Thursday, January 25, 2007

Wintertime Can Only Mean One Thing... the temperature drops five degrees every hour and the weatherman is actually issuing a windchill warning, there's only one thing to do: get some fuzzy slippers, some nice warm cocoa, and a girly book. That's right, it's Chick Lit time once again! Last year's winter chick lit bender lasted for nearly three months. I read the collected works of Jennifer Weiner, Candace Bushnell, Janet Evanovich, Sandra Dallas and Plum Sykes. I went to the Utica Public Library and tried some ethnic chick lit. If it has shoes and a pink cover, I checked it out. In fact, I think one of the books I got was actually called "Pink".

This year, though, I'm trying to read through some of what I have here. I don't have much chick lit, but I do believe Big Stone Gap by Adriana Trigiani qualifies. The book follows the fortunes of Ave Maria, a 35-year old small-town pharmacist who's never been married and recently lost her mother. She leads a settled life among good friends as a pillar of her community when she receives a shock following her mother's death: the man she always thought was her father was not.

An author like Plum Sykes would have been much less subtle about the effect this has on her main character. She would've done something like make her new father be a multimillionaire, move Ave Maria out of the mountains and into New York, where she meets her half-brother who introduces her to a prince. No shit. But Trigiani explores this in a much more realistic way. Ave Maria's father does not make his appearance until nearly the end of the book. The only direct effect this revelation has on her life is that it forces her to sell off her home and her business (ceremonially, for a dollar) in order to keep them out of the clutches of her scheming aunt. What the revelation really does is force her to take a fresh look at her life, and that of her parents, and assess where she's been and where she wants to end up.

The best part of a book like this is the characters, and they're all here. There's the Crusty Old Broad, the Friendly Wise Slut, the Best Friend, the Prince Charming. She does give several of them a little twist: instead of being a woman, the Best Friend is a man and Ave Maria is in love with him. The Prince Charming acts like an asshole for a good portion of the book and is seeing another woman at the beginning of the book. The Friendly Wise Slut is the town librarian -- a stereotype I definitely enjoyed seeing reversed.

It was also nice to see an unmarried woman relatively content with her choices. Although she does choose marriage by the end of the book, of course, she's hardly sitting home pining. She directs the town pageant, she's on the rescue squad, she owns her own business and mentors a young person. Trigiani makes Ave Maria much more complex than many authors would have.

Apparently, this is a series. I do believe it has me hooked. It's not great literature, but it is great fun. And that's what we Chicks expect out of our Lit.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Blog II

Today, I visited Craigslist and was inspired. Surprising, because although I spend a fair amount of time on there, it doesn't usually inspire me to do to much. There was this guy on there who said that he took pictures of stuff on his way to work. I love taking pictures of stuff, and seeing other people's pictures, so I started my own blog which can be found here. Bear with me, as I'm still working on picking the colors, filling out the links section, and just generally making it as kick-ass as this one (HA!). But I hope you like it. Like I said on there, I know I'm not an expert photographer. But I do enjoy it, and I hope you enjoy seeing some of my pictures, too.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

How many library cards do you have?

It's always the first thing I do when I move to a new area. I've done a lot of that lately, so I actually have five right now: Buffalo and Erie County; Southern Adirondacks Library System; Mid-York Library System; Stockbridge Free Library and Plattsburgh City Library. It's kind of reassuring to know that I can go virtually anywhere in upstate and check out a book if I need to.

I don't know which one was my favorite. Plattsburgh was definitely my least favorite: funny hours, witchy staff, an aging, unimpressive collection, and high late fees. The "systems" had a pretty wide range. One of the ones in the Mid-York System is open three days a week and seriously looks like they haven't gotten any new books since the 1960s. But another one, less than 15 miles away, is housed in a brand-new building and is adding on. I went there on a Sunday and it was as hectic as Barnes & Noble is on the weekend!

