Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Magician's Elephant by Kate DiCamillo

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

This is the final audiobook that we actually finished on our trip. (We are working on one more - stay tuned.)

In a way, this book was a bit disappointing. Not because of its merits - it is actually a pleasant enough book, and kept us entertained. The problem is that the other two Kate DiCamillo books we have listened to were so exceptional that we were spoiled. Those two would be, of course, The Tale of Despereaux and Flora and Ulysses. Perhaps the problem with this one is that it didn’t have talking rodents. It’s a theory at least. 



Anyway, Peter Augustus is an orphan being raised by a half-crazy old disabled soldier, when he impulsively spends some food money on a fortune teller who tells him his little sister (who he was told is dead) is alive, and that an elephant will lead him to her. This bizarre prophecy seems impossible to believe until an incident at the opera house occurs. A struggling magician, as part of his show, manages to conjure an elephant, who falls through the roof and cripples the woman she falls on. Suddenly, there is an elephant who has appeared out of nowhere, under scandalous circumstances. The elephant becomes a reluctant celebrity, and Peter Augustus is desperate to see her, and find out how to find his lost sister.

Obviously, this book requires a great deal of suspension of disbelief. Magic is assumed...sort of. Coincidence is assumed to be fate. And, naturally, things must somehow come together at the end or nothing will make sense.

Along the way, Peter Augustus meets a number of characters. There is the compassionate policeman and his wife, the magician and his victim, who nevertheless look forward to visiting at the prison where the magician is confined, the countess who makes the poor elephant into a conversation piece for her society parties, the sculptor of gargoyles who is injured and now is ground bound scooping elephant poop for a living - and laughing about the irony, the servant who remembers a dog from his youth but fails to recall her name. In typical DiCamillo fashion, these characters just are. They are not forces for good or evil, but just persons to play their part in the drama, each with his or her own hopes, fears, and dreams. I think this is an interesting technique that DiCamillo uses. I appreciate when everyone in a drama is “important” to the plot and the journey of the hero, but I also understand this method, where humanity (or rodents in other books) are interesting because they are, not because of what they mean. Perhaps it is like Dickens on a small scale, for the young reader.

The author does a fine job of tying things up, despite the feeling midway through that the various threads cannot possibly connect. It is a creative and satisfying result.

Again, it’s a charming book in its way, and worth a read. It just fails to rise to the heights of DiCamillo’s best works.

The audiobook was narrated by Juliet Stevenson, a veteran reader who has an extensive resume. I suspect we have heard her before in previous books, and she does a fine job. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Because of Sex by Gillian Thomas

Source of book: Borrowed from the Library

Occassionaly, I check the “new books” section of our library to see if there is anything interesting, and this one caught my eye. Written by Gillian Thomas, staff attorney for the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, it promised to be the sort of book that would appeal both to my feminist side, and to my lawyer side. In addition to this, it turned out also to clarify to me exactly what is at the heart of the culture wars here in the United States. 




First, a summary. Because of Sex discusses ten Supreme Court cases interpreting Title VII in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited employment discrimination “because of sex.” The book presents these cases in chronological order, starting with Phillips v. Martin Marietta Corporation (1971) and ending with a recent case, Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc. (2015)

Thomas has done her homework, with extensive citations to primary sources, interviews of those parties and attorneys still living, and background information that brings the realities of the cases to life.

After reading this book, I think I have clarified in my own mind exactly what the heart of the so-called “culture wars” here in America are about. I’m not going so far as to say this is the only issue, but it is so foundational and important that it colors - taints really - the rest. The issue is “what is the purpose for which women exist?” As these cases illuminate, for centuries, (possibly since the beginning of recorded history actually) the answer has been “for reproduction of the human race.” Or, perhaps more accurately, since the question has always been tied together with issues of class and race, “to ensure that the genes of certain males are propagated.” With this question comes the related question of just how much control the law, society, and employers could exert to ensure that women fulfil this “biological destiny” despite their own wishes, dreams, and desires. The related question of how society can be ordered so that women do not have to choose between reproduction and financial independence and self determination is still, shall we say, pending. I have come to realize that a certain side of the culture wars is actively hostile to the idea that women themselves should be able to choose this for themselves.

This all assumed a specific narrative of how the world was - or at least how it was expected to be. For white women, the narrative was that the husband worked and brought in money, while the woman stayed home and kept house and raised the children. Thus, for a white woman, a job was never a necessity for survival, but something to tide one over until marriage, or a hobby thereafter. Childbearing and childcare would always take precedence over employment, therefore, and the law tended to reflect a concern that (white) women might impair their reproductive capacity by overexertion.

