Showing posts with label fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label fiction. Show all posts

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Virtue Unrewarded

Since I don't think I need to worrying about spoiling a novel that is nearly 300 years old, let me start off with a synopsis of Samuel Richardson's Pamela. Pamela is a beautiful 15-year-old lady's maid whose employer dies, leaving her in the employ and at the mercy of the departed lady's lecherous son, Mr. B. He begins a campaign of trying to get her into his bed, and when she resists and insists on being sent home to her parents, he pretends to agree but actually directs his coachman to transport her to another estate of his, where she is held prisoner, her extra clothes and all her money and even her shoes are withheld from her, and her letters to her parents and other sympathizers are intercepted. Her employer makes an appearance at this second estate and slips into bed with her disguised as another maid, and later threatens to strip her naked in an effort to find the letters and journal she has written and hidden away from him. All this occurs in the text that comprised the original first volume of the book. In the second volume (for the writing of which Richardson seems to have changed dominant hands), Mr. B. discovers by reading Pamela's papers that he has made Pamela so miserable that she has considered suicide as a means of escape, at which point he turns an unexpected right-about-face. He relents, returns Pamela's belongings, allows her to choose between going home to her parents or back to his other estate, and proposes marriage. Pamela equally inexplicably decides that she's in love with Mr. B. and accepts his proposal. They marry and are happy, though Mr. B.'s change of spots is clearly only skin-deep (among his many rules for Pamela: she must not approach him unsent for when he is angry, or be "twice bidden" to do something), and he blithely introduces her to his previously unmentioned illegitimate daughter.

Through the course of Mr. B's pursuit and persecution of her, Pamela repeatedly prides herself on her virtue and her honesty. She will not sleep with a man who is not her husband, regardless of what inducements he offers her or hardships he inflicts upon her. Her determination to protect herself from the the very real possible eighteenth-century-style consequences of pre-marital sex, and the considerable courage and ingenuity she demonstrates when trying to escape the clutches of Mr. B., are very admirable. But then she sold herself puzzlingly short. It was her right to refuse to have sex before marriage if that was what she wanted, but she seems never to have considered that rather than simply holding out for an offer of marriage, she should have held out for an offer of marriage from a man worth marrying, as marriage to a terrible husband can be every bit as miserable in its own way as being abandoned, penniless, unemployable, shunned by all "decent" people, and with a child to support. This was the eighteenth century, and the sexual double standard that lingers on today, even in mainstream secular society, was received wisdom then. But it's a double standard that is about much more than only sex. It still seems strange to me, even for the time, that a young woman who cared so much about her own honesty and virtue did not insist that the man she married should also have those qualities, that a young girl who was so insistent on having sex on her own terms while single was unconditionally willing to submit to such overbearing behaviour from her husband. We don't see this kind of thing even in Richardson's novel Clarissa, in which Clarissa Harlowe steadfastly refuses Robert Lovelace, who similarly abducts her, because she is not satisfied with his character, public opinion or her future matrimonial chances be damned.

Depressingly, we haven't made all that much progress in leveling the sexual politics playing field since 1740, when Pamela was published. Yes, in secular Western society it is now uncommon for women to be considered dishonest or unmarriageable because they've had premarital sex. But even leaving aside fundamentalist religious cultures in which abstinence is expected of only the females, and of such extreme consequences for non-compliance as what are indecently designated "honour killings", even in this best case scenario of a secular, liberal society, there is still a pernicious myth that women bear a disproportionate share of responsibility for making their relationships work, that if they play their cards right they'll get their reward: a healthy, happy, lasting relationship. As I read Pamela's reiteration of the 48(!!!) rules her husband had set for her, and her anxious annotations as to how she could best adhere to them, I was painfully reminded of my own and my friends' Herculean attempts to make our relationships with men work out... and of how the men in question sat back and refused to change a thing about their treatment of us, or made at most, and very grudgingly, a few tiny concessions. As a close friend of mine said to me, "In bad relationships, you're staying more for the fantasy of what the relationship could be than for its actual potential." And that's what Pamela is -- a fantasy. No man who would abduct a woman and hold her captive would ever make a good husband, and no woman can change an abusive, controlling asshole into a kind, respectful man. Yet so many of us keep rowing the boat of our relationships all by ourselves, hoping that one day, if we try hard enough for long enough, our partners will get it and start doing their share of the rowing. I've never seen that work -- we inevitably end up going in circles, and exhausting ourselves -- and I don't buy that it worked in Pamela.

