Sunday, 14 August 2016

Some False and Broken Notes

The 1929 Newbery Medal Award Winner, The Trumpeter of Krakow, by Eric P. Kelly, which (as you would expect from the title) is set in Kraków, is based upon a centuries-old Kraków tradition, and an accompanying legend. In Kraków, beginning at the stroke of each hour, a trumpeter plays a 5-note tune called the Hejnal (you can hear it here) out of each of the four windows of the tallest tower in St-Mary's Church tower. It's also traditional to end the Hejnal on a broken note. Kelly claims in the prologue to his novel that this tradition was created after a 1241 invasion of Kraków, during which the trumpeter faithfully stayed at his post to play the Hejnal but was shot through by an arrow before he could finish. It's a colourful story, but there isn't any real evidence that it's true. Kelly's version of this legend was the first to be written down. According to Wikipedia, there is an 1861 account of invading Tatars and a sentry who sounded the alarm, but this account does not mention the sentry's death. One trumpeter is known to have died while on duty and the broken note tradition may have originally been a tribute to him, but that was in 1901 and the trumpeter died of natural causes. It's unclear whether Kelly was misinformed (at the time of writing The Trumpeter of Krakow he did not yet speak Polish well), whether he combined or confused the two stories, or whether he was simply the first to record an actual legend.

All this aside, The Trumpeter of Krakow, set in 1461, is the story of a young trumpeter, Joseph Charnetski, who used the Hejnal to sound another alarm. It isn't a bad story. It has a decent plot, seems to be reasonably well-researched as to its period detail, and is a rather entertaining adventure story about a family sworn to protect the (fictional) Great Tarnov Crystal, and the villain and the alchemist who are determined to get their hands on it. It also has a certain frustrating woodenness to its characters and dialogue that keep it from being an excellent book. The characters are sketched in a few simplistic lines, especially in the case of the female characters. Joseph's father is honourable and brave, his mother is pious and gentle (and isn't even given a name of her own), and Joseph is a less-self-assured version of his father. Elzbietka, a young friend of Joseph, is kind and in need of a mother. Joseph's mother obliging steps up for this role and the two of them rush improbably into each others' arms the minute they meet. I will give Kelly some credit for having given Elzbietka a part to play in the story's action and for also having her question why, if learning Latin (as Joseph does) is such an excellent thing, it is not for women as well as men.

Kelly also used his characters' looks to define their personalities in a way that was common in fiction until mid-twentieth century or so -- one often reads about a "noble" or "refined" features in old novels. The Charnetskis are described as having honest or pleasant faces, and this is how Kelly describes Peter, the book's villain:

It was the face, however, that betrayed the soul beneath. It was a dark, oval, wicked face--the eyes were greenish and narrow and the eyebrow line above them ran straight across the bridge of the nose, giving the effect of a monkey rather than a man. One cheek was marked with a buttonlike scar, the scar of the button plague that is so common in the lands east of the Volga, or even the Dnieper, and marks the bearer as a Tartar or a Cossack or a Mongal. The ears were low set and ugly. The mouth looked like a slit that the boys make in the pumpkins they carry on the eve of the Allhallows. Above the mouth was a cropped mustache which hung down at the ends and straggled into a scanty beard.

Subtle, huh? Using one's character's appearance as barometer to their level of refinement or morality is a literary trope that may have had its origin in the pseudoscience of phrenology, and that, thankfully, has fallen out of fashion now. It's a nonsensical notion, and there's surely enough lookism in the world without our having to go to the extent of considering anyone's looks indicative of goodness or evilness.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Lindy West and Radical Goodness

