State History, Short Stories, and A Little Sex: or One of those Catch-up Posts with Lots of Short Reviews

pureimpure (2)I’ve been sick.

School will be out in just two more days, and I’m coming down with something.

Oh, Excellent!” as Hermia says somewhere in act three of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

If that weren’t bad enough, I’m behind on my reviews.  So, I’ve decided to post about several books and stories I’ve read in the past week in one post instead of giving each their own article.  While I’d rather give them each their own post, I swore I would keep this blog fun when I moved to WordPress.  So, in the interest of having fun and of avoiding unnecessary work, here goes….

State History: California by Kevin Starr. Chapter 5, Regulation, Railroad and Revolution.

We just finished with the Gold Rush in chapter four, an event which Mr. Starr says was as transformative to the history of the United States as the Second Great Awakening when a second major transformative event occurs, the building of the transcontinental railroad.  You wouldn’t know it from watching A&E’s Hell on Wheels, but the transcontinental railroad owes it existence to immigrant Chinese labor.  There were plenty of Irish is California at the time of the railroad, but the people willing to build a railroad through the Sierra Nevada’s for the pennies Charles Crocker was willing to pay were the Chinese.  Wonder why A&E didn’t make a series about them.

Much of this is history many of us already know.  I was only a little shocked to learn that Leland Stanford was both president of the Central Pacific Railroad and Governor of California when he essentially awarded himself the contract to build the western side of the transcontinental railroad.  The Big Four as they came to be known, soon controlled so much of the state both geographically and economically, that a new constitutional convention was called to correct the railroads over-reach into just about everything.

Of course, this new constitutional convention was partially motivated by racial issues, especially bias against the Chinese workers who built what Mr. Starr calls something second only to the Great Wall of China in sheer human effort and engineering.  This second constitution placed limits on the railroad’s power, but it also removed Spanish as an official language of the state.  By this time, there were not many Spanish speakers left in California, most of the old Mexican land grant families having been forced to sell their land and move on.

A bit of colorful Old West history for you: the word “hoodlum” comes from this period.  It derives from the phrase “Huddle them! Huddle them!” which was shouted  at workers and others by  San Francisco’s  Vigilante Committee who tried to restore order after a series of labor riots.

Hoodlums come from California, just as my mid-western Grandmother always suspected.

Short Stories: Grace Paley’s “The Pale Pink Roast

All I want to say about this one is that it takes place in the Bronx and it features people who live in an apartment. Take that Noah Berlatsky! Last Sunday,   I wrote a long diatribe against debating why adults read Young Adult books in which I took Noah Berlatsky of The Atlantic to task for, among other things, saying Grace Paley writes about “boring suburbanites.”   Unless you consider the Bronx to still be part of the suburbs, Mr. Berlatsky, Grace Paley never wrote about suburbanites.  I mentioned some of Mr. Berlatsky’s other shortcomings in Sunday’s diatribe. I can only hope Mr. Berlatsky will someday see the error of his ways.

Our Stars, Our Selves” by Tim Pratt from the Welcome to Bordertown anthology.

A lot of young adults who want to be musicians run away to Bordertown.  Mr. Pratt’s story is about one girl, looking to become the next big thing.  Almost as soon as she arrives in Bordertown, she comes to the attention of both a true-blood elf and an astrologer who can grant you your fondest desire.

I enjoyed Mr. Pratt’s story, though it is Young Adult fiction, but I don’t really have much to say about it here.  I did like it when the girl musician tells the true-blood elf that the elves may want to stop calling themselves “true-bloods” because everyone will think they are vampires.  It’s nice to see current culture reflected in a story like this.  One of my pet peeves is zombie stories that feature people who have never seen a zombie movie.  How is that even possible these days?

A Little Sex:  Colette’s The Pure and the Impure.

A lot of sex really.  Rather a lot of talk about sex, there is no actual sex in The Pure and the Impure.

Colette’s survey of sexual mores circa 1935 opens in an opium den.  I have to say that the description of the opium den and its denizens makes me wish I could travel back in time.  Visiting a Paris opium den sounds like so much fun.

