Monday, January 09, 2017

Reading over break.

(I may insert some quotations later - the book I might want to quote is at home and I am at work).

I finished two ongoing books, and read two more over break.

First up: The Santa Klaus Murders by Mavis Hay. Yes, that's a weird spelling of Santa Claus, at least to an American - but this is a British novel, apparently written at a time when Father Christmas was much more the norm and Santa Claus was largely unrecognized.

Anyway. It's one of those "unreliable narrator" plots and also you're given information slightly out of order - first up, you get the "accounts" of several family members who were present in the house (this is one of those manor-house mysteries) at the time of the murder. Then you get the accounts of the detective investigating it, and the young man who is a family friend of the detective but who also was present at the house at the time.

It involves the Melbury family: the paterfamilias, his four children (Three of whom are married, two of which have children. Wait, one of them is a widow with a grown daughter so I guess she's not married, technically), his unmarried sister, and a hot number who is his "secretary," the various household servants, and two suitors of the youngest daughter who has not yet married.

You can probably guess who dies here, especially when I tell you it's hinted he changed his will.

It's a fairly cleverly plotted story though I found it *slightly* unsatisfying in regards as to who the murderer turned out to be. But still - it's one of the better of these minor Golden Age mysteries I've read, and probably a good entertainment for you if you (a) like these between-the-wars British manor-house mysteries and (b) are either traveling or are stuck somewhere around Christmas and need the slight cynicism a murder mystery set at the Festive Season can breed.

I dunno. I admit the little black-and-twisted part of my psyche enjoys these kind of books. Maybe it's like liking sour pickles along with all the sweets at a maple-sugaring: it helps to cut the treacle a little.

The second book I finished was nonfiction: John M. Barry's The Great Influenza. This is about the so-called Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918. You do have to wade through a lot to get to the account of the flu pandemic - first, a thumbnail of the History of Medicine going back to the Four Humors (though later on, it turns out that was done in service of the fact that when times got really desperate, doctors started throwing everything they could at the flu, even including bloodletting). Then you get an account of the various individuals - Oswald Avery included, which was interesting to me, as I knew him from the various experiments helping lead up to the discovery of DNA.

One of the striking things: a lot of these doctors were unmarried people, and many of them seemed to have no life outside the lab. I don't know if that is a stereotype coming in to play, or if it's actually true that to make advances in science, you have to give up any pretense of a personal life. Part of me is always relieved to read about people who had fairly good lives without a spouse, but I also twitch as I realize I will never do 1/100 of what any of these people did with my own life. (Also, I wonder: just as there's the image of the artist as someone with various spiritual or emotional tortures they must endure, it seems many of those early scientists were perhaps what we might call "non-neurotypical" today - or even "somewhere on the Asperger's continuum." And while "curing" those various conditions might lead to happier lives for the individuals involved.....well, it's because I have a lot of outside interests that pull at me, in part, that I'm never going to do anything groundbreaking in research. It's the old "the needs of the one vs. the needs of the many," in a way - if you could give some random scientist who lives locked in her lab a medication that would make her more sociable, more comfortable out in the world, and maybe make her a happier person than she is, but would prevent her from discovering a cure to a disease (because she's out having a life), which is the better path. (Ah. A new version of the infamous Trolley Problem, perhaps?)

Though some of the scientists seemed perfectly happy in their own little worlds. (Others did not - Paul Lewis, apparently).

The other thing I learned from the book is how chilling things can become in the name of "morale" - probably more people died of flu because newspapers were not permitted to (or felt pressure not to) report on the severity of the epidemic, and lots of people talked about how it was "just flu, nothing but flu." And also a lot of the stuff that happened during the (brief) time we were involved in WWI. (The extreme coercion to get people to buy war bonds, for example - suggesting you were unpatriotic and very possibly a German-lover if you did not. Never mind that perhaps some didn't have it in the budget to.)

I will say I found the book tedious at points and often it felt like Barry was throwing in stuff to show how much he knew and how hard he had researched. (Though that's a common problem; I have to pressure my students to prune the literature-review sections of their papers to include only the material strictly relevant to their research question, and I have to do that myself in my own writing).

The third book finished was another mystery, this time a Miss Silver mystery: The Case of William Smith. This seemed less to be a mystery, though, than a bit of a fantasy tale: there are some considerably-unbelievable coincidences in it (though perhaps one meeting is not so very coincidental). And yet, for all the unbelievability, there's something comforting about the story, because it does more or less turn out to be a "wrong is made right" story.

I can't give too much detail because it would spoil things, but William Smith turns out not to actually be William Smith. He was in the military in WWII and was shot down (? I think) over Germany, wound up in a POW camp and later hospital, totally lost his memory, and emerged with an identity token naming him as Smith. (He is, as it turns out, actually a William, just not a William Smith). A young woman comes to the toyshop where he has taken work and he falls in love with her, and....there's a lot more to the story but he does recover his memory and the people who should fall in love and marry do, and the people who do wrong are punished in the end (well, they wind up punishing themselves...) and everything is nicely wrapped up. And yes, I find these kinds of stories deeply reassuring; I tend to hunger for stories where things are all made right, there are redemptions, and decent people wind up happy in the end. I suppose that's because I look at the world and I don't see that kind of thing happening very much here, and while I trust on the other side of the Veil things are made right and people are forgiven and there are happy reunions and all that - on this side, it doesn't always work that way, and I need stories that do.