I first became aware of Lindy West via Twitter several years back because my friends would often retweet some of her bon mots. I followed her myself after checking out her page, and the finesse burns West serves to the idiots who troll her made me reconsider my own online policy of not bothering to engage with anyone who didn't seem worth talking to. Then I began to read the columns she writes for The Guardian, and I admired her grasp of social issues and the way she consistently looks beyond individual bad behaviour and into the possible causes and solutions of the larger cultural problems they symptomize. In her September 2015 "The 'Dear Fat People' video is tired, cruel and lazy – but I still fight for the woman who made it" piece, she told the "Dear Fat People" YouTuber, "I fight for you in your capacity as a complex, fully formed human being with the right to autonomy over your body, even if that body gets fat." In "Now Roosh V and his band of sad men in dark rooms know how it feels to be bombarded with bile", a February 2016 piece written after Roosh V, a self-styled "pickup artist" who posts photos of himself standing by expensive cars and brandishing fistfuls of cash, and who with the help of his online minions has been doxxing and harassing women (including Lindy West) for years, was himself doxxed by the internet vigilante group Anonymous and revealed to be living in his mother's basement by the Daily Mail, West wrote that she took little pleasure in the blowback Roosh was facing, because "I want actual change, not whack-a-mole with a grandiose troll." She's a better person than I am by far. My reaction to Roosh V's outing was more along the lines of a tweet I saw that said, "I want to fly around the world and systematically arrange floodlights so 'ROOSH LIVES IN HIS MOM'S BASEMENT LOL' is visible from space," and any Guardian essay I'd have written on the topic would have mentioned that the photos of Roosh at his mother's door show him in a sweat-stained t-shirt.

When I saw West's tweets about her forthcoming first book, Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman, I was quick to put a library hold on it, and very eager to read it. I thought there was a good chance it would be one of those consciousness-expanding reads that permanently changed the way I saw the world. It wasn't, but then few books are, and then too as a feminist who is fairly well-informed about most of the issues West writes about, I am among the converted rather than among those for whom her perspective would be new or challenging. For me, reading Shrill was much less a revolutionary reading experience than one of deep recognition.

In a book that's half memoir and half polemic, West writes about growing up in a society that indicated in so many cruel ways that she should not be taking up space or expect to be a success or to be loved or even treated with basic respect because she was "a secondary being whose worth is measured by an arbitrary, impossible standard, administered by men", and about her journey towards confidence, towards not only owning the space she occupies but enlarging her sphere until she became a force for helping others reclaim theirs. It's a journey I recognize because it's so similar to the one I've made myself. The abuse I experienced growing up destroyed the sense of self-worth I needed to combat it, to protect myself from further bad treatment at the hands of others, and even to live my life with any real enjoyment, and I was a long time acquiring a sort of hothouse confidence and learning how to fight the instinctive reaction that if someone treated me like shit, it must be because I am shit. As I read Shrill I kept thinking of a minor but telling incident from when I was 21. One summer day I got on a TTC bus and sat down near a couple of boys in their late teens. One of them said, "What about...?" and inclined his head towards me. The other made a disgusted face and snorted, "No!" I'm 42 now, and if something like that happened to me these days, I'd tell the boys that if they don't learn to treat women with more respect, they are going to be virgins until they die, and then move to another seat, but at 21 I had no defenses against that kind of garbage, and I just sat where I was and felt terrible.

West writes about growing up fat in a world where being fat is considered "not only as aesthetically objectionable, but also as a moral failing", about the painful shyness it created in her, about the lack of media representation for fat girls (she provides a scraped-from-the bottom-of-the-barrel list that includes Miss Piggy and Lady Cluck from Disney's Robin Hood), about how she stopped doing ordinary things like going swimming or hiking with her friends, about being so revolted by her own menstruation cycle that she could never bear to tell her mother she was running out of tampons, about the men who wanted to have sex with her but didn't want to be seen in public with her. Then she writes about becoming a woman who decided that, screw it, she was valuable and that she was damn well going to not only wear crop tops and bathing suits but also write and publish a piece about being fat illustrated with a full-length picture of herself and call out not only the guy next to her on a plane trip for being a dick but also her boss (who was, by the way, Dan Savage) for the "obesity epidemic" pieces he was publishing. It's glorious and inspiring, and I love the fact that what proved to be West's salvation, and her prescription for anyone who's uncomfortable with their own or anyone else's fatness, is so simple and down-to-earth: look at pictures of fat people online until you get over it.