The Buffalo system has long been respected as the Cadillac of library systems, but is starting to flag as the county faces financial difficulties. Last year, they closed several branches permanently, including the one my cousin's girlfriend worked at. I love the downtown branch's collection. They have a good local history section, and a good special collection, as well as every regular book you could want. But it's not very user-friendly. It's quite large and hard to find staff, and since they keep many books in storage, you need the staff. There's also no place to park -- I've gotten a ticket every single time I've been down there.

In terms of total experience, Stockbridge leads the pack. For a small library, they do an excellent job of keeping their collections up to date and offering flexible hours. Parking was an issue the few times I was unfortunate enough to have to drive there, but then again, parking is an issue everywhere in town. The staff was friendly and the interior of the library is very light and peaceful. The only bad thing is that they don't link to anyone else. If you want a book and they don't have it, you have to drive to Pittsfield.

How many cards do you have, readers, and which library is your favorite?

Saturday, January 20, 2007

A new book from George Saunders

Yay! It's about bloody time. I didn't even hear about it, or see it in stores, but according to a fansite it is, indeed, out!

I have loved George Saunders' work ever since I first read his short story
Winky in one of those "Best American Short Stories" anthologies (1999, perhaps?) His stories are full of weirdness, satire, humor and poignancy. If I'm in the wrong mood, they can make me cry. I've been pleased to see his star rising in The New Yorker: he lights up what I feel is their consistently weakest feature, the "Shouts and Murmurs". I've read his short stories here and there as they've been published in that magazine. Now they're in anthology form, and I can't wait to read them! I think I know what I'm doing with that $30 B&N giftcard I got for Christmas!

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Two-timing, soon to be quadruple-timing

I posted a few days back about the giant mound of unread books in my posession. I decided, after The Partly Cloudy Patriot, to tackle a book that's been shaming me for over three years now. College students know what I mean. You get assigned this great book, during the absolute worst week of the semester. You have choices to make. Even when you decide to forego personal hygiene, household cleanliness, and sleep, something always happens to fuck you over. You don't get it all done. You leave the book unread, you go to the class, and everyone's talking about how great it was. You vow to read it now that you have more time and you're through the worst of it. Except now, all you want to do is sleep.

I crashed so hard at the end of that semester that I found Simpsons re-runs too intellectual for weeks afterward. Then the next semester started. So I never read John Demos' classic study of Plymouth Colony, A Little Commonwealth. It sat there taunting me ever since: "You claim you're interested in this stuff, Library Diva, you pretend you care enough to make it your life's work, and here I sit, all 176 pages of me, and you haven't even picked me up since you put me on this fancy shelf!" So I started it, to stop the taunting once and for all.

Except, I still had the heavy lifting problem. Especially last night. I was just tired and wanted to have fun and it was 1AM, and I just couldn't read about the types of furnishings found in early homes (that's the part I'm at). So I started the most fun-looking book in my stack, Big Stone Gap by Adriana Trigiani.

Coincidentally, I had a job interview today for the position of curator at the home of a Famous American Woman Writer (FAWW). It went well, and they've invited me to do an on-site interview next week. I have never read any of FAWW's work, and want to make sure I don't despise it, preferably before the interview, so I will be reading (or at least starting) her best-known work this weekend.

Finally, someone is writing a novel set at the museum where I work now. She's been in touch with me many times over the past six months, and told me today that apparently there already was a novel based on events that happened there. She asked if I'd take a look at it for her, since she's worried that it might unconsciously influence her own work. I really like this woman. I like her premise, and frankly, I feel as though she has a shot at succeeding where I've failed in bringing the history to life. So I'm going to do it. So I'll have four books going at once. If my reviews are a little strange over the next week, you will know why!

Monday, January 15, 2007

Forecast: Partly Cloudy

Who are your heroes? It's a question most of us don't ponder much once those college essays are firmly in our rearview mirrors. Even then, on the cusp of adulthood, it was a tough question. We all have people we admire. Some of them, like Oksana Baiul (women's gold medalist, figure skating, 1994) and JK Rowling, we admire in ways that aren't connected at all to own lives, because they do things that we can't. Others, we admire in a more down-to-earth way, like my professional mentor K. I like the approach she's taken to her career and try to treat my own volunteers and interns the way she treats hers...but at the same time, I know her too well to call her a "hero." Then, there are those that we admire in a superficial way we don't want to admit to, like that girl who lives down the hall from me and looks perfectly put together even when she's washing sheets in the basement. Yet, I wouldn't call any of these people "heroes".

