Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Potato peels and wartime

I mentioned earlier this month that all six of the book clubs in my coverage area have had a go at The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society this year, and decided it was my turn, too. I finished it last night, and found it enjoyable and funny.

Guernsey is a classic epistolary novel, told through a series of letters. Juliet is a columnist and author who lives in London. World War II has just ended and things are slowly settling back to normal. She's much relieved to have new subject matter (she's had a difficult assignment, writing an observational humor column during wartime to keep everyone's spirits up, even though she lost her ex-fiance and her apartment was bombed) and an idea for her new book comes from a surprising place: the Channel Island of Guernsey.

All I knew of Guernsey was their cows, so I was intrigued. After reading the novel, I'm not sure how much more I know, but I did learn that they were occupied by the Germans during WWII and nearly starved (maybe. I'll have to look it up, after the incident with the movie "Millions" when I was shocked to learn that Britain never converted to the Euro.) Juliet was intrigued by the presence of Potato Peel Pie in the society's title, and so was I. It dates back to the spontaneous founding of the Society, when one of its members held a secret pig roast that kept them out after curfew. On the way home, several of the Islanders were detained by German police, and one of them invented the literary society on the spot.

When the policeman asked to attend their next gathering, they had to create one, and one recalcitrant member stated that he wouldn't join unless there was food involved. Potato peel pie has potato peels as the 'crust' and mashed potato filling. After the war, one of the members contacts Juliet because he owns a book she had given away, and he wanted to know if she knew more about the author. They strike up a correspondance, and as Juliet learns more about wartime Guernsey, she decides it would make a perfect book and travels to the island, where she finds (predictably) romance and a home.

What makes this book are the characters, and the added elements of war and of books sustaining one through a difficult time (the initial subject Juliet asks them to muse upon). It's more lighthearted and entertaining than a book involving genocide, oppression and war has any right to be, but its tone never feels inappropriate. I can see why it's so popular among book clubs, but I have to say that while I found it a good read, I did not find it terribly thought-provoking and wonder what the clubs discuss.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Girls who like Girls

So, it's a bit off my usual fare, but I wanted to make a note of something that made me happy recently. I've talked on here before about how I play WoW. A new expansion has just come out and they've made quite a few changes, including making everyone get five more levels and raise their profession skills. The profession skills I picked back when I first started my character were mining and jewelcrafting. Mining is easy to skill up: just mine whatever you see. Jewelcrafting takes more time, and there is a daily quest for that profession. There are five or six different ones, and you get a random one each time you go.

The questgiver is a female blood elf named Marith Lazuria. She is stationed outside the jewelry shop in the main city (Horde city anyway). WoW gets criticized a lot for using sex to sell the game to guys, and all the criticism is absolutely justified. The female blood elves are sort of the Playboy Bunnies of the game. Gear that looks normal on other races fits them like clothing rejected by a stripper as being too provocative.

But. When I went down to see Marith Lazuria yesterday, she had a quest for me titled "A Present for Lila." She explained that she was trying to impress a female boat captain named Lila and wanted me to cut some purple gems that she was going to fashion into a necklace 'to match her pretty hair.' When I turned the quest in, Marith expressed glee that she'd now be able to turn her special lady's head, that she had a huge advantage now over a female rival in the Alliance capital, and also said something that implied Lila only had one eye (but that's sort of besides the point).

I loved it. I thought it was terrific that the game developers decided to put a lesbian NPC in the game and not make a big deal out of it. You do many similar quests to help an NPC man impress a woman, and I think a few vice versa, and they just fit this one right in. Studies have shown that WoW has a large adult player base, but a lot of teens play it too. Since many people say they value its escape from real life, I imagine that maybe some of the teens who play are questioning or working up the courage to come out and value the game as a haven from harassment. Maybe seeing this will help them.

It seems like there are so few images of gay and lesbian people just being *people*, not being campy or conforming to some stereotype, or where their gayness is an essential part of the character. Marith is just another female blood elf with an impressive rack, long hair and diaphonous dress making players run around doing her bidding. I think that the inclusion of more images like that in pop culture is an essential step towards greater acceptance. Marith's presence in the game is a reminder that everyone should do what they can to promote acceptance. Every day when I go to find out what she wants of me today, I will view her as a reminder that if the developers of a notoriously sexist fantasy game found a way to do what they could, I can too.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

I am Hutterite

I'm posting tonight mostly because I want to, not because I've got anything earthshattering. I did finish one of the books from my last post, though: I Am Hutterite by Mary-Ann Kirkby.