That's not to say that Pamela doesn't have its fine qualities. It was progressive for its time, because it was the first important English-language novel to feature a heroine who worked for her living. Pamela's rightful insistence on her chastity would have also been a much-needed goosing of classist sexual mores of the time, which regarded working class women as sexually available and disposable. The novel is unsparing in its censure of those who do not dare help Pamela because they don't feel they can afford to offend such a wealthy and powerful man, and to those who unquestioningly aid Mr. B. in his efforts to bend Pamela to his will. Richardson's erudite prose is a pleasure to read. And the book is compulsively readable and suspenseful. I enjoyed the first half of Pamela, rending as it was to read about Pamela's growing privations and distress, and looked forward to the reward Pamela was promised in the subtitle. I just wish such an intelligent and strong-willed heroine had gotten the reward she truly deserved: the freedom to live her life on her own terms without having to turn herself inside out to please a man, regardless of whether she was married or single.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Smoky the Cowhorse and Other Fictions

The inside jacket text of my library copy of the Newbery medalist for 1927, Will James's Smoky the Cowhorse, says that "A cowboy, son of a cowman, Will James was born in a covered wagon in Montana." Well, no, he wasn't. As a matter of fact, James was born Joseph Ernest Nephtali Dufault, in 1892 in Saint-Nazaire-d'Acton, Quebec, Canada. I do not know precisely where he was born, but covered wagons would have been extremely uncommon in Quebec even in 1892, so it seems safe to assume that this detail too was fictionalized. Dufault learned wrangling and other cowboy skills when he relocated to Saskatchewan as a young man, so it also seems likely his father wasn't a cowman, which like covered wagons would have been almost unknown in nineteenth century Quebec where cattle herds were too small to require specialized staff. Dufault changed his name to William Roderick James when he fled Saskatchewan for the States after being accused of cattle theft. After several years of drifting and working at this and that, he was arrested for cattle theft in Nevada and served 15 months in prison. Upon his release he spent some time working as a movie stuntman and then served a year in the U.S. army during World War I. When the war ended, he worked as a wrangler, and sold his first book, after which he made his living from writing and probably also with the various ranches he bought with the proceeds of his books, until his death from alcoholism in 1942.

The dust jacket quotes James as saying, "I write for everybody like I would talk to friends who are interested in what I have to say," and Smoky the Cowhorse is written in what is purportedly a written version of a cowboy's tall tale, but even before I finished the book and did the internet research that told me James was not who he claimed to be, I didn't buy it. Those who genuinely speak an authentic regional or cultural English dialect always write in standard English prose to the best of their abilities when it comes to putting words on paper, unless they are reproducing a dialect in a dialogue between characters, and even then it's best to use a light touch in terms of misspellings and grammatical errors so as not to make the text too unreadable or to make the character sound too caricatured or ignorant. To write an entire book in a cowboy's supposed semi-literate folksy vernacular is an irritating affectation, especially when said cowboy uses words like "eddication" or "crethure" but has no apparent difficulty with the correct spellings of "commotion", "functioning", and "superintendent". My subsequent discovery that James was actually French-Canadian did nothing to decrease my annoyance.

Like the 1926 Newbery medalist Shen of the Sea, Smoky the Cowhorse is another example of a regrettable faux exoticism that seems to have deceived and dazzled early Newbery selection committees again and again. To be fair, they weren't the only ones taken in by James's folksy act. In 1930, Will James wrote a fictionalized autobiography, Lone Cowboy, which became a bestselling Book-of-the-Month Club selection, and even my library copy of Smoky the Cowhorse which, as I've said, features James's fictional biographical information on its dust jacket, appears to have been published circa 1980, which means that his personae may have remained intact as late as that. It's astounding to think how much our contemporary easy access to information has changed such things.

