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."

1 comment:

  1. Well, this is one of the funniest, smartest things I've read in a long time. Someone needs to start paying you to do this, Emily.