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 a NON-SMOKER. NO EXCEPTIONS!
* 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.

and:

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 3 January 2007

The Newbery Project

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 1 January 2007

Seduction by Deduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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