Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Finding Dorothy - by Elizabeth Letts

When I was very young everyone I knew enthusiastically anticipated the annual airing of The Wizard of Oz on network television. When our family finally got a color television set in the mid '70s I was stunned to discover that the Wizard  was filmed in black and white. My mother assured me that the color scenes were coming. It seems that the tradition of the yearly national viewing ended in 1980, around the time that the VHS tape became popular. Once anyone could record or purchase the movie to watch whenever they wanted the ritual viewing was relegated to nostalgia. As for me, I purchased the 50th anniversary edition of the tape in 1989, after I'd seen the movie perhaps 20 times. It came with some extra footage including deleted scenes, and a Wizard-themed commercial for Downy fabric softener. It also had a little booklet with trivia and other information about the filming of the movie. I still own this tape and a videocassette player on which to view it.

The movie is based on L. Frank Baum's book of the same title, the first of many books in the "Oz" series. Elizabeth Letts' book is a fictionalized account of the life of Maud Baum, widow of the author. The story alternates between 1939 and Maud's involvement in the filming of the movie and her relationship with Judy Garland, and her life in the late 1800s - growing up, meeting and marrying Frank, and raising a family with him. A dreamer with a vivid imagination L. Frank Baum wasn't exactly the person suffragist Matilda Gage had in mind to marry her daughter. Maud was one of the early co-eds accepted to Cornell University and Matilda had great plans for her. But the elder Gage also knew she had raised a daughter who would make up her own mind, and that she wasn't going to be browbeat by her mother into a decision not her own. The Baums moved a number of times as Frank chased jobs and financial opportunities. Maud always made the best of whatever life had in store for them. They never could have imagined the success they found when Frank's first "Oz" book was published.

There are several passages describing Maud's time at Cornell, including some in which she utilized the Sage library, a place she knew she could find quiet and solitude.

I was especially intrigued by the two passages regarding censorship of feminist materials. Matilda Gage was a force to be reckoned with and not one to let censorship prevent her from sharing knowledge and information. On the eve of Maud's marriage she lets her daughter in on the secret to limiting family size - information found in a booklet entitled A Woman's Companion - a book "outlawed" by Anthony Comstock "the United States postal director and...vehement anti-suffragist". The booklet advised soaking a sponge in carbolic acid and "push[ing] it all the way to the mouth of the womb" in order to prevent pregnancy. More about Anthony Comstock and his war on contraception can be found here.

As Matilda Gage nears her death she tells her daughter how she'd like her fortune distributed, a fortune that is not as big as she'd hoped. As her own book Woman, Church and State had been "banned from libraries" she did not "earn as much as [she] should have." I expect she would be happy to know that her book is now freely available online for anyone who wishes to read it.

As is often the case with historical fiction the reader wonders which parts are true and what is imagined. Letts helps with this in the Afterword, explaining how she did her research, and where she took artistic licence. One thing we learn is that women in Hollywood (and elsewhere) have been enduring sexual harassment since long before "me too" was a hashtag.

Friday, July 19, 2019

The World Between Two Covers: Reading the Globe - by Ann Morgan

I wrote my first blog "My Year of Reading 'Year of' Books" ten years ago. During that year I read, and wrote about, 33 books that documented some stunt that the author had undertaken for a period of twelve months. Some were about diet choices, others about not spending, travel, religion, and indeed, reading. I still like to pick up "year of " books. It is even one of the labels I still use for this blog. I can't remember where I found out about this book, but it seemed like a good choice for my geographer husband and I to enjoy together as an audiobook. We listened to much of it during the long drive between Maryland and Massachusetts while coming back from a visit with our families, and we finished it while we were vacationing in South America to see a total eclipse of the sun (and drink wine). It was fitting that we were traveling as we listened to this book.

This was unlike the other "year of" books I read in that it did not follow a chronology. Instead Morgan divided her work into themes based on what she learned from doing her rather ambitious project of reading a work in English translation from every country in the world during the course of one year. Her first challenge was to determine how to define a country, which isn't as easy as it might seem. She also explored questions of what and whom to read, and how to get English translations in languages that hadn't been translated before, and how she would get books from countries without publishing industries at all. Also, exactly, how was she going to find the time to read almost 200 books, and blog about them, and do her "day job" in the course of one year. One very important lesson she learns is that just because she wishes something to exist, doesn't mean that it does. She realizes early on that she has to break a lot of the rules she set out for herself, and determines that "instead of me reading the world, it seemed the world was reading me - and forcing me to rewrite the bits with which it didn't agree."

