Schools are still the same

4bc9a4_0ba01e58528049a4b0ab240adb477344Hundred Percent, Karen Romano Young (2016)

Authors have gotten a lot of mileage out of the terrible years of schooling that kids must endure before adulthood swamps them with real life. Karen Roman Young adds to the stack with this novel of a girl’s 6th grade year in a Connecticut school. Tink (aka Chris aka Christina aka Hundred Percent) spends the year caroming from one slight to the next: a couple of boys bark at her from a passing car, her best friend goes to in-crowd parties without her, her first crush doesn’t know she’s alive. On top of everything, she’s the tallest girl in her class, and she thinks she isn’t “cute”.

Young drops us into nine extended moments in Tink’s school year, running from September through May. We watch Tink struggle to figure out who she is before she heads to a new school for 7th grade (thus those various aliases). Incidents are funny or heartbreaking — who hasn’t made a fool of themselves in front of a class, or suffered a lonely moment of humiliation in a school hallway? You can’t help rooting for Tink, hoping she’ll find the self-assurance she needs so that she can be herself — clever, funny, loyal, insightful, tall.

In all aspects but two, Hundred Percent realistically portrays the concerns, language, interests and whirlwind relationships of tweens, thus appealing to the book’s intended audience (readers ages 10 and up).

Those areas of unrealism? First, Tink calls her best friend, Jackie, almost daily, but it’s on the landline phone! Is there really a city or town where this cohort doesn’t even yearn for electronic connections? Tink and Jackie get iPod Nanos for their 12th birthday, so we know the setting is modern. So — where are the cell phones? Not a mention or passing reference even hints at their existence.

And second, I see little here that would appeal to young male readers. There are a couple of key male characters, but not central enough to draw in the boys.

Those minor complaints aside, I’d recommend this book for girls, including strong readers who are younger than 10.

Full disclosure: I’m reviewing a free Advance Reader’s Copy (uncorrected proof), provided by Library Thing.

Posted in Humorous, Review, School setting, YA Lit | Leave a comment

Unexpected endings

rest-in-pieces-9781451655001_hrRest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Bess Lovejoy (2013)

Lovejoy gives us a list like no other: what happened to the mortal remains (bones, ashes, or otherwise) of historical figures, from Alexander the Great to Hunter S. Thompson. In brief chapters, we get the dirty details of grave robbing, mutilated bodies, missing bits, ambulatory urns, and unmarked graves.

Here’s a sampling: After his beheading in 1535, Thomas More’s body was destroyed but his head was set on a pike on London Bridge as an object lesson to anyone reluctant to side with Henry VIII. More’s daughter, Meg, was conveniently in a boat below the bridge when her father’s head was tossed into the Thames. She caught it in her lap and held on to it even in her own afterlife —  she was evidently buried with it in her arms.

There was a plot to steal Abraham Lincoln’s body and hold it for ransom. Mozart’s grave is unmarked, but a skull that might be his sits in an Austrian museum. Voltaire, Eva Perón, and John Barrymore moved about quite a bit after their deaths — sometimes as part of elaborate jokes (find out how Groucho Marx was actually caught dead in Burbank, California). Elvis’s burial site, in Memphis, Tennessee, could be the locus of a “full-blown religion”.

Lovejoy’s well-researched book (which includes an extensive bibliography for anyone needing even more gruesome details) features mostly white men. As Lovejoy notes,

The corpses of women and people of color have also suffered many misadventures, but because most of their owners weren’t famous, they often didn’t fit the framework of this book — not that this is a project anyone would clamor to be included in.

Perspective. It’s what we all need a good dose of from time to time.

Posted in Biography, History, Macabre | Tagged | 2 Comments

History for the curious

imgresFrances and Joseph Gies, Women in the Middle Ages (1978)

A brief review here.

Gies and Gies, famous for their intelligent books on Medieval Europe, provide a guide to the lives of women from the fall of the Western Roman Empire to the Renaissance. The black-and-white illustrations come from codices and manuscripts in libraries in Germany, England, France, Italy, and the US — many now available online in color.

Heidelberger Universitatsbibliothek, Manesse Codex, f. 395r

Lovers go for a walk in the woods, Heidelberger Universitatsbibliothek, Manesse Codex, f. 395r

After busting a few myths in a brief introduction to general principles (e.g., Eve vs. Mary, Feudalism), the Gies focus on individuals: an abbess, a queen, a peasant, a merchantman’s wife, etc. We learn about marriage and family, inheritance, literacy and education, travel, work and play across all classes, all set within a millennium that saw a remarkable technological shift:

Medieval innovations revolutionized industry, architecture, agriculture, and intellectual life, while alleviating and enhancing daily living with the spinning wheel, water mill, windmill, wheelbarrow, crank, cam, flywheel, lateen sail, rudder, compass, stirrup, gunpowder, padded horse collar, nailed horseshoe, three-field system, Gothic engineering, distillation, universities, rhymed verse, Hindu-Arabic numbers, the modern theater, movable type, and the printing press.