What I like about Sarah Vowell is that she does have heroes, and they're the same heroes many of us would have cited unashamedly in 4th grade, like Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson. In her book, The Partly Cloudy Patriot, she discusses Lincoln Worship, and (as the title suggests) the issues around the 2000 election and September 11th. But she also touches on personal topics: what it means to be a twin sister, her first year hosting the family Thanksgiving dinner, why she likes to play mini-basketball at the arcade with her friends. In foreshadowing of her next book, Assassination Vacation, she travels to Salem, MA and to Gettysburg, and considers Lincoln worship, and the bizarre commercialization of a 200-year-old hysteria. Her essay on the weirdness of Tom Cruise is an interesting read when viewed through the lens of the actor's antics over the past two years.

If you pick up this one looking for a theme along the lines of her better-known Assassination Vacation, you will be confused. This book reads like a collection of her columns, which it probably is (I gave it back to my mother, so I can't check). But it is an enjoyable read. If you have read AV and liked it, you'll probably like this one. If you read AV and hated it, steer clear of The Partly Cloudy Patriot, for it's more of the same. And, if you haven't read anything by Sarah Vowell yet, I do recommend AV over this one. It's a better showcase of her talents and her unique voice, and she also visits the institution where I work and interviews a dear friend of mine. And I swear, that does not bias me at all!

Friday, January 12, 2007

The Good Earth

Well, I've wound up with a new book despite myself. When I dropped in to return Kavalier and Clay today, Bonnie (yes, I am on a first name basis with the librarians!) told me that the book club will be reading The Good Earth for their next meeting, on February 7th. So I've got that one now, in addition to all of my others.

I was going to start The Partly Cloudy Patriot last night, in the hopes that it would be a quick read and I could return it this weekend, when I head home. But I was feeling more than "partly cloudy" myself last night. My shitty job, my shitty town, and the fact that if I want to see someone who cares about me I have to drive for two hours, just got to me. I wanted something as miserable as I felt, and that book sounded too damn cheerful for me. So I turned to the New Yorker's winter fiction issue.

Is it me, or is short fiction frequently depressing as hell? I still remember one from over a year ago, called "Early Music" by Jeffery Eugenides. It was about a man who had (along with his wife) dropped out of a PhD program in musicology. Now, he was a records clerk at an HMO, and his wife was trying to get a small business off the ground, making and selling scented fabric mice that you could put in the microwave to release their scent ("Mice N Warm"). They had twin girls and lived in an apartment without much money, but the guy had this clavichord. The down payment on it was a birthday gift, but he still owed on it and at the end of the story, they repossesed his clavichord. I still get tears in my eyes just thinking about it. I unfortunately read that right before an orchestra rehearsal last fall. During rests, or when our conductor was talking to us, I kept looking down at my viola and being thankful that my parents had bought it for me outright when I was 15, that whatever happens, no one can actually take it from me (well, except a robber, but you know what I mean).

Last night's story was by Louise Erdich, called "Demolition." It was about a boy who falls in love with a much-older woman and stays in town, tending the cemetery, to be near her, even though she marries someone else. He stays there for years and years, never quite giving up (and carrying on an affair with her the whole time). Like anything by her, it was very good and very moving. It matched my mood perfectly last night.

The weird thing is, when I fell asleep, I had such a great dream that when I woke up, my bad mood from last night was gone. Always nice when that happens, especially since it's not like things got substantially better between bedtime and my alarm going off.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

A lead on some good Houdini books

Did I mention that Josef Kavalier had ambitions of becoming a magician/escape artist and idolized Houdini? Michael Chabon included a bibliography at the end of the book. Houdini books were:

The Secrets of Houdini by J.C. Cannell
Houdini on Magic by The Man Himself
Houdini: The Man Who Walked Through Walls by William Lindsay Gresham
Houdini!!! by Kenneth Silverman

There is also a Houdini tribute websitethat he looked at.

