Fairy Tales Are Big In Europe

Was intrigued by the idea of fairy tales for book club, so we read Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber, a collection of her short stories that tweak the format by reconceiving the stories for a more modern, feminist voice.

In this way Carter takes an old weird tale called "Bluebeard", basically about a rich guy who kills his wives, and guides the reader more into the mind of the female character, while (spoiler alert) having her mother save her, as opposed to her brothers, as in the original.

Elsewhere, Beauty and the Beast receives an updated treatment in Carter's "The Courtship of Mr Lyon" and "The Tiger's Bride". The updated "Puss-in-Boots" is playful and weird. "The Werewolf" and "The Company of Wolves" feel loosely based on Little Red Riding Hood (itself a deep dive into different texts it seems). The rest seem a little more obscure or patched together . . .

Carter's writing is bigger in the UK. Some of the stories are better than others, and while the writing is good/great, there are moments that seem kind of purplish, though I think goth-y type stuff is generally susceptible in that area . . .

Reading to young kids makes you hyperaware of every aspect of stories — everything from stereotypes to language to manners to encouraging positive behaviors. Which is how I became intrigued by the old bad fairy tales, the high water point maybe the uncut original Grimm fairy tales, before they became sliced up and edited into middle-class palatability (and even then, it's not like "Hansel and Gretel" is exactly "Horton Hears a Who" . . .). At some point it seems like kids heard shit — and now they don't. (And I'm not convinced it's specific to crazy old Europeans, either.)

Posted: September 18th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing | Tags: ,

Emphasis On "Great"!

Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns is as advertised: extraordinary, brilliant, lyrical, even "magisterial" (even though it's blurbed on the cover — incidentally kind of strange being that the source material is neither from the Times' Sunday Book Review review nor the weekday Arts review [notable books get both] but rather from the lead sentence in a profile about Wilkerson — I actually think it's an odd pullout word of praise; the dictionary definition is something along the lines of "authoritative" but with a little baggage of "doctrinaire" and other negative connotations; it certainly sounds like a good word to use though).

The book is a sympathetic, thorough and wide-ranging telling of the migration stories of three ordinary African Americans during the Great Migration, the era roughly between WWI and 1970s when millions of blacks moved out of the South. I don't think it's a big stretch to say that most of our understanding of this history is perhaps limited to Jacob Lawrence, in which case Wilkerson's hugely readable and thoroughly engaging text is important. Even though Wilkerson interviewed 1200 people during research for the book, the focus is on the three individuals — a woman who migrated to Chicago in the 1930s, a man who migrated to Harlem in the 1940s and an educated man who migrated to Los Angeles in the 1950s — working on the macro and micro levels by weaving in the larger story about the Great Migration.

The effect sucks you completely in — their lives are deep and textured and indicative and emblematic without sacrificing individuality. That part is amazing. Along the way Wilkerson notes some boldface Americans who traveled similar paths across the country and it all makes that much more sense. Her subjects are fully formed characters, with flaws and tragic sides and hubris, which is necessary: you might be tempted to dislike a subject at times — at the same time her subjects never come across as perfectly outlined or too rooted in pathos; they're not victims. Which is where you start to discern Wilkerson's narrative: she makes the point over and over that these migrants are more like immigrants (in the pre-2016 Alexander Hamilton kind of way) than you might think. She cites studies and statistics, which you sort of gloss over, to support this idea. And the three people she profiles are all successful — not always American Dream successful, and not always when it came to their children — but for the most part successful: home-owning, reaching a comfortable retirement, vital to their respective communities. For sure, how fraught their gains are (or were — she writes about two of the characters' deaths; those parts are tear-jerking in the extreme) is always hanging over the book, but the statement is unmistakable — these are the stories of survivors. It's big and even lyrical, but it's a bold choice, too.

Another conscious flourish that you'll notice is how repetitive the stories are: not from subject to subject but in the same person — even just pages apart. It's noticeable and obviously on purpose: I'm guessing it is meant to evoke someone telling a story, what with the repetition in that and circling back and emphasizing this or that. Not sure if I like it (Suns is over 500 pages) but I understand it on that level at least. Another part that reveals itself but which isn't — or shouldn't be — a big issue is that old pitfall of oral history, that being how much of the story is actually 100 percent true. I don't think it matters, especially when it comes to motivation to move to find a better life, which is by its nature internal (at least in part) (by which I mean that perceived or real matters little when it comes to a person's motivation; the motivation is the story). But Wilkerson never really says anything either way (which is kind of an interesting choice when you think about it); somewhere along the way you wonder how this is all factchecked — not that it necessarily has to be (but if it is I'm really impressed) (but if it isn't I think it's OK to at least account for that somehow, too) (this falls by the wayside when you get sucked into the book though).

