Archive for ‘girls own’

April 4, 2011

Susan Coolidge, Clover

Look, I’ve tried. I’ve read the three Katy books, I’ve read Clover, and I just don’t get Susan Coolidge. Clover was my out-of-copyright book for review at the Kindle Magazine this month.


Most Indian children of my generation grew up reading English children’s books. This has changed to a great extent since. But even back in our time there were a few classics from North America that found their way into our libraries. Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, and Daddy-Long-Legs (discussed last month in these pages) were among them. Also in this little group of recommended classics were Susan Coolidge’s Katy books.

There were three Katy books: What Katy Did, What Katy Did at School and What Katy Did Next. I was not a fan of any of them.
What Katy does, if I remember correctly, is to go from being an absolutely normal child to a plaster saint. This is because she injures her back, and over years spent in the “school of pain” and unable to walk learns to be good and virtuous and motherly. When she goes to school in the next book, she continues to be a very good girl, and despite the inclusion of a few amusing side characters (I do not include the excruciatingly whimsical “Rose Red”) it’s all very dull. In the third book she is taken on a trip to Europe where she is once again good and cheerful, nurses a sick child, and attracts a husband by showing herself to be nicer than her more attractive cousin. This would be quite a satisfying story if Katy had any personality at all.
I only learnt recently that there were two more Katy books, Clover and In The High Valley, and that Clover (published in 1888) at least was considered better than the rest. Both were out of print and available for many years. Clover is Katy’s younger sister and the book focuses on her coming to terms with her sister’s marriage. A large chunk of the book is taken up with this wedding, complete with a visit from Rose Red plus one child who lisps in a way that the author probably thought was adorable (I cannot agree). One of Clover’s brothers falls ill and she accompanies him on his convalescence to Colorado where she goes sightseeing in canyons and accumulates suitors.
If Clover is better than the Katy books, the improvement is in the scenery. Coolidge seems to like Colorado, and some of the descriptions of trips are rather lovely. There’s also a strain of humour in the form of the passive-aggressive Mrs Watson who has been invited along to help Clover, yet seems to think things should be the other way around.
Unfortunately, Clover is even less of a person than Katy was. With Katy, one at least had a vague memory of her careless youth; Clover appears to have been saintly throughout. There’s nothing quite as unappealing as a flawless person.
I confess myself defeated where Coolidge is concerned. There must be something about her to make so many people claim to have loved the books in their childhoods, and certainly Clover is considered a particularly good example of her work among those who have read it. Clearly I am missing something, and if so I am missing it in all of Coolidge’s work. I don’t think I will be reading In the High Valley.


If you’re deeply fond of Coolidge, do feel free to express outrage or explain why.
May 8, 2010

April Reading (II)

And we’re well into May.
April was a really busy month workwise, and I found myself reading quite a bit of fluff. May is likely to continue in the same vein, though I do have the new China Mieville book, and I’m also planning an Iron Council reread when I’m done with it. Here is the rest of what I read in April, anyway:

Victoria Alexander – What a Lady Wants and A Visit From Sir Nicholas: I’ve mentioned reading some of Alexander’s books over the last few months, and it’s probably obvious that I’m susceptible to light fiction that appears in series form. A Visit From Sir Nicholas is interesting that way, in that it’s historical romance, and it’s the same family, but is set a generation or so later, in the Victorian age. It also makes lots of references to A Christmas Carol and was in general quite entertaining and fun (and won a Romantic Times Viewers Choice award). What a Lady Wants on the other hand felt a bit pointless – I spent most of it wondering what the two lead characters were whining about.

Amanda Quick – Mischief: The title (which really put me off the book) turned out to have nothing to do with the story. This is a romance set in alternate-History Regency England, where the craze for Egyptology (I’ve mentioned before that Imperial Britain’s fascination with Egypt is something I love reading about) is replaced because some British explorers found an island kingdom called Zamar with an equally fascinating history. Both main characters are obsessed with the island – he is the man who first discovered it, and she analyses the facts he reports and publishes papers under a male pseudonym. It was great fun to read, though the plot (they are investigating the truth behind her best friend’s death) was less entertaining than the setting. I spent quite a bit of time wondering if the alt-hist aspects of the book meant that I could classify it in my head as Spec Fic. I have decided that I can.

Georgette Heyer – Arabella: Old favourite. There is a comical dog, there is the recognition that Regency England also contains lots of un-picturesque poor people, and there is a hero who actually recognises that he has been an arse and apologises for it.

