Monday, July 13, 2015

Hijinks Ahoy!

 Nothing but madcap hijinks here, like the things Ruthie gets up to because she's the only girl out of five brothers, and the only kid in third grade. Ruthie's Gift, by our beloved national treasure Kimberley Brubaker Bradley, is her first book and reads like it, but it's good solid kids' history for third graders. Ruthie's family is adequately prosperous for rural Indiana a century ago but there's still not enough cash in the household to buy Ruthie the doll she longs for from the Sears catalogue. Ruthie's mother wants her to have the doll; she wasn't prepared for five boys either. New people move in down the road and Ruthie is now not only in a third grade of three people!, but Mallie and Hallie are her new best friends. Hijinks ahoy! Falling off a gravestone, kittens, pneumonia, being the angel in the Christmas play. Hallie and Mallie's socks are so worn they're DIY chunky knit tubes from the ankle down. When the school nurse comes to measure all the schoolchildren, Ruthie wears her boots sockless and distracts her classmates from noticing Hallie and Mallie's poor-people foot coverings. When the US enters World War I, the thing the adults have been worried about all book, the oldest brother goes away to do war work in a munitions factory, and presumably earning more cash than Ruthie's parents have ever seen in their lives, he buys Ruthie the catalogue doll. It's Ruthie's Gift, but so are selflessness and tenacity. This would be a fab book for third graders but I won't go around thrusting it on people as I do with KBB's other works.

Now we turn to the queen of wholesome hijinks, Enid Blyton. I found myself fudging a recommendation of one of Mrs. Blyton's the other day and decided to remedy that by audiobook, as I was in need of a short listen after three months with Lyndon Johnson's early life (more on that later). In Look Out, Secret Seven! the Secret Seven dedicates themselves to solving two mysteries: who has been destroying birds' nests in the wood and who stole the old general's medals? Colin visits the old general to investigate and learns that the thief broke a pane of glass so small that Colin himself can't get his hand through the hole to spring the general's door latch. Meanwhile, other Secret Seven-ers run off some boys who are harassing birds and meet a changeable fellow who tells them of a dark night where he saw a man sneakily put a box in a hole in a tree trunk, which our man, with his abnormally large hands, was unable to retrieve. I thought the culprit was a monkey because: hands smaller than a child's + nest destruction + stealing shiny objects + 1950s British children = monkey. But the Secret Seven stakes out the wood at night and finds their man arguing with a sinister, tiny-handed man. A monkey would have been stupid, but better than children defeating criminals with abnormally variant hand sizes. Mrs. Blyton also squishes a surprising amount of blatant sexism into a female-authored book less than two hours long. The only fun thing is Mrs. Blyton's habit of exhorting the Secret Seven in the present tense at the cliffhangers. I'm disappointed in you, Mrs. Blyton!

In grown-up hijinks, Kiss and Tell: A Romantic Resume Age 0-22 by MariNaomi is a graphic novel that's hampered by its own format. MariNaomi profiles every boy she ever liked, held hands with, smooched, blew, or boinked until her first long term relationship with all its threesomes, and then she profiles all her special guest stars. It probably seemed like a good idea and a clever format; but the "one boyfriend at a time" structure ruins the story. All seven guys she's sleeping with show up to her seventeenth birthday party at the same time and instead of telling the hilarious story, it gets a casual mention eight times, because she hides out in the kitchen with a new gentleman friend. There's also a period where her main squeeze is in jail but she's sleeping with other people and it's hard to get a handle on who overlapped with whom. An unpolished style of illustration adds nothing. You'd think that if you slept with everybody all through high school, high school would have been more interesting, but Kiss and Tell proves that's not the case.

And if you're fed up with hijinks, may I recommend In the Closed Room by Frances Hodgson Burnett? The children here get up to no hijinks and no shenanigans. Do you know what these children do? THEY DIE. Maybe banging everyone isn't the best choice for ninth graders, but FHB certainly makes the case that dying beautifully is a good choice for third graders. I'm reading Good Girl Messages, where the author, obviously unitiated to the FHB planet, freaks out because of the amount of beautifully dead children In the Closed Room. She compares it to Kate Douglas Wiggins' The Birds' Christmas Carol and Beth in Little Women, which are all problematic if you don't want little girls to think that the most charming thing they can do is die charmingly, but they at least pony up only one dead girl apiece, while FHB gives us three. Written in 1904, a decade after her son Lionel died of consumption, FHB was still trying to reconcile his passing, and her grief lucratively dovetailed with the Victorian death obsession. That said, it's problematically good and hella FHBtacular. Her usual tropes: birds, gardens, falling awake, working class people who don't understand their sainted betters, and children's wholesome play are there. In the Closed Rooms amazingly captures the spontaneous joy of childhood play 'tho it would be more heartening if Judith's playmate wasn't a DEAD GIRL. Basically, Judith's earthy, working-class parents are flabbergasted by their otherworldly daughter, who resembles Aunt Hester who died spontaneously and beautifully at fifteen. They become caretakers of a house that was abandoned quickly by a family grieving the sudden, beautiful death of their child, whom Judith meets in the closed room and plays with joyously and constantly until she dies beautifully and skips through the garden hand in hand with her friend to meet Aunt Hester.

Next up, absolutely no epic heroes at all whatsoever.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Monday, June 15, 2015

Racism! With Bonus Incest!

Maybe it's best to get the incest out of the way before we get on to the racism. On balance, I don't know which is worse: racism or incest. Incest is more immediately repulsive, but racism and its institutions have ruined lives for centuries. Everyone who has suffered appallingly has suffered appallingly, and the rest of us just stumble blindly around in the bushes wondering why we've never even heard of this Mary Shelley novel. Mathilda's father leaves her mother's birthing- and death-bed without laying eyes on her and she's raised by a maiden aunt until her father comes back when she's seventeen and they become bosom companions and best friendsies and go to London and then he inexplicably won't speak to her for several months. She confronts him by the lake next to the Yorkshire manor house with ivy growing up the walls and asks if she is the cause of his silent anger. He says, "No, but yes;" Mathilda runs up to her room weeping, and I ran to the internet to see if Mathilda had accidentally killed a servant while sleepwalking and her father helped cover it up or something, but no, her father is in love with her. Eeeeeeeew. And having revealed his love, he runs to the sea, which, somehow, kills him. Mathilda is now alone in the world and prays that her death will come without resorting to suicide so she can... be with her father. After spending a night outdoors, she falls ill of consumption, thus ending her miserable life and this short novel which defines Romanticism with a capitol "R."

Read this: If you're hiding out in a neighboring kingdom working incognito as a scullery maid and wearing a donkey skin. If you loved Frankenstein and want to be confused and disappointed.

In further proof that one shouldn't choose novels randomly off of Librivox because they're female-authored and short, I have now spent six hours of my life reading Idomen, or the Vale of Yumuri and can never get those hours back, although, in fairness, I was doing other things while I was listen-reading, mainly washing dishes. Idomen is the semi-autobiographical novel of poetess and big fucking racist Maria Gowen Brooks; it's not completely biographical because Idomen drowns herself in the end, but before it ends, one must suffer the beginning, then the middle. Ah, the blissful, blissful end...

Idomen begins with a long essay about why, unrelatedly, suicide is bad and slavery is good. Suicide bad; slavery good. Probably everyone else who has attempted this novel had the sense to give up right there, but I wanted to see where in the pre-Civil War Americas she was going with this. Nowhere, it turns out. Idomen is structured from the point of view of a traveller in Cuba who stops at the estate of an old man who tells him the story of Idomen. The traveller admires the flowering trees and the comely slaves bringing him drinks and leans back to listen to the tale.. Basically, Idomen, despite her funny name, is of European descent and lives on the East Coast with her husband. The Cuban slave owner comes to visit and is captivated by Idomen. Flash forward several years, and widow Idomen arrives in Cuba because her uncle owns land (and humans) there. After a further nothing, Idomen departs for Canada where she writes long poetry (quite good, for what it's worth) and goes on and on about the, I'm going to garble the spelling because I can't find a text copy of Idomen on the whole, cursorily searched, internet, River Lahaduana, which flows to the St. Lawrence and then the sea. She becomes reacquainted with a man, Ethelwald, a cross between Heath Ledger and a statue, who admires Idomen and her long poetry. What's the problem? Well, he visits daily her until the river freezes over, and then, because crossing frozen rivers is treacherous as hell, he ceases visiting her, plunging her into a jarringly realistic depression which, as the denouement of a better novel, could have hammered my heart into a million crying pieces but doesn't make Idomen any better. Like Mathilda, Idomen manages to sort of not kill herself while dying romantically and leaves her Cuban friend in despair. Nobody is happy, except the slaves. Because they have simple lives and are taken care of by fatherly white people.

