I've recently been riveted by Pat Barker's highly acclaimed Regeneration trilogy about the first world war, which I somehow missed when the books were first published in the 90s -- I'd majored in History at university, mostly of the world wars and, having moved on to teaching small children, I suppose I was all warred out. (You don't know conflict until you have tried to get twenty five-year-olds to sit down and be quiet all at the same time.) I imagine these texts, which are a blend of fiction and non-fiction, are used widely in college history classes today. If they aren't, they should be. They center on William Rivers, a real person -- a noted anthropologist and psychiatrist who treated soldiers, including poet Siegfried Sassoon, for shell-shock. Many of them suffered from fascinating hysterical illnesses such as muteness and paralysis, brought on by prolonged terror.
There aren't many babies in Regeneration and The Ghost Road, the first and last in the series and the two books I've read so far -- they focus mainly on the experiences of men. Interestingly, Barker wrote many books about working class women before turning to this topic and it was only then that she began to receive accolades. I'm planning to search out these earlier books immediately as I'm guessing they may be just as good, if not as appealing to the usual male book critic.
The following description is taken from one of Rivers's memories of his time before the war studying headhunters in Melanesia:
A thread-like wail from the baby Njiru held in his hands, one palm cradling the head, the other the buttocks, a morself of black-eyed misery squirming in between.
Her name was Kwini and her mother was dead. Worse than that, she'd died in childbirth, which made her an evil spirit, likely to attempt to reclaim her child. The body had been dumped at sea, a bundle of rags strapped between the breasts to fool the mother into thinking she had her baby with her but still ... Kwini's failure to thrive was attributed to her mother's attempts to get her back.
She certainly wasn't thriving: skin hung in loose folds from her thighs. Rivers looked round the circle at her grandmother's wrinkled dugs, the flat chest of her nine-year-old sister, the highly developed pectoral muscles of her father. He asked what she was being fed on. Mashed up yams softened by spit was the answer. The tiny hands clawed the air as if she would wring life out of it.
Njiru passed the leaves he was holding several times between his legs and then, stretching to his full height, attached them to the rafters at the gable end, where the scare ghost shivered in the draught. "Come down and depart, you ghost, her mother; do not haunt this child and let her live."
"Will she live?" Rivers asked.
He had his own opinion, but wanted to know what Njiru would say. Njiru spread his hands.
On their way back to Narovo, Rivers questioned him about the ghosts of women who died in childbirth. This was not a rare form of death, since the custom was for women to give birth alone, and there was no tradition of midwifery. Such ghosts could not be named, he already knew that. In the genealogy they were referred to as evil spirits. It had startled him at first to be told quite casually that such and such a man had married "an evil spirit."
They were called tomate pa na savo --the ghosts of the confining house -- Njiru explained, and they were dreaded, since their chief aim was to ensure that as many other women as possible should die in that same way.
WARNING! Do not watch this book trailer with very small and/or easily frightened children! (I'm thinking, for example, of you, Kerry and Harriet. If you want to know why, read this old post about the time three-year-old Luke and I searched for mazes online and got rather more than we bargained for.)
Pat the Zombie is a parody for adults of the classic Pat the Bunny, which both our children have enjoyed. They've enjoyed it so much that we've gone on to buy Pat the Cat, Pat the Puppy and Bunny's Bath Time and we've read them all repeatedly. (I'll admit that in a moment of weakness I even purchased a different parody of the series called Pat the Husband, as a gag gift for David one Christmas, although I never gave it to him as bits of it turned out to be rather insulting.) And now Luke has put in a request for Pat the Zombie after watching the book trailer above, even though -- or perhaps especially because -- it terrified him. He is now six and fond of zombies. I think that bloodthirsty boys who remember reading the original are probably the best audience for this book. You can see some of the pages in the following video.
Now that I'm thinking of it, leave a comment if you want our copy of Pat the Husband. I'll choose a winner randomly if there's more than one.
Parodies of Children's Books is going to be a new feature here, randomly updated. As someone with her own idea for a parody kids' book (see my post Beckett for Babies), my interest was sparked again recently by the phenomenal success of Go the Fuck to Sleep.