Elsie J. Oxenham – The Girls of the Hamlet Club: As some of you know, my Masters’ thesis focused on school stories, and I’ve grown up reading a lot of Girls’ Own literature. This is the first of the Abbey Girls books – a series that is absolutely massive. I’d read The Girls of the Hamlet Club a few years ago and have only read the later books in the series since. Coming back to this one, I was surprised at how different from the others it was – there’s a half-written post on this which will be published soon.

C.S Lewis – Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength: Since I’ve had reason to refer to these books a few times lately, I thought a reread might be in order. Result: I still think Out of the Silent Planet is a decent space-travel story. It has some good aliens, some lovely alien landscapes, and it does First Contact rather well. And the religion stuff isn’t too jarring at this point, partly because the greedy businessman and the mad scientist are both pretty obvious villains without our needing much convincing. The book is also made better by the hints about another Martian race who were wiped out by a cataclysm, and who Ransom (the Very Christian philologist who is the main character of this series) is fascinated by.
Perelandra was intolerable. It’s a pretty colour palette, and some of the underground sections are genuinely terrifying, but the long, simplistic theological debates? Lewis seems to enjoy writing “debates” where one of the characters is either a complete strawman or a bit of an idiot – see for example that awful bit in The Silver Chair (which may or may not be based on Lewis’ debate with G.E Anscombe, and I don’t particularly care) – and all they really do is to make their author seem smug, simplistic, and incapable of questioning himself.
That Hideous Strength was the one I was looking forward to because I hadn’t read it in a while and had good memories of it. Evidently I had forgotten the hilarious scene where Jane (the female half of a couple who have been terribly misguided by modernity, education, and all this “gender equality” rubbish) is told by a resurrected Merlin that she’s the wickedest woman in Britain because she and her husband were fated to have a baby who would Save the World but then they went and used birth control! It’s possibly the greatest anti-reproductive rights argument I have ever encountered. What would have happened if the Virgin Mary had been on the pill? Lewis asks us, Had you ever thought of that? Had you?
I cannot say that I had.
Also, what is with Miss Hardcastle? Did Lewis really write a lesbian character?
Having said which. Despite the utterly bizarre/reprehensible politics of this book, I really enjoyed it. It’s dystopic, has sections that feel like classic science fiction (along with classic SF’s cheerful disregard for actual science), and contains Merlin and a bear.

I wonder how Lewis would feel at being included in this post. Other than his own, all the books are by women, and most of them romance writers.

February 2, 2010

January Reading (III)

This is the last post in this set – a lot of the books I’ve read this month are pretty short, and reasonably light to get through. I highly doubt I’ll be consuming anything like this much for the rest of this year.

Nirupama Subramanian – Keep The Change: Light and funny and very readable. Keep The Change is about a nice TamBrahm girl who gets into a rut, moves from Madras to Bombay, and deals with things like a corporate career and finding love. The cultural stereotyping-as-humour gets tiring at times (and you feel like the author never quite manages to get away from it, even when she’s trying to undermine it a bit towards the end) but it’s still a really enjoyable book.

Elsie J. Oxenham – A Dancer From the Abbey/ The Song of the Abbey: Girls’ Own literature is one of my comfort reads, and though the Abbey series (which tend to be categorised as school stories, even though most of them have nothing to do with a school) is nowhere near as good as some of the other writing within the genre, it’s a satisfyingly long series, which is obviously what one wants – I still haven’t read the whole series yet. These particular books were pretty disappointing; they are some of the last in the series, and as far as I can tell the author is in a tearing hurry to marry off any adult female characters (bar the writers, for some reason) who might still be unattached. Both books follow pretty much the same pattern: nice young man with some sort of connection to the Abbey people returns from Africa to England, meets a member of the group around the Abbey, and is engaged to her by the end of the book. The book following these two, Two Queens at the Abbey (last book in the series) apparently has the same thing happen again. In future if I do choose to reread the Abbey books I think I’ll try harder to ensure that the ones I pick aren’t functionally identical.

Angela Carter - The Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History: I had only ever read sections of this book before, and it is rather good. Of more significance to me, though, is that I was reading Carter critically for what may have been the first time, as opposed to reading her with fangirlish glee. This is new, and welcome, though I will continue to fangirl her whenever I want to.

H.G Wells – The Time Machine: Read as a companion piece of sorts to the awful Jaclyn the Ripper book I mentioned here. I hadn’t read the book in years, and it was actually a lot better than I remembered it being (and I remembered it being pretty good). Even with such distractions as this.

