Sunday, December 31, 2017

Book Review: The Bluebird and the Sparrow

A Fair Trade Book (so buy it now, while it's still one!)

Title: The Bluebird and the Sparrow

Author: Janette Oke

Date: 1995

Publisher: Bethany House

ISBN: 1-55660-612-0

Length: 251 pages

Quote: "You wait until you see your new sister. She's such a beautiful girl."

And with that non-answer to little Berta's anxiety about their mother, their loving father sets Berta up for a lifetime of resenting baby Glenna.

What you'll like: One of the very sweet, sex-free, historical novels that are more about character development than romance, but manage a happy romantic ending, for which Janette Oke is famous. (She's written more than seventy of them...and she started late; I remember when Love Comes Softly was new.) 

Also, it has an international feeling. The setting is somewhere on the Great Plains of North America, but is it in the U.S. or Canada? Oke was born in Canada but has lived in both countries, and wrote a lot of novels that let readers imagine them taking place on whichever side of the border they prefer.

What I didn't like: One-dimensional Lifetime Channel character development--and romance. I can believe that something like this happened, and that some minister or counsellor remembered it the way Oke tells it. I can't believe Oke is telling us what really happened.

Berta has no talent, no vocation, very few relationships, few real interests. She wants love, yes, but if love were all she wanted in life, would she have done so well for so long without it? In real life, heterosexual people who can choose to stay single and celibate usually have a talent or vocation into which they direct the energy that would otherwise be taken up by romance. In the case studies in popular psychology books, the real passion is, like the person's real name, likely to remain private.

Although they look very much alike, Berta thinks Glenna is much prettier and more lovable than Berta is. That happens in real life. I've known several people who, as I do, rated a sibling much better looking than they were. I've not noticed it blighting any of those people's lives, the way other factors that were noticeable in the story of Glenna's birth seem to blight Berta's life. During the peak of selfconsciousness shortly after puberty, a lot of people in search of words for their hormonal anxieties do choose words like "Some other person X is so gorgeous and I'm so ugly and awkward and half-grown." Usually by age twenty this perception has matured into something like "I wish I had X's [insert feature] but I'll get by." Or the self-serving bias finds some other way to kick in. There's something liberating about saying, "I act, model, sing, host/ess, tour-guide, [insert name of job always awarded to reasonably good-looking young people]...but my sister/brother is really good-looking."

But let's say Berta is not just your typical sibling who inherited Grandma's chin, Grandpa's nose, or some other feature the other sibling was spared; she's the one who becomes a psychological case because she's managed to convince herself that she's ugly and unlovable. Not merely a sparrow to the sibling's bluebird; a warthog. I can suspend disbelief in that. Berta really has shrunk herself down to a psychological case history. Not only her relationships to her family, but her entire outlook on life and work have been dominated by this misbelief that she's ugly and unlovable. She has no saving talent to distract her from this painful belief. No-talents really are hard to love. Nevertheless people like Berta; she's offered a job, and she's competent. I find that harder to swallow.

In real life a resume like Berta's doesn't go with the attitude toward work that Oke seems to want us to accept as being Berta's: "I don't want a job, I want to be a full-time housewife, but I'll have to do a job, because I am a warthog." People who hold that belief don't get permanent full-time jobs in libraries. Too many people who are more pleasant to work with want those jobs.

Berta's work history suggests a different set of beliefs about self and work, something like, "I want to be independent and live alone. I'm not really passionate about books as such, but I like managing my own work day and might as well manage a library as a store or office." A lot of people feel that way, and if we don't think long and hard about marrying anybody, we should. Two reasonably independent people can have a beautiful partnership. One independent person and one clingy, needy person...

Berta doesn't need a husband, but seeing her mother and the senior librarian grow senile in similar ways apparently convinces her that--what? that celibacy does not prevent aging? Also, no doubt, being alive at a period when war has made any able-bodied young man a bit of a trophy persuades her to take the one life has handed to her. I don't believe Berta's initial refusal and subsequent acceptance of marriage reflects her awareness that she is lovable. I can believe Berta was a typical member of a generation in which young women were instructed to reject the first few proposals just to prove the man's sincerity. I can believe she might even have developed a fear of childbirth as a result of being in the house when Glenna was born. I can even believe that, since her admirer is an old schoolmate whom she didn't like when they were children, she wants to make sure he's learned better manners. But we're not shown any of these reasonable thoughts running through Berta's mind; just more of her lingering-adolescent self-esteem problem.

I suppose it may have happened, somewhere, that some emotionally abusive church group somewhere browbeat someone into believing s/he was unlovable and someone else into believing s/he needed to offer love to this unlovable person as an act of self-sacrifice. That might have happened--but a marriage proposal between a couple like that wouldn't sound like a romantic happy ending.

At a less extreme level, of course, I can believe that a courting couple enjoy negating each other's insecurities. "You're not a 'little kid' any more." "You look better than your sister does now." Etc. ad infinitum. But Oke seems to want us to believe that the story is about Berta's learning how to accept and express love, and that's what the story does not give us. Instead it gives us a matched pair of misbeliefs: (1) that accepting love means marriage, and (2) that for someone who's maximized personal space and minimized emotional attachments all her life, learning to express love is a matter of saying, once, that she wants to be loved. Neither of these beliefs is true; both do harm.

Oke wanted credit for writing novels that showed how Christians' character development allowed Christians to experience True Love instead of mere infatuation. Some of her novels meet that standard--see Dana's Valley. I think this one falls short. Publishers read Love Comes Softly and said "Can you give us forty more romances like this one?" and Oke pounded them out as fast as she could, all in a pleasant readable style, but some more realistic than others.

