Book Review: Kenilworth



Title: Kenilworth

Author: Walter Scott

Date: 1821 (many reprints)

ISBN: none, but click here to see one of the reprints on Amazon

Length: typically about 350 pages

Illustrations: vary

When a book is as old as Kenilworth, does one write a book review, or a book report? Technically, what I have to say about this bestseller of the nineteenth century is neither. It’s a protest.

I postponed reading this novel until I acquired one of the dozen or so reprints that are currently available. It was one of the nicer hardcover editions, with black-and-white photographs of real places and people named in the book. That said…this is not and never was a nice book.

Historical novels now usually contain a review of the facts that inspired the story and the parts the author invented. Most authors of historical novels are expected to stick to the known historical facts about real people, although this rule doesn’t seem to have been enforced on either Nikos Kazantzakis or Elliott Roosevelt. Walter Scott was another novelist, like these two, who got away with falsifying the known facts. That’s what’s wrong with Kenilworth.

This novel uses the names of three real people for major characters in a plot that more or less completely falsifies what’s known about them. In England’s Tudor Period, the confirmed facts about most well-known real people are scandalous enough; Scott, not satisfied with the dirt on Queen Elizabeth I, Robert Dudley, and Amy Robsart, drags their names through the sewer. Before reading Kenilworth it is, therefore, useful to have read a factual study of these people. Since my local library has a copy of Elizabeth Jenkins’ Elizabeth and Leicester, and yours may not have one, here’s a short list of pertinent facts:

1. Robert Dudley, a younger son of the Earl of Northumbria, married Amy Robsart when he and Queen Elizabeth were about twenty years old. The Dudley children were brought up as close to Henry VIII’s heirs as their scheming father could manage. Guildford Dudley, the eldest brother, had been browbeaten into marrying Elizabeth’s elder half sister, Jane Grey. Robert Dudley may have been Elizabeth’s closest friend, but Elizabeth, who had been molested by Kathryn Parr’s second husband as a teenager, didn’t want to marry anybody. She went to the Robsart-Dudley wedding with her brother, the future King Edward. It was no news to Elizabeth that Robert and Amy were married…but it would have surprised her if anyone had ever referred to Amy Robsart as Countess of Leicester, because she hadn’t given Robert the title of Earl of Leicester at the time. Amy’s title was “Lady Dudley.”

2. As queen, Elizabeth I flirted outrageously with her courtiers—most outrageously of all with Robert Dudley—and discouraged their wives from coming to court, probably because no married woman likes to watch a single woman flirting with her husband. Lady Dudley, however, was never a prisoner. For years she enjoyed an active social life at a low, wide, two-storey house called Cumnor or Cumner. She liked horses and was often seen riding. What eventually confined her to her bedroom was a mysterious, debilitating disease.

3. Exactly what went wrong with Amy Robsart will never be known, but her first specific complaint was about a “malady in her breast” that, within two years, grew into pain all over. The mystery about her death at Cumnor was how she managed to break her neck when there were only two flights of stairs to fall down. If her “malady” was breast cancer, which then metastasized, that would have explained the pain all over and the brittleness of her bones. Amy, however, would not have known that breast cancer tends to metastasize, and probably did entertain all kinds of fears about poisoning and witchcraft. A 2008 investigation of Amy’s mortal remains suggested violence.

4. Prejudiced people accused Robert and Elizabeth of having had Amy murdered so that they could marry each other. Since they didn’t marry each other and there was no clear evidence that Amy was murdered, the accusations were hard to take seriously. However, throughout Robert’s life, a rather startling number of people who became inconvenient to him did die—usually from what seemed to be natural causes, and never while he was in their neighborhood. Robert Dudley was regarded as a devout member of the Church of England; he even wrote a Christian book. At this period in English history, it wouldn’t have been unusual for a member of a church to have employed murderers, possibly without knowing it.

5. Nevertheless, while suffering from a fever, Elizabeth made a will leaving a suspiciously large bequest to Robert Dudley’s valet. It is often assumed that this was a bribe to keep the man silent on the question of whether Elizabeth had ever spent a night in Dudley’s bedroom. If so, the bribe worked.

6. The title of “Earl of Leicester,” and other awards and decorations which Walter Scott imagines Robert Dudley showing off to Amy Robsart, were bestowed on Dudley after Amy Robsart died…possibly to  console him for the fact that, although he was free to remarry, Elizabeth still didn’t want to marry him.

7. After some years of unsuccessfully courting Elizabeth, Robert Dudley lowered his standard far enough to notice the infatuation of a confused younger woman. Douglas Howard was the name of the wife of the Earl of Sheffield. To get the Earl to divorce her, Douglas arranged for him to see a letter, apparently from the Earl of Leicester, insinuating that he and Douglas had already slept together and proposing to have Sheffield assassinated. The Earl of Sheffield died, apparently from an infectious disease, before the divorce was final. As on many other occasions when someone’s untimely death seemed suspiciously convenient for Robert Dudley, Dudley avoided suspicion by not taking the advantage the other person’s demise offered him. He did not immediately marry Douglas.

