Friday, May 29, 2009

Tales of Fairy Tales

Clever Maids: The Secret History of the Grimm Fairy Tales is an engaging book. It's mainly a literary biography of the brothers Grimm, their siblings and parents, and the women who collected the tales. It describes the social and political life of their early years in detail.

In the published tales, the brothers rarely credited the numerous women who provided their source material. The book tries to set this right, and to document the role of these women -- some of them who were intelligent collectors of tales, some who seem to have been natural-born story tellers. In particular, the book denies the myth that the sources were ignorant peasant women -- most of them were just as sophisticated as Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm!

The author, Valerie Paradiz, is particularly careful to communicate the influence of current events and social conditions at the time that Wilhelm and Jacob were editing their two famous volumes of fairy tales. She retells many of the tales with a feminist approach, showing how the helpless girls in the stories reflected the helpless legal and social position of women in that era, and how the frequent triumph of younger brothers in the tales is a kind of antidote towards the inheritance of elder sons. The author also interprets some tales as a subtle reflection of the Grimms' distaste for the occupation of German lands by Napoleon's troops.

Her interpretations take the form of sentences like these, which expand the meaning of the tale "Frau Holle" --
"The truth that a woman's domestic abilities were one of her only means of securing a decent living was relevant even to a young middle class girl such as Dortchen Wild [one of the tale collectors, later Wilhelm's wife]. Earning one's keep, and with luck, earning it in wedlock in a home of her own, was the most she might hope for in life, particularly with the great war raging and killing off hundreds of thousands of marriageable men." (p. 112)
Long ago, in college, I took a course in the German Romantics, so I knew about the intellectual circle of the Grimm brothers. The names of their more famous colleagues -- Brentano, Arnim, and even Goethe -- are now much less recognizable than the name Grimm. At the time I took the course, I had little grasp of either political or social history, so in reading now that I know more history, I found the author's explanation of these influences was very interesting.

Also of great interest is the author's report of readers' reactions to the tales when published, in the second decade of the 19th century. People found the plots too bloody and violent and the details too sexual, as in the symbolic rape of Red Riding Hood and other heroines. Though they seemed juvenile, they were deemed unfit for children. So this isn't a new 20th or 21st century reaction!

Shameless Image Borrowing

Mona Lisa's image sells books, I guess. Or the publishers of this one didn't know what to put on the cover. I photographed it on a remainder table. Doesn't sound good -- the featured review begins:
"Though Rubin's latest self-help volume should resonate with working baby boomer women, she clouds her celebration of their maturity with gushing prose."
I wonder if there's really anything about Mona Lisa in the book!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Mae and Elaine

Weather Vane

Another source of sci-fi cover art? Maybe.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

More Sci-Fi in Real Life

The "House of Jewels," another La Jolla landmark, is just a bit down the road from our condo. I could also imagine it as the cover of a sci-fi paperback -- though I would be more inclined to read that book than the one I imagined with the Mormon Temple on it.

Friday, May 22, 2009


Ramona by Helen Hunt Jackson was mentioned as an important novel of old California in the historic documentation at San Diego Old Town. I had heard of the book but never read it -- and I had no idea of what a sensational best-seller it was when first published in around 1884. Since then, the popularity continues: there have been something like 300 editions and several movies (the photo is from the 1910 silent film with Mary Pickford as Ramona). The town of Ramona, California, was originally called Nuevo, but was renamed in order to profit by association with the famous book (see the town website).

Ramona was a perfect selection in my current project of reading books with a strong California theme. I would have loved it when I was around 14, and I still enjoyed it (read the Project Gutenberg version.) The author's 19th century sense of passion and purity are in a way irresistible.

Jackson intended the book as a means to raise awareness of the horrendous injustices that were being done to the Indians of Southern California. Her work still succeeds in creating such awareness. She had a vivid style, with every character and every locale described emotionally and effectively. Ramona is a good, passionate orphan girl, disliked by her foster mother, adored by everyone else, including her foster brother and a handsome, intelligent, educated Indian from Temecula. Driven away by the proud, vengeful foster mother, Ramona marries her Indian lover, and suffers from a series of expulsions from every home he makes for her and numerous personal tragedies. (The films must have really been tear-jerkers.)

The early part of the book offers detailed descriptions of the landscapes between Santa Barbara, where the aging Father Salvierderra lives at the Mission, and the mountain-area estate where Ramona's foster family raises sheep and horses. The family belongs to a Spanish upper-class that -- along with the Indians -- are being displaced and dispossessed of their earlier heritage by the Americans from the east. The relations between the Catholic monks and priests, the Mexican families, the Indians, and the Americans are a key theme of the novel.