Daisy Ashford – The Young Visiters (sic): The situation as I understand it: Nine year old Daisy Ashford writes a book; possibly quite good for a nine-year-old. In 1919, when Ashford is in her late thirties, it is published with a preface by J.M Barrie with the original typos because that’s just so cute. Except it’s mostly not cute, but annoying. Still, it does contain this lyrical tribute to bathrooms everywhere:

Then Mr Salteena got into a mouve dressing goun with yellaw tassles and siezing his soap he wandered off to the bath room which was most sumpshous. It had a lovly white shiny bath and sparkling taps and several towels arrayed in readiness by thourghtful Horace. It also had a step for climbing up the bath and other good dodges of a rich nature. Mr Salteena washed himself well and felt very much better.

For which I am willing to forgive it much.

P.G Wodehouse – The Mating Season: This is not one of my favourites, but it is a Wodehouse book and therefore deserving of my love. Bertie impersonates Gussie Fink-Nottle and Gussie impersonates Bertie (here I should say something clever about the instability of identity in Plum’s works, but it all seems meaningless when you’re talking about an author who in Piccadilly Jim has a character impersonating himself). Multiple engagements are broken and re-forged in various combinations, and there is random abuse of the constabulary and everything turns out well in the end.

Philip Reeve – Fever Crumb: This book really deserves a post to itself, and will probably get one in the next day or two. For now though – it’s really good, though not quite as visceral as I recall A Darkling Plain being(which is rather an unfair comparison), and I definitely think it’s best read after the Mortal Engines series, though it comes before them chronologically. And it’s such a beautiful object, the hardback is solid and lovely and looks like it is made of wood. Definitely worth it.

So what are you reading?

January 11, 2010

Irene goes to school

A few of you know (and some have possibly guessed, considering the frequency with which they appear on this blog) that my masters thesis had something to do with school stories. I read quite a lot of the things, particularly the girls’ school ones, for various reasons ranging from mockery to genuine respect.

It’s something of a cliche (and one that is not appreciated by many fans of the genre) that girls’ school stories tend to be rather homoerotic. – Angela Brazil did not help things by calling a major character Lesbia. But I really enjoy that element of women looking at women that you see throughout the genre – I’ve long held that Antonia Forest is the writer who first taught me to look at women.

I was unprepared for this scene from L.T Meade’s A Modern Tomboy, though. I can’t find an exact date, but it’s somewhere before 1914.

Nothing could exceed Rosamund’s amazement, and a scream almost rose to her lips, when she entered and saw, curled up snugly in Jane’s bed, no less a person than Irene Ashleigh. Irene’s exceedingly bright face peeped up above the clothes. She gave a low, impish laugh, and then said slowly:

“Don’t scream. Keep your nerve. I climbed up by the wistaria. I have been in bed for the last hour, expecting you. I happened to be hiding just below the window, clinging on for bare life to the wistaria and the thick ivy, and I heard the conversation between you and Mrs. Merriman, so I knew that you would have your room to yourself, and decided that I would share it with you. Now lock the door, for I have a great deal to say.”

“But we are not allowed to lock our doors,” said Rosamund.

“You will lock it to-night, because I order you to,” said Irene.

“I shall do nothing of the sort. It is my room, and I will do exactly as I like.”

Irene sat up in bed. Nothing could be more picturesque than her general appearance. She was in the red frock that she usually wore; her wild hair curled in elf-locks all over her head; her eyes, bright as stars, shone in the middle of her little elfin face; her charming lips pouted just for a moment. Then she said in a clear tone, “What if I get up and strike you right across the face? Will you lock the door in preference to that?”

“I will not lock the door.”

Like a flash, Irene was out of bed and had struck Rosamund a resounding blow on her cheek. Rosamund felt the blow tingling, but she stood firm.

“Will you lock the door now?”


“What if I give you a blow on the other cheek?”

“Here it is for your majesty,” said Rosamund, turning her other cheek to the foe.

Irene burst into a laugh.

“What a creature you are! But you know we are in danger. I have such a lot to say to you, and any one may nab us. Won’t you lock the door just to please me? I won’t slap you any more. I am sorry I hurt your dear cheek. I came because I could not help myself, and because I could not live without you any longer. Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and no sign of you, and I just hungered for you. I am pining for you through all the days and all the nights, through every hour, in the midst of every meal; not speaking about you, for that is not my way, but just hungering and hungering, and yet you say you will not lock the door.”