Kirkby faced a dilemma in writing this book. She was raised in a Hutterite community until the age of 8, and wrote this book a couple of decades after her family left. She stayed in touch with her friends from the community, but the fact remains that she had at most four years of really solid memories to draw on, and had to get the rest from her family and Hutterite friends. And unfortunately, it kind of shows. With a couple of exceptions, the Hutterite portions read exactly as if the person writing them just asked around about community life. They're well-written and interesting, but they don't have that emotional depth and 'insider' feeling that the title and jacket of the book lead the reader to expect.

The central figure in the family's decision to leave is also ambiguous. In some chapters, he's a tyrant: the horrible man who gave them a hard time about seeking asthma care for one of their children and deliberately withheld crucial information about the health of a different child, leading to its death. In other chapters, though, he's an intelligent, respected leader, beloved by everyone, who has the author over for Christmas Eve and is good with children. But the conflict there is never really explored.

When I fail to connect with a book, I often blame myself, and this time is no exception. I read the short book over a period of about two weeks, a handful of pages here, a page there, a chapter before bed: who can connect with anything read in that manner? Yet: the book also didn't reach out and grab me, the way After the Falls by Catherine Gildiner and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers did. With those books, all I wanted to do was read them, yet I never wanted to reach the end. This one didn't do that for me.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Stench of Death: last weekend's library haul

Dark times are upon our library system. Our county executive called for the system's budget to be slashed, causing public outcry but suspiciously low-key response from the institution's trustees. At the eleventh hour, county legislators voted to restore the funding that had been slashed. Our county executive is notorious, though, for simply ignoring things of that nature. Yeah, he's an asshole.

But the plan that was devised to deal with these cuts entails cutting hours at a good portion of their branches. At the branch I frequent, however, they decided to cut not hours but services. They have a wonderful humanities/nonfiction collection that's very fun to walk through. On the second floor, they have a large collection of business and employment-related resources for all levels of the job market. Whether you're the type who needs a book to tell you to shower and dress nicely for a job interview, or whether you're looking for pointers on how to start your own company, that section of the library can help. What they're doing is closing that floor, moving a good portion of the job stuff into the humanities, and kicking the humanities stuff into closed stacks.

This transition was well underway when I wandered through the doors last weekend. Lots and lots of empty shelves. Fewer employees around, already. Very sad stuff.

Anyway, I got a fair amount of books, although it was another one of those visits where the majority of my haul was of dubious interest past the initial impulse. So here's the list:

Vamp: the rise and fall of Theda Bara by Eve Golden. I know the name from the Country Bear Jamboree at Disneyworld (it features a "Teddy Beara"). Like Runnin' Wild, the documentary also inspired me to pick this one out.

Clara Bow: Runnin' Wild by David Stenn. Covered elsewhere on this blog.

Accordian Crimes by Annie Proulx. I like her a lot, and believe this is the only one I haven't read.

Hadrian's Wall: a novel by William Dietrich. It seems that I don't really see too many books about that period in England. I've seen the real thing, it'd be neat to know a little more about it.

The Blue Moon Circus by Michael Raleigh. This is a re-read. I can vividly remember getting it out of the Schenectady Library when I was doing my internship, lying on my loaned bed in my small apartment with the train noises drifting in through the open window, reading this book. It was just a joy. I bumped into it accidentally, grabbed it just to look at it again, and simply could not put it back.

Disco Boy by Dominc Knight. Goddamn this one. It was a seven-day book that I had no interest in one I got it home, but I kept it for three days too long. Nothing sucks worse than paying fines on something you didn't read.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer. Part of my newspaper job is processing all the events that come in from the library, the senior center and the community at large. I think every single book club that submits has read this one. I decided to find out why.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Due to my newfound love of Charles Dickens, a recent Facebook meme about how many books you've read off a list purportedly developed by the BBC, and the season in general, I picked this one up.

Firefly Lane by Kristin Hannah. I have no idea WTF it's about but love the title. I also noticed that book clubs around here read this.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. I'd always assumed this was some sort of crappy romantic melodrama. Then the movie came out and I found it what it was really about. Sounds cool, and creepy as hell.

