What I’ve been reading

I recently finished the D’Artagnan Romances. which consist of The Three (Scandalous) Musketeers, Twenty Years After and Vicomte De Bragelonne.  The last one is around 2000 pages and usually split up into three books called Vicomte De Bragelonne, Louise de la Valliere and The Man in the Iron Mask.  The evolution of the Musketeers from rascally 20somethings to middle-aged men to men just waiting to retire and/or die is quite fascinating.  And there is lots of drama and intrigue and action.  And something like 3500 pages total.

I am currently beginning the very long journey that is reading the unabridged (and also steam coming off the 1200+ pages “mature”) Count of Monte Cristo.

I also read some Dorothy Sayers, a couple of memoirs by a 1940s housewife and Winnie the Pooh.  I read all of Narnia, and The Last Unicorn, which is truly magical.

I’m still working on Maria Montessori’s pedagogy.

I have also been reading some demographic analysis stuff, apparently looking into the increase in college education among women and how it was changing their family having patterns was all the rage and then it suddenly wasn’t, around the time they became a majority of all births (the 80s).

And I haven’t done more than glance at it yet, but I have a very interesting book about sorcery, the occult and Christianity and how the neo-pagans of the late 19th century were not creating something new and weird, but echoing long standing occult practices that had been aggressively hidden by Victorians wishing to represent an unbroken line of faithful and untainted Christian practice.  It’s actually about how much of this was carried over the sea by those English and Germans who “founded the country”, but it gets into backstory about the occult in Western Europe up until the 19th century.

I thought I hadn’t been reading much this year, but I haven’t even covered a quarter of what I’ve gotten through and I started on a couple other books.  I guess the Dumas being soooooo long makes it seem like I’ve barely read more than two books in six months, but it’s nowhere near that bad.

Why I didn’t finish Somewhither by John C. Wright.

To be quite brief, I got to the Superwife section early in the book (less than 20% in) and I was done.  I couldn’t keep going much further.  The book is written in mostly teenage boy first person, which I had read from other non-spoiler reviews was a bit rough going in the early chapters, but that was not my real obstacle.  It was the teenage boy recalling his mother, who was Donna Reed (without the housekeepers of course) melded with mannish interests like woodcarving hot rods.  And also melded with the rude homeschool parent caricature growling at school officials coming over politely and reasonably.

It was too fantastical for me, and the book is a fantasy novel.

Urban dads in the 1950s did a surprising amount of childcare.

It looks as though the dad pitching in with the kids and housework is not quite as recent as people, particularly on the right, often claim.  While GI fathers show decent evidence of being hands-off, it appears things had changed for the fathers who came along a decade or so later.

During the 1950s and early 1960s, there were a lot of excited demographers studying the lower age of marriage and relatively higher fertility, and thrilled at the idea that a new pattern of family growth even in urban areas via natural increase might be the new normal.

One of those studies was done in two parts in 1957 and 1961 and it involved over 1100 white collar and blue collar couples in the eight largest major metropolitan areas at the time. It involved white couples who’d had their second child in 1956.  They further narrowed the group with technical requirements beyond the scope of this post, but the upshot was that they got some interesting data that Catholics, Jews and Protestants alike all wanted 2-4 children (90% across the board) and less than 10% wanted 5+.

Another interesting detail of this study is the post title.  Many of the mothers were still housewives, but fully 2/3 of them could count on their husbands to take care of the children as a norm.  Fully 1/3 of these urban women mostly living in apartments could also count on someone who wasn’t their husband (and by definition for the study not one of their own children) to help them around the house as a norm.

If one includes “sometimes”, 85% of the 1100+ wives could expect some recurring level of help with the kids from their husbands.  And including “sometimes”, it was 60% of those wives.  So by 1957, the husband was already viewed as a major source of help by urban wives.

They did a follow-up study covering whether a third (or) child had been born, and I haven’t gotten far into that one yet.  But I found the detail about help that the wife felt she could count on reliably very relevant to 60(!) years later.

