Friday, January 16, 2009

Still Clearing Out the Detritus of My Old Mind I have the whole year to do this. This post could be rather long in its gestation due to the weather. One evening in the writing it was -21 degrees outside, at which point my furnace ceases to be able to keep pace with even my modest aspirations for it--i.e., the thermostat may be set at 60, but the temperature is not going to make it there. I could probably store fish right now in the room where my computer is without anyone noticeable effects. I know it is much colder in Fargo and Yakutsk; nonetheless, it is remarkable to be able to contemplate that if the temperature were suddenly to go up 50 degrees, it would still be below freezing. I had started to write a rant about the shameless lobbying for government bailout money, but as it was more of a general impression than an intimate familiarity with the details of the case, and as the thought of delving deeply into those details was not enticing to me, I abandoned it. Still I would be reassured if I could see a few people at least accepting their government largess with some portion of embarrassment/humility about them. I don't usually make a note of celebrity deaths, but as my middle name was given to me in honor of Andrew Wyeth--which tidbit I have tended to keep buried for the most part in the more neglected recesses of my psyche--I was a little jolted by the news of his death, especially as I had not thought about him for several years, and had forgotten that he was still alive. Needless to say he was greatly admired by my father, who has done a considerable amount of painting himself and started out as something of a Wyeth imitator, a course made especially easy by the circumstance that we lived in Pennsylvania quite close to the very sorts of mills and covered bridges and abandoned barns and desolate brown fields that Wyeth famously painted. But really it is amazing to me to think that he lived this long; the world which produced and sustained and elevated Andrew Wyeth seems at this particular instant to belong to the very remote past indeed.

I was amused the other day when I bought something from the Amazon site to look at my recommendations, and the box of categories which I guess the computer has deemed to be my areas of especial interest. Assuming that larger and bolder type indicates the strongest interests, my top 3 categories are "British Cinema", "L. Frank Baum", and "Action & Adventure"(?). Baum was the author of the Oz books, a number of somewhat plush editions of which I have ordered for my children. Thanks to the wonder of the Internet, I have recently learned that I really oughtn't to like him or his books anymore because before he became famous he allegedly once wrote an editorial in an obscure newspaper in South Dakota or somewhere in which he called for the extermination of the entire American Indian population. This was indeed a very bad thing to advocate, and I certainly hope that someone was at least able to prevail upon him at some point to reconsider his position. I was never greatly attached to him personally--he always retained something of the hustling, small-time ne'er-do-well about him, frequently living well beyond his means and bankrupting himself in shaky business ventures. He was inexorably attracted to the shiniest, most modern innovations and developments, whether cars, or movies, or California, which is an unusual, though in some instances not necessarily a bad, quality for a writer to have, but it is not one with which I seem to have much affinity. The books, as I look over them again, have many flaws and annoying tics in them as well, but they still have more genuine humor and fun in them than most children's books, which I take to be their main appeal. I also found the mode of travelling--generally on foot--through various provincial settings and geographical regions with a handful of companions, usually culminating in a grand reunion in the city at the end, which was the standard pattern of the series, to be appealing, but I am not sure how much that sort of thing would resonate with anyone else. It is worth noting that numerous races of (presumably wicked) creatures do get effectively exterminated in the course of the series, gradually making Oz a much less wild and progressively more mechanized, modernized, Americanized place--which the child, if he is me at least (I know this is not grammatically correct, but "if he is I" or "if he be me" sounds a bit persnicketty to me), is absolutely duped into believing is all for the best. The above is my illustration for "British cinema". I hope it is actually a British scene. It looks like one. The choices came down to this and one of Kate Winslet nearly bursting out of a tight shirt. Since I can't bring myself to like Kate Winslet enough to give her a place of honor on my blog, and also since the British cinema has gone to the dogs in the last 10-15 years even more than our own, I went with the throwback photo to the heyday of British film. I am not usually a big one for buying movies, but after toting around various lists of films I wanted to see but never could because none of the video stores in the locales I frequented ever had them, when people began unloading their old VHS tapes on the internet for about the price of a rental a few years back I started buying some of these unseen classics, a lot of which happen to be British, though "Europe", "France", "Irish" and "Italian" made it among my categories too, which I guess I think makes me look like a bit of a cosmopolitan, and swells some weak strain of my ego, over which I evidently have no command, with a foolish pride. Then again, Aidan Quinn (or Quinn, Aidan) made it onto my list of favorites as well, though I doubt I could have picked him out of a police lineup before looking him up on the internet. Nontheless I have somehow given the Amazon supercomputer reason to believe I am obsessed with him. I'm not sure what I could have ordered that would catapult him over the likes of Ruskin or Restoration Drama or Luis Bunuel onto my list, but I am going to have to do something to get him off it. This post has already gotten way out of hand, and I haven't even gotten to the main object of it, the next installment of the popular Books I Read As a Child That Probably Contributed More to the Crippling of My Adult Potential Than Enhancing of It series. Today I will revisit the All-of-a-Kind-Family series, which appeared at intervals between 1951 and 1972, though the last volume was published some years after the others, and is much the weakest entry of the group. The All-of-a-Kind-Family books were about a Jewish immigrant family and their 5 American-born daughters (a son was finally born in the midst of the series) growing up on the Lower East Side, later relocating "uptown", I don't remember where, in approximately the 1910s. The books were very girly--doing a quick perusal of other blog entries and about 60 Amazon reviews, I have not found a single one written by a man prior to my own. Most of the series' adult fans are divided into two camps, rather insipid Christian types who like the books for their wholesome values and "introduction to Jewish customs, holidays, etc", and much cleverer Jewish women who seem to regard the books overall with affection but do so from an ironic and more feminist-minded (among the more notorious chapters of the initial volume is one entitled "Dusting is Fun") critical distance, as is typical of our generation. This review I thought was very well done. One of the Amazon reviewers--who, upon a second perusal, seems to be a man--calls it "one of those falsely sunny books that came out of the 1940s and 50s". Why "falsely sunny", when the author is clearly writing from memory about her own childhood? While I can see how life for a poor adult in New York or other American cities at that time period might be regarded as grim, there is plenty of literary evidence that this was in many ways an exciting and hopeful time and place to be a child. The family's material life and security continually increases as the series goes on, the children grow ever more at home and part of the life of their city, which was probably the most interesting and dynamic place in the world to live at that time, I would say even more so than now, certainly for a family of ordinary means. Why wouldn't the overall mood be one of optimism? Because health standards were low and the girls had limited career opportunities by our standards? As opposed to the standards of Czarist-ruled Lithuania, or wherever their parents had fled from? Not to worry, false sunniness works itself out by the second or third generation--I know you'll be getting no sunny books from me about my old neighborhood and childhood friends--though I wouldn't have minded belonging to the sunny generation myself.

