Friday, July 25, 2014

A Fine Long Book and the Benefits of Short Books

I'm still working on my trip report. It's going to be long. Last proper blog, I reviewed books that were boring or about boring. This time, I blog great books, like The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The "shuttle" is a weaving metaphor. I'd forgotten entirely about that kind of shuttle until FHB described it clicking and clacking figuratively back and forth across the loom like a steamship or a telegraph wire between England and America, bringing saucy Americans and the staid British closer together as a recurring theme in a Frances Hodgson Burnett novel, along with gardens, a crippled child, rags to riches, twists of fortune, and obvious villains. I loved it, and everything there is to love about FHB is stuck in this one, fairly long, story of two sisters; but, alas, poor Rosalie! Rosalie and Bettina Vanderpoel, heirs to the Vanderpoel fortune, are both beauties, but Rosalie inherited all the stupid; or, Bettina is smart as a whip, and even at the tender age of eight, when her nineteen-year-old sister is about to marry the dastardly Sir Nigel Anstruthers, Bettina can see past his accent to the dissipated creeper inside. But poor, stupid, pretty Rosalie is in love with a titled gentleman and goes off in a boat to Sir Nigel's dilapitated country estate, where he keeps her isolated and breaks her spirit and, it's implied, beats her, when he's not drinking and carousing on the continent for months at a time, living off Rosalie's allowance while she languishes and her babies die. By the time Bettina is old enough to visit Rosie on her own, no one in the Vanderpoel family has seen Rosalie for a decade or so. Mrs. Vanderpoel thinks Rosie is too busy having a jolly good time in Europe and has forgotten them. Mr. Vanderpoel has his doubts about Sir Nigel, but he's too busy being a steel baron and establishing Carnegie libraries and doing whatever the fictional rich do to investigate it properly. Bettina needs to see for herself how Rosie is and takes a steamer over, a trip of a week or so that FHB herself made many times. On the boat, there's a bit of an engine fail and Bettina and a red-haired second-class passenger of muscular build and well-groomed mustache turn out to be the only sensible people on the boat.

You'll notice that Rosie's Anglo-American marriage sounds a little Downton. FHB's biographess, Ann Thwaite, says "The Shuttle was very much a story of its time. In 1909, it was to be estimated that more than five hundred American women had married titled foreigners and some two hundred and twenty million dollars had gone with them to Europe." So this contemporary imagination of Edwardian issues can be something to entertain you while you're waiting to see if Lord Grantham makes out with Daisy. The figurative shuttle is the steamships and the telegraph, and the power of the telegraph here is staggering. When Bettina arrives at Sir Nigel's country estate and finds Rosalie a prematurely aged grey lump of a woman with her crippled son at her side, trembling and weeping because she'd thought her family had forgotten her, Bettina says, "It's noon. We could go to the telegraph office in the village post office and telegraph father and have an answer and tickets to New York by three," that's reality. It's not Snapchat, but the telegraph enabled instantaneous communication. New York and rural Britain were a wire away. No waiting for a mailboat sailboat.

Rosalie is too damaged to countenance a return to New York and, if she ran, sexist English law might lose her custody of her crippled son Ughtred. Sir Nigel struck Rosalie while she was pregnant, and Ughtred came out a hunchback. FHB never explains why the boy's name is Ughtred, but naming a child "Ughtred" is like kicking that fetus in the shoulder all over again. Sir Nigel's estate is entailed, otherwise Sir Nigel would have traded it for booze, so everyone realizes that if they can wait out Sir Nigel's death, Ughtred will inherit the manor and so it's worth sticking around there and preventing Sir Nigel from selling the last remaining candlestick. Fortunately, Sir Nigel left some months ago and didn't mention when he'd be back, so Bettina is free to repair her sister and repair the manor house as well, and improve the village by hiring the underemployed denizens in the building project. Bettina manages the remodel admirably, having unlimited funds and the business savvy of the first Reuben Vanderpoel. She also bumps into the red-haired man from the boat, who turns out to be another penniless noble, and they get acquainted over the sickbed of a slangy American typewriter salesman who's suffered a bicycle accident. Bettina and the red-haired Lord Mount Dunstan are both vehemently opposed to international marriages, Bettina because of her sister, and Lord Mount Dunstan because he's probably read about Consuelo Vanderbilt in the papers, so, of course, the only obstacle to their immediate and overwhelming attraction is themselves.

