osprey_archer: (books)
I quite enjoyed Triumph and Disaster, which is a collection of - historical sketches, I guess you could call them, by Stefan Zweig, each on the theme of a great turning point in history and the small "for want of a nail..." details that led events to turn out the way they did.

Waterloo - which Napoleon lost because Marshall Grouchy followed his orders and continued to pursue the Prussians, rather than realize that he must disobey and turn back. The fall of Constantinople - which might have been avoided, except that a postern gate had been forgotten, and left open in the wall. Wilson - giving in to pressure to compromise on a realistic peace treaty, rather than holding firm in his dedication to the Fourteen Points.

I do wonder a bit if this last sketch doesn't suffer from wishful thinking on Zweig's part. He was writing a Jewish writer in interwar Austria, and I think must have yearned achingly for the Treaty of Versailles to turn out differently - for Wilson's dreams of endless peace to come true, rather than World War I slipping ineluctable toward World War II. I am not at all sure I share his belief that Wilson could have created a more lasting peace if he had refused to compromise. Might he not simply have ended up sidelined? The wider structural forces against a lasting peace may simply have been too strong for any one man to overcome.

But even if I don't agree with his historical conclusions - and even in translation, which I know probably mutes his voice - Zweig's writing is beautiful. As Wilson sails away, he says, concluding his sketch, he "will not let his eyes look back on our unfortunate continent, which has been longing for peace and unity for thousands of years and has never achieved it. And once again the eternal vision of a humane world recedes into mist and into the distance."
osprey_archer: (books)
What I’ve Just Finished Reading

Pierrepont Noyes’ My Father’s House: An Oneida Childhood, which I liked very much; although of course I would, being fond of a) childhood memoirs (I tend to agree with C. S. Lewis that “I never read an autobiography in which the parts devoted to the earlier years were not far the most interesting”), b) memoirs about cults (really anything about cults), and c) the nineteenth century.

But even if you are interested in only one of those things, this is an engaging book; much recommended. The one thing it will not give you is a clear description of the Oneida Community’s collapse: Noyes was ten at the time and found the whole thing ominous but fuzzy.

I also finished rereading A Wrinkle in Time. I’m glad I reread it because I no longer feel that vague gnawing sense that I just didn’t get it - but at the same time, it’s a bit sad to reread it and realize that I’m just never going to love that book the way that some people do.

What I’m Reading Now

Kidnapped! I only intended to begin it, but somehow I ended up halfway through the book already. It’s such a cracking good adventure yarn, it’s very hard to put down!

I have begun Jane Langton’s The Astonishing Stereoscope! It’s early days yet, but I have high hopes that it will live up to the other books in the series - or at least the early books in the series; I hold a real grudge against Time Bike for being so dreadful that it stopped my exploration of the Hall Family Chronicles, even though I adored both The Diamond in the Window and The Fledgling. But fortunately the good books in the series are the kind that are just as good if you read them first as an adult.

What I Plan to Read Next

The Railway Children, which I also intended to read next last week, but I bought Noyes’ memoir at the museum and it simply had to take precedence, so… But this week I am quite determined! Railway Children or bust! Unless I find something simply irresistible in Amherst.
osprey_archer: (shoes)
I discovered, FAR TOO LATE, that it is actually possible to stay in the old Oneida Community building: they have converted part of it into a hotel (and an even larger part of it into apartments). IF ONLY! But they seem to get booked up far in advance, so probably even if I had popped over to their website when the idea of a road trip first occurred to me in June, I still couldn't have stayed there.

Still. MAYBE SOMEDAY. Upstate New York is so beautiful - I've never been here before, but I love the mountains - and so full of history: I just happened to stumble upon L. Frank Baum's hometown today. They have an Oz museum, which I did not visit, but if I come back...

Mostly I spent the day visiting the Oneida Community Mansion House, where the three hundred odd members of the community lived from the 1860s to 1880, when the community broke up. (They were in the area since 1848, but it took them some time to gather the resources to build that stately brick house.) I took the guided tour, which was really wonderful - we had a thoughtful and well-informed docent, a former English teacher, who not only knew everything about the house but had read most of the books in the gift shop and helped me decide which one to buy. (I ended up with Pierrepont B. Noyes' memoir of his childhood at Oneida, which is delightful so far.)

The Oneida Community was a Christian perfectionist cult - perfectionist in the sense of "We can achieve sinless grace on earth!", not its modern meaning. They practiced:

1. Bible communism. Everyone in the community holds all goods in common; the community takes care of everyone and everyone does work for the community, and all kinds of work are held to be holy.