Woman carding wool, British Library, MS Royal 10 E VI, f. 138

Woman carding wool, British Library, MS Royal 10 E VI, f. 138

Set next to recent technological advances, all this in 1000 years may seem like change at a glacial pace. Yet the impact of each invention or adoption was felt within single generations, and I can imagine the people feeling as if they were riding a wild horse.

The Gies make the point that “only in the peasant and artisan classes, where toil was demanded of all, did the [women] … share work and responsibility with husbands and brothers on a nearly equal basis.” Small recompense for short life spans and unending labor, but the point here is that only the wealthy could afford to “put women on a pedestal”, thereby diminishing their roles in daily life.

Posted in History | 2 Comments

Proust drops in at 44 Scotland Street

series_44scotlandAlexander McCall Smith, 44 Scotland Street series (2005 – no end in sight)

If you like your soap operas literate, breezy, quirky, and in book form, then the prolific Mr. Smith* has a few options for you. I settled into 44 Scotland Street a few years ago and get updates on comings and goings there with each new installment. But it was a complete re-read earlier this year that revealed something I’d missed earlier: Smith is a fan of Proust.

I’m beginning to suspect that Proust, like arithmetic**, is something you can’t get away from.

The 44 Scotland Street series starts with a young woman becoming a narcissist’s roommate in the Edinburgh apartment building of the series title. Like an oil spill, the books spread from there to suck in others: a retired anthropologist, a family whose 5-year-old son plays blues on his full-sized saxophone, a feckless but wealthy art gallery owner, an elderly artist whose dog has a gold tooth, a well-read cafe owner from Arbroath. And so on. Smith began writing these books as a weekly serial in the Scotsman, which explains the episodic nature of the books. As with real life, there are no actual plots — not as we know them from literature, with character arcs and denouements — just people plodding through their lives, making mistakes and only sometimes learning from them.

Edinburgh's Brew Lab, from Time Out

Edinburgh’s Brew Lab, from Time Out

But let me get to where Proust comes in. The references are fleeting. In the first book, Matthew (the art gallery owner) asks Big Lou (the cafe owner) if great art requires a “surplus of wealth”. Big Lou answers that great art requires time, which is a benefit of wealth, and Proust is her example. He’d have had no time to write, nor anyone to write about, “if they had been obliged to do any real work.” When Matthew asks for a quick precis of RTP, Big Lou explains, “Not much actually happens …, or rather it takes a long time to happen. Marcel writes a lot about things that remind him of something else.” (44 Scotland Street, pp. 212-213)

In another volume, Proust is praised as the “ideal companion for a mangrove swamp.” Another character muses that Proust “saw everything, and then everything behind everything. Behind the simplest thing, even inanimate objects, there was a wealth of associations that only somebody like Proust could see.” The anthropologist posits that the title À la recherche du temps perdu, translated into Melanesian Pigin, might be Onepela Proust bilong Frans Holem Long Tingting (holem long tingting = to hold on to many things for a long time, i.e., to remember). (Love Over Scotland, pp. 111, 245, 305)

Mangrove swamp, northbiomes.weebly.com

Mangrove swamp, northbiomes.weebly.com

For the last reference I noticed, in The World According to Bertie, Smith takes a stab at Proustian style. The anthropologist, returned from Melanesia, has given up on finishing Proust: the sentences were too long.

Modern sentences are short. In Proust, we encounter sentences which appear interminable, meandering on and on in a way which suggests that the author had no desire to bring a satisfying or intriguing line of thought to any form of conclusion, wishing rather to prolong the pleasure, as one might wish if one were an author like Proust, who spent most of his time languishing in bed — he was a chronic hypochondriac — rather than experiencing life — an approach which encouraged him to produce sentences of remarkable length, the longest one being that sentence which, if printed out in standard-size type, would wind round a wine bottle seventeen and a half times, or so we are told by Alain de Boton in his How Proust Can Change Your Life, a book which has surely been read by most of those who have bought it, so light and amusing it is. (pp. 172-173)

Funny, but of course so completely unlike Proust’s sentences, which in fact do bring lines of thought to satisfying conclusions. The reader just needs patience and an infallible syntactic GPS for tracking main clauses.

The 44 Scotland Street series is ultra-light reading. Fun, but no real challenge. I keep up with it because I want to see the little saxophonist’s mother get what’s coming to her. There’ve been hints in Vols 8-10, but no satisfying conclusion yet.

*Smith’s website has info on all his books and series.