The Bluebird and the Sparrow is not a bad read, though, if you're looking for a sweet wholesome romance or a complete collection of this super-seller author's novels. It's a Fair Trade Book; if you buy it here, $5 per book + $5 per package (two of these thickish novels plus a skinny picture book, or books, for the children would fit in one $5 package) + $1 per online payment, we'll send $1 to Oke or a charity of her choice. 

Friday, December 29, 2017

Book Review: More News of the Weird

A Fair Trade Book

Title: More News of the Weird

Author: Chuck Shepherd et al.

Feature's web site, from which primary author retired this summer:

Date: 1990

Publisher: Plume / Penguin

ISBN: 0-452-26545-2

Length: 210 pages

Illustrations: drawings by Drew Friedman

Quote: "As a condition of the sale, members of the shaven-headed sect agreed to wear wigs so they wouldn't frighten the neighbors."

In the concluding section of this book, Shepherd and collaborators discuss the nature of weird news: "Most of the stories in News of the Weird are funny, but 'funny' is only a small subset of 'weird.'" Some true stories of "weird" violence are horrific: "But murders and mutilations...can hardly be learned from reading books...there is at least as much evidence that calling a problem to attention by ridicule might prevent or lessen the incidence of the problem." The collaborators "view ourselves mainly as recorders of human behavior," with some interest in the way "the study of strangeness gives that we're personally not so peculiar. Our work gives us the opportunity to tell ourselves, 'I thought I was a little strange, but then again, I never stood on the front lawn wrapped in aluminum foil.'"

One of the weirdest stories was later reprinted as The Concrete Enema. Yes, it seems a man allowed a very close friend to give him one. If you've ever wondered what that would feel like, this book provides the following hint: The lighthearted lavender lads confessed all in the hospital emergency room.

Also during the 1980s:

* "Appealing his prison-escape conviction...a convict said that he was just trying to escape the prison's 'drug-filled environment.'"

* "Three teenage boys...stole a woman's purse and tried...jumping onto a five-by-four-foot slab of ice floating down the Hudson River. They were stranded on the ice until rescued by police helicopter."

(Yes, those "Least Competent Criminals" stories have always been the hilarious highlights of "News of the Weird.")

* A man "rammed his car into ten trees and three street signs...Police quoted him as saying that he only gets that way when there is a lunar eclipse."

* "In 1989, people in Houston, Pontiac (Michigan), Miami, and Tampa committed suicide minutes after...minor traffic infractions."

* A man "filed a lawsuit asking $180,000...claiming damages from the church's preaching to him over the years to abstain from sex."

At some of Washington, D.C.'s Metro stations, in the early 1980s, someone thought it was cute to name the drop-off lanes "Kiss & Ride." The original idea was supposed to have been housewives dropping off their commuter husbands. My school friends liked to chortle over the possibilities: "Kiss the bus? Kiss the driver?" Sure enough, in New York, in 1989 a school bus driver was "accused...of molesting several child establishing a 'kiss the driver' day."

In the 1990s everyone chortled over the weird news item that a North Carolina traffic cop pulled over "one of those guys who think they're Richard Petty," only to discover that the driver was Richard Petty, King of NASCAR, newly retired from racing and a serious candidate for elected office. In the 1980s the bar of weirdness had already been set higher than that: "H. John Rogers, a candidate for the U.S. Senate...had just been detained four days at a Wheeling mental health center for spitting in the face of a police chief," and, when asked whether Rogers thought this incident would affect his campaign, " up...and punched [the interviewer] in the face." (And you thought the Alabama special election was "Strange"?)

Some ask whether "News of the Weird" is real news. It is. Watch your local newspaper carefully, and you can marvel at the number of weird stories that just don't rate weird enough for Shepherd's carefully selected weekly column. From my part of the world, the report of a convict in the Sullivan County, Tennessee, jail having seriously complained that "we are treated like criminals" made "News of the Weird," but the story of the Hawkins County man who managed to violate the traffic code in nineteen ways in one ride didn't make it...I suppose anybody who really wants to lose their license and/or go to jail can think of lots of different ways to violate traffic codes, all at once.

Regular features in "News of the Weird" do, however, include art projects and grant proposals, where the weirdness is fed by the need to make each project original. The painting-buying public may believe there's room for another landscape painter known for realistic portrayals of natural light, like Thomas Kincade, but nobody's going to get an award from one of those foundations by proposing to paint beautiful sunlit landscapes. The religious image defaced with dung was merely the art project that made headlines in the 1990s. Gems of art, science, and miscellaneous inventiveness immortalized in this book include:

* "a restaurant in a suburb of Winnipeg...called 'The Outhouse,' built on the theme of toilets," shut down "because it lacked adequate restrooms."

* "a pistol-shaped package that allowed children to drink...juice by holding the barrel in their mouths and squeezing a trigger."

* "a bumper sticker...'Have You Slugged Your Kid Today?'"

* "an art show...of elaborate drawings...done on Etch-A-Sketch, at prices from $200 to $500."

* a wheat product that "could be used to manufacture...lightweight armor, a wood substitute, and pasta."

And pages 98-99 document a real incident, in 1982, that inspired Felice Holman's novel The Blackmail Machine.

There are quite a few subcategories in the ever-popular "Least Competent Criminals" section of "News of the Weird," and I'm not even going to try to pick out highlights. Buy the book and pick your own top five. If you laugh at stories where criminals punish and/or incriminate themselves, never read any "News of the Weird" column or collection in public.