There are occasional modern day cases of authors slipping fictionalized memoirs by their publishers, such as Norma Khouri's Forbidden Love, or James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, but these days such fabricators are rare and are generally caught out within a year or two of publication. Fabricated biographical details used to be much more common. It used to be standard practice for movie studios to demand that their contracted actors and actresses change their names, lie about their ages, and even pass their illegitimate children off as much younger siblings if not deny their existence completely, but now it's so easy for anyone with internet access to check IMDB that no one bothers. There is still quite a lot of lying among politicians, but it's usually promptly and gleefully called out by the likes of Jon Stewart or John Oliver. Unfortunately too many citizens continue to embrace the lies circulated by those too shameless, too dysfunctional, and too greedy and power-mad to ever admit that they've been lying no matter how high the evidence is stacked against them, but these days the truth is usually out there for anyone who cares to seek it, and human beings have long hated being lied to and have little respect for liars once they know the truth. I didn't hear too many people defending James Frey when he appeared on Oprah after his memoir's debunking and Oprah Winfrey all but turned him over her knee. A book written in a fake dialect would never be published by a traditional publisher now, much less selected for a major literary award.

That's not to say Smoky the Cowhorse is completely inauthentic. James did indeed work as a cowboy, he was a rancher, and he knew, and I suspect deeply loved, horses. Smoky the Cowhorse relates to us the life of a cowhorse from the time of his birth on the range through his training and work as a cowhorse, his subsequent theft, and his passing through the hands of various owners and change of names and work as he becomes by turn a rodeo bronco, a riding horse rented out by the day, and a broken down plow and cart horse destined for the knackers, before he is finally rescued by and reunited with Clint, the cowboy who originally broke him in and loved him. It's a narrative arc very similar to that of Black Beauty's, and though as a literary effort Smoky the Cowhorse is far inferior to Black Beauty (I pined for Black Beauty's perfect prose the entire time I was reading it), James's anger over the extent of the cruelty and neglect a horse could endure from its owner is as palpable as Anna Sewell's ever was.

The deliberately misspelled and ungrammatical prose of this book makes it a tedious chore to read, and the opening chapters that describe Smoky's early years running free on the range are very boring, but I haven't even gotten to the book's ugliest flaw: its racism. The horse thief who steals Smoky is described as "being a half breed of Mexican and other blood that's darker... a halfbreed from the bad side, not caring, and with no pride", and is referred to through the subsequent pages as "the breed". I don't even know where to start when it comes to deconstructing that appallingly racist characterization, and it only gets more disgusting when I consider James's own history as a cattle thief. And it gets worse. Because of his treatment at the hands of the horse thief, Smoky becomes a horse who hates all men of colour, or as James so delicately puts it, "his hate was plainest for the face that showed dark". I have no real experience with horses, but I am very, very skeptical that this would even happen.

Then, in a later incident, when Clint finds Smoky again and subjects his abusive owner, whom we have been given to understand is non-white, to a horse whipping, a sheriff approaches Clint, grins, and says, "Say, cowboy... don't scatter that hombre's remains too much; you know we got to keep record of that kind the same as if it was a white man, and I don't want to be looking all over the streets to find out who he was." Clint then proceeds to go "back to his victim and broke the butt end of the whip over his head" as the sheriff watches. Smoky's former owner goes to jail for animal cruelty, but Clint faces no consequences for assault. He gets to take Smoky home with him and then "spend the evening 'investigating' with the sheriff". His vigilante assault is considered to be not only just deserts but a joke, and he is elevated to the level of a de facto officer of the law who works with the sheriff as an equal. I don't believe for one minute that a native American or a Mexican who had attacked a white horse owner for animal cruelty would have escaped any consequences for his actions in the American west of the 1920s. While a white cowboy like Clint who attacked a "hombre" for his treatment of his horse may well have gotten away with it in that time and place, James's representation of it as a just and even satisfying turn of events is unacceptable.