Let's compare: Right now, Pat the Zombie is ranked #5,108 in Books on the Amazon Bestseller list while Go the Fuck to Sleep is currently #1. 490 people like PTZ on facebook while 9,783 like GTFTS. PTZ received a favourable review on boingboing.net as did, of course, GTFTS.
On April 23, I saw a link to Go the F**k to Sleep, a parody picture book, on Facebook and, as I am wont to do when something amuses me, I posted it on Crooked House. Now this is a tiny little personal website, averaging maybe four or five hundred hits a day. But in three days that post got around 7000 hits. The only time I ever got more hits than that was a couple of years ago when the reality show Jon & Kate Plus 8 featured Crooked House playhouses and ten thousand people came here by mistake through google while they were watching Kate hiss and spit through her teeth at Jon.
I thought the concept for the book was funny, yes, but I was perplexed by its popularity. If this little site was getting that much traffic from it, just imagine how many people were viewing it on large sites like boingboing or Cup of Joe, who featured it over the next couple of days. The book, not yet actually published, started climbing the ranks at Amazon and the New York Times remarked on its meteoric rise. (According to the Times, last June the author Adam Mansbach posted on Facebook to “Look out for my forthcoming children’s book, ‘Go the — to Sleep" and the reaction of his friends made him decide to turn his offhand joke into an actual book.)
Now I am an Amazon affiliate, which means that if someone clicks through to Amazon through a link on my site and buys something, I get a tiny percentage of that sale. Because my site is so small, this generally works out to me being able to afford to buy a couple of books or so for the kids every few months. After the frenzy of hits stopped, I noticed that of the thousands of people who visited here to see this book, eighteen of them purchased the book (or actually pre-ordered it, as again I must remark it has not yet technically been published). Eighteen! That has never happened before. Again, keep in mind that it's not the money I'll be rolling in that fascinates me -- I'll be making a few dollars out of this, perhaps 40 cents a copy -- it's the unpredictability of the book's sudden popularity. At that point, the book wasn't even due to be released until October. Th gleeful and surprised publisher, Akashic Books, has since moved the date up to June 14th.
Today, the book is the number one bestselling book on Amazon. This post on the New Yorker blog and this article in the Bay Citizen suggest that the popularity is due to the fact that a pdf of the book went viral. I think it was enough for the concept -- the title, that excellent cover image, one bit of verse -- to go viral. Macy Halford at the New Yorker says that bloggers who posted a verse from the book must have seen that pdf (which she rhapsodizes about). Perhaps they did -- but I got the sample verse straight from Amazon. I still haven't seen the pdf. And if I had, why would I, after enjoying the joke, then rush to buy the book? It's a joke. A joke that really resonates -- oh how it resonates!* -- but a joke nonetheless. After all, unlike at least some children's book parodies, this probably isn't one you will actually want to read with your children. Unless you want your two-year-old to tell the dolls at daycare to "go the fuck to sleep. " Many people, including Halford, have commented, however, that they plan to give it as a baby shower gift and I can certainly understand the temptation to do that. After all, everyone loves to terrify pregnant ladies. If not with frightening birth stories, why not with the suggestion she will soon be cursing at her darling newborn like a sailor?
*Pdf, schmdf. I'll hazard a guess that one reason this book is really resonating right now is that in addition to the normal difficulties infants and small children have falling sleep, much of North America is experiencing the springtime lengthening of the days, which makes falling asleep even more difficult than usual for kids and even more frustrating and exhausting than usual for their parents. Hmm, maybe someone should do a little research on whether frustrated and exhausted people spend more money on impulse purchases than well-rested ones...
Everyone tends to go a little crazy this time of year. The old man who lives next store starts chipping away all the ice and snow still left in his yard. Ladies in Vancouver decorate trees with yarn cherry blossoms.
Actually, the yarn blossom cherry tree (see photos here) is a Yarn Bombing project to highlight the writer-in-residence program at Kogawa house, the childhood home of author Joy Kogawa, whose family were interned in the second world war and whose home was expropriated. Via Sara O'Leary.
