Tuesday, 30 January 2007

Dr. Dolittle's Voyages Through Time

Although I have read the very first Newbery Medal winner, The Story of Mankind, by Hendrik Willem van Loon (and am, er, working on the review), it was the reading of 1923’s Newbery Award winner, Hugh Lofting’s The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, that made me feel as though I’d really begun on my Newbery review project. Perhaps this is due to the fact that it’s fiction while The Story of Mankind is non-fiction. No matter how readable The Story of Mankind was, it still made me feel like a child dutifully eating her literary vegetables in order to get to the dessert. For The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle is definitely dessert. Actually, perhaps it’s more accurate to say Dr. Dolittle is pure candy. Even the illustrations in my library edition have a certain confectionary quality — everything is in bright bubblegum colours of pink and blue and red, the shapes are round, the lines soft, the characters delectably chubby.

Novels are usually as indelibly time-stamped by the psychology of their era as pre-computerized library cards used to be. Victorian novels were generally stern and spoke of morals and duty; today’s novels are about personal growth and personal problems (and those often of a nature a Victorian would blush to hear acknowledged). Dr. Dolittle is very much a novel of the nineteen twenties, with a twenties spirit of irrepressible optimism, fun, and adventure.

The story’s narrator is a small, animal-mad boy named Tommy Stubbins who meets the famous Dr. Dolittle. Dr. Dolittle is a naturalist who travels all over the world and has learned to speak to animals in their own languages, although he is frustrated in his attempt to learn the language of the shellfish. Dr. Doolittle’s home is a wonderful menagerie of animals, and it is kept by a perfect duck of a housekeeper (yes, literally). Tommy Stubbins manages to convince his parents to let him live, study and travel with Dr. Dolittle, and he and Dr. Dolittle (and a dog named Jip, a parrot named Polynesia, and and an African prince named Bumpo) voyage together around the world to the floating Spidermonkey Island.

A twenties-era exuberance permeates this book. This was a decade in which people believed that dramatic self-improvement could come from the constant repetition of the mantra “Every day in every way I know I am getting better”. Dr. Dolittle doesn’t know how to navigate or sail a ship, but he always gets safely to wherever he wants to go, even when shipwrecked. He can get a friend acquitted for murder in a courtroom scene more dramatic and sensational than the Law & Order writers can ever dream of staging, and tame five mad bulls at once. Though he hates war he can fight heroically and effectively in the war between the two Spidermonkey Island Indian tribes (referred to as the Great War, involving injuries but no deaths, and followed by a seemingly endless peace – the twenties strike again). And when Dr. Dolittle’s ready to return to good old England (this is a very English novel for an American award winner), he and his entourage voyage homewards across the sea floor inside a transparent snail shell. And yes, he can ultimately learn to speak the language of the shellfish.

The age of this novel shows itself in more regrettable ways as well. Even when I know it’s not at all fair or useful to critique an old literary work by contemporary standards of what constitutes racism, it did make me wince when the African prince, Bumpo Khabooboo, Crown Prince of Jolliginki, appeared on the scene, announcing that he’d left the Oxford "quadrilateral" because the shoes and the algebra they tried to force upon him there hurt his feet and his head, respectively. Also cringeworthy was the depiction of the Spidermonkey Indians, who are described as "child-like" and who, under Dr. Dolittle’s tutelage, progress from the discovery of fire to the construction of an opera house in something less than two years. They gratefully crown Dr. Dolittle king, and it is with a guilty reluctance that he eventually leaves them to return to England and his "more important" work among the animals. And I really doubt it would possible now to publish a child's novel in which a young boy meets a strange man in a rainstorm and accepts the man's invitation to go home with him and "get those wet clothes off".

I keep calling The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle a twenties novel, but the more I consider its spirit of limitless possibilities, the more I begin to realize that it does, as all lasting works of fiction must, touch modern chords as well. Perhaps we’ve lost our sense that we could collectively be wise enough to permanently end war, and we don’t have that particular brand of happy-go-lucky optimism, but we’re still optimistic. Our faith has undergone a seismic shift and currently is rooted in our ability to solve problems through technology, rather than in wisdom and goodwill. But optimism, like wanderlust, like the age-old child’s fantasy of escaping parental control and school, and like the fantastic appeal of travelling in a transparent snail shell, is still very much with us, and so The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle is as well.

Wednesday, 17 January 2007

True Romance and Elinor Glyn

I decided to read Addicted to Romance: The Life and Adventures of Elinor Glyn, by Joan Hardwick, because I was intrigued by the descriptions of Elinor Glyn in The Viceroy’s Daughters: The Lives of the Curzon Sisters. But when it came time to open the book and begin reading, I did so with some trepidation. The prologue opens with a quote from Elinor Glyn, declaring that her dominant interest in life had been the desire for romance. This inspired dread. Perhaps I would learn that Elinor snacked on heart-shaped sandwiches as Danielle Steel does. I might be subjected to examples of Hallmark-style poetry, or read that Elinor could be seduced with the properly timed presentation of a plush teddy bear. Who knew what examples of mawkish sentimentality I might find lurking in the book.

But I need not have feared any of these things. I love biographies and have read many, and I don’t think I’ve ever admired the subject of a biography more. I do deliberately write “subject of a biography” as distinct from person, being aware that biographers are known for their partisanship to their subjects. After all one doesn’t like to spend years and much hard-won grant money on research and writing only to admit that one’s subject wasn’t worth the trees after all. A less sympathetic biographer might have made more of Elinor’s flaws and been less generous in assessment of her literary abilities. It’s an interesting experiment in to read two biographies on the same person and to see how much of our final view of the subject is dependent on the biographer’s spin.

But even so I don’t think I could be otherwise than admiring of Elinor Glyn, who was an incredibly interesting and accomplished person. Glyn was a prolific writer of romance novels, and a screenwriter during Hollywood’s early days. Beginning in 1901, she supported her family by producing a book a year for many years. In 1907 Elinor’s book Three Weeks, which told the story of a young man’s affair with an older married woman and featured an erotic love scene on a tiger skin, was published, and it catapulted Elinor to a new level of readership and fame, or rather infamy. Both the book and Elinor achieved instant notoriety, with everyone assuming that book was autobiographical. A popular bit of doggerel made the rounds: "Would you like to sin/With Elinor Glyn/On a tiger skin?/Or would you prefer/To err with her/On some other fur?" Edward VII – a compulsive womanizer – refused to have the book mentioned in his presence. When Elinor’s daughter Margot was caught reading Three Weeks at her boarding school, the school authorities confiscated the book and punished her. Glyn’s second career as a screenwriter began when, at 50, she received propositions from the King of Spain and from a Hollywood production company. She declined the first and happily accepted the latter. Elinor flourished in Hollywood, where her gift for self-promotion soon established her as someone of note. She gave birth to a meme that survives to today by declaring that Clara Bow had "It" (though Dorothy Parker snorted, "'It', hell. She had Those.") She made many prominent friends and mentored a number of young actors. Rudolph Valentino benefited from her lessons on how to woo a woman; Gloria Swanson and Clara Bow came to love and respect her for her excellent advice; Charlie Chaplin’s incisive mockery of her pretensions in no way diminished their friendship; and she travelled with Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford on their belated honeymoon.

Excellence is generally compelling, but human nature being what it is we find excellence all the more attractive when it is packaged and delivered with style, and this Glyn never failed to do. It helped that she was beautiful, and seemingly ageless. I kept turning to the photo section to stare with incredulity at the pictures taken throughout her life. Though there are pictures taken of her in her late seventies, she never appears to be older than her late thirties. This seems to have been partly due to genetics (her mother’s photos are similarly amazing) and partly to her self-discipline. Elinor Glyn lived in an era during which those of her leisured class dined lavishly on seven-course dinners and routinely made trips to some elite spa to shed the resulting avoir dupois. Glyn ate simply and drank lots of water. She never permitted herself to slouch and even as an elderly woman always sat bolt upright. She loved clothes and dressed beautifully, keeping a notebook in which she sketched and detailed every outfit, and served as a model for the clothes produced by her sister, whose dressmaking business was wildly successful, thanks to Elinor. She always decorated her homes lavishly to provide the proper backdrop for the sort of life she wanted to lead. She knew how to get attention of the kind she wanted – once in her seventies she appeared at a luncheon with her cat Candide draped over her shoulders. Glyn was pretentious, but her pretensions were not a false front hiding emptiness or inadequacy, but an outlet for her creativity and artistry. The reality was just as interesting, and the relation between her actual self and her presentation of herself a fascinating one.

Glyn’s self-discipline seems to have been remarkable and, coupled with her intelligence, generous nature, and strong ethics and generally good judgment, enabled her to sail through many difficulties. During her adulthood if she needed money she promptly found a way to earn some. At one time of dire need she wrote a novel in 18 days. During World War I, like many other British women, she did a great deal of war work, and visited recuperating soldiers and washed dishes in a canteen (when she had never previously washed dishes in her life) as well as visiting the trenches as a war correspondent. And she never stooped to behaving badly no matter how others might have treated her. Though her marriage was not a successful one there was never animosity between Clayton and Elinor Glyn. Clayton lost all interest in Elinor soon after their marriage and was always indifferent to the attention she received from men, or at most found it amusing, as on the occasion the Sultan of Turkey sent an envoy to Clayton offering to purchase Elinor (to be fair, I can’t blame him for finding that one funny). Never lacking in suitors, Elinor found some emotional satisfaction in her several intense yet platonic relationships with men. But she couldn’t bring herself to be physically unfaithful to her husband, and would part from her lovers when they became too insistent on her doing so. It was not until Elinor met George Curzon, who was probably the love of her life, that she allowed herself to have a sexual affair.

Glyn met the widowed George Curzon in 1908, and they began a passionate affair that was to last for years. In 1915 Clayton, who had become an alcoholic, died, and while Elinor honestly mourned the waste of his life and the loss of the man she had once loved and fell ill immediately after his death, she could now hope to marry Curzon. Curzon even asked her to take charge of the decoration of a Montacute estate he had recently acquired. But Curzon had also been seeing another married woman, Grace Duggan, whose husband died at the same time as Clayton. Curzon seems to have honestly loved both women and been torn by the decision between them, but in 1916 he married Grace, probably because as she was younger than Elinor, he could hope to have the male heir he desperately wanted. Elinor was at Montacute working on its decoration when she read of George and Grace’s engagement in a newspaper. She left the house at once, and later burned the 500 letters Curzon had sent to her.