Between the poor and affected quality of its prose, the dullness of its opening chapters, and the stunningly bigoted treatment of its non white characters, this is not a book that deserves to still be in print, but it is, because that is the power of the Newbery medal. Choose well, future Newbery committee members. You really do not want a Smoky the Cowhorse to be your legacy.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Jean Teasdale and a Life Spent On An Escalator

Satire is a difficult thing to review for the same reason that Saturday Night Live sketches generally don’t make good movies: because satire by definition has little depth, and its thin premises are soon exhausted. Satire is simply a cleverly skewed presentation of truths everyone readily acknowledges, and one can find little to say about it before having to resort to obvious truisms. And so although I’ve intended to write a review of The Onion’s first ever “columnist-written” book, A Book of Jean's Own! All New Wit, Wisdom, and Wackiness from The Onion's Beloved Humor Columnist,by Jean Teasdale (really Maria Schneider), ever since it came out last fall, coming up with enough words on the subject has involved much mental scratching about. But I was determined to get this review written. I do think Jean comes close to transcending her satirical type and becoming a realized character with some interesting ramifications. I won’t go so far as to say she makes her readers care about her, exactly, but she’s real enough that many people who read her say they know someone very much like her, and sometimes cringe at her partial likeness to themselves. I have several friends who are equally into the Jean Teasdale material and we have very lively conversations about her and talk about her as though she exists. Tellingly, these conversations often seem to be on the theme of “how we could get her life on track”, and thereby tap into one of the most important veins in Jean’s character.

Human beings have a natural bent towards improving themselves and their lot. If we didn’t, we’d all still be living in caves and gnawing on raw meat. After millions of years of progressive development and invention we’ve exacerbated and inflated this tendency until we’ve reached a point of schizophrenic divide. We’re bombarded with images of perfection and incredible achievements while at the same time have reached such an apex of material comfort and convenience that comparatively little effort is absolutely required of us. At least in North America, and under certain circumstances, one can with relatively little effort and knowledge ride the crest of excess material goods and easy credit and self-satisfied ignorance like a sun-baked, slurpee-sipping water park visitor on an air mattress in a wave pool. Resolving this tension within ourselves, deciding upon realistic individual standards, and maintaining a reasonable and consistent level of effort can require concerted effort. Some people find their balance in this matter easily, but for others this schism is a source of great conflict and practical difficulties. Entering the ring of this conflict is one Jean Teasdale, proud and willful lowest common denominator.

Jean is at once an exasperating and enjoyable departure from the social norm of at least making some effort towards being all you can be (or, failing that, feeling guilty if you don’t). Some of Jean’s best and most hilarious moments are those in which she is on the very brink of achieving a state of mindfulness and then turns and snatches the iron, or rather, her Teflon psyche, from the fire. One classic example of such a moment occurs in one of my very favourite Jean columns, the one she wrote after 9/11, in which she decides to deal with the horror of the terrorist attacks by pretending they never happened, and this column about her marriage contains another example. It’s almost refreshing to see someone decide to not only embrace but wallow in her own rock-bottom laziness and sub minimal standards: someone who has “dress sweats”; who happily reports that she wears Crocs and clogs so as not to have to lace up her own shoes; who reads only home making and bridal magazines and romance novels; and takes to her bed, well fortified with junk food and sweets, whenever reality encroaches and life presents her with a challenge.

But then too, there is the urge to “fix” Jean. Her refusal to expect anything of herself or to be realistic has led to a life of precarious mental balance, and forces her increasingly more deeply into denial. She’s like someone who enjoys the free and easy ride on an escalator so much she tries to stay on it all day, and runs into all the drawbacks and hazards one might expect. Her marriage is a hopeless mismatch, she is a middle-aged women with a net financial worth of well under zero, she thinks she’s going to have the three children she dreams of even though she’s 40 and married to a man who doesn’t in the least want a child, she’s so overweight it impacts what she can physically do, she’s been fired from a long series of thankless minimum wage jobs, and she has no skills or education beyond high school.

