Sunday, 24 June 2007

A Good Song Among Many

The 1983 Newbery Medal Winner Cynthia Voigt’s Dicey’s Song, like Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown, is one of the Newbery award winners I have read and re-read it until my copy of the book is much the worse for the wear. I’ve loved and collected Voigt’s work for nearly twenty years, and she is not only one of my favourite young adult writers but also the one who most inspires me. As I work on the manuscript of my own young adult novel I often think of her, and aspire to her level of excellence, measuring my work against the standard set by hers. That the very fruitlessness of this aspiration leaves me ready to pound my head repeatedly against my keyboard is neither here nor there.

It speaks volumes about the quality of Voigt’s work that Dicey’s Song, though it is certainly very good, is not even what I would call the best of Voigt’s 30 books. Voigt is a consistently excellent writer and a number of her other books are comparable achievements: Homecoming, The Runner, A Solitary Blue, Tell Me if the Lovers Are Losers, and especially David and Jonathan are all at least as good if not better. A Solitary Blue in particular is one of Voigt’s books I love most. A Solitary Blue was a Newbery Honor Book in 1984, but lost the medal to Beverley Cleary’s Dear Mr. Henshaw. I haven’t read Dear Mr. Henshaw yet, but it had better be damn good.

Dicey’s Song is the second of what became the Tillerman Cycle novels, a series of six novels about a family named the Tillermans. There are four books that involve Dicey and her three siblings James, Maybeth, and Sammy, one book about Dicey’s uncle, and two more focusing on the lives of two of Dicey’s friends. In Homecoming, 13-year-old Dicey and her three younger siblings are abandoned by their mother, Liza Tillerman. The four children spend a summer making their way (mostly on foot and without adult assistance or money) from Provincetown, Massachusetts to the grandmother they have never met in Maryland. Of course this is plot enough for two novels and so Dicey’s Song is much less eventful. The four children gradually settle into life at their grandmother’s farm and try to cope with their grief for their mother, who lies in a catatonic state in a Massachusetts hospital mental ward. They also deal with the usual strains and pains of growing up and their own individual problems: James’s suppression of his superior academic abilities so that he will be liked by his classmates, Maybeth’s difficulties in learning to read, and Sammy’s pitched battles with other boys at school.

Cynthia Voigt has said that Dicey is the child she wishes she had been and that Dicey’s grandmother, Abigail Tillerman, is the old lady she hopes to become. And indeed the two characters really do seem like older and younger versions of each other, with their fierce independence and intelligence. It’s to Voigt’s credit that these idealized versions of herself became their own selves and are so realistically and unsentimentally drawn. Dicey especially is an accomplishment. Growing up is an inherently a sporadic and uneven process, and although Dicey may have a more than adult level of determination and self-reliance, she is also very much just a kid, and even a backward one, in some other ways.

I’m trying to decide what I think about the fact that although Dicey, who is bored with school, is an excellent student in every class but home economics, where she refuses to make a more than minimal effort. Dicey thinks Miss Eversleigh isn’t “teaching anything Dicey needed to know, or wanted to know. Who wanted to memorize food groups or talk about seasonal buying or how to store food while conserving energy? Not Dicey.” Are we to believe that Dicey, who is (and has to be) very practical, does a fair share of the housework required for a family of five people and seems to love to work with her hands, truly would not see the value in knowing how to make nutritious meals or sew on buttons? This seems like a contrived conflict. Surely if Voigt wanted to have Dicey learn that there is value in a field of knowledge she’d scorned, another less practical subject would have been a better choice.

I did really like the way Voigt portrays the dynamics of the classroom and the hurly burly of the school hallways and playground (these are always unmistakably authentic in Voigt’s books, perhaps unsurprisingly, as she is a former teacher). Voigt also does quite well with her rendering of the Tillermans’ poverty. Abigail Tillerman had only made a subsistence living from her farm and in order to be able to keep the four children, she must apply for welfare benefits, and even then be careful with every penny. Between the Tillermans’ love for one another and their financial straits, this is a family that could have come perilously close to resembling the Waltons’. My rereading of the book for this review reminded me of both George H.W. Bush’s declaration that “America needs more family like the Waltons”, and Jay Leno’s surprisingly sharp rejoinder that “America already has too many families like the Waltons. They live in shacks and have no jobs and no health care.”

No, the Tillermans don’t scratch and hustle around and show a steel-spined independence and ingenuity and manage to stay off welfare. If anything, Dicey and Abigail learn that self-reliance and pride can be carried too far, and that reaching out to other people can involve having to learn to accept kindness in the form of material assistance. They take the government benefits as well as some tactful gifts from their friends, and though this outrages Abigail’s pride the children only care that it upsets her. Then they all scratch and hustle around to make and save a few dollars here and there to put food on the table and the fewest possible items of clothing on their backs, as well as those few luxuries that are really necessities: piano lessons for musically talented, shy Maybeth who is humiliated by her slowness in school, and a quietly beautiful dress for Dicey who hates that is she is physically maturing into a woman. Their poverty may circumscribe what they can do and how they must live, but only in the same way bad weather would. It doesn’t inform who they are or how they relate to one another. It’s simply an incidental fact of life to be dealt with so they can get on with doing the things they need and want to do, and there are definitely no ridiculously systematic good nights called along the hallways of their Chesapeake Bay farmhouse.

Voigt’s depiction of the eventual tragic fate of Liza Tillerman and of Dicey and her family’s resulting grief is one of the most heartbreaking passages I can think of in children’s or young adult’s fiction. The Tillermans, as always, get on with the business of life, but Voigt skilfully weaves their emotions into everything they do – into Dicey’s Christmas shopping, into Dicey and Abigail’s train ride home from the hospital in Massachusett’s, into Maybeth’s choice of music, into Sammy’s unintentionally and poignantly funny comments, into Abigail’s showing the children old family photographs for the first time - until we know just how deep and far reaching their loss is.

And much the same thing can be said of Voigt’s entire body of work. Her characters are always too proud and active and intellectually curious to merely emote or wallow. They keep moving through their lives, doing mostly ordinary things, but always learning a little more, doing a little more, becoming something slightly more. And because Voigt’s sensitive, moving work always feels so real, her readers get to feel they have done the same.

Saturday, 23 June 2007

Tales as Beautiful As They Are Good, Though They Are Neither One

The 1925 Newbery winner, Charles J. Finger’s Tales From Silver Lands, is a collection of nineteen folktales, gathered by Finger during his travels in South America. And, I might as well say this up front – I found these stories so uninteresting that I’m having difficulty finding anything to say about them.

I adored fairy and folk tales as a child and read all I could find. I loved finding stories from different countries, and comparing, say, the French Cinderella to her sisters of the hearth elsewhere in the world. Witches in especial fascinated me and I could never get enough of the Russian Baba Yaga. Now that I’m nominally a grownup, my tastes favour the grown-up version of the fairy tale. I love the fleshed-out retellings which feature actual character development instead of lines such as “she was as beautiful as she was good”, plots which have been beefed up to something far beyond the usual skeletal heroic quests and courtings, and the kind of sensory detail that makes fiction truly come to life. Some of my favourites are those written by Robin McKinley, who has done novel-length versions of "Sleeping Beauty", "Donkeyskin", and "Beauty and the Beast" (twice) as well as several short-story versions of a number of other well-known fairy tales; or Gregory Maguire’s sophisticated (and, for a pre9/11 novel, amazingly prescient) allegory of political terrorism Wicked: the Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. Incidentally, if you like this kind of grownup fairy tale, you might like to check out this Ask Metafilter thread for titles to check out and add to your reading list.

When I read Tales from Silver Lands I wondered if the stories were really as dull and wooden as they seemed to me or if I were simply too old and blasé to enjoy them. Discovering “The Hungry Old Witch” in the collection helped settle the question, because I did read that story as a child and never cared for it. I distinctly remember rooting for the witch rather than “Stout Heart” and his “maiden full of winning grace”. To my considerable irritation Stout Heart won the day, and his fair maiden became his wife, who was supposedly loved by all the people of his land “as the fairest woman among them”. (Riiiiight.)