Colette’s book is frank and understanding.  She seeks to sympathize with her subjects rather than to judge them.  This made the book unusual for its day, but her views may seem dated to modern readers.   While I think the views she expresses are accurate, they are not quite worded right for today’s readers.  It’s like Colette and her friends are playing at level 5, while we all like to think we are playing at level 6 or 7.  Take this passage from the opium den scene.  Colette has been talking with a woman she knows who has a much younger lover.

“Isn’t it funny,” she said, “that in such a couple it’s the older one–he’s only twenty-two–who happens to be obliged to lie?  I’m devoted to that boy, with all my heart.  But what is the heart, madame?  It’s worth less than people think.  It’s quite accommodating, it accepts anything.  You give it whatever you have, it’s not very particular. But the body…Ha!  That’s something else again!  It has a cultivated taste, as they say, it knows what it wants.  A heart doesn’t chose, and one always ends up loving.  I’m the living proof.”

That a woman nearing sixty can both love and lust after a man of 22 is a touchy subject, even today.  I think Colette’s friend is right here, myself.

The Pure and the Impure is about equally divided between the views of Colette’s friends, male and female, and Colette’s own views of her friends.  She is much more than tolerant of both her Lesbian and her gay male friends.  This strikes me as almost brave in 1935, when even the French had fascists in their midst.  On the one hand, she writes admiringly of The Hamwood Papers a book based on the diary of two late 17th century English women who refused to marry, instead running of together.  They lived quietly and humbly in the same small house for nearly 50 years.  On the other hand, she seems to have some issues with Lesbians who dress as men.  She wonders why women who love women cannot escape the influence of male roles when men who love men appear to forget about women altogether.

They taught me not only that a man can be amorously satisfied with a man but that one can suppress, by forgetting it, the other sex.  This I had not learned from the ladies in men’s clothes, who were preoccupied with men, who were always, with suspect bitterness, finding fault with men. My strange homosexual friends did not talk about women, except distantly and condescendingly.  “Very pretty, that white on white beading that Bady wears in the third act,” they would say.  Or: “Oh, really, those enormous hats on Lantelmen, I’m fed up with them!  Why doesn’t she parcel them out!”

I’m not sure where to place The Pure and the Impure.  Colette described it as an autobiographical novel, but the book is a series of interviews and meditations.  There are characters, certainly, but they are all real people.  While clearly well ahead of its time in its day, it feels like a historical document to me now.  It’s a very interesting read and it’s put Colette firmly on my list of people I wish I could have dinner with.  Luckily for us, food was sometimes served in the better opium dens of Paris.

10 thoughts on “State History, Short Stories, and A Little Sex: or One of those Catch-up Posts with Lots of Short Reviews

  1. Hi, James,
    There’s nothing quite as bad as being really sick for the last few days of school when you can’t possibly stay home. Been there.

    This will sound very silly: I’m extremely eager to digest this post, but my brain is fried because I taught a 3.5 hour Children’s Lit class today, with severe neck pain, and then had to go to my other job.

    The emphasis I would like to place on the preceding paragraph, is I’m longing to read your post thoroughly tomorrow when I can stay home. Something I don’t think you can do. I’m sorry. Would posting about your summer reading plans help?

    1. I hope my post turns out to be worth the wait. 🙂 And I hope we are both better soon.

      I’m starting to worry that YA lit ad Chlidren’s lit are getting confused. The two are not the same in my mind at all.

  2. I hope you’re feeling better. At least it sounds like you had some good reads to get you through!

    I’ve read and enjoyed a few of Tim Pratt’s stories, although none of them were YA. And Colette… I really liked the musical Gigi when I was a kid, so I should definitely read the original books before moving on to some of the author’s more involved stuff. (I’m hoping that, like Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the book is deeper and less saccharine and clean-scrubbed than the movie version.) The Pure and the Impure sounds very interesting, but I like to get a sense of an author before I dip into anything they’ve done that has autobiographical elements. I guess I’d better get cracking!

    1. Colette is not at all like Gigi the movie. As I recall the movie is suitable for young people, almost a family film, yes? Colette is not suitable for youngsters at all.

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