Read this book: If you want to advocate for the reinstatement of slavery in the sugar-producing world using the most half-assed arguments imaginable. If you hate drama, and want to read a dramatic novel where nothing happens.

Finally now we have a book that is worth reading but, sticking with our theme, exceedingly problematic. Dan gave me early Carl Barks Lost in the Andes for Christmas several weeks ago! Fantagraphics is publishing classic Disney comics and this is early Donald Duck when Scrooge McDuck was a twinkle of a plot device in Barks' eye. The titular Lost in the Andes is the original story of Donald and the kids' adventure to Plain Awful! I always thought Professor Rhutt Betlah was lost in the mists of time and the high Andes, but this is the thing! It's early Barks yet, but Ducks eat square eggs and are imprisoned for round objects, as in future Plain Awful. Good stuff. All comics are reflected on in essays by important Barks scholars. And we have the fourth and fifth appearances of Uncle Scrooge! In Rosa's The Life and Times of Uncle Scrooge, he discusses at length the contradictions between later canon Uncle Scrooge, who made his fortune by being "tougher than the toughies and smarter than the smarties, and he made it all square," and this early Scrooge, in Voodoo Hoodoo: A zombie appears in Duckburg, and the academic explains, for those of us who weren't aware, that zombies are a traditionally African bogeyman whose associations with the African diaspora would have been obvious to comics readers in the '40s. The zombie is after Uncle Scrooge, and the boys visit him at his to mansion to find out why. Uncle Scrooge, good old Unca Scrooge, explains, "My eye fell on some wonderful land that I wanted for a rubber plantation! The owners were a tribe of ferocious savages that believed their voodoo gods prized the ground! They wouldn't sell, so I hired a mob of thugs and chased them into the jungle! I got the land, but boy, those savages were mad!" Rosa resolved this appalling piece of Scrooge's early history by invoking Bombie the zombie to haunt Scrooge through his post-Klondike adventures, although here the zombie hasn't seen Scrooge for seventy years and is after a young Scrooge, i.e. Donald. Barks present the voodoo practitioners sympathetically, just like he gives agency to the Awfultonians and twists our assumptions of the native islanders in Race to the South Seas!, but different times and all that. Or, holy shit, that's racist. Lost in the Andes is arranged with epic adventures first, then ten page gags, one page gags, and commentary, which is a queer descent but there are some greats, especially among the ten-pagers like Donald's nightmares and Santa's workshop, and some that are strictly of their time, like the truant officer and the quiz show.

Read this book: Barks fans, obviously. And everybody. Everybody should read Carl Barks. (Everybody might also read How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comics by Dorfman and Mattelart.)

We've been discussing racism a lot here, and as well as commenting on it as a sociological and historical phenomenon, it's important to remember that the real victims of racism are the white people who were just trying to help. Especially when Black people are unable to contextualize or react to their situation. There's no better way to infantalize a character than by making it an infant, and Lurlene McDaniel does a genius job of it in Baby Alicia is Dying. My friend Laura has a penchant for terrible books: sibling gangbang erotic mysteries, Satanist backmasking literature, Zondervan's teen "choice" series, several shades of grey, but her favorite bad author is Lurlene McDaniel, the woman who built a career on diseased teen drama romance. I read at least one of these in junior high and Laura read oodles of them, but lately she's been rereading. She says Baby Alicia is Dying is the worst, so when I pulled it out of the recycling bin and saw that '90s white teenager holding the chubby little Black baby, I knew I sort of wanted to read it in the way that one sort of wants to look at a car accident, so I put it on my hold shelf for a year and finally read it while getting over a brief bout of illiteracy a few weeks ago. In summary, Desi is a freshman in high school who volunteers at the home for HIV-positive babies and Baby Alicia is her favorite. There's a floppy-haired boy in her biology class for love interest, her mother opposes her volunteering with AIDS babies, people at school shun her, and someone even writes hateful things on her locker. Desi rages at the thought of Alicia's mom, a young addict, and tries to talk the volunteer coordinator out of letting her have a pre-custodial visit with Alicia, but it happens anyway. Meanwhile, Alicia is a cooing puddle of dark skinned adorable (Lurlene cannot say "Black"). Desi spends all her Christmas money on a Christmas dress for baby Alicia and her Desi's mom gets angry at her. I was angry too. If Desi had blown all her money on something that would be appreciated by a baby, say teddy bear or some stacking toys, yes, that's a good use of money, but one fancy dress? Babies don't care, and they grow. Lucky for Desi, Alicia still fits the dress when the book's title fulfills itself and Desi resolves her grief with a lot of melodrama and clunky dialogue. Desi also plants a rosebush for Alicia at the children's home, because what better to plant in a garden frequented by toddlers? Baby Alicia is Dying is a cluster of white patronizing on top of Lurlene McDaniel's usual sensationalist schlock about sick kids and their romantic lives, the drama is forced, the conflicts are clumsy, the characters are bland, and the worst thing about Baby Alicia is Dying is that it's not so bad. Desi is a stupid teen with the best of intentions who makes sacrifices for a child. The reveal at the end is that Desi's mom didn't want her volunteering with HIV-positive babies because she lost Desi's brother to SIDS, so not only is there a resolution but Lurlene gives us two-for-one disease tutorials. The shaggy haired boy in Desi's biology class lost a beloved uncle to AIDS. And after Alicia's memorial service, Alicia's mother appears. I needed that to happen so I didn't throw the book across the room. She tells Desi that she's been sober since Alicia was born and trying to go back to school, and get an apartment, and custody, and she's young, and she's HIV-positive too. And Desi finally starts to realize that Alicia was not born of a monster to be Desi's soulmate/dress-up toy, Alicia was a baby with a family who was a victim of poverty and a terrible disease.

Read this book: If you're the one who has to go back in time and explain to Ronald Reagan that anyone can get AIDS.

Guess what's next! Lulu and the Hedgehog in the Rain!!! Guess what it's not?! Racist!!! As we've discussed previously, Lulu is an Afro-British third grader who loves animals and she's going to grow up to be a proud Black woman and a veterinarian and a tea-drinking Brit and not experience these things as a contradiction but for now she's just a responsible child. I was expecting one of Lulu's classmates to fob off an African pygmy hedgehog on her because that's what's been happening in the Lulu books lately and I had completely forgotten that England has its own indigenous hedgehog population with Cockney accents. ("'E was a gen'leman, sir, and 'e fed us off'er china plates.") Lulu is out stomping in rain puddles when she intercepts a hedgepig who's about to be swept down a storm drain. Millie is surprised that Lulu doesn't set up a cage with toys and treats for the hedgie like Lulu has for the rabbits, but Lulu explains quite forcefully that this a wild hedgehog who can come and go as he pleases and make his own choices and forage for his own food, and she has a library book to back it up. That said, Lulu needs to petition Charlie to keep his gate shut, the grumpy man down the street not to burn his yard waste, Henry to keep his cat inside, and the old lady to not feed the hedgehog bread and milk. Safety in all hedgehog things! But winter is coming and hedgehogs hibernate! I demand you read this book, which isn't hard because it's ninety pages long with ample cute pictures.