Despite a number of un-funny, chilling stories most stories in "News of the Weird" are funny, and there's a high probability that reading this collection may cause not only inappropriate laughter but also inadvertent coffee mis-breathing, or should that be mal-spiration, or maybe you have a more yuppified phrase for the phenomenon of workers snorting coffee onto their computer keyboards? It's recommended for bathroom and bedtime reading.

When Shepherd retired, vintage "News of the Weird" books became collectors' items rather fast. This one has actually been reprinted, so Shepherd probably prefers that you buy it as a new book, but you can get News of the Weird, More News of the Weird, Beyond News of the Weird, and The Concrete Enema, together, for $5 per book plus $5 for the package plus $1 per online payment, from the address at the very bottom of the screen. That's $25 (or $26) for the four-book set, until the publisher offers reprints as a set.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Book Review: Richard Simmons' Better Body Book

A Fair Trade Book

Title: Richard Simmons' Better Body Book

Author: Richard Simmons

Author's web site:

Date: 1983

Publisher: Warner

ISBN: none

Length: 354 pages

Illustrations: many black-and-white photos

Quote: "Please do not leave this book on your coffee table to collect dust. It doesn't like coffee OR dust...This Better Body Book belongs with your body so it can make your body better. (Now, repeat this sentence five times in a row. See, you're already getting the hang of exercise!)"

Ah, 1983. To me and the people I knew it was axiomatic: you made time to watch television, or you made time to exercise. If you were an interesting person it was the latter. Alternative scenarios--you were on the road and didn't know where it was safe to take a walk?--didn't interest us. Exercise choices did. Girls and couples walked. Boys could also play team sports, acceptably. (I knew girls who were pretty and popular, who played basketball, but there was still a stereotype--the slang word for kids who were into team sports definitely meant "male" and girls who got into team sports were stereotyped as large and lonely.) Exercise "drill" was part of certain extremely boring high school classes, of which you took the bare minimum required by law while missing as many actual class meetings as possible, or military training, which was what some kids I knew were doing instead of going to school in 1983. I don't think I ever watched Richard Simmons' show. Nor Jane Fonda's, either.

So I had to read this book to learn what Simmons' show was all about. TV already had an exercise program for Real Men and the women who liked looking at them, led by Jack LaLanne. For women there was Lilias Folan's show, which offered mellow stretch-and-bend warm-ups for those preparing to take a real yoga class, and Jane Fonda's, which offered aerobic workouts and the opportunity to identify yourself as a loyal left-winger. All three of those people had Perfect Bodies with classic telegenic faces. So, for those who might have felt intimidated by all that perfection, there was also Richard Simmons, a self-described endomorph (person with a tendency to be fat) with frizzy hair, pulling clown faces (he lists those as exercises, for fans who were interested, in the book) and wisecracking about how he was choosing to reshape his body.

"The inside contour of the thigh is the gracilis, which is taken from the Spanish word gracias, which is what you say to God if you happen to have a trim, tight gracilis that doesn't bulge or sag."

(If you remember having studied that gracilis is from a Latin word for "thin," while gracias is from the same Latin root as "grace" and "gratitude," it's funnier.)

"[T]he size of the stomach has little to do with whether or not you are 'fat' in that area. It's the buildup of fat cells between the intestines and your skin that makes you look fat."

"The secret to good posture is to pretend you are of royal birth."

And so on. The book gives more space to images of stretch-and-bend exercises as done by Simmons, some with his tongue visible and others with his tongue parked more properly in his cheek, enhanced to call attention to which muscles are being stretched and how far in each direction they should go. There's a steady, consistent theme: You're not going to look sillier than Simmons, even if you try, while doing these exercises. I'm sure many people found that message very comforting, and still do.

Fair disclosure: I still, even though my graciles could use some toning, find it extremely difficult to repeat body movements five times in a row. I tend to feel that life's too short. Buying a book won't fix that, although doing stretch-and-tone exercises in time to music that you actually like to hear, first thing in the morning, may help. (Gyms tend to pipe in the kind of music that motivates me to move rhythmically toward the wall and yank plugs out of it, not to do exercises. It is possible to exercise to music that has a subtle rhythm, that is not dominated by a metallic, monotonous, hypertensive back-beat. If you can dance to it, even a waltz or polka, you can exercise to it.) Or you may, like me, just have to look for some sort of job that is not normally done by old ladies, and, if told you look ridiculous weeding gardens or painting walls, show people some of these pictures of Richard Simmons.

If you seek inspiration to work off some of those winter holiday calories by doing indoor exercise "drill" until the weather outdoors gets nicer, here are 200 easy, rhythmic moves to do at any pace and to any music of your choice, with jokes and clown faces. You can buy it here for $5 per book + $5 per package + $1 per online payment (contact information is below the Amazon giftcard widget at the very bottom of the screen); two or three copies of this book, or one copy of Richard Simmons' Better Body Book and two standard-size books, will fit into one $5 package. You may (or may not) find lower prices on Amazon, but if you buy it here we'll send $1 to Simmons or a charity of his choice.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Book Review: The Boy Who Could Make Himself Disappear

Title: The Boy Who Could Make Himself Disappear

Author: Kin Platt

Date: 1968

Publisher: Chilton / Dell

ISBN: none

Length: 247 pages

Quote: "Now if my name were Armand Jean du Plessis de Richelieu, or Nikolai Andreevich Rimski-Korsakov, or Maximilien Francois Marie Isidore de Robespierre--I could possibly understand your having a little difficulty pronouncing it...But Rawling is such a simple name. Don't you think?...Hardly that funny, Miss Wide-in-the-Beam."