**See Preston Sturges’s first film, The Great McGinty (1940).

Posted in 2016 Goals, Art, Fiction, Humorous, Roman fleuve, Series, Travel | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Spiritualism and the Mafia

imgresNorman Lewis, Jackdaw Cake (1985)

Here’s a life for you: Raised by your grandfather and three odd aunts. Reclaimed by your spiritualist parents when the aunts go doolally. Married into a Sicilian family (probably mafiosi), then separated from your partner by WWII — your partner hobnobs with Central American dictators while you shunt from base to base in North Africa, trying to convince Allied NCOs that the Arabs aren’t worthless miscreants. At war’s end, reunited with your partner only to divorce almost immediately, but still friendly with Sicilian in-laws.

Lewis’s memoir shows us a series of flights from one insanity to another. Wales (crazy aunts), to Enfield (spiritualism), to London (Sicilian in-laws), to Algeria and Tunis (anti-Arab everything). If you can’t fathom Arab hatred for the West, the section on Lewis’s experiences as a translator and intelligence officer will tell you all you need. Example: standard practice when bringing in Arab boys for questioning was first to stomp on their feet with one’s jackboots. Everything starts with blood and pain.

Lewis could do nothing to address Arab complains about treatment by the French, or to lessen retribution against the local population once the British were gone — as he expected, entire villages were massacred when the British forces left to invade Italy.

Lewis’s writing is quick and sharp, with minimal lyricism. The night before England declares war on Germany, he witnesses a hurricane’s arrival in Cuba:

Great_Lakes_Waterspouts[The sea] had fallen slack, but something seemed to be on the move under its polished surface as if a shoal of whales were about to surface. The sky curdled and darkened, throwing grey veils across the sun…. Some miles out to sea a dark cloud, dense and fleshy as a negro’s hand, pressed down on the water and was now rapidly expanding, and in a far corner of the field of vision the delicate wisp of a water spout joined sea and sky.

The small town of Nuevitas stretched into a promontory pointing at the great Cay of Sabinas and within minutes a wall of water charged into it. As it struck, the cay appeared to put up a crest of white water from one end to another, and we looked up to see thousands of sea-birds flying before the hurricane, like grey ash from a conflagration blown across the sky. As the shacks clustered on the headland caught the first lash of the wind, walls and thatches were snatched away. The next gust pelted us with airborne debris of all kinds, rocked the car on its springs and cracked a window.

It’s impossible to read this and not think of the destruction to come during WWII.

Posted in Adventure, History, Memoir | Tagged | 2 Comments

Proust, the perfect beach-read

DSC02103

Casa las Tortugas, Isla Holbox, Yucatan, Mexico

Within a Budding Grove, pp. 534-714

Although I’m not a beach person, a 10-second video online sold me on this place in Mexico. Shade was the key. I can sit on a beach all day, if sun is not involved. I had to get up early to grab one of these huts, but once settled in, I could pass the entire day immersed in a book, rising only to shift my chair back into the shadows. It was glorious, and I plan to go back.

The books I had weren’t typical beach reads: Peattie’s Immortal Village (reviewed here) and Proust.

I finished Peattie quickly. Five days left with only Proust, and since I’m someone who MUST READ, that’s what I read. Only to discover the aptness of my choice. Within a Budding Grove ends with a 120-page paean to beach resorts, “Seascape, With Frieze of Girls”. Marcel introduces us to Albertine and obsession; he shows us the power a place has to influence emotions, relationships, cultures, and outlooks.

The kernel of plot here is that Marcel, on a lengthy stay in Balbec with his grandmother, meets the Baron de Charlus (with his creepy two-fingered handshake), Robert de Saint-Loup (the same age as Marcel), and the painter Elstir. He is also entranced by a group of young women who walk and cycle along the beach and other roads, laughing and teasing each other as well as anyone else they see. One of these young women is Albertine, wild and unconventional (when jumping from the promenade onto the beach, she leaps over an elderly man whose top hat she knocks off). Constantly doubting his motivations, Marcel pursues her and is rebuffed. At the end of the season, he leaves Balbec, somewhat chastened.

Albertine likes Venetian point lace. Photo courtesy The Lace Guild

Albertine likes Venetian point lace. Photo courtesy The Lace Guild

The narrator admits that he was passing through a “silly phase” while in Balbec, particularly in his desire to be noticed favorably. After being introduced to Saint-Loup (“the young Marquis”), he is disappointed to be continually snubbed by the man. He writes,

I thought that … there might be a secret section in the laws that govern the aristocracy which allowed women, perhaps, and certain diplomats to discard, in their relations with plebeians, for a reason which was beyond me, the stiffness which must, on the other hand, be pitilessly maintained by a young Marquis. My intelligence might have told me the opposite. But the characteristic feature of the silly phase through which I was passing — a phase by no means irresponsive, indeed highly fertile — is that we do not consult our intelligence and that the most trivial attributes of other people seem to us then to form an inseparable part of their personality. In a world thronged with monsters and with gods, we are barely conscious of tranquillity.

