Monday, February 24, 2014

Ladies, Lawyers, and Literature

A Lady's Life on a Farm in Manitoba, Flagrant Conduct and Literary Taste: How to Form It weren't anything one particularly needs to write home about, although A Lady's Life on a Farm in Manitoba is a series of letters written home, and Literary Taste was the best for what it was. But I have not, these last days, been inspired to new heights of literary rapture. Not every book is another Lulu and the Dog by the Sea.

I read A Lady's Life on a Farm in Manitoba by Mrs. Cecil Hall with my ears while I was walking to work and back last week. You can read a lot with your ears when you enforce a two-hour commute upon yourself for the purposes of ear-reading. A Lady's Life on a Farm in Manitoba \would have been better titled A Lady's Extended Vacation on a Farm in Manitoba or A Lady Visits Manitoba and Thinks It's Great but Returns to London After a Few Months. This is one of the old-fashioned books where everyone's name is obscured by means of initials, so it is the collected letters of H- who goes with her sister E- to C- Farm to visit their brother A- who's immigrated to Manitoba and invested in some land together with Messrs. H- and L-. As someone with a train ticket back to London, the privations of life on the Northern prairie did not strike H- to the bone the way Ma Ingalls or Mrs. Woodlawn might have looked ahead to surviving winter and doing the whole thing over again next summer. H- and E- were friendly, roll-with-the punches, roll-up-their-sleeves women and I liked them a lot. They arrived in Winnipeg in May with snow still on the ground and A's farm sixteen miles from town. The supply steamer from Chicago had been delayed by an early winter and all of Winnipeg was doing without. The roads were ruts, and the ruts had massive potholes. This book drives home how late Canada was settled. Rupert's Land only changed hands from Hudson Bay Company to Canada in 1870; Winnipeg, neė Fort Garry, was incorporated in 1873; and H- travelled there in 1882. This was a land newly settled by agrarian white people. H- and E- get right into cleaning their brother's house and doing laundry that no one's touched since September. A late frost kills L-'s early cabbages, and H- tells him that he made a mistake of growing them outdoors instead of inside on the living room carpet. While in Manitoba, H- and E- try their hand at driving the plow, gathering eggs, making the weekly mail run, and camping out. Mosquitos eat them alive. The horse runs away with the carriage while H- is out visiting. But the sky is so clear it reflects Winnipeg's gaslights, the air is wild and healthy, and there is a nonstop stream of visitors. Mrs. Hall includes some figures, added later, on wages and profits to encourage immigration, as this book was published as a guide for immigrants, but, honestly, A Lady's Life makes Manitoba sound like a great place to visit but no place to stay.

Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence v. Texas by Dale Carpenter, went a bit long. If you remember, Lawrence v. Texas is the 2003 Supreme Court decision declaring anti-sodomy laws unconstitutional. John Lawrence and Tyron Garner were arrested in Lawrence's apartment for having consensual sex with each other under the Texas Homosexual Conduct Law and their Class C misdemeanor with a maximum fine of $200 went all the way to the Supreme Court. (One of the shockers in Flagrant Conduct is that Lawrence and Garner were not having sex. They were not even canoodling. They may have been in different rooms when police burst into Lawrence's apartment.) Interestingly, Texas' laws proscribing fornication, adultery, and heterosexual sodomy were stricken from the books in 1973, leaving homosexual sodomy the only sexcrime in Texas. Queer activists argued that anti-sodomy laws led to a perception of all homosexuals as potential criminals. But to overturn a law you need a case to appeal and anti-sodomy laws were rarely enforced, so when Lawrence and Garner were arrested by a Harris County (Houston) officer who had a history of arresting people for minutiae, Lambda jumped and contacted Lawrence and Garner, who wonderfully agreed to let Lambda take their case through the appeals courts. At the first court date, at Lambda's request, the Justice of the Peace kindly raised the mens' fine from the $100 he had initially imposed to $125, allowing Lambda to appeal. Lawrence v. Texas becomes a courtroom drama, but not "I believe the murderer is in this very room" courtroom drama. There is interesting discussion of the legal arguments related to Lawrence v. Texas and Bowers v. Hardwick, the previous Supreme Court ruling upholding Georgia's anti-sodomy law. Texas put little work into the defense of its own law throughout and, in the end, made a hash of its Supreme Court defense. Lawrence won, but Flagrant Conduct could have been better edited. Not all non-fiction needs to run three hundred pages.