But it wasn't as though West's acquired confidence broke down all barriers and made her bulletproof. Her chapter on what it's like to fly when you don't fit into the airplane seats made me first want to shed a few tears for her and then force every airline executive in the world to read it. She continues to face obstacles and to receive bad treatment from others, she writes about it all and about the systemic misogyny it stems from... and then she faces a barrage of online and offline harassment for it. But she pushes back against that too and she's had the satisfaction of seeing a resulting change not only in some of the individuals she interacted with but also in the larger cultural milieu. Dan Savage changed the way he wrote about fat people. One of her most abusive trolls (he set up sock puppet Twitter account for West's father, who had very recently died) actually backed down and apologized to her after reading an essay she had written about how his specific behaviour made her feel, and he didn't stop with only an apology, but also changed his own life. Twitter's CEO told his employees that they needed to get serious about preventing abuse on their platform. Some of the comics she's criticized for misogyny have started to rethink the kind of rape jokes they make.

Shrill isn't a landmark book, but it is a very worthwhile one that should be read and discussed, as the documented lived experiences of all marginalized people should be. We'll never improve this society of ours until we start really listening to those who are most affected by its failings. The man who is now West's husband told her that during their first moments of real connection, "I started to realize that you weren't just funny--I'd always thought you were funny--but that you might be a really, really radically good person." He was absolutely right, and I can't be thankful enough that Lindy West's particular kind of radical goodness, with its unflinching honesty, compassion and respect for humanity, will be shining a light on and before us all for many years to come.

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Riding Along with CJ

The 2016 Newbery Medal Winner, Last Stop on Market Street, written by Matt de la Peña and illustrated by Christian Robinson, is an atypical pick for the Newbery committee, which usually goes with a full-length novel rather than a storybook intended for very young readers. (This in turn might just mean that my corresponding review is also shorter than usual.) However, the Newbery committee wasn't alone in recognizing the book's merit, as Last Stop on Market Street was also a 2016 Caldecott Honor Book, a 2016 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book, a New York Times Book Review Notable Children's Book of 2015, and a Wall Street Journal Best Children's Book of 2015. If it had any more award stickers on its cover one wouldn't be able to see the illustration.

Last Stop on Market Street is a simple tale of a little boy named CJ who boards the bus with his nana on a Sunday afternoon to go downtown and work a shift at the local soup kitchen, and more generally, is a book about living in the moment and connecting with others as opposed to comparing oneself to others and envying them. CJ looks enviously at his friends who drive away from church in a car and who don't have to go to the soup kitchen on Sunday afternoons, and his grandmother, who is awesome, gently redirects him towards finding value in his own Sunday afternoon experience. The text is very evocative and sensory as CJ sees and feels and hears everything about him: the rain, the diversity of the other passengers, the music made by one of the passengers on the bus. The illustrations are vivid and appealing with some fun details for children to discover on their own while they are being read to. I especially loved that CJ's nana, in her white bob, black dress, and green bead necklace and earrings, is a stylish-looking individual rather than a more clichéd frumpy grandmotherly type.

I must agree with those who chose to honour and award this book that it's a book worthy of praise, as it is delightful in both its appearance and content, so much so that I might just have to buy my three-year-old grandnephew a copy for Christmas.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Virtue Unrewarded

Since I don't think I need to worrying about spoiling a novel that is nearly 300 years old, let me start off with a synopsis of Samuel Richardson's Pamela. Pamela is a beautiful 15-year-old lady's maid whose employer dies, leaving her in the employ and at the mercy of the departed lady's lecherous son, Mr. B. He begins a campaign of trying to get her into his bed, and when she resists and insists on being sent home to her parents, he pretends to agree but actually directs his coachman to transport her to another estate of his, where she is held prisoner, her extra clothes and all her money and even her shoes are withheld from her, and her letters to her parents and other sympathizers are intercepted. Her employer makes an appearance at this second estate and slips into bed with her disguised as another maid, and later threatens to strip her naked in an effort to find the letters and journal she has written and hidden away from him. All this occurs in the text that comprised the original first volume of the book. In the second volume (for the writing of which Richardson seems to have changed dominant hands), Mr. B. discovers by reading Pamela's papers that he has made Pamela so miserable that she has considered suicide as a means of escape, at which point he turns an unexpected right-about-face. He relents, returns Pamela's belongings, allows her to choose between going home to her parents or back to his other estate, and proposes marriage. Pamela equally inexplicably decides that she's in love with Mr. B. and accepts his proposal. They marry and are happy, though Mr. B.'s change of spots is clearly only skin-deep (among his many rules for Pamela: she must not approach him unsent for when he is angry, or be "twice bidden" to do something), and he blithely introduces her to his previously unmentioned illegitimate daughter.