Read this book: If you are human. If you're not a racist. If you worry that you have internalized racism that you're trying to excise. If you like short books. If you want to know more about the hedgehogs of England. If you are an African pygmy hedgehog who wants to know more about your British cousins. If you are a hedgehog.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015


 I read a big long slow book and I am very proud of myself for reading it and you should be proud of me too because it was big and long and slow and I set it down last year with a bookmark stuck in the middle because I couldn't take it anymore and then I came back to it and pushed through and now I have completely read After the Ice: A Global History 20,000-5,000BC. Sounds interesting, you say. Why, yes, it is. Super, duper interesting. But it is not riproaring, rollicking, fast-paced history. The trouble with 20,000BC to 5,000BC and almost all human history predating Sumer, is that there are no stories. What we have are burials, querns, ashes, seeds, pot shards, paintings, shoes, and guesses. We have newer stories that are probably retellings of old, old stories, but we don't know and we can guess, but we can never prove or disprove our guesses because we can't reanimate the dead. We only have objects and guesses and the mechanics of life based on scatters of husks and butchered bones. By 8,000-5,000BC we have better in some places. Walls, city mounds, basements, ladders, fibers, but they're still objects and not stories. Who lived here? What did they think? Do? Worship? Like? What were their best jokes? Who was their family? Who made their choices? Would they leave? Would they die and be buried with beads that came from two hundred miles away? We don't have any of that, but Steven Mithen creates moments, quiet moments, weaving baskets or interring the dead, and he gives us these moments in a history built on archeology and conjecture and the best guesses we have. Riding in a canoe with a dead grandfather to a burial island in Europe, walking through what Mithen calls a "wild garden," a purposefully husbanded grove of natural foodstuffs (clear some brush, do a little weeding, and five thousand years later you have agriculture), watching a toddler take a few clumsy steps and poop a little: a grown-up picks it up and tosses it in the fire. We have that little poop. Mithen describes the painstaking work of hero-archeologists who can take a charred clump out of an ancient firepit and demonstrate that it's a poop from a tiny human. Mithen describes so many of these archeological finds: village mounds, microliths, beads, cemeteries, and giant shell middens, and Mithen tells two stories about each, the people who lived there and the people who did the excavating. To tell the older story, he uses a magical proxy of an everyman, a traveller called John Lubbock after the Victorian John Lubbock who wrote Prehistoric Times in 1865. Our John Lubbock wanders through six continents helping the people he meets gather grain and make bricks. He hitches rides in their canoes, sits around their fires listening to stories in languages no one alive today can understand, he sees them bury their dead, and he leans back in quiet corners and reads snippets of Victorian John Lubbock, who balances his era's disdain for other cultures with respect for native peoples' innovations. There's so much in the After the Ice, that's why it's so long and softly pensive. So take your time and enjoy the journey, because with six continents and 15,000 years, there is three times as much history here as when we start with the Sumerians and go until today. And we can travel the world and the history of everything together for fifteen millenia; unless we are too busy and then we can attend a single event that will wrap all the knowledge of the world into one imperialist package, and it's in Chicago! and there's a murderer who has his own murder building! and the Ferris wheel's just been invented! and there are cannibals! Or not, but there are adults being compelled to act like animals in a zoo behind a sign that says "cannibals!" No, I did not read Devil in the White City. I've just read Two Little Pilgrims Progress by Frances Hodgson Burnett and that's all the 1893 World's Fair I need. FHB's biographer Ann Thwaite called TLPP "her worst children's book," and that statement has merit, although her earlier children's stories are awful (and anything's better than Lady of Quality). Three years before the telephone's debut at the 1876 World's Fair, Frances Hodgson Burnett has invented phoning it in. Robin and Meg are twin orphans who live on their aunt's big, bustling farm where no one pays much attention to them and they're free to run wild in the fields and eat hearty meals and read old books in the hay loft, which they call the Straw Parlor. Worst childhood ever, am I right? FHB takes pains to show how deprived these children are, without adult affection and further schooling. (FHB spent her life between England and New England and it shows. TLPP is set in Illinois and FHB's supposition that there are no public schools proximate to prosperous farms with many employees and a moderate walk from the railway station doesn't hold.) So, furthering the plot, Robin overhears one of the farm workers describing the World's Fair and from then on he and Meg magpie all the newspapers and magazine clippings they can get on it (further belieing the dearth of available reading matter on the farm) until it occurs to them that they could actually travel to the World's Fair, it being one hundred miles away, and they each ask for gender-appropriate jobs doing farm labor and are granted them at the pay of $1 a week, and, oh!, how FHB wrings her hands about the hard work these two children do because they have asked to do it in exchange for renumeration. But Robin and Meg feel their ceaseless toil more heavily than other children because they are not real children: they are a cross between the simpering, sentimental waifs that FHB was often accused of writing but rarely actually wrote, and the human embodiment of the coming century. Robin and Meg will grow up to be the handsome young people on the cover of an agricultural brochure, Robin will be the man in a stock photo holding a test tube, and Meg will grow up to be the hearty woman holding a sheaf of wheat on a statue above a public building. FHB makes it abundantly clear that Robin and Meg are generically exceptional in the way of the new century, so they deserve their modest circumstances less than most. Sara Crewe would have given her arms for this childhood. Soon Meg and Robin are subject to a desperate poverty I know all too well, the appalling privation of budget travel: you can't eat out as much as you'd like, you have to stay somewhere cheapish, some museums are kind of expensive. It's shocking! I felt Robin and Meg's vacation pain as FHB hammered it home over and over again while they ride the train to Chicago and buy their tickets to the White City, which she describes as in a tourist brochure. (If I remember correctly, FHB never quite made it to Chicago in 1893.) Their first day is amazing, and they keep on bumping into a rich man who is there alone and starts following them. Meg tells fairy stories about the exhibits and they marvel at everything and eat sandwiches. In the evening, Meg and Robin walk down side streets until they meet a kindly, poor woman on a stoop and ask if they could board there for the night. Robin and Meg enthrall her hunchbacked son, who (after a run in with his violent alcoholic father and a bout of spontaneous generosity, because life isn't perfect) goes to the fair with them the next day. The rich man follows them again and eventually insinuates himself into their company and buys them all a giant lunch and takes them to the Midway and the Ferris wheel and all the things they didn't think they could ever afford, and when the children are worn out from jolly fairgoing, the stranger takes them back to his hotel room... and they all have a good night's sleep. Then everybody goes to the fair where they see cannibals and the agricultural building and eventually the stranger (who turns out to be another prosperous Illinois farmer whose wife was super-excited about the fair but died before she could go) takes custody of Meg and Robin buys them new books and less practical clothing. I have the cool 1897 reprint of Two Little Pilgrims' Progress that was part of Scribners' FHB reprint run.

In things more legendary but more plausible, I read R. I. Page's Norse Myths from the Legendary Past series, which is a cousin to the Reading the Past series where one can read boring yet informative and thankfully short books about runes and Linear B. Norse Myths is a goodly concise overview of the more popular Norse myths and gods and their early medieval source books, but it's boring as all underpants for reasons I cannot explain. I read Unbroken, which everybody else in America did already too. Now nobody needs Unbroken. I have an eighteen inch stack of Unbrokens on my Super Buy table for $3 a pop and nobody wants them badly enough. Unputdownable: four segments to Louie Zambini's life: running, stuck on a raft, prison camp, and healing. All are harrowing. The writing is straightforward and descriptive, Zambini is fantastic, and he survived. And I read the first two books of the Don Rosa Library. Don Rosa is, of course, a great Uncle Scrooge artist in the Tradition of Carl Barks and he knows why he likes his ducks. Now I have told you about books and we may do other things.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Neglected Children, Russian Children, Neglected Russian Children, and Russians Neglecting Children

Neglected children.

