but her complicity in the mess remains and, sinking $30,000 into the corrupt adoption agency, Betsy ends up taking home a different Guatemalan infant of indeterminate origin. Mildred is reunited with her daughters and the well-documented case ends up prosecuted and leads to a major Guatemalan public outcry which contributes to Guatemala's signing of the Hague convention.

Then there's Lulu and the Dog by the Sea, the second of the Lulu books. Again, very British, and it brings Hilary McKay back to the seaside, her element (read Dog Friday), on holiday with Lulu's family. A feral dog, born behind the Chinese restaurant, is lurking about in the holiday town. The dog steals picnics and has long thirsty waits between drinks out of the stream in the golf course or the kiddie pool. Unlike the baby duck that Lulu returned to its wild mother at the end of Lulu and the Duck in the Park, this dog needs a home. The denouement is obvious.

Finally, I read Giles Milton's Big Chief Elizabeth, about the early days of American colonization. As we know, the first few attempts at planting Britishers in North America didn't go very well, but they did turn into swashbuckling stories with cannibalism (intra-and extra-European) and two thousand mile hikes to the random collection of European fishing vessels which were crossing the ocean regularly before anyone ever thought concretely about putting in a permanent settlement. Interestingly, American colonization was not mainly for its own sake or profitability (excluding the ever-rumored gold mines), but to screw the Spanish who were already set up in the Caribbean and Central American and exporting melted Aztec gold. England wanted a solid base in America from which to harass Spanish treasure ships. Spain, meanwhile, was using its vast new wealth not to build up Spain so much as to make a series of expensive wars on England. Remember the Armada? And tobacco. The eventual success of Jamestown was fully due to tobacco, although the colony continued to rely on forced emigration of British indigents and kept a mortality rate around fifty percent.

Giles Milton knows what happened to the lost colony of Roanoake! According to Jamestown settlers conversations with local Indians, recorded in their diaries but not widely disseminated, they moved to Croatoan Island and farmed for twenty years, allying with local Chesapeake Indians against Chief Powhatan until he had both the Indians and settlers massacred weeks before the first boat of settlers for Jamestown turned up. Mysteries solved, I will go off and read other books.