Through the course of Mr. B's pursuit and persecution of her, Pamela repeatedly prides herself on her virtue and her honesty. She will not sleep with a man who is not her husband, regardless of what inducements he offers her or hardships he inflicts upon her. Her determination to protect herself from the the very real possible eighteenth-century-style consequences of pre-marital sex, and the considerable courage and ingenuity she demonstrates when trying to escape the clutches of Mr. B., are very admirable. But then she sold herself puzzlingly short. It was her right to refuse to have sex before marriage if that was what she wanted, but she seems never to have considered that rather than simply holding out for an offer of marriage, she should have held out for an offer of marriage from a man worth marrying, as marriage to a terrible husband can be every bit as miserable in its own way as being abandoned, penniless, unemployable, shunned by all "decent" people, and with a child to support. This was the eighteenth century, and the sexual double standard that lingers on today, even in mainstream secular society, was received wisdom then. But it's a double standard that is about much more than only sex. It still seems strange to me, even for the time, that a young woman who cared so much about her own honesty and virtue did not insist that the man she married should also have those qualities, that a young girl who was so insistent on having sex on her own terms while single was unconditionally willing to submit to such overbearing behaviour from her husband. We don't see this kind of thing even in Richardson's novel Clarissa, in which Clarissa Harlowe steadfastly refuses Robert Lovelace, who similarly abducts her, because she is not satisfied with his character, public opinion or her future matrimonial chances be damned.

Depressingly, we haven't made all that much progress in leveling the sexual politics playing field since 1740, when Pamela was published. Yes, in secular Western society it is now uncommon for women to be considered dishonest or unmarriageable because they've had premarital sex. But even leaving aside fundamentalist religious cultures in which abstinence is expected of only the females, and of such extreme consequences for non-compliance as what are indecently designated "honour killings", even in this best case scenario of a secular, liberal society, there is still a pernicious myth that women bear a disproportionate share of responsibility for making their relationships work, that if they play their cards right they'll get their reward: a healthy, happy, lasting relationship. As I read Pamela's reiteration of the 48(!!!) rules her husband had set for her, and her anxious annotations as to how she could best adhere to them, I was painfully reminded of my own and my friends' Herculean attempts to make our relationships with men work out... and of how the men in question sat back and refused to change a thing about their treatment of us, or made at most, and very grudgingly, a few tiny concessions. As a close friend of mine said to me, "In bad relationships, you're staying more for the fantasy of what the relationship could be than for its actual potential." And that's what Pamela is -- a fantasy. No man who would abduct a woman and hold her captive would ever make a good husband, and no woman can change an abusive, controlling asshole into a kind, respectful man. Yet so many of us keep rowing the boat of our relationships all by ourselves, hoping that one day, if we try hard enough for long enough, our partners will get it and start doing their share of the rowing. I've never seen that work -- we inevitably end up going in circles, and exhausting ourselves -- and I don't buy that it worked in Pamela.