Devastated as she was by Curzon’s treatment of her, she seems to have carried on with her life without noticeable pause. She entered happily into her new life in Hollywood. She had the satisfaction of continued close relationships with Irene, Cimmie, and Baba Curzon, who would turn to Elinor Glyn rather than their stepmother when they needed a mature woman’s advice. Glyn also learned from the Curzon daughters that George and Grace Curzon’s marriage was a failure. She did not delight in the news, but it was a comfort to realize that she might well have been an unhappy Lady Curzon as well.

Glyn was contemptuous of the uselessness of the lives led by most of those in her circle, and her life was chockfull of the worthwhile. Besides writing her many books and several screenplays she travelled incessantly, had many talented and powerful friends, and educated herself to a high degree. As she aged she continued to be open to new adventures and undertaking, and to learn and grow as a person, and showed an excellent discernment when it came to discarding or retaining the values she’d had in her younger days. She was the kind of grandmother who insisted that her grandchildren converse, rather than chatter, but she was able to see that she’d been wrong in her youthful reverence for pre-revolutionary French government and to see the good in socialism.

As I read the book I often shook my head in disbelief at the way Elinor seemed to repeatedly manage to get entrée into the kind of society and incidents that are of historical note, but looking back on her life I see that she was a part of those moments because she belonged in them. She achieved a great deal, and was a remarkable person, and so attracted others like herself. It was not luck that Mark Twain called on her while she was in New York. It was not a coincidence that she was asked by the Grand Duchess Kiril to go to Russia in 1910 to write a book set in the Russian royal court. The Grand Duchess had been impressed by the accurate rendering of the French court in Elinor’s books and thought that if such a widely read author could write such a book about Russia it might have a good effect on Russia’s image. Elinor, with her love of travel and adventure, her understanding of image creation, and her need to produce a new book every year, accepted at once. George Curzon was a man who enjoyed women as he did fine wines and beautiful paintings rather than as equals or partners, and when first approaching her, expected a light flirtation. He was taken aback when Elinor was well informed about his work in India, and interested in hearing about his travels and the book he’d written. She asked about his opinions on Lloyd George. She loved the classics as much as he did, and they would later read Plato together.

At the end I realized I’d been given a valuable illustration of the truest and best meaning of romance, a word that has become somewhat degraded since Elinor Glyn’s time. The word romance has come to be associated with some unfortunate things – Harlequins, stuffed animals, movies starring Julia Roberts, sentimental greeting cards bought by harried men late in the afternoon of February 14th, or other things that are well enough in their way but that are often so cliché and perfunctory in their presentation as to be almost empty of actual romantic value, such as gifts of roses, chocolates and lingerie (especially if the roses cause an allergic reaction, the chocolates make one’s skin break out and the lingerie doesn’t fit). Thus my sense of fear upon beginning the book – I am already so sated with this degraded, sentimental, modern definition of “romance”. But that’s not at all what Elinor Glyn had in mind when she spoke of romance. To her, romance meant ideals, imagination, adventure, passion, and heroism. A romantic life was thrilling and epic. She worked very hard to create a life that was romantic, and to present herself as a romantic figure, and succeeded despite her failed marriage and rejection by the love of her life. The story of her life makes it clear that this genuine romance can not only be incorporated into an intelligent and realistic person’s life, but enrich it.

Sunday, 7 January 2007

Tracts With Plots

Last July there appeared on Metafilter a front page post about a book called From The Ballroom to Hell, by T.A. Faulkner. As MeFites were quick to point out, Faulkner’s books is basically a type of porn, containing such passages as:

Her head rests upon his shoulder, her face is upturned to his, her bare arm is almost around his neck, her partly nude swelling breast heaves tumultuously against his, face to face they whirl on, his limbs interwoven with hers, his strong right arm around her yielding form, he presses her to him until every curve in the contour of her body thrills with the amorous contact.


When she awakes the next morning to a realizing sense of her position her first impulse is to self-destruction, but she deludes herself with the thought that her "dancing" companion will right the wrong by marriage, but that is the farthest from his thoughts, and he casts her off — he wishes a pure woman for his wife.

She has no longer any claim to purity; her self-respect is lost; she sinks lower and lower; society shuns her, and she is to-day a brothel inmate, the toy and plaything of the libertine and drunkard.

Hot, huh? As you can see, all the elements of porn are there. A nineteenth-century Christian reader could get the safely vicarious and voyeuristic pleasures of reading about behaviour considered wrong, and because the depiction of such behaviour is presented in a framework of moral condemnation, could at the same time delude herself or himself into the belief that the real motive for reading such material is a religious one.

Although I hadn’t previously ever seen or heard of this particular book, its existence and contents are no surprise to me, because mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century religious pulp fiction for both children and adults (basically, tracts with plots) is one of my guilty pleasures.

It's standard practice for this genre to argue strenuously against any and all indulgence of dancing, card playing, drinking, and theatre going, and often the characters refer to actual works of non-fiction in order to back up their arguments. No, I haven't seen anything referred to that is as salacious as this linked one, but one I do see mentioned is Plain Talks About the Theatre, by Herrick Johnson. I haven't ever seen the book, and it doesn't seem to be online anywhere, but I'm sure it's a gem of its kind and evinces the sort of facile logic and belief in absolute truth found in religious pulp fiction. For instance, it makes the argument that although there may be wholesome and moral plays, one cannot attend these plays without giving one's patronage to theatres which also run objectionable plays, and therefore the only morally safe course of action is not to attend any plays at all. The fact that this argument would also apply to book publishers and thus make it a moral imperative to refrain from reading almost all books never seems to occur to either Johnson or the characters who quote him.

I don't have that much patience with the worst of the genre, which tends to feature hysterically melodramatic touches such as disobedient children getting eaten by bears and young men becoming instant alcoholics upon their first sip of wine. The Elsie Dinsmore series, for instance, is maddening. Elsie’s father, Horace Dinsmore, demands absolute obedience from her. Elsie isn’t allowed to eat or drink anything without her father’s express permission, she mustn’t ask him the reason for any of his dictates, and at one point Horace orders eight-year-old Elsie to go to her room without any explanation because she had forgotten that her father had told her once months before that she should never sit on the floor. Morbidly conscientious Elsie soaks the pages with her tears in response — and is then severely lectured by her father on the importance of self-control. I collect children’s fiction and I have two of the Elsie books because I think them representative of a significant subgenre in children’s literature, but I can’t say they’re enjoyable. While reading them I amused myself by keeping a mental list of the psychological disorders a real child raised in such a fashion would have as an adult. And I regret that the edition of Elsie Dinsmore that I now own does not have the same illustrations as the one I read as a child. As a ten-year-old I found it hysterically funny that Horace Dinsmore, in his checked suit and pompadour, looks remarkably like The Joker from the sixties-era TV show Batman, and the humour of the coincidence has not worn thin though I'm now 33.

My enjoyment of and interest in this genre is rather complex and I'm not even sure I understand it. I read it to laugh at it, yes, but it's not as simple as that. An ironical enjoyment is a limited and superficial one and palls quickly. Someone who rents the occasional B horror movie is enjoying them for their kitsch value; someone who has a number of B horror movie DVDs and videocassettes lining the bottom drawers of his or her entertainment unit has a deeper stake in them. So… if I, hypothetically, had a stash of nearly 150 such books in old dresser in one corner of my attic studio, had ongoing automatic searches for particular books set up on E-bay, and occasionally whiled away the odd two or three hours reading them on Project Gutenberg and such sites, it might be fair to say that I get more from this genre than ironical amusement.

The religious aspect of these novels is not what I value, at least not in their literal sense. As an agnostic, I skim the most irritating passages that hold forth on Christianity as the only possible moral course. I get irritated with the worst of what can arise from that mindset — the endless self-chastisement, the looking-glass circular logic, the obsessive preoccupation with religious subjects, and the aggressively evangelistic tone. But this overtly religious content doesn’t bother me as much as they might other non-religious people, because I spent most of my childhood and adolescence steeped in that sort of thing. And if I had never learned to strip away the Christian trappings to get to the truly valuable philosophical teachings that usually lie within, I would be significantly the poorer for it.

Then, too, seen in the context of all other works written in the period, these “Sunday School books”, as they were called, don’t seem so excessively religious. It was an era in which almost everyone attended church as a matter of course. It wasn’t considered respectable not to, and there was considerable social pressure brought to bear on many of those who did not. And so practically all novels from this time have a vein of religion running through them. If I couldn’t accept this, I couldn’t read Jane Eyre, nor Little Women. And, in fact, some of Louisa May Alcott's work borders on inclusion in this religious pulp fiction genre. Alcott herself referred to it as "moral pap for the young".

I see these books, and the principles they espouse, very much in the context of their day, and this understanding has probably given me a better understanding of the role and place of religion in society. Even if one sets aside the fear of spending eternity roasting in hellfire like a weenie on a stick, so many of the taboos do make irrefutable practical sense.