Morgan's partner builds her a bookshelf on which to hold all the works she reads during her year of reading the world. She opts to own all the books, rather than getting any library copies. However, her affection and admiration for libraries is evident throughout. She begins her book with a loving tribute to the Cambridge University Library, and her memories of it from her days as an undergraduate. Clearly enchanted by the building and all within she describes it as a "time machine", "magical", "mythical", and "a Narnia of reading". Beyond bewitching, the library was an erotic place as well with stories of "intrepid third years having sex in obscure corners" and tales of the porn-stuffed "magnificent erection" seventeen-storey tower. She continues for several more pages using all manner of metaphor to describe the awesomeness of the place.

Morgan refers to other libraries throughout and recognizes that they will not be replaced by the internet or "googling". While the author realizes that technology was necessary for her project to come to fruition and that "reading the world in a single language would have been almost impossible thirty years ago" she also knows that hard copy books still matter, pointing out that when the Tucson-Pima (Arizona) Public Library opened a bookless branch in 2002 "users obliged the management to bring in physical books". And when she asked an unnamed academic for suggestions on underrepresented African authors "he suggested rather gruffly that I could find everything I was looking for on Google Books." To which she added "he's not right". Several pages later she comes back to the question of Google Books and kind of library it is. She quotes academic librarian and historian Robert Darnton
When businesses like Google look at libraries, they do not merely see temples of learning. The see potential assets or what they call "content", ready to be mined.
And follows up with this word from author Nicholas Carr from his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains 
That great library that Google is rushing to create shouldn't be confused with the libraries we've known up until now. It's not a library of books. It's a library of snippets.
The chapter entitled "Encountering Roadblocks: Censorship, Propaganda, and Exiled Writers" details how getting the materials we want can be made difficult by religious zealots, governments, and fascists who believe that certain works in the hands of the masses are dangerous. She describes the attempt to "wipe out Bosnian culture by bombarding the National Library in Sarajevo in 1992" as well as the Hitler's attempt to rid Germany of all Jewish authors, and other undesirable "foreign influences". What I hadn't known about before was the Library of Burned Books, created by a resistance movement in Paris and containing copies of all the works the Nazi's burned.

Morgan also notes that censors are at work on the internet as well and that as their tools become more sophisticated it becomes harder and harder to realize that anything is even being hidden from us.

Not a beginner's "year of" book. This is the most sophisticated work of the genre I've read. Morgan has some truly deep insights, not just about herself but about reading, technology, geography, globalization, censorship, and how we see ourselves in the world.

Even after reading books from 196 countries (plus Kurdistan) Morgan recognizes that her undertaking constituted less than a drop in the bucket of what there is to read, and learn, and know. I especially liked this quote from Argentine author Alberto Manguel in a History of Reading

"We are always at the beginning of the beginning of the letter A".

This book did inspire my husband and I (no strangers to world literature) to double down and begin reading more other-than-American authors. We will begin with Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral. Others might find something of interest on this list of recently published translations.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

The Hired Girl - by Laura Amy Schlitz

I'm not sure how I found out about this historical novel, but I expect I must have read a review that indicated that it was a Baltimore (aka my hometown) story.

Schlitz tells the tale of  Joan Skraggs (alias Janet Lovelace) a young girl who runs away from her abusive father (who burned her books!) and ends up working for the Rosenbach family in Baltimore. She tells her employers that she is eighteen, although her actual age is much younger. Janet loves to read and is thrilled when she is invited to use the Rosenbach's private library. Still she dreams of one day visiting the Enoch Pratt Free Library, and getting a proper education. Since she only has Sunday mornings and Tuesday afternoons off during which she either attends Mass, or receives religious instruction it seems as if she will never have time to explore the libraries, art galleries, or any of the other myriad benefits the city has to offer.

Monday, July 15, 2019

The Year of the Flood - by Margaret Atwood

My husband and I anxiously await Atwood's Testimony (a sequel to the Handmaid's Tale) in September. In the meantime, we are taking some time to read some of her other works - some that we've read before and others that we haven't. This was our first go-round for The Year of the Flood - the second of the Maddaddam Trilogy.

This story centers on the lives of the Gardeners who, in a age of everything biotech, are still trying to live organic lives by growing their own food and eschewing technology.

There is only one passing mention of a school library in this book, however, another passage was so reminiscent of things I've read in my research on book banning that it warranted some space on this blog.

Upon entering the inner circle of the Gardeners, Toby (aka Eve Six) is surprised to discover that
the Adams and Eves had a laptop...wasn't such a device a direct contravention of Gardener Principles? - but Adam One had asured her: they never went online with it except with extreme precaution, they used it mostly for the storage of crucial data pertaining to the Exfernal World, and they took care to conceal such a dangerous objects from the Gardener membership at large - especially the children. Nevertheless they had one. "It's like the Vatican's porn collection," Zeb told her. "Safe in our hands."
Ah, the eternal cry of the paternalistic censor. 'Only we can handle the information. All others must be protected from it'.