The narrative for minority women was much different, of course, as women of color have always had to work, and have been expected to work. From slavery on down, there was the expectation of hard, menial, and often dangerous labor. Such women were expendable to a large degree. After emancipation, there was no longer any “benefit” to women of color bearing children, so instead the attitude arose that such women should focus on their jobs, or risk losing them. Even today, the attitude on the right toward lower class women is “don’t have babies you can’t afford.” They are the workers, not the breeders.

This narrative has been reflected in the laws of the past and the attitudes of the present with the goal of worshipping and preserving those past narratives. Thus, the fight has been against these factors attempting to keep things how they were. For example, several of these cases involved policies that had the effect (and usually the intention) of keeping women out of the best jobs. The ones with higher pay, benefits, and job security. Some of these were dressed up as “protection” for women, as in the case of policies that prohibited women from doing “dangerous” jobs. Conveniently, these policies seemed to only be in place in male-dominated workplaces. The dangerous jobs that women were already doing, such as textile work or nursing (like my wife) had no such policies. If you excluded the women, there is no workforce, so those dangers are fine. Just not the ones that might mean men have to share good jobs.

The narrative also drives other issues, such as laws that women would be fired if they got married or pregnant, and the ongoing problem of sexual harassment (which assumes that women exist for gratification and control.)

These issues, and others, are brought to light in this book through the cases that interpreted Title VII and brought a greater degree of equality to the workplace.

Thomas starts the book with a brief introduction to the law, and the history is fascinating.

When Congress was considering the 1964 Act, a pro-segregation congressman named Howard Smith introduced an amendment, both as a joke, and as, perhaps, a last ditch effort to torpedo the bill. That amendment added “sex” to the list of categories for which discrimination was prohibited. (Others were race, color, religion, and national origin.) There was widespread laughter and derision as a result - until congresswoman Marsha Griffiths took control of the discussion by noting that without the amendment, a black man would have more rights than a white woman. This calculated gambit paid off, as the amendment passed - as did the bill itself. So it is not a little ironic that a “joke” by a racist attempting to stop a civil rights bill ended up granting rights to women that would, in practice, be a substantial benefit to women of color.

The cases themselves are fascinating. The first, Phillips v. Martin Marietta Corporation involved a young mother denied an assembly line job because she had a preschool child. It was undisputed that the company hired men with preschool children, but the trial court judge didn’t find that convincing. He believed that “[t]he responsibilities of men and women with small children are not the same, and employers are entitled to recognize these different responsibilities in establishing hiring policies.” Fortunately for Ida Phillips and working mothers ever since, the Supreme Court would eventually disagree with this assessment.

It is easy enough to see what the underlying issue was: a belief that child care was “women’s work.” That any particular set of parents might do things differently was irrelevant, as was the thought that maybe mothers with small children needed income too. On the one hand, hiring men with small children assumed that a woman would be there to care for them, and on the other, that refusing to hire women assumed that their incomes weren’t important to the family.

As a female judge once put it when we were discussing the issue, our society assumes that men are free to neglect their children, but women aren’t.

This is a particularly meaningful case to me, because both my wife and I work, and our incomes are equally important to our family. That is why, when she has been scheduled to work, I am the one who stays home with sick kids (and sometimes vice versa.) Neither of us assumes the other will be primary all the time.

Again, this assumes a certain picture: man works, woman cares for the kids - a picture which was only true for half of households back in 1969, let alone today. Furthermore - and this is crucial - the numbers were far lower for lower income and African American households. Even back in the 1960s (and before, honestly), millions of households were dependent on the wages of women.

In the case of the assembly line job, the reason the gig was desirable was that it paid more than those jobs dominated by women. The same instinct to keep the best jobs for men can be seen in the cases involving “protection” regulations. Whether enacted into law as they were in the early 20th Century, or just a policy of an employer, these rules excluded women from good jobs even as they “protected” employers from having to provide safe working conditions. Illustrative was International Union, United Auto Workers of America v. Johnson Controls (1991). The company barred women from working with lead (which happened to be the best paid job - and the way to get into management) on the grounds that women’s fetuses, present and future, might suffer from lead poisoning. There were two big problems with this. First, it was equally as scientifically established that men suffered reproductive damage from lead. Thus, the company should have reduced exposure to make a safe workplace, not just banned women from working.

The second was also problematic. The policy assumed that all women of childbearing age should be kept from working with lead. Unless they submitted proof of sterilization. Sterilization of the woman. Proof of the husband’s sterilization would not do. I am not making this up. Most of us would probably expect that our employers had no right to know something so personal, and would expect that our possible unknown future reproductive plans shouldn’t keep us out of a job.