In The King’s Daughter, by Isabella Alden, the heroine Dell Bronson refuses to marry a man she loves because he won’t sign a total abstinence pledge. She quotes Bible verses to him by the yard, and it’s laughable in a way because her suitor, an earnest minister who takes no more than the occasional glass of cider and who has shown no signs of susceptibility to addiction or any sort of substance abuse, is not at all likely to become a drunkard. However, let us look at the larger picture. Dell’s father is an alcoholic who runs a hotel which contains tavern. Dell is therefore called upon to live in the hotel, and is shunned by others in their town for being a saloonkeeper’s daughter. And then, too, given the socio-economic strictures of the time, a woman who married a man was choosing not only a companion and father for her future children, but an economic status. She would be completely economically dependent on him for the rest of her life. And there was no feasible escape from marriage in those days. Divorce was considered a disgrace, and was prohibitively expensive and difficult to attain. Women had limited earning capacity. If a woman had some capital she could set up her own business, but otherwise she would be fortunate to eke out a marginal existence as a factory worker, cook, laundry worker, etc. And if the woman had children to support, well, the picture becomes so much darker. There was no treatment for addiction, no child support, no alimony, no battered women’s shelters, no welfare, no calling on the police for protection. Yes, these modern safeguards work imperfectly, but try to imagine being without them. An abused wife’s best hope was that her birth family would be able and willing to take her back and assume her support again, but not every woman would be so fortunate. A woman in those times had much more reason than now to fear alcoholism in the man she loved. Let us remember that the women’s suffrage movement was originally an offshoot of the temperance movement. Given Dell’s particular circumstances and the harsh realties of the day, Dell’s insistence that her suitor show his commitment to remaining sober by signing his name to a temperance pledge becomes much more understandable. I can’t say I wouldn’t do the same.

Examining the religious dictates in these books, I find they boil down to stern pragmatism most of the time. There is much said about self-reliance, and one’s duty to help others. The late nineteenth century was the time in which we came closest to having a libertarian society, when there were the fewest industrial regulations and next to no social safety net. People and their families were especially vulnerable to catastrophe, and more dependent on themselves and each other. Plain as it is that individual measures can be inadequate in the face of larger problems, that society as a whole must make a concerted effort to help ensure the well being of its populace and minimize suffering, it’s reasonable that nineteenth century reformers should have begun with self-reliance as a first response. As for the insistence on chastity, if I had lived in the days before reliable birth control and access to abortions, I would have remained chaste too. Of course there’s much more emphasis on female chastity, but this too is understandable, if not excusable, given that the consequences of an illegitimate pregnancy would fall inescapably on the woman while the man at least had the option of refusing the responsibility.

Some of these authors wax indignant over very silly and trivial matters, such as dancing, or specific styles of dress or hair. Isabella Alden’s niece Grace Livingston Hill, who wrote about a hundred books between 1900 and 1946, was quite obviously fit to be tied over many small, harmless, fashionable “vices”, such as fingernail polish, backless dresses, and jazz music (described by one character as "the music of the lost”). She has several of her twenties-era heroines declare that they won’t bob their hair because “God gave me my hair and I’d like to keep it”, a scruple that doesn’t seem to keep said heroine from cutting her fingernails. Also these authors make many pronouncements against reading “third-rate dime novels”. This is where the ironic enjoyment comes in. I also have been known to curl up happily in bed with a temperance-themed novel and a delicious hot toddy.

Besides the fun of snarking, and the educational experience of coming to understand the relationship between the evolution of religion and prevailing sociological and economic needs, I also learn a little history from these books. I have very little interest in contemporary Christian fiction, so the history component must constitute a good part of my enjoyment. These old pulp novels familiarize me with the social mores and customs and mindsets of this era, and as someone who wishes to write at least one historical novel, I can consider them research.

But it seems that when I dig right to the bottom of my enjoyment in these books, I find that I take a certain escapist pleasure in their moral certainty. This moral certainty, and its accompanying neat resolution of plot, isn’t only to be found in nineteenth-century religious fiction. It’s also found in contemporary romance novels. We’re all familiar with the course of events — heroine meets man, conflict arises, heroine and man work through conflict, and then live happily ever after. And the fact that this is not realistic does not seem to keep Harlequin novels from selling at the rate of one every six seconds. I know behaving well, working hard, keeping my home neat and tidy and sticking to my principles doesn’t ensure a happy ending any more than does finding a man named Hunter with a chiselled jaw and abs (though the latter sounds like a more straightforward and immediate kind of fun), but after a day of dealing with a complex and sometimes seemingly random universe I sometimes find it comforting to retreat into a world where it does. And yes, it’s very odd to choose “late nineteenth to early twentieth century religious fiction” as my escapist genre, but I still find them more interesting and less tiresome than most contemporary romance novels or fantasy or sci-fi, and I can take something intellectual away from them.

Finally, these books are sometimes surprisingly well-written and enjoyable in their own right. The American Isabella Alden (1841-1930) is one of my favourites. Alden was incredibly popular in her day, and very prolific, writing or editing over 200 works in her long ifetime besides leading what is reputed to be a very full personal life. She wrote under the pseudonym of “Pansy”, and since that name has acquired connotations that must have whatever is left of her remains spinning in her grave, her modern publishers have chosen to go with her full name. I got a perfectly unironic satisfaction from her heroine, the independent and witty Dell Bronson, who refuses her (stubborn and insufferably arrogant, if temperate) minister’s proposal when he refuses to meet her conditions for marriage. Her suitor marries someone else, and Dell remains serenely single to the end of the book with no regrets, and decides to believe that there are better things in store for her.

Alden’s books do tend to melodrama and can’t be considered literature by any stretch of the imagination, but her characterizations are realistic and their psychological profiles sometimes astonishingly complete, her dialogue natural, and her plots usually interesting and not formulaic if extremely contrived at times. Moreover Alden was obviously a woman with a good sense of humour. In L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, Anne’s classmates gather at lunchtime to read a Pansy book out loud to each other — apparently her books were considered a treat back in the day.

I can’t pretend to have even a working familiarity with all such authors, as I’m sure there were many more than I will ever get to, and their books extremely hard to find if not completely unavailable, but of the dozen or so authors I have read, Alden does stand out as superior. L.T. Meade was perhaps Alden’s English counterpart in terms of popularity, but Meade is far less readable. I suspect the quality of her work suffered from her extreme prolifacy, as she produced an astonishing 280 novels as well as a number of short stories and articles in a 48-year career.

And now I must go fulfill some sort of duty before I get eaten by bears.

Wednesday, 3 January 2007

The Newbery Project

I’m contemplating a large, ongoing project for The Orange Swan Review: to review all the Newbery Medal winners. To give you an idea of the scope of this project, check out the list of award recipients. Yes, at the time of this writing there are 85 past recipients. And I would only do two Newbery books a month as I don’t wish to either make this site entirely about kid lit or to wind up having to spend the coming year reading almost nothing but children’s fiction. For one thing, many of the kind of readers I would like to attract wouldn’t frequent such a site. And then, as much as I enjoy children’s and young adult fiction, it would feel a little too much like subsisting on a diet of milk and cookies. I'd soon crave steak, strawberries, baked potatoes, croissants, raspberry tarts, avocado and tomato sandwiches, lentil soup, brie cheese, Reese peanut butter cups, and so on.

According to my math it will take me nearly four years to accumulate reviews for all these books (and those that will be added to the list in that time). Yet I have a fatalistic feeling that this is what I intend. I’ll never have a better excuse to read all the Newbery books as I have long wanted to do, and a comprehensive collection of Newbery reviews would be a plum feature of any book review site.

Why have I chosen the American Newbery Medal when, say, the Canadian Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature or the Canadian Library Association Book of the Year Award for children’s or young adult fiction might make be a more obvious choice for me as a Canadian as well as being less punishing in terms of workload? I hate to say this, but I chose the Newbery list because, overall, its winners are superior to my country’s award winners. No, I have not read all the books on either list so I should not make such a sweeping claim. But among those titles I have read I see none on the Governor General’s or CLA’s lists that can stand beside Katharine Paterson’s Bridge to Terebithia, Joan W. Blos’s A Gathering of Days or Cynthia Voigt’s Dicey’s Song. I see Janet Lunn’s The Root Cellar, which is a solid and entertaining but not distinguished piece of work. I see Jean Little’s 1985 CLA Book of the Year for Children award-winner Mama’s Going to Buy You a Mockingbird, which is another good book, but which wouldn’t have won any sort of direct competition with 1985 Newbery Medalist, Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown.

I know this painful contrast exists because Canada has a smaller population than the U.S.A. rather than less talent per capita, but I still wince to see the same few authors winning the awards again and again, and the overlap between the two awards. Have we really so very few good home grown books to choose from that no one can give Kit Pearson, Janet Lunn, Jean Little, and Tim Wynne-Jones a run for their money?

I definitely will make an effort to read and review Canadian books, and to write about at least the current Canadian award winners and contenders, but my passion for stellar literature overrules my (very real, and vested) loyalty and concern for the Canadian publishing industry, and so it is the Newbery Medalists that will become the main focus of my mission. Look for the first essay within the next few weeks.

Monday, 1 January 2007

Seduction by Deduction

Betsy Prioleau began the research that led to Seductress: Women Who Ravished the World and Their Lost Art of Love because of the reaction to a course she taught to packed lecture halls at Manhattan College — “The Seductress in Literature”. Students of both genders were avid to learn the secrets of fabled sirens. And after class, she writes, “the women flooded my office. Over and over I heard the same laments: elusive bad boys, soulless hookups, sapped confidence, wrecked pride, and total mystification about how to prevail in love.”

Prioleau came to think that this was indicative of a larger problem in our culture, that though decades of feminism have benefited women in the workforce they haven’t made women much happier in their romantic lives. She considered that there was a dearth of research on successful women in history, and decided to track down some role models herself in hopes that it would be a step towards changing things. The result was Seductress, in which Prioleau serves up an array of historical dishes.

I first became aware of the book when I read this Salon interview with Prioleau, which so intrigued me that I promptly visited the Toronto Public Library web site to put a hold on her book. While I was waiting for Seductress to become available I read some other the other book she recommended — the novels A Sport of Nature, by Nadine Gordimer and Justine, by Lawrence Durrell, plus some bios on some of the other women she considers successful, such as Catherine the Great and Beryl Markham. I admired Catherine the Great and enjoyed reading about Beryl Markham, but didn’t care for the novels. Both described the heroine as “an honorary man”, and I was irritated by the inference that the ultimate woman is one who has learned to successfully ape men.