My friend Jay and I have discussed how Jean could turn her life around or at least make it suck a little less. I suggested that Jean could sell the hundreds of stuffed animals and dolls and “collectibles” and assorted crap she seems to have acquired, which would surely give her a nest egg of at least a few thousand dollars, get at least a part-time minimum wage job and take it seriously enough to hold onto it, make up a budget and stick to it, cut up her credit cards, start knocking down some debt, and look into part-time community college programs. Once she has her finances under control, skills, and a job with enough income to be self-sufficient, she can move out. Jay thinks Jean should leave Rick and declare bankruptcy, immediately.

Maria Schneider has said that the Jean columns get more depressing with each one she writes, and that’s understandable. I first discovered Jean in the summer of 2001 upon reading this column, and not too long after read most of her archived columns at one sitting. It induced a weird mental state in me that I can only compare to the feeling one gets from eating an entire bag of chips at one go. Such matter may be enjoyable going down, but it leaves a bad aftertaste, and there was a unwholesome feeling of mental somnolence, as though I’d gone too far into Jean’s warped and confining little mindset and couldn’t get back into my own. Like the potato chips, Jean is meant to be enjoyed in small doses, and I think that may be partly why I didn’t enjoy A Book of Jean’s Own as much as I hoped. Jean’s columns are all solidly crafted with their own narrative arc and make for an enjoyable few minutes of entertainment each. The book was more of a hodgepodge of Jean’s thoughts on this and that: Jean’s tips on how to throw a pity party, her daily schedule, her sketch of her dream wedding dress, fiction she wrote about herself, extracts from her cat Priscilla’s “diary”, an account of the time she reacted to a job loss by shaving her entire body bald, recipes for chocolate goodies that sound revoltingly sweet, assorted lists, her accounts of her “most memorable” false pregnancy alarms (the first occurring before she’d even lost her virginity), her husband Rick’s scribbled contributions, etc. Jean says in the book that she’s not one of those “snobby authors” who expect their book to be read beginning to end, but I do think it’s best to read it that way, as the only narrative force it has comes from Jean’s growing desperation to fill the book (at one point she fills five pages with the repeated sentence, “I am limited!”), her progressive breakdown as her deadline looms, and Rick’s stepping in to finish the manuscript. Not that I regret buying or reading the book, but the columns are the main body of work and the book is better enjoyed as an adjunct to the columns than the other way around.

On the whole the book simply maintains and fleshes out Jean’s character as set in her columns. Maria Schneider must have run head-long into the limitations of the character in conceiving this book. Jean, of course, would never be able to focus and discipline herself to the task of writing a book. And, if she did, she would never come up with an interesting premise, let alone develop it into a book-length manuscript. The book, therefore, is the only thing Jean could ever write: a hodgepodge of Jean-like thoughts.

There are a few editorial sleight-of-hand changes which I suspect were made with an eye to the column’s future. For one thing, her age has recently become fixed and lowered. Jean has been “pushing forty” since her column’s debut in the mid-nineties and she used to make a lot of references to David Cassidy and other such seventies-era pop culture, but she celebrated her fortieth birthday in the summer of 2010, which makes her of an age more likely to have swooned over Michael J. Fox. Also the genesis story of her column has been changed. In a column that seems to have been taken down, I remember her telling the story of how she sent out copies of a column called “That Cathy Cartoon Was Bang-On!” to a number of newspapers on spec, and that just The Onion and some sort of coupon or sewing newsletter (that went out of business shortly afterwards) took it. Now the story is that her first column was “Day 24 in Deely Boppers and Counting!”

On the plus side (no pun intended, really!), I love that Jean’s drawings of herself are cartoon versions of her “official” photo. The drawing of her engaged in her “naked Plush Jamboree” past-time is – well, I won’t describe it, because it really needs to be seen. Suffice it to say it is arguably the best item in the entire book. The photos of Rick Teasdale and Jean’s pal Fulgencio are superb and just what you might have expected when picturing the characters. And there were several moments where Jean hits some all-time new low ebb of self-awareness. It turns out that her cherished cats Priscilla and Garfield actually hate her, probably because she insists on constantly subjecting them to an affectionate mauling regardless of whether they’re in the mood.