He did, however, go through some sort of quiet wedding ceremony with Douglas, although the person who pronounced them earl and countess may not have been legally authorized to do so. Douglas was never presented to society as the Countess of Leicester, although by that time this was the title Robert’s wife would have had; she was always called Lady Sheffield. Nevertheless, a child appeared and was christened Robert Leicester, usually called Robin.  Robin was said to look just like the Earl of Leicester, except that, at least as a child, he had blond hair. Robert Dudley never tried to deny that Robin was his son, but, wanting to disown Douglas Howard, he sometimes called Robin “my base son.”

  1. Douglas Howard was the one who petitioned Queen Elizabeth to recognize her marriage to Robert Dudley. Elizabeth was actually sympathetic to her claim; Douglas could prove that some sort of ceremony had taken place, though not that it had been performed by a properly credentialed clergyman. Robert Dudley was unsympathetic, perhaps partly because Douglas was too emotional and indiscreet to be a good partner for him, but also becase he had now become infatuated with Lettice Knollys, who was Elizabeth’s second cousin and was married to Elizabeth’s other good friend, the Earl of Essex. The political differences between the Earls of Essex and Leicester often reduced to competing flirtations with Elizabeth and Lettice. Historians seem to think it most likely that Essex died naturally from dysentery. Dudley tried to bribe Douglas to pretend their marriage had never happened; when she refused the bribe he became angry and swore he would never speak to her again.

9. It was during this third, morally inexcusable, affair with Lettice Knollys that Dudley worried about what Elizabeth would say. In view of the facts that he was married to Douglas Howard and Lettice was married to Essex, who was out of the country, when Lettice became visibly pregnant, Elizabeth had quite a lot to say, and seriously considered locking Robert Dudley in the Tower. Mutual friends persuaded her that the country needed Dudley, so she finally allowed him to marry Lettice. Lettice also gave birth to a son and christened him Robert Dudley. His birth being properly announced at court, he was titled Baronet of Denbigh, and everyone who didn’t have to call him “my little lord” seems to have called him Denbigh. He died before his sixth birthday.

10. None of Robert Dudley’s wives ever lived at Kenilworth Castle, which does have towers with long, rickety, dangerous staircases. Kenilworth wasn’t opened to the public for fifteen years after Amy Robsart had died at Cumnor. Elizabeth gave it to Robert Dudley as a gift; he spent several years having it made livable, but never tried to make it a home. He willed Kenilworth, and three other manor houses, to Robin, though Lettice and her third husband fought hard to keep Robin from inheriting anything.

In short, Walter Scott’s fictionalization of Amy Robsart seems to have been an attempt to compress all three of Robert Dudley’s wives into one character, which is what makes his characterization of Amy so hard to take. (Then again, he characterizes Robert Dudley as a hotheaded manic-depressive fool, a view sober history does not support. Conceited, yes, but not a fool.) One minute Walter Scott’s Amy is as tough and selfish as Lettice Knollys, the next minute as puny and whiny as Douglas Howard, and at no point whatever, in Kenilworth, does Scott try to portray the historical Amy Robsart—the cheerful, sensible, horsey girl who became ill and died too young.

Now that you know how careless Scott was with facts, you may enjoy his fiction if you like that sort of thing. My copy of Kenilworth does have a few things to recommend it. It’s a vintage edition, and includes those photos of the portraits of all those Tudor Period characters and Kenilworth and Cumnor.

As fiction…well, I can’t imagine sane and sober adults talking the way Scott’s characters talk. One always has to remember that he wrote these novels longhand, leaving very little time for research or editing, and he was paid by the word. I can imagine someone who had a lot of time remaking some of the basic stories of his novels. Not this one, though. Historical fiction should be written with a reasonable respect for historical fact.

To buy a copy of Kenilworth in good condition from this web site, send $5 per book + $5 per package to either address in the lower left-hand corner of the screen. To buy any specific vintage edition may cost more.

Nobody even knows for sure what Amy Robsart really looked like. This may be a portrait of her. Or not:

 

 

“Unknown lady by Levina Teerlinc c1550 Yale University” by Levina Teerlinc (1510/1520–1576) – Tudorhistory.org, direct link. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Unknown_lady_by_Levina_Teerlinc_c1550_Yale_University.jpg#/media/File:Unknown_lady_by_Levina_Teerlinc_c1550_Yale_University.jpg



Favorite Fictional Characters (#2)

The first of the Favorite Fictional Characters series is here:

https://priscillaking.blogspot.com/2015/06/meme-favorite-fictional-characters.html

Although most fictional characters may not seem to most readers like people we’d like to know, I came up with a list of a few dozen. Number two is also a creation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s: Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden.

I have to admit that the way Mary’s described in the first chapter or two of this book put me off, when I was seven or eight years old. That, and the dialect. If all those characters lived in England, why didn’t they speak English?

But eventually the library acquired an omnibus edition of A Little Princess, The Secret Garden, and Little Lord Fauntleroy together, so eventually I borrowed the omnibus edition and read Burnett’s other two “classics.” Fauntleroy I could take or leave alone, but I was impressed by the way those two weepy little weeds, Mary and Colin, improve themselves by working on their garden. I came to suspect that they were based on the experience of some real children, somewhere, and that I would have enjoyed knowing those real children.