Seeing this pretty and old-fashioned One Line a Day: A Five-Year Memory Book makes me wonder if anyone is using twitter to write one tweet at the end of each day summing it up. Just one tweet -- no more allowed. Facebook could work like that, too. One status update summing up each day, no more. But both twitter and facebook seem much more ephemeral than a journal. Are all your tweets and status updates saved? If so, for how long?
My mother-in-law kept a five-year diary before she died -- I believe she faithfully jotted just one line or two about each day before she went to bed. And I know my father-in-law does -- he often surprises me with a comment about what we were doing on this day two or three years ago. This is particularly of interest when you have small children who seem to change so fast.
I've often thought of using something like My Quotable Kid: A Parents' Journal of Unforgettable Quotes but I already record almost everything interesting or amusing my children say either here or on my facebook page, which I know drives a lot of people nuts. But I'm even a sucker for the funny things other people's children say, which makes me the perfect audience for sites like My Kid Is Gifted.
Only a brain injury could make Martin Amis write for children. Yes, that's what he said. Children's book author and illustrator and cartoonist Patricia Storms had some fun imagining Amis as various characters from classic children's literature. You can read about his comment and see the rest of the cartoons here.
According to Alexandra Popoff, author of Sophia Tolstoy: A Biography, Leo Tolstoy's wife has been maligned by history. Popoff, who had access to a great deal of previously inaccessible archival materials, explains that it all stems from Tolstoy's final years, when he experienced a religious conversion that led him to renounce his marriage, his family, and his property (or try to). However much Tolstoy may have believed in his principles of poverty and chastity, this renunciation put his wife in a completely untenable position. Sophia was left to look after the couple's eight surviving children pretty much on her own. Clearly Tolstoy felt some responsibility to his family, because he kept waffling on property and money matters. Admittedly, Sophia kept fighting him on these -- who wouldn't, when she had eight children to feed, clothe, and educate? He also kept waffling on the matter of sex -- he kept sleeping with Sophia and then blaming the matronly woman for being a seductress. Tolstoy's most famous follower, Vladimir Chertkoff, managed to insinuate himself between the couple in Tolstoy's final years and ended up controlling his literary works after his death. Popoff argues that it is he who is most responsible for discrediting Sophia Tolstoy's character. This book is a must-read for anyone who is interested in Tolstoy, and really, anyone who is interested in the concept of marriage and women's historical role within it.
Tolstoy was a literary genius, to be sure, but he also must have been infuriating to be married to. Sophia was not only Tolstoy's muse, she was a tireless worker who devoted all her efforts to creating the proper environment for her husband to write in. She was Tolstoy's copyist and later his publisher. She managed his home and often his estate and related business matters. She made most of the childrearing and educational decisions on her own. (At one point, when she asked about appropriate education for one of their teenage sons, her husband brushed her off with a comment that he should become a street sweeper or the like because of his own religious beliefs against taking part in a money-based economy.) Sophia gave birth to thirteen children, although she wanted to stop after seven or so -- but Tolstoy wouldn't allow birth control. She breastfed all these babies herself at Tolstoy's insistence even though it never became easy for her (she often developed mastitis) and most women of her position employed wet nurses. And she watched six of her children die. Exhausted and completely emotionally and physically spent, at times Sophia wanted to end these pregnancies:
By now, she was certain of her [twelfth] pregnancy. As she wrote her sister, she felt like "screaming of despair and rage."
Told the news, Tolstoy wrote he was glad they would have a child; Sophia's unhappiness came from her revolté. It would be easier for her and people around her if she assumed a more accepting attitude: "Why can't you surrender?" Sophia thought his position was morally superior and felt crushed. "If I were bad before, now I am loathsome! And if you were good, you have become so much better!" Her pregnancy explained her abnormal state, Tolstoy replied: "I know, I've heard, that it's terribly oppressive for the soul."
Meanwhile, Sophia attempted to induce a miscarriage: she took scalding baths and jumped from a dresser. To a nanny who tried to talk her out of it, she said that Tolstoy considered leaving her and their children. When her attempts failed, she approached a midwife in Tula, asking for an abortion. The midwife, afraid of exposure, refused: she would perform an abortion for someone else, but not for Countess Tolstoy.
At times, Sophia Tolstoy wanted to end her own life.
You can read a brief excerpt from the biography here.