2. Complex marriage. All the men and women in the community are heterosexually married to each other. People at the time often figured that there was a constant orgy going on in the mansion, but in fact sexual contact had to be carefully negotiated, usually through an intermediary, and anyone had the right to say no. (Charles Guiteau, who later assassinated President Garfield, lived in the Oneida Community for five years and could not get laid.) You'd think women would be getting pregnant all the time, except the community also practiced

3. Male continence. Men were not to ejaculate during sex. This apparently worked really well - there were only forty pregnancies in the group's first twenty years of existence - possibly because incorrect ejaculation would come up during Mutual Criticism, which would be totally mortifying and also limit one's future sex partners.

4. Which brings us neatly to Mutual Criticism, during which people were allowed - nay, encouraged! - to tell you all your faults so you could try to correct them and thus approach nearer to spiritual perfection. This sounds excruciating, but Pierrepont Noyes, in his memoir, comments that "because members had the opportunity to criticize each other openly, Community life was singularly free from backbiting and scandalmongering," so perhaps it's a case of ripping off the bandaid all in one go rather than taking it up millimeter by excruciating millimeter.

And also everyone except John Humphrey Noyes, the founder, underwent Mutual Criticism, so any impulse toward harshness much have been tempered by the knowledge that the criticizer might soon by the criticized.

I have no idea if the Community owned this many portraits of Noyes when it was active, but now they are everywhere. It reminded me a bit of the omnipresent Lenins in the Soviet Union, although this comparison is unfair to Noyes: he seems to have been about as benevolent a patriarch as it is possible for any human being to be, spoken of with love and respect even after the community fell apart.

Although I do think the comparison does serve to show the limits of the Oneida community, as enticing as certain aspects of the experiment seem. (I for one like the idea of living in a mansion full of like-minded people with a well-stocked reading room and an endless round of entertainments: the Oneidans, no ascetics, played croquet, put on plays, read novels aloud to each other, and fielded a full orchestra.) Communes seem to need a charismatic leader to succeed - hence the mayfly nature of most nineteenth-century commune experiments - and there's no guarantee you'll get a benevolent Noyes rather than someone voraciously power-mad.
osprey_archer: (books)
I have reluctantly concluded that actual diaries, unlike fictionalized diaries, tend to be boring and I ought to stop reading them unless I have some absolutely urgent need to read a primary source about that thing. Case in point: I finally finished slogging through An English Governess in the Great War: The Secret Brussels Diary of Mary Thorp, which is about an English governess’s experience working in Brussels during the German occupation in World War I, and as such sounds like it ought to be fascinatin.

And there are certainly interesting nuggets of information and if one wants to learn about life in occupied Belgium, this is probably a good source. (I bookmarked a few bits for a story I’ve been tinkering at in my head, set just after the end of World War I.) But just reading through it with no particular aim - gosh, it’s so repetitive. And I don’t think this is particularly Thorp’s fault, either, I think diary keepers just tend to be repetitive, and certainly they rarely seem to have vibrant character sketches or ongoing story arcs like novels-in-the-form-of-a-diary too.

Although Anne Frank’s diary does rather, so perhaps after all some of the blame ought to be laid at Thorp’s feet. Maybe she is just a boring diarist. But then the boring ones do seem to outnumber the ones who write intense thoughtful character sketches, so my resolve to mostly steer clear of diaries still ought to hold me in good stead.
osprey_archer: (books)
From the title, one might imagine Jeremy McCarter’s Young Radicals: In the War for American Ideals is about the struggles of today - and indeed McCarter does not shy away from this parallel, drawing it explicitly in both the introduction and the conclusion. He wisely ignores it in the body of the book itself, preferring to focus on his own time period: the years before, during, and just after America’s involvement in World War I.

These are my home stomping grounds (historically speaking) and I had a lovely time reading this book. It was a delightful chance to revisit historical figures who feel like old friends: in particular, I’ve always had a fondness for Randolph Bourne, who seems to have been just about the only major intellectual figure in the US who didn’t get swept away by patriotism after war was declared: “You may remember that you lost your head in 1917,” the editors of The Nation reflect ruefully, “and you are intellectually ashamed; but you take comfort from the assurance that practically everyone else did also. Randolph Bourne did not lose his head.”