It seems as if Burnett wrote this story by imagining a character who starts out “quite contrary” to the way she appears at the end of the story. Children don’t usually like Mary at the beginning of the book. Understanding that she’s the sole survivor of a plague has to develop as children’s capacity for compassion develops. It is probably no use to tell a child under age ten that there are times when it reminds older people of sick, jaundiced, mean-mouthed Mary-at-the-beginning-of-the-book.

But Mary improves steadily throughout the story. She becomes healthier; she takes an interest in things outside herself; she learns respect for other people. She develops a spirituality that is, of course, childish–well, she is a child–yet sincere. She becomes a nurturer rather than a user of other people.

Around the turn of the century I read a grumpy feminist critic who claimed that The Secret Garden made an anti-girl statement by “subordinating” Mary’s healing process to Colin’s. I’ve never been able to read the story that way…possibly because I’d read Heidi before finishing The Secret Garden. In both stories we know that the sad, sickly orphan is maturing into a Real Heroine when she claims her power to help others as well as herself. Boys are supposed to be stronger than girls; Mary is strong enough to help Colin. Older children are supposed to be stronger than younger ones; Heidi is strong enough to help Clara.

Instead of being pushed into the pseudo-empowerment of a Teen Romance, both Mary and Heidi are allowed to experience compassion. I found this idea empowering, as a girl. I suspect that it’s why many book lovers say they preferred The Secret Garden to A Little Princess.

Here’s the Morguefile blog cat:

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Book Review: Uncle Shelby’s ABZ

Book Review: Uncle Shelby’s ABZ

Author: Shel Silverstein

Date: 1961

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

ISBN: 0-671-21148-X

Length: pages not numbered

Illustrations: large cartoons (suitable for coloring) by the author

Quote: “[A]lthough Uncle Shelby has never been blessed with children of his own, the little ones have always had a very special place in his tired old heart…I have heard them playing and laugh­ing outside my window while I was trying to sleep and I have thought about them…And so this book—to help all my little friends get all the things in life that they so richly deserve.”

In other words, this book is a collection of mean practical jokes people, mostly older children, have played on innocent young children. The publisher did not recommend sharing it with children. If a child does get hold of it, you’ll need to spend some time demonstrating why all its suggestions are mean jokes…and the suggestion that the child perpetrate any of these jokes on a younger sibling is the meanest of all. I’d break out the serious threat artillery in a case like this. If a niece or nephew of mine were cruel enough to play one of these jokes on a young child, I would go to that niece’s or nephew’s school and demonstrate disco dance steps.

It’s funny for those who are old enough to laugh at a collection of more than thirty mean jokes that wouldn’t work on adults, and that it would be cruel to play on children. They range from a drawing of a lion identified as a dog who likes to be scratched, to a suggestion that if you brush your teeth often and keep them bright and white a predator will find you first in the dark, to a certificate children are advised to turn in at the grocery store to receive a real live pony, to a joke about a travelling salesman who told the farmer “I don’t need to sleep with anybody, I just need directions,” to a recommendation that kids count their fingers while holding their hands over an outline of a six-fingered hand. There’s a smudge on a page identified as where a quarter was supposed to have been glued, if Mommy didn’t pull it off and keep it. Then of course there’s the scrambled alphabet.

The drawing of an oboe (a diabolical suggestion to make to a small child, all by itself) mislabelled as a “gigolo” is one of those multilayered comedic achievements that leave me in awe, like Rush Limbaugh’s famous TV show in which he started to call attention to a math mistake made by a left-winger who’d been laughing at Dan Quayle’s “potatoe” blooper, and then, in mid-attack, Limbaugh proceeded to make a second-grade-level math mistake too. No comedian can be funny on that many levels every day and one might, if inclined to envy, wonder whether either Silverstein or Limbaugh could have been inspired enough to plan such effects, or backed into them by accident. The ancient Romans called it genius, and recognized it as a sort of higher-than-conscious level of the mind.

Uncle Shelby’s ABZ is recommended to those for whom laughing-out-loud-as-therapy works well enough that they never feel all that mean. If you can be satisfied by imagining Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd playing these pranks on each other, this book is for you.

Unfortunately Shel Silverstein no longer needs a dollar, and the minimum price of books sold via this web site is $5 per book + $5 per package (payable to either address in the lower left-hand corner of the screen). However, this is a slim book and the package would probably hold three or four others, possibly Fair Trade Books, for which the authors or charities of their choice would receive a dollar.

Here’s that book review cat again, courtesy of Morguefile:

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Book Review: Our Amazing Birds

Title: Our Amazing Birds

Author:  Robert S. Lemmon

Date:1952

Publisher: Doubleday

ISBN: none, but click here to see it on Amazon

Length: 235 pages

Illustrations: black and white paintings by Don R. Eckelberry

Quote: “[T]his tiny creature, weighing but one tenth of an ounce, is at once the amazement and delight of everyone who knows and grows outdoor flowers, for it is the most bejeweled little living helicopter you can possibly imagine.”