This still leaves the question of how I ever got mixed up with these insidious books in the first place. I came to them through volume 6 of the Collier's Junior Classics Set "Harvest of Holidays", which is still in my possession, appropriately positioned right next to The Decline of the West on the dark bookshelf in my back hallway. The Harvest of Holidays is yet another seductive and monstrous kiddie compendium published in 1962, an anthology of holiday-related children's literature. Two chapters about the All-of-a-Kind-Family got in there, under Book Week--naturally they were a voracious little band of readers, despite their poverty--and Hanukkah. I think what happened is that I developed crushes on these little girls, especially Ella, the oldest of the brood, not the most carefree but not the most melancholy either, possessed of a nervous, careful optimism for the most part, rather like myself. Later in the series she gets a boyfriend, Jules Roth, who is so earnest and unobjectionable and determined to do the right thing by his parents, his religion, and America that even as a kid I thought this guy must be stopping off at leg shows on the way home after putting in a virtuous evening dining with the All-of-a-Kind-Family. Also I was obviously attracted to their interesting lives in New York City, the neighbors and local merchants who seemed to know who they were, their large family, both nuclear and extended, the fact that their lives both did seem fun, and that people seemed to like them and feel optimistic about their prospects, which I suppose I contrasted with what seemed to be the state of my own existence. I must confess I never got a good grasp on what was going on with most of the Jewish holidays, which is usually touted as one of the main benefits of reading the series. All the Jewish food references went over my head too. Overall the tone of the books was gentle and sunny, and I spent many an hour taking refuge in them when I should have been out in the street getting into fights and learning how to combat, both verbally and physically, with other boys my age instead of getting into the deadly habit of avoiding direct competition with other people as much as possible which plagues me unto this day.

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