Trigger alert: this is a story about child abuse--not sexual abuse, but the emotional and physical kind.

Partial spoiler alert: Kin Platt became famous for writing trivial mystery-adventure stories; he also wrote some mysteries aimed at children that were funny and informative, and then he also wrote this psychological study, which was also marketed to children. I read it in grade eight and thought it was well done. Rereading it as an adult, I still think it's well done. Excellently done. So well done that, although it works as a story for junior high school students, I think it may have been intended for adults. To explain why, in this review, I have to discuss the denouement, although I won't say a word about the climax of the story.

The concept of child abuse--as distinct from simply physical "cruelty"--was new in the 1960s. Roger Baxter is a poster boy for all the different kinds, except, so far as the story explicitly mentions, sexual abuse. In the quote above, Mr. Rawlings is self-identifying as one of those teachers who thought verbal abuse, humiliating junior high school kids before their peers, was a good teaching technique. There were many of them in real life; they weren't perceived as abusers, they often acquired tenure, and some of them didn't retire until the 1990s.

Then there are the therapists, who help Baxter in some ways, but may at times be making things worse by embarrassing him--or by stirring up memories; Baxter burned his tongue, as a much younger child, on a styptic pencil, so when the speech therapist tries to guide his tongue with a little white stick, he panics. Platt dedicated this book to a therapist friend and presents the therapists, especially “bulldog-like” Miss Clemm, as if he were consciously trying not to make them seem like idealized images of his friend. Miss Clemm does a lot for Baxter but she's not heroic, or even pretty—a very ordinary kind decent woman, worth a hundred of Baxter's glitzy mother, and nothing more.

Both of Baxter's parents are abusers. His mother spends more time with him and thus has abused him more than his father. His father is distant, hostile, and uncommunicative; his mother is a real sadist. Nevertheless, when they divorce, his mother gets custody of him and moves him from Southern California to New York City. In one way this is good for Baxter: he has some sort of mental block about pronouncing the R sound in English, and although some of his teachers are snarky about it, in NYC dialect the R sound is almost optional. Almost. In situations where he can give his name as "Bax-ta" he's cool, but he hates people hearing him stammer, reluctantly, "Wa-ja."

(In 1968 dictionaries mentioned that the traditional English pet form of Roger was "Hodge"...too bad people like the older Baxters didn't bother to look up that sort of thing. Probably they didn't own a full-sized dictionary.)

In other ways, too, New York turns out to be a good place for Baxter. His mother rents a flat in a building where Baxter meets a beautiful model, who finds him amusing, and her friend, Roger Tunnell, a member of the Greatest Generation who teaches him how to say "Roger" with a French R sound, which Baxter can make. Reflecting on a violent incident he's witnessed, Baxter thinks the gang wouldn't dare mess with his mother's new man, "the bullfighter," presumably as cruel as his mother is, and not with Tunnell, who is kind, either, "not if they wanted to live." Later, when the various abuses in Baxter's life reach a crisis, Tunnell comes to help...though how much a male "stranger" can help Baxter, we're not told.

Baxter is not a good student, and he seems very young for his age, but he shows more empathy than the average twelve-year-old boy. Abuse itself doesn't necessarily produce empathy--it can produce sociopathic cruelty--but abused children do learn, much earlier than healthier, happier children, to "read" other people's nonverbal displays of emotion, which can help them recognize impending violent rage and get away from the abuser. Empathy and compassion usually appear around the time of puberty, which Baxter seems to be barely approaching, and Platt shows us that his higher than usual sensitivity to other people's pain is not accompanied by any special sensitivity to their other moods. In psychological terms, Baxter's precocious sensitivity is not true spiritual compassion; it's a Freudian coping mechanism, his projection of his own pain onto others.

In real life, people like Baxter can seem very kind as long as they believe others are suffering, then turn resentful, neglectful, or even abusive when the others seem to be less miserable. They may be drawn to social work, where they empathize endlessly with the whines of callous welfare cheats who learn how to milk their sympathy, but show no empathy whatsoever toward people who intend to get back on their financial feet. Others become the kind of elementary school teachers who ooze empathy toward slow learners, but project onto fast learners the emotions they used to feel for school bullies and abusive teachers. Some are drawn to "charity"--like Lillian Reardon in Atlas Shrugged. They are horrible, because their coping mechanism looks so nice that people, including themselves, fail to spot the hostility barely covered by their thin layer of selective compassion. They feel others' pain—and they batten on it. They're the kind who've given us a system for “helping” homeless people and gutter drunks that leaves no room for helping people keep their homes or stay sober.

Baxter is by no means the worst-case type of victim of child abuse--that'd be the child who accepts the idea that might is right and starts right in abusing the first child he finds who's smaller than himself. But although Platt shows us Baxter's pathological empathy in very lifelike, memorable images--Baxter tries to save a fawn from a wildfire in California, gives money to a beggar because he's been unable to save the victim of a gang beating in New York--it'd be a mistake to think that Baxter is really going to become a kind person, much less that abuse is going to make him more kind. If he'd been a real boy, by now he might have become a kind man, or an ooey-gooey social worker--or a true schizophrenic. In 1968 there was no way to predict which.

