In Brief

220px-Holbrook_Jackson_1913Recent discovery: Holbrook Jackson, English bibliophile (1874-1948).

Just to give you a taste, he writes, in “The Uses of Books,” about discovering, while visiting an acquaintance, a false bookcase that was actually a door to a cupboard packed with cigars.

… I am not sure that he was not making as worthy a use of books as many whose pretensions approach more nearly to reality. But, at the same time, it would have been less gracious, but more strictly in keeping with the tradition of honesty, if he had kept real books on his shelves and consumed them as cigar lighters. The latter method of dealing with books would confer a double blessing upon men, in the first instance by getting rid of a lot of unnecessary old books, and in the second by providing additional royalties for the authors of new ones. And the Goddess of Nicotine, one might imagine, would be more readily propitiated by the gift of fire: as the Muses, with their traditional incense.

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When you run out of Jane Austen and the Brontës, try Mrs. Gaskell

Three more books to discuss for the 2015 Reading Challenge.

I have to start with three quotes:

[Mrs. Forrester explained] … in her day the only use people made of four-syllabled words was to teach how they should be spelt.

… Miss Pole began a long congratulation to Miss Matty that so far they had escaped marriage, which she noticed always made people credulous to the last degree; indeed, she thought it argued great natural credulity in a woman if she could not keep herself from being married…

[Miss Matty’s response to Mary Smith, after Miss Pole has left] … don’t be frightened by Miss Pole from being married. I can fancy it may be a very happy state, and a little credulity helps one on through life very smoothly…

Elizabeth_GaskellThese are from Cranford, perhaps Elizabeth Gaskell’s best known novel, thanks to a 2007 BBC series based on this and two novellas. Given the popularity of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, and Charles Dickens as sources for television series, it’s no surprise to find screenwriters drawing on Gaskell’s stories. In them can be found great historical issues — industrialization, labor unions, religious dissension, the decline of the aristocracy — as well as romance (both successful and failed) and strong female characters.

220px-North_and_SouthI started with North and South (Challenge category: Traditional Romance), an exploration of what happens when a pastor uproots his family from the idyllic countryside of southern England to relocate in the industrial midlands of the “North”. Milton, their new town in the county of Darkshire, contains several cotton mills. Milton is based on Gaskell’s experiences living in Manchester. According to Wikipedia, in 1860 three midland English counties had almost 2200 mills, with a about 360,000 workers in total; the number of power looms increased from about 2400 in 1803 to 100,000 just thirty years later.

Once settled in Milton, Margaret Hale finds herself clashing with one of the mill owners, John Thornton. Class is the first area of conflict — there are no ladies or gentlemen of equal rank in Milton, and Margaret fumbles her way into friendships she would never have considered in the South. She becomes acquainted with a mill worker and his daughter, and learns their point of view as a strike looms. What’s admirable about Margaret is that she never hesitates to speak up against Thornton’s views, but she also is willing to listen. She truly wants to understand what people believe, and her interest, although considered by some to be “unwomanly”, is what eventually draws admiration from those she meets.

North and South is considered a social novel, but it’s also a romance: not just between Margaret and her eventual husband, but between this young woman and an area of England she never expected to love. Her appreciative memories of her home in the south remain strong, but given the opportunity to resettle there, she declines. Milton and Darkshire, mills and unions, industry and action — these are what she learns to prefer.

cranfordCranford (Challenge category: Author with my initials) is a different kind of book altogether. Funny, yet with hints of romance gone awry, it features widows, spinsters, and young women. Men haven’t altogether disappeared — there are farmers and carpenters and other laborers — but it’s the world of these women that Gaskell wants to reveal to us: genteel women of diminished means, who must scrimp but manage to be cheerful about it. They meet for tea and card games, share gossip (but never scandal), express shock at any Cranfordite who misbehaves, and support each other throughout. Gaskell gives us a world something like what we find in Austen — paintings on “a little bit of ivory two inches wide”.

Equally detailed, while expanding to a few more inches of ivory, is My Lady Ludlow (Challenge category: Book more than 100 years old). A portrait of an aging woman who wants her world to remain unchanged, this novella is more a social novel than is Cranford. The Lady of the title, a widow maintaining a standard of living despite financial strain, firmly believes despite the evidence around her that old money is better than new money, and that character is set by family background. Thus, she does not want the poor to be educated (she believes that, without equal instruction in how to use education with honor, educating the masses would result only in something too much like the French Revolution), she must pretend that illegitimate children do not exist, and her inferiors must, by virtue of their position in relation to hers, feel honored to be able to serve her.

This description makes Lady Ludlow sound like a tyrant, but she isn’t. She’s kind, generous, and notices what’s happening even when she shouldn’t. She eventually begins to bend: recognizing that a “Baptist baker from Birmingham” might be someone worth knowing and admitting that educating the masses might not result in chaos.

In each of these novels, women play crucial roles in forcing changes that improve people’s lives. Margaret Hale makes John Thornton see his workers as people and not just “hands”; Miss Matty grows to understand that her maid might actually want to get married, and is the first in her circle to allow her maid to have “followers”; the young narrator of My Lady Ludlow helps the older woman accept and make use of the changing world around her.

It’s always a pleasure to discover a new author, and Gaskell — most of whose works are available on the internet — has much to offer.

Janeite Deb’s excellent overview of Gaskell, including a comparison with Austen, can be found here. A lovely discussion from The Guardian of Cranford and related novels used for the BBC series can be found here.

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Falling behind


Long Island Sound, low tide.

It’s no surprise, but I find it difficult to get anything done in the summer. The vast expanse of seemingly free time ahead of me lulls me into inaction — that is, the kind of quiet action that many see as a waste of time — that is, reading.