I was being excited about reading Ms. Rapscott's School for Girls and my co-worker Beth said, "Nope." She said she cannot handle books about neglected children, like I cannot stand whatever it was I hate about mystery novels. I said, "Murder treated lightly for entertainment?" We agreed that I am opposed to fun murder and she cannot bear child neglect, even when they are the neglected children of the rich and busy, as in Ms. Rapscott's Girls, written by Elise Primavera of Auntie Claus. (We just won't tell Beth about the other books I've been reading.) Ms. Rapscott's Girls is uproariously boarding school, with Lemony Snickett-style anachronism, and a little Mary Poppins in Ms. Rapscott's inexplicable insistence that the girls' first adventure down Less Travelled Road never happened. The girls are the daughters of Busy Parents, too busy even to apply to the school; Miss Rapscott simply sends out postage paid boxes that the parents may pack their daughters into, because they are so busy. Mildred, Bea, Fay, and Annabelle land safely at the school, but Dahlia Thistle's parents forgot to close the self-sticking tape on her box and she fell out. Mildred, Bea, Fay, and Annabelle receive academic instruction on How to be Lost, well-supplied with such things as rain bonnets, mittens, and paper on which to write thank-you notes, and learn to Find Their Way, thus culminating on a mission to find Dahlia at an indoor dream-state iteration of the Alps. Meanwhile, I was also reading Inside the Rainbow: Russian Children's Literature 1920-1935: Beautiful Books, Terrible Times because somebody left it on my hold shelf and I am prone to reading things people leave on my hold shelf. Stunning children's book reproductions scattered with text introduce Western adult art snobs about the colorfully modernist art of a new society, storybooks that throw off the bourgeois shackles of tsars and princesses, witches and fairies. This is socialist literature for socialist children and society grinds joyfully like a well-oiled machine, but with plenty of fun because "play is the work of children." Also, if you were anybody in Russian literature at the time, you were apparently writing for children and not mentioning it so much, but it's where the paychecks were coming from. I've read plenty about poets like Mayakovsky and Mandelstam and not a word about their vast bodies of work for young people. Not to mention Kornei Chukovsky, the Dr. Seuss/Roald Dahl/Edward Lear of Russian children's literature began writing around the time of the revolution, and several of his poems are printed in full here. Inside the Rainbow excerpts stories in English, or includes them in the reproduction of book art. There's a fantastic hodgepodge of stuff, from fiction about Civil War child soldiers to poems to photo montages to Lenin's gripings to memoirs of Soviet childhoods. The trouble is when funnest of books are not reproduced in full, like the fantastic rhyming story of a letter mailed from Leningrad to London and delivered by that most efficient of Soviet workers, the postman. Will the letter be delivered? Will Maksim Maksimovich write a letter back? Why are postmen so cheerful? I'll never know. But I can substitute my lack of closure in a children's story for knowledge of the plight of millions of Soviet homeless children, the ones whom nobody was buying Revolutionary children's books for. Inside the Rainbow had And Now My Soul is Hardened: Abandoned Children in Soviet Russia: 1918-1930 by Alan M. Ball in its index and I wildly ordered it from the library, as I am wont to do. I'd come across mentions of Soviet Russia's homeless child problem before, but the reality is so much more appalling than any occasional mention, and Ball doesn't even get to the generations of homeless children after 1930. Tsarist Russia had street children too, meaning for the first few years after the revolution the problem could be regarded as a relic of the old regime, but the Volga famine hit in 1922, after years of Civil War, and the population of street children soared into the millions. And Now My Soul is Hardened spends half its time on street children and their attempts at living and the other half on policy reactions, not because Soviet policy on homeless children could affect more than a fraction of them, underfunded and unstaffed as it was, but early policy on an immediate domestic crisis is an interesting facet of Soviet history and its attempts to deal with a real problem while staying in bounds of revolutionary idealism, and Anatoly Lunacharsky, the Commissar of Enlightenment, comes off as more human in his response to street children than he does elsewhere in history. Plenty of children passed through children's homes and other institutions, but not many made it out and into productive careers as model Soviet citizens. In Gladkov's boring Cement (which I'm never going to get around to finishing) his daughter is placed in the children's home in a wave of kibbutz-style enthusiasm for children's collective upbringing that swept revolutionary backers in the early days and she ends up starving; the few children who were placed in children's homes for ideology's sake were quickly outnumbered by war orphans and famine victims as the children's homes went without government funding ample to provide amenities like shoes, clothes and food. Plenty of children died in children's homes, and others ran back to the streets where they could at least steal edibles and everything else they could manage. Ball's research here is amazing. There is a sort of Dickensian charm to kids climbing into train engines and summering in Crimean resort towns, organizing into boy gangs, and begging charmingly. But charm evaporates on any close scrutiny about the unspeakable conditions children lived in around the train stations where they were often abandoned, in markets, basements, haystacks, and anywhere else warm enough. More experienced children formed gangs and divided resources and fought bloody battles with other gangs, older boys and adult criminals threw their weight around and assaulted smaller and outcast boys; drinking, gambling, murdering other children for serviceable clothes, rampant STDs, and boy rape. Most girls were raped too and almost a hundred percent had worked as prostitutes. By the late 1920s, the problem of street children diminished by attrition and aging into the adult criminal population, some were rescued, and Ball is only able to hint at the coming waves of orphans from the collectivization of the 1930s and another world war, whose childhoods would be as chilling as those of their predecessors. But it doesn't stop there, because next I read The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine which continues to be Russian, involve children, and end nowhere good. Damn you, Europa Editions, with your beautiful bindings and your promises of erudite international fiction. This was the first Europa Edition I've actually got through, and that's because Alina Bronsky tricked me into enjoying the first few chapters of her unreliable narrator, Rosa Achmetowna, orchestrating her pregnant daughter's life in the late Soviet Union and throwing her over for love of her smarter granddaugter, whom she tries to raise in her own image. Rosa, for love of her granddaughter and her own ambitions, is the cunning of a Soviet woman who had to stand in line for hours to find a bag of oranges in a shop or find a pair of black-market pantyhose exaggerated and alarmingly cold, and she's funny, but her insistence that her daughter marry anybody, hopefully foreign, to get them and especially herself out of the crumbling USSR, and attempting suicide because she can't go to Israel, bartering her granddaughter to a man who might be a pedophile, crushing people around her like bugs or trying to, and being completely self-assured regardless, it's a disturbing stereotype of Russian immigrants combined with dark comedy that's too dark to be funny, and then, because modern novels can't leave off insta-celebrity, Germany's American Idol wraps everything up in an ambiguous package, leaving me feeling dirty again, because there's enough evil in the world without celebrating it in fiction. Next we will read about Science.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015


Tinsel and ChooChoo are in heaven now but they have a sequel bunny named Luna. Look how cute she is. Her feet are black like otters and her butt is tiny. In fact, I managed to accidentally read four sequels in near succession and I have already assured you that I will review them, from least to most essential to the good of man or their respective original. Some sequels are so useless that no one on Earth has ever read them, like Cosette and that sequel to Gone with the Wind. Some sequels degrade the original and one blanches to remember how one enjoyed the first, and should-have-been-only installment, like Clerks 2, My Girl 2, or Disney movie sequels. And some sequels are so much better than the original that Wishing for Tomorrow has knocked my socks off so hard I've imposed my veneration of Hilary McKay on oodles of other people, and I've gone back and cared about The Little Princess more than when I first read it. None of the sequels I've recently pursued were too detrimental or essential to the original, but they were all acceptable and made their authors' stories a little bit longer. Herewith:

King Dork Approximately. Not sure why this is a thing, but it's out there. I ordered it from the library right after I read King Dork in January before KDA was out, and then I got that e-mail saying I had a book reserved for me and there it was waiting on the shelf because those are our tax dollars that got my inter-library transfer for me. At the end of King Dork, everything was wrapped up neatly: mystery solved, villain vanquished, father redeemed, hero blow-jobbed. You can't unwrap a conclusion like that, so Frank Portman has followed it up by cramming half a new plot into a slightly longer book. Our hero is sent to another high school. That's pretty much it. No intrigue, no dead bodies, no secret codes. The hook is that he loses his virginity but that doesn't happen until the very end. It's still a good book, but Portman used up all his A material the first time round and this is just a lot of riffing, and Little Big Tom.

