Monday, February 22, 2016

Little House on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

"On the whole enormous prairie there was no sign that any other human being had ever been there." 
-- from Little House on the Prairie (41)

Well, this is crazily more dramatic than Little House in the Big Woods: crossing the river! Ma almost crushed by a log! Wolves surrounding the house! Prairie fires! Irritated Native Americans!  But oddly, it's the one I remember least well.

There's a lot of (lovely) description of the prairie, and an exhausting amount of construction. Pa builds a house, a barn, the doors, the furniture, the fireplace, the well. So there's plenty of wood-working and mud-stirring, much more so than depiction of food and clothes. Not that it's uninteresting, exactly, but it doesn't thrill me in quite the same way.

Laura is a little older and more worldly than the previous book, and she hasn't lost the rebellious nature that makes her such a beloved character. She still wants to slap her sister so badly that "she dared not look at Mary again" (181), and when reminded that children mustn't complain, "she was still naughty, inside. She sat and thought complaints to herself" (15).

That self-control that she's being conditioned to is shown in this book as a matter of survival value, as it was in Big Woods when they encountered a bear. At separate points in the story, the children doing what they're told is pivotal to their safety. However, the down side of that is obvious in the heart-wrenching moment when Laura believes their dog has drowned when crossing a rising river: "She knew it was shameful to cry, but there was crying inside her" (24). Her need to hold back her deep feelings of sorrow almost made ME cry, especially since this comes right after the realization of how nearly the whole family had come to perishing. "The river would have rolled them over and over and carried them away and drowned them, and nobody would ever have known what became of them" (ibid). That's a lot for a little girl to take in.

On the lighter side, the only things in the whole series that I like as much as the Surveyor's House are the Little House Christmases, and this is a great one: "Think of having a whole penny for your very own. Think of having a cup and a cake and a stick of candy and a penny" (250). Reading that, I couldn't help thinking we might not be better of if we could be so happy with so little, or had any real grasp of the difference between desires and necessities. Not that I want to be digging my own well any time soon.

What I remembered vividly, but didn't remember it was this book: The scene of Mr. Edwards dancing like a jack-in-the-box. I had thought the dugout appeared in this book, but now I think that's Plum Creek.

Ma's aesthetic sense: Ma's china shepherdess survives the trip in the covered wagon (117), and when they're still on the trail, she not only washes, but irons, their dresses! (47) It makes me speechless.

The current trends: Gone into town for supplies, Pa brings the girls black rubber hair combs. Each has a star cut out of it, with a ribbon underneath, so Mary has a black headband with a blue star, and Laura with a red star. "They had never had anything so pretty" (271). Since the combs are "curved to fit over the top of a little girl's head" (270), there must be enough little girls passing through for this store in the middle of nowhere to stock this kind of thing.

Progress: The problematic nature of so-called progress comes across in this book, which sees white settlers displacing the Native American population (although they'll get driven out too, temporarily). The Ingalls' neighbors hold forth on how "the only good Indian was a dead Indian" (211, 284) which, eeee, obviously, but it's certainly true to the times. Earlier, one of them had said "They'd never do anything this with country themselves. All they do is roam around over it like wild animals. Treaties or no treaties, the land belongs to folks that'll farm it. That's only common sense and justice" (211). Sort of a woman-on-the-street view of Manifest Destiny, tied in, maybe, with a perverse view of the Protestant Work Ethic, and while I couldn't disagree with this more, it does illustrate the common attitudes.

The books are often faulted in modern times for their attitudes toward Native Americans, so Wilder's perspective here is more balanced than I'd expected. Pa tells her that "when white settlers come into a country, the Indians have to move on," and she replies, "But, Pa, I thought this was Indian Territory. Won't it make the Indians mad to have to --" And just like real life, he shuts that down with "Go to sleep" (237). Later, though, he tells the neighbor that "Indians would be as peaceable as anybody else if they were let alone. On the other hand, they had been moved west so many times that naturally they hated white folks" (284). Even after he finds out later that they had been in some danger from these understandably aggrieved tribes, the narrative explicitly states that "Pa did not believe that the only good Indian was a dead Indian" (301). So, not perfect, but it could be worse.

In the end, of course, the Ingalls family is moved on by the same government, and after a few detours, will end up on the famous Plum Creek.

Wilder, Laura Ingalls. Little House on the Prairie. Revised edition. New York: HarperCollins, 1953.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, by Pu Songling

"A lonely soul in a strange land dreads the desolation of the grave."
-- One of the many attractive ghosts in Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (178)

This Penguin edition collects 104 of the short tales of odd and frequently supernatural occurrences written by Pu Songling, who died in 1715, but whose work wasn't published until 1766. Just like the people in these stories, we're living, 250 years later, in a time full of soul-crushing bureaucracy, only without the consolations of shrines, ghosts, and fox spirits. Personally, I'd love to visit the Island of Antiquities (185), or be able to believe that grievances against the dead could be settled in the courts of the Nether World (147), although I wouldn't be too thrilled to have a miniature person come out of my ear.

I was surprised by the number of tiny people in these stories, as well the often-sympathetic view taken toward the spirit world. The presence of ghosts may often be harmful to the living, and the fox spirits may be known for their seductive and otherwise trickstery ways, but the individuals of their -- species?, particularly women, are shown in many of the tales to be loving and essentially decent.

Also, there is a tale about a giant turtle, about whom the nearby monks proclaim "All we can do is worship it and pray to it not to fly into a rage" (194): the original Gamera? It doesn't fly, or breathe fire, but frankly, that wouldn't be at all out of place here.