That's not to say that Pamela doesn't have its fine qualities. It was progressive for its time, because it was the first important English-language novel to feature a heroine who worked for her living. Pamela's rightful insistence on her chastity would have also been a much-needed goosing of classist sexual mores of the time, which regarded working class women as sexually available and disposable. The novel is unsparing in its censure of those who do not dare help Pamela because they don't feel they can afford to offend such a wealthy and powerful man, and to those who unquestioningly aid Mr. B. in his efforts to bend Pamela to his will. Richardson's erudite prose is a pleasure to read. And the book is compulsively readable and suspenseful. I enjoyed the first half of Pamela, rending as it was to read about Pamela's growing privations and distress, and looked forward to the reward Pamela was promised in the subtitle. I just wish such an intelligent and strong-willed heroine had gotten the reward she truly deserved: the freedom to live her life on her own terms without having to turn herself inside out to please a man, regardless of whether she was married or single.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

The Neverending Pigeon Story

A Good Reads review written by Good Reads member Phil Jern says of Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon, by Dhan Gopal Mukerji, the Newbery Medal winner for 1928, "This book is a milestone in anyone's life as a reader. Before it, you are one of a multitude. After it, you are one of a select few who have heard about it, sought it out, picked it up, and persisted with it well past the point of enjoyment." This seems harsh. Unfortunately, I cannot disagree with a word of it.

Gay-Neck, like 1927's Newbery Medal winner Smoky the Cowhorse, is the story of a life of an animal told by a writer who clearly has a great love of and significant experience with the species, and again as in the case of Smoky the Cowhorse, the resulting book manages to be very dull anyway. Gay-Neck is at least mercifully free from the ugly racism and folksy affectations of Smoky the Cowhorse, though the titular name of its main character hasn't dated as well. The story's narrator is a young boy who raised Gay-Neck in pre-World War I Calcutta (now Kolkata). There are a few sections of the book in which Gay-Neck speaks for himself, but Gay-Neck's narrative "voice" reads as identical to that of the main narrator, which is not only confusing but a missed opportunity for adding to the literary quality and reader's enjoyment of the book. Anthropomorphized animal or object "voices" can be a lot of fun when properly done. (I have fond memories of an email correspondence that occurred between the problem mice in my house and a friend of mine years ago before I adopted my cat. The first email had the subject line "send cheees now" and in it the mice claimed to have "trapped the murderus human in her own trap ha ha ha send cheees now we like bree".)

Gay-Neck's story is based upon Mukerkji's own boyhood experiences, as he also grew up in India and kept pigeons. We learn next to nothing about the boy -- not even his name! -- or the Calcutta of the time, which seems a waste. There are tantalizing glimpses of India and its culture in the book's descriptions of Mount Everest and the jungle and some fragments of Buddhist thought, but in general the story's narrator is too busy telling us about the care and feeding of pigeons and advising us on how often to clean pigeon's nests to develop much of a setting for his story, much less any of the other qualities that make for good fiction. There's no character development and not much of a narrative arc, and the prose is flatly observational.

Then Gay-Neck serves as a messenger pigeon in World War I, and whatever the story gains in narrative interest during the war chapters it loses in authenticity, as Mukerji never trained pigeons for war service much less witnessed their use for such a purpose. He claims that the nictitating membrane or "third eye" that pigeons protected Gay-Neck from the effects of mustard gas. Pigeons did prove resistant to all but the most poisonous gases, but they were fitted with masks and provided with pigeon lofts especially designed to protect messenger pigeons from poisonous gas, and there's no mention of this in the battlefront scenes in Gay-Neck. I'm also skeptical that the narrator, who spends the book repeatedly losing and rediscovering his precious pigeon, not only gets Gay-Neck back after the war but also helps him make what must be the world's fastest-ever recovery from PTSD with some Buddhist monk magic, but at that point I was too relieved to have reached the end of the book to care very much.

After making most of my way through the Newbery Medal winners of the 1920s, I sometimes wonder if the librarians who were the Newbery committee members of the period actually secretly hated children.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Being Hitty

Years ago when the movie The Red Violin came out, I read a review of it in which the reviewer complained that an inanimate object doesn't inspire much interest or emotional investment. When, much later, I saw the movie, I disagreed. Following the titular red violin through four century chain of custody was very interesting and involving. But then I'm the sort of person who not only likes old things and is careful to preserve them but also sometimes wonders what their history has been and where they might end up. I'm the happy owner of a number of pieces of furniture that I found on someone's curb, brought home, and repaired and repainted/reupholstered/refinished. Where have these pieces been and what would their former owners say if they could see them now? ("Kick themselves for throwing them out," my friends assure me.) What would my great-grandmother have said if she could have foreseen when she bought her set of kitchen chairs circa 1900 that they would be sitting in her single, childless, and yoga-panted great-granddaughter's dining room in 2016? My guess is that Great Grandma would have found other aspects of my life circumstances more startling (starting with the yoga pants), but those chairs are as good a common thread as any if one were to craft a jointed narrative about the two of us.