Smek for President. The end of The True Meaning of Smekday was all wrapped up in a neat little package and it's out now in movie form as Home. (Vaguest movie title ever.) No reason at all for Adam Rex to write an addendum novel, but he did and it's one long, zany bit of action-packed Boovery. Tip and J-Lo fly to New Boov World to appeal for clemency from Captain Smek and quickly find out that the Boovs' sojourn on Earth made them hip to Jeffersonian democracy and Supreme Boov is now an electable position. Dan Landry, the showboater who took all Tip's credit for saving Earth in the first book, jumps into the race and meanwhile J-Lo is discovered as the squealer who brought the Gorg to Earth and he's thrown in jail, so it's up to Tip to rescue him and she's on the run through a system of garbage tunnels where she meets a lonely Boov called Fun Size and there's a billboard named Bill who makes bubbles and wackiness ensues. This book is all madcappery, even more madcap than The True Meaning of Smekday. And it all works out. A million double-plus bonus points to the voice actress on the audiobook.

1493. It's the sequel to 1491 and it isn't. 1493 combines history with dire warning about the future and the successful popular historian's confidence that he can write about whatever he wants, which is mainly the globality of food resources exported from the Americas after 1492. Potatoes and malaria reshaped the world in ways we touch every day and our rubber crop is extremely vulnerable. Also, Africans outnumbered Europeans in the Americas for centuries and the Chinese gold trade with South American Spaniards jump-started global trade, plus easily preventable environmental disasters.

Lulu and the Hamster in the Night. The most important sequel is Lulu because she has her own series, and while 1493 contains vital information and almost achieved top spot for the most essential sequel, Hilary McKay beat Charles Mann by invoking proper hamster care in fun form. Because Lulu's stupid classmate can't handle her hamster so she threatens to abandon him. Lulu grabs the hamster and socializes him but at a critical juncture in his friendliness training, her Nan's birthday arrives and she and Mellie need to sleep over at Nan's for her birthday weekend. Can she sneak the hamster into Nan's house? Hamsters are social, curious, nocturnal fuzzies and Lulu and the Hamster in the Night emphasizes the nocturnal when the hamster escapes and goes on a hamster-blast adventure fun and Lulu and Mellie need to rescue him without waking Nan. Luna's full name is Luna Lulu Lovegood aLLgeyer after the Lulu books.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

One Out of Three

 Three books, three worlds. One was everything, two could have been so much more. One for children, two about children. One wild, two domestic. One stunning, two lame. Two old, one new: 2015 new. I had an ARC of The Honest Truth by Dan Geimenhart and it isn't good. I was excited because The Honest Truth is an outdoorsy novel; but the trouble with a kid alone in the wilderness is that things rarely happen when one is alone in the wilderness. Dan Gemeinhart circumvents this problem by spending 175 pages of the 229-page book getting Mark onto Mount Rainier, and only a few pages on mountaineering fail before Mark succumbs to exhaustion and hypothermia and nearly dies, which is what he came to Rainier to do (spoiler: he's rescued). Mark has cancer, and Mr. Geimenhart tries to build suspense... with cancer. Teasing your audience with glimpses of hospital rooms and bald children is creepy. It's also easy to quickly figure out that the author is hinting at cancer, so by the time the big reveal happens, everyone has understood for a while and they're really uncomfortable about it. But fortunately for Mark, he has a best friend called Jessica, who turns up in flashbacks and half-chapters of third-person inner-turmoil because she knows Mark probably ran away to die on Mount Rainier and she can't decide whether to let Mark die peacefully in a snowstorm or abet the kidhunt that started several hours after he bolted. The trouble with Jessica is that their relationship is too didactic, too forced. She's a girl!, she's brown!, they're best friends!; Gemeinhart can't show, he needs to tell you! that white boys and brown girls can be best friends. (The white boy is the main character.) Every encounter Mark has: the waitress, the thugs, the tortilla makers, the bus driver, and especially the Forest Service biologist who gives Mark a ride up the mountain, is suffused with overbearing life lessons. And Mark brings his dog along: he plans for Beau to find his way down the mountain with a goodbye note clipped to his collar. But Mark doesn't bring any dog food! You'd think that in the weeks he's been planning his escape, and the day of, when he throws some granola bars and and dog treats in his backpack, that he might have thrown some dog food in a baggie; that his dog might want to eat while they're climbing a mountain, but no. There are so many little things in this book that strain credibility. So many bizarre actions and big, throbbing omissions, along with the stilted dialogue and sloppy plot. I'm sorry.

Further along in disappointing books that sucked was The Morgesons by Elizabeth Stoddard. If you ever need rigid Protestants, humorless New Englanders, Puritans, dreary, stone-faced people who trudge through a grim half-life before taking up another space in the family plot where the past generations of people who bear their names rest at the mercy of an implacable God. Cassandra and her emo sister Veronica, she of the unlikely dialogue, were intentionally spared the fate of bearing names already carved on tombstones, but beyond that their lives are set to resemble every joyless moment of their forebearers.' The Morgesons' reviewers emphasize that women of the 1860s were groomed to be married off as soon as possible and that is why this book is revolutionary, but I didn't see it in the Morgeson household: Cassandra and Veronica are beyond their father's control, expected to do nothing but live as monotonously as possible in the unbearable silence of their parents' home. Veronica stays indoors and says things like, "Why, morning and night are wonderful from these windows. But I must say the charm vanishes if I go from them. Surrey is not lovely." but Cassandra's willingness to leave her parents' house for moderate periods of time results in three long visits to friends and relatives that punctuate The Morgesons' long, domestic non-drama. When Cassandra is thirteen, she is sent to live with her grandfather for a year. He is a dour man who doesn't believe in things like novels and walking, and Cassandra spends her year entombed, except when she attends school where all the girls hate her. Cassandra returns home, uneducated, until, at seventeen, she is invited to visit the family's cousin, so distant that they have been unacquainted with him up to this point, Charles Morgeson. Cassandra is now, somehow, an unremarkably ravishing beauty and she is popular in Charles' village and makes friends for once, becoming particularly intimate with Charles' damp sponge of a wife Alice. Charles goes all Edward Cullen, and Cassandra guesses Charles is watching her sleep when she finds cigarette butts on the floor of her chamber and is somehow okay with this. Charles has a penchant for breaking unbreakable horses and, at the apogee of their unrequited, adulterous love, he invites Cassandra for a ride on the fiercest horse in his stable, who has a thing about carriage covers. It begins to rain. Naturally, Charles assures Cassandra that his horse is broken and no longer afeared of carriage covers; Cassandra must be protected from the rain!, he puts the cover up, the horse spooks, runs into a wall, and Charles dies. Cassandra awkwardly leaves her grieving widow friend Alice, who looks to be on the verge of growing a pair, and returns to the silent torpor of her family's home. Eventually, she goes to visit her school friend Ben, who is inexplicably in love with Veronica, and she meets some cool women but nothing happens and Ben's mother hates her, so she returns home to find her own mother dead in her rocking chair and then everyone grows up and becomes slightly more self-sufficient but still ignorant and languid. I kept waiting for this book to get better and it didn't. So many morally bankrupt people I felt a little dirty at the end of it for reading all this terrible, unctuous dialogue and non-sequiturs. ("I look for a reason in every action. Tell me fairly, have you had a contempt for me—for my want of perception? I understand you now, to the bone and marrow, I assure you.") The Morgesons is a bit of a feminist tale for it's time specifically because it stars a young woman who takes a damn long time to get married, but that's no reason anyone should read it.