At the end of the story, Baxter is still in wide-open howling need of examples of real compassion as practiced by real men. In high school I accepted The Boy Who Could Make Himself Disappear as a much better than average specimen of the Story Written to Educate Teenagers About the Problems Other People May Have, and as that it works...but as an adult, rereading, I think it's a Story Written to Persuade Adults.

We don't know who's going to get custody of Baxter when he leaves the hospital. We know that, if Baxter is going to grow up to be really kind rather than pathologically ooey-gooey, it had better be Tunnell; we also know that, if Baxter's father wanted to demand custody, even now no state would let Baxter stay with Tunnell, and in 1968 few states would have considered a single man's application for custody of a Troubled Teen on the sole grounds that, as Tunnell explains their relationship in the hospital, "we were in love with the same girl." The Boy Who Could Make Himself Disappear just may have been a propaganda piece written for adults, but rendered dismissable by its having been marketed to children...

As a propaganda piece for adults, or as a teaching story for teenagers, I think this book is as valuable as it was forty years ago. Others apparently agree because it's gone into collector prices. If you don't specify which edition you prefer you're likely to get the durable library-bound hardcover, likely a library discard, because on Amazon those are selling for less than the cheap pocket-size paperback (shown above). What I have in real life is the pocket-size paperback; in real life I'd accept less than the $16.59 for which pocket-size paperback copies start on Amazon.

To buy it online, send $15 per book, $5 per package (two books the size of the hardcover edition per package, and there'd be room for one or two more books if they're thinner), and $1 per online payment to the appropriate address. (Salolianigodagewi is the e-mail sorter, from which you will receive the correct Paypal address for what you order when you order it.)

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Book Review: Tonight on the Titanic

A Fair Trade Book

Title: Tonight on the Titanic

Author: Mary Pope Osborne

Date: 1999

Publisher: Scholastic

ISBN: 0-439-08672-8

Length: 71 pages of text plus forewords and afterwords

Illustrations: drawings by Sal Murdocca

Quote: "Carrying 2,200 passengers, the ship was four city blocks long. Most people believed the ship was unsinkable."

But it sank. In this book for primary school readers, Annie and Jack get to watch people filling up the insufficient number of lifeboats before the Magic Tree House whisks them back to their own time.

Mary Pope Osborne says in the foreword, "At first I thought the story was too sad," but "more and more requests came in...I tried to think of a way that Jack and Annie might actually be helpful."

After reading it, I'm still bewildered. Who requested a time travel story about the wreck of the Titanic, and why? Of all the time travel fantasies I've read I think this one is the strangest. Going back to the Titanic in order to get into an "alternative history," maybe...but just to watch the ship sink? ??? That's the kind of situation that makes me think "If we can't do anything for those people, at least we don't have to look!" I don't imagine that's a problem for primary school readers, who have seldom developed much sense of empathy, but it may be a problem for parents and teachers.

Anyway, it's history, presented in a picture-book-story format that appeals to primary school readers, and adults who want to teach children about the early twentieth century may appreciate this way of presenting the Titanic story. It's part of a series that's become quite long by now, and since Mary Pope Osborne is still alive (and active on Twitter) the older books in the series are available as Fair Trade Books. Regular readers know what that means: send $5 per book, plus $5 per package (you could get eight or ten Magic Tree House books in one package) and $1 per online payment, to the appropriate address at the very bottom of the screen, and Osborne or a charity of her choice gets $1 per book. For this book alone, you'd send $10 to Boxholder, P.O. Box 322, or $11 to the correct e-mail address you'd get by e-mailing salolianigodagewi. For ten early Magic Tree House book, you'd send $55 or $56, and we'd send $10 to Osborne or her charity. 

Monday, December 25, 2017

Book Review: The Compleat Lover

Merry Christmas, Gentle Readers! I'm not physically online, and I don't imagine you are either, so Christmas Day may be a good time to discuss a book that's considerably more explicit than I usually discuss here...

A Fair Trade Book (congratulations!)

Title: The Compleat Lover

Author: Derek & Julia Parker

Date: 1972

Publisher: Mitchell Beazley (UK), McGraw-Hill (US)

ISBN: none

Length: 256 pages including index and image credits

Illustrations: many, including original color photos of the authors

Quote: "While the poems and paintings we have chosen form a personal anthology of our own favourite pieces...they come as near as any human utterances can come to expressing 'the life force', the extraordinary, delightful and infinitely complex phenomenon of love."

Well, it was 1972. The Parkers had written a book called The Compleat Astrologer and wanted...more money, likely, from an international "seller." Why not revive their romance by writing a book about that? "[W]e incorporate a gentle guide to the discipline and understanding of the body," they promise in the introduction.

The result is not a book of pornography, although it does contain a few nude images. It's meant to be an erotic guide for couples--although of course the problem with erotica is not keeping it away from the people who don't need it, but predicting whether it will serve its purpose for the people who do. If you remember the early 1970s as an exciting period, I can say that this book will be an exciting nostalgia trip. Beyond that, who knows. A sequence of full-color paintings of people who look as close as the artist could make them to the photographs of the Parkers, on the inside jacket flaps, does nothing for me but undoubtedly was great fun for the Parkers.

A sequence of psychological "games" at the end may encourage some couples to understand each other better, or discourage others into imagining that someone else might understand them more easily. This is not, of course, a discussion of the manipulative Games People Play to get their own way without admitting it; it's what U.S. magazines usually call "quizzes" about what each person prefers. Results are predictable and intuitive--and not scientific at all. Some couples who seem perfectly compatible split up; some couples who seem altogether incompatible, and don't spend much time together, have successful long-term monogamous marriages. People who don't have enough in common to be best friends and working partners to each other sometimes seem to keep romance alive by intentionally being exotic and alien to each other.