Here is a passage about the landscape right near where I am at this moment:
"The shore of the Pacific Ocean for many miles north of San Diego is a succession of rounding promontories, walling the mouths of canyons, down many of which small streams make to the sea. These canyons are green and rich at bottom, and filled with trees, chiefly oak. Beginning as little more than rifts in the ground, they deepen and widen, till at their mouths they have a beautiful crescent of shining beach from an eighth to a quarter of a mile long, The one which Alessandro hoped to reach before morning was not a dozen miles from the old town of San Diego, and commanded a fine view of the outer harbor. When he was last in it, he had found it a nearly impenetrable thicket of young oak-trees."(Chapter XVII -- no page nos. in Gutenberg)
I'm afraid that housing developments, shopping centers, and freeways have replaced much of the landscape, and 90 per cent of the wetlands at the openings of those canyons are destroyed. One open area still lies between Los Angeles and Ventura that may still be close to what the Father saw. We've taken rides in the hills around here that also still could be significantly similar. The connection of past and present makes the reading all the more enjoyable.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Old Town San Diego

My friend Phyllis took me to Old Town for lunch and a look at the reconstructed houses, public buildings, and the stables, where we saw the old Wells Fargo coach.

For more photos, see Old Town Kitchens, 1890's vintage


Monday, May 18, 2009

"Night of Many Dreams" -- Some in California

Five women stand out in Night of Many Dreams by Gail Tsukiyama, a novel of Hong Kong and California. Two sisters, Emma and Joan, their mother, their aunt (a very successful business owner), and the family cook each try in her own way to achieve their dreams. Part of the plot is that the mother's dreams are about what her daughters should do, rather than what they want to do. The father is an absentee -- he's almost always away on business, making this a women's story.

Much of the book's action takes place in Hong Kong and Macao during the Japanese occupation in World War II. Eventually, the younger daughter Emma, who is studious and adventurous, goes to San Francisco for college, and stays there, making an independent life for herself.

In the context of my current reading project, I see this as a story of a California immigrant, fluent in English (Hong Kong, don't forget, was a British colony) but dealing to an extent with cultural differences and human differences between her two homes. She makes friends in college with a local American of Irish descent, but ends up working as a clerk in a social agency in Chinatown, with an idealistic young man who wants to keep immigrant Chinese kids off the streets -- part of her job is to talk to parents who don't speak English. She marries a young man whose parents were a Chinese man and a Portuguese woman. I wish that the part of the book about her adjustment had been more fully fleshed-out: some of this part was a bit sketchy, compared to the earlier chapters about the sisters' relationship to their mother and their aunt.

Emma seems to lose her adventurousness as she adjusts to life after college; she stays in the not very challenging job in Chinatown, and doesn't exactly know why. In a way, just getting out of Hong Kong and adapting to San Francisco is enough adventure for her -- in contrast to her sister who refuses to marry into Hong Kong society life, and becomes an actress in the Hong Kong film industry -- much more glamorous. Emma's art studies don't go anywhere, she just sketches rather than maturing as an artist. There's something realistic about this portrayal of an essentially ordinary woman living a fairly ordinary life in California.

The description of the life and cooking skills of Foon, the family's loyal servant, make a particularly interesting part of the book. Emma and Joan love her, and feel a great deal of empathy, although they never question her place in life as a cook, living in a pantry with almost no possessions and no life outside her duties. For a while, she teaches Joan to cook many home-made Chinese dishes, and she's an expert in the use of herbs and exotic ingredients. However, this isn't a California theme: I talked about it in my food blog: The Cook.

Lists of California Fiction

I've been making a list of books that I might read about California, in the form of an amazon wish list:
(Note: don't buy me these books! I already have a lot of them: I'm just using the amazon wish list facility because it's very convenient for amassing a list of books!)

I'm also using this blog: Reading California Fiction: Perusing Stories of the Golden State. This is an amazingly comprehensive list with reviews of older California fiction. The blog's author, Don Napoli -- "once a non-academic historian and now an old retired guy" -- kindly made a list of women authors at my request in his comment section. I'll be adding some of them to my wish list later on today.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

No Sense of Place

Another famous book about California: The Human Comedy by William Saroyan, 1943. On the densely-populated shelves of our condo, I found a first edition, with its slightly tattered dust jacket in place. (I set the jacket aside for safe keeping while I read the book.)

Ithaca, California, home to the Macauley family, isn't really in California. It's universal. The locale is everywhere -- and nowhere.

The Macauley family and their friends, employers, neighbors, teachers, librarians, and fellow humans are all meant to be universal types. It reminds me of another universal literary work: Our Town by Thornton Wilder, first performed 1938. Maybe this style was a fad back then.

Homer Macauley is fourteen; his little brother Ulysses is four. Homer is learning his new job delivering telegrams, suffering whenever the War Department sends tragic news to a family in Ithaca. Ulysses does cute little-boy curious things like get caught in an animal trap while it's being demonstrated in a store. Their older brother is off in training to be in World War II. Their sister is beautiful, and best friends with the brother's next-door girl friend. The inevitable is obvious.

Homer's mother, a widow, talks to her late husband. She knows why Homer in the night is sobbing. She says:
"I have heard it before. It is not yours. It is not any man's. It is the whole world's. Having known the world's grief, you are now on your way, so of course all the mistakes are ahead -- all the wonderful mistakes that you must and will make. I will tell you at breakfast in broad daylight what any of us might hesitate to say in the comforting darkness of night... . No matter what the mistakes are that you must make, do not be afraid of having made them or of making more of them. Trust your heart...." (p. 195-196)
Does any human talk like this?

