Friday, April 18, 2014

But judging history makes me and my friends feel so good about ourselves

I went on the same rant a NUMBER of times yesterday, including on Twitter, to my brother on Gchat, to my friend at dinner, and to another friend on the phone after dinner. This rant was about, of course, judging things out of their historical context.

Don't do that thing

Sure, it's really easy and kind of fun to look back on the past with a condescending smile, shake your head at their opinions and ways of life and just swagger about, content in your superiority, but oh, hold on -- I think that might be a thing that assholes do.

Over there. Go.

The world (by which I mean "the West," which is an example of ME being an asshole) seems to be moving forward regarding social issues. We are getting better. But it's not any one of us that's causing that. We know not to be jerks to transgender people and not to throw eggs at black people and not to yell slurs at gay people and not to put Japanese people in internment camps NOT because we just know that with our superior, shiny brains, but because society as a whole has gotten to the point where its overall knowledge knows that that is wrong. But we're still screwing things up, and in 70 years, people are going to look at us with condescending smiles and go "Well, they might've gotten gay marriage right, but look at equal pay for women and gender binary problems and A MILLION OTHER THINGS."

This is like the genius 19-year-olds in my 18th Century British Lit class who decided Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was racist in 1715 Constantinople. Really? Was she? Because records indicate she was learning Arabic and thought the veil was freeing and not actually restrictive, and that's actually kind of amazing for 1715 and if YOU lived then you'd probably ask her if she was becoming a Turk and then laugh lightly while fluttering your fan.

If you find something out about a historical figure that makes them seem less-than-enlightened, 1) What a shock. 2) How much do you expect of this person? Do you know how hard it is to go against ANY prevailing opinion of your time, let alone all of them? Have you tried telling anyone that you didn't think Frozen was good? Because let me tell you, the 15 minutes after that statement are not pleasant. 

So let's change that to a majorly disputed and highly charged social and/or political issue. Let's say you take a stand on one of those. Oh -- I'm sorry -- the Future would like you to take a stand on ALL of them, and please choose the incredibly unpopular side, because the Future would like to not feel uncomfortable about you while reading Wikipedia.

Don't judge things out of the context of their time. That's what dumb people do.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Maybe shame-based competition WOULD solve our nation's problems

I went to my hometown this weekend of Champaign, Illinois. Champaign is located in the center of the state (basically), but if you talk to someone from Chicago, they will say it's in "southern Illinois." This is because people from the Chicago area are tools and think everything south of Chicago is southern Illinois. THE REASON THIS IS INSULTING is that in Champaign, WE make fun of that area. We do not wish to be included in it. They have southernish accents because of being on the border with Kentucky and Missouri, and they're all farmers. I think. True, Champaign is surrounded by cornfields, but we have an EXCELLENT university. A university that smells like cow manure when the wind is right, but an excellent university nonetheless.


I am writing a post solely so I can use this gif

The Champaign Public Library was one of my favorite places in Champaign growing up. It was the only place of note I could walk to from my parents', it had microfilm machines so I could do research on whatever weird topics had found me that week (also I got to pretend I was about to crack a murder case, because why else do people look through microfilm? certainly not to print out opera reviews from the '70s, I can tell you that), and the VHS section enabled my obsessions from Kathryn Grayson to Barbara Stanwyck in an era where there was Blockbuster or nothing.

The old Champaign library was hiiiiideous. Mainly because it had been built in the 1970s, a decade when there should have been a moratorium on architecture -- "Hey, we seem to be designing things terribly. Let's just sit this out until it fixes itself" -- but I loved its aesthetically unpleasant corrugated aluminum siding. I just searched for a photo of it, but no one took one because it was too ugly. 

Champaign has a rivalry with its twin city Urbana. Imagine if Democrats and Republicans were each given free rein of a town, and you have Urbana-Champaign. Everything in Urbana is very pretty and very old and very poorly maintained because they never have money. Everything in Champaign is commerce-driven and shiny and kinda sorta soulless. And we were shamed -- SHAMED -- by the Urbana Free Library (get over yourselves, Urbana, all public libraries are free) because it was this big beautiful stone edifice built in 1918 and we had our ugly stepsister library next door because our city didn't care enough about making its library pretty.

