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Literature and the pandemic – COVID19 #2

The COVID pandemic has so penetrated my consciousness that I find myself applying social distancing standards to fictional interactions in the books with which I distract myself! This is absolutely ridiculous! Oh, no, a crowd scene! Who’s going to get sick? Get a grip – it happened in Melbourne, Australia in 1927. And, anyway, it’s FICTION! No real people involved.

Aside from this type of nonsense, literature remains a great escape. Haven’t we all used it? As far as I can tell, book groups are going great guns. Most are using Zoom, which has taken over the media/internet extensively. People who never expected to use videoconferencing are deciding it is fantastic. I admit to joining three virtual conferences in eight days, one with my extended family and two with my Quaker meeting. And I sat in on two telemedicine consultations. “Mediated communication” is the new normal. What next?!

Personal History – Epidemics in my Life – COVID19 #1

I was (sort of) born during an epidemic. I was born in 1949. According to an article I found, polio (infantile paralysis) was rife in the 1950s, and there were 60,000 cases in the United States in 1952. Three thousand victims died. How many more were left unable to walk and dependent on wheel chairs, crutches, etc?

One of my earliest memories was the arrival at my home of school aged children for tutoring by my mother. These were polio victims on the road to recovery. Some wore leg braces. My mother’s job was to help them catch up on their school work. She enjoyed teaching them. I was supposed to stay quiet and out of the way.

In 1955, Jonas Salk introduced a vaccine and thousands of children became “Polio Pioneers”, the first large group to be vaccinated. My sister, three years older than me, was vaccinated at school. I was too young for that cohort. My parents were worried. They arranged (somehow) for me to get the shot from a physician married to a friend of my mother. I was driven to his house one evening for the injection.

So polio was not an issue in my life after age 6! Very fortunate, since we lived need a lovely public park with an enticing pool. I would happily have played there all day, every day. Over time, I spent MANY summer days there, eventually joining the swim team, marinating in the chlorinated water and earning money for college working as a lifeguard. Once in a while, my mother would remark that it could have been different. That we could have stayed home all summer, fearing polio. Perish the thought!

Our public schools operated on a schedule that was supposed to “break up epidemics”. Instead of a long Easter break, we got a week off at the end of February and another week-long break eight weeks after that. Sometimes it didn’t work. I remember concerns over Rubella, aka German measles, which led to high absenteeism when I was in middle school. I never caught it, but thought I must surely have had a subclinical case. Nope. Decades later, when I told my OBG I wanted to start a family, I was tested and found to lack immunity. I accepted vaccination before trying to get pregnant. I remember controversies (1981?) over County Public Health testing employees for immune status and requiring vaccination of employees who worked with the public.

Growing up, I seemed not the get influenza when it was epidemic. I had at least two cases, one around 1961 and another in the summer of 1969. One year in college, I was wandering, dazed, through endless registration lines when my path was blocked by a person with a clipboard, demanding to know if I was allergic to chickens or eggs. Startled, I denied any allergy. Bang! Shot in the arm. An early influenza vaccine!

I suppose many of us are using our time in COVID19 “social distancing” quarantine to ponder our health histories and how they might have been different without various medical advances. I’m so glad my children have been spared at least five diseases from which I faced risk.

“Prince Albert – The Man Who Saved the Monarchy” by Andrew N. Wilson

Prince Albert: The Man Who Saved the Monarchy

Harper Collins Publishers, 2019. 390 pages plus bibliography, notes and index.

Biography is my choice of reading matter when I’m too tired for “heavy” books and have sated my urge to read junk. I’ve read about half of this book (the first half and the last chapter), and I will probably read the remaining chapters selectively.

Did Prince Albert (1819 – 1861), consort of Queen Victoria (1819 – 1901) actually “save the monarchy”? Wilson makes a convincing case. Why does the United Kingdom still (in 2020) have royalty, and royalty who matter? What happened to the hereditary monarchs of France? The princes of the early German principalities? Why are the other remaining royal families (in Scandinavia and Netherlands, for example) so diminished? (Wilson doesn’t entirely address this last question. I’d like to learn more.)

When Albert married young Queen Victoria in 1840, he had no official role. He was Victoria’s husband. His English was imperfect. He was regarded as an outsider of little importance. But he was exceptionally well educated, and had lots of energy and considerable self-confidence.