Every event, even little Ulysses' cute antics, is made ponderous by the over-drawn insistence that it points to the universal. The language of the book is pointedly simple. (Not a word like those obscure examples that I failed to look up in Riven Rock!) Alas, I find this eerie overgeneralized pose out-of-date. I read the whole book, but it was painful.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

A Sense of Place

I decided to read some books set in California, and have started with Dashiell Hammet's The Maltese Falcon, T.C.Boyle's Riven Rock, and some short stories by Steinbeck, The Long Valley (written up here).

Hammet's place is San Francisco, and I was lucky to happen on an edition illustrated with photos -- mostly from the late 20s when Hammet wrote -- showing the exact places where private detective Sam Spade lived and detected. I've seen the film The Maltese Falcon a number of times, so I was also very amused to find how completely Hammet's dialog created the character that Humphrey Bogart made famous, as well as to discover how much the real San Francisco plays a role in the story.

Riven Rock is a historical novel about Stanley McCormick, a man who was enormously rich and dramatically insane.

The action takes place from around 1906 until around 1930, mainly in Santa Barbara and adjacent Montecito. My own response to the book is very much tied up with my experiences there -- I've put in a photo of Lotus Land, a tourist attraction in present-day Montecito. Lotus Land was home of Gunna Walska, wife of another of Cyrus McCormick's sons, as Boyle notes in the book.

The real central character is not Stanley McCormick, heir to the fortune amassed by his father Cyrus, but Eddie O'Kane, the nurse who worked for him, restraining his violent tendencies and cooperating with a series of ineffective doctors and psychoanalysts. At the beginning of the book, Eddie longs to go from his home in Boston to California, "real or illusionary -- California -- hanging in his head in all its exotic glory." (p. 13) When he arrives, he has the same response as I think anyone does to the mild climate, the orange groves, the beaches, the islands in the channel, and the ubiquitous flowers. He also longs to get rich -- but never does, he just keeps working for the increasingly bizarre McCormick family.

Boyle (even more than Hammet) uses the device of naming specific streets and locations in his California town to create the early-20th-century atmosphere. Eddie lives in a boarding house in downtown Santa Barbara, drinks in the bars and (later) speakeasies. He womanizes and prowls around these streets. Boyle describes the buildings, their destruction in the earthquake, and the reconstruction. A court procedure (Stanley McCormick's wife against his family) takes place in the courthouse with its dramatic architecture, tile work, and murals -- again shown in my photo.

Reading fiction about California is too easy, since so many authors were born here or came here to continue their careers once they have a financially rewarding start. I'm thinking Jack London, Mark Twain, William Saroyan, Nathanael West, Jack Kerouac, Amy Tan, and so many more. Even British ex-pats -- Aldous Huxley, Evelyn Waugh -- have written a bit about their California. And Hollywood brought F.Scott Fitzgerald. This could be fun.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Sci-Fi in Real Life

To me this looks like cover art for a shlocky sci-fi paperback. It's in fact the Mormon Temple, visible from many points on the freeway and in the shopping center parking lot opposite. Because it's behind a huge security fence, it is totally unapproachable.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Retro Sign

As you drive north on Old 101, you go through many very beautiful and luxurious towns, but then there's a sudden change. Just into Leucadia, there's a stretch of what I think of as the old 101. There's a trailer court, a store called "Lou's Records," little surfing stores -- all in old stucco one-story buildings, with very 1960s sort of retro signage. This liquor store sign is my favorite. I stepped inside and it wasn't nice at all, by the way.

High Tide 9:15 PM

Friday, May 08, 2009

Monday, May 04, 2009

Virginia Woolf Twitters

Elaine has been complaining about how she hates Virginia Woolf. Her most recent assessment is that Virginia Woolf is like Twitter (or maybe sometimes like a blog) where you just get random unedited thoughts. Elaine is very harsh about how she really does not care about what happens to any of the characters in The Voyage Out, which she recently read for her book club. She was also pretty severe about what she would think if the person in the club who made the choice of the book did not herself read it.

I've been reading a few Virginia Woolf novels recently, ever since I read the book about Virginia Woolf's domestic life. I do sometimes find it tedious, though I'm not that turned off. I was also interested in the VW chapter in Proust was a Neuroscientist. So I just started reading The Waves. And it really does read like Twitter -- at least the way I suspect Twitter reads. The whole first part is little short (surely less than 140 character) bits that seem to be random thoughts from some kids at school.
"I see a ring," said Bernard, "hanging above me. It quivers and hangs in a loop of light."
"I see a slab of pale yellow, said Susan, "spreading away until it meets a purple stripe."
"I hear a sound," said Rhoda, "cheep, chirp; cheep; chirp; going up and down." ...
"The dining-room window is dark blue now," said Bernard, "and the air ripples above the chimneys."
"A swallow is perched on the lightning-conductor," said Susan. "And Biddy has smacked down the bucket on the kitchen flags."

After a while the tweets get a bit longer, but I don't know if I'm going to keep reading or join twitter. Thanks, Elaine.