I am Hutterite: the fascinating true story of a... by Mary-Ann Kirkby. The receipt cuts off the subtitle. But I picked this one out as my next read, and am currently about 50 pages in. Subcultures and religious communes interest me. I even used to work at a museum that used to be one. I like memoirs, I don't know much about the Hutterites and this one just stood out. A longer review will come, but it's interesting so far. The author does a good job of taking us inside without being too self-conscious and allowing the differences between mainstream and Hutterite cultures to emerge fairly naturally.

So that's my haul. I'm hoping there are some books there the next time I go.

Monday, December 6, 2010

An early victim of Hollywood

I've mentioned before that I enjoy Hollywood stories with a heavy dose of tragedy and ruin. I also enjoy ones, from time to time, that teach something about how the industry used to be, or some inner working of it that normally doesn't get much attention (no one died of a drug overdose in The Devil's Candy, but it was terrific to learn so much about how films are made). Clara Bow: Runnin' Wild by David Stenn does both. It's not only a portrait of a very tragic Hollywood heroine, but gives some clues as to what it was like in the early days of the film industry.

I got the idea to look for this book by watching the TCM documentary "Moguls and Movie Stars," which chronicles the first 60 or so years of the industry. Clara Bow was briefly mentioned in one of the chapters, how her wild reputation caught up to her and she was forced into retirement well before her 30th birthday. It got me wanting to know more, so when I saw this book at my library, I was all over it.

David Stenn did meticulous research on it, and one feels, did it just in the nick of time. The book came out in the late 1980s. An epilogue tells what became of all the players. In 2010, one can probably say pretty safely that the short answer is "they all died." He was able to conduct a few interviews, access fragile primary sources like fan magazines before they disintegrated, and it's a good thing he did. It's a fascinating story, and one that shouldn't be lost.

Clara Bow came from about the most awful background imaginable. Alcoholic and abusive father, volatile, weak, mentally ill mother who only gave birth to her as a sort of suicide attempt, grinding poverty in a bad part of Brooklyn -- that was Clara's background. In an incident that not only could have been the plot of a film, but I think actually was the plot of several, she won a contest at the age of 16 sponsored by a film magazine, with the first prize being a role in a movie. That was her big break.

Stenn shows her as exploited by nearly everyone around her. The film studios realized almost immediately that she was a huge draw and that she was uneducated, naive and easily taken adavantage of. So they did, working her as hard as they could for as little money as possible. Her father spent the rest of his life both controlling her and sponging off her. Many of the men she was romantically linked with were more interested in headlines than in a relationship.

He also plays up what a big star she was, in a way very different from the megastardom our own fragmented culture has to offer. Most of the country went to the movies every single week during the 1920s. And it was proven over and over that people would go see any piece of shit starring Clara Bow. Stenn says that she was caught in a very odd conundrum: being such a strong draw through her personality, the studios were unwilling to squander a strong script on her, since audiences would turn up to watch her wash dishes for the length of a film. Hers didn't need a good leading actor, a strong plot or anything else, just her. As a result, most of her movies were rather crappy and few survive.

An inside view of the calamity that talkies caused is also a high point of this biography of Bow. Stenn relates how the only man in Paramount Studios who understood sound recording suddenly had his salary increased tenfold and became the most feared and respected man on the lot until Paramount wisely took away his power by getting more people trained. The early technology was cumbersome and overly sensitive and actors had to learn their craft all over again.

Clara suffered from persistent "mike fright" that would tie her tongue even on simple lines. On the set of one of her final films, she breaks down over her inability to read a line after repeated tries, grabs the boom mike and punches it until crew members pry her off, at which point she flees to her trailer and collapses. The line she was trying to say? "You can't do this to us."

There was a great deal of scandal about Clara, too, at a time when that was not tolerated at all. The scandal, her mike fright, and the fact that the studio had pushed her too hard for too many years combined. She did indeed leave film at a young age. She married Rex Bell and had two sons with him, but it turned out that her problems were more serious than overwork and a high-pressure environment. She was diagnosed as a schizophrenic at an inpatient facility. She lived apart from her family with a nurse after that, and died in the 1960s of a heart attack.

I mention this because I thought the denouement was just as interesting as the rest of her story. I'm glad that Stenn went into the amount of detail that he did (there are over 40 pages of notes). It's a lively story, and will join the ranks of the autobiographies of Lana Turner and Lillian Gish for well-told Hollywood tales.