(Bourne, incidentally, died just after the war; I thought he starved to death because no one would buy his prophetic articles, and he had been abandoned by all his friends, and wasted away in a garret etc. etc., - which is all very melodramatically satisfying, but not in the least true so I don’t know where I got it. He was publishing in The New Republic right up to the end, and died - not alone and abandoned, but in the arms of his fiancee - of the Spanish flu.)

And I also learned about figures new to me, in particular Alice Pual, the militant suffragist. Often when I learn about a new female figure from history I’m outraged that I didn’t know about her before, but in Paul’s case she honestly comes across as pretty ineffectual - she is forever doing things like trying to organize women (in the states where women already had voting rights) to vote against the anti-suffrage Democrats, and then declaring that her campaign has been victorious even though ten of those twelve states… voted Democrat. THAT’S NOT WHAT VICTORY LOOKS LIKE, PAUL.

So I can see why she’s slipped through the cracks. But she’s still interesting to read about: it takes some chutzpah to burn the President in effigy in front of the White House even in years when the nation isn’t swept up in hysterical war-fever, as it was when Paul attempted it. (The suffragists did not succeed in burning the effigy: outraged bystanders intervened, causing a riot.)

The book weaves together the stories of five figures - Walter Lippmann, John Reed, and Max Eastman, as well as the aforementioned Paul and Bourne. But it also tells, almost as a side note, the tale of the downfall of Woodrow Wilson, who seems to have an unerring genius for compromising when he shouldn’t, and refusing to compromise when he really should: he’s very consistently wrong about it. He’s a tragic figure in the classic sense of the word: a would-be hero utterly undone by his own flaws.
osprey_archer: (books)
E. M. Delafield's The Spirit of the Age and Other Stories from the Home Front filled me with mixed emotions. On the hand, I liked it so much I wanted to gobble it all up; but on the other hand, the short stories inside are just so perfectly the right size for my ten-minute breaks at work, I really wanted to save them just for that purpose.

I held out for as long as I could, but in the end I did gobble up the last quarter of the book in one sitting. It's a series of interconnected short stories about an English country village during World War II - published during the war, not after, which gives it a somewhat different feel from historical fiction somehow. The war is all-pervasive, and yet at the same time there's less emphasis on the specific events than historical fiction often has, somehow? No one mentions battles by name, but there's quite a lot of talk about how to create decent black-out curtains using your grandmother's old bombazine.

Delafield has that eye for the foibles of human nature which I often find in mid-twentieth century British authors (D. E. Stevenson, who also wrote about village life, has it too) - the way that people who are thrown together by proximity and don't necessarily have much of anything in common rub along together, and even become in an odd way fond of one another's annoying quirks.

I think my favorite, in this book - favorite in the sense of "the most amusing literary creation," not in the sense that I would ever want to spend time with her - is Miss Littlemug, a spinster neighbor whose conception of herself is almost ludicrously at odds with her actual behavior. When a visitor offers sympathy, for instance, Miss Littlemug replies:

"Dear, I must ask you not to say that. You mean it kindly, I know, but it's altogether misleading and sounds quite as though I were complaining - a thing I should never do, I hope, at any time. (As a mere child, I always preferred torture - actual physical torture at the stake - to making any complaint. I was like that.)"

Then of course she proceeds with a litany of complaints.

I have learned that it is wise to take the things people tell you about themselves with a grain of salt, especially when they are complimentary (for some reason this is especially true if the compliment is something like "I'm a good listener"), and it's great fun to see this kind of contradiction between self-understanding and actual deeds in a book.

And it's not at all mean-spirited; exasperating as the others may find Miss Littlemug, they beg her to remain on committees every time she tries to quit in a huff - never mind she seems to be useless as well as irritating. She's become part of the village and they're going to include her, even if doing so does occasionally call for some eye-rolling afterward. Actual physical torture at the stake, good grief.
osprey_archer: (books)
Catherine Merridale's Lenin on the Train is an interesting if poorly-organized book about...well, very loosely about Lenin's train trip through Germany to Sweden and thence to Petrograd and History. But it's also about the political wrangling in Petrograd at the time, and the internal party politics of the Bolsheviks, and the plots of various foreign governments to exert some control on Russia's political future (Lenin was far from the only radical Russian smuggled back into the country), and a chapter-long digression about whether or not Lenin was in the pay of the Germans.

Except for the last, this is all interesting. I actually groaned when I read that the tsarist government put Kamenev on trial in 1915 and he denied that he was a member of the Bolsheviks; no doubt this was one of the reasons why Stalin decided to make Kamenev one of the victims of his first show trial years later. He knew from past experience that Kamenev would perjure himself if he thought it would save his skin.