There’s something annoyingly didactic about these stories. Liars are always punished, the lazy meet with some disastrous consequences, the brave always win the day, those who eat too much are destroyed in some spectacular way by their sheer consequences of their own gluttony. The Hungry Old Witch drowns because of the weight of the turtles she has eaten. El-Enano, a sort of monstrous wild child who demands an unending supply of food from a village, dies because he mistakes hot coals for hot baked potatoes. In the “Bad Wishers” a childless woman is punished for wishing to have a strong boy and a girl with keen eyes when she gives birth to a blind, strong boy and a crippled, far-sighted girl. In “The Tale of the Lazy People” a tribe is overrun by magical carved wooden figures with long tails who do their work for them, and who eventually become monkeys who spend the rest of their existence laughing at mankind. In “A Tale of Three Tails”, the rat, the deer and the rabbit lose the beautiful long plumed tails they originally had for acts of treachery. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that in the creation myths humankind has invented over the past millenniums physical characteristics and laws of nature are so often set as they are for punishment? Not only do we humans need reasons for why things are the way they are, we also seem to be wired with the need to believe the reasons are just.

I suppose the Tales from Silver Lands are the kind of stories that a group of well-meaning librarians thought would teach children the value of love and loyalty, bravery, hard work, and kindness, but instead they impress me more as a pill of questionable medicinal value in some very inferior jam. I’m sceptical that such overtly moralistic fiction has ever improved anyone’s character – at least, I question if it does more for the development of character and virtue than non-preachy fiction. And certainly there is little that is character-building about equating beauty with virtue and worth and making ugliness synonymous with evil, which these stories, like most folk and fairy tales, also continually do.

Perhaps Charles Finger simply didn’t manage to carry off the transposition of these stories from oral tellings to the written form. Stories that would probably be quite entertaining when told by one of Finger’s picturesquely described cigar-smoking old ladies at a communal fireside won’t play as well when dutifully typed word for word on paper. Folktales that have been told verbally for a century or more have a certain economy of language; they employ broad sweeping descriptions rather than fine detail, and rely on crowd-pleasing action and fast moving plots to give interest. There are limits to the human memory, and also to the time allowed before one’s audience wants the storyteller to wrap it up so they can go to bed. Literature, on the other hand, is for a different kind of audience, one that is putting a more concerted effort and time into the story and therefore expects more from it, such as the more contemplative pleasures of character development, inner conflict, and complexity of theme.

I wondered too if there might be some sort of cultural divide, and if Charles Finger should have also provided more societal context for his stories in order to make them more intelligible to North American readers, but I think not, despite Finger's cringeworthy references to the "worthy and simple people" he met in his travels (people are never simple to anyone but a condescending ass). After all, I have a Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm in one of my bookcases and have never read more than a third of its 727 pages for much the same reasons. These are elemental stories of the human experience and can be understood by anyone from any culture. And that’s a good thing. But they are also too elemental and simplistic to be interesting or to capture and engage the imagination, and this is not a good thing.

Monday, 18 June 2007

Real Fantasy

Robin McKinley's The Hero and the Crown is one of the books on the Newbery list I have most dreaded reviewing. When it comes to qualities that make a book the hardest to review, this novel has all the bases covered. I have read and reread it so many times over the past 20 years that it’s difficult to dredge up any even quasi-objective thoughts or fresh impressions about it. I love it and pretty much everything else McKinley has written, and I’ve already covered one Robin McKinley book in an earlier review, so my reserve of non-groupie-like praise for her work has already been exhausted. However, I am in a reviewing mood today and this review has to be written sometime if I’m ever to get through the Newbery winners list, so here we go.

I first read The Hero and the Crown 20 years ago, at the age of 13. I never related to Aerin, never felt I was like her, never wanted to be her nor even to be friends with her (even supposing that she would, theoretically, have wanted to be friends with me), never imagined myself a part of her world as so often did with my favourite books. All I knew was that she and Damar sucked me in and roared and clashed and happened all around me.

The Hero and the Crown, to try to sum it up briefly and without spoilers as per the reviewer’s rule book, is about Aerin, the daughter of a king of a country that is half magical fantasyland and half medieval. Aerin a bit of a misfit, though I hate to use the word, because it might lead to my using “ragtag” and “lovable” and because it smacks of Disney movies involving bands of lovable, ragtag misfits and I don’t want Disney or anything it spawns even that close to anything McKinley ever wrote.

So I’d better say that Aerin is somewhat at odds with her environment because her mother was a commoner who was suspected of being a witch and because Aerin has the kind of crankily independent personality that would pretty much guarantee her being at odds with any environment, anywhere. The people of her land and most of the royal household look askance at her, and she looks askance back. Aerin grows up in a melee that never knows what to make of her, and so she has to take matters into her own hands and make something of herself – retraining a lamed war horse of her father’s and inventing a new way to ride, learning how to use a sword, discovering a formula for dragonfire-proof salve, exterminating dragons, becoming a saving presence for her cousin and heir to the throne Tor, and eventually mustering all these acquired skills in defense of her country and people at a time of great dangers.

McKinley is probably incapable of creating a princess that is anything like the popular storybook conception of one. For Aerin’s world McKinley even ditches the word princess in favour of her own original royal hierarchy and terms. Aerin and her cousins are all ranked as first and second sols and solas and there are some political manoeuvrings and attempted sola climbing. Aerin, by the way, was born with more than her fair share of her father’s political acumen, though mostly she can’t be bothered to use it. Galanna, Aerin’s cousin, is more of a fairy tale stock character (specifically in a nasty stepsister sort of way), but even she is has some intelligence and depth and her tussles with Aerin are satisfyingly evenly matched, bring out the worst in both of them, and usually end in some kind of draw. McKinley shows the same inventiveness when it comes to Aerin’s heroic actions. Aerin's achievements are never unproblematic, and never win her the unqualified adoration of her people as it might in a lesser book. Luthe, the mage whose help she seeks (a mage being a sort of wizard with advanced training), finds his magical practice a complicated and troublesome thing and is just as subject to mistakes and impulses as any else in the book.

The last review I wrote and another one I am working on now have left me pondering the role of fantasy in our lives, and the qualities which make it satisfying. It seems to me that the more richly detailed and nuanced a fantasy is the more absorbing it will be. A princess may be as beautiful as she is good, but that won’t make her interesting. A reader doesn’t know – or want to know – Princess Goodie Gum Drops the ways she does Aerin, with her badly darned stockings and her rueful take on life. The paradox of fantasy is that the more real it seems, the more completely one can escape into it. A good fantasy world must be as rich in detail and as multilayered as the real world we inhabit. McKinley understands this, and that is why The Hero and the Crown and all her other books are unfailingly a world in themselves.

Monday, 11 June 2007

Chewing on Chicklit

On a recent trip to Value Village I came across a copy of Jemima J: a novel about ugly ducklings and swans, by Jane Green. I distinctly remembered a discussion about the book on the old forums. Everyone was united in loathing. So I spent the few dollars to buy it, thinking happily that there would be a lot of scope for ridicule in it and I could have fun trashing it in a review.

And then I read it. It really wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected. I’m not saying it’s good, mind you, just that it’s not completely unreadable and its failings provided me with some food for thought. In review terms this is what’s known as damning with qualified negatives, as in “You know, Madonna didn’t totally suck in Evita.” Am I recommending you read this book? No, go watch Evita instead. What I really want to do here is muse about some of the issues with Jemima J, and with chicklit in general.