Seductress was a surprise to me, though I am not quite sure what I had expected, and indeed when I try to define my prior expectations of it they sound silly. Was I expecting a typical self-help book? Perhaps something that was a combination of The Rules and an issue of Cosmopolitan which would advise me to never call a man and to wear nice undies? Fun as it would have been to mock such a book (supposing I’d read it all the way through), I doubt I would have learned much from it. Self-help books are not usually very helpful. The specific advice is usually not suited to the circumstances of every life or to every personality; the general advice is usually so obvious as to be condescending and silly. I stopped reading one such guide when it listed the items I should have in my night table drawer.

Prioleau is far too intelligent and has done her homework too thoroughly to make any such rash promises or to try to outline any kind of facile methods or magic formulae for succeeding in love. She writes that “love resists glib formula” and instead presents a selection of history’s sirens in all their complex, messy glory. Mini-bios constitute most of the book, and are the best of it, since outside the bios Prioleau has a tendency to concentrate on belabouring the tenuous connections between the women she profiles and ancient goddesses. The famous and the almost forgotten appear one after the other: Isabella Stewart Gardner, Catherine Sedley, Tullia d’Aragona, George Sand, Colette, Mae West, Diane de Poitiers, Cleopatra, Ninon de Lenclos, Elizabeth I, Martha Gellhorn, Violet Gordon Woodhouse, Gloria Steinem, Josephine Baker, Agnès Sorel, and Eleanor of Aquitaine are only a sample of the women she discusses.

When determining which women to include, Prioleau set the bar quite high. A successful woman is one who was able to get the men she wanted, “men who were good for her”, who were “rarely discarded or two-timed” and who “successfully combine[d] erotic supremacy with personal and vocational achievement.” She includes Wallis Windsor, but takes her to task for “shirking the task of self-development”.

Prioleau’s alpha women are by no means perfect. They were generally terrible mothers and amoral types who annexed married men without a qualm. And their effect on those who knew them was often disastrous – eight men committed suicide over Parisian dancer La Belle Otero. These women are also wildly diverse. They are drawn from many different eras and cultures. Sometimes they were educated, as with Cleopatra, who spoke eight languages and studied literature, rhetoric, philosophy, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, medicine, drawing, signing, lyre playing, and horsemanship, and sometimes they weren’t, as in the case of Eva Perón. Sometimes they were young, and sometimes they were old. Sometimes they were beautiful, and other times they decidedly weren’t, as in the case of Edith Piaf, who was 4’10”, with a “boxy build and an oversize head with a thick neck and wide-set Pekinese eyes”. Some were extremely promiscuous from an early age, and some weren’t – as in the case of Lou Andreas-Salomé, who remained chaste until her thirties, despite the pressing attentions of many men, and then joyously made up for lost time.

By this varied parade, Prioleau seeks to debunk the myths of love and sexual attraction that have burrowed into our culture like parasites. A siren needn’t be young. When Josephine Baker died in her sleep at 69 she had rave reviews piled on her bed and a recently acquired man who loved her passionately living in her home. A successful woman needn’t be beautiful, and beauty alone is no guarantee of success in love, as Elizabeth Taylor’s multiple marriages and Elizabeth Hurley’s multiple humiliations prove. She needn’t be a silent, passive muse or hide her smarts, as Germaine Greer and Simone de Beauvoir would have us believe. Émilie du Châtelet told Voltaire, “The light of my genius will dazzle you.” It did. The two of them worked in frenzied intellectual competition for years, and she was the only woman with whom he ever fell in love, despite the fact that intellectual groupies pursued him avidly. A woman can finesse love without playing by society’s rules — many of the hussies in Prioleau’s book made off with smitten, unhinged men like bandits of eros.

The actual siren’s checklist of characteristics only becomes clear when one looks at these women in aggregate. The mad welter of detail recedes into larger, more general patterns. All of these women had enormous self-confidence. Throughout the course of their chequered lives they all determinedly pursued their own goals and happiness first and foremost. They knew their own self-worth, and paid no heed to their detractors. Many experienced considerable adversity – they were brutally raped, or forced into bad marriages or prostitution, or were subjected to racism and misogyny, or were penniless in the days when it was next to impossible for women to earn their own livings, but they hurtled over such obstacles with style and proceeded to claimed success as though it was their birthright. Prioleau highlights the fact that almost all of these women had horrible childhoods. Instead of becoming emotionally crippled by such formative experiences as one might expect, these women were galvanized by it — they learned early that it was up to them to take care of themselves, and that knuckling under to others led only to more abuse. They were creative and intelligent and very hard working. They had — and used — excellent judgment. They surrounded themselves with kind men who loved and nurtured them. And though the sirens may have loved and nurtured and pampered those men in return, it was not at the expense of their own self-development. They were non-conformist. If a social norm got in the way of what they wanted to do, they smashed it. Jane Digby of the ultra-conservative nineteenth century went from marriage to marriage before finding the love of her life at age 45 — a black, Muslim man who was young enough to be her son. Her family disowned her, but she cared nothing for that and enjoyed 25 years of happiness with her tribal prince, and he never remarried after her death.

It would be impossible for a modern woman to imitate these women too literally. Most of Prioleau’s babes had servants to take care of the tiresome details like cooking and changing diapers. I also wouldn’t recommend the calculated and wholesale use of men as practised by many of the women profiled in this book, especially when it’s not necessary in contemporary times. A modern woman needn’t be a courtesan to earn money nor a monarch’s mistress or wife to have political clout. I doubt that a modern Cleopatra would attach herself to the 21st century equivalent to Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, and not only because Caesar and Antony have no modern day peers. She would know full well that modern political spouses of either gender are (rightly) powerless and would run for office herself. Sex and romantic love are now merely an element of a woman’s life instead of her only means to success.

Prioleau’s book can’t be classed as a self-help book, but I can’t help thinking it’s a guiding light to what self-help books could be — works that teach without presuming to dictate specific applications for our lives. One is not supposed to emulate these women or try to use any of their specific methods. Rather, Prioleau’s mosaic of women is meant to provide historical precedents, to inspire, to enlarge our sense of the possible, to demonstrate to women that we needn’t resign ourselves to being sidelined romantically because we happen to be, say, a plain, awkward teenager or divorced 50-year-old. By providing us with examples of successful women Prioleau is attempting to demonstrate that we can feel empowered when in love or in hardship rather than subject to it. And in this she has succeeded remarkably well.

Friday, 29 December 2006

2006, In Review

New Year’s Eve is approaching, I’d like to review something thematically in keeping with the occasion, and my spent 2006 planner is sitting conveniently on my desk, so here goes. Perhaps I should begin by saying this planner cannot be named or described too exactly as the publishing company that employs me produced it, and there would be both conflict of interest and personal security issues in my being specific enough that it could be identified. Ahem.

I hope I can safely say it wasn’t the planner for me. Not that it isn’t a handsome, nicely designed volume in its own right, and I’m not just writing that because I’ve helped edit it in the past and/or could be fired for publicly criticizing my company’s product. The planner is black-covered and gold-lettered, has gold and black satin ribbons for marking one’s place, has a lot of reference material at the back, and at 8.5” x 11” looked weighty and impressive on my desk all year. But then weightiness and impressiveness weren’t qualities I particularly needed or wanted in a planner. I take public transit and need a planner that isn’t a chore in itself to carry. And then this planner is designed to be used at one’s workplace, whereas I needed one geared to organizing my activities outside of work. I can see it being exactly right for a number of busy professionals — thousands of them, in fact. Planners are a very individual preference.

But it’s typical of me, and indicative of a larger issue in my life, that I never do find quite the right planner for me, the one that will help me feel more in control of my life, to stop me from frittering away time and procrastinating (actual Freudian-style typo: procasturbating), to accomplish more, to keep me from neglecting or forgetting to do things I very much want to do. Or failing that, I’d like FOR THE LOVE OF GOD to at least find one that lets me look at a week at a glance, gives me some actual room to scribble more than a few things down AND still fits into my already bulging shoulder bag. This past year I wound up carrying a little plastic-covered calendar style planner because the weighty black one had to stay at home, a memo pad because the little calendar had no room in which I could write, and also keeping a planning notebook because I needed some place to write down brainstorming lists and research notes on the best roofers/internet service providers/books to read/Christmas present ideas. Etc.

Again, it’s typical of me that for 2007 I’ve bought a new planner, hoping that both the planner and the year will be a better one than the one past or if not, that I can at least condense my oragnizational system from four notebooks to two. But then this is always the appeal of new planners and notebooks. I can’t be the only person who has a notebook fetish, who lusts after those beautiful covers and crisp blank pages and winds up giving away several journals for Christmas every year simply because I wanted an excuse to buy them. (As was the case with the exquisite embroidered pale green satin one I gave to my seventeen-year-old niece this year – I wanted to buy it and it matched my niece’s eyes, so she got it.) Those rafts of gorgeous notebooks and planners one sees in the stores must go somewhere. The appeal of these planners and notebooks is the promise of renewal, of a fresh start, of new things and new days to come. It’s an act of faith to buy one because it presumes that one will be living each and every one of those days named within. And, if one is a writer, there’s always the hope that the words one will write within will actually be worthy of their beautiful setting.

I don’t get a sense of this promise as I flip back through my spent planners. Instead I get a sense of the past as a thing apart from my memories and overall impressions of it. Perhaps I find I went out more often or was more productive than I thought, or perhaps less. Perhaps I discover that I wrote in some item to be done, such as signing up for a yoga class or doing some home improvement task, see that I scheduled it again and again before it finally disappeared, but realize it doesn’t matter now that I’d rather take kickboxing and have moved. This particular year I find the gold ribbon is stalled in mid-November, because I was embroiled in all sorts of real estate and moving craziness and was too overwhelmed to even be able to try to calmly order my days. This bird’s eye sense of the past — even my own past, which I should know intimately — as something significantly different from my conception of it isn’t as exciting as the sense of anticipation I get from a new notebook, but it’s probably more instructive.