Our Amazing Birds is a collection of 102 short (maximum of two pages) articles about 102 birds. There’s nothing wrong with it, as far as it goes; apart from a few belabored phrases and politically incorrect wisecracks, it’s an entertaining read. The reason why libraries are likely to have replaced it is simply that there are better bird books, with more complete facts and color pictures, on the market these days. If you want more “story” than Peterson’s, Sibley’s, or the Audubon Society field guides can offer, Janet Lembke’s Dangerous Birds is fresher than this book. Graeme Gibson’s Bedside Book of Birds mixes fact, artefact, fiction, and poetry, but it’s also a great read. Actually, Audubon’s Birds of America is still a pretty good read, as is William Dupuy’s Our Bird Friends and Foes.

Lemmon didn’t even offer readers the Latin names for the birds he selected to write about…which isn’t all bad, since some species’ names have been changed in the last fifty years. And, instead of following up on Audubon’s interesting observation about anhingas’ resemblance to loons and cormorants with some comments about their similarities to those species and also to geese, grebes, and herons, he wanders off into lame evolutionary remarks about anhingas being more like snakes…than swans are? Hello? Several species of large birds have snaky necks, but the specific evolutionary theory that found some snaky-necked birds somehow closer to snakes than others is no longer received as probable fact—if it ever was. However, apart from this lapse, Lemmon steered clear of speculation and sticks to observed facts—such as he had.

Several of my favorite birds aren’t even mentioned in Our Amazing Birds, but serious bird-nerds will probably enjoy the write-ups of the birds that are here. The pictures are worth studying. In no way is Our Amazing Birds a bad addition to a library. It’s just that there are better ones–and were, at the time.

And I’ve already sold the physical copy of this book. I wrote this review in 2009. Since nobody else seems to have reviewed Our Amazing Birds I see no reason to waste a good review. If you want some good, though not superb, bird pictures and stories, send $5 per book + $5 per package to either address in the lower left-hand corner of the page. You could fit four copies of this book into the package I last used to ship books, and if you bought them from this web site the total cost would be $25. And if anybody buys this book from me, I will indeed write to the publisher and try to find out whether Lemmon is still alive and, if so, whether he wants $1 per copy for himself or wants to send it to a charity.

(Anhinga image from Bandini at www.morguefile.com/archive/display/148668 .)

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Book Review: Hallelujah Chariot

Title: Hallelujah Chariot

Author: Evelyn Hathaway

Date: 1969

Publisher: John Knox Press

ISBN: none, but click here to see it on Amazon

Length: 213 pages

Quote: “‘Well, hallelujah! Will ya just look at that! It’s a regular chariot.’…Frankie had christened the new car.”

The author’s reminiscences about her parents begin with their 1917 Ford Model T car. They’re not selected or written for literary appeal, and they begin with some surprisingly sombre facts about her father’s near-death experience and her mother’s father’s alcoholism.

The author’s Daddy was an old-time preacher. Although the book doesn’t exactly preach it does contain a lot of details about his religious experience and the Methodist, Nazarene, and Salvationist denominations as they existed in the 1920s. This is not an evangelical book. It does not quite qualify as a Sunday School book. It would not be an appropriate book for Christian-phobics.

Some of the author’s memories are lighter, even funny; when a busybody worried that the children might be learning to gamble by playing a board game, the minister sat down and played a few rounds with the busybody, whose own love of gambling became clear.

However, on the whole this is not a funny book. The mother’s struggle to keep a few choice possessions for herself when her husband kept giving them to allegedly needy people is as serious as the father’s courteous reception of what appears to be a soldier’s frantic mother, who turns out to have been a murderer in disguise. The “chariot” is a sweet nostalgia trip, but the author’s memories of tuberculosis, typhoid fever, and the anguished “war to end wars” keep it real.

For whom would this book be an ideal choice? Probably someone seriously studying the history of the Methodist, Nazarene, and Salvationist churches. Other than that, it’s a nice, clean story, free from violence and vulgarity, suitable for train reading or for sharing with the family.

I’ll admit that I, personally, would rather read a bland little memoir about the early twentieth century, such as Hallelujah Chariot is, than a lively piece of contemporary fiction set in the early twentieth century.  Historical fiction tends to sacrifice too much. Unpleasant details like typhoid fever tend to be left out or, as a corrective, wallowed in, and one loses the accurate historical sense of how people accepted these things as part of life. Novelists can compensate by working in historical details that memoirists either overlooked or suppressed, but I tend to feel that a memoir is likely to be more accurate than a novel.

Google reveals nothing about the Evelyn Hathaway who wrote this book. Other people by that name are alive and active, which makes it unprofitable to try to find out online whether this author is alive. Possibly she is. If you want to buy this book online, send $5 per book + $5 per package, or $10, to either address in the lower left-hand corner of the screen, and I will write to the publisher and try to find out in real life whether Hathaway is alive and, if so, whether she prefers to send $1 to a charity.

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Book Review: The Obama Diaries

This is now A Fair Trade Book. I didn’t intend it to be; the first draft of this review was written in 2010.

Title: The Obama Diaries

Author: Laura Ingraham

Date: 2010

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

ISBN: 978-1-439-19751-6

Length: 350 pages plus 19-page index

Quote: “These diaries were my way of pulling back the curtain on Barack Obama’s Theater of the Politically Absurd…informed by actual events and, on many occasions, by the main characters’ own words.”