But that is exactly what the company expected. Unable to work unless sterilization proved. All women are “potentially pregnant.”

It is policies like this that really show just how ingrained the “woman as baby incubator” belief is ingrained in our society. Ellen Goodman would write in connection with this case:

“I was struck, from the first time I read of this case by a company policy that assumed every woman was a pregnancy waiting to happen. The life of this policy didn’t begin at conception; it began at menses and ended at menopause or sterility.”

One final point on this matter. As I mentioned above, these restrictions on female work have always applied to the jobs that men want. Back in the days of slavery, women, pregnant or otherwise, were expected to work seven days a week, for long hours, at backbreaking work. Even after emancipation, there has never been a serious concern for the bodies of poor women or for the safety of their work conditions. They have been considered expendable. It was only when women threatened to take jobs that men wanted that there was suddenly this concern.

The closing quote in the opinion of the court is worth quoting:

“It is no more appropriate for the courts than it is for the individual employers to decide whether a woman’s reproductive role is more important to herself and her family than to her economic role. Congress has left this choice to the woman as hers to make.”

The assumption that men worked for pay, and women cared for children was true for another case, Dothard v. Rawlinson (1977), which involved law enforcement jobs. Dothard was a composite case by the time it reached the Supreme Court, with different laws at stake. What they had in common were “requirements” of the job that either explicitly excluded women, or that had the effect of excluding women. An example of the latter was a policy of hiring only persons 5’8” or taller. (This would have excluded me, by the way.) There was some evidence that the requirements were put in place for the express purpose of excluding women, but the court eventually held that it was enough to show that the policy tended to exclude women, and that the requirements were not necessary for the job. This was easy enough to show. There is nothing inherent in the job that required people of a certain height. The question instead should have been if they could do the work, and the plaintiff in that case clearly could - better than a number of men who were hired.

In this case, the opinion at the appeals court level had a particularly pithy line which I loved:

“One lesson the women’s rights movement has taught us is that many long-held conceptions regarding the sexes have been found to be erroneous when exposed to the light of empirical data and objectivity.”  

I could not have said it better myself.

One of the central areas in which such empirical data has shone a light on long-held prejudices is in the area of pregnancy. “Most women now work until late in their pregnancies, and most return to work after having their babies.” This was certainly true of my wife, who worked up until the end of each pregnancy, and returned after her FMLA leave was up three months later. (Goodness knows, if I hadn’t been self-employed, I would have done the same. No rest for the wicked, alas…)

The always pithy Thurgood Marshall, in California Federal Savings & Loan Association v. Guerra, upholding California’s watershed law guaranteeing pregnancy leave, put it thus:

“California’s pregnancy disability-leave statute allows women, as well as men, to have families without losing their jobs.”

This issue, perhaps more than any other, has bedeviled the law since the statute was enacted. The problem is to figure out how to accommodate pregnancy without discriminating by sex. The “solution” many employers have found is to find creative ways of terminating women for having the audacity to reproduce. As Marshall recognized, men have always been able to have families and keep their jobs. Women, not so much.

It was in the last case in this book, Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc. that the sex based nature of the problem became apparent.

UPS enacted a policy that allowed employees to get “light duty” jobs under some circumstances: on-the-job injury, reasonable accommodations under the ADA, and restrictions based on their driver’s licenses. UPS, after “determining” against her will that she shouldn’t be lifting items, told Peggy Young that she would be put on unpaid leave for the rest of her pregnancy. This was particularly problematic, because she could not receive disability benefits because she wasn’t incapable of all work, just (arguably) a certain kind of work.

The reason this policy turned out to be both sexist and ludicrous was that it turned out that if an employee had their license suspended because of drunk driving, they would get a light duty assignment, but if an employee got pregnant, she would lose her paycheck. Likewise, an employee with a permanent disability would get accommodation - even if the injury occurred away from work - but the temporary disability of pregnancy would not be accommodated.

It is rules like this that have made it, as columnist Rebecca Traister put it, so “[t]he simple - and celebrated - act of having a baby turns out to be a stunningly precarious economic and professional choice.”

Laws like the Family and Medical Leave Act have made a positive difference, many women cannot afford three months of unpaid leave. Even states like my native California provide only partial disability benefits. So in practice, women are expected to bear the burden of childbearing themselves.

I’m hardly the first person to point this out, but for some reason, we here in the United States seem to have decided that the parents should (ideally) bear all the burden of children, even as society reaps the benefits. Even the earliest human societies (and those of social animals) have recognized that children need support from the entire society, and assisted parents in various ways during those times. Not so much anymore, where “don’t have children you can’t afford” has become the rallying cry. Accompanied of course by, “why do so many people not want kids?” Hmm.