I’m not widely read in this genre, but I have read a sampling: Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones duo as well as her earlier (promising if not quite there) Cause Celeb and later (terrible) Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination; the first several books in Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic series and Can You Keep a Secret; Kathleen Tessaro’s Elegance, and probably more that I have forgotten because they were forgettable. I suppose I could do a feminist critique of these books and complain about how they reinforce stereotypes and trivialize women’s issues and how no one writes this kind of stupid crap for a male audience and so forth, but I won’t. My main problem with this genre is that I expect it to be fun and involving and that it so seldom is.

Not that such books aren’t enjoyable in spots. Helen Fielding does have a remarkable talent for satire and in the first Bridget Jones book she sends up the dynamics and idiosyncrasies of office, family, friendship, and relationship politics in a way that had me in hysterics more than once. The first Shopaholic book was genuinely fun in a confectionary style, with its pitch perfect comic rendering of behaviour out of control, and the attendant denial, procrastination, magical thinking, and resolutions broken again and again. I couldn’t help liking that in Jemima J Jemima accomplishes exactly what she attempts, and as for Elegance, well… so I'll put up with a lot to read about clothes and style. Bite me.

But as much as I enjoyed the fun parts of these books, I can’t give these writers a free pass for their sloppy literary technique any more than I can condone the life of the party driving drunk. By all means write a fun, frothy book, but don’t get lazy and flout the rules for writing fiction, which are always in force, no matter the genre. The characters must be multi-dimensional, the factual content adequately researched, the conflicts compelling, the plot believable, the prose competent, and so forth.

And I’ll go beyond this standard list of literary requirements and make a special request of chick lit writers: Please, please, PLEASE don’t create any more stupid, vapid heroines who fuck up everything they touch. It’s not cute and it’s not funny and it’s the single biggest failing and irritant of this genre. The second Bridget Jones movie was generally considered not as good as the first, and I believe this to be due at least in part because the second book wasn’t as good as the first. Helen Fielding borrowed the plot of Bridget Jones' Diary from Pride and Prejudice; for Bridget Jones: the Edge of Reason she seems to have flown solo, with the result that both she and Bridget ran amok. I know a lot of women who were almost offended by the second movie. Bridget is supposed to be an ordinary woman, perhaps even an Everywoman (at least for the single, thirty-something crowd), and ordinary women expect an Everywoman to be much like themselves: intelligent, generally competent, and capable of both letting things slide and cleaning up well. We do not at all like the implication that ordinary women don’t know how to do their jobs properly, make basic decisions without the aid of their friends, or dress up becomingly for a special occasion. I spent the entire reading thinking alternately, “Can’t you do anything right?” and "How stupid can you be?" And let’s not even get into the notion that a 5’6” woman who weighs 140 pounds is fat.

But at least the Bridget Jones sequel wasn’t as bad as the Shopaholic sequels. It’s the same gag over again. And over again. Oh, and here it is again. Becky shops, and keeps shopping. And gets in financial trouble again. And pisses off her boyfriend/fiancé/husband again. And learns how wrong this all is. Until the next instalment. Rinse, repeat. Kinsella seems to be suffering from her own form of compulsion and is now up to her fifth book, Shopaholic and Baby. I can only hope she manages to stop herself before she reaches Shopaholic and Great-Grandbaby, in which Becky acquires a raft of designer walkers and false teeth and a bankrupted Luke moves out of their home to go live with their granddaughter, who is a voluntary simplicity guru.

It’s really no fun to read a book when one spends one’s entire time tapping one’s fingers waiting for the heroine to Get It. The premise of Elegance was a good one, but its execution wasn’t. I loved that a reading of a vintage book of fashion advice inspired the heroine to change her life. This is how inspiration works. It can spring from many sources; the simplest thing can galvanize you simply because you are ready to act. But there was something so conscious and mechanical about Louise’s journey. The book’s chapters are so topical, like a self-help book. Louise proceeds too neatly and efficiently from Learning Not To Settle to Learning Not to Spend Time with Toxic People to Learning Not To Be Afraid of Change, and the lessons she learns are just too clear cut and obvious. Her progression should have felt more organic and messy, like real change and growth always does.

In Jemima J, Jemima is at least not completely clueless. Nor is she a chronic mess who cannot develop any sort of self-control, a la Becky Bloomwood Branden or Bridget Jones. Over the course of the book, she loses 100 pounds, makes some new friends who care about her and falls in love with one of them, takes a trip to Los Angeles to meet a gorgeous man she met on the Internet, and sees her career options open up. Her friends assure her she’s a talented writer. She’s not. She’s a hack writer with a basic grasp of editing, but she has the ability and the work ethic required to churn out work to specifications, and in the world of fashion journalism to which she aspires, that will take her far. (Hey, it worked for Bonnie Fuller). And I liked that she has the self-discipline to do what’s necessary.

But… the novel isn’t funny, the characterizations are flat and stereotypical, and the plot twists are contrived. I’m less than enthusiastic about Green’s employment of dual narrative voices. She switches back and forth between Jemima’s first person narrative and an omniscient third person narrator. In the hands of a more skilled writer this could be an interesting way to structure a narrative. In Jemima J, it’s simply clunky, like a driver who can’t figure out what gear to use nor how to shift smoothly between them. The reader, to extend the analogy, winds up feeling like a confused and motion-sick passenger.

I’ve also read a number of criticisms on the net about the unrealistic elements of this book, and definitely agree with some of them. I don’t think Jane Green got the weight loss right. I’m going to hazard a guess and say Green has never been obese and that her research about it was cursory. Her depiction of Jemima’s weight loss project just does not have the ring of authenticity. I’m afraid those of us who have had to struggle with the occasional extra ten or twenty pounds are too prone to think we know all about what it’s like to be overweight. We don’t. Being 20 pounds overweight is nothing like being 100 or more pounds overweight. I struggle with my weight, but I don’t know anything about what it’s like to live with such physical limitations and so many daily humiliations, to not be able to find anything in the stores to fit me, to live with the kind of abject self-loathing some obese people do, to have people avoid eye contact or glare at me because I sat next to them on the bus. This thread on MetaFilter about what it’s like to be obese made this clear to me. I can easily walk four miles in an hour regardless of what I happen to weigh. I don’t know what it would be like to feel as though my knees are full of broken glass after walking a couple of blocks. A blog linked to in that thread, Clemie’s Reasons Why, almost had me in tears because it seemed so tragic that such a young, intelligent, personable woman could be reduced to such abject shame that some days she hides when there is a knock at the door rather than have anyone see her.

Jemima loses 100 pounds in approximately three months, which is surely very unlikely if not completely impossible. Sure, she might have lost 30 pounds that first month, but she would have been VERY lucky to lose three or four pounds a week for those last twenty or thirty pounds – one or two pounds a week would be much more realistic. Dieting plateaus are inevitable no matter how disciplined one is, and her rate of loss would have gotten slower and slower the closer she got to her goal, especially when her goal weight of 120 was very thin for her 5’7” frame There’s also no mention of skin sag or stretch marks – I find it hard to believe that at that rate and amount of weight loss there was none.

Jemima does not buy any sort of a transitional wardrobe as she downsizes, and I don’t see how that could have been avoided, even leaving aside the consideration of how it would have made her look. In my experience 10 pounds (lost or gained) = approximately one clothing size. A hundred pounds lost would mean a drop of 10 clothing sizes. Since Jemima wears a size eight at her goal weight, her original clothing size would have been a 28 or thereabouts. Even if I'm way off in my estimate and her old size was say, an 18 or a 20, her old skirts, pants and underwear would have literally fallen off her before she hit her goal weight.