In other words, they’re satire, in a form that’s traditional in the United States but a little too close to the target for some other cultural traditions. In this book Ingraham intersperses her own commentary on the first two years of the Obama Administration with mock quotations from the diaries of the President and Mrs. Obama and several people who worked with them. No attempt is made to give them individual writing styles, but the mock quotations are set in display fonts. Sections purporting to reflect the thoughts of Rahm Emanuel contain lots of those characters from the top row of the keyboard that are most often used, these days, to slip vulgar words through family-filter software.

Nobody has ever accused Rahm Emanuel of being nice, so I’ll accept the claim that his private thoughts are full of boringly repeated obscenities. I don’t know the other people satirized in this book, so I’ll waive all right to comment on the book’s claim to show us what they’re really like; Ingraham has probably met them. In commenting on this book I’ll have to stick to (1) its success in presenting facts, (2) its assumptions about readers’ memory of facts that may be omitted, and (3) its comedy value.

The Obama Diaries succeeds in presenting the facts most of us remember from the regular news media. This book is a recap containing little fresh journalistic work, although it does cite more sources than any one individual is likely to have read/viewed alone. (There’s a long list of acknowledgments in between the text and the index.)

Most of the facts in this book deserve to be in a book. However, when a writer whose own hair is obviously brightened for the cameras tries to suggest that an older person’s hair concerns show vanity, who exactly is being satirized?

And is it really a fact that no twenty-something has ever lived through experiences that anyone wanted to read about? Considering that Dreams of My Father is not so much about Barack Obama himself (only a few quick, blurry bits of his résumé are thrown in at the end) as about growing up in one of the most far-flung families on Earth, with four ethnic identities, four step-parents, and a half-sibling on every continent, I don’t agree that the President’s first book shows a huge amount of vanity. The President and Mrs. Obama don’t seem to suffer from any deficiency of self-esteem, but why should they?

Facts that are discussed in the book include the Obamas’ unpatriotic sound bites, their non-churchgoing, their daughters’ enrolment in the Sidwell Friends School, the bank bailout, the tax rebate, the health care bill, the President’s nicotine addiction, the question of whether the President’s parents were “really” married, the global extended family, Mrs. Obama’s problems with her vegetable garden, the naming of the First Dog, the unpopularity of Obama-care, the President’s failure to attend the funeral of the President of Poland, the inconvenience a presidential motorcade always presents to the neighborhood (is this really the first time Ingraham’s noticed?), comments reported on the President’s dealings with other heads of state, the First Lady’s breaches of formal diplomatic etiquette, the question of whether the Obamas talk too much about their family life, and the President’s reactions to critics when the media has reported any. And more. (Interestingly, the question of where the President was born had not been made an issue in 2010.)

The Obama Diaries occasionally falls below its own standards by overlooking information readers are likely to have.  The question of why Obama has seemed to pick on Sarah Palin, rather than on older Republicans or Tea Partiers, arises in this book. One reason: Palin really is more outspoken, more rural, and more real than some Republicans like. Another reason: Palin’s anti-Green arguments embarrassed some Republicans, e.g. Michael Savage, whose idea of “being conservative” did embrace conservation of the environment. But there’s also another reason: Palin was, like the Obamas and Ingraham and me, born in the early 1960s. Most active politicians are still “elders” to the Obamas; Palin is actually a bit younger. In that sense, she’s fair game.

Then there’s “the most offensive example of the Obamas’ self-indulgent vacationing…when the White House announced that the First Family would head home to Chicago , on May 27, 2010, for the long Memorial Day weekend. This meant the president would skip the tradi­tional wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington …As this incident unfolded the President was coming under intense criticism for his handling of a catastrophic oil spill…” Where did Ingraham go during the Gulf War? I wrote home (from Pittsburgh): “The President has advised all non-essential personnel to leave Washington, after sending our relatives to war. Taking his own advice, he has gone to Kennebunkport.” If the presidential vacation during a time of criticism was tacky, it was not unprecedented.

Then there’s a quote from Ingraham’s fan mail, “an e-mail I re­cently received from a listener, Kevin,” to the effect that “we [haberdashers?] may totally disagree with your [President Obama’s] agenda, but we could at least respect you a tiny bit if you wore a tie.” Fashions change. I for one am glad to see fashion evolving away from useless, uncomfortable decorations. People our age don’t need to burn the neckties and high-heeled shoes Grandma thought people needed to wear to remind themselves that an occasion was special; we can simply recognize them as fashions from fifty or a hundred years ago that, if worn by us, remind everyone that an occasion is silly, like a Halloween party. But surely, if Kevin is old enough to miss neckties, he’s old enough to remember that proper letters to the President were written or typed on good stationery, addressed privately to The President, The White House, Washington, headed with “Sir,” and closed with “Yours faithfully, Kevin Smith,” or whatever his name is—not e-mailed to third parties, and not signed with a given name only. Without the etiquette that went with them, why would anyone want neckties?

The Obama Diaries scores high on comedy appeal. What the First Family’s “dog and veggie show” needed was good clean jokes about it. Ingraham provides those. Mostly she does it in a gentle, I’m-a-mother-too sort of way; no really nasty stuff about the First Daughters’ adolescence, and only one short, family-filtered riff about the President’s parents. If Ingraham doesn’t seem able to find words like, “Go, girl! Give us something to aim for!” at least the catty jokes say that for her.