“No, Irene; and you ought not to be here. What is to be done?”

Poor Rosamund had never felt more bewildered in her life. She had given her word of honor; and her word of honor was, to her, worthy of respect. She had never yet broken it. Should she break it now? Irene looked at her for a few minutes in wonder. The two girls were standing in the centre of the room, for, of course, Irene was fully dressed. Compared to Rosamund, she was a small girl, for Rosamund was tall and exceedingly well developed for her age. Irene was a couple of years younger, but she was as lithe as steel. Her little fingers could crush and destroy if they pleased. Her thin arms were muscular to a remarkable degree for so young a girl. She had not a scrap of superfluous flesh on her body. At this moment she looked more spirit than girl; and if Rosamund could have got herself to believe that there were such creatures as changelings, she might almost have given credence to Irene’s own story of herself.

…Before Rosamund could utter a word, Irene had sprung upon her, seized her round the waist, and compelled Rosamund to seat herself upon the side of the bed, which she herself had been occupying a few minutes ago.

“Now, darling,” she said, “you are not going to get away from me, and I believe in your heart you don’t want to.”

Poor Rosamund! a great wave of longing to help this queer child swept over her heart; but there was her word of honor. She was a passionate, head-strong, naughty girl; but she could not give that up. Besides, she could not do anything with Irene in the future if she did not conquer her now.

…”As a matter of fact,” said Rosamund, “I like you very much.”

“There, then, I am satisfied,” exclaimed Irene, and she flung her thin arms round Rosamund’s neck, squeezed herself up close to her, and kissed her again and again.

“Ah!” she said, “I knew that all my life I was waiting for somebody; and that somebody was you, just you, so big, so brave, so—so different from all the others. I should not be the horrid thing I am if the others had not been afraid of me. I got worse and worse, and at last I could not control myself any longer. I did things that perhaps I ought not to have done; but if you give me up I don’t know what will happen—I don’t know where things will end. Are you going to give me up?”

“I will tell you now exactly what has happened, Irene, and will leave it to you to judge how you ought to act for my sake at the present moment. You say you love me——”

“I suppose that is what I feel,” said Irene. “It is a queer sort of sensation, and I have never had it before. It seems to make my heart lighter, and when I think of you I seem to get a sense of rest and pleasure. When you are away from me I feel savage with every one else; but when you are near I think the best of others. And I think it is just possible that if I saw much of you I’d be a sort of a good girl—not a very good one, but a sort of a good girl, particularly if you’d manage mother and manage the servants, and tell them not to be such geese as to be afraid of me. For, of course, you know, I can’t help being a changeling.”

“Now, Irene, you must listen to me. I ought to be in bed and asleep. People will hear us talking, and I won’t allow the door to be locked, whether you like it or not, because it is against the rules.”

“Gracious!” said Irene, “couldn’t we both get out of the window, and climb down by the wistaria and the ivy, and reach the ground, and go and hide in the plantation? We could spend the night there, locked in each other’s arms, so happy—oh, so happy! By the way, I saw a little summer-house—we could spend the night in the summer-house, couldn’t we? Couldn’t we?”

May 10, 2009

The serious consequences of misleading your child readers

Yesterday’s column spoke of problematic bits in children’s books that are edited out of later editions. These included casual racism, not-so-casual racism, characters smoking (the horror!) and the like. I was against said editing out.

However, the value-learnt-in-childhood-reading that has caused me the most harm growing up? Was that brushing one’s hair was a good idea. One’s curly hair.

My hair is not as curly now as it was in the days of my youth. Then I had Proper curls, now it’s an unenthusiastic wave. Most of the time, though, my hair was a disaster because I and everyone else in my life believed that the best way to keep it in order was to brush it.

(proof that some slight curliness remains)

Children’s writers (especially girls’ writers) seemed to pay a great deal of attention to little girls and their haircare. Gwendoline Lacey from Blyton’s Malory Towers was vain because she brushed her hair a hundred times a night. Kathleen (I think?) from Blyton’s Whyteleafe series had no friends because she was unattractive and didn’t brush her hair a hundred times a night. The Chalet School and Barbara involved (I have ranted about this elsewhere) Matron ordering Barbara to “slip on your dressing-­gown, sit down at the mirror and give it a good hard brush­ing. A curly crop like yours needs that twice a day if you’re to escape tangles and pullings. … start at the crown of your head and draw the bristles down with a firm, steady stroke. Go all round your head and if you do it rightly, your scalp should be tingling by the time you’ve finished.” (They were big on tingling scalps at the Chalet school. One imagines the students wandering around like so many little clouds of static).