It’s difficult for Marcel, so desperate for recognition, to find himself attracted to people who choose not to acknowledge him. That two-fingered handshake from Charlus (picture it: “doubling back his little finger, forefinger, and thumb, [he] held out to me his middle and ring fingers … which I clasped through his suede glove”) symbolizes everyone’s non-committal connection to our hero. Except for members of his own family — and the ever present Françoise — no one seems to want to get close to him.

Monet, Landscape Near Zaandam

Monet, Landscape Near Zaandam

Yet he finds such joy at Balbec. Not just the ocean and front, but the colors, scents, people, action — all send him into swoons of aesthetic joy:

For a convalescent who rests all day long in a flower-garden or orchard, a scent of flowers or fruit does not more completely pervade the thousand trifles that compose his idle hours than did for me that colour, that fragrance in search of which my eyes kept straying towards the girls, and the sweetness of which finally became incorporated in me. So it is that grapes grow sugary in sunshine. And by their slow continuity these simple little games had gradually wrought in me also, as in those who do nothing else all day but lie outstretched by the sea, breathing the salt air and growing sunburned, a relaxation, a blissful smile, a vague sense of dizziness that had spread from brain to eyes.

The warm sun fades; rainy days and chilly nights follow. There is no heat in the hotel. Guests leave and the public rooms are deserted, “as in the lowest hold of a ship when a storm is raging”. Yet, as he is packing, Marcel’s thoughts are of the pleasant days with Albertine and the other young women, of light and color and fragrance. He ends this section with an unforgettable image: A narrow beam of sun shines through a small gap in his room’s dark curtains — “a cylinder of gold with no visible support was placed vertically and moved slowly along like the pillar of fire which went before the Hebrews in the desert.”

And yet, this memory has a negative quality:

In this Balbec to which I had so looked forward because I imagined it only as battered by the storm and buried in fogs, the weather had been so dazzling and so unchanging that … I could always, without once being wrong, [look out and] expect to see the same patch of sunlight folded in the corner of the outer wall, of an unalterable colour which was less moving as a sign of summer than depressing as the colour of a lifeless and composed enamel. … The summer day … seemed as dead, as immemorially ancient as would have been a sumptuously attired dynastic mummy …, embalmed in its vesture of gold.

Marcel doesn’t yet understand all that these months in “this” Balbec (rather than the imagined one) have given him. Again, the theme of reflection on past events for greater understanding of our present selves arises.

Posted in 2016 Goals, Beach books, Fiction, Memoir, reading | Tagged | 1 Comment

And …

16th C Italian floor tiles, V&A Museum

16th C Italian floor tiles, V&A Museum

I’m back.

I’ve spent 3 months avoiding hard work, as prep for my sabbatical year followed almost immediately by retirement (count down: one year, 5 months and 4 days, give or take). This was tough on my students, who had to endure a month or so of this avoidance. I herewith thank them for their patience.

Two recent events jogged me back onto the track of righteous industry. First, I received a compliment from a fab blogger, who wrote that he modeled his wide-ranging approach to book reviewing on my posts.

Wait, what?

Ok, I’ll be gracious and accept the kind words with a bow and a blush, but I’d have said it was the other way around. This is not Not NOT me trawling for more kind words from any of my readers. It’s more like my admission of guilt for having temporarily abandoned this loosely defined project. So, renewed vows, etc etc, yadda yadda yadda.

The second spur was my school library denying me the 4th opportunity to renew the loan of a book I’ve had since January. Never mind that I’m the first person to check it out in 11 years, never mind that no one else actually wants it. It’s due 06 August.

And this is a problem because?

It’s my Proust A to Z! Roger Shattuck’s intelligent and so-easy-to-read Proust’s Way is the schooner on which I’m slowly crossing the vast ocean of In Search of Lost Time! It’s like when I found out 2 of my 3 thesis advisors were leaving town: I sat down and wrote a first draft of the 250-page thesis in three weeks, finished the revisions in the next two weeks, and defended a month after that.

But I’m no longer that bounding-with-energy graduate student. I can’t read 1300 pages of Proust in 3 weeks. I’m being forced to abandon my schooner for the less sea-worthy online community.

All right, I know I’m being melodramatic (and enjoying it). I’ll be fine. After a gap of 3 months, it’s time I got back to my Proust project. And maybe I can finagle something with the library. Perhaps if it sits on the shelf for a day or two, they’ll let me start over at point zero.

All this is to say — I’m ready to start blogging again.

Posted in reading, writing | Tagged , | 2 Comments