More often, there are satirical images of “Rahm [Emanuel uttering a vulgar word] every five minutes to keep [Senator Harry] Reid awake,” Desiree Glapion Rogers pouting that “I am the real First Lady! Only far more alluring,” and foreign politicians not being “motivated by their personal opinions of Barack Obama any more than…by their feelings about blue­grass music.”  And then there’s that Kevin character. If you’re using a daily dose of laughter for pain control, buy this book.

I enjoyed this book thoroughly, and recommend it to readers from all political parties. My reservation about this book is the same reservation I had about Ingraham’s first book, The Hillary Trap.

While The Obama Diaries is at least about the public policies of an individual, The Hillary Trap was to an even greater degree about the ideas that had failed to serve Ingraham’s and my slightly older fore-sisters, the left-wing feminists. Because it used Hillary Rodham Clinton as an example of a woman for whom ten specific left-wing ideas hadn’t worked, The Hillary Trap sold well to one political coalition during one year, was written off as Clinton-bashing by everyone else, and was forgotten next year…and the book deserves more careful reading than that.

The Obama Diaries is more topical, but here too, there’s a fine line between skewering people’s mistakes and skewering people. Plenty of political satirists specialize in skewering people. Ingraham has a more substantial talent for analyzing ideas. My feeling is that publishers encouraged her to use a few jokes that should have been donated to Ann Coulter. Maybe that was what it took to reach the bestseller lists, but I think Ingraham had well and truly “arrived,” even in 2010, and could have afforded to take the high road.

The bad ideas of the administration remain to be bashed. I’ve been in the bashing business since 2011, and I’ll be the first to say that Ingraham does the job better than I do. There is some good solid idea-bashing in The Obama Diaries, enough to make the book more relevant today than much that was written about the news in 2010. There is more satirical comedy about individuals, and although those individuals are still in power, so the jokes about them are still funny, the personal focus of these jokes have given The Obama Diaries a shorter shelf life than Ingraham’s talent really deserves.

Buy this book now…it’ll be a museum piece by 2017. It’s a Fair Trade Book: send $5 per book + $5 per package, for a total of $10, to the address in the lower left-hand corner, and we will send $1 to Ingraham or a charity of her choice. (If you want two books, one of which might be The Hillary Trap, send $15 to the address in the lower left-hand corner, and we will send Ingraham or her charity $2.)

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Book Review: All Around the Town

Title: All Around the Town

 

Author: Phyllis McGinley

        

Date: 1948

 

Publisher: J.B. Lippincott

 

ISBN: none, but click here to find it on Amazon

 

Length: pages not numbered

 

Illustrations: one- to four-color watercolor-type drawings by Helen Stone

 

Quote: “B’s the Bus, the bouncing Bus that bears the shopper storeward.”

 

Phyllis McGinley is probably best known today for Times Three, a book of prefeminist light verse with a witty proto-feminist edge. (It’s not that talented poets are all depressive; it’s that poets who don’t write depressing poems are dismissed as “light,” and you don’t find their Collected Works in one place in the library.)

 

She wrote equally witty and cleverly constructed poems for children, though, such as this alphabet book for city children. Each verse uses the designated letter in the beginning, middle, and end of several words. Each verse is well written enough that you’re likely to enjoy what the words mean before you notice how the words have been chosen to give children a nice mnemonic for the letter they’re studying. Children squeal with delight at the rhymes and alliterations; adults smile.

 

Oddly, although the illustrations in this vintage book are delightfully “vintage,” most of the poems themselves don’t seem terribly outdated. The bouncing Bus, the snorting Subway, the terribly expensive Taxi, and especially the vendor’s Van have changed a great deal in the last sixty-some years, but they’re still big parts of city life, where C isn’t for Car, as it might be in a small town, but for Circus. The polite Policeman’s uniform looks different now, as do the clothes worn by the kids at Kindergarten and the Neighbors who dominate children’s lives “although you never know their names.” The Aeroplane is less “apt to advertise” and more likely to be called “airplane” these days. The Dairy Drivers and Organ-grinders are probably gone…but the other letters are still represented by the same sorts of things.

 

Although the observed behavior of this reviewer supports the claim that, at any age after nine, I would trade a Crocus for any number of Circuses, I’ll pardon McGinley for catering to the taste of the majority of kindergarten readers/listeners…she did, after all, expect them to spend enough time helping their mothers (or their devoted aunts) in the garden to know what a Crocus is. All Around the Town is a delightful way for children to learn the alphabet, a delicious nostalgia trip for the grandparents who remember when things looked the way they’re drawn here, and a brief (and therapeutic) chuckle-break for baby boomers too.

 

As an extra bonus, each verse can be sung to the once popular tune called “The Sidewalks of New York.”

All Around the Town was a good steady seller in its day and is still available at reasonable prices, so our standard prices apply: $5 per book + $5 per package to the address in the lower left-hand corner.

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Book Review: Aunt Mary Tell Me a Story

Title: Aunt Mary Tell Me a Story

 

Author: Mary Ulmer Chiltoskey

        

Date: 1990

 

Publisher: Cherokee Communications

 

ISBN: 0-962863009

 

Length: 82 pages

 

Illustrations: drawings by Goingback Chiltoskey and others; some black and white photos

 

Quote: “When I tell a legend to you and then you re-tell it, or I tell it again to someone else, the story will always be a little different, but the truths will be the same.”