Literary Taste: How to Form It by Arnold Bennett is delightfully didactic for us smart people. "You occasionally buy classical works, and do not read them at all; you practically decide that it is enough to possess them, and that the mere possession of them gives you a *cachet*. The truth is, you are a sham." Yes, you are, you great goof, but Arnold Bennett has something of a programme to solve that, which is different to other programs, because Arnold Bennett knows that you said to yourself, "I am going to read ten pages of Gibbons' Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire every day" and you failed. Arnold Bennett's program is halfways to "...surround yourself with books, to create for yourself a bookish atmosphere. For the present, buy—buy whatever has received the *imprimatur* of critical authority. Buy without any immediate reference to what you will read. Buy! Surround yourself with volumes, as handsome as you can afford." Then you can begin to read the classics. "A classic is a work which gives pleasure to the minority which is intensely and permanently interested in literature." He presents a plan for reading enjoying, with Charles Lamb as a gateway drug and Wordsworth as a waystone. But: "You need to think about what you read and apply it, otherwise reading is just a useless past-time that will not transform you." Arnold Bennett ends his essay with a comprehensive list of classic books one can purchase for the total cost of £26 14s 7p and, "When you have read, wholly or in part, a majority of these three hundred and thirty-five volumes, *with enjoyment*, you may begin to whisper to yourself that your literary taste is formed; and you may pronounce judgment on modern works which come before the bar of your opinion in the calm assurance that, though to err is human, you do at any rate know what you are talking about."

Saturday, February 15, 2014

I Only Listened to Audiobooks

I've only read three books since my last blog, and I didn't actually read any of them with my eyeballs, I listened to them with my ears, so opinions might be different, as audiobook performance can influence book enjoyment, especially with Life of Pi, which was bloody fantastic and needs no review, since everyone but me read it in 2002. The audiobook reader was Indian-Canadian, making Life of Pi on audio slightly better than the printed thing. I tried reading the paper book towards the middle because I was enjoying it so much I wanted to free my listening from the medium of my car, but I cannot do an Indian accent in my head, so I went back to the the audiobook. Flapping amazing. My only complaint is that the fictionalized author's note, the part in the movie where Yann Martel travels from Toronto to Pondicherry looking for inspiration and he meets Pi's uncle who says something like, "You're a Canadian who has travelled to India, but I know an Indian in Canada whose story will make you believe in God," was absent from the audiobook. My other comment is that dying on a raft so slowly that one ends up immigrating to Canada instead is much more upsetting in stark prose than in an American movie, and what of the two narratives? What of the end? What happened? Why parallel stories? Why the blind Frenchman?! The carnivorous island?! How?! Why?!!

In the public domain, The Palace in the Garden by Mary Louisa Molesworth is a minor children's book, enjoyable in every way, but I have no trouble understanding why it's been lost to history. Think The Secret Garden with less wonder or Mrs. Nesbits' without the magic. The Palace in the Garden has charm and voice and a really obvious mystery spearheaded by three upper-class Victorian orphans who live with their stern, old grandfather in his silent London house, but who doesn't? As the book opens, Gussie, Tib, and Gerald are summoned to grandfather's big, oaken study to be told that he is sending them to his country estate that they've never heard of: Rosebuds. It sounds romantic, doesn't it?, and they are meant never to talk to anyone in the neighborhood while they are there. The children go back to the nursery full of excitement and immediately sort out half the mystery: Rosebuds is written in grandfather's old book of fairy tales, which he wrote his name in as a boy, and another name, Regina, is crossed out under it. Tib's proper name is Mercedes Regina, so a person who's read Victorian novels can guess that someone named Regina has been cut out of the family and they're probably living near Rosebuds, but the fun is in the journey.