The planner is a relatively modern invention. I don’t suppose it is much more than a century old, though people were certainly jotting down their daily minutiae long before that. It’s something we designed to help us cope with lives that have become more varied and hectic (though not harder overall) than they were two hundred years ago. Not that the medieval peasant whose daily to-do list might have been a one item “plant turnips” wouldn’t have had some conception of the more primal motivation that underlies our dependency on planners, and BlackBerries, and whatever other forms the planner will take in future. Like most adaptations, they help us cope with currently existing circumstances without necessarily making us any happier or more fulfilled in the larger sense than people have been in past millenniums. Nearly two thousand years ago Paul of the Bible was writing, “That which I would not do, I do; and that which I would do, I do not”, and that is a universal, eternal human lament which even the most beautifully designed Moleskine will never do more than assauge. Not that this realization for one minute dampens my ravenous desire for the said Moleskines.

Monday, 25 December 2006

A Reader's Digest Christmas, Digested

I've been meaning to write a special Christmas-themed review about O. Henry's The Gifts of the Magi and four of his other short stories, but since I am now at my parents' place for Christmas and I cleverly left the O. Henry book at my own home in Toronto, I'll have to fall back on reviewing something from my parents' bookshelves.

So, I've unearthed a somewhat battered, Reader's Digest-produced copy of A Family's Christmas, copyright 1984. And I'm actually disposed to be more gentle with it than I would have been to The Gifts of the Magi. But please don't take this as some sort of endorsement of Reader's Digest.

Reader's Digest was always in my home as I grew up because my father subscribed to it, and it does seem to me to be a sort of yardstick to my development as a reader, the equivalent of old pencil marks on a wall being used to gauge a child's height. When I first began to read it at about eight, I read just the jokes. Then, perhaps a year later, I began to read the lighter articles. Then I began to read whatever articles interested me, and by twelve or so I was reading the entire magazine. At fourteen I beguiled away a good portion of a case of mono by reading ten years' worth of back issues. (I always remember my illnesses by my reading material, and have fond memories of the time I escaped from the miseries of a 2002 bout with Influenza A into a thick, small-print collection of Sherlock Holmes stories.) At fifteen I began to notice, as with an outgrown, outworn piece of clothing, the shortcomings of Reader's Digest, and consequently read it less and less. By the age of seventeen, I had stopped reading it all together, and now can't bear to read it at all. So, now, revisiting A Family Christmas as an adult, I'm pleasantly surprised to find that the book I enjoyed so much as a ten-year-old still has some merit.

The book opens with an essay written by the excellent Jessamyn West. (Not, you understand, the living and equally excellent Jessamyn West, librarian and Metafilter.com moderator, but the late and excellent Jessamyn West, Quaker writer.) West muses about her Christmas memories, and it's enjoyable reading, though I would enjoy it more if I didn't have to worry that Reader's Digest editors have gutted the piece — or as they call it, "condensed" it. The first time I ever read an original version of something I had only previously read as a Reader's Digest version I realized how cheated I had been, and it is this more than anything that destroyed my enjoyment of Reader's Digest materials. If the piece has been gutted, the editors certainly chose to leave in West's slightly didactic conclusion about the "heart-warmth" and religious meaning of Christmas. I can't help but suspect it would have seemed less preachy in the original form, as West, a woman who helped her own sister euthanize herself, had a very nuanced belief system and no tendency at all to proselytize.

Paging on, we enter a section called "Christmas Customs and Crafts". This section features pieces about the origin and practice of different Christmas customs followed by instructions for making your own Christmas paraphernalia. For instance, the first custom discussed is the Christmas tree. Origin of the custom, historical and present-day variations, a cute anecdote about Theodore Roosevelt's son's scheme to subvert his conservationist father's decree that there would be no White House Christmas tree, quotes from A.E. Housman, reproductions of works by Norman Rockwell, and Grandma Moses, pictures of antique ornaments, illustrations of various kinds of pine trees. Quite readable. Immediately following it we have instructions on how to make tree ornaments out of wood shavings, which look lovely. Then instructions on how to make Ecuadorian star ornaments out of yarn and foil covered squares. They're done in garish colours and look none too attractive in the book, but the crafter in me is thinking perhaps the idea has some potential...

Moving on more rapidly, there are pieces on creches, Christmas stockings, toys, Christmas cards, Christmas greens, and Santa Claus, and these are followed, respectively, by instructions on making one's own cornhusk creche, knitted Aran stockings, Cinderella doll and wooden wagon, Christmas cards, pine cone wreath and Advent wreath, and "Santa's dream dollhouse". Which I must admit mostly look attractive and damn tempting to me as a knitter, sewer, and person who loves to make things, and there's something to be said for a company that can produce crafts which still look good over twenty years later. The picture of a brooding Santa peering around a tree while a little girl plays happily with the dollhouse does look a little iffy, however.

Then we come to the "Christmas in the Kitchen" section. James Beard's Christmas recollections, and four separate menus for Christmas meals. Also a cookie section, featuring a photo of a pink-cheeked grandma happily making cookies with two children at her kitchen table. Grandma's pink cheeks are a little too obviously rouged, and there's no way any baker could possibly work on such crowded surface as her kitchen table, but we'll let that pass. The recipes certainly look good, but I'm already feeling sated on my mother's cooking, so I'll just move on to the next section.

Paging on, we find the section I remember the best, a collection of Christmas stories, which as always with Reader's Digest selections, range from the very good to the horrendous, and, as with West's piece, I cannot fully enjoy any of them for fear they have been gutted.

I would place the first story, "A Miserable, Merry Christmas" in the "very good" category. Lincoln Steffens tells the story of the boyhood Christmas he told his parents that he wanted "a pony or nothing" for Christmas, and how he awoke to find Christmas morning to find he'd been taken at his word. Steffens, so Wikipedia claims, is known for remarking, upon his return from a 1921 visit to the Soviet Union, that he "has been over into the future and it works", but let us leave that aside and give him credit for at least understanding his own past, and presenting us with an evocative representation of a childhood experience, with its wild expectations and painful hopes and sudden plunges from joy to misery and back again.

Next we find the lyrics for "Go Tell It On The Mountain". I'd say this was public domain (read: "free") filler and am musing on whether in today's cultural climate the Reader's Digest editors would still chose to subtitle the lyrics "American Black Spiritual".

On page 148, Selma Lagerlof's "The Legend of the Christmas Rose" begins, a mystical tale of monks and robbers and a forest that blooms and is visited by angels every Christmas. It's not bad, and it does achieve that certain flavour of a tale that has been passed down orally from generation to generation.

Next is Valentine Davies' "Miracle on 34th Street". I read this story before ever knowing about the movie. Now that I know about the movie and have skimmed over the story again, I found myself wondering if the story was the "fictionalization" of the movie — fiction written from the screen play. Such fictionalizations are usually flat and mechanical, like this story. Upon looking it up, I find the movie was made from the "novel". Since the story in the Reader's Digest book is just 35 pages long, I suspect the story has been stripped to the bare bones. It's hardly fair to assess it in this state.

Norah Lofts's "The Lord of Misrule" follows "Miracle on 34th Street". In medieval times, a minstrel and a penniless girl of good family fall in love. They know they would never be allowed even to speak together under ordinary circumstances, but when the minstrel is named Lord of Misrule they seize their chance. It's a good story, and is well told.

Then we come to "Mr. Edward Meets Santa Claus", as excerpted from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie. Not a bad story, nor badly written. And, of course, it's imbued by all those values Reader's Digest and Wilder's libertarian daughter Rose Wilder Lane (who heavily edited and rewrote her mother's work) hold so dear — the bonds of family and friendship, and hardy self-reliance.

Next is Pearl S. Buck's "Christmas Day in the Morning", the story of an elderly man's memories of a boyhood Christmas surprise for his father. More about the bonds of family and love, but the story has a dark vein, because it more than hints at the loneliness of an elderly couple whose children are busy with their own lives.

Then we read Kay Thompson's "Eloise at Christmastime". Somehow even at ten I never cared for this story. I don't think I really had the patience to read it properly. I always liked a good story, and this one is short on actual narrative and long on nonsense rhymes and whimsy.

On to Frank R. Stockton's "Old Applejoy's Ghost". The ghost of a man from the eighteenth century pulls some strings to manage a Christmas and other matters for his great-granddaughter. It's not literature by any means, but it's readable enough.

Then we find Edna St. Vincent Millay's "The Ballad of the Harp Weaver", which is supposed to be among the best of Millay's work. I hope this isn't the case. "The Ballad of the Harp Weaver" is maudlin, subscribes to the awful mother-reverence that was far too prevalent in the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century, and is barely above doggerel.

Next is "Christmas Every Day" by William Dean Howells. A little girl gets her wish and has Christmas every day for a year. I hope it's not just my love for nineteenth century children's and pulp fiction speaking when I say I really like this one. I suppose it's supposed to be a morality lesson instructing little girls in the dangers of greed, but to my mind it's just as much about the excesses of Christmas and how once a year is as much Christmas as anyone can bear, and this subtext amuses me no end.

Finally, we come to "A Conversation About Christmas", by Dylan Thomas. A Welsh man describes his boyhood Christmasses to a small boy. It's a poetic piece about the nature of nostalgia.

We finish with more public domain filler — a poem from Tennyson, and then "A Christmas Prayer Book", which is a few pages of short poems and readings from various sources.

As you can tell from my description, it's a reasonably enjoyable, worthwhile book on the whole. The problems I have with it, and with Reader's Digest materials in general, are like unto the problem I have with Christmas as a whole. I don't like the painful contrast between the ideal presented as reality and the actual reality, the saccharine feel-good vibe, the unreasonable, unrealistic expectations nearly everyone develops and is subjected to. I don't like the nostalgia that laces its way through everything. The lament for "how things used to be" is literally everywhere in this book, even in the medieval-era The Lord of Misrule. But then Christmas, like such "family oriented" materials as this book, are not things that can or should be experienced every day. Perhaps they are well enough in their place.

I'll just say then, that I hope we all enjoy Christmas, and all such artificially sweet fare, on our own terms, and then enjoy equally our return to a more holistic way of living and perceiving.