And so (via Fusenews) Underage Reading asks the question that all of us with curls have been asking for years. Did these authors know no people with curls who could point out to them the error of their ways? Did none of them have curls themselves? Did they and all the curlyheaded people in their circles just go around sporting badly maintained shrubberies? It is all very mysterious.

Be warned therefore, writers for children. Your victims readers could spend the rest of their lives as one long, nightmarish bad hair day. And it would be all your fault.

April 28, 2009

Things that make me go Buh?

While talking about children’s books today, Elinor M.Brent-Dyer’s Rivals of the Chalet School came up in conversation. Specifically, this bit:

Cornelia Flower, another American child, jumped to her feet. ‘Let’s swear a feud against them,’ she said.

‘Mademoiselle said we weren’t to,’ objected Margia.

‘Well, call ourselves the Ku-Klux-Klan, and then it isn’t a feud,’ put in Evadne. ‘It’s fighting for our rights—and things.’

Margia knew perfectly well that it would mean a feud only under another name, but she easily stifled the voice of her conscience, and nodded. ‘It seems an idea. What can we do? What did the American Ku-Klux-Klan do?’

No one was very sure, not even Evadne and Cornelia. Then the former was seized with a brilliant notion.

‘Joey Bettany has some of those awful “Elsie books.” Let’s borrow them—they’re American all right, so they’re sure to say something about them. Then we’ll know where we are.’…

…Cyrilla went back to the form-room where the meeting was, and delivered the precious volumes over to Margia, who dealt them round as far as they would go, and ordained that those left out must look over with someone. For a time there was no sound to be heard but the turning of leaves. Then, suddenly, Giovanna Donati uttered a cry of joy. ‘Here it is, Margia! See!’

Down went the other books and there was a unanimous rush to where she sat, and black, brown, red, and fair heads clustered together over the pages. Yes; there it was.

Margia commandeered the book, and waved them all to their seats. ‘Sit down, an’ I’ll read it to you. Then we’ll know.’

They sat down, and she read aloud industriously for half an hour, after which she passed on the office to someone else, as she was growing hoarse.

The account of the doings of that far-famed ‘Klan’ as given in Elsie’s Motherhood thrilled them all, though they sometimes stumbled over the long words used and were bothered by the very elaborate style of the book.

‘Cut all that,’ commanded Margia when the reader came to any ‘preachy’ bits. ‘Get on to the fun.’…

…After Kaffee und Kuchen, they returned to their amusement, and by the time the bell rang for their amusement, and by the time the bell rang for them to go upstairs and change for the evening, they knew all they wanted about the original Ku-Klux-Klan.

‘Only we can’t go round beating people or sticking up coffins against their back-doors,’ said Margia regretfully.

I’d always assumed that this was just one of those random and bizarre bits of acceptable racism one comes across in old-ish children’s books (Rivals was published in 1929). But since the Elsie book in question is available online (here) I went to check and found that it is actually quite condemnatory of the Klan. Consider this, for example:

“So the Ku Klux outrages have begun in our neighborhood,” remarked Mr. Horace Dinsmore, and went on to denounce their proceedings in unmeasured terms. The faces of several of his auditors flushed angrily. Enna shot a fierce glance at him, muttering “scalawag,” half under her breath, while his old father said testily, “Horace, you speak too strongly. I haven’t a doubt the rascals deserved all they got. I’m told one of them at least, had insulted some lady, Mrs. Foster, I believe, and that the others had been robbing hen-roosts and smoke-houses.”

“That may perhaps be so, but at all events every man has a right to a fair trial,” replied his son, “and so long as there is no difficulty in bringing such matters before the civil courts, there is no excuse for Lynch law, which is apt to visit its penalties upon the innocent as well as the guilty.”

At this, George Boyd, who, as the nephew of the elder Mrs. Carrington and a member of the Ashlands household, had been invited with the others, spoke warmly in defence of the organization, asserting that its main object was to defend the helpless, particularly in guarding against the danger of an insurrection of the blacks.

“There is not the slightest fear of that,” remarked Mr. Travilla, “there may be some few turbulent spirits among them, but as a class they are quiet and inoffensive.”