I just want to touch on a couple of other points.

First is that Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins (1989) is a great read on the question of “should a woman be required to be ‘ladylike’?” As we can see readily even today, a woman who is strong and forceful tends to be considered a “bitch” or a “ballbuster.” My wife has seen this in action in cases where doctors expect female nurses to be “nicer” - to let the doctor think things are his idea, and not hers. She is working to change that, in part by insisting that harassment be reported and dealt with. This isn’t the 1950s anymore.

And that leads to the issue of Sexual Harassment. The cases on this are fascinating. I first became acquainted with the topic when my father worked for the FAA. The government was, as usual, ahead of the private sector on this issue (see, for another example, Civil Rights in general…) and he had to deal with reports in his supervisory capacity. I remember him talking about cases, and I think that I learned a lot about the dynamics of the workplace from him. In retrospect, I realize that he handled cases correctly, and contributed to a safe work environment. If all supervisors would do so, the world and the workplace would be far better for everyone.

One of the legal issues that is still problematic in this area is that some cases seem to be tilting the discussion toward the employee and away from the conduct of the harasser. In other words, a particularly resilient employee might have more difficulty proving harassment, even though the behavior was egregious. This is backwards, in my opinion (and the opinion of the author.) Bad behavior is bad, even if the victim “takes” it.

I should also mention a few things that I found interesting as a lawyer.

One major case on sexual harassment (and it is an ugly one), ended up involving a whole constellation of legal figures who would go on to become famous. The D. C. Circuit denied a request for an en banc hearing of the case, but there were three dissenters: Robert Bork, Antonin Scalia, and Kenneth Starr. Ever heard of them? Also, the EEOC had changed leadership, and the new boss didn’t want the EEOC to support the suit. His name? Clarence Thomas. Ever heard of him? And, a young attorney with the EEOC supported the suit. That would be Anita Hill.

The subsequent history is well known: Scalia and Thomas would become Supreme Court Justices, Bork would be voted down (in significant part because of his views on women), and Kenneth Starr would become associated with perhaps the most famous sexual harassment case of all time. (It is easy to forget that the Monica Lewinsky thing was a side issue to the underlying sexual harassment suit.) Starr would later resign from Baylor University after a scandal where athletes were raping and harassing women while the university covered it up.

Thomas too would face allegations that he sexually harassed Anita Hill - and the facts of that look a lot worse in 2016 now that sexual harassment has become better understood and more widely acknowledged.

A bit more about Scalia. I was not surprised that he dissented in a few of the cases in this book, but I was more surprised to find that he voted with the majority, and was (some of the time) far more progressive on the issues than I expected. Love or hate him, his questions to the attorneys (quoted in many cases in this book) are often highly pertinent. (The acid questioning in the lead exposure case is classic Scalia.)

On a related note, I was surprised at how many of these cases were unanimous decisions. Even the ones that were not were not clearly partisan, which I found interesting.

I don’t have space here to list all the many lawyers who did outstanding work in these cases, but I will note that whatever you think of her as a jurist, Ruth Bader Ginsberg was one badass litigator, and women everywhere owe her a debt of gratitude.

The last bit that is a lawyer thing to notice: most appeals do not end the case; the case is sent back to the trial court to make new findings based on the ruling. (At least, if the trial court is reversed, which it often was in the cases in this book.) However, very, very few cases are ever retried. Instead, they settle. I greatly appreciate that Thomas goes to the trouble of following the cases after the ruling. While she couldn’t discover the actual settlement amounts in every case (confidentiality clauses), she closes the loop by telling the stories of what happened to the plaintiffs after the end of the case.

When I first started law school, women’s issues were, shall we say, not that important to me. After all, I was raised by a stay-at-home mom, and had it drilled into me that this was “God’s Way™.” I was expected to be the sole breadwinner, and my wife to devote herself to the home.

Things changed dramatically when I met my wife. She had a clear goal of being a nurse - a vision she had since she was three years old. In fact, given the batshit crazy group she spent her teens in, she assumed that she would never marry, because of what she would have to give up. (Such minor details as a career, self determination, financial independence, and the right to make her own decisions about her life…) So we knew from early on that we were not likely to follow the script. Suddenly, women’s issues meant a whole lot more. I’m embarrassed to admit that it took until then for me to see the light, but better late than never.

During the course of her career, Amanda has had the benefit of Title VII and a number of these cases. She has utilized the FMLA and California’s pregnancy leave laws. Sexual harassment and misogynist doctors need not be tolerated for her to keep her job. She has never had to choose between having a family and earning a living. And you know what? It isn’t just she who has benefited. I too have benefited from these laws, because workplace equality benefits men, women, and children. (Even Scalia realized that.)

