Monday, February 28, 2011

The Power of the Story

I took my son to see "The King's Speech" over the weekend. (How was I to know George VI was going to drop the F-bomb?) As I did so I remembered the first grown-up movie I went to. It was "Fiddler on the Roof." (On re-release, ahem.) I cried and cried at the end, and went back the next week with my friend Amy, and proceed to tell her, in loud whispers, what was going to happen through out the movie, until the woman in front of me turned around and told me to shut up. And thus I learned my first lesson of movie etiquette.

By high school I was going to the art movie theater downtown and sitting through a bewildering mix of old Hollywood and avant-garde Eastern European movies, with some New Wave and Bergman thrown in. Passage to India. The Seventh Seal. Some Like It Hot. 42nd Street. Closely Watched Trains. It was an education, particularly in narrative and the language of film.

When I first read about "The King's Speech," I thought, honestly, that it was a silly subject for a movie. I mean, how trivial could you get about the Royal Family? Stammering, really? Some speech no one even remembers? (Speaking as an American, anyway.) But as with any creative work, it's not the subject, it's the storytelling. Make the viewer/reader care, as "The King's Speech" does, and you can follow it up with a sequel, "The King's Hangnail," I suspect.

Monday, February 21, 2011

A Presidential Story

She was a rich man's daughter in a small Ohio town. When she was 19, Florence ran away with a boy her father didn't approve of. She came back home a little later, with a baby. She said the boy had married her, but small towns being what they are, not everyone believed her. Her father wouldn't take her back, so Florence supported the two of them by giving piano lessons. Then her father changed his mind -- only she'd have to give up the baby to be raised by them. She agreed. A few years later there was a new face in town, a newspaper owner named Harding. Now restored to her proper social position, Florence married him.

Harding liked everybody and everybody liked him. He also liked women. Of course, it was a shame for Florence, but men are men, and what are you going to do? You couldn't dislike old Harding, no one did. He was so popular it was thought by others he would make a good politician. He ran for Governor, but lost. He tried for Senate, and won. A story was invented about early widowhood, to explain Florence's past. Her son, well on his way to an early death from tb and alcoholism, was kept out of sight. And in a year when the American public would have elected anyone who wasn't associated with Woodrow Wilson, Harding became President of the United States.

Now Harding had lots of friends, and he gave jobs to most of them, and looked the other way when they took taxpayer money for their own profit. He had lots of women -- actresses in New York, his wife's best friend. Florence was always bossing him anyway and the newspaper reporters called her "the Duchess." She befriend socialite Evalyn McLean, heiress to a newspaper fortune, owner of the Hope Diamond, drug addict, and they consulted astrologers together. One of them predicted Florence's death, then said she would recover, but her husband was in danger. Plans were made for a Presidential trip across the United States, and even up to Alaska. In San Francisco, Harding, who'd shown signs of heart disease, died suddenly. His doctors, believing they'd be blamed, told the public it was a stroke. Rumor said that Florence had poisoned him. Scandal -- of all the corruption, thievery and adultery -- broke, and ruined Harding's hail-fellow-well-met good name.

Florence went home to Ohio, ill, and died a little over a year later.

Incidentally, Florence Harding was the first First Lady to fly in an airplane. Somewhere in there there must have been some good days.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Books I never forgot (though I forgot their titles)

I've been thinking about the mystique of the books you read as a child. Not necessarily great, prize-winning classics, but books that somehow or other spoke to you, books you remember for sometimes very peculiar or trivial reasons. I've just been looking through the archives at Loganberry Books' Stump the Bookseller site, where you can post memories of books you read once whose titles you no longer recall. Technically you can post any book, but the majority of the posts are for children's books, and the posters say over and over things like "...I've been searching for this book for 30 years." And the things they remember about the book -- the cover, of course, an illustration, a particular plot twist, a word or phrase! It's a huge testament to how much books are loved and remembered, how they become part of people's lives.

I used Stump the Bookseller a couple years ago to find two historical novels which I read multiple times as a teen. I can credit both of them with developing my interest in certain historical subjects. For the first one, all I remembered is that the heroine was a girl in the World War I era who falls in love with a boy who is the town outcast because he has a German name. The boy's name, Paul, had stuck with me all these years, as did a scene where some townspeople threw stones at a dauchshund because it was a German dog.