Friday, 15 December 2006

Perfume That Attracts and Repels

Patrick Suskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is a novel about the life and career of an orphan boy born in eighteenth century Paris. Suskind’s first sentence refers to Jean-Baptiste Grenouille as a "gifted and abominable man", and that does sum up Grenouille as well as any phrase that occurs to me. Grenouille is a gruesome creature, seemingly both because he’s a product of brutish treatment, and because it is his nature to be. His genius lies in his nose, as he has infallible recall for any scent he has ever encountered and a bloodhound’s ability to track the scents of beings miles away, or behind walls. The story of his efforts to experience the world through his nose and conquer the world through his ability to create scents — and the extreme and horrific methods he uses to do so — isn’t a pleasant one, but it is enthralling. I read the second half of the book in a single sitting today despite the fact that a number of pressing tasks awaited me.

It’s much more difficult to review a good book than a bad one. With the bad novel the reviewer has readymade topics and the keen if low pleasure of snarking. When I try to write a piece on a good to stellar novel I usually spend a lot of time staring morosely at the cover of the book, trying to figure out what angle to take so that I can say something other than unadulterated praise, which is boring and will make me sound like a groupie — or perhaps just intellectually lazy. At the publishing company where I work we editors are regularly asked to double-check each other’s productions. When I get, say, an especially carefully prepared newsletter to proofread I often end up putting more effort into checking for errors than usual, because I’m worried if I don’t find a single mistake the other editor will think I didn’t really try.

Also beneath all these other concerns is usually the feeling that I don’t want to pick apart a book I love, anymore than I would want to pull a rose to pieces. I’m so reluctant to maul a well-crafted book with my clumsy analysis, not because I can possibly injure the book, but because the ineptitude of my efforts show up so much more clearlywhen contrasted with its artistry. These motives are all working in me right now, and I’ve decided to solve the problem of an angle by heading off into vaguely related topic that kept occurring to me as I read Perfume.

As I read I kept reflecting on certain other books or short stories that I have read that bear a sort of likeness to Perfume. These other works also involved a repulsive, unsympathetic main protagonist, and are almost unbearable to read because of their content. I suppose the genre can be roughly classified as literary horror. I kept musing over whether each writer had succeeded or failed in what he or she attempted to do. There seems to be no formula for success, as indeed there isn’t in literature. Each work always fails or succeeds on its own merits and in its totality.

A Clockwork Orange was a book that came to mind, for instance. And it is a success, of course. The whole point of Anthony Burgess’s work is the very banality of the sociopathic narrator’s voice and mindset. He’s ordinary, he’s violent, he’s remorseless, he's nonchalant, and you don’t even mind reading what he has to say because he’s so matter of fact about it all and because there’s a certain cool style in his use of slang and nonchalance. The horror lies in the very lack of horror.

The short story Clay by George Romero is another example. In Clay a mentally handicapped, socially isolated man crafts himself companions out of clay, and his efforts to make them as realistic as possible become more and more extreme and monstrous. I deem this one a failure because it has nothing attractive in it to grip the reader. In a horror novel one must provide something that holds the reader to counterbalance the repelling effect of the horror. There certainly is horror and repulsiveness enough in this story, but as I read I found myself physically turning my head aside, pulling back from the book. Nothing made me want to read it but the fact that I had to turn the pages anyway to get the next story in the anthology that contained it. I barely skimmed the last ten pages because I found the story so unbearable. Had it been much longer than 22 pages I certainly would never have finished it.

Another book that occurred to me, that perhaps may seem an odd or unsuitable choice if I’m supposedly discussing the genre of literary horror, is Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall On Your Knees. Fall On Your Knees is more often described as an epic, or a multigenerational saga than as horror. Frankly, I can only call it wretched. I’ll never review it properly for this site because I can’t bear the thought of re-reading it, and I doubt I’ll ever read the sequel, The Way the Crow Flies.

I was obsessed with Fall On Your Knees in a very negative way when I read it some years back. It’s quite long, and I hated almost every moment I spent reading it. The only part I enjoyed was Kathleen’s beautiful and lyrical diary of her days as a music student in New York — which sojourn ended suddenly with a horrific incident that dragged me back into the sewer that is the rest of the book. I remember how in the week or two that I spent reading the book I complained to a friend in email after email how much I hated it. Reasonably enough, she asked me WHY I kept reading it and even tried ordering me to stop. I replied that I couldn’t, that I just had to finish it. It’s a testament to MacDonald’s sheer narrative force that Fall on Your Knees should be so compulsively readable that I finished the book despite considering it the literary equivalent of thumbscrews. And I haven’t — at least, not at the distance of three or four years — a stylistic fault to find with it.

My whole experience of being made miserable by Fall on Your Knees lasted even longer than the actual reading. I could not understand why the book was so popular. Had I missed something? Was I a prissy, limited reader incapable of the empathetic and imaginative stretch it would take to enjoy something like this book? I scoured the internet for commentary on the book looking for a key to understanding how anyone could love it. I read reviews of Fall on Your Knees which usually didn’t seem to be about the book I had read. If my memory serves me correctly, one reviewer claimed it was an evocative depiction of family life in Cape Breton in the twenties. If I were a Cape Bretoner I would object to that assessment quite strongly. Perhaps I'd also produce a statistic or two about the rarity of families boasting pedophiliac, incestuous, bootlegging patriarchs.

Oprah Winfrey later selected Fall On Your Knees for her book club. This did not faze me. Although I applaud Winfrey’s efforts to get America reading and respect that she probably has realized demonstrable success in this endeavour, I can’t show the same enthusiasm for her literary taste. Yes, her books are a step up artistically for those who normally might only read romance or detective novels, but I would hope those who made that step would keep on climbing. I don’t feel any need to align my literary taste with Winfrey’s. She is just one person, after all. I wasn’t even bothered by her pronouncement that she was discontinuing her book club because "there weren’t enough good books", because I automatically amended her statement to "she can’t possibly have enough reading time to find the good books". What did bother me was that before she had singled out Fall On Your Knees, tens of thousands of people were reading the book and independently coming to the conclusion that they enjoyed it.

I still have not settled my internal "is it my failing or is it MacDonald’s" debate over this book, though fortunately the debate eventually dimmed and quieted. I can only say again, as I said about Clay, that a book that has horrifying, repulsive content must have some sufficiently attractive qualities to compensate. Perfume has enough attractive qualities. Grenouille has genius, artistry, and achieves at a high level, which are always compelling, no matter what their context. Perfume is well plotted and suspenseful. The concept is original and the idea that scent is such a profound and unrealized force in our lives is an intriguing one. These things compensate for the repellent force of Grenouille’s cold-bloodedness — and for the silliness of the novel’s climactic scene and denouement (scent may be an unrecognized power in our lives but I refuse to believe it's as powerful as Suskind's scenario suggests).

I can’t say that Fall On Your Knees has achieved this sort of balance between attraction and repulsion. I wanted, somewhere in the course of my reading of it, to experience a positive emotion, to be inspired, to be moved, to admire, to empathize. Instead the experience was more like that of watching the lowest kind of talk show. I came to know too much about a group of people about whom I couldn't bring myself to care, and I was only repelled.

Saturday, 9 December 2006

The Witch That Cannot Bewitch

Witch Child by Celia Rees is a young adult novel about a seventeenth-century English girl, Mary. The woman who raised Mary and whom Mary called her grandmother is tried and hung as a witch, and Mary winds up immigrating with a group of Puritan settlers to America in attempt to escape the same fate. Except that she is then accused of witchcraft there, and it turns out that she does indeed have some supernatural powers. Witch Child is a respectably good young adult novel – the writing is competent, it’s very well plotted and suspenseful, and the historical research seems to be accurate. Rees also used a Blair Witch Project-style gimmick, presenting the novel as though it were an actual historical diary by including prologues and afterword notes from one “Alison Ellman”, who states that efforts to identify Mary are ongoing and requesting that anyone who might have information about her email her at the address provided. I visited the site mentioned, and found that it featured some basic historical background for the book, period woodcut illustrations, Celia Rees’ explanations of how she came up with the idea and why she used the Alison Ellman presentation, and of course a vendor’s link so that the viewer can conveniently purchase the book and its sequel. I admire the cleverness of the Alison Ellman gimmick – it will make the book seem very immediate to modern teens. But the book itself is too slick. There isn’t a lot of depth. Yes, I realize that it’s a young adult fantasy novel and so I deliberately used the phrase “respectably good young adult novel” in my assessment above. Witch Child does stand up well compared to an average teen novel. But then so many teen novels are atrocious, so this is not saying much. Which leads me to the question of why they’re atrocious.

I’m impatient with the all too common practice of classifying children’s and young adult literature as some sort of lesser art than materials written for adults. To begin with, good writing is always something to cherish, wherever it may be found. Adults should be beyond the sort of developmental superiority and condescension children often have for those a few years younger than they, and be able to enjoy genuine artistry in all its forms and at all levels. Children and young adults deserve and need good writing, and I still think it’s fair to judge a young adult or child’s novel by the usual literary standards, to expect artistic and intellectual merit rather than merely readability. It’s entirely possible to write excellent literary fiction that is suited to a teenager’s intellectual level, as say, Cynthia Voigt has done. And if we fail to demand literary work from authors in this genre and also don’t acknowledge it when it does appear, we’re only reinforcing the low calibre. So, as I say, the book is a very slight one in terms of literary merits. It’s in the Lois Duncan vein – suspenseful, readable, but flimsy. The characterizations are rather shallow, and though Rees’ physical settings may be historically accurate she has not been able to recreate a convincing seventeenth-century psychology for her characters. Mary is too modern in her sensibilities, too sophisticated for a seventeenth-century 14-year-old girl, too brisk and assured in her choices and emotional reactions, too detached in her descriptions of her environment and society. She writes as though she were a twenty-first century adult coolly assessing the ridiculously hysterical people around her. Though she knows she has some magical powers, she never wonders if any others in her settlement do. She makes friends with a native American without having to overcome a trace of the prejudice and fear the other settlers uniformly feel. She masquerades as a boy and swims naked without a qualm. Meanwhile the other characters act on simplistic motivations. Mary’s considered a witch by the ill-natured of the town and protected by the kindly ones who know her. It probably would have been a sound idea to have some of those who cared for her also show some fear of possible witchcraft, to have to resolve some inner conflicts, to have Mary progress from being a child to a self-sufficient adult, to have her make mistakes and question herself and her own values. As is, it’s a thin little suspense novel, quickly and easily read, and almost as quickly and easily forgotten.

