Monday, September 3, 2012

Five Books to Read on Labor Day

 (Frank Dicey (1838-1888), The Novel: A Lady in a Garden Reading a Book. This is how I'm spending Labor Day.)

I've listed these books in order from most to least depressing, so you can pick your level of emotional intensity. Or you could read them all, starting with the saddest book and working your way up to light fiction, like a wine tasting. Or you could not read any of them and just enjoy your day off, if you're lucky enough to have one.

1.  Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens. 


Today is a good day to read books about people who don't have the benefit of unions, child labor laws, or worker safety regulations, and Oliver Twist is the best of those books. There are plenty of other books about child labor -- The Water-Babies, At the Little Brown House, Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, and so forth. Usually the children in these books do things like mending clothes, picking crops on a farm, and selling flowers, but sometimes they are apprentices, shoeshine boys, or chimney-sweeps. Then a rich old gentleman usually appears and adopts the children, because apparently in the late 19th/early 20th century there was a never-ending supply of kindly, childless millionaires. But anyway, no other literary children have it as rough as Oliver Twist, I'm pretty sure. He starts off his career picking oakum at a workhouse. That's picking apart old ropes so that their fibers can be reused, and it was so painful and tedious a job that it was given only to prisoners and poor people. After that, Oliver almost becomes a chimney-sweep and a cabin boy, and finally ends up as the abused apprentice of an undertaker. And that's before the real terrors of his life begin. So, yes, this is the most depressing book on today's list. 

 (Women picking oakum in a London workhouse, photo from the National Archives, via this site.)


(This short story was first published in Putnam's Monthly, 1853.)

Okay, maybe I should find this story more depressing than Oliver Twist, but I don't. It's about Bartleby, a man who refuses to behave as if he's in one of the books I was just talking about. He's poor, and poor people in these books are supposed to work hard, do good, and try to be part of human society. But Bartleby refuses to do any of those things. When the rich old gentleman shows up to save him, all ready to deliver the happy ending that this kind of story requires, Bartleby refuses that too. I love this story because everyone in it is trying so hard to make their story into an Oliver Twist or a Five Little Peppers, and Bartleby just destroys all of their efforts. Also, I love the office life in this story. It takes place in a law office with three clerks: Turkey, who gets drunk every day during his lunch hour; Nippers, who is bilious and eternally uncomfortable; and Bartleby, the weird guy who keeps saying he "prefers not to" do anything. I feel like I've worked in that office. And there is a child worker in this story too, a 12-year-old office boy called Ginger Nut because the clerks send him out for ginger nuts all the time. (That's ginger snaps, right?)

"Also, they sent Ginger Nut very frequently for that peculiar cake -- small, flat, round, and very spicy -- after which he had been named by them. Of a cold morning when business was dull, Turkey would gobble up scores of these cakes, as if they were mere wafers -- indeed they sell them at the rate of six or eight for a penny -- the scrape of his pen blending with the crunching of the crisp particles in his mouth. Of all the fiery afternoon blunders and flurried rashnesses of Turkey, was his once moistening a ginger-cake between his lips, and clapping it on to a mortgage for a seal."

I might make some ginger snaps today in honor of Bartleby.

 (Illustration from Bartleby of the Dead Letter Office, Bartleby's former workplace.)

3.  A Girl in Ten Thousand, by L.T. Meade.


Remember L.T. Meade's book about women having the right to go to college and learn Greek and Latin? This is her book, published in 1896, about women having the right to train as nurses and get jobs. If you've been reading Dickensian accounts of work, this book will cheer you up. You might also end up wanting to be a nurse, like Effie. Effie is the main character of A Girl in Ten Thousand, and she wants to be a nurse like her friend Dorothy Fraser. But Effie's father, a doctor, doesn't approve. He thinks that girls should be "the blessing of the home" (ugh) and also that "lady girls" (ugh again) are too delicate to clean hospital floors and wash dishes. Dorothy proves him wrong by being an incredible super-hero-like nurse:

"She crossed the road with a firm step, carrying a little bag in her hand.
'Well, Dr. Staunton,' she said, 'I hear you have got a case for me.'
The doctor gazed at her a moment without speaking.
'Bless me,' he exclaimed; 'it is a comfort to see a steady-looking person like you in the place. And so you are really willing to help me in this emergency?'
'Why, of course,' said Dorothy. 'I am a nurse.'
'But you don't know the nature of the case yet!'
'I don't see that that makes any difference; but will you tell me?'
'And it is your holiday,' pursued the doctor, gazing at her. 'You don't take many holidays in the year I presume?'
'I have had a week, and I am quite rested,' said Dorothy. 'I always hold my life in readiness,' she continued, looking up at him with a flash out of her dark blue eyes. 'Anywhere, at any time, when I am called, I am ready.'"

(This is the first graduating class of nurses from Staten Island University Hospital in 1896, the same year A Girl in Ten Thousand was published. They look like some tough lady girls.)

 4.  Brewster's Millions, by George Barr McCutcheon.


Today is a good day to read frothy, escapist novels about people whose problem is that they have too much money. I saw the movie version of this book in the 80s, but until recently I didn't even know that the movie was based on a book. But it is, and the book was written in 1902, and it is very different from the movie. I also found out that ten movies have been based on Brewster's Millions. Clearly there is something incredibly appealing about the story: the guy who must spend a fortune in a year in order to inherit an even larger fortune. The novel is worth reading just to see what sorts of things you could spend a million dollars on in 1902. Monty Brewster, the young man who inherits the fortune, ends up throwing a lavish party with lavender orchids, gold plates, four Monets to decorate the walls, and a ceiling of white, yellow, and green glass with electric lights behind it. He buys a car called the "Green Juggernaut," he hires a Viennese orchestra basically for every occasion, and he charters a yacht to sail all of his friends around the world. And yet all of his attempts to spend money end in disaster. Not only that, but he keeps accidentally making more money. Poor guy.
(The Dinner Party, Jules-Alexandre Grun, 1911.)

5.  Uneasy Money, by P.G. Wodehouse.


Another great frothy novel about a man who has too much money. This one is from 1916 and is about Lord Dawlish, a nice guy with a title and just enough money to live happily at his club, hang out with his friends, and play golf incessantly. (P.G. Wodehouse heroes tend to achieve Judd-Apatow-movie levels of lovable immaturity.) But Lord Dawlish doesn't have enough money for a huge estate and lots of servants, and his fiancee resents that bitterly. Then Lord Dawlish inherits a fortune from a stranger. He worries that the money should have gone to the stranger's rightful heirs, and he decides to go to their farm on Long Island, which is when everything gets complex and farcical and hilarious. I love P.G. Wodehouse's long passages of complete ridiculousness, like this letter from one of Lord Dawlish's friends, a dancer who keeps exotic pets:

"Things came to a head this morning at breakfast. Clarence, my snake, has the cutest way of climbing up the leg of the table and looking at you pleadingly in the hope that you will give him a soft-boiled egg, which he adores. He did it this morning, and no sooner had his head appeared above the table than Algie, with a kind of sharp wail, struck him a violent blow on the nose with a teaspoon.

Then he turned to me, very pale, and said: 'Pauline, this must end! The time has come to speak up. A nervous, highly-strung man like myself should not, and must not, be called upon to live in a house where he is constantly meeting snakes and monkeys without warning. Choose between me and --'

We had got as far as this when Eustace, the monkey, who I didn't know was in the room at all, suddenly sprang on to his back. He is very fond of Algie."

Not only is Uneasy Money about money and class, but it's also about all sorts of jobs. Lord Dawlish is jobless and anxious to stay that way, but the other characters in the book work at selling rubber chickens, writing newspaper articles, barefoot dancing (barefoot dancing was a thing?), painting pictures, dancing in the chorus, and beekeeping. All of which are perfectly valid jobs. And that's why this book, of all the ones on my list, is the perfect Labor Day book.

(This illustration from Uneasy Money shows the guy who sells rubber chickens. Apparently they inflate when you blow into them? I assume everyone in 1916 had one of these things.)

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