The Parkers' taste is bland, nice, and specifically British--there are a couple of images from India, many from medieval England, and a majority from modern England. Everybody isn't blond; there is a sequence of "stages of love," from youth to old age, where every young person even in crowd scenes has red hair. (Derek Parker, at this stage of his life, has black hair.) Everybody has fair skin and, except for one drawing from India, European-type faces.

The Parkers acknowledge that at many periods of history, as C.S. Lewis mentioned in The Allegory of Love, romance and marriage were perceived not only as separate but as opposed to each other. Seeing that romances tend to fade, many cultures have favored contract marriage with an emphasis on uniting families and producing heirs. Often this led to an understanding of "love" as an excuse for adultery rather than a part of marriage. Love between wife and husband was expected to be a matter of loyalty and public spirit, not passion.

Since people have realized that passionless marriages were promoting prostitution--well, actually there was an argument that, when young men were killed in war, prostitution offered some benefits to young women who couldn't find husbands--and that prostitution was promoting sexually transmitted diseases, there has been a preference for marriage at least to begin with passion. Hence the market for books whose purpose is to revive passion, to help couples stay together. It's a valid purpose and, in discouraging teenagers from poring over erotic material, adults don't need to pretend that we'll never need to make a conscious effort to interest ourselves in what still interests our Other Halves. Our day is likely to come, and those who denigrate the effort are likely to be those who failed in it.

That said, a distinction can then be made between affiliative and counter-affiliative erotica--the kind you share with your wife or husband, and the kind you hide from him or her. The Parkers have, I think, made a genuine effort to ensure that this book would be affiliative for everybody. More words are addressed to the female (remember, in 1972, psychologists assured us that everyone would really be heterosexual if their emotional problems could be straightened out!) and more images chosen to appeal to the male. The emphasis, as they say in the text, is always on tenderness. If men in pictures are carrying women about, the women are obviously enjoying it. If an eighteenth-century "swinger" is portrayed kicking off her slipper for one man to catch while another man is pushing the swing--oh, obviously to any British reader, raising an arm would spoil the charm of the upper class (sweat stains would show), so the chap pushing the swing is an employee who doesn't care what the young couple do. If people are moving away from each other, they're looking over their shoulders. No frustrations, no perversions, no kinks.

Most of the people are not, to my eyes, attractive. I think this, too, is by design. A nude woman is bottom-heavy, with such undefined "abs" that you wonder if the woman is pregnant. A nude man is less than halfway to the stage at which most men prefer to be seen naked. Most people have their clothes on. There's a sequence of images of skin, in such soft focus that although the skin seems perfect it's not immediately clear which part of a body it covers. The pictures seem to have been selected with an intention of not making any forty-year-old spouse feel insecure. Whoever you are, you give more pleasure to the eyes of anyone who shares this book with you than these pictures do.

Apart from the mere idea of an erotic book, or a book that was erotic for someone else, what I find not to like about this book is the emphasis on eroticism in a book about "love." "Tenderness" and appreciation of the body seem to me to belong in the category of sex, not love. In a book about sex as such, an emphasis on mutual appreciation and enjoyment is nice. In a book that claims to be about love, the elements of self-sacrifice, commitment, loyalty, patience, and prudence deserve their share of emphasis; in this book they don't get it.

I find this unrealistic. Love is not the physical sensation that nature supplies liberally to the young, dreaming or waking, coupled or alone. Love is the bond that sharing that sensation can help to form between two people. Of course cuddling up with him or her feels nice--cuddling up with anyone who doesn't disgust a young person always feels nice. Hormones can make music we hear with him or her more than music, and bread we eat with him or her more than bread. I may be nitpicking here, but for me, it's when hard work we do with him or her becomes joyous work, and sitting up with sick relatives with him or her becomes tolerable, that we can call our attachment to the person love. Because shallower definitions leave us to conclude that even happily monogamous adults have, in youth, "loved" dozens if not hundreds of people, not all of whom we necessarily ever met, and many of whose names we've forgotten if we ever knew them. Advertisers have always known that putting an appealing face in an ad makes nagging and begging more than nagging and begging--the whole concept of TV commercials rests on this well documented fact--and yet, although the "attractive" faces ameliorate the annoying quality of the commercials, what we feel for the models in TV commercials is a long way from being love.

For me, personally, the only erotic effect this book has would come from reading it as half of a couple. Possibly if it had come from my husband's collection it would hold memories. Since it came from a truckload of books I bought for resale, well, it'll be easy to resell to any married person above age thirty who asks for it. It will not be displayed.

Since the book won't be displayed, I should reiterate that although it's not suitable for displaying on a coffee table it's the sort of object that's described as a coffee-table book. Those 256 pages are mostly the kind of thick, slick paper that can be printed with color pictures on both sides. The content is certainly "light" but the book will be "heavy," even exhausting, to read in bed. Only one book ($5) will fit into one package ($5) for a total cost of $10 by U.S. postal money order, or $11 by Paypal.

However, one fun fact about the Parkers may give their book a special redeeming value. They're still married. They're still practicing astrology together. Their book may be a celebration of romance more than love, but they do, in fact, know something about love.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Book Review: Wyoming Summer

Title: Wyoming Summer

(The copy I physically own still has its original, pretty dust jacket, but it's in poorer condition than that library discard is guaranteed to be...)