Then there’s the fact that she met a gorgeous L.A. fitness studio owner named Brad via the net. Some reader reviews I have seen on the net scoff at the idea that such an attractive man would use internet dating. I’m not incredulous. Extremely good-looking people do use internet dating services; I’ve met some of them myself. I don’t find it hard to believe that a man like Brad, who turns out to be very shallow (even more so than everybody else in the book, amazingly), would resort to Internet dating to meet a “perfect” girl who looks the part he wants her to play in his life. What I do find impossible to believe is that Jemima spent months regularly communicating with this man via telephone, internet and fax (the narrator comments that Brad proves during this time “to be the one light of her life”) and never realized how one-dimensional he was until she met him in person. Such a prolonged communication would soon peter out unless there were some serious metaphysical rapport to sustain it, and the two participants would get a very good sense of who the other was. That said, Green does depict the gradual deflation of Jemima and Brad’s relationship fairly well. It wasn’t quite necessary for her to throw in a coup de grâce plot twist that would put a definite end to it, especially one that wasn’t all that believable, but never mind.

Green also does reasonably well with Jemima’s adjustment to her weight loss. I recognized it from my own experience – for awhile you feel streamlined enough to take flight, and are giddily euphoric… and then you get used to it and you realize that weight loss isn’t magic, that it hasn’t essentially changed who you are or made your life complete. Jemima also has the late bloomer’s experience of social life and makes mistakes most women make at a younger age than 27, such as mistaking great sexual chemistry for love.

One of the notable things about this book is that it actually tries to document the experience of a fat woman. It doesn’t succeed at all well, and there are some truly offensive elements in it, such as the idea that it’s a shameful fetish for a man to find large women attractive (why is this any more kinky or weird than having a thing for redheads?) or the idea that Jemima must lose weight to find love and be happy (I know a number of overweight women whose partners adore them). But the book tells a story about a fat woman. And the fact that such a fourth-rate book is the one of the few I can think of that are about an overweight woman is very telling. Something like half the population of North America is overweight, yet in our novels and movies fat people are either completely absent, or relegated to being the sassy best friend, the comic relief, or the pathetic mess who must slim down before she can enter into the world of the people who are loved, who have successful careers and friends, who register with the rest of us. This says something about the disconnect between our collective imagination and our reality, and leaves me pondering the nature of fantasy and its appeal for us.

I may have daydreamed about being a princess as a child, but now my most satisfying day dreams are those that lie in the realm of possibility. Whether creating my own stories or watching or reading someone else’s, I don’t like being the caustic, disinterested observer, thinking, yeah, right, that would never happen. I like being able to enter wholly into a story, feeling both able to relate to the characters and able to experience a new world vicariously through them. And I know it’s difficult to create work of this calibre in any genre, but for some reason writers who write for a largely female audience (those who produce romances, chick lit, and the new and equally horrendous genre of “mom lit”) seem to get a special license to churn out garbage, probably because there’s a market for it. While we don’t necessarily get the fiction we deserve, we do get what we pay for.

Monday, 26 February 2007

Friends, Foes, and Shakespearean Drama in Canadian Media

Like a lot of other Canadians I read Margaret Wente’s column in The Globe and Mail at least semi-regularly, and again as is common with many other Canadians I find what she writes to be problematic to say the least. I won’t get into why as it would take much more time than I ever want to devote to Wente’s work. If you’d like to read that sort of thing, Tyrone Nicholas of Wente Watch has done quite a good job of critiquing Wente’s columns. Unfortunately Nicholas has decided he will no longer be updating his useful blog, but its archive is still accessible, and he links to other Wente critics on his sidebar.

What I wish to discuss here has to do with the particular nature of Wente’s running commentary on Conrad Black’s legal woes — and not incidentally, on his wife, Barbara Amiel Black. The latest of Wente’s columns on this topic was published this past Saturday and can be found here.

I have to admit I’ve been keeping tabs on the Conrad Black trial drama with something resembling avidity myself. To someone who works in publishing or media in Canada (and especially in Toronto), this story is catnip. For those of you who aren’t Canadian and/or media junkies, Black was a huge media figure here, and internationally, for many years. Black began buying small Canadian papers in the sixties and by the nineties his conglomerate Hollinger International controlled 60 percent of Canadian newspaper titles, as well as hundreds of daily papers in the United States, England, Australia and Israel. Hollinger’s holdings are no longer nearly so extensive, and Black is not its CEO any more, but at the height of his involvement in media, he was the third-largest newspaper publisher in the world. He is perhaps best known in Canada for having founded The National Post (though he no longer owns it), and he has also written biographies on Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Maurice Duplessis as well as his own autobiography. He’s also known: for cutting jobs at any media outlet he owned; for his extreme right-wing beliefs, (i.e., Canada should dismantle its universal health care system and its sovereignty to become part of the U.S.); for his marriage to Barbara Amiel Black, a well-known Canadian journalist and columnist; for giving up his Canadian citizenship in order to be inducted into Britain’s House of Lords as Lord Black of Crossharbour; and for many other telling biographical details such as the fact that as a teenager he was expelled from Toronto’s Upper Canada College for selling exam papers to his classmates.

Conrad Black’s current legal difficulties include the twelve counts of criminal behaviour for which he has been indicted by the U.S. Attorney’s office. The counts include mail fraud, wire fraud, racketeering, obstruction of justice, and money laundering and relate to his alleged appropriation of millions of dollars from Hollinger International’s funds. Black is facing a maximum 95-year jail sentence if convicted on all charges. His U.S. criminal trial is set to begin on March 5, 2007. And I won’t even get into describing the criminal prosecution he faces in Canada once the U.S. criminal courts are finished with him, or the several massive civil suits also lodged against him.

Perhaps even if you had never heard of Conrad Black before you read what I have written here, you have begun to see why Canadian media columnists — so many of whom have had dealings, pleasant or unpleasant, with Black — are so willing to discourse about the man’s legal battles, and about the man himself. Laying off journalists never makes for good press ten or twenty years down the road, but even to those without any personal grudge against Black, he and his legal difficulties are a meaty topic. This story has it all: hubris, well-known figures who have long raised much ire, business dealings on the grand scale, colossal sums of money, possible corruption, epic court battles, a beautiful and staggeringly extravagant wife, Black’s purple prose and pontificating, and plot developments such as Black’s caught-on-tape removal of twelve boxes of files from the Toronto headquarters of Hollinger Inc. (after an Ontario court order barred Black from removing documents from the Hollinger offices). Shakespearean plays have been based on less.

All this is a long preface to my saying that I don’t entirely blame Margaret Wente for writing about the Blacks the way she does. It's a story a Canadian columnist would naturally write about. And one could certainly argue that it's better for Wente to write about this than about global warming or Iraq, given her irresponsible coverage of those topics. But what I do wish to address is the personal dimension to Wente's repeated returns to this topic, which seems to have a certain viciousness beyond anything in other articles about the Blacks, even though so many journalists also know them.

Wente does freely admit that she is acquainted with both the Blacks. She was Conrad Black’s boss when he wrote a column for a publication she then edited, and she has sheepishly admitted that he managed to charm and/or railroad her into giving him the raise that would make him the highest-paid columnist in Canada. (The raise he got would have been less than pocket change to Black; he just couldn’t stomach being Canada's second-highest paid columnist.) In a past column she described the time she went out to lunch with the Blacks over a decade ago. According to Wente, the Blacks arrived in a limo and Barbara Amiel Black complained in her newly acquired (or reacquired) English accent of how petty and small-minded Canadians are.

In this latest column Wente writes that Conrad Black is supremely confident he will be found innocent of wrongdoing and allows that he may in fact walk away from this trial as he says he will. As she writes, “Flying around on corporate jets, being a pompous windbag, dressing up like Cardinal Richelieu, and having a wife who says her extravagance knows no bounds” are not crimes. “Having lapdogs as directors is no crime either. The fact that the chairman of your executive committee frequently signed important documents without reading them, and that you made sizable investments in his company, is not enough to put you behind bars.” But Wente concludes that if Conrad Black takes the stand in his own defense, he may seal his own conviction by presenting himself badly. Wente comments, “For a man who has spent a lifetime in the spotlight, Mr. Black seems astonishingly un-self-aware. He has sometimes shown a remarkable inability to read an audience, or see himself as others do. He seems unable to grasp that fair-minded people might not think as well of him as he does, and that not everyone is won over by his brilliance and erudition.”