When Albert took on projects or directorships (which could have been merely symbolic), he contributed incisively. For example, he pointed out the deficiencies of the British university system and, at Cambridge University (where he served as Chancellor), he initiated reforms that vastly improved higher education, and not just for members of the social elite. (By the way, his appointment at Cambridge was controversial. Academic politics is nothing new!)

Albert understood and valued science, engineering and industry. Contemporaries noted that, although he was stiff and sometimes awkward at ceremonial events, he was easily approachable when surrounded by those who shared his scientific interests. Mutual respect developed, and England benefited, moving ahead of continental Europe in various fields.

This book provides a great opportunity to understand the country that, more than any other, engendered the United States. I recommend it highly. Wilson is a very prolific writer, and I look forward to checking out his fiction. His biographies range from Hitler to Darwin to Jesus. Followers of contemporary British royalty might be interested to know that Wilson wrote The Rise and Fall of the House of Windsor. In 1993!

Personal History – Things I Believed When I Was Little

I stumbled across an internet post (was it on BuzzFeed?) in which people shared the crazy, impossible things they believed when they were kids. After all, some things just don’t make sense until someone explains. The anecdotes were roll-on-the-ground funny. So I decided to write up some of my own…

I used to think our neighbor’s house was painted BLACK inside. That’s how it looked from outside. (I was never invited in.) Finally one evening I glanced through a window and realized our neighbor had brightly colored wall paper and LIGHTS, just like us!

Once I heard my Dad greet the same neighbor by saying, “Hi, Oldtimer!” The only “timer” I knew anything about was that gadget in the kitchen that my Mom used to decide when food was fully cooked. I began to wonder about our neighbor. Did she TICK? Was she going to go PING? I watched. Nothing happened.

I was taken to the Yale University Museum to see the dinosaur exhibit when I was maybe three years old. For years after that, I assumed that dinosaurs had no skin or innards. Just bones. Scary! I might have been 10 before I understood about skeletons.

For several weeks in December, 1954, I believed the world was going to end. Seriously. We didn’t own a TV, but I watched a little at my Aunt Kay’s house. There was a program (early precursor to the Twilight Zone?) that showed an abandoned house with some weird “radiation” (like the sine wave on an oscilloscope) running through it. I thought it would happen at my house, come New Year’s Day, and that the vibrating wave was going to kill me! Why at New Years? No idea!

What about you? Any stories to share? I’ll probably think of more…

Reading Aloud with My Sons

One of my sons recently asked me what I remember about reading to him and his little brother. So many memories! First, I should introduce my sons. They are now 29 and 35 years old, living hundreds of miles from home. My husband and I are delighted that they call/text frequently and visit when they can.

We read to our sons from the get-go. Their grandmother (hereinafter referred to as Granny) declared “Your child’s intellectual development is more important than diapers” and handed me a copy of Pat the Bunny. Almost no words, just textures. We read it to a frazzle. Granny could recite long selections of poetry and kept a statue of Shakespeare on her coffee table. Just being around her for a few days would double a young child’s vocabulary.

Like many families, we went through a LONG period of reading Goodnight Moon every night, sometimes twice. It’s so hypnotic! I wonder if anyone painted their child’s room dark green to match those pictures?

After Goodnight Moon came Dr. Seuss. I always had a fondness for To Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street, because I can remember when I first heard it in Grade One, in 1956! We still refer to certain weather conditions as “oobleck”.

The Chinaberry catalog had a big influence on our reading. I loved it! I just learned that Chinaberry is now defunct, having operated from 1982 to 2019. Sad, but not surprising. Books are so much more readily accessible now, and so are web sites that help a parent to choose.

Finn Family Moomintroll and the Brambly Hedge series were two favorites found through Chinaberry. The Moomintroll books consisted of whimsical stories and even more whimsical, very simple, black and white line drawings. Moomins are funny creatures, and their world is populated by other odd beings, like the Hattifatners, and some decidedly eccentric humans. All weird and strangely lovable… The Brambly Hedge books were almost the opposite, with bright, detailed watercolor illustrations of the imagined, anthropomorphized lives of bunnies and mice. Charming!

I never had much use for Mother Goose, but, goodness, how I loved The Space Child’s Mother Goose, written by Frederick Winsor and illustrated by Marian Parry! Should I regret that my older son went off to kindergarten chanting

 “Little Bo Peep has lost her sheep, and radar has failed to find them. They’ll all, face to face, meet in parallel space, preceding their leaders behind them”?