So, although I’m falling behind with my work and Camp NaNo projects (more on these in a separate post), I’m way ahead on my reading.

Remember that 2015 Reading Challenge — a book a week, meeting various criteria? Well, it’s week 27, and I’ve read 32 books, with number 33 about to hit the “done” list. Here are some of the highlights:

Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet satisfies 2 *categories*. The first novel in this 2000-page volume, The Jewel in the Crown involves *a love triangle*, and the final three ought to do for a *trilogy*. You need strength to commit to a story that starts small — that love triangle in 1942 British India — then spirals out to cover the history of the Raj, race, class, World War II in eastern Asia, and the appalling violence in 1947 as British India partitioned into India and Pakistan. You also need patience, as Scott’s Rashomon-like story retells, from different points of view, basic plotlines: a rape, a vendetta, a suicide. The retelling rarely adds insight. What it does add, however, is weight to each act of violence, making each stand for the larger violence resulting from centuries of British rule in the Indian sub-continent.

Richard Hughes’ A High Wind in Jamaica, by *an author I’ve never read before*. Put this along side Lord of the Flies, and you’ll never think of “innocent” children again.

Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley, which *became a movie* in 1941. Lovely, sad, and, since I’ve seen the film, impossible to read without hearing the actors’ voices.

Pioneer Girl, by *favorite author* Laura Ingalls Wilder, is the first version of the Little House books. She and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, tried repeatedly to publish it, but only now has it come out, with annotations, photographs, and letters to supplement Wilder’s text. I had to wait a while for my copy to arrive — the publisher didn’t expect the demand to be so high.

Enough with the time-wasting. I hope to write a few words today on my WIP, so I better get going.

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Bits of info

220px-Common_snipe_fencepostSo, those birds that I thought were plovers are actually snipes, looking very much like the little fellow on the left. When I walk down the road that borders their nesting grounds, one or two will land in front of me and peep with distressed desperation to lead me away from their chicks.

searchI was right about the ospreys. Yesterday I saw a couple diving for fish. One was successful but not the other. When they fly back with their catch, it’s always facing forward, looking like it has hitched a ride.

700+ words written yesterday. My tent mates and I all made a slow start, but today we’re determined to do better. For this project, my chapters are short — brief scenes presented in 2-4 pages. This makes the writing a bit like doing power laps: a spurt of effort, and then a short breather before the next one.

Protagonist’s name is Calvin Callaghan Calhoun. Too much?

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Camp NaNo begins

tent-06.jpgI’m in, my bunk is organized, my wash kit stored in the showers.

My tent is just a few feet from a beach on Long Island Sound, where a sail boat’s mooring light marks its position. Further out, buoys and a lighthouse point to the safest route for vessels heading east or west.

A storm just blew through, thunder and lightning punctuating each tent-mate’s arrival. Thunder still rumbles above, but the rain has stopped and the sky gradually clears. Plovers cheep and pipe, and three sets of osprey parents have begun the day’s fishing to feed their hatchlings. My binoculars have never seen so much use.

Today’s goal is small, just a couple of pages, but enough to make me feel I can ignore the fascinating campgrounds and discover the plot that’s lurking at the back of my mind.

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Revving up for a busy summer


Signed up for Camp NaNoWrimo in July, to work on Oklahoma project, and actively querying agents with most recent fantasy MS.

The summer is already looking too short!

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Sherman Alexie on sad books

banned booksIn a 2011 Wall Street Journal blog post, Sherman Alexie explains why YA books that address real issues of violence, death, sexuality, and other horrors need to be available for teen readers.

Alexie was responding to an earlier WSJ article, by Meghan Cox Gurdon, decrying the prevalence of “dark” themes in YA lit and positing a troubling dichotomy:

This is an old dialectic—purity vs. despoliation, virtue vs. smut—but for families with teenagers, it is also everlastingly new. 

While I find myself (gasp!) agreeing with two of Gurdon’s points (books for teens are more explicitly violent and sexual than they used to be, and parents ought to be aware of what books their children read — as well as what shows or films they watch, and what video games they play), and while I will probably never read most of the books she references, I want to argue with her analysis of the options.

61NrUg95p1LGurdon doesn’t mention Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, a bleak novel of racism and child abuse set in the late 1940s that I’m sure she would qualify as a novel of despoliation (it’s been frequently challenged as a book of “child pornography”). “It does not end happily,” as Gurdon would put it. Cruelty, incest, rape, violence, racism, sexuality — Morrison doesn’t flinch from the lives she’s portraying. Yet the book is beautifully written, with the precise and poetic language we’ve come to expect from Morrison, and with characters who feel real even in their most troubled moments. Would I want my child to read it? Yes, but I’d want to read it with her, to be an informed listener if she wants to talk about what happens to Pecola Breedlove and the other characters. I don’t expect this book to teach how to “deal with horrors”; few of the characters use successful strategies for getting through life. The “lessons” of this book are much larger, too complex to put into a quick summary. They grow from the consequences of a long history of slavery and racism into a web of failed relationships and hopeless self-images that traps each character.

This is something Gurdon doesn’t recognize: great literature will often be troubling and end unhappily, but that isn’t where its value lies. Think Oliver Twist, Jane Eyre, Oedipus Rex, Moby Dick, Romeo and Juliet. Yes, of course such literature is less explicit in its sexual references, but the violence is as vivid and graphic as anything in current YA lit. But that’s not the point. These are good books, “classic novels”, because the writing is good.

So, where’s the problem with current YA lit? It may lie in an idealization of innocent childhood, or in a yearning for a blissful ignorance of the awfulness many people must face. I don’t think Gurdon wants to deny the existence of evil in the world, and she absolutely does not imply that good literature can’t also include scenes of violence and sexuality. She may just be taking on the problem of bad writing.

And we know there’s plenty of that out there.

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