But, interesting though it is, it never really comes together as a book. The pacing is odd: it takes a few chapters before we segue from politics on the ground in Petrograd to Lenin in Switzerland, and then we follow Lenin on the train through Germany and Sweden, into Petrograd, where the party faithful carry him on their shoulders, and Lenin takes the opportunity to climb on the turret of an armored car and harangue everyone in hearing range. Observers comment, somewhat disdainfully, that the Bolsheviks always put on a good show.

And then, though the train part is over, the book goes on for a while - Lenin takes over Pravda, Lenin lectures the party faithful who think he's woefully out of touch, Lenin is run out of town under cloud of accusations that he's taken German money - and then the book stops. There's a chapter about the German money accusations and then bam, the end.

The book gnaws around this last issue at some length, which is frustrating because the answer is clearly yes - the Germans gave him a special train to transport him across Germany! This fact is not in dispute - but the implication, that this made him a German puppet, is just as clearly wrong. Lenin never felt he owed anyone anything, least of all Germany; he used their offer to his own ends, and I suspect the Germans were sorry they made it when it became clear that he wasn't just going to impede the war effort, but had actually taken over Russia and was encouraging radical socialists within Germany.

An interesting book, but flawed.
osprey_archer: (books)
If, like me, you read the title Touring America by Automobile in the 1920s and all but swoon with joy - and swoon again when you realize that this is a primary source, a diary that a woman named Hepzy Moore Cook write during two early American road trips with her husband (one to Yellowstone and the other through the South) - then this is the book for you. There’s lots of good information about the experience of road-tripping in early cars,with their constant tire troubles and the poor state of the roads and the all-but-nonexistent hotel system outside the cities. They either camp or rent rooms in private homes.

I realize that capsule summary makes traveling in the 1920s sound awful, but actually as I was reading it sounds delightfully adventurous (well, except for the part where the diary-writer gets dysentery). I wish there’d been a bit more information about the food, but one can’t have everything. And there is a lot of interesting information about the understanding of history at the time, especially the Civil War: it was sixty years ago by this 1927 road trip, but there’s still a sense of it as a raw spot on the national psyche. The highest praise Hepzy can offer for a Civil War memorial is to say that it shows the spirit of reconciliation.

However, if this sort of thing doesn’t make your heart go pitter-patter, it’s probably not the book for you. The interest is all in the subject matter; the writing is pedestrian at best. It also includes a few clunky typos - I’m not sure typos is the right word for them; but there are places where the author/editor, Hepzy Moore Cook’s grandson William A. Cook, has written something that sounds kind of like the right word but isn’t, including this gem:

“The Prohibition era would also be the geniuses of another popular form of racing in America - stock car racing.”

Geniuses. Isn’t that great? (I’m apt to make these too, although I don’t think I ever made one quite as sublime as geniuses for genesis.)
osprey_archer: (books)
I found Nora Murphy’s White Birch, Red Hawthorn irritating for three main reasons.

1. This is one of those books that is neither pure memoir nor pure nonfiction but a combination of the two, and as often happens, the memoir portion is comparatively a drag. For a book that is allegedly about the importance of learning to listen (specifically to the stories of Native Americans), Murphy spends an awful lot of time talking about herself and her family history.

2. This is especially egregious because Murphy has the unfortunate habit of making shit up. She’ll start with a verifiable fact: for instance, after much digging, she discovers that her great-great-grandmother who emigrated to the US from Ireland was named Katie Hughes.

Then - and note she doesn’t have letters or a diary or any other record of Katie’s feelings, or really anything at all to go on except for Katie’s name - she writes stuff like “Still even in this silence [in a cemetery in Ireland], Katie found gifts - like the warm feeling that spread over her as they left the tombs. It was the feeling that someone was there, still watching over her after all these thousands of years.”

DID SHE NOW. I can only assume that Murphy has a telepathic connection with her great-great-grandmother that she’s too shy to cite as a source.

3. And this leads to my third frustration with the book, which is its sentimentality - in particular the weird sentimental gloss that Murphy throws over her ancestors’ life in Ireland. Murphy says things like “What I do know is that Katie didn’t thirst for her story as a child. She didn’t feel parched for connection. My great-great-grandmother’s story was woven into the very Irish landscape that reared her. She didn’t have to go out searching for a lineage.”