UNTIL. UNTIL ONE DAY, when I can only assume a councilman said "Fuck this, we're getting a better library than Urbana" and we built this marvelous creation:


I miss the building I walked to on the weekends and drove to first thing after I got my license, but I'm not an idiot. I'm not going to bemoan the fact that the children of Champaign now have to deal with a gorgeous library with a successful self checkout system that Chicago tried and failed at. And there's a FriendShop in the basement where you can buy donated or discarded books, and it's raised $50,000 for extra programs so far. I bought these:

This was like $7

Champaign's library is awesome. I'm super proud of it. It weirdly gives me hope for Republicans. Maybe if we say things like "Hey, y'know, uh, Mexico's got awesome healthcare," they'll be like "SCREW MEXICO, USA #1 WE'LL GET THE BEST HEALTHCARE IN THE WORLD." And then we can fix all our problems. One can only hope.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Lady Audley's Secret Readalong!

Come May! Every Thursday (starting 5/1) we shall be diving into Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. I have never read this before, and I hope you have not either, because there are SECRETS, but even if you have, come along with us and spoil nothing, for it is time for...Lady Audley's Secret Readalong.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The 14th Century Was a Nonstop Thrill Ride If You're Thrilled By Dirt and Illiteracy

I'm reading Barbara Tuchman's book, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, and OH is it good. How good is it? So good I had a nigh-ecstatic experience when I read the following:

"Taxation like usury rested on principles that were anything but clearly defined and so muddled by ad hoc additions, exemptions, and arrangements that it was impossible to count on a definite amount of returns."

Her dad has his own Wikipedia page. Because she comes from a Family (my friend Katie-Anne: "Like the mob?"), meaning her father was an "investment banker and philanthropist." So his daughter was able to go to Radcliffe and write books about the 14th century. This is some Room of One's Own shit right here. *Virginia Woolf nods sagely*

She takes the 14th century -- GIANT undertaking that it is -- and decides to look at it from the perspective of one of its noble families, as peasants' lives were not recorded, and kings lived decidedly abnormally. The first part of the book (i.e. the part I'm on) is setting up background information on the century, and OH it is fantastic. Because she is subtly funny.

Simply summarized by the Swiss historian , J. C. L. S. de Sismondi , the 14th century was “a bad time for humanity.”

Or the people she quotes are. ALSO she gets history. Aw yeah. She gets it. Because some people seem to think learning dates is pointless and just something thrust upon them by teachers who don't want to get into humanity and its grey areas, so they pick something concrete like a date to make their students learn, PERHAPS AT THE COST OF THEIR BETTER EDUCATION, and I get that, but those people who think that are wrong.

Dates may seem dull and pedantic to some, but they are fundamental because they establish sequence— what precedes and what follows—thereby leading toward an understanding of cause and effect.

AMAZING -- GOOD JOB BEING SUPER GREAT. Most authors I read are dead, but I am rarely actually sad about it.

I would write Barbara Tuchman the most badass letter, and she would write me back and we would have a CORRESPONDENCE about history and why it is super-awesome and how people should totes appreciate it more. And then one day I would visit New York and we would get coffee somewhere and she'd be like "Alice, you are the only one who truly understands my work. I now bequeath unto you this 14th century ring, for only the True Lover of History may wear it," and then I would go on quests, wielding the power of Hrothmir, Ring of History.

And that is why I think these kinds of books are fun.

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Rosie Project: I don't think you can actually dislike it

The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion, is one of those books ALL my book blogging peoples loved, which meant I had to read it. Such is how the game is played. Plus it was like 2 bucks for Kindle, so I took quick advantage of that stunning deal.