I also really enjoyed having a long-cherished theory of mine confirmed. My friend and I had a running argument regarding Hubby Rick, with Jay holding that Rick was a jerk and saying that Jean should leave him immediately, while I opined that while Rick may not be a palatable character he’s no worse a spouse than Jean. Yes, Rick’s obviously an alcoholic who expects Jean to do all the housework, makes no effort to do anything to please her, drops the occasional mean comment, and threw out Jean’s “Think Spring” balcony display (even though his agency in the disappearance of this display typically escaped Jean completely). But Jean, for her part, expects Rick to pay all their bills, makes fun of him constantly in her published column (including references to his, er, competence in the bedroom), calls him "Hubby Rick" though he hates being called that, and makes no effort to accommodate his tastes and needs. She has filled their apartment with dolls and stuffed animals and frou-frou knickknacks that he hates, adopted two cats against his will, and gives him dancing flowers and potpourri for Christmas. A Book of Jean’s Own confirmed my take on Rick. Jean is a classic unreliable narrator (reading between the lines of what she says is the biggest payoff of reading her work), and Rick’s section of the book is quite revealing on both their parts. It so happens that Rick turns out to be, if less literate than Jean who can at least spell and write in complete sentences, more intelligent, realistic and insightful. He knows he has a problem with drinking and he readily admits he’s fat, but he’s also equally straightforward about his intentions not to bother changing. More interestingly, he “gets” Jean. He knows she lives in a fantasy world and that he’s enabling her by paying their rent, but he’s willing to do so because he knows she doesn’t have any better options and because he, unlike her family and many of the other people in her life, does have a certain real if grudging affection for her. This is hardly a good foundation for a healthy marriage, of course, but in a way it’s an improvement on Jean’s passive aggressive denial.

I would be open to reading another Jean book, though I can’t imagine where Maria Schneider could possibly take the character that would produce enough material. I’m hoping that some of the listed future book titles in the back of the book are merely a joke, especially Priscilla Teasdale’s Kitty Letters to God. I do enjoy Jean’s increased internet presence almost more than the book that occasioned it. Before the launch of the book in late 2010, Jean got a Twitter account, a Facebook page, and a web site for the book, where “she” posted sad accounts of her book tour appearances. This all served to give the character a startlingly realistic dynamic, especially when Jean interacts with her followers on Twitter. So, although the book may not have been quite what I hoped for, I look as eagerly for new Jean columns as I’ve always done, and now can also follow Jean on Twitter. As Jean would say herself, "Success!!!"

Sunday, 10 August 2008

The Strange and Unusual Growth of Gardenias

I was overjoyed when I first learned that Faith Sullivan had written a sequel to The Cape Ann. It had been a long time coming. The Cape Ann was written in 1988, and Gardenias did not appear until 2005. When I bought it and brought it home I read it in a evening. But I was disgruntled when I closed the back cover on the last page and laid it down.

Gardenias starts off in such a satisfying way. It takes up just where The Cape Ann leaves off; with Lark Erhardt, Lark's mother Arlene, and Arlene's sister Betty riding a train bound to a new life San Diego. Arlene Erhardt has had all she can take of Lark's father's gambling, abusive ways, and Betty had been essentially abandoned by her husband Stan and was languishing in depression at her parents' home, so Arlene decided to pull up stakes and move the three of them from Harvester, Minnesota to San Diego, California.

The novel takes its name from the gardenia bush Arlene, Betty, and Lark plant in the poor soil outside their new home in the housing project erected for the workers in the munitions factories, and it's an apt symbol. Gardenias is on the whole a novel about being transplanted, about new beginnings and new ties to new surroundings, and about all the changing and growing entailed. San Diego during the years of the Second World War is a good setting for such a theme. All the people in the housing project where Lark lives are from somewhere else, having moved to San Diego in search of work, and usually also to get away from something undesirable. And Faith Sullivan has a few things to say about how new surroundings aren't necessarily any better on the whole than the old, and how the changes people undergo aren't always positive or welcome. All well and good. But some of the new outgrowth feels so forced and artificial.