Editor and translator John Minford provides so much in the way of fascinating backstory and detailed footnotes, I wish I could fake-drink that cup of oblivion offered by Yama in the afterlife, and be reborn to study Chinese literature in more depth. Clearly, it would take me a lifetime to read through all the relevant texts mentioned. Especially since there are whole genres of stories called "Weird Accounts" and "Strange Stories," the former being shorter records of peculiar events, and the latter more fleshed-out short stories on similar themes. (Both styles represented here).

Highly recommended, particularly for a time when you don't have a lot of time, or attention span, to devote to reading. Some of the tales are only half a page long, and even the longer narratives fly by quickly.

Pu Songling. Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. Translated and edited by John Minford.  London: Penguin, 2006.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Venus in the Cloister, or, The Nun in a Chemise, by Abbe du Prat

"Look, here is a book that I will lend you; make good use of it; it will instruct you of many things."

"There is no book that of its nature bears a forbidden title; only the use we make of it means that is good, bad, or neither."

-- from Venus in the Cloister, or, The Nun in a Chemise (34, 81)

This short collection of dialogues, subtitled "Curious Conversations," was originally published in 1683, with later editions that continued to add new material to what is, essentially, 17th century soft porn. Pretty soft, and surprisingly philosophical, by porn standards, although it does start off with one pretty nun interrupting another (in, you guessed it, her chemise), who is pretty obviously masturbating.

In the non-linear series of anecdotes that follows, mostly about the love lives of the characters' fellow nuns, we learn that the French apparently once called French kisses "Florentine" kisses (79), and that communities of nuns and monks were originally connected so they could ease each others' tensions -- making it infidelity if they strayed with partners who belonged to different religious orders. Which did make me laugh.There's an ongoing thread about how some physical pleasures are natural and right, but the characters still judge some others for debauchery. As Sister Angelique says, "All extremes are dangerous" (82).

Just to prove, again, that some things never change, and human inconsistency is one of those things. "There is nothing certain or assured in this world; there is no point of view that can be sustained, and ... we we have merely false and confused ideas of the things that we think we know most perfectly" (77).

Along the way, there are some jabs at the church as an institution, and particularly at the ascetics and, well, the uptight. "What you call 'the contemplation of diving things' is at bottom merely a soft and cowardly sloth, incapable of any action," Angelique declares. The book doesn't get too heavy about this, keeping its tone fairly light, because while it assumes religion and belief in God to be true, its main interest is in everyday human life, accepting sexuality as a part of that. "You know well that our hearts cannot get by without a little amusement ... nature allows these hearts of ours to seek out objects that will fulfil them" (95).

Several books are mentioned in the text, which interested me, since I came to this book because of its mention in Henry Fielding's Shamela. A few of them are particularly intriguing: "A Plain and Pleasant Path for Preventing a Problematic Plumpness," and "Collection of Remedies against Perilous Plumpness, composed for the commodity of the religious ladies of Saint-Georges" (44, 51). I doubt those are specific real books, but they seem clearly based on real ones, and I'd love to see their suggestions!

du Prat, Abbe. Venus in the Cloister, or, The Nun in a Chemise: Curious Conversations. Translated by Andrew Brown. London: Hesperus Press, 2012.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Florence Nightingale in Egypt and Greece: Her Diary and "Visions"

"I did not think it worth while to get up in the morning. What could I do but offend God?"
-- from Florence Nightingale in Egypt and Greece: Her Diary and "Visions"

Influenced by PBS's Mercy Street, I first intended to read Florence Nightingale's "Cassandra," but then realized it was just an essay, so not really Classics Club material. That led me to this curious volume,credited to Michael D. Calabria, who edited the material, and contextualizes Nightinale's diary with historical and biographical information, along with plenty of excerpts from her letters from Egypt, Greece, and parts of Europe. Those are much more descriptive, and I almost thought I should be reading them instead, but they apparently don't do much to illuminate her inner feelings, which are the focus of her more personal writing.

In 1850, the time of the travels recorded here, she had not definitively embarked on her famous nursing career, and she struggles both with obvious depression over her life, and with determining the will of God for her future. Although she seems to have a mystical temperament, it's still balanced by an unflaggingly practical side: she makes notes about the cook and a tour guide, and then adds "Settled the question with God," as if it's something on her to-do list (46).

It's delightful to see her quick entries about her "dreadful fights with Trout" (25). Trout was her servant on the trip, with whom Nightingale did NOT seem to get along; later though, when Trout has been ill, she'll say she "found the prospect of having that wretched woman ... to nurse cheer me up suddenly" (31) -- probably proving how close she was to finding her permanent vocation.

The diary entries are appended by two pieces of fanciful philosophical writing, a brief "Greek Vision," and the "Vision of Temples," in which she imagines the creation of six real Egyptian temples, and the reaction of an immortal God-figure to them. Each temple represents a different way of approaching God, or a different theological style (one more dedicated to a show of wealth and magnificence, for example, and one to the worship of Nature).

There's a lot of interesting material in this short piece. For example, she says that God "has given them (humanity) to create with toil and trouble, that they might have the satisfaction of thinking, 'I have done this,' " (125) -- an explanation for the hardship of life with roots in psychology. And the poetic reverie that "Night is the genesis of all things; primeval darkness is the mother of the world, for darkness is more ancient than light, and day was born of night" (126). I'll be quoting that, somewhere.

Nightingale posits the correct approach as one that accepts the existence of evil, with "the two spirits of God, Good and Evil" (129), and sees her God as "the great Unknown, the Unutterable, the Infinite Himself ... I will build a temple ... mysterious as the future, and vast as the past; yet it shall be the symbol of a day ... that my people may know that upon the hours of a day are laid the destinies of man" (128). After all her spiritual angst, she comes to a place that combines the Infinite with the small measures of human time, where she'd find the work she believed in.

Calabria, Michael D.  Florence Nightingale in Egypt and Greece: Her Diary and "Visions." Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1997.