Author: Mary O'Hara (Alsop)

Date: 1963

Publisher: Doubleday

ISBN: none

Length: 286 pages

Quote: "I have named one of the yearling fillies Flicka...a beauty with the same coloring Floss had--golden coat and cream-colored mane and tail...Why should this little filly not be the heroine of the horse story I am going to write?"

The writer known as Mary O'Hara had a life more interesting, and layered in fiction, than any of her fictional characters ever had. Rich society girl (her real birth name was Mary O'Hara Alsop) turned part-time rancher, she struggled with then-unmentionable health and marriage problems in youth. Her two children were brought up by their father. In midlife she tried composing music in the classical tradition, and had some success in that fading genre--some of her real compositions are discussed in Wyoming Summer. She tried a romance about humans, a youth whose lack of social background is compared to that of a "catch colt" (a term defined in Wyoming Summer). Then she thought of writing stories, not exclusively for children but teen-centered, about some of the adventures her husband's teenaged students had with the horses they rode during summer camp at their ranch.

Those stories became a trilogy of novels. By some standards they're bad, sentimental novels. The most powerful novel in the series, My Friend Flicka, builds up to the dramatic climax of an injured feral horse (more precisely a filly) becoming too ill to stand up and climb out of a stream where it's fallen into the cold water. Little Ken McLaughlin fails to pull Flicka out of the water, instead he falls in, and he lies all night in the cold stream holding Flicka's head above water. In the morning the power of True Love (for we might as well admit that some presexual children feel True Love for animals) has allowed Ken to absorb Flicka's infection in some mystical way, so when the child comes out of the hospital Flicka is healthy as, well, a horse, and "gentle as a kitten."

Unsentimental readers apparently always suspected that something like that really happened, and, "The filly died, didn't she?" someone demanded of Mary O'Hara. She did, O'Hara admitted, but she ought to have got well. A lot of readers--maybe all of us clapped dutifully, too, to revive Tinker Bell in Peter Pan--wanted Flicka to have recovered.

At the end of My Friend Flicka the filly is strong and healthy, but in Thunderhead and Green Grass of Wyoming she's become a rather weak character, considering how intensely Ken projected love onto her in volume one and how vibrant a horse-personality she'd seemed to be. Well, the adult reader is not surprised. In the other two novels about the fictional Goose Bar Ranch, we're told that Flicka is a big strong race horse, but we hardly even see Ken riding her. In real life that's because the sick filly died, and the real Flicka was a pretty animal but not a "heroine," and the real "Goblin" was not even half Thoroughbred and his mother was a funny-looking crossbreed and he wasn't raced...

Nevertheless most of the animal stories that went into the Goose Bar Ranch trilogy were true, even if the "Goblin" colt was a draft horse and the boys at the real Goose Bar Ranch weren't O'Hara's sons, and, for that matter, the identity of O'Hara's husband as "Michael Bergwin of the Goose Bar Ranch" has been deliberately blurred. There was a filly who didn't become docile when stressed out, so rather than try more brutal means to "break" her O'Hara and "Michael Bergwin" let her run with the rest of the breeding stock. There was a colt O'Hara persuaded her husband not to sterilize, although that meant he, too, had to be kept away from the only male horse Bergwin kept. There was a Swedish farmhand who demonstrated a traditional dance. There was a bull who attacked, not O'Hara, but a visiting customer, and had to be killed. To some extent even the animals' short stories were fictionalized for the novels, because novels are fiction; but there were animals like those.

In Wyoming Summer O'Hara shares some animal stories that didn't fit into the novels, too. The McLaughlins have a normal cat. The almost-real-life Bergwins have a normal cat and a social cat...and O'Hara explains why the social cat didn't belong in the horse novels, nor did the hyperactive dog O'Hara made it a project to calm. They would have been a distraction from the horses' story.

Wyoming Summer is not a full or accurate memoir; neither is it a true work of fiction. It's an out-of-sequence narrative compiled from pieces of diaries patched together into one fictional summer season, some vaguely noted as having taken place earlier than others. Perhaps the original entries weren't dated and worked naturally in a phenological rather than chronological order; whether something was seen in 1939 or 1959 seems to matter less than whether it was June or July weather. Some people seem to be identifiable but have actually been fictionalized a bit; the idea was to preserve living people's privacy. O'Hara wrote a memoir explaining some of these things, a little later, after more people had granted permission and/or died.

So where does this semi-true story of how the fiction trilogy was written fit into the trilogy? I'll say this much. I read My Friend Flicka when I was seven years old and rated it among the top five books I'd ever read for at least another seven years, before I became too old to suspend disbelief. I read Thunderhead at nine, Green Grass of Wyoming at ten, and Wyoming Summer at sixteen. From that day forward Wyoming Summer has been my all-time favorite of O'Hara's books.

They're not exactly Sunday School books. They contain little doctrine and some New Agey ecumenical thoughts. Nevertheless O'Hara's life and thought and all her works were saturated with an appreciation of beauty, and of the Highly Sensory-Perceptive perception of beauty, that are profoundly Christian; she didn't try to suppress that appreciation or make it less specifically Christian in the novels, either. Many of her generation discarded Christianity. O'Hara was too perceptive to do that. If it could be proved that Christianity were not true, she affirmed, the existence of beauty would prove that something like Christianity is true. She wrote no altar calls into any of her books but she did write about the way the sky seems dome-shaped from a high elevation, about long arching ribbons of whitewater, about colts whose "manes and tails seem to have a separate life, every hair springing out," about birch groves with fluttering green leaves, and about the colt who really did develop infected wounds from running into barbed wire, require a lot of nursing, and recover.