The last book I am *almost* done with - it is Molly Guptill Manning's When Books Went to War. This is a REALLY interesting account to me, as it's one of those "gosh, I never knew that before!" things, one of those hidden-histories. It's the story of the Armed Services Editions - very small pocket books that were produced by a coalition of publishers and distributed by the Armed Forces to American military men (and yes, it was pretty much only the men who got them; the women in the voluntary services managed with magazines and with donated hardcovers, on the grounds that stationary libraries worked fine for them, but not for men in the foxholes).

One point Manning makes is that this was seen as part of the "war of ideas" - early on in her account, she refers to the book burnings in Nazi Germany (in which some of the universities were complicit, which should be shocking to us). And how concerns about "censorship" was raised (apparently some books were edited because of potentially anti-Democracy viewpoints, and also, some books were not allowable some places) because obviously - we were fighting AGAINST the mindset that said "only one way of thinking should be allowed." (Towards the end of the war, Overseas Editions - mostly American-viewpoint or pro-American books - were produced and sent to Germany and Italy, and also some books were sent to Britain, which had its publishing industry mostly destroyed in the Blitz).

I find that....interesting. Just, in light of things that have been happening today, and how some people seem to be asking to have others "protect" them from ideas that might be scary or dangerous. I dunno, I feel like I can decide for myself if I need the contents of a particular book, movie, or whatever in my head or not, and I don't want someone else making that choice for me. And the idea of burning the books of certain authors because they are "degenerate" in some way (obviously, in 1930s Germany, the books of Jewish authors were burnt, but there were other groups that were targeted too). The thing is - some people would deplore that but then turn around and call for the banning of that which they dislike, and not really see how the two are pretty much the same. I like Voltaire's test of free speech: that you may hate the particular thing being said, but you defend the right of the person to say it. (Or, my father's variant: "Free speech is great because the [jerks] self-identify." In other words: you know precisely that someone might be dangerous, or might be someone you would prefer avoiding, because he or she can say what he or she wants, and isn't having to couch it in euphemisms or "official speak" or something). So the idea that free speech and free press was important and valuable was one thing behind the books.

But there was another, more personal thing:

One of the really striking things that makes sense to me but that I never thought of: just how important HAVING access to reading material was to the men. There are accounts of how they stood in mess lines, or waited for their transport, or even sat in slit-trenches between barrages - and read. And the fact that books were vitally important to morale because they allowed an escape, and an escape that was different from sports or movies or even shooting the bull with your buddies - an escape where you could get away from being with other people. Even if you're lying in your rack on a battleship with 20 other men around you, you can still escape in your head.

And while I've never experienced 1/100 of the horrors of what many of those soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines did, I can see that. During some of the worst times this past year, during times when knitting was not even a comfort to me (because I *think* when I knit), being able to open up a book was. I re-read a lot of the Golden Era mysteries this past year simply for the comfort factor - to be able to escape into a world where there were calm and logical people, and things got made right in the end.

One of the interesting things about the book is they have lists in the back of what books were chosen for the ASE - oh, there were thousands of them. Many I had not heard of, but also some classics like David Copperfield and Plato's Republic. And it's a VERY broad cross-section of literature, non-fiction, and technical books - one corporal (I think it was?) wrote that he had been concerned it would be just "books about sports and Tarzan novels" with little that required a higher degree of concentration to read, but he was pleasantly surprised at the choices. (And yes, there were books about sports and Tarzan novels and books of humorous short stories too - they tried to figure out things that would appeal to different men).

Interestingly, two of the favorite books, the ones the men responded most positively to? A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (I have never read it but have seen the movie) and Chicken Every Sunday (apparently a story about a woman growing up in Arizona, whose family took in boarders - mostly a humorous story of the things that happened). I wouldn't have guessed that from the titles or subject matter, but upon reflection, I understand why: both are nostalgic stories of growing-up times. The first being set in an urban setting, the second, more rural. And I can see when you're in some hell-hole far from home, trying not to get killed but do the job you got sent for, being able to read about things that remind you about good times in the past would be very important in order to keep going.

Interesting: I talk about how I like books that take me to a time or place different from my own (though then again: I tend to prefer idealized places; I am quite sure the Edwardian period in England was not as nice, ESPECIALLY if you were not upper-middle or upper class, as the books make it sound) because my own life is somewhat routine and at times unexciting. But these men, in far more "excitement" than many of them would want (and yet: about 75% of military life, even in wartime, seemed to be hanging around waiting for something) would want books about things that were familiar to them.

On the opposite side: two other extremely popular books were Forever Amber (which I've heard of, but never wanted to read: it's fairly notorious for its sex scenes) and Strange Fruit (which is a story of racial discrimination, but which also apparently has a couple pretty erotic passages, and that's why it was popular). For obvious reasons, and for the same reason that dogeared copies of Flowers in the Attic and the like were passed around my 7th grade class.

But the ones that seemed to really move the men  the most were the more "wholesome" books - lots of men wrote to Betty Smith, the author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to thank her for her writing, and to tell her how it gave them something to keep going on while they were going through the rigors of war. Apparently several men found they had the capacity to "still feel" while reading the book - they had feared that that finer part of their nature had been burned out of them by what they experienced, but the fact that they were still able to laugh at the funny parts and cry at the sad parts reassured them that they were still men, and not machines.

(Makes me want to find a copy and read it now).

I highly recommend When Books Went to War - both for its thoughts on the power of literature, but also for its account of something that (as I said) I had never really known about.

1 comment:

purlewe said...

OOH! Chicken Every Sunday is a book I can get from my library. THANKS!! (I've read a tree grows in brooklyn once, quite nice actually.)