Well, uh, no, she was probably busy thirsting for actual food and drink, growing up during the potato famine and all. And who says she didn’t thirst for her story? She was a member of a conquered people living in a conquered land, with conquerors who were making a determined effort to stamp out her people’s language and stories. That’s not a situation that tends to give people a clear and unfettered connection to their past and their land.

To be fair, Murphy is a little better at seeing this with regard to Native Americans, presumably because she interviews living members of the Ojibwe and Ho-Chunk tribes rather than her imagined simulacrum of her great-great-grandmother and real people, unlike imaginary ones, can pull you up short.

I could go on, but at this point I’m probably beating a dead horse. Did not enjoy, do not recommend.
osprey_archer: (books)
What I’ve Just Finished Reading

Two books from the Unread Book Club! I read Irene Hunt’s Across Five Aprils, which is an account of the Civil War from the point of view of a southern Illinois farm boy on the home front, which I thought was very well done although also possibly one of those children’s books that is going to appeal more to adults than children. It gives a real sense of the powerlessness that one can feel in the face of the great events of the day, which I found painful and touching as an adult but which might not have made my little heart go pitter-patter when I was ten.

I also enjoyed the details of daily life and the complexity of the characters - the neighbor with a bad reputation who somewhat redeems himself in times of trouble; the beloved brother who goes over to the Confederate army and thus puts the family in danger from some of the angrier Union partisans in the area. Did he do right to follow his conscience knowing that might be the cost? Why the heck did his conscience lead him that way anyway? (I suspect this is a more pressing question to a reader now than in 1965 when the book was published; I think there’s much less tendency now to see the Confederacy with the romantic doomed-lost-cause luster that still held some cachet then.)

On the lighter side, I also read John Tyerman Williams’ Pooh and the Psychologists: In Which It Is Proven That Pooh Bear Is a Brilliant Psychotherapist, which was a birthday present from my friend Micky years and years ago and is the most Micky book in the history of existence, although as none of you know Micky I’m hard-pressed to explain what that means.

In any case, even though the humor is a little labored for my tastes, I will probably end up keeping this book forever just because it’s so characteristic of its giver.

What I’m Reading Now

I’ve started reading Miss Read’s Village School, which is the first of a series of charming books about English village life that I have vaguely meant to read for years because my mother has always been devoted to them. It’s very charming! I read two chapters before bed and it is just the right mixture of soothing but also interesting enough that I always look forward to it.

What I Plan to Read Next

I meant to stop buying books till I’d gone through the Unread Book Club, but then I went to a Goodwill and found Barbara Robinson’s The Best Halloween Ever for 69 cents and I really liked The Best Christmas Pageant Ever and The Best School Year Ever and… I totally bought it. So that.
osprey_archer: (books)
I loved Helen Rappaport’s Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, Russia, 1917 - A World on the Edge, which retells the story of Russia’s two 1917 revolutions (the first overthrowing the tsar in the spring; the second establishing the Bolsheviks in the fall) through the reports of on-scene Western observers. It’s told in strictly chronological order, the book taking the reader through the year as people living through it experienced (except of course we don’t have to spend hours upon hours standing in frigid bread lines), which gives it all a breathless on-the-ground feeling of immediacy. Even though I already knew how it would end - Bolsheviks take over, the end - I found myself on tenterhooks, wondering if Kerensky would get it together and assassinate Lenin. (No.)

As frustrating as Kerensky is, though, I do also feel for him. He’s trying to establish a republic in Russia; of course he doesn’t want to kick off this new democratic future by executing his political opponents, even if those opponents are Trotsky and Lenin who are dashing about exhorting the populace to execute everyone under the sun.

Or at least Trotsky was. Lenin spent a lot of the year hiding safely out of the country, which does not give me much respect for him. Stand in some bread lines, Lenin!

Anyway, as interesting as all the political stuff is, the book is most interesting in all the fascinating detail it offers on what it was like to live in a city caught in the swirling vortex of revolution: the cold, the hunger, people walking with their children on quiet streets just blocks away from intense street-fighting, dead policemen left on the frozen Neva, the tattered remains of the American colony gathering together for one last Christmas celebration at an American-run bank that would be raided by the Red Guard only a few days later.

(There were - I had not realized this - large colonies of both Americans and British in Petrograd at the time of the Revolution. By the end of 1917 most of them were trying to get out, but I worry about the ones, English nannies who had been employed by the Russian nobility for instance, who had no money or connections or escape route. There’s no way to know if they got out in the end. I hope they did.)