Sunday, 3 December 2006

The Vampire Book I Read In Spite of Myself

I found out about the novel Sunshine, by young adult fantasy writer Robin McKinley by visiting McKinley's web site. Upon reading the excerpt I found there I discovered that Sunshine was about vampires, which in effect punctured my usual enthusiasm for the latest McKinley book. Those of you who like vampires can picture blood spurting from the jugular, and the rest of you can imagine a tire sadly deflating. Far be it from me to deny anyone the visual of his or her choice.

A reading of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and a half-reading of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire exhausted my limited interest in sucker lit some years ago, and it has not revived. However, I’ve read and loved all of McKinley’s books published to date and it would likely be a few years before there was another and so… I popped over to the Toronto Public Library site and placed a hold on it. I’m glad I did.

Sunshine is funny, involving, and suspenseful. There’s the usual wry, reluctant McKinley heroine, her next-to-impossible yet inescapable quest, and a complex, beautifully imagined alternate universe, complete with homely details such as how a vampire looks in a borrowed bathrobe. Aside from the vampires, there are other ways in which this book is something apart from the rest of McKinley’s oeuvre. It’s set in a modern environment with cars, sneakers, and video games such as McKinley has only used in some of her short stories, and written in the first person, which as far as I can recall she hasn’t previously done at all. She’s invented her own slang for the 25-year-old heroine to use and her own terms for computers and the Internet (a wise choice, since real slang and technology date faster than anything else). The resulting modernity and immediacy gives this alternate universe a coolness and an edge Damar never had. Moreover there is an abortive sex scene that is so incredibly erotic that its abrupt termination left me nearly as frustrated as the heroine. McKinley has been holding out on us—there were no sex scenes in any of her earlier books.

I remain uncoverted to all things vampirish, and am going to let Interview with the Vampire remain half-read (as I wish I had done with the horribly bloated The Witching Hour), but I enjoyed Sunshine as much as any of McKinley’s other novels.

Wednesday, 29 November 2006

Lost in the Lake of the Woods

Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods is a novel about a man who is a Vietnam vet, a politician, the product of a troubled family, and the husband of a woman he loves desperately. In his case it’s a disastrous combination. John Wade has just lost a U.S. Senate election by a landslide. The media had managed to dig up a part of his war record he had thought he had managed to bury. So, he and his wife Kathy have rented a cottage in the Lake of the Woods in order to recuperate, and to plan their next move. But then one morning Kathy is not in the bed beside John, and their rental boat is not in the boathouse, and he can’t remember much of what he did the night before, though he knows he boiled the plants and later found himself lying naked on the dock.

The novel is at once a serious literary effort, a horror story, and a whodunit (or rather, a whodunwhat). The structure is perfectly suited to the subject matter. The chapters have documentary type names – “What he remembers”, “What he did next”, “Where they looked”, and are interspersed with chapters titled “Evidence”, which consist entirely of quotes pulled from various sources – John’s mother, Kathy’s sister, texts on the effects of trauma, various politicians, the small town cops who investigated Kathy’s disappearance, John’s campaign manager, the transcripts of the court martial trials of John’s platoon members, etc., and also there are footnotes supposedly constructed by the biographer, in which he guesses and second guesses at solutions. Then there are chapters called “Hypothesis”, which provide no less than four possible explanations for Kathy’s disappearance. The reader doesn’t, and isn’t supposed to know, what is fact and what is supposition. It’s an excellent format for this novel, and works on several levels. It’s a construct representing John’s psyche which has become so fragmented even he can’t trust his own senses and memories; it gives the reader a taste of the frustration and helplessness those dealing with him would have experienced; and it’s a psychological and literary puzzle for the reader.

Lake of the Woods is the kind of book that, although excellent, isn’t likely to be anyone’s favourite and happily re-read between sips of hot tea. It’s too unsettling, and unless you happen to really like graphic descriptions of violence, it’s almost unreadable in places. But it’s an indication of Tim O’Brien’s accomplishment that while I was repelled by the character of John Wade, I could not dismiss him as not worth whatever struggles or discomfort it might take to understand him. And given my society's less than successful methods of dealing with the violent, the mentally ill, and the damaged veterans of military actions , this seems a frame of mind worth the discomfort it entails.

Saturday, 25 November 2006

The Lives of the Incidental and the Related

Anne De Courcy’s The Viceroy’s Daughters: The Lives of the Curzon Sisters is a biography of three English sisters – Irene Curzon (1896-1966), Cynthia “Cimmie” Curzon Mosley (1898-1933), and Alexandra “Baba” Curzon Metcalfe (1904-1995). Their father, George Curzon, was a brilliant man who was born to the peerage and held a series of important posts in the British government at a time when Great Britain was the most powerful country in the world. He was Under Secretary of State at the Foreign Office, then Viceroy of India, then Leader of the House of Lords, then member of the War Cabinet during the First World War, then Foreign Secretary, and finally Lord President of the Council – all this in spite of the agonizing pain caused by the curvature of the spine that he suffered, and the necessity of wearing a steel corset. For a wife he chose one of the most beautiful young debutantes in America, Mary Leiter. Though Mary and George did love each other it was not incidental that Mary was also one of America’s richest young debutantes, since George could not have otherwise have afforded such a career. The viceroy’s salary, for instance, did not half finance the lifestyle thought necessary to a viceroy.

As one might expect of those born to such parents the three Curzon sisters were wealthy, titled, beautiful, intelligent, and strong-willed. This book documents their intertwined lives. It was an era when women did not have careers and the three women lived sumptuously on their inheritances all their lives anyway, but they all gave a great deal of time and energy to the public good and excelled at whatever they did. Cimmie was a Member of Parliament. Irene and Baba both did a considerable amount of charitable work, in honour of which Irene was created on of the first four female life peers in 1958, and Baba awarded a CBE in 1975. Cimmie and Baba married and had three children each. Irene never married and had no children, although she essentially raised Cimmie’s children after Cimmie died at the age of 34 from an appendectomy performed in a pre-antibiotic era. Socially they mingled with many of the well-known people of the day, and the index to the book reads like a Who’s Who of the thirties. To give a few examples of their social connections, George Curzon had a long-standing affair with Elinor Glyn, and Glyn, a kind woman, also became a fondly regarded and lifelong friend to the Curzon daughters. Cimmie’s husband was Sir Oswald “Tom” Mosley, a charismatic and power-obsessed politician who founded an alarmingly successful fascist party in England in the thirties. Prince George (later the Duke of Kent) fell in love with Baba, although not she with him. Baba’s husband was the closest male friend the Duke of Windsor ever had, and Baba had affairs with many powerful men – including her brother-in-law, Tom Mosley. Tom Mosley’s second wife was Diana Guinness, who was Unity Mitford’s sister and, like Unity, a friend of Hitler’s.

This book had me musing about the nature of history. If history is not what actually happened but our construction of what happened, why include these three particular women in it? Why was this topic worth the intensive work it must have been to document it? While reading the 454-page book I kept waiting for one of the Curzon sisters to do something to warrant such a biography. I think I must have read several hundred pages before it dawned on me that this was not going to happen. I probably should have taken the hint from the title and subtitle, which define the three women by their biological relationships, or from the four review blurbs on the back of the book, which make use of the term “social history” twice. The Curzon sisters led useful lives that are mildly interesting to the reader, but they were not of historical importance in themselves. This book about them is primarily worth reading for the social and historical context it provides. The Viceroy's Daughters is, therefore, a good book to read if one wants a sense of what life was like in aristocratic English circles during the first half of the twentieth century. One learns that the hunt was a subculture of its own and could be an entire way of life for some, as it was for Irene for a time. There are incidents that speak volumes about the social mores of the era, such as George Curzon’s summary dismissal of a housemaid who had allowed a footman to spend the night in her bed (“I put the wretched little slut out in the street at a moment’s notice.”) He saw no parallel between the housemaid’s actions and his own many affairs, and there is no mention of what happened to the footman. It is related that Baba taught Prince George to drive in a single afternoon – a few hours’ instruction from a friend being standard driver’s education at the time. There is by far the most negative and unflattering account of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s relationship and behaviour towards others that I have ever read. And there is a truly disturbing account of the growth and momentum of Tom Mosley’s British fascist movement, complete with pictures of a moustached, black-shirted Tom exhorting a fervent crowd and the lyrics for a song called “Mosley!” (“Mosley, Leader of thousands!/Hope of our manhood, we proudly hail thee!/Raise we the song of allegiance/For we are sworn and shall not fail thee.”). If the reader has any complacent notion that the threat and allure of fascism was limited to one or two leaders and their countries, or even to one era, he or she will be disabused.

The Curzon sisters have much in common with Princess Diana, and they share her specific relationship to history. They, like her, were born to the aristocracy, wealthy, beautiful, well-dressed, unhappy in their marriages and romances, successful mothers, active in charitable works, and politically unimportant. Not being a part of the royal family, nor mothers to the heir to the throne, they were less well known. And at any rate media coverage in their day, though it covered society events and the lives of the aristocracy, would have had an entirely different tone from that of Diana’s time. If the Curzon sisters had had colonial irrigations or bulimia, it was not breathlessly reported. I doubt that Irene’s excessive drinking was ever generally bruited about. Being famous, however, has always meant that people whom you have never met believe that they know you. So the Curzon sisters, like Diana, would have been objectified and treated as characters in a soap opera rather than as people, and even more idealized. It made me realize that in a hundred years’ time Diana will probably be largely forgotten, or at least have dwindled to the status of a tragic footnote, as has say, Anne Boleyn. In any case I expect her image won’t still be appearing on magazine covers and bus shelters. Because in the case of these celebrity soap opera-like stories, you probably had to be there at the time watching, and have the memories of the unfolding events interwoven with the events of your own life, in order to feel that they have any compelling meaning.

