Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Top Ten Tuesday

It's Top Ten Tuesday from The Broke and the Bookish: http://brokeandbookish.blogspot.com/  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 (http://www.eveningallafternoon.com/2010/11/adeline-mowbray.html).

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?