The one criticism I have of the book is that things get a bit rushed at the end. This is understandable, as buckets of ink have already been spilled about the October Revolution (it being, after all, the one that stuck), but a little more detail would have made for a less abrupt ending.
osprey_archer: (books)
What I’ve Just Finished Reading

The second Ivy + Bean book, which I think will be my last Ivy + Bean book, because it’s not much better than the first. In this book, Bean cuts her sister Nancy’s hair as she sleeps, and honestly I just feel so sorry for Nancy and I know the books are never going to let her get her own back.

I also read John Muir’s Stickeen, which is about Muir’s walk along a glacier-top with a dog named Stickeen. At one point Muir has to inch his way along an ice bridge that crosses a massive ice chasm, chipping his path with his ice-ax because the ice bridge has eroded down to a knife-point, and he’s writing about it all chill and relaxed because he is basically the epitome of a nineteenth-century adventure hero, except in the flesh. OH JOHN MUIR. I’m amazed no one wrote dime novels about him.

What I’m Reading Now

Helen Rappaport’s Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, 1917 - A World on the Edge, which despite the somewhat awkward nesting subtitles proves to be absorbing. It’s compiled from the reports of foreign reporters who were in Petrograd at the outbreak of the revolution, and it’s fascinating to see the city descending into anarchy - and the patchiness of it; some streets are totally quiet, and people are going about their business standing in queues for bread, and a few streets over there’s a machine gun on the roof and protesters standing below shooting back at it with guns they stole from a police station they robbed earlier that day.

I’ve also started The Hunger Games! Why didn’t I do this years ago? They’re in the Capitol now, and Katniss is all “This is the best food I’ve ever eaten,” and also “I HATE YOU ALL SO MUCH.”

Like seriously, I’m surprised the judges didn’t start conspiring to have her eliminated as soon as she shot the roast suckling pig on their buffet. This is surely a sign of unacceptably rebellious attitudes.

ALSO THE PARADE SCENE, OH MY GOD. All the tributes paraded through the Capitol in their ridiculous fancy clothing, and Katniss and Peeta wearing clothes that are literally on fire. I love the combination of glitziness and underlying horror.

What I Plan to Read Next

Clearly I’ll have to read Catching Fire and Mockingjay.
osprey_archer: (books)
What I’ve Just Finished Reading

The first Ivy + Bean book, which I did not find nearly as enchanting as I hoped. Ivy and Bean are just such - twerps, I think is the only word for it; the crowning moment of the book is when they throw worms in Bean’s sister’s face, and you know, I have an older sibling, and he could be very frustrating when I was seven, but somehow I managed to refrain from throwing worms in his face.

On a cheerier note, I also read Thomas Mallon’s Yours Ever: People and Their Letters, which is absolutely charming. I love letters and books about letters and letters between famous people, and Mallon packs lots of characterization into his brief portraits of these famous letter-writers.

Of course it helps that the letter-writers are so very characteristically themselves: Byron, for instance, bragging of his “Don Juan,” “Could any man have written it who has not lived in the world? - and fooled in a post-chaise? in a hackney-coach? in a gondola? against a wall? in a court carriage? in a vis-a-vis? on a table? and under it?” He probably expired filled with dismay that he never managed to do it in a hot air balloon.

Or Richard Nixon, paranoid, thin-skinned, obsessed with his legacy. His neediness is actually rather touching, at least as long as you don’t think about the fact that he had the power to turn that thin-skinned paranoia into quite a lot of damage.

What I’m Reading Now

I’m reading Blinky Bill, which is Australia’s answer to Beatrix Potter. Like Beatrix Potter, it is full of adorable pictures of anthropomorphized animals looking cute, and also like Beatrix Potter, when you actually read the text you discover that the adorable animal illustrations are a thin veneer over ANARCHY. Blinky Bill is forever narrowly escaping death and also accidentally (or not-so-accidentally) squashing other critters and there is nary a moral in sight.

I don’t know about Blinky Bill’s reputation in Australia, but it occurs to me that Beatrix Potter, like early Disney, has a reputation for treacliness that is totally at odds with the actual content of her stories. Maybe it’s just because we associate these stories with early childhood and assume that they must therefore be sweet and anodyne.