That’s just one reason why I get riled up when people start dismissing sexual harassment as a real issue, or talk cavalierly about how unfair pregnancy leave is, or make cutting remarks about how women belong at home. It isn’t just sexist, it directly affects my family. And these issues are, if anything, far more important to millions of households with lower income, less job security, and thinner margins.

A final word about this book: many of us middle aged sorts tend to take for granted these victories of the past. I imagine for the young folks it is even more so. We cannot remember the “good old days” of segregation, sexual harassment, and limited opportunities for women. This book is a much-needed reminder that the past wasn’t always better, but often much worse - and also that positive change takes hard work, time, and the willingness to stand up to the bullies who are unwilling to voluntarily relinquish their power and privilege.  


***

Just to clarify, my wife’s family fully supported her education, and has supported her career in a multitude of ways since the beginning. It was the people she was surrounded by that considered her to be a threat because of her career minded ways. 

***

If you have never become acquainted with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, you really should. I reviewed Purple Hibiscus here. But I also highly recommend her lecture on Feminism. Her line that Feminism is nothing more or less than the belief in the social, economic, and political equality of the genders is the best summary I have ever heard. As Because of Sex shows, there has been a tremendous effort to deny women economic equality, and the fight continues today. 




It isn’t related to this review, but Adichie’s lecture on the importance of multiple stories is also amazing, and really influenced my views on race.


Friday, July 15, 2016

The Claverings by Anthony Trollope

Source of book: I own this.

If it wasn’t obvious already, I love Anthony Trollope. I won’t reiterate all that I have said about him in previous posts other than to note that he is my favorite Victorian author because he has a psychological depth rarely reached by others, and writes outstanding female characters.

Previous reviews of books by Trollope:

Barsetshire Novels:


Others:


For the last several years, I have been alternating between books in the Barsetshire series and unrelated books. Prior to my blog, I read the first two, The Warden, and Barchester Towers, which really go together as a single story. Those are combined in the BBC series. I also have read, at various times beginning in my late teens, Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite, Castle Richmond, The Vicar of Bullhampton, and The Bertrams. Considering my library contains an additional 19 beyond those I have read, I think I shall be occupied for a while at my rate of one per year.

The Claverings is an interesting twist on the usual Victorian marriage drama. Quite often, a fair maiden must choose between suitors. Perhaps between the wealth she needs, and the love she wants. In this one, Trollope chooses to put the man on the horns of the dilemma, so to speak.

Harry Clavering is the son of a clergyman. He has no money to his name, and has decided to seek his fortune by learning the trade of an engineer rather than seek a living with the church as his father did. At the opening of the book, he is in an argument with Julia Brabazon, who has just broken their engagement. Harry has loved Julia for years, and the two were practically engaged. She, however, has decided against a life of relative poverty, wishing instead to imitate her older sister (who has married Harry’s cousin, Lord Hugh Clavering.)

Julia instead marries the wealthy and dissipated Lord Ongar, a cruel and vindictive man. Within a couple of years, Lord Ongar dies, having in his final illness falsely accused Julia of having an affair with one of his friends in an attempt to disgrace her and get out of the marriage.

In the meantime, Harry has apprenticed himself out to an engineering firm, and, as many predecessors have done, asked one of the daughters of the founder to marry him. Florence Burton is the opposite of Julia in many ways. She is short, a bit homely, and has no aristocratic blood. So, in a way, marrying Harry is a move up for her, and down for him, even though her family has more money.

The problem that results is obvious. Julia still loves Harry, but she now has her late husband’s fortune. Harry never really stopped loving Julia, but figured she was gone for good, and let himself love again. He loves Florence too, which gives him a dilemma. Other considerations are the monetary: choosing Julia would set him for life; and the social: Julia is higher class. Counterbalancing this, however, is that jilting Florence would taint his honor, and would also undoubtedly hurt her, which he doesn’t want to do.

Harry is, unfortunately, wishy-washy, and cannot bring himself to do the hard thing - either way - until he is brought to it by necessity. This means that he has, at the midpoint of the book, pledged his love to two different women, yet cannot tell the other goodbye.

Even Trollope himself seems just a bit embarrassed by how Harry appears in this novel. Alas, circumstances - and not entirely of Harry’s making - have placed him in a bind, and he doesn’t rise to the occasion.

Harry Clavering, who is the hero of our story, will not, I fear, have hitherto presented himself to the reader as having much of the heroic nature in his character. It will, perhaps, be complained of him that he is fickle, vain, easily led, and almost as easily led to evil as to good. But it should be remembered that hitherto he has been rather hardly dealt with in this pages, and that his faults and weaknesses have been exposed almost unfairly. That he had such faults and was subject to such weaknesses may be believed of him; but there may be a question whether as much evil would not be known of most men, let them be heroes or not be heroes, if their characters were, so to say, turned inside out before our eyes.