In this column, Wente also manages to sneak in a not really relevant and extremely unflattering description of Barbara Amiel Black by describing a notice of libel from Conrad Black. According to Wente, “The notice states that contrary to the malicious accusations in a certain recent book about them, the Plaintiff's wife is not a grasping, hectoring, slatternly, extravagant, shrill, domineering, vulgar, obsessively materialistic harridan.” I suppose Wente could technically defend this with a, “But I didn’t say Barbara was shrill or slatternly or a harridan! I said Black or his lawyers said she wasn’t!”

When you read the column I have linked to, if you’ve read the several past columns on the Blacks, do you get the sense of a very personal enmity that I get? I could criticize Margaret Wente for the lip-smacking enjoyment so evident in every one of her columns pertaining to the Blacks, but then in all fairness I’d have to say I read them with unseemly pleasure myself, and I know I’m not the only one. I could say she isn’t making the most responsible use of a national media platform, but it’s also true that the Globe editors wouldn’t allow it if it weren’t being read. We get the media we deserve.

So I will just say is that self-awareness is an excellent thing, and that Conrad Black isn’t the only person who could use more of it. Yes, Conrad Black needs to realize (among other things) that if he opines that Canada should become part of the U.S. and has renounced his Canadian citizenship to for the sake of wearing ermine, he may not be taken seriously when (now that it would be to his advantage legally) he calls himself a “demonstrative Canadian flag waver” and asks if he can have his citizenship back, please. And yes, Barbara Amiel Black needs to understand that if she writes in Maclean’s that Canada can’t afford universal health care or a minimum wage but should better support its national ballet company, and then appears in Vogue wearing an $11,000 dress, she may raise some hackles among even the noble and most broadminded of Canadians.

And no, I'm not done. Wente would benefit from increased self-awareness as well. I’m going to assume the fact that she was described as “a friend of Amiel’s” in this Guardian article was a touchingly naive mistake on the part of the Guardian. However, my jaw did drop when, in a Globe and Mail column written sometime back about Barbara Amiel Black’s snobbish disregard of people from her past, Wente supported this characterization by telling the story of how, upon meeting Amiel Black at a party, Wente offered to shake hands in greeting, only to see Amiel Black turn silently away from her outstretched hand.

How could Wente possibly expect Amiel Black to want to be friendly at this point? Frankly, given Wente’s gleeful commentary on the Blacks’ legal problems, dissection of Amiel Black’s outrageous spending habits, descriptions of Amiel Black as volatile, and repeated speculations that Barbara Amiel Black will leave her husband, I thought Amiel Black showed admirable restraint, and even dignity, in only cutting Wente in the social sense of the word.

If Wente continues to skewer the Blacks in The Globe and Mail, she should be honest with herself and with the rest of us about the personal nature of her actions and its consequences. Perhaps this self-examination will lead her to conclude she needs to leave the topic alone. Perhaps it will only mean a fuller disclosure about the nature of her relationships with the Blacks and her motivations in writing about them, because readers have a right to know about the conflict of interests inherent in a writer’s work. Wente will have to decide these things for herslef. But at the very least, if Margaret Wente has chosen to gloat in the national media over the Blacks’ failings and problems, she should know better than expect them to want to be friends with her.

Saturday, 17 February 2007

Sailing on The Dark Frigate

The 1924 Newbery medalist, The Dark Frigate, is about a young sailor named Philip Marsham, and his adventures and misadventures on land and sea. His father, a sea captain, has lost his life at sea, and nineteen-year-old Philip shortly thereafter loses what money he inherited when forced to flee his dead father’s promised wife’s pub after a mishap with somebody else’s gun. Penniless but undaunted he wanders the roads of England, thinks of becoming a farmer, falls in with a kindly Scottish smith, a madman, and then a couple of vagabond seamen. He glimpses his estranged grandparents, becomes engaged to a pretty bar maid, and duels with a gamekeeper before signing on to a ship called the Rose of Devon. And this is only in the first seventy pages. Crewing on the Rose of Devon means more adventures involving storms and pirates — which as one would expect leads in turn to more adventures yet.

Lloyd Alexander, in his 1971 introduction to The Dark Frigate, wrote that Charles Boardman Hawes “learned the sailor’s life from seafarers in Boston and Gloucester; from incredibly detailed research into ships’ logs, curious old volumes, and accounts of long-forgotten days” and also that Dawes considered the King James Bible “the greatest literary achievement of all time”. I haven’t a doubt of either statement. Both Dawe’s depth of research and biblical literary aesthetic are readily apparent from every page of this book.

The dialogue, the descriptions, the characters and the narrative all come across as authentically gritty and evocative with never a single nod to any popular conception of what seventeenth century seafaring life was like, such as a pirate-uttered “Yarrrr!” In writing The Dark Frigate, Charles Boardman Hawes managed to create that rarity in historical novels — one that is remarkably free of elements that date its actual time of writing. When I reviewed the 1923 Newbery winner, The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle which is set in the 1840s, I claimed that it was unmistakably a 1920s novel. The Dark Frigate, which is set in the 1650s, is a different animal altogether. If I did not know that it was originally published in 1923 I would have been at a loss to guess its publication date. I would definitely have known that it was a historical novel and not written in the seventeenth or even eighteenth centuries, but my estimated date of its writing might have fallen anywhere between 1850 and 1970. I can only hope I would at least have placed it in the twentieth century.

The Dark Frigate also does indeed echo the King James Version of the Bible in its literary tone. The KJV, originally published in 1611, would have made a fantastic resource for someone trying to recreate seventeenth-century diction and prose. But The Dark Frigate resembles the KJV Bible in another way that I am not convinced is so positive — in a certain spareness of its narrative. There is little if any exploration of characterization or internal conflict. The Dark Frigate is strictly a “by their works ye shall know them” affair. Characters are sketched out with flat, one-line descriptions such as “the woman had a bitter temper and a sharp tongue” or “Tom Jordon was an ugly customer when his temper was up and hot, but no man to nurse a grudge” and by what they say or do. Granted, there is so much action and the pace of events is so fast Dawes could barely have found room for things like internal monologues or extended conversations even if he had wanted to. And the characterizations are quite good so far as they go. Dawes paints no sentimental portraits of any of his cast, whether they be pirates and barmaids or gentlefolk and judges. There are no simple jolly souls or purely evil figures, his ruthless pirates do not have hearts of gold, and almost all share the rough humour and shrewdness a brutish environment engenders in all those who survive it.

However, as good as The Dark Frigate is as a story of adventure and as an evocative historical novel, I can’t help feeling that it lacks a certain depth that would have come from better characterization and more internal conflict. Though this may just be my contemporary sensibilities or personal tastes getting the better of me. Perhaps this only means Charles Boardman Hawes was better at entering into another time than I, but it could also mean that he failed to take me with him.

Tuesday, 13 February 2007

Advertising For Love In All the Online Places

For a special Valentine’s Day Orange Swan Review article, I've written a little piece about online personal ads. All the quotes in this article have been lifted word for word from some existing ad. All spelling, punctuation, and grammatical errors in the quoted material are likewise courtesy of their original authors. I have not provided identifying information for any quoted profiles, because most people post their ads in good faith and they deserve better than to be publicly ridiculed. Why, in that case, am I ridiculing them at all? Because after the many years (alas, alack) that I have spent reading ads in which the writers declare that they are looking for someone to “compliment” their lives (superlative as I am sure their lives are), I must have my pound of flesh.

Profiles range from the excellent to the functionally illiterate, but most are undistinguished and generic. There are some heavily used clichés in online dating profiles. They get endlessly passed from man to woman and woman to man like some sort of vitual STD. Here are some:

I’m looking for a woman who is as comfortable in jeans as she is in evening wear.
I’ll never settle.
I’m tired of the bar scene.
I never thought I’d try this online dating thing.
I don’t do head games.
I’m out to prove that nice guys don’t finish last.
I’m not sure what to write here.
If I peak your interest, get back to me.