These will go on my list of things to read after I read through some of the books I have here!

Just finished Kavalier and Clay

Work has been so slow that I actually took it in to read today. It made the day go by faster.

The entire time I've been reading this book, I've been thinking about what to say about it on here. One thing that's struck me the most is that Michael Chabon easily could've made this an academic book rather than a work of fiction. The story deals with comic books during WWII: how the storylines and heroes changed as America debated about whether or not to become involved with the war in Europe, then changed again after the Pearl Harbor attack settled the question; sexuality in comic books, both homo and hetero; questions of audience; artistic and historic influences; outsider metaphors. Instead, Chabon created the partnership of Josef Kavalier, a Jew who escaped from Prague in the coffin of a golem with the help of his onetime magic teacher, and Sammy Klayman, his wildly creative Brooklyn cousin. The two find an instant bond in artwork and comics, and form a partnership that succeeds beyond their wildest dreams.

My favorite parts of the book were seen through the eyes of their superheroes. Chabon shows the pair at work, drawing inspiration from events in their own lives. The character Luna Moth is inspired by a girl Josef fell in love with, and The Saboteur's real-life cognate was an anti-Semite whose office Josef broke into and trashed. Chabon has a wonderful character in Josef: artistic and vibrant, yet tortured by guilt over his family who remained trapped in Prague. Sammy is a little flatter. From the moment Sammy comes across, and is disturbed by, the sight of two men kissing at a party, you know exactly why and can predict what will happen next. The story does take a surprising turn at the bombing of Pearl Harbor. I'm not going to spoil it for you, dear readers, for this book is well worth a read. I'm glad I spent the additional forty cents in late fines to finish it without rushing.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Cutting up my library card

I know it seems a strange thing to do so soon after starting a blog about books, but I'm taking a self-imposed break from the library after I finish Kavalier and Clay (good so far, btw). But in looking around here, I have no fewer than 24 unread books kicking around!!! Titles:

Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Vol. 1, Diana Wynne Jones (sorry Kerry)
Lady Chatterly's Lover, DH Lawrence
Big Stone Gap, Adriana Trigani
Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier
Four Souls, Lousie Erdrich
Dante's Inferno, Pinsky translation (I got this one as a gift when I graduated undergrad!)
Good Wives, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov (Kerry, this is where your copy went to)
Imitation of Life, Fannie Hurst
The Rape of Nanking, Iris Chang (sorry Pete)
Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys
A Little Commonweath, John Demos (please don't take back my A in this class, Dr. Falk!)
The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde
Failure is Not an Option, Gene Krantz
The Greek Treasure, Irving Stone
The Book of Changes, stories by Tim Wynne-Jones (I got this at a conference years ago)
The Partly Cloudy Patriot, Sarah Vowell (I will give this book soon, Mom!)
The Age of Homespun, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
What's My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the US, Dave Zirin
Lives of the Saints, Richard McBrien
The Black Dahlia, James Ellroy
The Amulet of Samarkand, Johnathan Stroud
City of Masks, Mary Hoffman
Eragon, Christopher Paolini

Any opinions on which I should read first? I know that morally speaking, I should read either the Sarah Vowell book or The Master and Margarita first, since they're not mine. At the same time, I've had them both for over a year now...will another week matter? I'm kind of leaning towards Eragon since I saw the movie last week. I liked the movie a great deal, and I heard it sucked compared to the book, so I ought to LOVE the book. At the same time, I've been in a historical mood lately, so maybe one of the Laurel Thatcher Ulrichs? I just can't decide...but I am going to get these books read! It's my New Year's Resolution!

Sunday, January 7, 2007

One you'll want to "escape" from

When I saw Houdini's Box: The Art of Escape by Adam Phillips during my last visit to the library, I had to pick it up. Houdini's such an interesting figure, and one I know little about. I'd been looking for a good Houdini book for a long time without realizing it. I am still looking.