This is such classic Trollope, generous to a fault to his characters. There is little of unmixed good or evil in the people who populate his stories; they are human, leaning good or bad according to their role, but with such an amalgam of the opposite that even the minor characters are more than caricatures. Well, most of the time.

In contrast to Harry are the various women. Julia is proud, unafraid either to stand up to her abusive brother-in-law or to pursue Harry with a will. And she lays down the gauntlet: Harry must choose, and she will accept that choice - and she expects Florence to do the same.

But Florence is no simpering Victorian heroine either. She is by no means willing to beg for Harry’s love, and has no intention of having him if he doesn’t eagerly desire her back. She will set Harry free without an attempt to pursue him though it break her heart. And she does it with strength, not weakness. Harry is, perhaps, not worthy of either of them.

Another woman of note is Florence’s sister-in-law Cecilia, who has no intention of letting Harry off easily, and confronts Julia directly about her intentions. As Julia says at the end of their tense meeting:

“You have been quite right; - you are fighting your battle for the friend you love bravely; and were it not that the cause of the battle must, I fear, separated us hereafter, I should be proud to know one who fights so well for her friends. And when all this is over and has been settled, in whatever way it may be settled, let Miss Burton know from me that I have been taught to hold her name and character in the highest possible esteem.”  

Trollope also contrasts different marriages in this book. Julia’s sister Hermione has married wealthy Hugh Clavering. But Hugh is a hard, cruel man. When Julia is widowed, Hugh refuses to see her, worried that the rumors (which he knows to be false) might make him look bad. Furthermore, he refuses to let Hermione visit her sister, until it becomes convenient, and then he visits Julia and offers to let the sisters be with each other, but in the most insulting manner possible. After their child dies, he pretty much dismisses Hermione as worthless. Thus, both sisters find they have sold their very happiness for wealth. Hugh clearly thinks that Julia is at fault for not taking the abuse Lord Ongar gave her.

“Only think what a man he was.”
“She knew that when she took him, and should have borne with him while he lasted. A woman isn’t to have seven thousand a year for nothing.”

Or, as a later poet would put it, he paid the cost to be the boss.

In contrast to these bad marriages are two others. Florence’s brother Theodore and his wife Cecilia are happily married - and remarkably equal. Cecilia visits Julia without telling her husband, knowing he wouldn’t approve. But when she ‘fesses up, he finds it more amusing than anything. The two of them are clearly best of friends and well matched.

The other one is between Harry’s father and mother. Mr. Clavering loves to think he rules the household, but everyone knows that isn’t the case. He may fuss all he wants, but she gets her way when she wants. As the youngest daughter, Fanny, says, “When you say papa particularly wishes anything, mamma, you always mean that you wish it particularly yourself.”

To a degree, these marriages serve as alternative scenarios. Who will Harry choose, and what will his life be like?

A few other characters deserve mention. Hugh’s younger brother Archie, a bit dim and addicted to gambling, is nice comic relief, as is Archie’s friend from their naval days, Captain Boodle.

More central to the plot are a brother and sister pair from Russia who serve as villains of a sort. (Hugh is probably the other real villain.) They conspire, more individually than together, to try to blackmail Julia. After all, since Lord Ongar claimed that Julia had an affair with Count Pateroff, all he has to do is threaten to confirm the rumor. His sister, Sophie, might or might not be a spy, but she is definitely a grifter. She weasels money out of Archie, and attempts to leach off of Julia as long as she can. Perhaps both suffer a bit from an uncharacteristic level of stereotyping. Trollope seems to have taken the easy way out by using their exotic origin a bit too much. As I noted, this is rare in his books, so it stands out here. Nevertheless, the characters are both interesting and necessary to the plot, so it is hard to quibble too much.

One final character comes to mind: Mr. Saul, the curate. Trollope is definitely a partisan of the “high church,” generally portraying evangelical and other dissenting clergy in a poor light. Of course, Obadiah Slope of Barchester Towers is such an utterly delightful villain, with his vanity, self-righteousness, and intolerance of fun. Mr. Saul is an interesting exception. He may be a bit too serious for his own good, but he is hardworking, compassionate, and thoroughly honest. Mr. Clavering may dislike him for aspiring to wed above his station, but Saul is an honorable man, and one cannot help but cheer him on.  