Sometimes I wearily imagine there’s some sort of program out there that, for a fee, will concoct an ad for you out of these phrases, and sprinkle in “I love the outdoors” and a “No picture, no reply” as a free bonus. But then I read a few more ads with attention, and decide against that profile generator. Little gleams of personality come through almost every single one. This guy comes across as intelligent. That guy gives me an impression of energy and initiative. The next one works in a reference to Vikram Seth, Leo Tolstoy, and Guns, Germs and Steel (oooh!). Another seems illiterate and dull. Another refers to himself as a catch and declares he’s not spending his money on credits so it’s up to interested women to pay for the initial message if they want to talk to him. Some of the ads leave me intrigued; others prompt me to make a judicious use of the block function. Some of the ads set my teeth on edge for reasons I only half-define before clicking to the next ad. I have learned to trust this instinct.

Here’s the story of a time when I ignored my initial impression that a guy was a jerk. I read this ad on Lavalife:

Ladies, I have received more messages and smiles than I can handle at once. Please be patient with me as I comb through them all.

To avoid wasting your time or mine, I am forced to add the following.

* You can read and passed your grade 1 arithmetic class
* YOU ARE MY AGE OR YOUNGER. That means 34 and under NOT 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40 or 41.
* You are not a pathetic high school dropout. I require cerebral stimulation.
* You are not vindictive
* You are drug and disease free
* You are not a mentally unstable, professional chit chatter who has no intention of meeting anyone. I value my time and will not waste it on you. My brother is a psychiatrist, I will be happy to give you his office number.
* You do not have numerous fake profiles
* You avoid tacky lines such as "Work hard and play hard" and "Carpe Diem".
* You live within an hour of Toronto
* You are not self centered

On with the show

If you are happy, sweet, sexy, sincere, secure with yourself, love your life, love people, love to travel, shop, explore and have a GREAT personality please don't hesitate to contact me.

I'm multi-faceted, multi-dimensional and multi-talented. I love my life and seek someone else who loves their life just as much.

Please be sincere if you're going to write to me. I've dated some of the most beautiful girls in the world, but personality means far more to me than looks. If that wasn't the case, trust me, I'd still be dating them. I'm looking for someone that is as beautiful on the inside as the out. Someone with character, substance and integrity. I can meet and find ordinary any day of the week. I'm looking for extraordinary. You know who you are. I'm not into playing mind games so if you are, please pass me by if you're only passing through. :)

I was flipping through ads quite quickly that day and sent him (and about fifteen other people) a “smile”, which is a Lavalife no-cost feature and the way for its posters to find out if other posters are at all interested. He “smiled” back, attaching one of a list of pre-selected messages: “I couldn’t resist the fact… that we are complete opposites.” I revisited his ad. I was getting a vibe that made me very unsure that I should spend the necessary credits to send him a message. There are ways to describe the kind of person one wants that don’t involve using the sort of harshly arrogant tone he had used. However, I thought aside from the asterisk-starred list his profile was more or less unobjectionable, maybe he was just frustrated with the system, and that it had been so long since I found anyone at all promising that it was worth the risk. I wrote a brief, friendly message, in which I asked him why he thought we were complete opposites.

He emailed back a message that read, in its entirety:

You sound shallow and I am not. You look pyschotic and I am not.

And he blocked me from replying to his message. He had only “smiled” back in order to encourage me to waste my credits on him, and to give himself the consequence-free opportunity to be extremely rude.

He was correct that he and I are indeed complete opposites, but wrong about the ways in which we differ.

After this experience, if I am at all uneasy about the thought of smiling or messaging someone, I pay full heed to that unease. The profiles I respond to these days have to be genuinely appealing, with no warning discords. Sometimes this is an easy decision. On one occasion a man instant messaged me to ask:

when do uwant to have kids and will u move to Calgary

Tempting as it was, in a way, to message back, “yes i will live in ur house and i will have ur beebies send me $6000 plain fair”, I refrained.

But even as I go with my instincts, I still question them. I hope and believe I have basically good literary judgment. I’ve staked the existence of this web site on that belief. (If I am no judge of literary merit, I am sinking hours of work each week into making a public ass of myself.) At the same time I question my judgment, because I don’t think it excellent, just good, and I’m always afraid it isn’t even as good as I think it is. When I don’t like a book I frequently have tortuous, “is it me or is it the book” internal debates that last for days.

I question my assessments of profiles in the same way. I have had generally good experiences with online dating in that a very high percentage of the men I’ve met have been very decent people. But then a truly good experience in this context does not mean that I met someone who was an pleasant one-time coffee date; it means I found someone with whom I can share not only beverages, but meals, nights, camping trips, movies, visits to family, anecdotes of the day, and all those other homely things, on an ongoing basis. And this I have not found.

I wonder whether I am passing by someone good because I’ve misinterpreted something in his profile, or because he’s unwittingly put something misleading in his profile, or because he’s no writer. I worry I’ve unknowingly written a repellant profile myself. Recently I posted the text of my online ad on a community web log where I am known and invited everyone to critique it. You can’t appeal to everyone, of course, and I didn’t intend to try. But when the general consensus was that my ad was “too long and too intense”, I shortened and lightened it... to what has proven to be negligible effect. The thread became an interesting discussion of what constituted a good profile, and although people had thought provoking theories on the topic, no one seemed to know for sure.

To my comfort, I keep remembering something I read once in some letter to the editor re: an article about dating. The letter writer was a married man who commented that in his experience it was only single people who have theories about how to find the right person, while contentedly married people shrug and say things like, “Well, we just met.” The letter writer declared that the theories were just a way of passing the time until one found a partner.

I think that letter writer is on to something, that so many of the dating theories and self-help books and Sex in the City-style analysis are nothing but a way for single people to take the edge of their frustration by giving them a sense of autonomy in a endeavour that is so largely beyond their control.

So I keep on blundering through this endless dating, having experiences that range from hilariously awful to blandly forgettable to bitterly disappointing to fun and enjoyable if dead-end to shattering. I make my decisions to the best of my ability on a case-by-case basis, hoping I’m choosing aright, trying to protect myself as best I can from the wear and tear of repeated disappointments and frustration, trying not to focus too much on a process that has taken so much effort and been so largely unrewarding, and always making the effort to both trust my instincts and be open to what life has to offer.

And if a man’s profile consists of this:

Let Hang out I think you and I could make a really hot couple. I want you to meet my parents this weekend. That would be groovy. Peace

or contains anything along the lines of this:

I am open-minded, but that does not mean that I willing to yield to amasculinating societal norms. I am intelligent, and with that intelligence comes the insight into realizing that a man being "sensitive" for sensitivity's sake puts him in denial of what it means to be a man. It will make him a both a sexual and emotional dud for a woman. I am gentle, but I am not a pushover. I am firm and forceful when necessary, with my wrath meted out fairly.

You see my dear, being a good lover requires striking the perfect balance between raging hormones (the inner rapist), massive intellect (the inner philosopher), and an intense love of women (the inner Cassanova). I have self-actualized and have therefore found harmony amongst the three.

... I don’t get back to him. As with unmistakably execrable books, forming my opinion of some ads involves no internal debate at all.

Sunday, 11 February 2007

Griffin & Sabine & the Long Wait For a Short Ride

Back in my college days, I bought secondhand copies of Nick Bantock’s irresistibly beautiful Griffin & Sabine and The Golden Mean. I decided I would wait until I had the middle book of the trilogy before I read them. In the end this meant that two books I had have travelled with me, unread, for thirteen years, sitting on various shelves in different buildings as I moved a total of six times, and remaining packed in a box for a solid seven of those years. I was always either too poor or too busy (if not both) to even think about getting the second volume. It was only when I moved the sixth time in this past December and was shelving my books that I came across them and thought that I really must get around to buying that missing volume — and kept thinking it. Then just last weekend I came across a copy of Sabine’s Notebook at Value Village for $4. And so at last, I got to read them, indulging in just one a night this past week so as to make the long-awaited experience last.