What I Plan to Read Next

Well, I’m giving the second Ivy + Bean book a go. We’ll see if it’s an improvement.
osprey_archer: (books)
I need to be pickier in the books I get from Netgalley; I've hit a whole string of duds in a row. The latest one is Debra A. Shattuck's Bloomer Girls: Women Baseball Pioneers, which is both boring and unconvincing. How do you write a boring book about early women baseball players?

It's possible that Shattuck just doesn't have the sources to write an interesting ones. Most of what she's got seems to be newspaper mentions of either women's baseball pick-up games, or the occasional touring women's baseball team, which is interesting in the limited sense that it shows that some women did play baseball, but doesn't give much insight into how they thought about it themselves.

It might, in different hands, give quite a bit of insight into what nineteenth century white American culture thought about women baseball players, but it certainly doesn't in Shattuck's, because she's intent on proving that baseball wasn't seen as a "men's game" until around 1900.

That would be super interesting if it were true, but Shattuck's own evidence totally disproves this. The newspaper articles she quotes make it very clear that baseball was seen as a masculine pursuit (possibly a masculine pursuit more suited to boys than grown-up men - this seems to be the loophole that Shattuck is hoping to shove her argument through - but still masculine). Many of them heap scorn or condescending amusement on women and girls playing baseball, and the ones that favor it do so with an argumentative air: they know very well that they're going against the tide of public opinion.

The fact that many women did play baseball doesn't mean that it wasn't considered masculine. You wouldn't have tomboy stories if women doing something automatically meant society considered it feminine!

Did Shattuck come up with her thesis and then run with it, actual evidence be damned? It's really too bad, because I think someone without that axe to grind probably could write an interesting book about women baseball pioneers - but this is not that book.
osprey_archer: (cheers)
My roommate and I went to the Artcraft Theatre yesterday to see The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, which is a movie I don't think I would have been very fond of if I'd watched it on my own; but watching it in a theater, with everyone else to laugh with, was a lot of fun.

And the theater itself was quite an experience. They have door prizes and a prize wheel ("Don't look in the prize wheel as it turns," the announcer said, "or you might get - " "MESMERIZED!" the audience shouted in return), and always show old Warner Brothers cartoon before the movie, and when they point out the fire exits, the audience cheers for a favorite. (We were fans of exit three.)

They also still have the old steel door over the projection room, from back when films were made of highly flammable celluloid and theaters sometimes went up in flames. The door was a safety measure: if the film caught fire, it would slam shut, which would trap the doomed projectionist inside but give everyone else a chance to get out.

A safety measure that is designed to kill at least one person seems like a questionable safety measure to me, but I guess they had different standards for these things back in the 1910s.
osprey_archer: (books)
Krystyna Mihulka’s Krysia: A Polish Girl’s Stolen Childhood During World War II is a memoir about her years in Siberia after the Soviets deported her family from Poland. It’s meant to be a memoir for children, and I suspect that morbidly inclined children will love it. I probably would have eaten it up when I was ten.

For me as an adult, though, it suffered somewhat because I couldn’t help comparing it to Esther Hautzig’s The Endless Steppe, which is a minor classic and covers much the same ground. Obviously Hautzig’s and Mihulka’s experiences are not the same, and if you’re interested in the topic both memoirs are quite readable; but if you’re only going to read one, Hautzig’s is longer and meatier and far more alive with telling detail and remembered emotion.

It helps probably that Hautzig wrote her book in the 1960s, much closer to the events depicted, so her memories may have been fresher. And I also think that Hautzig is simply a better writer; I read her book years ago and I can still remember parts of it, like the scene where they dye curtains yellow with onion skins to cheer up their Siberian hut, or Hautzig’s grief when she has to leave Siberia before the Pushkin recitation contest she worked so hard to prepare for.

But of course I also have to take into account the fact that I read The Endless Steppe in junior high, which is a susceptible age; perhaps I would have been just as enthralled by Krysia if I had read it then.
osprey_archer: (books)
What I’ve Just Finished Reading

Mike Rendell’s In Bed with the Georgians: Sex, Scandal, and Satire in the 18th Century is an odd book. Some of the chapters are basically just annotated lists: here are all the most famous courtesans of the Georgian period, or all the most infamous rakes. There was one guy whose nickname was the "Rapemaster in Chief," but it took them ages to arrest him for anything because he was a high government official and rich and powerful men could do basically anything they wanted.

It was a bit sobering to read this just as Trump's sexual assault comments were coming out, because clearly Trump still believes we live in that world, although the mass public outrage from both political parties suggests that things have changed at least a little. (The Georgians clearly would have dismissed it all as boys being boys, or whatever the contemporary Georgian phrase was.)