 

Mary Ulmer Chiltoskey did not become a member of the Cherokee Nation merely by marrying Goingback Chiltoskey. She was granted honorary citizenship only after fifty years of service to the community. She was, however, authorized to share a limited number of stories, recipes, and words through a series of small paperback books that are sold at the North Carolina reservation.

 

Aunt Mary Tell Me a Story contains 77 stories. Most are obviously fables made up to instruct small children; some are probably true, but told as if to small children. The historical fact that some Cherokee families adopted foreign children, who were then considered as “full blood” Cherokees, here appears as a continuation of the Goldilocks story.

 

Some stories show multicultural influences. A dog warns humans to build a raft in time to escape a great flood…was this an addition to the flood story in the Bible, or is it a different event? Skin colors are explained in, allowing for cultural pride, exactly the same way they are explained in an African-American story; who thought of the explanation first, or did it occur to several storytellers independently of the others? Since this book is meant to read exactly like the words of an aunt or grandmother telling stories to three-year-olds, no documentation is mentioned, and we’ll never know.

 

The possum’s tail tale in this book is linked to another story about the rabbit’s tail, and although it preserves the general idea that the possum’s tail was shaved by other animals to teach him not to be vain, it’s different from other versions. (That’s not a bad thing; no two versions are alike.)

 

The Spearfinger story in this book differs more significantly from the way this story cycle was historically used. Because the stories were part of an oral tradition, were not memorized or considered sacred, and could be substantially changed by any teller, this “safe” or comforting version is part of the tradition but does not reflect the whole tradition. Spearfinger and a water monster were described as present dangers to scare the very young into obedience. Until children were old enough to understand danger in more realistic ways, telling stories about the monsters that stalked disobedient children was considered more humanitarian than threatening them with spankings or other displays of parental anger. The parenting philosophy of Mrs. Chiltoskey’s generation opposed this strategy, so in this book Spearfinger appears just to be killed. (Earlier storytellers killed her/him/it off, too, after children were considered old enough to be prepared to confront real dangers instead of being scared by fictitious ones.) This is a book of nice, friendly stories that won’t scare children…but scaring children used to be the point.

 

The moral/religious aspect of some of these stories is another change. The teachings of the religion or religions Cherokee people followed before contact with English immigrants will never be known. They weren’t written down and probably evolved to meet the needs of each local religious leader and his or her audience. There is thought to have been general agreement about the idea of a Supreme Being, believed to be Good, and an Evil Principle. This worldview was recognized as basically compatible with Judaism or Christianity, but at first contact with the English, the Cherokees were neither Jews nor Christians.

 

Many lesser spirits of different shapes and powers were also imagined. The importance of these lesser spirits varies depending on the storyteller. The Chiltoskeys, being Christians, minimize them down to cartoon-like characters in fables. For non-Christians they could be seen as more like Greek “gods,” and a few of them may have been worshipped; more often they seem to have been merely subjects of stories. What may be peculiar to the Cherokee Nation is that, according to James Mooney et al., different religious practices were expected of different people; if myths were ever believed to embody religious truth, their truth seems to have been considered relevant only to some persons.

So, did the Cherokee Nation have the idea that the spirit world was divided approximately into thirds—bad, good, and flawed—before they had been exposed to the old English notion of angels, devils, and fairies? If they did, was that the result of early undocumented contact with English people, or was it an independent, simultaneous idea? We’ll never know. Moral conflict, and the spirits called “Little People,” appear in other collections of Cherokee stories but not all storytellers try to fit their stories into a Christian frame as hard as Mrs. Chiltoskey did.

 

However, although Mrs. Chiltoskey’s stories differ from some other tellers’ and collectors’ stories, they are not to be considered “less” authentic or, for that matter, necessarily more recent than the divergent versions. According to older documents Mrs. Chiltoskey’s image of Grandmother Corn as an ancestor figure may be “more” authentic, in the sense of having been told earlier and/or more often, than Marilou Awiakta’s image of Grandmother Corn as a goddess like Demeter. These stories are recognized as authentic by the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation.

The Chiltoskeys no longer need a dollar. I mentioned on the Blogspot in 2011 that I planned to display the copy of this book I had for sale at a craft market; it sold on the first day. Still, why waste a review that’s been sitting in a computer file for all these years? It’s still possible to buy this book online; to buy it here, send $5 per copy + $5 per package to either address in the lower right-hand corner. Aunt Mary Tell Me a Story is not a Fair Trade Book but I will send $1 per copy to a Native American charity.

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Book Review: Sister Betty! God’s Calling You, Again!

A Fair Trade Book

Title: Sister Betty God’s Calling You Again

Author: Pat G’orge-Walker

Author’s web site: www.sisterbetty.com

Publisher: Kensington

Date: 2003

Length: 209 pages

Quote: “After many years of dysfunction and abuse that should have wrapped me in a blanket of mental instability, God, in His infinite wisdom and love, instead placed into my unworthy hands a Ministry of Laughter.”