I also want to mention a couple of other bits from the background of the book. Early on, Julia regrets not making her financial situation clear to her lawyer. This never ends well, as any lawyer can tell you. Her hiding of a debt is one of the causes of friction with Lord Ongar, although he would have found another pretext anyway.

The final one is a delicious line from Theodore Burton about the work he has done the Metropolitan Railroad - what would eventually be the London Tube. In a historically accurate touch, Trollope mentions that there were many who dismissed the idea as a pipe dream. (Sorry.) Theodore is both a true believer, and a cynic at the same time.

“But we will never get any thanks,” he said. “When the thing has been done, and thanks are our due, people will look upon all our work so much as a matter of course that it will never occur to them to think that they owe us anything. They will have forgotten all their cautions, and will take what they get as though it were simply their due. Nothing astonishes me so much as the fear people feel before a thing is done when I joint it with their want of surprise or admiration afterwards.”

This book lived up to expectations thoroughly. It is another of Trollope’s keen insights into human psychology, and contains some of his strongest female characters. I will also note that it is one of the few in which he doesn’t telegraph the ending. At least not entirely. Usually he tells you up front what will happen, and then allows the characters to respond as the plot unfolds. In this case, it is not until near the end that one finds out just who Harry chooses, and even whether this book will be a tragedy or not. I won’t spoil that, but just comment that as in all Trollope novels, the destination is always less important than the journey.

***

This book was, like many of the era, serialized. One reason I admire Trollope is that he seems able to plot things out well enough to keep them from rambling. In fact, The Claverings was considered at the time to be a rather perfect novel from the formal perspective. No loose ends, nothing unnecessary. Not that a bit of rambling is all bad - David Copperfield is a masterpiece, and Pickwick Papers is such fun, to cite two of Dickens’ works.

One thing this book lacks is illustrations, at least in the edition I have. However, the cover has this delightful painting, At the Opera, by William Powell Frith. One can only speculate whether it might depict Julia or Florence.







Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Egg and Spoon by Gregory Maguire

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

I had never heard of Gregory Maguire before selecting this book, which I did based on its presence in a few lists of good modern books for children. (Written in 2014.) However, as no doubt any number of readers could have informed me, Maguire is best known for Wicked, the book the musical was based on. Probably, such knowledge would have made zero difference in whether I chose the book, as I am not much of a celebrity chaser. 


The book itself, however. How shall I describe it? Perhaps as a mashup of The Prince and the Pauper with Russian folklore such as the Firebird and Baba Yaga, the witch with the house on chicken legs? As a modern parable of the hardships imposed on the poorest by natural disasters? (In this case, the reference is obviously to climate change, and regardless of one’s opinion on that, Maguire is absolutely right that while the rich will probably be fine in any case, the poor always suffer most from any disaster.) As a reflection on privilege and selfishness? An excuse to embed literary and philosophical Easter Eggs for the adults? Or perhaps just as a highly imaginative fantasy adventure that you can’t stop reading because it sucks you in so thoroughly? Egg and Spoon is all these and more.

Over the last couple of years, the kids and I have listened to some outstanding audiobooks. Perhaps I should call out Terry Pratchett as a favorite author, but with commendation to Neil Gaiman, Richard Peck, Grace Lin, and Kate DiCamillo for particularly deep thought and strong themes. 

This book too had a wonderful depth, and multiple layers to appeal to a wide range of listeners. My eight-year-old younger son was effusive about it after just a couple of chapters, before it even got into the exciting parts. The writing is outstanding in my opinion. The vocabulary is good, and Maguire knows enough of his literature to make some really good jokes involving writers from Shakespeare to Pushkin, to say nothing of the philosophical wordplay.

The basic plot is this: Elena is a poor peasant girl, whose father was killed - along with the other girls her age - in a tragic flood. Her mother is dying, and all the healthy males from the village have been conscripted by the Tsar. When her brothers too are taken, one for military service, the other for domestic service, she is left alone. Then, a chartered train - the first in years - makes a stop in the village while a bridge ahead is repaired, and Elena meets Ekaterina, a wealthy girl on her way to a soiree wherein a bride - perhaps her - will be picked for the Tsar's grandson.

An accident results in Elena and Ekaterina being switched; Elena finds herself in luxury, headed for St. Petersburg, while Kat flees the hostile villagers and is lured to Baba Yaga’s hut.

 This illustration was in a review of the book, but I couldn't find out whether it was an illustration from the book or not.
Either way, it is a good one...

It appears she may be eaten as is the usual fate of such children, but she throws a wrench in the work when she gives Baba Yaga the gift which was intended to the Tsar: a custom made Faberge Egg. (If you want to know more about these eggs, which each contain a “surprise,” Wikipedia has a description and a list.)