Rosebuds is all an English country house it should be, with a cheerful housekeeper and a big enough yard to do all sorts of playing, and a wood at the bottom of the garden near the stone wall, that has a secret door, Gerald finds the secret key, which leads into a secret conservatory, that connects to a secret house, with a secret room with a portrait of an old-fashioned lady who looks exactly like Tib. The kids' playing about was probably the best part of a solid story: "Let's play that I'm the princess and you're a baron and you lock me in the dungeon." "Why do I have to be the baron?"

Aunt Jane's Hero is a little bit nuts. The trouble with a good Christian novel, with good Christian characters who strive earnestly to do what's best in the eyes of an ever-loving and -providing God, is that, because God provides, none of the narrative tension lasts for more than a few chapters. Horace is worldly, then he becomes a better Christian. Horace thinks Maggie doesn't love him, but she does. Horace takes sick, but then he gets better. Maggie's sister Annie is too worldly, but she learns to be a better Christian. Maggie wants a child, and they have one. God provides. As well as God, Horace and Maggie experience the benificient influence of providence in Aunt Jane herself, a pious but pleasant elderly widow in the Protestant tradition, she is Horace's late mother's dearest friend and his advisor on things spiritual. Maggie meets Horace at Aunt Jane's knitting bee and asks him how he knows Aunt Jane, and Horace says, "Why, she's my Aunt Jane too!" Maggie says, "She's not actually my aunt, I just call her that because she is such a dear friend of my family." Horace says, "She's not my aunt either, so we must be cousins!" They joke about all evening but Horace is still too much of the world to realize what a catch Maggie is. Then the Civil War happens, mostly offscreen, and Horace loses a leg at Bull Run. After months in a field hospital and a wooden leg attached with some sort of elaborate leather strapping, Horace visits Aunt Jane again and falls madly in love with Maggie. He's prepared to love her forever in silence, but she loves him too so he need not be silent any longer. Horace doesn't believe he can afford to marry and set up a household on his meager lawyer's salary, but Aunt Jane convinces him that they can live in an unfashionable neighborhood, so Horace marries Maggie and they settle into the kind of genteel poverty that only employs one maid. For a few chapters Aunt Jane's Hero becomes a manual of domestic economy. Maggie scrimps and saves keeps the household budget down and Mrs. Prentiss emphasizes, chapter after chapter, the majesty of domestic economy as opposed to boarding. (If you want a novel of household management with humor and details, read Trials and Confessions of a Housekeeper by T.S. Arthur, the real pseudonym of an editor for Godey's Lady Book.) Something besides a quiet married life needs to happen to a keep Aunt Jane's Hero going, so Horace comes down with typhoid fever, contracted from the Irish to whom Maggie charitably bestows soup. Maggie and Horace spend all their free time trying to convert the Irish. They lure Irish children to Bible Study with cookies. It's all very Protestant and sneaky, and Aunt Jane encourages them at it. Some trials and resolutions later, Aunt Jane says, "What if I told you I was going to Europe?" and means that she is going somewhere better than Europe: the loving embrace of our heavenly Father. Aunt Jane dies peacefully, explaining that, while she's looking forward to seeing her late husband and son, she is more excited to meet Jesus. Maggie has the long-awaited child around the time Aunt Jane dies, and Aunt Jane leaves Horace and Maggie enough money to afford a slightly larger house and a horse, the longest unresolved issue in Aunt Jane's Hero: Because Horace has a wooden leg, he cannot go on walks to cure his dyspepsia like other men, and the doctor recommends he ride, but he cannot afford a horse. Now he can. God provides. Like The Palace in the Garden, there is nothing wrong with Aunt Jane's Hero. It's simple, plodding, predictable, and sweet. Apparently Elizabeth Prentiss is enjoying a renaissance in Christian fiction circles, and it's well deserved. If anyone needs comfort from a Protestant God, Aunt Jane's Hero is written just for that. And Aunt Jane's Hero is ideal for anyone who needs to write an essay on "The Cult of Domesticity and the Early Victorian Novel."  