In fairness to the author, I did not read the jacket closely and didn't really know what I was getting. The book is not just about Houdini, but about the psychology of escape. The jacket promises that the author will examine Houdini, Emily Dickinson, and two patients: one, a middle-aged man who realizes he enjoys escaping from women more than developing relationships with them, and the other, a young girl who invites the author to play hide-and-seek but always "hides" in plain sight. That's not quite what Phillips does: he opens with the little girl, closes with Emily Dickinson, and alternates between Houdini and the middle-aged man for the rest of this truly terrible book.

The main problem with the book is that Phillips' framework does not work. Houdini and the middle-aged man are an ineffective juxtaposition. They lived and worked over 100 years apart, and whereas Phillips is intimately familiar with his patient's background and motivations, he can only guess at Houdini's. He provides background information on Houdini's life and career, but it is still not enough for the reader. Throughout the book, you're waiting for more on the little girl with the strange behavior, and by the time Emily Dickinson makes her appearance, you don't really care.

It's also horribly precious: for example, he notes that Houdini's first stage name was "Ehrich, Prince of the Air," and then goes on to explain to readers that the last syllable of that name is "rich" and the first syllable of his better-known stage name is "who". In another, equally horrifying passage, he quotes his middle-aged man describing the vagina of a woman as a "glistening bank", notes randomly that the first letter of the man's last name is "g", then half a page later, states that this patient sees him as a "listening bank." Yes, really!

If Phillips had a cohesive thesis in all this, I sure couldn't find it. The book is only 176 pages long, and I'm not sure if that was part of his problem or not. He may have done better with more space to develop these theories (I strongly suspect that this book is based on his dissertation or master's thesis), but as it is, the book has little to offer the historian, the pop psychologist, the fancier of Dickinson or Houdini, or anyone else for that matter. There are many more things wrong with this book, but the most scathing thing of all that I can say about it is that it is the only book I've ever given up on with less than 10 pages until the end.

Saturday, January 6, 2007

OT: Racism on the Internet

Well, since starting this blog, my main dilemma has been attracting readers. I want this to be a really good site, where people can come and enjoy what I have to say and leave their own comments. My sister suggested looking for other blogs to comment on with my URL as a way of getting out there a little. So I looked.

Man, I should've put my hip-waders on first. Between here and the Craigslist forums, the racism and xenophobia are just out of control! Why is this? Is it the anonymity of the internet? Are people really afraid of something else and pinning it on blacks and Mexicans as a convenient scapegoat? Have we really made any progress at all beyond allowing blacks and whites to sit near one another at restaurants? It's very depressing. If you have a non-racist blog, please reply to this post with a link. I promise to visit. I need my faith in humanity restored.

Books into Movies

Yesterday, I got attacked by the flu, which caused me to miss work and miss my weekend trip up north to visit my boyfriend. About all I was capable of (when I was feeling strong) was lying on the couch and watching movies. Since I was too sick to go out, I had to settle for what I had here and wound up watching The Two Towers and the Return of the King. I hadn't watched either of them for a while, and although I was never a big fan of the books, I did read them before I saw the movie and felt they were a pretty faithful adaptation. I watched some of the special features about the making of the film, and was struck by how faithful everyone involved in the production tried to be to the movie, from Peter Jackson himself right on down to the people in wardrobe and the weapons and armor guys.

I was trying to think of other movies that I felt were excellent adaptations of books. Here are a few that I liked:

Hamlet, directed by Kenneth Branagh. Maybe this techically doesn't count, since it's a play, but I felt Branagh cast his version well and brought a lot of humanity to the role of Hamlet. He also filmed my favorite part of the play, the graveyard scene (Act V, scene I) exactly as it had always appeared in my imagination.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. In Anthony Lane's review of Return of the King, he said that adapting a book for the screen wasn't about filming it exactly, it was about finding what was cinematic about the book and bringing it out. Of all the HP movies, I think this one comes the closest to meeting that standard. They made some radical changes, but they did them well. The graveyard scene in THAT movie is just as terrifying as I'd hoped, and the actor who played Moody did as well as Alan Richman does as Snape.