That’s Pat Walker’s apologia for the comic character Sister Betty, both as Walker has enacted her in comedy skits, and as a character in this series of short stories about a small, not too wealthy, American Protestant church and its quirky members. In addition to Sister Betty, a fragile little old lady who may be senile but can also be wise, there’s Ma Cile, a big tough old lady who is definitely not senile and may be dangerous, and others including Pastor Knott Enuff Money, Deacon Laid Handz, Sister Carrie Onn, Sister Connie Fuse, Sister Aggi Tate, and Minister Breedin Love. These peculiar believers make up the Ain’t Nobody Right But Us Church.

The adventures of this cracked-up crowd form a searching, but apparently sincere, Christian look at the besetting sins of the church. There’s the night some church members (who are at least genuinely single) risk mortal embarrassment and the censure of the church by furtively sneaking into town to meet people they’ve been chatting with on a dating web site, but all they see are each other. There’s the bus trip on which the Greyhound driver thinks he’ll enjoy the conversation of the “beautiful and exotic” church lady who edges an old man with a cane out of the front seat…but little does he know he’s about to be used as the strop on which Sister Ima whets her combat-ready tongue. There is an appeal for “new behinds” for Ma Cile’s grandchildren. After each piece of wacky exaggeration, there are Bible texts that address the serious problem that has just been parodied.

Not everyone will appreciate the comedy approach to the serious problems of the Christian life, and some who laugh at lines like “she looked like a jar of spilled jellybeans with her hat of many colors discarded on the church floor” will object to other lines like “Sister Carrie Onn’s sundress got torn, and she accidentally mooned the man who held on to her.” (The overall tone of the comedy in this book is definitely PG-13; when looking for an example of potentially objectionable jokes to quote, I rejected three that would have violated this web site’s contract.) If, however, you like most of the comedy movies and TV shows being made these days, you’ll probably enjoy Sister Betty. I laughed. A lot. But I was glad The Nephews weren’t there to ask me to share the jokes.

Sister Betty God’s Calling You Again is a Fair Trade Book–a book by a living author that is more often purchased secondhand than new, which this web site sells at a price from which we can send 10% to the author. That means that when you send $5 per book + $5 per package to either address at the lower left-hand corner of this screen, we send $1 to Pat G’Orge-Walker or a charity of her choice. (If you want two copies, you send us $15 and we send Walker or her charity $2.)

Book Review: Busted

A Fair Trade Book

Title: Busted! (Left Behind: The Kids: 7)

Author: Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye

Publisher: Tyndale

Date: 2000

ISBN: 0-8423-4327-X

Length: 111 pages

Quote: “The Young Tribulation Force wanted everyone in school to know the truth: Jesus Christ had taken true Christians away in the Rapture.”

That’s what’s wrong with this incredibly nasty fictional dystopia. There aren’t many decent human beings in the fictional world of Left Behind, and the few who survive are about to be hunted down and actively persecuted by the majority, who have fallen under the spell of the Antichrist.

Real fans undoubtedly remember how, about halfway through the publication of the adult Left Behind series, the series’ popularity with young readers generated a spin-off about teenagers who become Christians during these years of “Tribulation.” Students who wouldn’t have become friends, if their lives had gone on in the way to which they were accustomed, are drawn together as the Young Tribulation Force, dedicating the short time their world has left to the cause of converting as many more Christians as possible.

Naturally, a school that’s been rechristened in honor of the charming dictator Nicolae Carpathia, “Nicolae High,” is not a hospitable place for Christian evangelism. When school staff find out that Vicki has been sharing the Christian message with her new friend Shelly, Vicki faces a term in reform school, where among other things inmates are bombarded with encouragement to join Nicolae’s new religion of “unity.”

Persecuting Vicki draws the authorities’ attention away from the boys in what would, in our world, have been a teen Sunday School class. Adult characters from the main series make cameo appearances as their teachers. Both the basic Gospel message and the school of Bible prophecy study on which Left Behind is based are presented, and the boys continue to distribute underground newsletters explaining that people’s Christian relatives have disappeared in “The Rapture.”

However, the plot doesn’t resolve at the end of this book. Nor will it. Both adult and teen Left Behind series have a happy ending—the final volume—and, before that, nothing gets much better. Characters who survive in one book won’t necessarily survive in another. The best thing that’s going to happen to any character is conversion to Christianity (or Messianic Judaism) and/or reconciliation with relatives. It’s cliff-hangers all the way, in the classic Perils of Pauline manner.

Some people think it was presumptuous of Jenkins and LaHaye to write fiction about one possible way the Bible prophecies might come to pass. Masses of people just wanted to read what they’d write. If you were one of the curious but didn’t read the Young Trib Force books when they were new, you might want to add this series to your collection now. If so, here’s volume seven.

Both Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye are alive and well, active in cyberspace, and occasional correspondents at the Blogspot, so Busted is a Fair Trade Book. Send $5 per book + $5 per package to either of the addresses in the lower left-hand corner (Paypal or U.S. postal money orders), and Jerry Jenkins or a charity of his choice will receive $1 per book. If you want twelve volumes of the Young Trib Force series, send $65 and Jenkins or his charity will receive $12. If you want to complete your collection of grown-up Tribulation Force or Babylon Rising books, send $5 per book, $5 per package, and LaHaye or his charity will receive $1 per book.