Which brings us to Thursday's Children which should be read as part of our greater Rumer Godden revival. I dug it out of the misc. female authors pile by the desk when I was looking for something exquisitely beautiful to read a few weeks ago. The only other adult book I've read of Ms. Godden's was The Lady and the Unicorn, which turns out to be her first and worst book, but Holly and Ivy is one of the best Christmas orphan stories of all time (Christmas orphans!) and the Japanese doll books are incredible. Thursday's Children is certainly a book for grown-ups with grown-up comments and asides, but it is about children, which makes me wonder why anyone bothers with adult fiction when it's about children half the time anyway. It's structured in an interesting way: the only other place I've seen this is The Secret Garden, where one character arc spans half the book until its resolution when another character picks up the plot torch and runs another hundred pages to the end. (Thursday's Children is without the last Hail-Mary-redemption-of-the-hunchback-father-pass that rounds out Secret Garden). Concerning the Penny family, they're a greengrocer and wife in North London sometime back when the people were simple but middle class affluence was creeping in. Mrs. Penny desperately wants a daughter whom she can groom to be a famous dancer. Four sons later, she finally gets her, Crystal, who is absolutely beautiful and everything her mother ever wanted and, while she's busy turning Crystal into Honey Boo Boo, she becomes accidentally pregnant with something she has no interest at all in and he ends up named Doone, as the parents were going to call him Lorna had he been a girl. Nobody wants Doone or bothers about him much except Beppo, the Italian tumbler who lives in the shed. Besides Beppo, with his early admonitions to keep limber and practice every day, Doone is a parasite on the side of whoever's stuck minding him, like Crystal who makes him carry her shoes when she goes to dance lessons at Madame Tamara's, where Doone is first enchanted by the ballet. Mrs. Penny is aggressive about Crystal's supposed prodigy and Doone tags along until he's accidentally noticed, and from then on Mrs. Penny makes them a package deal. Everyone hides this from Mr. Penny, who, when he does find out, can say that ballerinos are queers and he'll have none of it because this is a book for grown-ups. Doone is bereft, but his life is one of exclusion and hard knocks so any one setback isn't as shattering as a combination of all the other setbacks together. His arc continues back to ballet class and up to the school of the Royal Ballet where he's finally found his place, and Crystal's story takes over. She's bound and determined to do something but she's also a moody adolescent whose passion isn't really ballet even though she's almost as talented as Doone and she's been raised to think she's the best. She's a bit spoiled and she's also in love with Yuri the special guest teacher at the Royal Ballet. And Crystal is great. Doone remains a child to the end of the book, (he's still eleven or so) but Crystal manages to turn Thursday's Children into an awkward, early adolescent bildungsroman and it's perfect.

Next up: Sequels!

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

As Promised, Girl Books

 My favorite gruff dad customer was looking for audiobook recommendations for his teenager daughter.

Gruff dad: "Anything good?"
Me: "Egg and Spoon by Gregory Maguire!"
Gruff dad: "Where is it?"
Me: "The library."

I suck at retail. I ended up selling him The Midnight Dress because I had it marked down to a dollar. It was too formulaic for me to get through, even with an Australian accent, but one dollar. Egg and Spoon is great though! I never read Wicked, although I might now, because Egg and Spoon is utterly brilliant until it splutters out at the end but we'll just ignore that bit and focus on its reveling in Russian fairy tales and the cross narratives of a peasant and a high-born girl who accidentally switch places when Katya's private train stops in Elena's starving village. One senses a Prince and the Pauper coming on until Elena's guardians immediately realize that they have the wrong girl. Elena's village is starving, her mother is dying, and her brother is recently conscripted, so Katya starts walking with every sensible expectation that she'll meet the train coming back for her, but Elena manages to conceal her identity long enough that the butler and governess are better off abetting her than revealing their sins to her short-sighted great aunt. Then there's Baba Yaga. And the tsar. Everything about Egg and Spoon is so delicious, so fantastical, and so magically realistic. It doesn't smell Russian, but that's a lot to ask for in a novel. It's Russian enough. Bleeding good. How it compares to Binny for Short is an open question because they're two completely different books, though they (and The War that Saved My Life) all three are age-appropriate early adolescent girl books in a genre of fantastic scope. And they're all three bloody marvelous. I can't believe it took me this long to read Binny for Short. I got it on the drop date, started it, set it down to savor, and waited over a year. The thing that really sparked my reading it is that the sequel's coming out this summer. Binny isn't Hilary McKay's strongest novel, but that's like saying that North America isn't God's strongest continent. It's amazing. McKay really rocks her minimalist approach to language here which is grand, but I do love it when she's effusive. The plot is that Binny's father died insolvent, and Binny had to give up her dog and is still grieving it, but then her terrible old great aunt who was instrumental in getting rid of the dog dies and leaves Binny her crumbling English seaside semi-detached house. Let's pause here to appreciate Hilary McKay's appreciation of the seaside, as other British authors, despite never being more than two hours from the sea, tend to forget they're on a big island. So Binny is a local in this seaside holiday town and the whole book is intercut with scenes from a harrowing afternoon trying to pull a fishing net off some rocks with her best enemy from next door. Of course, seventy-six years ago, British problems weren't limited to seaside proximity and dog grieving. Kimberly Brubaker Bradley is amazing and she does World War II again, in England here. The War That Saved My Life has so much happening and it all ties so together into this compelling bundle of hope and triumph for one little girl that the best praise I can give it is to thoroughly retell the story: Ada is a club-footed ten-year-old who has never left the one room flat she lives in with her horrible mother and her six-year-old brother Jaimie. The story begins around the time Ada teaches herself to walk: she's been scooting around on her bottom her whole life. When he was a baby, Ada took care of Jamie, but now he's a kid out running around and she's alone all day. Ada went outside once, but her mother found out and beat her. So Ada teaches herself to walk all summer and Jamie hears that there's going to be a war on. All the children will be evacuated, but mum, useless slut, won't let Ada and Jamie go. Ada decides to evacuate without permission, and she and Jamie take the grueling slow walked on a club foot to the train station. Ada's never been out: she's never gone this far, never seen trees or toilets. At the small town train station where they disembark, the evacuees are parceled out to willing families and Ada and Jamie, filthy and smelly, are chosen by no one, but the posh lady who's in charge of the evacuation committee takes them in her car (first time) to the house of someone. The evacuation of the children of London, like the orphan train and other institutional child distribution schemes of the near past, depended on children being randomly handed out to anyone willing to take them and the results were thoroughly mixed. Ada and Jamie are brought to the home of Susan Smith, a depressed woman. Becky, who lived with her, died last fall and Susan hasn't done anything since then except sit in a chair and stare at her hands. It's never clear whether Susan and Becky had a Boston marriage or were just super BFFs, but they were at Cambridge together and Susan's grieving and wants no filthy children a bossy rich lady is forcing on her. As the the bossy woman drives away, Susan sighs and looks the children over and takes them upstairs for their first full bath. Ada would resist, but there's a pony in the yard. A pony! She saw a girl ride a pony once and she knows she can ride this one. The tragedy of the children's deprivation is mind-boggling as Susan takes them through the concept of sheets and underwear, to the doctor who can't understand why Ada doesn't have crutches, to illiteracy, to fruit, to "Ada's not allowed outside." She is now, but it takes a while to manage her fear. There's a lot of Ada and Jamie cowering while Susan screams, "I'm not going to hit you! I'm angry, but I'm not going to hit you!" The horse is named Butter and Ada can ride it as much as she likes. She meets the posh lady's daughter, and her stable manager, who teaches Ada proper horse things. Lots of London evacuees go back; their families miss them and their host families make sure they know they're second class children. Then the war gets real. An airfield goes up next door and Jamie knows the pilots and the planes. London's going to be bombed, then it is bombed, the bombs keep coming. German planes crash in the fields. So do British ones. The men go away and Ada helps some afternoons on her crutches at the stable. She's still a nightmare kid. There are no easy, middle class reformations here. Ada spends Christmas Eve screaming until Susan wraps her in a blanket and sits on her because it seems to soothe. Susan's trying to get hold of Ada's mum the whole time, because with her permission, Ada could have an operation on her club foot, but when Ada and Jamie's mother turns up, things get worse. I simply cannot recommend this book highly enough. For all the pain that KBB can bring to a middle grade novel, she makes it work, and it's worth it. But back to a kinder, gentler Britain and a kinder, gentler world, the kind where someone, probably Missie, left Magic Bunny: Chocolate Wishes by Sue Bentley on my hold shelf and I read it while I had the flu because it wasn't as heavy as my other books. Magic Bunny: Chocolate Wishes is a companion to the Magic Puppy, Magic Kitten, and Magic Pony books and turned out to be the third in the Magic Bunny series. Normally, I wouldn't read the third book in a series first off, but I feel confident that I was able to piece together the happenings in Moonglow Meadow from the introduction. Dark rabbits live in the uninhabitable waste next to MM, and they want to overrun MM and steal it from the white rabbits. This all sounds terribly racist, but black rabbits would be even worse. Presumably, we can't just call them evil rabbits, because, at the end of the series, all the rabbits, dark and white, will reconcile and make friends. But, for now, the dark rabbits, want to take over Moonglow Meadow by stealing the white rabbits' magic key. So, naturally, Arrow the magic rabbit with a key around his neck teleports to England where he meets a girl named Dawn who just had her first sad and lonely day at a new school. Like Binny, Dawn had a dog she loved but her parents were hit by the recession and had to move to an apartment complex that banned pets. The dog lives with her aunt now, so that's okay, but Arrow convinces Dawn to sneak him into the apartment and protect him from the dark rabbits. Because that's where a magic bunny with a magic key is safest: in an eight-year-old's bedroom. It's Easter week, and Chocolate Wishes might refer to the one time that Dawn eats a candy egg, but that's never clear. Dawn does some stupid stuff, like sneaking Arrow to her aunt's and into school. Dawn's new desk is next to a girl named Emma who loves awkward practical jokes that make people uncomfortable, and Dawn and Emma's burgeoning friendship is a thing once Emma finds out that Dawn hasn't a secret bunny. Emma has a rabbit, Blackberry, who is well cared for but lives in a shed. As a rabbit alarmist, I didn't like Dawn's keeping Arrow a secret from her parents. Kids could try that, and if the rabbit wasn't discovered immediately, which is likely, things could end extremely badly for the rabbit. Really, rabbits aren't great pets for kids and they hate being held, although reading Magic Bunny would lead you to assume the opposite. Someone in the online rabbit community was just telling the story of a kid who pulled off a rabbit's tail because the rabbit was trying to get away and the kid didn't want it to. Imagine the panic you would need to be in to run away and leave your arm behind: that's where this rabbit was. Magic Bunny does nothing for proper rabbit care, but, as a bland early chapter book it was thoroughly adequate. And, finally, I re-read The Ordinary Princess while I had the flu too, and it was great and wonderful and when I was seven I loved it and I still do.