Memoirs of a Geisha. It could've been better, but overall it was very good, and also just a beautiful film to watch.

Some awful ones:

The Great Gatsby. WTF? This is one of my favorite books, and it would film so well. They made an absolute mess of it. I've never seen the entire movie, just the last half on cable once. It was so lousy that I've never been moved to see more.

The Black Cauldron. This is the second book in Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain, my favorite series growing up. Disney made an absolutely terrible animated version of it in the early 80's. The book is very dark and serious, dealing with large themes like the nature of heroism and of good and evil. It had some absolutely wonderful characters, including Eilonwy, a ballsy, funny sorceress princess. The movie turned Eilonwy into a wimpy cheerleader, left out many of the characters and had Taran leading everyone to a quick victory over evil, which he doesn't even do in the book -- he's only supposed to be around 16. Just about the most disappointing movie I've ever seen.

Flowers in the Attic. OK, nobody will mistake this book for great literature, ever. But I'm willing to bet that many women my age group, were, like myself haunted and captivated by this creepy series of books at some point in their lives. I wasn't allowed to see the movie when it came out, but I remembered how scary the previews were. I was really let down when I finally had the chance to see the movie as an adult. True, Flowers will not go on the shelf next to William Shakespeare, but it deserved a better adaptation than that.

What are some of your favorites and least favorites?

The Fourth Summer of the Traveling Pants is coming out this week

I was pretty surprised to see that the last time I was in Borders. I read the first three books last summer, and the last one felt like the end of the series. I really enjoyed the first three books. Ann Brashares succeeded at making her characters "real people" instead of caricutures, the way teenage girls often are in novels. It's easy to fill a book up with archetypes. Many authors have made entire careers off of it. Personally, I found something to relate to in each character, and I was pleased that she didn't give a "Hollywood ending" to each girl's story. It's an important message, absent from a lot of pop culture: your life, no matter how careful you are, is going to include some bad shit, but you can handle it. Each character does, in her own way.

She also didn't go too far the other way. When Bridget had sex before she was ready to, many people (especially the authors of the "problem novels" that I grew up with) would have had Bridget get pregnant or get syphilis or something. They always talk about the emotional consequences of doing it before you're ready in sex ed, but this is the first time I'd seen them actually explored in a novel or even in a movie. Carmen also could've easily spun out of control in dealing with both her father's and mother's remarriage, but rather than make her some kind of melodramatic 16-year-old alcoholic or drug abuser, she just worked it out.

At any rate, I'm interested to see where she's taking the series next!

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Update on Molly Ivins

Well, I still don't know what happened, but she is apparently back. She has a new column featured here. Good to see!

Good luck to Hedwig The Owl, my blog mentor

Hedwig is a friend of mine from Craigslist. She's a molecular evolutionary biologist and maintains a fabulous blog. She's had a rough 2006, but is starting 2007 off in a great way, as a panelist at a major conference, the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology Meeting. Her session is today. Since she's the one who inspired me to do this, and has given me much advice on getting started, I wanted to wish her luck from my very own blog! Kick ass today, Hedwig!

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

LD vs. Tama Janowitz

Every time I check out one of her books, I bring it back unread. This time is no different. I had A Certain Age and The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. Both are due back Monday, and since I'll be away this weekend, I can only read one. I started A Certain Age last night. Then I realized, I'd essentially read it already, when it was called The House of Mirth and it was by Edith Wharton.

Maybe I'm cold, but I didn't feel much sympathy for Lily Bart. She could've ended her troubles at virtually any time, by smearing her friend's money-stealing ass-grabbing husband all over Gilded Age New York. She was really her own worst enemy. And Florence of A Certain Age was shaping up to be the same way. So I pulled out my bookmark and started Kavalier and Clay. I hope I chose wisely. So far, I think I did.

I Heart Jen Sorensen!

For my birthday (6 months ago!) I received a book of Jen Sorenson's cartoons, Slowpoke America Gone Bonkers. Our conservative friends out there in Internetland will find them infuriating, but for liberals, that's one more reason to enjoy them!