“Begging your pardon, sir,” said Boyd, “I find them quite the reverse;–demanding their wages directly they are due, and not satisfied with what one chooses to give. And that reminds me that you, sir, and Mr. Horace Dinsmore, and that carpet-bagger of Fairview are entirely too

liberal in the wages you pay.”

“That is altogether our own affair, sir,” returned Mr. Dinsmore, haughtily. “No man or set of men shall dictate to me as to how I spend my money. What do you say, Travilla?”

“I take the same position; shall submit to no such infringement of my liberty to do as I will with my own.”

Martha Finley’s racism is mostly of the “pity the poor ignorant black people” variety than the Klan sort. Elsie’s Motherhood is written in 1876 and even then the author seems to have suspected that writing about the Klan, in whatever fashion, might be rather fraught. Hence the placatory foreword.

The published reports of the Congressional Committee of Investigation were resorted to as the most reliable source of information, diligently examined, and care taken not to go beyond the facts there given as regards the proceedings of the Klan, the clemency and paternal acts of the Government, or the kindly, fraternal feelings and deeds of the people of the North toward their impoverished and suffering brethren of the South.

These things have become matters of history: vice and crime should be condemned wherever found; and naught has been set down in malice; for the author has a warm love for the South as part and parcel of the dear land of her birth.

May this child of her brain give pain to none, but prove pleasant and profitable to all who peruse its pages, and especially helpful to young parents, M. F.

So I have to wonder how closely the Chalet girls (and EBD herself) were reading, for them to assume that none of this is in any way problematic. Maybe all the long speeches condemning the Klan were dismissed as ‘preachy’ and left unread. I don’t know. I’m entirely baffled.

April 3, 2009

Books, books, books

In the aftermath of term paper hell I have gathered around myself some excellent Children’s/YA. Now – what should I read, and in what order? (Keep in mind that I cannot read more than two or three books at a time)

1.Tamora Pierce, Terrier
2.Melissa Marr, Wicked Lovely
3.Michael de Larrabeiti, The Borrible Trilogy
4.Antonia Forest, End Of Term (this would be a reread)
5.Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games
6.S.F Said, Varjak Paw

And…literary meme time, since lots of people seem to have done it.

1) What author do you own the most books by?
Terry Pratchett, I’d assume. Unless we’re counting my tiny Dublin bookshelf, in which case it’s a tie between Alan Garner and John Wyndham (three each)

2) What book do you own the most copies of?
Alice in Wonderland. The Puffin classics one with the Chris Riddell introduction, an older one illustrated by Tenniel and one illustrated by Peake.

3) Did it bother you that both those questions ended with prepositions?

4) What fictional character are you secretly in love with?
So many. Numair Salmalin. Psmith. Um. A lot of people.

5) What book have you read the most times in your life (excluding picture books read to children; i.e., Goodnight Moon does not count)?
I honestly don’t know, most of my reading is rereading.

6) What was your favorite book when you were ten years old?
The Lord of the Rings

7) What is the worst book you’ve read in the past year?
Bearing in mind that this is also the year I read A Thing Beyond Forever and The Saga of Love Via Telephone…Tring Tring, I’m not sure if it’s fair for me to say Twilight. *shrug*

8) What is the best book you’ve read in the past year?
Restricting it to authors I’d never read before, it’s a tie between Patrick Ness’ fantastic The Knife of Never Letting Go and Richard Marsh’s The Beetle.

9) If you could force everyone you tagged to read one book, what would it be?
The Thuggery Affair by Antonia Forest. Drug running pigeons!

10) Who deserves to win the next Nobel Prize for Literature?
I don’t really know or care, but I wish they’d give it to Philip Roth so his fans would shut up about it.

11) What book would you most like to see made into a movie?
Don’t know – like Belle, I think Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell could be great if done right.

12) What book would you least like to see made into a movie?
Any of M.John Harrison’s Viriconium books. My brain would melt.

13) Describe your weirdest dream involving a writer, book, or literary character.
No idea.

14) What is the most lowbrow book you’ve read as an adult?
Considering my taste for the worst of Indian fiction, that’s pretty hard to decide.

15) What is the most difficult book you’ve ever read?
A Thing Beyond Forever. Or The Unnameable.

16) What is the most obscure Shakespeare play you’ve seen?
I have never seen an obscure Shakespeare play.

17) Do you prefer the French or the Russians?
The French, from what little I’ve read.

18) Roth or Updike?

19) David Sedaris or Dave Eggers?

20) Shakespeare, Milton, or Chaucer?

21) Austen or Eliot?