Posted: August 1st, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing | Tags:

Lip, Dip, Paint

Kate Moore's The Radium Girls focuses on the young women who worked from WWI until the 1920s in factories that used paint made from radium for the element's useful glow-in-the-dark effect. (Radium was one of the things discovered by Marie Curie, the Nobel prize-winning science textbook hero who died early from radioactive exposure; you see where this story might lead.)

As Moore expresses it, the world was fascinated by radium's otherworldly glow — its luminescence captivated people, and doctors even used it to promote healthy living. It was in high demand during the war for, among other things, radium-based paint for glow-in-the-dark watch dial faces. With so many men off to war, the usual gender roles were disrupted and many young women entered the workforce. This was true for the watch dial-painting industry, and the newly, upwardly mobile women enjoyed well-paying and relatively high-status jobs. The job itself, requiring some skill, was viewed as an almost artistic vocation. Part of what made a watch painter skillful was honing a very fine point on her paintbrush. The easiest way to do this was to lick the tip of the brush, then dip it in the paint, paint the watch dial and repeat over and over
(known to the practitioners as "lip, dip, paint"). Which is how these women poisoned themselves with radium.

Radium, they eventually discovered, not only has a very long half-life but also collects in the bones of human beings, meaning that over time the women's bones would become brittle and actually disintegrate — that (which is horrifying) but then also with the devastating consequences of having radiation trapped in one's body: various cancers and whatever else. Basically terrible, horrible and (after some digging) happening with the approval/negligence of those in charge, making what started as a tragedy that much worse.

The story of what happened is not unknown — it was big news as it was happening, and the story passed down — but in The Radium Girls the author Moore set out to really look at the lives of the women, putting faces to stories. She set out to do this, she explains in the Author's Note, after Googling "great plays for women" and finding a play about a group of the women that she decided to direct. Then she decided to write a book about it, and in the way she did, because when one is telling someone's story "you have a responsibility to do justice to those whose story it is," emphasis hers.

Clearly that's correct — do justice to those whose story it is. In other words, Moore specifically zeroes in on the victims, to a somewhat lesser extent the wider story (though the case is revealed) and to a much lesser extent the wider import of this specific workplace health scandal. The only thing is that you read the book, and read and read, and at some point it's not especially clear why you care about the actual people who endured this horrible fate: even in the telling, they're notable because they're just like any other young, fresh-faced person. It's tragic, and horrible, and unfortunately their stories aren't particularly interesting, or at least are only relevant because they happened.

A small word about objectification: I understand underscoring the striking, salient detail that these young, energetic sometimes beautiful women became shockingly disfigured and physically devastated by this powerful element but at some point it starts to wear thin and you almost see her treating the women as objects that lose their beauty. It's a cumulative effect, and it's "true" but somehow it starts to fatigue you and you wonder if the author (or even "we") would see a different group, class or ethnicity in a similar way. I could be imagining it (my expectations, hurrumph) but flipping through just now, it's there — page 19, for example: "She was an extremely attractive woman with large gray eyes and long dark hair; she considered her pretty teeth her best feature." One of the earlier signs of radium poisoning was that the women lost their teeth. I'm not complaining about this tack — it's certainly salient — but as the stories pile up, it starts to become rather noticeable.

Radium Girls stays interesting because it is an interesting episode in history but the book also reads a lot like the interpretive text for a museum or memorial. And the author is explicit about this: she sets out to tell their stories. She also sacrifices a lot in doing so — if you're only vaguely aware of this story you might not know that these cases changed workplace safety laws. They also contributed in big ways to how we understand the effects of radiation. These things are brought up in the epilogue; had they been there in the introduction you might have been more invested. Knowing that at least some of the women who survived the poisoning were self-sacrificing and even heroic by continuing to be tested and studied over the course of their lives actually solves the earlier problem with seeing the women as interchangeable victims. In other words — and it sounds terrible when someone sets out to write something so justice-seeking — the epilogue was more compelling than the story as it unfolded in real time; it doesn't take long and you don't need much detail to understand that 1) radium was deadly, 2) these women had no idea it would kill them and 3) the people in charge conspired to keep the truth from hitting the light. By telling the full, true, big, lifelike stories of the women at the core of Radium Girls, the author almost perseverates on this pathetic (in the true sense of the word: arousing pity) lens; every page reminds you that these youthful women are dying in the worst ways. It's relentless (in the not good sense of that word).

A wider observation: it seems like there's a move toward storytelling at this human "granular" level. You can always find examples of someone but there's that whole forest-trees conundrum. The way current news topics play out fall into this trap — thousands of stories of people losing health coverage or being summoned to a hearing or getting hit by a drunk driver. Those stories seem like they're more often designed to pull an emotional string than contribute to an understanding of a policy proposal or something similarly wide-scoped. And it's mostly bad. Similarly, and as it relates to Radium, it may feel good and right to right wrongs and tell stories but it doesn't necessarily make for a compelling book.

Posted: June 26th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing | Tags: ,