When Sir Nigel stumbles out of his carriage at the manor and finds the gates repaired and the gardens tidy, he pretends to be pleased while developing a creepy attraction to his young sister-in-law, who looks like a more striking version of who Rosalie was before he ruined her. Bettina is trapped between a rock and a hard place: she can't leave Rosalie to Sir Nigel's abuses, and she can't stay indefinitely because he's a crazy person. They all pretend to get along through the hops harvest, when Bettina needs to take a ride to work out some Lord Mount Dunstan issues. She rides farther than she should, wears out her horse, sprains her ankle, and Sir Nigel finds her waiting out the night in an abandoned cottage on the moor and threatens to rape her because she's inflamed his passions, and, just when you think Lord Mount Dunstan is about to ride up and rescue Bettina in the storm, she self-rescues. Go Bettina!

Frances Hodgson Burnett has outdone herself on this one, although it might not be what you'd call literary fiction, as literary fiction must be unpleasant and full of sad people and uncomfortable ideas. Nick Hornby reads quite a bit of it, unfortunately, in Housekeeping vs. the Dirt, yet another collection of Believer magazine columns on what he's been reading. He's in a literary fiction rut, Atonement, Housekeeping, things like that, and he questions why, on the eve of the death of the modern novel, there are so many literary novels about novelists. How can the public be expected to tolerate such self-involved navel-gazing, while the authors bemoan that Joe Lunchbox doesn't read their books. Then he reads All the King's Men and, to quote,

"The edition I read is the new 'restored' edition of this novel, containing a whole bunch of stuff– a hundred pages, apparently, –that were omitted from the version originally published. A hundred pages! Oh, dear God. Those of us still prepared to pick up a sixty-year-old Pullitzer Prize winner should be rewarded, not horribly and unfairly punished."

His publisher sends him a cute new edition of Candide, tipping in at ninety pages, and he reads it for its modest length contrasted to its classic rank. I like Nick Hornby's appreciation for books shorter than those termed as tomes, as I read through fiction for the less-than-middle grades, like Shelter Pet Squad: Jelly Bean by Cynthia Lord, who won a Newberry for that book with the goldfish on the cover. I grabbed a stack of ARCs from work to put in a Little Free Library and started reading SPS: JB while walking up the stairs and finished it while making supper. I wish I could read all books in slightly over an hour, but somehow I can only manage it with the ones that are written for second graders. SPS:Jelly Bean has plenty of pictures and delightful, big type, and is plausible. Suzannah can't have pets because she lives in an apartment building, so her mom signs her up for Shelter Pet Squad at the animal shelter. There are five kids in Shelter Pet Squad on Saturday, and no character development, so that must come later in the series. The main point is that, while Suzannah's dad is late picking her up, a family walks into the shelter, complete with sobbing little girl, and the parents surrender her guinea pig, because they're shit. Suzannah promises the girl that she will find Jelly Bean a home, but how? Children's lives are such a panopticon these days that darting away from the SPS organized activivty and into the small animal room seems transgressive, but Suzannah lets the other kids know how important rehoming Jelly Bean is to her, and a shelter employee helps them compose a letter to local teachers offering Jelly Bean as a classroom pet. I'm reticent about classroom pets myself (, but Cynthia Lord was a teacher before she was a guinea pig owner and teachers can be responsible pet owners too. Maybe I should have read a random Animal Ark or a Rainbow Fairies: Pet Fairies, as they're ubiquitous examples of the pet rescue series genre, but Shelter Pet Squad: Jelly Bean is a fine book by a woman who loves her cavie.

I was packing for a two-night camping trip last week and decided I didn't have to worry too much because I could survive two nights in the wilderness without pants: Don Fendler survived nine days in the wilderness pantsless. Lost Trail: Nine Days Alone in the Wilderness is a graphic novel of the time twelve-year-old Don was lost on Mount Katahdin. He was hiking up an easy path with his dad and brothers and he and his friend wanted to run ahead. His dad told them to wait at the summit, but a storm broke and Don ran down the mountain to find his dad, lost the trail, circled repeatedly, panicked and went down the wrong way. It took him about a day to get his head together and remember his Boy Scout training, but he was considerably weakened by then and his shoes were torn up enough that he took them off and lost them. He took off his 1930s canvas dungarees because they were too stiff, and lost them in a stream, and survived alone another seven days until he found a couple's hunting lodge. Meanwhile, most of Maine was out looking for him. Stephen King blurbed Lost Trail, and he'll blurb anything as long as it's incredibly good.