Anyway. There's a lot of interesting and sometimes horrifying information here, if you're willing to pick through the shoddy organization to get to it.

What I’m Reading Now

Welcome to Night Vale - the novel, not the podcast - although I’ve been thinking that I might be enjoying it more if I were listening to it as an audiobook, although then again maybe not.

I've also been rereading Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess. SUCH A GOOD BOOK. I'm planning to write a post about the amazingness of Sara Crewe (and also how well the book is constructed) once I'm done.

What I Plan to Read Next

I have a lot of books on my plate. I got D. E. Stevenson's The Four Graces from the library, and I've got Lisa See's The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane on my Kindle - it's from Netgalley and I'm so excited to get a sneak peak at Lisa See's next book that I've actually been putting it off just in case it doesn't live up to my expectations. See's work can be somewhat uneven, I've found.
osprey_archer: (books)
I really enjoyed the beginning of Caroline Winterer’s American Enlightenments: Pursuing Happiness in the Age of Reason, which talks about intellectual correspondence networks in the 18th century; I was particularly intrigued by its brief discussion of women’s correspondence networks, which I would have loved to read more about, but that is in the end not the topic of the book.

Unfortunately, once the book moved on from correspondence networks to its actual topic - the varied meanings of enlightenment in the eighteenth century - it became far less germane to my interests, especially as it doesn’t really take two hundred pages to prove that “enlightenment” was a fuzzy concept that was deployed in complicated and conflicting ways as people struggled to define their own visions of the future upward path to happiness as the path of enlightenment.

I have read enough history books that I’ve just sort of started taking the fuzziness of important historical concepts as a given. Indeed, most large abstract ideas seem ultimately to be sort of fuzzy and subject to conflicting definitions. (How precisely do you define fascism? Or communism, for that matter? What is truth, or justice, or love?) So I didn’t really need an entire book about it.

Also, given that the book promises as part of its summary to prove that “a national mythology of a unitary, patriotic era of enlightenment in America was created during the Cold War to act as a shield against the threat of totalitarianism,” the book really needed at least one chapter that focused on the Cold War era. American Enlightenments spends a lot of time showing that the supposedly unitary era was in fact - like all eras - riven with conflict, but it devotes no time at all to showing when the idea of the unitary patriotic era gained force. Could it have been the Cold War? Sure. But the book doesn’t do anything to prove it.
osprey_archer: (books)
I read Joseph Egan’s The Purple Diaries: Mary Astor and the Most Sensational Hollywood Scandal of the 1930s, which oversells itself a bit in that subtitle, frankly; the newspapers may have written that Hollywood was shaking in its boots over the potential revelations in Mary Astor’s diaries, but it’s pretty clear from Egan’s telling (although he never says this explicitly, presumably so as not to undercut his own subtitle) that this was mostly newspaper puff.

I enjoyed reading this book - it’s fun and easy to read - but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you just really love 1930s Hollywood, because this is a shallow, gossipy treatment. A really good historical nonfiction book in my opinion should use its subject as a window onto the wider world of the time period, which The Purple Diaries doesn’t even try to do. It’s telling its story and it’s sticking with that, which is valid and entertaining while it lasts but not the kind of thing that sticks with you.

It did make me want to watch Mary Astor's film Dodsworth, though, so that's something.
osprey_archer: (books)
What I’ve Just Finished Reading

I’ve already reviewed it all!

What I’m Reading Now

Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, which has just about broken me; it’s so sad I can’t even cry over it. Paul Baumer is an infantry soldier in the German army in World War II, who goes to the front, gets sent back from the front, loses this friend and that friend and a new recruit (the new recruits go down like mayflies), moves through the world like an exhausted ghost. It’s shell shock in novel form and I can only read a chapter at a time because it clings to me afterward.

I’ve also started reading Caroline Winterer’s American Enlightenments: Pursuing Happiness in the Age of Reason, which is about the various iterations of enlightenment in eighteenth-century America (and I think also by extension in Europe; the book is about the cross-pollination of ideas between the two continents). So far she has written about eighteenth-century library travelogues - surely the best kind of a travelogue - and learned letter-writing networks, which filled me with a certain epistolary covetousness.

What I Plan to Read Next

One of my friends from Captain America fandom sent me Norman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding! Which is apparently quite famous in Australia. So probably that; anything called The Magic Pudding has to be a good antidote to All Quiet on the Western Front.

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