Thanks to Emily for starting us all
on this bookish journey

If you magically are unaware of this book, it's about a professor of genetics who proooobably has Asperger's and he decides he wants a wife, so he comes up with a methodical survey to pick an appropriate candidate. But then an off the wall women comes into his life who totally upsets his carefully ordered world! Looks like someone's about to find out that life...isn't as organized as its DNA. (alternates: if you want to wade into the human gene pool, you're gonna get splashed/that a double helix view of romance is a DNdon't)

See, that's how I went into it. Being like "Ugh it's gonna be one of those sorts of things. Oh look, a slightly calmer version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is going to come into his life and upset everything and make him appreciate Living."


I'm not sure when I started caring about Don, the main character, but it was definitely after the first 30 or so pages. When it started I was still suspicious and very "Yes, yes, he has a social disorder, good job portraying that." I eyed each new woman with more suspicion as she might be the MPDG. But then after several false starts, Actual Rosie showed up, and damnit, I really liked her.

“How old are you?” said Rosie, aggressively. She didn’t wait for the answer. “You’re like an old man— I always have my breakfast before I shower, don’t sit in my chair, that’s where I sit . . . Do not fuck with me, Don Tillman.” She said the last words quite slowly. I decided it was best not to fuck with her.

There's also the mystery in the book of Who Rosie's Father Is, which is why she and Don are spending time together. They have to gather DNA from all possible father candidates (and oh, there are many), and it is a JOLLY TIME. I was almost upset with myself for liking it, but the book is that enjoyable. 

The possibly-less-touched-on thing it does is make it clear how Asperger's can be a positive. We see it as a problem that needs to be treated, but Simsion makes clear that it can help you be extremely good at things average people find difficult. I was almost embarrassed at how sincerely "LOOK AT HOW EVERYONE DOESN'T HAVE TO BE THE SAME AND HOW DIFFERENT PEOPLE CAN HAVE DIFFERENT SKILLS" I got while reading it, which, y'know, what an excellent point to make in your book. 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Emma Donoghue's Frog Music is an 1870s Crossdressing Murder Mystery Joy

Emma Donoghue. You sphinx of the book world, how can we tell what you're going to write about next?

Her last book was Astray, a history-inspired set of short stories; before that was Room, a novel told from the perspective of a child who's grown up in a single room due to his mother being held there by a kidnapping psychopath. Before THAT, she's had books about the 18th, 19th, and current centuries, some lesbian and some heterosexual, three non-fiction works, and YOU JUST NEVER KNOW WHAT'S COMING. It's all very exciting.

Donoghue's newest book, out this week, is Frog Music. The good people at Little, Brown sent me a copy of it, presumably because they read this and realized I would storm their castle gates until it was rendered up.

Frog Music is based on the real life murder of an 1870s San Francisco cross-dresser named Jenny Bonnet. Donoghue loves taking obscure historical events and expanding them into a whole story, and I love her history nerd mind for doing it. The novel is told from the perspective of the woman who is with Jenny when she dies, Blanche Beunon. Blanche dances for the gentlemen of San Francisco, if you know what I mean. 

I went into this not knowing what to expect. Then I decided it was about Blanche. Then I decided it was about Jenny. What I was NOT expecting was it being about Blanche and her baby, Petit. Very surprising.

It's very hard for me to LIKE books about babies. It seems weirdly cliched or like the author finally had a kid and wants to tell you how unique their perspective is on this event that happens to most of the planet. Emma Donoghue takes the mother/child bond and doesn't idealize it. She talks about getting peed on and vomited on and being so frustrated you feel you're going to go insane and can this baby just give you five — FIVE — minutes so you can regroup -- no? -- why, tiny baby, why. But there is this bond. And it keeps you going.

He's frozen for a moment. Massive dark eyes fixed on hers. Then he shrieks even harder, and his hands shoot out. Such an unfamiliar gesture that at first she flinches away from the thickened wrists, thinking he's trying to throttle her. And then she understands. This is what breaks Blanche's heart, that even as P'tit's sobbing with fright, he's reaching out for her in a way he's never done before, a way she didn't know he could. How could the tiny boy want a hug from her right now, with the tears she's caused by shrieking obscenities at him still dancing on his red cheeks?