And… the experience was disappointing. The art is certainly very good, and Nick Bantock has created two very distinctive artistic styles for his two characters. The multi-media concept, that of presenting postcards and letters that must be pulled from their envelopes, is a terrific one. And the premise of two artists who live at opposite sides of the globe and have never met yet share a mystical connection is very intriguing. The dust jacket flaps promise the reader a “delightful forbidden sensation” in the “wonderfully illicit activity” of reading someone else’s mail. But either I’m less voyeuristic than the jacket copy writer assumed or the said mail just wasn’t juicy enough.

The narrative is so slight it’s difficult to discuss it without giving it away. So, if you haven’t read these books, I’ll warn you of and apologize for any spoiling I may do in this review. Griffin Moss, an English artist, receives a postcard from a mysterious Sabine Strohem, who creates art for stamps and lives on Katie Island in the South Pacific. She claims that she has visions of the art he is drawing, and proves that she can by describing changes he has made to his work while alone in his studio. They exchange letters and postcards and details about their lives and, with the kind of efficiency usually only seen in Harlequins and Hollywood romantic comedies, fall desperately in love by the sixth exchange. They talk about meeting, they decide to meet, they try to meet and fail, they are hounded by a threatening man who stalks Sabine and writes (sub par) postcards to Griffin, demanding to know all about their psychic connection, they worry about this man and each other, begin to despair that they will never meet, and finally agree on another plan of meeting.

What there is in terms of narrative is pretty good, but there isn’t enough of it. Despite my year of visual arts training, I am still almost all about the text. I wanted to be drawn more deeply into this story, to have Griffin and Sabine’s characters come to life through the gradual accumulation of detail and demonstration of character, to watch their love for each other develop at a slower, more believable — and thus richer and more compelling — pace. But then I am aware that Nick Bantock and his publishers had to work within certain limits imposed by practical economics. Developing the story in the way I have in mind would have required making the correspondence (and the books) perhaps three or four times their current length and made them prohibitively expensive for most book buyers.

So we have them on our shelves in their present form, and the most compelling thing about them is their lush visual appeal and tracing the impact of their relationship and its resulting fervour and angst on their art. I will say this is not the least satisfactory of compromises. And that, to be fair, perhaps no book or reading experience could possibly live up to the kind of thirteen-year anticipatory build up these ones had.

Thursday, 8 February 2007

The Story of an African Farm... and of a Life

Olive Schreiner’s book The Story of an African Farm is one of those books that are more important and interesting for its cultural and historical significance, or for the always fascinating relationship between writer and what is written, than for their own literary merits. An African Farm is one of the earliest feminist novels, and one of the earliest South African novels, and perhaps the earliest example of the “South African farm novel”, which I gather is considered something of a sub-genre. I was startled by some of its content, which must have forced some of its Victorian readers to recourse to their sal volatile. One does not expect to find a transvestite in a Victorian novel. But for all An African Farm’s remarkable qualities, it’s not an artistic success. There is good material in it, but it’s something of a mess.

The Story of an African Farm narrates episodes from the lives of three children as they grow up on a farm in South Africa: Em, the English stepdaughter of Tant’ Sannie, the farm’s Boer owner; Lyndall, Em’s cousin; and Waldo, the son of the farm’s kind and deeply pious German overseer, Otto. The two chapters of the book sets up the characters and conflicts of the three children nicely. We learn of Waldo’s spiritual unrest, Lyndall’s fierce and far-reaching ambitions, and of Em, who is sweet and stolid but no fool, and we are immersed in an evocative description of a different time and place and a unique culture.

Then a man named Bonaparte Blenkins walks onto the farm. We don’t know his back story, but my best guess is that he’s a discarded Charles Dickens’ character who wandered into the wrong novel by accident and stayed because the pickings were good. He’s an ignorant, sadistic, devious, sociopathic, opportunistic man, and a bizarrely out-of-place caricature among the delicately realized children and even the less well-drawn Tant’ Sannie and Otto. He remains on the farm for some years, first as an incompetent teacher of the children and then as overseer and Tant’ Sannie’s accepted suitor, until Tant’ Sannie finally proves herself able to recognize Bonparte’s real nature, and equally able with a barrel of pickle brine when the occasion calls for it.

The whole eleven chapters concerning the impossibly evil Bonaparte Blenkins are basically one long derail from the narrative of the novel, and despite the fact that he was almost its only comic relief, I gratefully watched him walk off the farm for good. Then there was one more digression before the novel got back on track — an entire chapter dealing in the most abstract, meandering terms with Waldo’s transformation from tortured Christian to despairing atheist, which feels more Schreiner’s own spiritual biography than like an integrated part of the novel. Finally Schreiner pulls the novel back on track, and progresses in fine style through Em’s engagement to Gregory Rose, Lyndall’s return to the farm after years away at boarding school, Gregory Rose’s and Waldo’s respective passions for Lyndall, Tant’ Sannie’s wedding to a young Boer, and the appearance of Lyndall’s mysterious correspondent.

I’m not sure what I think of the novel’s denouement. I can’t call it improbable or contrived exactly (though are we really to believe that Lyndall, who is never, ever hoodwinked at any other point in the book, didn’t recognize a disguised Gregory Rose?), but I do have a sense that Schreiner copped out somehow. Lyndall, with her incredible ambition and shattering insight, is a woman ahead of her time whom no social conventions will ever hold — and who, like a rocket explosion in a horse-and-buggy world, leaves others stunned and damaged in her wake. Her character has such sheer force the book can barely contain her, and maybe Schreiner chose to destroy Lyndall rather than try to make the world of the novel a fitting environment for Lyndall.

But it’s entirely possible Schreiner really couldn’t envision a happy ending for Lyndall. Schreiner had finished writing An African Farm by 1880. Born in 1855, she was then only 25. At 21, while working as a governess, she had had a sexual relationship with a young businessman named Julius Gau. The nature of their relationship was known in the village where she then lived, and the village condemned and rejected her socially. Schreiner and Gau became engaged, and Schreiner may have become pregnant, but if so, she miscarried, and Gau broke the engagement. Schreiner then suffered a bout of depression and developed asthma. Over the course of the next four years as she returned to work as a governess and wrote An African Farm, she perhaps didn’t foresee that she would win out, remain her free-thinking, rebellious, corset-rejecting self, and live a successful, meaningful, happy life, and so couldn’t give Lyndall the same gift.

The Story of an African Farm, Schreiner's first published book, appeared in 1883. It was an immediate best seller and attracted much attention. Not all of this attention was favourable, of course, but she had her admirers, among them William Gladstone, who was at that time Prime Minister of Great Britain. Schreiner traveled Europe and participated in various social and political movements (she was way ahead of her time in her views on race, class, colonialism, pacifism and politics as well as in her feminism). At age 39 she married a progressive-minded South African farmer. She published four books in all as well as many pamphlets and essays, some of which she co-wrote with her husband. And so when I look at Schreiner’s life and at her remarkable accomplishments, I can’t be too harsh with An African Farm. The novel is a mess; its author’s life was not. Even though I wish both the book and the life could have been successful, I can’t help being glad that at least the success and failure weren’t reversed.