Sunday, July 13, 2014


In Sarah Mlynowski's new Don't Even Think About It, almost all the sophomores in Ms. Velasquez's homeroom get a tainted flu shot and develop telepathy. That's it. They can all read each others' minds, but they're in high school, so Mackenzie cheated on Cooper, Olivia has a low self-esteem, someone's parents had sex (gross), everyone's worried about homework: that's it. Don't Even Think About It makes you appreciate the thousands of books that trick you into thinking that high school was an interesting place. I liked the other Mlynowski book I've read, Gimme a Call, so I was disappointed here, but Sarah Mlynowski's cranked out twenty high school paranormal cozies over a decade and they can't all be winners.

The incredible thing about Witold Rybczynski's Last Harvest:How a Cornfield Became New Daleville: Real Estate Development in America from George Washington to the Builders of the Twenty-First Century, and Why We Live in Houses Anyway is that it's not boring. Most of the action takes place in county planning meetings, where board members and property developers disagree on points of the proposed development plan— solutions to the items in question are submitted and will be discussed at subsequent meetings; Mr. Rybczynski deserves a medal for keeping it interesting. He follows the developers as they change a farm field into a traditional neighborhood-style real estate development with sidewalks, public spaces, parks, and alleys, which is why Mr. Rybczynski chose to follow New Daleville. He's a fan of garden suburbs. Most of the exurban homes in the county are situated on acre or half-acre lots and the developer petitions the county board for rezoning: Drama?

The development project trundles along, narrated by frequent conversation with various men and women who are reticent about the proposed sewage treatment system, for example. Mr. Rybczynski goes into the history of housing development in America and the preference for single-family homes worldwide, but he can't go too far because he already wrote the definitive history of domestic architecture in 1986. I really do recommend this book, although either Home or A Clearing in the Distance, that Frederick Law Olmsted book, might be better first picks from Witold's oeuvre.

Terry Pratchett books are difficult to blog about; I read Soul Music. Buddy, nee Imp y Celyn, buys a guitar at a mysterious olde shoppe and the music he plays at the Mended Drum, to quote, "...made you want to kick down walls and ascend the sky on steps of fire. It made you want to pull all the switches and throw all the levers and stick your fingers in the electric socket of the Universe to see what happened next. It made you want to paint your bedroom wall black and cover it with posters." Susan of Sto Helit and the wizards from Unseen University also appear here and I haven't read a lot with them in yet. On our theme, Soul Music did run a bit long. It's 371 pages and it would have been fine at 280.

More boring by far, but not such a snoozer that I was falling asleep in my headphones (audiobook), was Narrative of My Captivity Among the Sioux Indians by Mrs. Fanny Kelly. Whenever I read a true account of heading westward by covered wagon, I'm always struck by how closely it resembles Oregon Trail on the Apple II. Good times. Mrs. Fanny Kelly and her party were about to ford the Platte River with dysentery when they were set upon by a band of Oglala Sioux. Some killing later, she, her daughter, and another woman and child stare wretchedly as all their worldly possessions are pillaged or burned, and then they're bundled up on the backs of two horses and hurried away. (Her husband made it back to a fort and raised the alarm.) During the first night, Fanny contrives to drop Mary from her saddle so she can wait until the Indians have passed and run to the road and fort. The next ten days are on horseback as the Indians take her back to their village. There are harrowing incidents, being a captive narrative. She is made to carry a six-foot long ceremonial pipe in her arms, gets fed up and drops it, and is nearly punished with burning to death.

Fanny Kelly was taken in 1864. For those who don't remember recent sesquicentennials, the Dakota rose up in Southern Minnesota, were interned on Pike Island at Fort Snelling (currently under water, go check it out) and banished from our state. The Oglala Lakota lived mainly west of Minnesota already, but they were full aware of what happened and absorbed some of the displaced Dakota people.