This turned out to be Norma Johnston's A Nice Girl Like You, which was published in 1980, and was part of a series that Johnston wrote about the various members of a extended family in Westchester County, New York. But I'd actually conflated part of it with another book, Never Jam Today by Carole Bolton, about a girl who takes part in the women's suffrage movement. What I loved about A Nice Girl Like You was the Romeo-and-Juliet romance between Saranne and Paul, who was the classic "bad boy." And Never Jam Today gave me a picture of the World War I era as a time of change, with protest marches, an anti-war movement and new technologies. ("You can fly from New York to San Francisco in only four days," someone says to the heroine, who replies, "Why would I want to do that?")

The second book I remembered well was set in 19th century Russia and was about a girl who is sent to a boarding school for orphaned daughters of Army officers. She's unhappy at first, but eventually makes friends, and then the Neva river floods and the girls have to be rescued. Later she becomes a lady in waiting at the Tsar's court and is involved in the Decemberist Revolution. I remembered certain aspects with crystal clarity -- the girl's father was killed at something called the Battle of Borodino (they didn't teach the Napoleonic wars in Kentucky) and that she had friend called Sonia who was sent into exile with her Decemberist fiance.

I don't know how many times I read this book as a child, but I can honestly say that it possessed me. I identified entirely with the heroine. As an adult it was THE book I thought of when I remembered my childhood reading. (Like many of the posters on Stump the Bookseller, I remembered almost exactly what section of the library it was in.) However, I'd completely forgotten the title and probably never paid any attention to the author. Fortunately, when I posted the description someone had an answer right away: Masha, published in 1968 by a writer named Mara Kay. (There was actually a sequel -- I'd remembered it as being all one book -- called The Youngest Lady in Waiting, and that was the one about the Decemberist Revolution.)

Given that how big these books were for me as a teenager, I thought it might be fun to re-read them. I tracked down A Nice Girl Like You and Never Jam Today easily, and...well, I was kind of surprised and disappointed. The great romance of Saranne and Paul was mainly in my head: the book underplays it and they hardly even kiss. Never Jam Today turned out to be one of those historical novels where various facts are kind of shoveled awkwardly into the text. The dialogue was stilted and the characters' motivations were thin.

I can't believe I didn't notice these things as a teenager, and yet perhaps it didn't matter. I'd like to think great writing lasts and poor writing fades. But Stump the Bookseller is testament to the fact that sometimes readers love books in spite of themselves. Sometimes a book just sparks something in you, opening your eyes to a new world, in spite of problems with plot, structure and dialogue.

As for Masha, I can't tell you if it's a disappointment or not, as it is now a "rare" book and the cheapest copy I could find was more than $300! I guess it's better that way. At least I won't ever lose my memories of it.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Memories of Egypt

If I haven't gotten much done this past week, blame Al Jazeera English, which I've been watching online for their coverage of events in Egypt. I wake up every morning hoping that Mubarak will be gone. I guess partly I'm a news junkie, and part of it is remembering the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe, but I also have personal memories of Egypt from a trip I made years ago. I was only in my twenties at the time and had never really been out of the US much, and never been to a "third world" country. I'd like to say that it was a great experience which broadened my horizons and my understanding of the world, but that wouldn't be true. I was sick much of the time and I kept having panic attacks (I didn't know they were panic attacks until years later; at the time I just thought I was dying) and deep down I just wanted to go home. The one thing that epitomized the foreignness of Egypt for me was the fact that I couldn't get regular American-looking bread, even on sandwiches.

Youth, as they say, is wasted on the young.

But eventually I did rally, and I found myself collecting specific images. The crystal blueness of the Mediterranean Sea, unlike any water I'd ever seen. A donkey pulling a cart in the middle of insane Cairo traffic. Schoolboys with satchels yelling English at us and reaching up to touch my hair (platinum blonde at the time.) Unemployed men standing around the street, hoping to get tips for opening doors for people. The cemeteries at El Alamein. A rest house in the middle of the Sahara desert. The statue of some forgotten pharoah at Luxor, worn down to just a foot. (Talk about Ozymandias!) The call to prayer, at evening, dawn and noon, echoing up and down the streets.

We had come to Egypt at the invitation of Samir, a friend of my future husband's. On the way to Alexandria, speeding across the desert, he mentioned that anyone who had three speeding tickets in Egpyt faced a mandatory 20 year prison sentence. He added he already had one ticket on his record. I got the feeling that, having lived in the US, he knew things could be a lot better in Egypt but he accepted his government for what it was.

The Egyptian people no longer want to accept this, and I hope they succeed. They deserve better.