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.