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The woman questions

This blog's theme is women. Who are they? What do they need? What happens when they have what they need? These are all very important topics that society at large brought up during the last century but failed to answer thoroughly. One of those most important people to bring up the woman question, with a small 'w,' as I don't remember what the Woman Question is, was Margaret Sanger, and her answer was: family limitation. Hell yeah, Margaret Sanger! We all know who she is, or if we don't, we should pretend we do and discreetly google her before continuing, but have we gone to the source? Margaret Sanger wrote several books, stacks of lectures, and reams of pamphlets over her lifetime. I started her autobiography last year and took a break, so that's on the back burner, but I read and finished Woman and the New Race, which is available on Librivox and not excruciatingly long. Woman and the New Race is a summation of Mrs. Sanger's arguments for the legality of birth control and birth control information, and can be read by the 1920's lay person and policymaker alike. There are only two flaws in this book: One is that Mrs. Sanger's ideas have succeeded so well that you already know the facts Woman and the New Race presents from popular medical texts, gynecological advisings, and high school sex ed courses. The other flaw is that Woman and the New Race is a little bit racist. Mrs. Sanger begins the book with a chronicle of societys' use of abortion and infantacide, beginning with the savage races, moving up to the barbarians (who are better than savages), then the historical Europeans, and ending with the estimated million abortions in America today (i.e. 1920). Mr. Sanger considers this a travesty, which brings us to an interesting historical tidbit: Margaret Sanger was, by our definition, pro-life. Margaret Sanger was opposed to abortion. Her reasons, motives, social context, medical-historical context were different than our own. One of her formative experiences was helping a desperately poor mother of three through a painful stillbirth. The woman begged Margaret to tell her how to stop having babies, but Margaret couldn't legally, not in front of the doctor, and the doctor said, "Tell your husband to sleep on the roof. Ha ha ha." Some months later, Mrs. Sanger was present when that woman died after trying to abort herself. The abortion-performing underworld in 1920 would have been people by disreputable doctors and nurses, homeopaths and quacks, uncredentialed abortionists, friends with knitting needles, and pregnant women themselves, and Mrs. Sanger, I'm sure, could have written a book of abortion horror stories. She wanted contraceptive advice available to prevent women from seeking abortions and she succeeded. Abortions grew in the US from one million in 1920, peaked between 1966 and 1978 and have been steadily declining since the 1970's to 1.1 million abortions in 2013, with triple the population in the United States.

Margaret Sanger advocated family planning information for married women. Pregnant single women were a whole different kettle of fish. In reading one and a half books by her, I have not come across one line advocating the distribution of birth control information to single women, and in Woman and the New Race she takes pains to point out that her first birth control clinic, in the weeks before the police shut it down, did not serve a single single woman. Mrs. Sanger built her life helping the desperately poor married. Woman and the New Race has a whole chapter of letters from women begging Mrs. Sanger for birth control advice, women who could have managed two or three children nicely but ended up with eight, or ten, or more, not all living. Ms. Sanger breaks it down: a first child has a 25% mortality rate, the second and third around 20%, then the rate grows until the tenth child has a 60% chance of dying in its first year, unless all that childbearing has killed the mother first. Remeber in Betsy, Tacy when Tacy's littlest sister dies? Yeah. With birth control (and without the Catholic Church), Mrs. Kelly could have been saved that anguish. Margaret Sanger was not for the free and easy sexual mores that her work snowballed into over the subsequent century; she was for limiting families to a manageable number of children, to build up the health of the mother and the wanted children, and keep down the number of surplus workers who, in times of population stress, become soldiers in pointless and bloody wars, like the one which had just been fought in Europe. Woman and the New Race also includes medical information surrounding the reproductive process, but does not include her two infallible methods of birth control (what were they?), because if she had printed that, her books would have been seized and destroyed under Comstock.