Tuesday, 21 November 2006

A Frolic On the Banks

Cathie Pelletier's novel Once Upon A Time On the Banks employs a structure I particularly like. I have a fondness for the ensemble novel, which involves a large cast of characters and a number of subplots all wound around one central event. When properly used this format allows for a cataclysm of events both comic and tragic. Each subplot can be used to enrich all the others. And surely it’s an advantage for an author to be able to cast such a complex web of plotting instead of relying on a single piece of bait. The reader is bound to find one of the subplots compelling.

This novel is set in 1969 in Mattagash, a little backwoods town in Maine. The central event of this novel is the upcoming wedding of one Amy Joy Lawler, who has declared her intent to marry the French-Canadian Jean-Claude Cloutier. And one by one the other characters with their own intentions gather for Amy Joy’s wedding. Her mother, Sicily, takes to her bed at once. The Cloutiers vow that that they’ll never let their Jean-Claude marry that bossy English girl and Jean-Claude’s mother is praying to saints that have not even been canonized. Across town the two ne’er do well Gifford brothers are dreaming of the shining hubcaps they’ll glean from all the out-of-town wedding guest vehicles and their wives Goldie and Vera have begun a no-holds-barred feud over Goldie’s purchase of the town’s entire stock of Christmas tree lights. Eighty miles away in Portland Amy’s Aunt Pearl is longing to get back to Mattagash. Pearl’s husband Marvin Ivy is worrying about a shortage of customers for his funeral home. Amy’s cousin Junior Ivy is having an affair with the Ivy Funeral Home secretary, Monique Tessier. Junior’s wife Thelma is having a one-sided, Valium-aided love affair with Bob Barker from “The Price is Right” ("Come on dowwwwwn, Thelma!"). Thelma and Junior’s son Randy is racking up some true sixties experiences – dropping out, getting high, getting busted, getting VD, and getting in trouble with all of his authority figures. Albert Pinkham, proprietor of Mattagash’s only motel, is looking forward to some sure income and wondering if he should get a pool for the Albert Pinkham Motel since it’s sure to attract business and one of those plastic wading numbers can’t cost too much. And through every extravagant subplot and every tragic-comic moment, each character is aware of his or her own mortality, and of the urgent importance of living life the way it should be lived before it comes time to die.

A few pages into this novel when I first grasped the fact that it was set in a backwoods Maine town of only 456 people and ran into the first double name and double negative, I began to dread that this might be something in the Fanny Farmer vein, a novel that invites the reader to ridicule its rustic characters while expecting them to simultaneously admire what’s supposed to be homespun wisdom but is really facile platitudes costumed in picturesquely bad grammar and livestock references. But I needn’t have worried. Pelletier has Dorothy Parker’s gift for laying bare her characters’ silliness and idiosyncrasies while leaving their dignity intact, and her very own gift for creating regional flavour and characters who are simultaneously people of a specific time and place and people to whom anyone might relate. (A friend of mine who is orginally from New Brunswick assures me that Pelletier NAILED the atmosphere of a small town on the east coast.)

There is much to laugh at and the Ivys must surely be fiction’s most hilariously dysfunctional family, but there is also much that is admirable and moving, and Pelletier is perceptive and poetic in her rendering of what might so easily have slid into banality. When 23-year-old Amy Joy sits in front of the mail-order vanity table that she has had since eighth grade and gazes into the heart-shaped mirror while putting on her blue eyeshadow, Pelletier manages to make it a poignant moment. Amy Joy is thinking how her unmade-up face reminds her of the little girl she once was, who was made perfectly happy by a swim in the river, a good towelling, and the run home towards her mother’s cooking, and feels the disconnect between that joyful little girl and her surrender to the moment at hand, and her adult decision to marry Jean-Claude, a decision she sees as something that is “crystallizing” her, something that will leave her “sealed forever”. When Goldie Gifford and her children decorate their yard with all forty boxes of Christmas lights in early spring it’s Goldie’s first signal effort to save her six children and herself from their former status as Giffords, the dole-collecting pariahs of the town. Her children can pride themselves on having the most Christmas tree lights of any family on earth, and once they have felt this pride it’s easier to get them to pick up the trash in the yard and do their homework. In the end, Pelletier’s Mattagash seems less like a backwoods than like the centre of a universe where all the important things happen, and like any fully realized universe it comes complete with a gravitational pull too strong to resist.

Friday, 17 November 2006

The Aviatrix

As Beryl Markham is not well-known, I should probably begin by saying Markham (1902-1986) was Kenya’s first female bush pilot, the first person to fly solo from England to North America, the author of a very good and successful book (a memoir entitled West With the Night), and Kenya’s legendary, and first-ever licensed female, horse trainer. As I read Straight On Till Morning: a Biography of Beryl Markham, by Mary S. Lovell, I wondered why the name of Beryl Markham was not as well known as that of Amelia Earhart, since Markham set a more substantial flying record than Earhart had. Earhart was only the first woman to fly solo from America to Ireland. This was a far easier trip than a westward crossing due to the difference than air currents, and a number of men had preceded her.

In this Salon interview, Betsy Prioleau attributes the disparity between the two to the fact that aviatrix Beryl Markham’s love life “doesn’t bear inspection”, but I do not see how this could have been the reason. The media of the day showed far more restraint in what they did and did not report (i.e., although Bill Clinton was far from the first or most promiscuous president, during earlier administrations we were not subjected to accounts of presidential preferences in the taste of cigars). Although Markham’s casual promiscuity was common knowledge to all who were acquainted with her, it would not have been reported in the press no matter what her level of fame as an aviatrix (this word delighted me so much it nearly made me regret the otherwise useful and praiseworthy gender neutralization of language). Her contemporary Marlene Dietrich had literally thousands of partners of both genders and unblushingly regaled dinner party guests with accounts of her escapades, and that never seemed to affect her career adversely. A more likely explanation is that Amelia Earhart died young and spectacularly in the middle of an internationally publicized record flight, while Markham was never able to muster the financial backing for any further stunts and lived out a long life in relative obscurity. As in the cases of legendary Marilyn Monroe and the nearly forgotten Brigitte Bardot, an early death while one and one’s legend remains free from wrinkles and liver spots can make all the difference between posterity and obscurity. Also it may be pertinent that Earhart was American while Markham spent most of her life in Kenya. The U.S. has a marked celebrity culture while Kenya is not known for its self-promotion.

But although Earhart may have garnered more fame in her passage through the world, I doubt that she was any more interesting as a biographical subject. Mary S. Lovell got to know Markham quite well during the last year of her life, was fascinated with her, and so presents her as a fascinating person, and perhaps more sympathetically than a biographer who had not personally experienced Markham’s charisma might have done. For Markham would have been difficult to know. She had a phenomenal affinity with animals and an equally confounding inability to maintain relationships with other people. She did as she pleased without regard for authority or the feelings of others. She had a terrible temper. She was certainly not someone to whom one would want to lend money, as her attitude towards her debts was as cavalier as her attitude towards her marital infidelities. She was not one who ever went out of her way to help anyone, though her friends were generous with her. Markham had a remarkable talent for making friends and winning love, but the friendships tended not to be long-lived, especially in the cases of other women. Markham and Karen “Tania” Blixen certainly had a strong affection for one another at one point, with the older Blixen taking an almost maternal attitude towards the younger woman and opening her home to the divorced, penniless 20-year-old Markham, but this did not stop Markham from having affairs with both Blixen’s ex-husband Bror Blixen and current lover, Denys Finch-Hatton. It was Finch-Hatton who first took Markham flying, and it was actually Markham, not Blixen, whom Finch-Hatton invited to accompany him on his last and fatal flight, but she declined.

Amazingly, no one seems to have minded Markham’s behaviour very much, and Lovell’s quotes from those who knew Markham contain no bitterness. Her son was very proud of her and seems to have accepted that she was an unattainable figure. She did remarkably little damage to others, perhaps because she usually behaved as she did simply to ensure her survival, rather than from malice. Even those who didn’t like her respected her. Her book was rediscovered in 1982 because someone came across a reference to it in one of Ernest Hemingway’s letters. Hemingway had written that “this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves writers.” One of her jockeys told Lovell that Markham “was a first-class superbitch who never gave a damn about anyone but herself”, that “at times I hated her guts but by God I respected her. Now over twenty years later, though I haven’t seen her for years, I still love her like a lover.” Note the adjectives used before the word “bitch” in both cases, which are in the way of grudging upgrades from the common and undistinguished pejorative. And is it just me, or does Hemingway’s comment seem a little… personal? If hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, perhaps it has nothing so spitefully sharp as the pen of a scorned and normally lionized writer.

An interesting feature of Mary Lovell’s research was that she had great difficulty separating fact from legend. Beryl Markham was well known in Kenya and even at the end of her life whenever she appeared at the track people at the track still pointed her out and whispered about her. It’s unusual for a woman in her eighties to be the subject of gossip, but Markham was. Lovell heard many rumours about Markham and many of them proved to be unfounded. Lovell found no evidence that Markham ever drank to excess, or that she had had an affair with the Prince of Wales (Edward, that is, not Charles, which would have been too far-fetched even for the most versatile gossip), proved that Prince Henry could not possibly have fathered Beryl Markham’s son, and commented wryly that if Markham had really been as promiscuous as claimed she would have spent the entirety of her adult life in a reclining position.

One rumour that dogged Beryl Markham all her life was that she was illiterate and could not have written West With the Night. Lovell concluded from her experience with Markham and her extensive research that both these allegations were untrue, but it seems odd that such a rumour should have been so persistent. Perhaps this was because her other attributes – her beauty, charisma, courage, stamina, and physical skills – were undeniable, while her literary abilities left more room for speculation, and since she was a perpetually hot topic, the gossip bloomed in what form it could.

Though as I read this book I often wondered that anyone would put up with this woman’s behaviour, at the same time I knew exactly why people did. Excellence and success attract and compel, and an unpretentious, unapologetic manner devoid of any real ill will towards others compensate for much bad behaviour. Markham was so very interesting, charismatic, and genuinely entertaining – titillating, enraging, shocking, moving, and inspiring. Unfair as it may be, people will forgive those who inspire and fascinate them far more readily than they will forgive a bore.