Source: Family Growth in Metropolitan America, 1961, Princeton University Press.

Gene Stratton-Porter and me, At The Foot of the Rainbow

In the same year (1907), Gene Stratton-Porter published a romance, the one I’ll discuss in a bit, and the first of her “pure” nature books, What I Have Done With Birds.  This was the start of splitting out her nature writing from her romantic novels by publishing them in alternating years.  The fact that she talked publishers into doing this remains a topic of discussion in many biographical essays about her.

But right now, I’ll just save that for another day and get back to At The Foot of the Rainbow.  This is a slightly obscure early book of hers, before her more famous works which primarily featured heroines rather than heroes.

It’s about two lifelong friends and the woman between them, but it’s not quite the usual love triangle.  It is weirdly manospherian, with the husband of the wife being a chronic drunkard who loves to party and not work very hard supporting his wife (who nevertheless continues getting pregnant with his ultimately stillborn children through the years) and the husband’s childhood friend being an orbiter, always helping out and making sure the wife is taken care of.

The husband is straight up Bros before Brunhildes, with a couple major subplots demonstrating his concern about impressing random men rather than tending to his (at one point quite) sick wife.  It’s a short read, it ends mostly happily (childhood friend gets to marry the wife after all, while she’s still young enough to have some live babies with him–this is stated outright as pretty likely), but it was a little weird to run into some of those tropes in a book a hundred plus years old.  I guess more fodder for the ever more demonstrable claim that the manosphere offers nothing new regarding insights into human nature except a hilariously foreshortened jargon to describe old patterns.

But moving away from that aspect of things, the book is notable for some details Porter moved away from as her writing developed and matured.  She writes the two friends (Danny the orbiter and Jimmy the husband) and the wife (Mary) as speaking with very heavy Irish accents.  A good comparison is what Margaret Mitchell did with Prissy’s dialogue in particular in Gone With the Wind.  As ever with Porter, though, the goal was authenticity.  She wanted to represent the speech purely as she could.  She moved away from this in later novels, toning it down.  There was something of a craze for “authentic” regional work in heavy dialect until the 1910s or so.  I remember growing up with the impression that it was only black dialects that this authenticity craze covered, but that isn’t the case.

This short novel, more a novella, is also the only time Gene Stratton-Porter spent a lot of time on male friendship.  Subsequent novels don’t feature two adult men in friendship over the years the same way.  She does write some novels with heroes, but they never have close male friends ever again.

I should perhaps have done this from the beginning with discussing her work, but here is an excerpt of the nature writing in this little tale of male friendship.  It’s early on, when the two are hunting muskrats to skin and sell.

Dannie’s gaze followed Jimmy’s retreating figure until he climbed the bank, and was lost in the woods, and the light in his eyes was the light of love. He glanced at the sky, and hurried down the river. First across to Jimmy’s side to gather his rats and reset his traps, then to his own. But luck seemed to have turned, for all the rest of Dannie’s were full, and all of Jimmy’s were empty. But as he was gone, it was not necessary for Dannie to slip across and fill them, as was his custom when they worked together. He would divide the rats at skinning time, so that Jimmy would have just twice as many as he, because Jimmy had a wife to support. The last trap of the line lay a little below the curve of Horseshoe Bend, and there Dannie twisted the tops of the bags together, climbed the bank, and struck across Rainbow Bottom. He settled his load to his shoulders, and glanced ahead to choose the shortest route. He stopped suddenly with a quick intake of breath.

“God!” he cried reverently. “Hoo beautifu’ are Thy works.”