Monday, 5 February 2007

Getting Taken to a Place We've Been Before

Lynne Rae Perkins’ Criss Cross, the 2006 Newbery Medal winner, is a novel about a group of teenagers in a small town called Seldem, and takes place in what seems to be the late seventies. The main characters are Debbie, Hector and Lenny, but there’s also Dan, whom Debbie likes and who is in Hector’s guitar class; Phil, who is friends with Lenny and Hector; Patty, who is Debbie’s friend; Rowanne, who is Hector’s sister; and Peter, who is the grandson of Mrs. Bruning, for whom Debbie works. Almost all of these characters know one another and are connected in ways it would take too long to describe. The small town dynamic social web is among the many things this novel gets exactly right and that suits so perfectly its themes of connecting and the force of coincidence and happenstance that shapes our lives. Here in Toronto or in any urban centre your hairdresser is only your hairdresser. In a small town your hairdresser is also your niece’s Sunday School teacher and her husband is your boyfriend or girlfriend’s older brother’s best friend. And those are only the connections you happen to know about.

There is no real plot. I’m not even going to bother being careful about not including a spoiler as I usually am. These characters move through their days and a series of ordinary events. Debbie loses a necklace, and it passes hands, gets lost again, and is finally returned to her. Hector takes up the guitar and writes songs that aren’t very good but that may or may not lead to better things. Debbie, Lenny and Phil hang out in Lenny’s father truck to listen to the radio on Saturday nights. Hector likes a girl named Meadow. Debbie gets her own room and pores over her mothers’ old photo albums and yearbooks. Inspired by a Mamas and Papas song, Hector decides he wants to take Meadow somewhere she's never been before, and goes in search of such a place in Seldem. Everybody hangs out at the Tastee-Freez. It sounds banal, and it is banal, and that’s the point. The reader has to sift the meaningful from the chaff just as the kids do.

I’ve never read a novel that captures and evokes the adolescent day-to-day experience better. Although perhaps I’m assuming my own particular experience of adolescence was more general than it really is. Do you remember the long, meandering conversations with your friends that seem so tedious now but that at the time were by turns so riotously funny and so exciting because you seemed to have gotten hold of some profound truth together? Do you remember wishing something would happen, and gazing forward into a future you couldn’t imagine because you didn’t know enough about what you wanted or what specifically would be possible, although everything seemed possible? Do you remember how mundane or everyday things like a casual hello from the school golden boy or girl, a project that involved hours of work for a result that wasn’t what you envisioned, or wearing pants of exactly the right length seemed to assume an incredible importance? Do you remember the half-assed life theories you explained to your friends, and the way you tested them, together or alone? Do you remember how sensory experiences like that afternoon spent reading and getting sunburnt in the backyard or eating junk food at the fair with you friends seemed to soak into your bones? Do you remember talking to a guy or a girl and how something almost seemed to happen? Do you remember the deepening of your friendships, how for the first time you became aware of others your age as more than just kids to play with? And can you trace a lifelong passion back to its nascent beginning during, say, an evening out with your older sister and her friends? Lynne Rae Perkins evidently does, and her Debbie, Hector and Lenny and all their friends will know what I mean in 20 years if they don’t now.

Yes, adults have meandering conversations, get consumed by trivia, feel sunlight on their skin, and know what it’s like to have new passions flower into being from overlooked germinations. But these experiences aren’t the same for an adult as they are for a teenager. Adults file and discard new impressions more readily. They’ve seen something of the kind before, they know more about what will be of use to them and where they’re going — or think they know — they’ve developed a psychic shell that repels some experience. For teenagers it’s all almost entirely new, they might use anything, they need to explore more, test more, ponder more, and laze around in the backyard or on their beds with a copy of Popular Mechanics or Wuthering Heights or Seventeen and process it all.

Reading this book felt less like reading than like looking at pictures someone had secretly taken of me and high school era friends and our small town. I looked at it all, half amazed, half not, and thought, yes, yes, that’s the way it was, I remember this, I recognize this, I know this. I just didn’t know that it could ever be documented so perfectly.

Thursday, 1 February 2007

Fast Forwarding Through History

The first-ever Newbery award-winner, The Story of Mankind, written and illustrated by Hendrik Willem van Loon, is difficult to review not because it isn’t flawed (flaws being meat to any reviewer) but because of the general conclusion I keep reaching that at least one of its main flaws were inevitable. The Story of Mankind begins its tale in the very dawn of the existence of our planet, when what we now call Earth was a ball of flaming matter, and ends with a chapter about the turn of the millennium, which tries to forecast the impact such forces as the internet, Dolly the cloned sheep, and ozone pollution will have on our future. The mere thought of the intellectual task it must have been to condense all of human history into less than 700 pages makes me feel in need of a lie down. Add to this goal van Loon’s intention to make this comprehensive history a book that children could not only read but would enjoy reading and you have a project overwhelming in its sheer magnitude. Reading the book can be a bit like being a passenger in a car the driver insists on driving too fast. The passenger calls out, "Slow down! I want to get a better look at that!" and the driver yells back, "Can't! We've got a lot of ground to cover before the perfect bound spine exceeds its page count limit!"

Hendrik van Loon wrote that he had but one rule in selecting material for his book: “Did the country or the person in question produce a new idea or perform an original act without which the history of the entire human race would have been different?” This is certainly a good rule, but van Loon’s application of it is somewhat problematic. His concept of the “entire human race” seems to have a definite bias towards the members of western civilization. As a result his idea of the defining events of history seems to be those events that shaped specifically western civilization, and so the book is Eurocentric. When I read The Story of Mankind I got a definite sense of a long funnel of events ever narrowing in scope until its last chapters (updated by various other people since Hendrik van Loon’s death in 1944) become unapologetically absorbed with purely American history. I cannot see how anyone using a “definitive events only” rule can possibly justify the mention of John Lennon’s murder or even of Watergate when the book includes nothing of the development of China’s ancient civilization. However, I will concede that it would be very difficult, if not impossible to write such a book without some sort of bias. And at least, when aiming for impartiality and a narrative schema, van Loon did not go to such desperate lengths as the producers of the 1957 movie, “The Story of Mankind”. The movie uses the premise of an outer space tribunal meeting to decide the fate of humankind, with the Devil (played by Vincent Price) and the Spirit of Mankind (played by Ronald Colman) arguing opposite sides of the case and providing evidence in the form of flashbacks from different eras of history. It all sounds so generally terrible in an enjoyable sort of way that I'm tempted to see it.

Another, less qualified, criticism of the book is that the updates added to the end could have been better done. The book is no Newbery winner in its current state. As well as I can trace the history of the updates, The Story of Mankind, originally published in 1921, was updated in 1926 by Hendrik van Loon, at some indeterminate point by van Loon’s son Willem van Loon, in 1972 by the publishers and several New York University professors, and in 1984 and 1999 by John Merriman of Yale University. I don’t know how much revision has been done to the original text of the book, but the added chapters feel very patchy and disruptive for the reader. If the reader comes across the phrase “forty years ago” and has to stop and use the copyright dates and updating information in the publisher’s note to figure out from which date to subtract the forty years, it’s time the book was better integrated. I can certainly understand why this wasn’t done. If the publishers revise the book to make it seamless they will risk losing the charming, grandfatherly voice and personal asides of Hendrik van Loon. But the present, jarring, juxtaposition of the original text with the updates is a bad compromise, and surely a better one can be found if the publishers and authors will dare to be less reverential. It would also be a good idea if the last part of the book were far less focused on the U.S., and I’m not just saying that because Canada’s name only appeared in the book eight times (only two of which mentions the indexer saw fit to note). I will say, though, that the line drawings added to the book by Dirk van Loon are if anything better than his grandfather's - they are as charming in their rough, amateurish way, and funny as well, which Hendrik van Loon's weren't. The sketch of a scientist squeezing identical sheep out of what looks like a large cake decorating cylinder (and which is marked "CLONING") is the wittiest of the entire book.

Reading back over what I’ve written so far, I feel I haven’t done justice to this book. So I will say that The Story of Mankind is truly is a notable achievement, and I so wish I had read and re-read it as a child. As I made my way through it I could feel my scattered bits of knowledge of the past slotting themselves into place in the framework Hendrik van Loon so ably built for us, and I wondered how much more historical information I would have retained if I’d the sense of its place and relation to the human timeline that this book could have given me.

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.