By the time they reach the Lakota camp, Mrs. Kelly is happy to see other women, race notwithstanding. Mrs. Kelly is put to work as a servant in the household of a chief named Ottawa, but the US Army is in pursuit and the entire thousand-plus person encampment flees days and miles into the Badlands, where, of course, there is no food. Fanny chides the Indians for dumping their supplies while fleeing, because of the subsequent starving weeks; she was throwing things out of her covered wagon as fast as possible to gain speed while fleeing the Indians three weeks ago, but that's different. Her racist double standards are so earnest. When every Indian in a village, man, woman, and child, is slaughtered, it's punishment; when every white person is slaughtered, it's an atrocity. When the Indians use deception, it's because they're sneaky, amoral devils; when she deceives the Indians, she's clever. The Lakota women are modest like Victorians and that's a confusing aberration. Why would they be modest? They're savages.

Ottawa was kind to Mrs. Kelly, and his wives were all decent to her, save the head wife, who was kind of jerk. Ottawa gave her a little girl companion to compensate for her dead daughter Mary. The Oglala Lakota evidently maintained a policy of killing hostages. Highlights of her captivity include Ottawa's kind sisters, writing a coded letter to General Sully, and running into a few white people around camp. One was a girl kidnapped from New Ulm during the war, utterly miserable, another was a woman who had been taken as a girl as she was the sole survivor of a frontier family succumbed to smallpox. Ottawa told them that white women often had tea together, so they had an unusual tea party. Mrs. Kelly also noted many fair-skinned half-white children from fort marriages, usually ended when the soldier's wife turned up from Back East. Before winter, Mrs. Kelly was ransomed back to the closest fort and her husband. One of the last chapters is a general index of Indian atrocities in the West, because nothing shocking enough happened to Mrs. Kelly herself. Narrative of My Captivity Among the Sioux Indians is readable and somewhat interesting if you accept that it's racist as hell. It's so racist. If you can stomach "savage" and "Indian" used interchangeably, it's not great, but of historical value.

The final book on our theme of boring is The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie by Wendy McClure. It should have been good. It's amazing that someone can bollocks up a book about Laura Ingalls Wilder. There's no need to read The Wilder Life, despite your immediate reaction. I had it too: "Oooh! There's a memoir about Laura Ingalls Wilder?!" Well, yes and no. This is a book of that style best typified by Sarah Vowell and Michael Pollan, where the writer travels across America looking for the perfect tomato/joy/Zachary Taylor's footprints/the history of the qwerty keyboard and there's more editorializing and self-insertion than a standard history. Sadly, Wendy McClure can't reconcile her Little House fangirling and the details of her own life and that's the ruin of this book. There's a whole chapter in the beginning about her family and growing up in Chicago, her parents' snowbirding in New Mexico, meeting her boyfriend. At the end of the book, when she decides that her Little House road trip was about the death of her mother, it came off as a bizarre shoehorning of her personal life into some Laura Ingalls Wilder tourism. Wendy mentions her nine-year-old self imaginary best friend Laura often enough that it was creepy. The best parts of the book were when she stopped talking about herself and did actual research. The discussion of girl types represented in the Little House books was interesting and it would be worth reading that chapter alone; they used to be referred to as the Laura and Mary books, but with our predilection for pluck in the last decades, Mary's been relegated to minor character status.

I've been to most of the Laura Ingalls Wilder sites and it would have been more interesting to hear Ms. McClure's take on them if her take had been more interesting. It seems like, writing a book, the least she could have done would be set up interviews with the museum curators, instead of chronicling her chats with whomever happened to be at the front desk. The cabin near Pepin, Wisconsin is a let down for Wendy, too. The first time I went there, I was so intimidated because some big girls, like, eleven-year-olds, were playing Laura in the attic. I don't remember Plum Creek although I know we went there, and DeSmet was great and I got a visiting card just like Laura had, but Wendy McClure found herself weeping in the parking lot due to disillusionment with her Laura avatar.

In conclusion:
Don't Even Thing About It: Boring, especially while driving across North Dakota.
Last Harvest: Not boring, but it is of boring things.
Soul Music: Not boring, but a little slow.
Narrative of My Captivity Among the Sioux Indians: Pretty boring.
The Wilder Life: Boring.

Next up: I held back some interesting books to not ruin my boring theme.