One of the best things about The Cape Ann was the characterization of Arlene Erhardt. In The Cape Ann Lark describes Arlene as a “headlong person” with “instincts as sharp as darts”, and quotes her grandfather, who called her mother a “freethinker”. And at the beginning of Gardenias, Arlene is still the same indefatigable person, with the same admirable ingenuity and drive, and the same open-handed kindness coupled with a refusal to take garbage from anyone or let any conventions stand in her way. One can't help but root for her, and admire her. When Arlene buys furniture on credit and Lark protests, "Grandma says that charge is the road to perdition," Arlene retorts, "I don't want to hear what Grandma says. Grandma's not sleeping on the floor." When Betty comments that she's heard the WACs are "a pretty wild bunch", Arlene sweeps such a hum-drum assessment aside with, "That's what they always say when women want to do something interesting." She also invites Lou, the black man who delivers her and her furniture back to her place, in for a cup of tea. Sullivan doesn't point out how unconventional this behaviour would have been for an American white woman in 1943. But it works because of why Arlene does it. She is not doing it out a super-progressive (not to say anachronistic) sense of social justice, but because there were no black people in Harvester and she sees Lou as exotic, a part of her new world that she is so eager to experience.

But as the novel progresses Arlene falters and begins to disintegrate. Part of this is her husband's fault. Willie Erhardt, Lark's father and Arlene's husband, doesn't change a bit in this novel about growth. He's the same self-serving bully he always was, and has the same total lack of comprehension for or interest in anything Lark or Arlene think or feel. He remains in Harvester, only visiting and writing San Diego in order to harass his wife and daughter.

Arlene could have recovered from Willie's vindictive behaviour, but she's harbouring a secret love for another man, and as Sullivan would have us believe, this turns out to be her undoing, causing her to nearly destroy her relationships with her daughter and sister, to lose her sense of purpose, and to direct her nervous energy and her hunger for love into some dead-end channels. And I don't buy it. I don't believe Arlene, who is generally a shrewd judge of character, would have fallen in love with the man she has, nor that she would allow her unrequited and hopeless love for any man to ruin her life.

There are other facets of her behaviour that don't make sense. Arlene, a woman who set up her own modestly successful business in a small, Depression-era Minnesota town, just seems to accept being stymied professionally and settle for being an administrative assistant in the personnel office at the munitions plant in San Diego. At a time when the war-time economy was booming and employers were willing to hire anyone they could get, she complains she can't get promoted and makes no effort to develop her skills. And the woman who so carefully saved for her own house in Harvester has suddenly become a spend-thrift who cares only about having a nice-looking rental apartment.

Then there's Lark's growing alienation from her mother. Certainly it was unavoidable that Arlene, Betty and Lark's relationships with each other should change, and Sullivan generally navigates these changes with considerable expertise. (The changing dynamic between Arlene and Betty is especially well-handled, as Betty gathers strength and the formerly high-handed Arlene weakens.) In San Diego, Arlene is soley financially responsible for Lark and herself instead of being a housewife and her own boss as she was in Harvester, and that means she has less time for her daughter — and is less emotionally involved with her. And she stops listening to Lark, because she is already so burdened she can't bear to hear how much Lark misses her old life in Harvester. Lark is much less coddled than many children. At nine she is considered old enough to be left alone after school until Arlene and Betty get home from work and to take care of a number of household chores. In The Cape Ann, Lark's sharp, detailed observations of her mother help us to know Arlene. In Gardenias Lark's observations come from more and more of a distance until Arlene's behaviour is no more intelligible than that of a stranger's.