This is all to say that though the Newbery winner for 1930, Rachel Field's Hitty: Her First Hundred Years, which is the story of a little wooden doll's first century of existence, has a number of online reader reviews which criticize it for being boring, I liked it. Hitty, a little doll carved from mountain ash in early nineteenth-century Maine, relates her adventures to us from her home in an antique shop in the late twenties. She had much more interesting experiences than my dining room chairs have probably had, in no small part because she's portable and lends herself much more easily to anthropomorphism. Hitty is, as one might expect of a doll of her early Victorian origin and many years of fraught existence, a prim and pragmatic character, though she isn't without her share of vanity as well as a liking for finery. Her tale begins with her travels in the care of the little daughter of a sea captain. After a shipwreck, she experiences life as "god to a tribe of savages" on an unnamed south sea island, and after being lost in India, as the tool of a an Indian snake charmer. Then she passes through the lives of missionaries, Philadelphia Quakers, a fashionable, wealthy New York family, and a poor, overworked, and tenement-dwelling New York family. She attends a Patti concert, has her daguerreotype taken, meets John Greenleaf Whittier and becomes the subject of one of his poems, and later meets Charles Dickens, though Dickens, less inspired by the sight of her plain, serene face, merely picks Hitty up off the floor where she has fallen and hands her back to her young custodian. Hitty becomes a prop for an artist who painted children's portraits, is dressed in an exquisite lace bridal gown and displayed in an Exposition, lives with a sharecropping family, and finally suffers the indignity of being traded for a painted soap dish and made into a pincushion before she ultimately achieves the status of an antique and passes into the hands of doll collectors and antique dealers. There are also times when the Hitty spends an undefined number of years abandoned in, respectively, an attic, a hayloft, and a dead letter office. I'm inclined to think the author used these intervals to keep the book a publishable length.

Besides The Red Violin, this book reminded me of another episodic movie called Being Human, in which Robin Williams plays a recurring character named Hector who appears in a variety of historical scenarios ranging from Roman times to the present day, and in each vignette he strives to survive, to protect and care for those he loves -- and to find shoes that fit. This book has a similar style and themes, and it isn't at all a bad way for a child to learn about the history of American childhood. The book presents us with such a wide variety of family dynamics, material circumstances, and child training philosophies, all playing out over a long time period, and a certain universality of childhood experience ties it all together. Every little girl who called Hitty hers chafes against the parental restrictions and material circumstances of her life, something all children can relate to. I even found something a little subversive in the fact that Hitty has some of her most interesting adventures because her current young mistress her did something she wasn't supposed to do. Don't those stolen moments of freedom often become some of the most important and enjoyable of an adult's childhood memories?

As is to be expected from a book over eighty years old, there are aspects of the book that have not dated well. I can only hope that Hitty learns less offensive ways of describing people who were other than American and white in her second century (the sharecropping family's dialogue was especially horrendous, all "gwines" and "dats"), and her classist attitude towards the poorer families she lives in is also quite problematic. Hitty spends considerably more verbiage detailing her life among the wealthy than the poor, and seems to regard life among the white and the at least comfortably well off as being her proper place in life and the only sphere in which she can be contented, while life among other kinds of people is merely a mishap to be passed over as quickly as possible. The little girls who own her are also described and assessed in terms of typically Victorian feminine virtues: their gentleness and good temper (or otherwise), and their sewing ability and industry. But then, again, this book only covers Hitty's first century. Perhaps someone will write a sequel covering Hitty's next one hundred years in which she belongs to a diverse selection of children -- boys and girls -- who are more fully realized, and in which Hitty wears stylish flapper outfits, the New Look, poodle skirts, groovy paisleys, dresses for success, grunge, etc.