The ice-covered Wabash circled Rainbow Bottom like a broad white frame, and inside it was a perfect picture wrought in crystal white and snow shadows. The blanket on the earth lay smoothly in even places, rose with knolls, fell with valleys, curved over prostrate logs, heaped in mounds where bushes grew thickly, and piled high in drifts where the wind blew free. In the shelter of the bottom the wind had not stripped the trees of their loads as it had those along the river. The willows, maples, and soft woods bent almost to earth with their shining burden; but the stout, stiffly upstanding trees, the oaks, elms, and cottonwoods defied the elements to bow their proud heads. While the three mighty trunks of the great sycamore in the middle looked white as the snow, and dwarfed its companions as it never had in summer; its wide-spreading branches were sharply cut against the blue background, and they tossed their frosted balls in the face of Heaven. The giant of Rainbow Bottom might be broken, but it never would bend. Every clambering vine, every weed and dried leaf wore a coat of lace-webbed frostwork. The wind swept a mist of tiny crystals through the air, and from the shelter of the deep woods across the river a Cardinal whistled gayly.

 

Pollyanna’s hard, mature edges were surprising.

I always wondered what the original book of Pollyanna was like and so I recently read it.  Unlike the reviews describe and what I’ve seen of the movie, the book is very sophisticated and mature for a kid’s tale.

The Glad game (trying to find the gladness in some terrible situation, the core of the book) is more about clinging to God when all else has deserted you than some kind of in-born natural good cheer about everything, which is kind of how Pollyanna is presented and what her name’s become a byword for.  That’s what Pollyanna’s father was doing when he taught it to her as they stood looking at a missionary barrel with crutches in it instead of a doll, after many barrels with almost literal trash in them.  Pollyanna’s life is brutally hard and her quest to find the light in it is what inspires the rest of the town to suck up their own problems and look for any bit of gladness.

Weirdly I looked up reviews of this book and nobody mentioned the strong anti-divorce message, in which Pollyanna, an 11yo girl, keeps a wife who accepts gifts from other men from divorcing her drinking, cursing, brawling husband and possibly abandoning her children through the Glad Game and also just socializing with the couple’s kids. The husband and wife decide they need to both stop their sketchy, trashy ways and stick closer to each other. Pollyanna is quite aware of what’s going on without anyone having to break it down for her.  She was a missionary’s kid out in California.  She probably saw quite a bit, if the adults around her in her New England small town thought about it.  That’s what I mean when I say it’s surprisingly mature.

I did not count like Pollyanna’s preacher father did, but knowing that there probably are 800 verses commanding us to be glad and rejoice had me crying with joy.  Something to do one of these days, anyhow.

There’s also some very sophisticated and cynical material about Pollyanna’s options as an orphan, and again, I continue to be set down about my preconceptions of “old” books, particularly old kids’ books.

25% of first marriages end in divorce, not 50%

I got the Shaunti Feldhahn divorce data book much sooner than expected.  I haven’t had a chance to read it all the way through yet, but she is using census stats, so isn’t just making up stuff.  That said, the 25% number is an estimate derived from taking widows out of the data on first marriages where the person is still married to their first spouse.  Otherwise, the number is 72% of first marriages with first spouse.

The 50% number was a projection based on trends at the time it was formulated, and even then it was 40-50%.

Anyone saying likelihood of marriage ending in divorce is 50% is not looking at how many ever-married people have divorced.

What did happen, and she notes this, is that before the 1970s divorce spikes, marriages remained intact 85% of the time.  That dropped to 70-72% (remember, this includes intact marriages where death ended the marriage, otherwise it’s closer to 75%) by 1985 and stayed there.  Interested parties might look at that stability and contrast it with fertility declines over the same period of time.

The interesting thing to me is that a 25% divorce rate is miserably bad, but there is enough data to show it’s remained constant over several marriage cohorts.  And it’s, well, it’s half of 50%.  I haven’t gotten to the part where she compares by age bracket, but that should be interesting.

 

The shortcomings of Octavia Butler’s Patternist series, part 1

My perfectionism is getting in the way of completing the book review I wanted to post first, so instead it’s a walk through the speculative fiction wilds with one of the original black authors in that realm, Octavia Butler.  This is a critical overview of her secret psychics series, not a book review, so there will be spoilers galore.  The series is full of bizarre biology and odd sexual situations, so I can’t recommend it, I am simply discussing it as I have read it and find it interesting now that I’ve had children, as it’s one of the few popular science fiction series to normalize (for a broad definition of that) having children and family ties.

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