She doesn't preach about these things...until she comes to a point where it seems relevant to mention a Christian book, thought, or experience, and then she says (in the novels too) that she believes in a Creator because she loves all these beautiful created things.

My Friend Flicka was the bestseller and is widely available at low prices; O'Hara's other books are moving into the collector price range. This web site will do the best it can. Currently I have to say $10 per copy, $5 per package (which could include the fiction trilogy as well as Wyoming Summer), $1 per online payment. If Amazon sellers step up to offer better prices, then we will too. As always, feel free to mix old books by living authors, who receive 10% of the total cash price for which we sell their vintage books, into the package with this one; O'Hara no longer has any use for $1.50, but by now searching for the label "A Fair Trade Book" will pull up over a hundred books by living authors and you're welcome to suggest more.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Correspondents' Choice: Book Links for Last-Minute Christmas Shoppers

Since the cafe where I usually blog is closing between December 23 and January 3, here are this month's book links. As before, no caption means you can use the link to send a few pennies to this web site; a caption means you can use the link to send the pennies to an e-friend's web site. (Of course I don't begrudge them the pennies...I want you to use the links in the Permanent Greeting Post to tell me what you want to pay me dollars to write! Let the pennies fall where they may, but if they fall on this web site that's always encouraging.)

Alexander McCall Smith nominates W.H. Auden, a wordsmith who had few if any peers:

+Marsha Cooper shares another art book, this one by F. Sehnaz Bac, to encourage those of us who've already dabbled in too many art forms and need to add another one to the...No. Seriously. I used to know a "Rock Artist" who found craggy, irregular chunks of limestone and chipped and painted until they looked like recognizable rock stars (all ages of Elvis and more). He never got rich. And here's a review that makes me think "Maybe if he'd gone for colors rather than forms...hmm, was he color-blind?"

If the system works properly, clicking on her name will allow you to use Marsha Cooper's link to buy the book.

I don't know exactly what David Bahnsen plans to say about personal responsibility in his soon-to-become-available book on the subject, but I'd definitely be interested in finding out.

+Lyn Lomasi Rowell recommends this follow-up...Regular readers may remember the Boko Haram kidnappings in Nigeria a few years ago. Most of those girls weren't raped, enslaved, or tortured, as some of us feared...however, author Yaw Boateng claims that sort of thing continues to go on. At the time of posting the book is available only in Kindle form. Some publishers base the decision whether or not actually to publish a book, these days, on the e-book sales--a bad, self-destructive plan, but real.

Captive Market: Commercial Kidnapping Stories from Nigeria by [Boateng, Yaw, Slota, Richard]
If the system is working, clicking on her name will ensure a commission on sales of this book for Lyn Lomasi Rowell.

I woke up one morning in December with lagom on my mind...the word, I mean. I don't speak Swedish, and might not have noticed this word as especially useful when I added it to my monster Words Database on the desktop (34 floppy disks and growing). I noticed the word lagom when Swedish respondents explained it to P.J. O'Rourke in Eat the Rich, where he translates it as "average" in order to wisecrack about wishing people "an average day." Apparently it's more like "just right" in the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. One chair was too big, one was too small, and the other one was lagom. Anyway, the next day's e-mail contained an ad for this book. I have no idea what the author has to say; I'd like to find out.

Why did Europeans want to "colonize" other countries, anyway? Lizzie Collingham explains: they were hungry.

Basic Books

The Guardian's recommending At the Strangers' Gate suggests that it may lean considerably to the left of most of this web site's correspondents, politically, but Gopnik says it's a book about happiness. Do you like to read about happiness?

John Sandford recommended some other suspense novels, including The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (reviewed here) and this lively, somewhat violent, somewhat raunchy, frequently funny, specimen of what I've come to think of as the Carl Hiaasen genre novel...they're all action/adventure comedies, some "adult" and some suitable for advanced middle school readers, always set in Florida and featuring at least one Greedhead versus True Green conflict, along with a lot of subplots involving other comically quirky types of people that tend to be attracted to Florida, and frequently involving wildlife. Some characters appear in more than one book. For those who aren't sure which of these beach-oriented novels they've already read, Amazon notes that this is the first one with Mick Stranahan in it.

Have you ever wondered what the grammar of all those "respectful forms" in Japanese looks like, when analyzed? Thanks to Elizabeth Barrette for sharing this simplified version of a 1983 "programmed" (we used to call them "scrambled") textbook. It's an overview. It's apparently like the Spanish book my uncle and I used when learning to communicate with my Tex-Mex cousins--(1) accurate so far as a single book can go, (2) for the formal version of the language that may or may not be what the visitor hears, and (3) some people may need a good course in English grammar to understand the way the author presents foreign grammar. (The language of pre-"transformational" grammar is imperfect even for describing the way the Indo-European languages work, but it serves those who've learned to use it well.) In other words, I wouldn't rely on one book to allow me to speak a language (except by way of amusing native speakers), but one book can be useful for translating a written foreign language into English.

Down at the bottom because the publisher is listed as author--and it's Zondervan--is a new Daily Devotional book aimed at teenaged girls. +Marsha Cooper 's original post about this book, which I plussed and tweeted at the time, contained a Rafflecopter widget through which somebody won a free copy. The raffle's over but the book's still on Amazon:

If this link works properly, it too will deliver a commission to Marsha Cooper.