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."