Then I read Eleanor and Park, by Rainbow Rowell who wrote Fangirl, which I read in December, but I had Eleanor and Park on audio and I didn't want to wait more time to read it even though I don't much like reading books by the same author too close together. Suffice to say, Eleanor and Park is amazing and deserves all the awards it keeps winning. Eleanor is a girl from a large family with a terrible stepdad and Park is a boy from the sweetest family ever (his mom is Korean) and they love each other in 1986. I thought Park was going to get shot. The terrible stepdad has a gun in one scene early on and if a writer shows a gun, she's going to use it later on. I had to check around with people who'd read the book to make sure Park didn't get shot. If he had been shot, I couldn't have borne it. Eleanor and Park's frank pathos reminded me of a young adult novel I had in junior high called Sex Education that probably would have blown the teen literature genre wide open twenty years earlier if it hadn't been called Sex Education. In that book, something bad does happen. Eleanor and Park survive changed. To summarize: Rainbow Rowell is amazing and all her books are good.

Hilary McKay's new Lulu book is out in America and it's at the library! Lulu and the Cat in the Bag answers the 'what do women want' question with: a good cat. Lulu's and her cousin Mellie's parents win a grown-up vacation, so Lulu's grandmother is staying with Lulu and Mellie and Lulu's menagerie at Lulu's house, when some cat-abandoning jerk leaves a bag with a cat in it on Lulu's doorstep. In Lulu and the Dog by the Sea her family acquired a second dog, and along with the parrot, rabbits, guinea pigs, etc., Lulu's house is full of animals, none of whom grandma appreciates. Grandma loves gardening, and dogs dig up gardens, rabbits eat plants, guinea pigs are useless, etc. The titular cat in the bag loves flowers, and it biffs the dogs on the nose when they try to roll around in grandma's newly planted petunias. It doesn't take grandma long to amend her dislike of cats to exclude this cat and the denouement is, again, obvious. There are a few implausible happenings that strained Lulu's credibility to this thirty-two-year-old, but which would pass right by the second graders for whom this book is intended.

Then I reread Incurable, which is the second book in The Ellie Chronicles, making it more or less the ninth book in John Marsden's Tomorrow series. These books are so fucking good. In a ten book series, it's hard to sort out what happened in which book and which books are better than which when they're consistently amazing. I reread the Tomorrow series up to eight last year and then got sidetracked, so it's nice to read back on such an important book that I may have only read twice now. In Incurable, the war is over and Ellie crushing on Jeremy Finley, managing the farm, looking after Gavin, trying not to be a guerrilla fighter, and going to school some days. There are at least four blood-curdling, heart-pumping action scenes in this business of post-war life: the cattle stampede, the raid, the cliff, and the city. If anything, Incurable could have been longer. There are some places where it looks like Marsden sacrificed expository dialogue and inner ramblings for purposes of plot and pace. (In all fairness, the series was meant to end at book three and then he wrote the other seven.) Read Tomorrow, When the War Began, if you haven't yet. Go from there.

I end my list of books with Hyperbole and a Half, the book of new and collected funny from Allie Brosh's blog, of which there is a link to here. For some reason, most of the chapters included in the book regard Allie's mental functioning and her dogs, so you'll have to go and read all the blog posts about spiders and the alot and the pain scale after you're done with the book, but read the book.

I said in the beginning that we were going to answer the woman question. Here are the answers:

  • Well-trained dogs (Lulu and the Cat in the Bag, Incurable, Hyperbole and a Half
  • Universal good manners (Eleanor and Park, Lulu and the Cat in the Bag, Woman and the New Race)
  • Birth control (Woman and the New Race, Eleanor and Park implied, Incurable implied)
  • Sexy Asian boyfriends (Incurable, Eleanor and Park)
  • An end to violence and/or war (Woman and the New Race, Eleanor and Park, Incurable, Lulu and the Cat in the Bag)
  • Racial equality or some sort of super-race, which one hopes are the same thing (Eleanor and Park, Woman and the New Race, Lulu and the Cat in the Bag implied, Incurable)
  • No more indoor rats and spiders (Hyperbole and a Half, Woman and the New Race, Incurable)

As you can see from my inferences based on a random sample of books, all women more or less want the same things.