Next up: Some good and not so good things.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015


 Masculinity and masculinities are a complex topic weaving cultural expectations and perceived modes of behavior by those who have male bodies with questions of presentation and gender norms versus those in human and societal behavior and what better way to approach the study of masculinity than by discussing King Dork by Frank Portman in the framework of multiple masculinities, because a single, culturally codified descriptor of masculinity isn't working out so well for Tom Henderson, who's a Holden Caulfield-esque anti-hero from the '80s in this bildungsroman that inexplicably tries to date itself to 2000 in the end for reasons that might have to do with publishability, but ignore that, it's from the '80s, back when a kid could wear a trench coat, carry around Soldier of Fortune, and talk about guns all the time and nobody would bat an eyelash. Tom echoes Holden's whines about the power structure and phoniness, with the caveat that Tom also whines about Holden because in his world, Catcher in the Rye is perpetually assigned by sensitive English teacher whom Catcher inspired to be teachers of high school English. Tom, thankfully, doesn't talk too much like Holden or the whole book would be a tedious imitation of a stunning original, and King Dork is also more plot-heavy than Catcher, by which I mean that it has a plot, because Tom finds his dead dad's copy of Catcher in a box, and it's marked up with code, and he's also in a band, solving the mystery of his dad's death, receiving inexplicable blow jobs, and being physically attacked by bullies on a weekly basis. When I was at high school, people didn't fellate other people at random, or maybe they did and I didn't know about it; either male/author fantasy takes over the book, or where being in a band WORKS. On the other point, about frequently sustaining sustained physical attacks, I must refer to our next book, Dude, You're a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School by C.J. Pascoe. This is one of the ones Curt was getting rid of it and one of the tiny number of books Curt owns that aren't about Britain, British country houses, architecture, British architecture, other country houses, other regional architecture, art, jewelry, biographies of British royals, biographies of British commoners, books by Curt's sister, books by my mom, and books on historic retail emporiums, the impetus of which is Curt's professional need to respond to Mr. Selfridge on PBS. Curt tried to put Dude, You're a Fag in the laundry room but I snagged it and I'm glad I did. Written in 2007, the only positive about more modern masculinity in high school is that sustained physical attacks are no longer common. Kids are more likely to throw things, or punch once; popular kids can't drag the gender non-normative or otherwise lower ranking into the bathroom and kick the shit out of them anymore. Progress! Excepting that, presentations of masculinity in high school are deeply alarming and tightly controlled. "Dude, you're a fag," and similar comments are repeated endlessly in Ms. Pascoe's impressive year of field research at a California high school. Masculinity is strictly policed by all participants in these social rituals as a set of sexualized dominant behaviors that must be maintained. Every misstep or especially gender deviation is "gay" or "you're a fag." Boys wrestle girls 'til they shriek, harass everyone and Ms. Pascoe, and engage in highly ritualized sexual banter. Ms. Pascoe records one conversation where a boy asks her if she's ever had her "walls ripped," an act these boys often boast of which is also physically impossible. Ms. Pascoe deflects the question and asks the boy how it makes him feel when he's done that, to which he becomes somewhat remorseful for something he can't possibly have done. Boys encourage each other to regard the feminine with comic aberrance. The positioning of male dominance and heteronormativity are reinforced by the teachers and administration through casual statements and ritualized public events like the Mr. Cougar Competition and homecoming. Ms. Pascoe takes time to discuss the out lesbian who was elected homecoming queen based on popularity and force of personality, as well as the "basketball girls" a loud group of hip-hop identified ninth graders who avoid the traditionally feminine appearance and second-tier status of most of the girls in this school by sheer energy and apathy, by which I mean that all they do is run around yell. Ms. Pascoe also gives time to the more self-aware gender-aware girls in the Gay-Straight Alliance, whose overt political stance, in contrast to the homecoming winner and the basketball girls, earns them censure by the administration for stepping outside of gender norms.

Of course, young men who are presented with a single idiom of highly sexualized masculinity grow up, and hopefully learn that man cannot live on a single idiom of highly sexualized masculinity alone. StrengthsBasedLeadership by Tom Rathman subverts the notion of a single leadership model in a thoroughly limp-wristed yet effective way. Basically, the point of SBL is that you are not Abraham Lincoln. Nor are you Sun Tzu, Geronimo, Lee Iacoca, or any other great man of history/business about whom you have read a book encouraging you to emulate. You are you, and you should not try to be Abraham Lincoln, but you should acknowledge your own strengths and build a team of others with a diversity of strengths, which is what Abraham Lincoln did, but you're still not Abraham Lincoln. That's the main point, but how to fill the other two hundred pages? Actually, the salient point of the Strengths franchise is not the book but the internet personality quiz at the end of the book. The book itself is just padding. Nicole wouldn't let me buy one of my other textbooks because she said it was too dumb to own and she tried to prevent me from purchasing SBL,but I explained that I needed to deflower the book of its unique internet quiz access code and must therefore own it. The test itself is meh. It presents you with paired statements like, "I like to give thoughtful gifts./ I buy everyone soap and gift cards," and you choose which statement reflects you and how strongly you agree with each statement. But then you have statements like, "I am thrifty./ I am generous." Whaaat? I'm obnoxiously thrifty but I give people my damn blood. Those are not contradictory. "I love my family./ I like to learn new things." Eh? "I am outgoing./ I eat puppies." Help. My strengths are Input, Intuition, Adaptability, Strategic, and, and Learner. The first thing you'll notice about my strengths is that only some of them are adjectives, which reflects SBL's reading level. The explanation for my strength of Intuition defined "assuage" and "glean" for me. Those aren't big words. I hope I'm not too smart to earn an MBA because I would like to earn more than these low assuages I earn in the retail sector. What? The paragraphs in SBL had gaps between them. Books for first graders don't leave gaps between the paragraphs. But it does make SBL look proper book length, when the reading bit is a paltry 100 pages that's mostly the biographies of four questionable executives who were willing to talk to the authors. Secondly, my strengths mean I'm bookish. That's the personality quiz equivalent of telling me that I have brown hair. The best part of the book are the paragraphs explaining how to leverage your strengths and that I am a palm tree; basically, people will come to me for information because I gather it. So, strengths found, expectations of a single masculinity destroyed, we continue on our journey to that ultimate beacon of healthy masculinity, His Grace, His Excellency, The Duke of Ankh; His Excellency Sir Samuel Vimes. This is another Discworld book, from later in the series than where I think I am, although it directly precedes Monstrous Regiment. Pratchett is fantastic, a bit over 400 pages but no senseless riffing, just a lot of long, thoughtful, persuasive passages about the nature of justice. And it works. Samuel Vimes is catapulted back in time thirty years from the anniversary of the Glorious Revolution of the 25th of May in a major temporal shattering, along with a serial killer. Picked up after curfew, Vimes is jailed for the night and convinces the Night Watch commander that he is John Keel, the newly arrived policeman from Pseudopolis who taught young Sam Vimes character and is now dead because of the serial killer. Young Sam is what Sir Samuel doesn't remember of a wet behind the ears little twerp who joined up for the pay and the meals and he idolizes John Keel. Vimes must play Keel's part through the days of spring when Ankh-Morpork rises up to throw off the shackles of a mad patrician and a secret police that's now hired the serial killer. The important thing, though, is that honor and justice make better men of us all.