What about

“Flappity, floppity flip! The mouse in the Mobius strip! The strip revolved, the mouse dissolved, in a chronodimensional skip!”

Some kids just can’t resist a word like “chronodimensional”. My sons had amazing diction. There was no “baby talk” in our house.

Fast forward twenty plus years…my niece earned a degree in physics and astronomy from the University of North Carolina. What else to send, for a graduation gift, but a copy of The Space Child’s Mother Goose? That book will never get old.

Granny introduced us to a wonderful alternative to Mother Goose, namely The Peter Patter Book of Nursery Rhymes by Leroy Jackson and Blanche Fisher Wright (illustrator). Possibly this dates to 1918? All four of us can still recite “Jelly Jake and Butter Bill”, a long cautionary tale about gluttony. Warning – some political incorrectness turns up. Something about a Welshman and a thief…

Granny loved Jimmie Owl, the benevolent creature on the front of The Peter Patter Book (see above). At family reunions, she invited every child under age 8 to a Jimmie Owl Party, during which she read from the book and somehow received a phone call from Jimmie, telling where he had hidden candy for the kids.

As proof of my total insanity, let it be known that I read the The Lord of the Rings trilogy to my older son when he was 9 or 10. Not The Hobbit, which was read by Dad to each boy at about age 5. (Of course, they loved it!) No, the whole damned Ring trilogy. Whatever possessed me?! It took more than six months, and may have been our last big read together. After a while, Tolkien becomes monotonous – the language lacks variation and begins to plod. The story, of course, is simply wonderful.

My other totally off the wall reading project was First Light – The Search for the Edge of the Universe by Richard Preston. I think First Light was loaned to me by a physicist friend (Hal Taylor – RIP) and later I got a copy of the revised version and decided to read it to the boys. It’s a wonderful history of the Mount Palomar telescope, and full of thrilling (to me) science. Younger son generally fell asleep, but older son hung in there. One night, as I read about distance and time and the wonders of physics, I heard a plaintive voice… “if that’s the way things are, why do I have to go to school in the morning?” Does anyone know an answer to that? Did I make a mistake in sending my sons to school?

The same little voice once interjected itself as we were listening to Homer’s Illiad on tape (the wonderful recording by Derek Jacoby) in the car. Hector was rampaging around the walls of Troy, slashing with sword and disemboweling enemies, blood everywhere. “Are you sure I should be listening to this?”, asked my son. Well, at least we knew he was paying attention!

Some of our best reading took place in the car, using Books on Tape. Really, nothing beats Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories to counteract superhighway boredom, especially The Hound of the Baskervilles. We listened to Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi and several works of Rudyard Kipling, including Kim. 

By the time JK Rowling started to publish the Harry Potter books, my boys were reading on their own. We pre-ordered the books and sometimes squabbled over who got to read first. Later we discovered Philip Pullman‘s Dark Materials and Book of Dust. Still waiting for more!

Reading with my sons provided me with so much fun! I wish the same for every family I know.

Flaubert, Nabokov and Thomas Picketty– how did I get into such distinguished company??

I feel like I’m writing one of those essays for a college application. “If you could invite three authors to dinner…”

Let’s narrow this down to one book each:

  • Flaubert’s Madame Bovary
  • Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature (p. 125 to p. 178 on Flaubert)
  • Picketty’s Capital in the 21st Century

I decided to (re)read Madame Bovary because it was chosen for seminar discussion by my husband’s college alumni group. Also, we needed a long audiobook for the round trip drive to North Carolina.

Madame Bovary shows up on most lists of all time “great novels”. It’s regarded as a turning point in the development of the novel as a genre (Wikipedia). Flaubert wrote it in French in 1857. Professor and literary critic Nabokov, as fluent in French as in English (Russian was his cradle tongue), considers the translation he used while teaching at Wellesley and Cornell to be seriously flawed.

So what did I gain by reading Madame Bovary? It is so descriptive! Like watching a movie, or maybe a soap opera. It was originally released serially. The plot, set in rural France, is simple. Country doctor Charles Bovary marries Emma, the daughter of a patient. She yearns for a more exciting, romantic life. This starts with day dreams, moves on to a passionate but platonic friendship with a young clerk and then enters the realm of adultery with a rake from the local gentry. When that ends, she encounters the clerk again, and they begin a passionate affair. Emma begins borrowing money to support her lifestyle, and brings herself and her husband to financial ruin. Overwhelmed, she poisons herself with arsenic and dies in agony. Charles dies of grief, and their penniless daughter is sent to work in a factory.