22) What is the biggest or most embarrassing gap in your reading?
I have multiple embarrassing gaps. America, France, Russia, India

23) What is your favorite novel?
I refuse to have one.

24) Play?
Titus Andronicus or The Real Inspector Hound.

25) Poem?
The Schooner “Flight”

26) Essay?
Most writers I like also seem to be amazing essayists. I’m going with “Old Men’s Trousers and the Making Strange of Things” by Alan Garner for now, but this is liable to change.

27) Short story?
“The Kiss” by Angela Carter, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula LeGuin, recently have fallen in love with “The Screwfly Solution” by Raccoona Sheldon/Alice Sheldon/James Tiptree Jr.

28) Work of nonfiction?
Can I say Dario Fo’s Nobel lecture?

29) Who is your favorite writer?
I refuse to have one.

30) Who is the most overrated writer alive today?
No clue

31) What is your desert island book?
Shaking a Leg by Angela Carter

32) And… what are you reading right now?
See above.

March 18, 2009

The wearing of the green

Advised by sage and experienced friends, I fled the country early on the morning of St. Patrick’s day. But here is a (slightly belated) present to the internet on a related subject. It’s from Angela Brazil’s The New Girl at St. Chad’s:

Honor looked without enthusiasm at the knitted woollen coat, and with marked disfavour at the white sailor hat, with its band of orange ribbon.

“I can’t wear that!” she ejaculated.

“Why not?” enquired Vivian, in surprise.

“There’s an orange band round it.”

“Orange is the St. Chad’s colour,” explained Vivian. “We all have exactly the same hats at Chessington, but each house has its own special ribbon—blue for the School House, pink for St. Aldwyth’s, scarlet for St. Hilary’s, and violet for St. Bride’s. I thought you knew that already.”

“If I had, I’d have insisted upon going to another house,” declared Honor tragically. “You ask me to wear orange? Why, the very name of ‘Orangeman’ sets my teeth on edge. I’m a Nationalist to the last drop of my blood; we all are, down in Kerry.”

Vivian smiled.

“Don’t be absurd!” she said, in rather an off-hand manner. “Our hats have nothing whatever to do with politics. Here are two long pins, but if you prefer an elastic you can stitch one on,” and without deigning to argue further she walked away.

Honor stood turning the hat round and round, with a very queer expression on her face. She was a devoted daughter of Erin. Her country’s former glories and the possible brilliance of its future as a separate kingdom could always provoke her wildest enthusiasm; to be asked, therefore, to don the colour which in her native land stood as the symbol of the union with England, and for direct opposition to national independence, seemed to her little short of an insult to her dear Emerald Isle. There were still five minutes left before she need start for chapel, so, making up her mind suddenly, she rushed upstairs to her bedroom. She would show these Saxons that she was a true Celt! They might compel her to wear their emblem of bondage, but it should be with an addition that would proclaim her patriotic sentiments to the world.

Hurriedly hunting in her top drawer, she produced a yard of vivid green ribbon and the bunch of imitation shamrock that old Mary O’Grady had given her as a parting present. Then she set to work on a piece of amateur millinery. There was little time to use needle and thread, but with the aid of pins she managed to twist the ribbon into several loops, and to fasten the shamrock conspicuously in front. She looked at the result of her labours with great approval.

“One could almost imagine it was St. Patrick’s Day,” she said to herself. “Nobody could possibly mistake me now for a Unionist. I’m labelled ‘Home Rule’ as plainly as can be.” Then, hastily pinning on her hat before the mirror, she ran downstairs, humming under her breath:

“So we’ll bide our time; our banner yet
And motto shall be seen,
And voices shout the chorus out,
‘The Wearin’ o’ the Green’!”

February 23, 2009

Cyclical patterns in history (or, the mental incapacity of Geoffrey Chaucer)

Context: Fourteen year old characters in an Angela Brazil book (The Princess of the School, 1920) encounter Theocritus in translation.

“It’s exactly like anybody going out to-day!” commented Carmel, as Miss Adams came to a pause.

“Why does it seem so modern?” asked Dulcie.

“Because it was written during the zenith of Greece’s history, and one great civilization always resembles another. England of to-day is far more in touch with the times of ancient Egypt, Babylon, Greece and Rome, than with the Middle Ages. Read Chaucer, and you find his mental outlook is that of a child of seven. In the days of the Plantagenets grown men and women enjoyed stories of a crude simplicity that now only[97] appeals to children. The human race is always progressing in great successive waves of civilization; after each wave breaks, a time of barbarism prevails, till man is again educated to a higher growth. We’re living at the top of a wave at present!”

