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.

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