The book starts with Jenny's murder in a little town outside San Francisco and moves you backwards and forwards from that point, which is my favorite sort of device because I get BORED, people. Linear time is for suckahs. You see Blanche and Jenny's first meeting and the entirety of their short acquaintance, Blanche's relationship with her longtime "maque" (Blanche is French and a lot of slang is used, but is completely understandable -- her maque here is essentially her kept man), and her relationship with her son.

Because Emma Donoghue is a history nerd, 1870s San Francisco is made clear to the reader, right down to the smell of the air and color of the mud. So many authors who set their stories in the past rely on famous figures popping up ("Why, President Lincoln! Think of seeing you here! Off to the theatre tonight, sir?" wink wink) and when you instead are able to show through your obvious research that went beyond Celebrities of the 1560s what it was like to be alive and walking through the streets of that time, then I tip my period-appropriate hat to you.

Apparently any one of these would do, but
what they all need is MORE BIRDS AND FLOWERS

The shifting timeline kept me interested, the historical detail kept me interested, and of course the mystery of Who Killed Jenny Bonnet kept me interested. Donoghue excels at historical writing, and it's obviously where her passion lies. She finds the most obscure historical event and crafts a 300+ page novel about it, making you meet the people involved and feel for them. I'm so happy she wrote Frog Music. Add more to this genre, Donoghue!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Harold Washington Library: Makin' Chicago look good

The Harold Washington branch of the Chicago Public Library is a gleaming beacon of libraryness. It doesn't actually gleam because it is made of STATELY BRICK, but you get it. You get it.

the windows kind of gleam...

A city's main library reflects the city. Where its priorities are, and how much of a real city it actually is, as opposed to being just a loose collection of skyscrapers and 7-11s. Harold Washington takes up an entire city block in the Loop, which is part of Chicago's valuable downtown. It's six block from the Sears Tower, five blocks from Millennium Park, and two blocks from Grant Park. It's right off the Blue, Red, Brown, Orange, Pink, and Purple (in rush hour) Lines. AND IT HAS ESCALATORS.


Coming from my small town, two-floor library to eight levels of bookish bliss was one of the best parts of the move to Chicago. I'm STILL not over the escalators. Feel like seeing the library sights while not exercising TOO much? Escalator's got you covered. Start on Three with the Information Center and Innovation Lab (THERE IS 3-D PRINTING THERE), and work your way up past Government Publications on Five (are all the reading areas filled up on Seven? no one's on Five, my friend), Social Science and History on Six, Literature & Language on Seven, and Visual & Performing Arts on Eight, which is, ding ding, the last stop.

Visual & Performing Arts also has practice rooms. Practice rooms! For free! "It's 6 o'clock; where can I possibly practice my tuba without bothering the neighbors?--The LIBRARY? What? Tell me this is no phantasm or quixotic dream from which I shall soon awake! Free practice rooms -- Oh, that I should be alive in such times as these!"

Daleks could play the tuba and
be allowed library cards; you don't know

I have neglected Nine (Special Collections Exhibits), because the escalator doesn't go there and it is a mysterious place to me, but I shall be going rightforth and forthwith, because they have a Vivian Maier exhibit now! Vivian Maier! Recently discovered Chicago photographer of fantasticness! I care about basically zero photographers, because my proclivities do not bend that way, but even I can tell that Vivian Maier was a genius at capturing humanity on film. And now I can go look at her photographs for free, because the public library is a wonderful creation and God bless you, Benjamin Franklin.

Also escalator-inaccessible is the first floor, walk into it from outside. This has the Popular Library, which is where your hold items are conveniently kept. No going up to Three for you, Busy Businessperson! In and out. Bam. It also has something that's been newly created since my move to Chicago: YOUmedia. It's a space on the first floor for teens and young adults, and it encourages them to be creative and gives them a safe place to hang out after school and I am SO PRO THIS PLACE. 

Can you marry a library system? Hopefully.

On the lower level is an auditorium for special events. I've seen Sarah Vowell and, if you will all remember, TREMENDOUSLY UNEXPECTEDLY, Emma Donoghue. 

I know you're all thinking 'What? How can this all be in one building?' BUT IT CAN, MY FRIENDS. At Van Buren and State. And it is the best.