It's always necessary when critiquing a novel to distinguish between those elements of the book that are ineffective and those that one doesn't happen to care for. So it's very difficult for me to determine whether Arlene's tranformation is not believable or if I just hate it. I can't decide between the two possibilities, so I'll just say it's a shame that Lark's viewpoint is the only one we have of her world, since that means we can't help but share her disgust and bewilderment with Arlene's behaviour. Lark's growing detachment from her mother means that we lost touch with Arlene too — and perhaps that Sullivan did as well.

Another Minnesotaen-goes-Californian transformation that doesn't work is that of Betty's husband, Stan, probably because we didn't get to see it unfold. When Stan makes his reappearance in Betty's life, claiming that he's sorry for the way he treated her and professing that he's learned how to think and embraced socialism and charming everyone, well, it was hard not to roll my eyes. I suspect Betty may have been tempted to the the same.

But now I can begin enumerating the things I did like about Gardenias. Betty's transformation is not only utterly believable but satisfying. She does not become the bold and brave and hard-charging person Arlene was, nor does she embrace socialist ideology, but she acquires her own quiet, gentle and irresistible force of will, and even Willie Erhardt doesn't attempt to bully her.

Shirley Olson is another achievement. Shirley is a schoolmate of Lark's, and though they aren't friends and don't even like each other she attaches herself to Lark's family. We never learn much about Shirley's homelife other than it seems to be dreadful — a morass of filth, poverty, and abuse. Shirley's a survivor who will never pass up a chance to grab whatever's in her reach, so she establishes herself as an auxiliary family member in Lark's home, eating whatever she can find, soaking up the kind treatment she gest from Arlene and Betty, playing their piano, and battling Lark for the position of alpha child. Arlene and Betty may feel sorry for Shirley and therefore show her unstinting generosity and unconditional acceptance, but it's Lark who knows, and tells us, how unpleasant Shirley can be. And it is Shirley's presence in the novel that really show us how continued proximity and shared circumstances can build bonds between just about anyone, no matter how incompatible and antagnonistic they are to one another initially. Lark develops famillial relations with her neighbours as well, though fortunately none are so hard to love as Shirley.

And finally Sullivan's biggest accomplishments over the course of both The Cape Ann and Gardenias is her rendering of the genesis of a writer. Lark is a sensitive and observant child (and a narrator similar to Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird with her adult-level powers of observation and description and child's sensibilities and behaviour). Lark builds a rich, involved fantasy life out of the elements of her life. The Cape Ann's title refers to the name of the architectural plan Lark and her mother wanted to use for the house they dreamed of building in Harvester. Lark was sure that if she could live in the Cape Ann she'd become the kind of person she wants to be: happy, elegant, talented and self-disciplined, able to twirl batons and stop biting her nails. She also invents stories about a woman she meets on a train and the writer of a letter she finds.

In the first few pages of Gardenias, Lark catches sight of a beautiful, elegantly dressed woman. She becomes infatuated with this woman in the way little girls sometimes are with attractive, older females, and is sure that the woman is a movie star. The woman is indeed a movie actress named Alicia Armand, and over the next few years Lark collects clippings of her idol, sees all her movies, and daydreams of being "discovered" by her. Alicia Armand becomes the first element of her new dream life. Soon to join Alicia and populate an imaginary cabin in the snowy Minnesota woods are the ghosts of Lark's friend Hilly and her Aunt Betty's baby daughter. This dream world of Lark's is her way to escape her own reality and to comfort and amuse herself, but it evolves and takes on its own life and purpose. Lark extracts what confuses and fascinates her from the flotsam and jetsam of life, fantasizes and muses about it, and then in Gardnenias begins to fashion a fictional collage from them, and to write stories in exercise books. These stories are rather odd at times, and have the kind of charming absurdities common to a child's imagination with its limited factual knowledge and worldview, but it's clear that Lark has the vocation and perhaps the talent to become a writer.

Lark, with her writerly ambitons, and with all her mother's resourcefulness and self-reliance and spirit, is such an interesting creation in herself that I am eager to read another novel about her. I can only hope that Sullivan won't make us wait another seventeen years for it.

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.

Friday, 15 December 2006

Perfume That Attracts and Repels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 9 December 2006

The Witch That Cannot Bewitch

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

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