Cartoons are surprisingly hard to write about without sounding like my nursery school carpool buddy, as he told my mother every detail of the Star Wars cassettes he had ("And then, Luke Skywalker pulled out his lightsaber, and then he said 'You killed my father' and then Darth Vader said 'I am your father' and then they fought..."). So I will refer my readers to where you can see fresh Jen Sorenson every Monday, fresh Tom Tomorrow every Tuesday, and read other liberal columnists like Ellen Goodman and Molly Ivins as they appear.

Speaking of which, does anyone know what happened to Molly Ivins? I haven't seen a column from her for quite a while. I know that she had breast cancer a while back, and I'm hoping she's just on vacation and not sick. Molly Ivins is one of my favorites -- I've been reading her ever since I was in middle school.

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

The Beast called Scunck, or an unromantic view of Colonial times

Late one night last week, I got drawn into an internet discussion with a conservative who stated that he wanted America to go back to its "traditional values". "Like the Founding Fathers," he said. Normally, this line of reasoning would just annoy me. On that particular night, it moved me to pick up a book I've been meaning to read for a long time: The Infortunate: the Voyage and Adventures of William Moraley, an Indentured Servant, edited and with an introduction by Susan Klepp and Billy G. Smith.

There are few surviving memoirs of Colonial life, and fewer still written by an average person. And William Moraley, who wrote this tale after his adventures in the colonies had ended, is most decidedly average. More than that, he's an eternal victim, as the title of his book alone reveals.

When Moraley came of age, he was more interested in drinking and carousing than learning his father's trade of watchmaking. He claims to have patched things up with his father, but was disinherited nonetheless, receiving only his father's tools and a small sum of money. His mother was sympathetic and gave him some extra money. Not satisfied with this, he tried unsuccessfully to sue her for more, then finally lit out for the colonies as an indentured servant.

The most intriguing part of the book comes here, as he describes a society still emerging but with a well-established economy, built environment, and legal system. His record includes mundane details of colonial life: he found the meat better and cheaper here than in England, but notes that the raisins and currants were terribly expensive. He describes his built and natural surroundings in great detail, including the "beast called scunck" which "if you approach them, will piss on their Tails and switch them in your Face and this Stink will continue above a week."

He weighs in on slavery, pitying the African slaves for the unfairness of the laws they live under and their burdensome workload. He sees some parallels between their situation and his own, but ultimately concludes that the "obdurate, stubborn disposition" of African slaves makes it necessary to treat them this way, and also acknowleges the need for their labor. His section on the Lenape Indians is riddled with misconception and romanticism; Smith and Klepp burst in, in footnotes, eight times in less than three pages to correct or clarify his statements.

Unsurprisingly, Moraley's problems with authority resurfaced in the new world, and he tried (unsuccessfully again) to win early, immediate release. He compromised with his master and served out only a portion of his indenture. After his indenture was over, he knocked around a bit. He got engaged to a woman with the idea of getting her money, but she broke the engagement when friends of his stole a ring she gave him and sold it. He ultimately fled the colonies and his debtors and returned to England. His first order of business was getting extremely drunk, then he returned home to his mother after knocking around a bit more. After his mother died, he made several mistakes with her estate, and his debts ate all of his inheritance.

Moraley's tale ends with a plea to think better of him than his story implies. And in this, the value of his tale shines through. It's not just a guide to creating more accurately furnished house museum interiors, or a book that will give you the ability to point out the inaccuracies in The Patriot. It will explode the myth, once and for all, that people were better or nobler back then. America was built by people like William Moraley every bit as much as by people like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson or George Washington. So take heart. People are not getting more selfish and whiny. Rather, there were always whiny, selfish people in the world, it's just that their stories were rarely recorded.

Welcome Everyone!

This is my very first blog, and I'm very excited about it! Thank you for visiting me, the Library Diva, here at my online home. I'm always open to feedback about this site or the books I post about. I hope you like my site, but seriously, if it sucks, I want to know!

I just finished reading a great book to tell you about. I should have that post up for you shortly. Meanwhile, thanks for visiting!