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.

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