This particular (fictional) egg has three windows which reveal three scenes, which will become important to the story as it unfolds. The first is a picture of Baba Yaga and her hut. The second is of the Firebird. The third is of an ice dragon. The specifics of this egg appear to be based on the “Caucasus” egg, which had four painted scenes as its “surprise.” Maguire combines this with some other eggs containing miniature sculptures - the scenes in this egg are done as dioramas within the egg.

Baba Yaga is taken aback by this gift, which appears to thwart her gustatory intentions. She then has to make common cause with Kat, as she too wants to go see the Tsar. In her case, she wishes to inquire why Russia seems to be losing its magic.

On the way to St. Petersburg, Elena has an encounter with the Firebird, and tries to steal a feather. (For those who know the legend, if one can do that, one gets a wish.) Instead, a hen steals the feather, and the Firebird self-immolates, to be reborn. Except that, for some reason, it goes wrong, and the egg never hatches. Thus, Elena too has an egg - a Firebird egg.

Upon arrival at St. Petersburg, it is evident that things are going wrong all over. The winter has ended before its time, and everything is flooded. Why is this happening, and what can be done to set things to rights? Eventually, it falls to Elena, Kat, Baba Yaga, and the Tsar's godson to investigate and try to restore Russia - and the world - to equilibrium.

Maguire does a good job with the characters. Baba Yaga is perhaps the central character, and I would guess was the author’s favorite. She is thoroughly zany, to say the least, being perhaps the evil twin of The Sword and the Stone’s Merlin. She has time traveled, and keeps name dropping famous characters of the past - and future. But in really quirky and amusing ways. She is wicked in so many ways, or at least tries so hard to be, but she ends up bonding with the girls in spite of her best efforts. She is both comic relief and one of the wiser characters.

Other characters which stood out were the wise and philosophical “doctor,” Peter Petrovich, who is thrust into his role because he is the only person available. Trained as a veterinarian, he must serve a human clientele because no one else can. His wry observations, gentle compassion, and absurdly optimistic way of looking at life are enjoyable. Kat also has three companions, each interesting in their own way. Her nearsighted and corpulent aunt, Madame Sophia, is complex, being both ludicrous and yet a beacon of morality and compassion in a society of selfishness. The French butler and the English governess are both stock characters and yet fresh twists on their types. Anton starts out as a vapid and spoiled boy, but chooses to pursue adventure and a quest rather than marinate in his wealth.

And that’s before we even get to the giant matryoshka dolls come to life, and the dragon-tooth soldiers (a la Jason and the Argonauts of Greek mythology). Legends old and new, and from around the world find themselves woven into the story in unexpected ways.

In the end, though, the story has a serious theme which becomes apparent in glimpses before coming together in the end. What ultimately brings evil to the world is selfishness and greed. It is the refrain of “I want” that disturbs the Ice Dragon. The cure, as Kat and Elena realize, is to spend less effort on “I want” and more on generosity, compassion, and helping one another. It’s also a reminder that “love your neighbor” requires both individual generosity and a change to the structures which impoverish many to feed the luxury of a few. Kat and Madame Sophia may choose to be individually generous - which is good - but change must come to the institutions that grant the powerful the ability to impoverish the weak. As history (see for example American slavery…) has shown, both are important, and the individual tends to lead to the universal. 

A couple of notes. First, Maguire does use an interesting framing device, having Brother Uri, an imprisoned monk tell the story. He eventually appears in the story, about two-thirds of the way through. For the adult reader, this raises the question of whether he is a reliable narrator or not. Second, the audiobook is narrated by Michael Page, a veteran reader. You can find his name all over as an audiobook narrator, and with good reason. He did an outstanding job on this one, with all the voices distinct, and the sound levels compatible with travel.

Anyway, we really loved this book, and recommend it.  

***

A book like this requires music. The obvious place to start is with Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird. The ballet was followed by different suites drawn from the music. The best known is the 1919 suite, which is the one I have performed. (We are playing it again this fall.)



The Royal Ballet’s version of the full work is worth looking up as well.

The legend of the Ice Dragon dates back to Norse Mythology, but has been recently popularized by Game of Thrones, apparently. (I haven’t gone down that rabbit hole yet, but google results for “ice dragon” leads to more GoT hits than you can fathom.) Lacking enough knowledge to find a clip from that, I will go with Howard Shore’s score to the second Hobbit movie. Too bad the movies weren’t as good as the score.



And, finally, the third of the legends found in the egg: Baba Yaga. Pictures at an Exhibition is one of my favorite orchestral works. Mussorgsky's work for piano, as re-imagined for orchestra by Maurice Ravel is delightful throughout. The legend of Baba Yaga gets a treatment in “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs.”