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.

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