Next up: Girl books.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Merry Days of Childhood and Others

My poor sad readers. My sympathies to all of you and the loss that you must have felt, because I read Abbie Farwell Brown's The Christmas Angel and forgot to review it in my last blog. How did none of you clamor to ask me my thoughts and opinions on this middling tale of holiday orphans? Maybe you knew already. Maybe you already read The Christmas Angel and you sadly shake your head and wonder what kind of a derisive, vulgar old maid I will turn out to be every time I utter a "fiddlesticks." That's Miss Terry's swear word. 

 Miss Terry is spending Christmas evening sorting through a box of the quaint old toys that she and her brother used to play with when they were children, and when I say sorting, I mean burning them in the fireplace. Burning her childhood memories becomes tedious and Miss Terry devises an experiment: She will put each toy on the sidewalk and watch what happens to it. She appears to be in New York circa 1910 so there's ample foot traffic: "... a good many people passing, but they seemed too preoccupied to glance down at the sidewalk. They were nearly all hurrying in one direction. Some were running in the middle of the street. 'They are in a great hurry,' sniffed Miss Terry disdainfully. 'One would think they had something really important on hand. I suppose they are going to hear the singing. Fiddlestick!'"

Miss Terry is, of course, hiding behind the curtains waiting for someone to notice her Jack-in-the-box. Finally, two Jewish boys pick it up and beginning brawling for the owning of it. Miss Terry, thoroughly disgusted with humanity, sets out a manky Noah's ark. It's soon spotted by a poor mother with two ragged children they make to grab it, but a rich woman in a fur coat swoops it up and won't let the poor family have it. A Canton flannel dog, the Flanton dog, is seized by a child who is so excited he runs into the road and gets hit by a car, and Miss Terry's old doll is picked up by a little girl who perceives it's accidentally been left on the doorstep by its owner and that she, the little girl is stealing it. She steals it anyway. Miss Terry, her suspicions confirmed, makes to burn the Christmas angel that used to sit atop the Christmas tree when she and Tom were little. She and Tom don't talk anymore because he was a Christmas jerk once upon a time but he wrote her a letter last week... She sets the angel on the mantelpiece and everything goes wuzzy. In a Dickensian way, the Christmas angel speaks to her and shows her what has happened to all her toys. The Jewish boys fought over Jack because they both wanted the honor of presenting it to a little invalid child; the rich woman's child died recently and she had a temporary fit of hating all surviving children but repented and gave the poor family a Christmas dinner; the car accident had the double effect of humanizing the driver and helping the poor child and his mother financially; and the little girl wrestled with her conscience and decided to bring her found doll back to its own little girl, Miss Angelina Terry, as the tag on its neck said, the very next day. Her parents were dead, you see, so she had nothing nice of her own and wanted a doll so badly, although this wasn't hers to keep.

"'Will she bring it back?' asked Miss Terry eagerly, when once more she found herself under the gaze of the Christmas Angel. He nodded brightly.

'To-morrow morning you will see," he said. "It will prove that all I have shown you is really true.'"

In anticipation, Miss Terry orders a fine Christmas dinner, reconciles with Tom, adopts the girl, and never says "fiddlestick" again. There's nothing like a sweet Christmas story with orphans as presents. Reading stories like this, you can see where the modern "orphan crisis" myth has its origins. Pity, by 1910 advances in public health, a consistent policy of keeping bastard babies with their mothers, and rising wages already had cut the number of darling orphans wandering the streets, although Charles Loring Brace's orphan train continued running 'til 1929 in the last decades he was mostly shipping babies. Aside from fantastical elements, A Christmas Angel is sweet and could be read at Christmas next year.

On another topic entirely, 1916 and All That isn't entirely all that. "A history from back then until right now," by C.M. Boylan, it fits right on the bookshelf between other tomes of historical parody like 1066 and All That and America: The Book, but 1916 isn't all that funny, not even the parts about the potato famine.

Two books that also aren't worth mentioning at great length are The Story of My Childhood by Clara Barton and Memories of Childhood's Slavery Days by Annie L. Burton. I listened to these both on Librivox while I was doing Christmas iStore. Ms. Barton wrote her memoirs of childhood as an elderly woman after schoolchildren wrote to her persistently asking her about her younger days. Mrs. Burton wrote her memoirs while attending a night school in Boston. Ms. Barton's stories are all about growing up as the oops child of a prosperous New England farm family and being taught everything by four siblings who were already teenage schoolteachers. Mrs. Burton had worse origins, obviously. She still had time to roughhouse in the woods and poke at interesting things with sticks, but she didn't have any food. All the slaves left the plantation during the Civil War, including Mrs. Burton's mother, who went to set up a better life for her children, and Mrs. Burton and her siblings remained in the big house for a year until her mother came back for them. Ms. Barton attended the Civil War and says she would rather face the cannons at Antietam again than speak at public meeting. Mrs. Burton tells about the first night in her mother's cabin with a small hoe cake to divide between mother, a brother and a sister, and some other children, when a white woman and her children knocked cautiously at the door and asked if they could stay the night, because they are displaced by the war. Mother shares the hoe cake and young Annie is happy when they go so she won't have to share her food again. Meanwhile, Clara Barton's friend's horse runs away. Mrs. Burton grows up and moves north, works a series of jobs, and opens a couple restaurants. There's not a lot of childhood or slavery here and the books falls to a litany of employers. Ms. Barton's keeps the anecdotes coming. Being forbidden to ice skate, fever, crippling shyness. In the end, one of the leading lights of American phrenology stays at her parents' house while he's on the New England lecture circuit and he tells Mrs. Baron, "Clara will never stick up for herself, but she'll stick up for other people. Get her a school." So Ms. Barton is quickly trained up as a school teacher and rousingly successful at it. Founding the Red Cross isn't mentioned at all. Both books are worth the two hours it takes to listen to each of them.

I'm still floundering about in the beginning of Discworld and I finally got to Interesting Times which is fabbity fab fab fab. It's one of the ones with the wizards and I haven't gotten into those so much. It's the sequel to Sourcery, which I haven't read. In this one, Rincewind is requested on the Counterweight Continent (which bears a striking resemblance to Asia) and becomes unwillingly embroiled in a Red revolution. The title comes from a local curse, "May you live in interesting times."

Next up: matriculating men and multiple meanings of masculinity.