Nabokov (1899 – 1977) wrote several novels, but his book Lectures on Literature (as well as Lectures on Russian Literature and Lectures on Don Quixote) is a compilation from classes he delivered at Cornell University. As such, it is not, perhaps, as polished as his novels. He analyzes Madame Bovary in therms of “structures…, thematic lines, style, poetry, and characters”. Nabokov asserts that only style and art matter in books.

One contemporary author who references Flaubert is Thomas Picketty, author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, published in 2014 and one of those books many people argue about but few read. (I plead guilty, but my spouse worked his way through it. We discussed it extensively.) Picketty is a French academic political economist. He specializes in the study of “economic inequality, taking a historic and statistical approach” (Wikipedia). He cites literature to illustrate the impacts of income inequality, and mentions Flaubert and also Balzac.

Here’s my blog post on Thomas Picketty

Picketty makes clear the human and social costs of extreme income inequality. I think he refrains from suggesting alternatives, but he has become controversial because some readers interpret Capital as a call to revolution, or at least major reform.

Nabokov would probably disapprove of Flaubert’s name being brought into a discussion of economics. He makes it clear that “bourgeois” refers to low taste and character, not low (or middling) economic status.

If you read a novel covered in Nabokov’s lectures, I certainly recommend that you read Nabokov alongside it. You may not understand or agree with everything he says, but he will give you a great deal to ponder.

Keep an eye on Picketty. I expect he will continue to stir interest and controversy.

 

“The Last Whalers – Three Years in the Far Pacific with a Courageous Tribe and a Vanishing Way of Life” by Doug Bock Clark

The Last Whalers: Three Years in the Far Pacific with a Courageous Tribe and a Vanishing Way of Life

347 pages, including maps, photos, notes and glossary. Nonfiction>ethnography.

How did this book end up on the give-away shelf at my dentist’s office? Brand new, only recently published (January 2019) and astonishingly good!

I never heard of Lembata Island in Indonesia, or the Lamaleran people. Lamalerans living on Lembata number only about 1500. Others are scattered throughout Indonesia and elsewhere in Asia. The Lamalera are the last subsistence whalers on earth.

Anthropologists consider Lamaleran culture to show the highest level of sharing and cooperation ever documented. Those two traits are essential to survival when low technology is used to hunt whales. The Lamalerans traditionally barter with their neighbors in order to supplement their diet of meat with fruit and vegetables. They have only recently (25 years ago?) entered the cash economy.

Clark spent about twelve months with the Lamalerans over a three year period, becoming fluent in their language, observing their daily lives and sometimes participating in their religious ceremonies, both Catholic and animistic. Clark sometimes referred to “shamanism” rather than animism, but I don’t know if he meant the same thing as Coelho did in Aleph (see recent post). There is no reference to the type of shamanistic “trance” that Coelho describes.

It surprised me to learn that so isolated a group existed. Having read a certain amount of popularized anthropology and known a few academics in the field, I didn’t think going off to spend time with remote, exotic people was still a possibility. Clark seems to have arrived at this project through journalism and travel writing, though his status as a two time Fulbright grant recipient suggests academic credentials in anthropology.

Clark almost entirely leaves himself out of the story, telling about the people he describes with vivid detail from THEIR point of view. I couldn’t stop reading!

In an explanatory afterword, he discusses how he limited his behavior in order not to “distort” the community he was observing. He seems to have judged this by “journalistic” (rather than anthropological or academic) standards, admitting that he spent money to transport Lamalerans for medical treatment that would have otherwise been unobtainable.

The link below leads to my review of another wonderful book related to anthropology.

Noble Savages – My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes – the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists by N A Chagnon

Looking back at my post about Chagnon led me to reflect:

Both the Lamalerans and the Yanomamo (an Amazon tribe) can be considered “successful” cultures, each achieving slow population growth in a challenging environment. According to Chagnon, the Yanomamo dealt with population pressure by fission, dividing into smaller groups when their numbers exceeded about 100. The Lamalerans dealt with population pressure by out migration. Adults found work elsewhere in Indonesia and beyond. Usually they maintained their contact with home, and provided a conduit for ideas about change. Sometimes they facilitate other departures, like temporary enrollment at a university.

Web surfing to learn more about Clark, I found his article in Gentleman’s Quarterly about a recent attempt to contact a smaller and more isolated tribe, the Sentinelese. I’ll write about that soon.