February 21, 2009

Religious dilemmas and Real Schoolgirls

(Disclaimer if needed: I’m an atheist and cannot remember ever being anything else)

Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & a Tea Cozy (inspired by Laurel Snyder’s essay on Jewish kidlit, Where the Wild Things Aren’t) asks about books that portray Catholic kids. I’ve read very few books that do, but she’s put up a pretty good list to get started with. Her post reminded me of a conversation I had last week with a (Catholic) friend about Antonia Forest.

I first read Forest in a coverless secondhand copy of End of Term that someone gave me, so that the name of the author and the book didn’t actually register for some time. I remembered Nicola, had vague recollections of the grandmother, and remembered that there was a joke about a lamb in a hymn in there somewhere. What I really remembered the book for was a feeling it gave me of unease that I didn’t understand at the time. It was years later in my teens when I first began to read Grown Up Books that I felt it again. It makes sense – in many ways Forest was writing children’s books for grown ups.

I did remember that discussions about religion played a major part in the story, and last week my friend said she’d been glad just to see Catholic characters. That Patrick is Catholic and that Miranda is Jewish are genuinely relevant to their lives. Religion actually matters in these books – not so much in terms of your personal relationship with Deity-of-choice, but how it functions socially. Miranda’s presence in the Christmas play (and later her part in composing an original hymn) are genuinely problematic, and she’s always a bit defensive (and she’s shown to have good reason) about her Jewishness. Patrick is actually engaging with Vatican II and what it means for him as a Catholic – religion is shown to be something you actually think about and can disagree about. He gets into trouble at his Catholic school for disagreeing with the changes in the Church.

When I compare this to the other girl’s school stories I read as a child the difference is startling. Enid Blyton never really mentions religion at all. Dorita Fairlie Bruce does, hilariously – I think there’s one book in which Dimsie saves a jaded war veteran from the terrors of atheism. Elinor M. Brent Dyer is more interesting. Her characters are religious in the most mawkish possible fashion. No one can stop to look at a mountain (and since the books are set in Austria and later in Switzerland, lots of people end up looking at mountains) without someone coming up behind them and quoting “I will lift up mine eyes to the hills” or reminding them to thank God for all the beauty in the world.

Within Christianity though, the Chalet school books are quite liberal. Some girls are Catholic, some are Protestant, at least one switches after she marries; some are allowed to go to both sets of services. Two separate chapels are built for the school and apart from the practical aspects (where each group should pray and in whose charge) no one really cares what denomination other people are. Which is a wholly admirable view to take, of course, except that what it does (for me, at least) is to make religion something you don’t think about or debate – if you belong to a particular group you just…do. And maybe that is how it is for most people, but I certainly prefer Forest’s characters who think to Brent Dyer’s who apparently don’t.

It’s when it comes to non-Christian characters that Brent Dyer’s universe finds it hard to cope. A Jewish character (I think he’s a jeweller) appears in The Chalet School in Exile where he is saved from a Nazi mob. There don’t seem to be any Jewish students at the school, though in Trials at the Chalet School Naomi’s name leads someone to speculate that she might be one. The truth is far more shocking – Naomi has been raised agnostic*! Trials contains one of my favourite lines in the series: “As for not being baptized, Mary-Lou had never met an unbaptized person before”.

I’d assume that Forest’s treatment of religion had something to do with the fact that as a woman of Jewish ancestry who was a Catholic she’d had reason to think about religion this way. But then Brent Dyer also converted to Catholicism in her thirties (and not to get married) so presumably she was examining her religion too. Just not putting it in her books.

Weird things happen in Antonia Forest books. In The Cricket Term Mrs. Marlow writes to her daughter Nicola and informs her that they can no longer afford to send all the Marlow girls to school so Nicola’s the one they’ve chosen to shaft. In The Thuggery Affair the dead (and presumably decaying, by the end of the book) body of a carrier pidgeon is carried around in order to foil the plans of a drug ring. **But the religion thing is a major part of what makes her stuff seem more real and more complex than anyone else in the (sort of) same genre.

*Mary-Lou cures her. It turns out her character has been twisted because she can’t walk***. Then she gets into a car crash, goes to hospital, and is pretty much written out of the series.

**You cannot imagine how much I recommend this book.

***Only physical disability or war-related trauma is an adequate excuse.