Books I may read

Walk the Lines: The London Underground, Overground. I definitely want to get this before I next visit London. Seeing what’s nearby is much more fun than spending huge amounts of time in transit from one thing to another.

The Ginger Tree. Sometimes I like this sort of thing. Usually I like it better as a memoir than as a novel.

How I Live Now. Maybe not. Clearly late to the party on this one, since it’s been made into a movie, but I first heard of it recently, when I was going through a British blogger’s archives. The Amazon UK link gave a lot less detail than the US Amazon link, and now that I’ve seen the US description, I think I probably won’t read it after all. My initial impression was that it was a WWII novel, rather than set in the future.

Doing this post lets me close some tabs, at least. Bookmarking, for me, is like filing. I might as well just toss the paper. I need to see things, or have them in a format that allows text searches. Using a blog as a list of links: how retro.

YA book review: The Fair Adventure

When I was looking for the Verney book, I also found The Fair Adventure, by Elizabeth Janet Gray (shelved under her married name, Vining, never mind how she identified as a writer or what her publisher put on the title page. I blame the patriarchy). This was one I liked when I was, oh, maybe in middle school, I’m not sure. The sixteen-year-old heroine, Page MacNeil, was definitely older than I was, enough older to seem glamorous, but near enough to seem like someone I could aspire to be. I remember that it took me awhile to read this book instead of re-shelving it after a quick glance at its pages, because the title suggested a fantasy-quest sort of book, when in fact it’s a book about What Happened The Summer After A Girl Graduated From High School.

There are a lot of those books. Sometimes they’re about jobs, and sometimes they’re about looking forward to college, and they’re nearly always about boys: outgrowing a high school boyfriend, or meeting a new one who’s going to the same or a nearby college. Whatever. The Summer-After-High-School book is, to me, a recognizable sub-genre.

The Fair Adventure seems far more modern than Friday’s Tunnel, though published in 1940 and set in the late 1930s. Daddy’s Depression salary cut has not yet been restored, and wealthy visitors have strong opinions about the New Deal, Trade Unions, the Race Question, and Socialism, but there is not a word about what might be happening in Europe. Page does have a rather narrow outlook. Well, she’s sixteen, she just graduated from high school, and she lives in a small college town in Virginia. She knows she hasn’t experienced anything much; she’s never even left the state. She hopes to go to a women’s college in the north and study Art History, and learn to be a painter. Daddy teaches Classics at the local co-ed college, where “girls went in for dates and clothes and feminine charm” (120), and because money is tight and she fails to get a scholarship to her northern dream school, Page may have to go there, where there isn’t a single class in Art History.

The plot mainly consists of episodes in which events in her older siblings’ lives overshadow significant firsts in Page’s life (high school graduation, a good role in a play, getting a permanent wave), alongside the problem of where she’ll go to college. Marriage is a significant theme: her next older sister gets married, her oldest brother gets engaged. However, it’s not explicitly one of Page’s ambitions. She’s being “rushed” by a very eligible boy, the college president’s son, back from his freshman year at Princeton. In fact, he has flunked out, and seems willing to go to the local college if Page will be there. Clearly, she could stay home, date this boy, and settle into a comfortable small-town life, if she wanted to.

Such a life can be busy and useful, as her mother illustrates: she’s a member of multiple clubs, including a church group, the PTA, and the garden club. Page’s older sister, Jean, graduates from nursing school on the same day that Page graduates from high school; although Jean marries a young doctor before the summer is out, Page reflects on the way the couple have “fresh responsibilities both to each other and to the community” (244). The oldest sister, Alison, is 28 and has three children, the oldest eight years old. Dr. MacNeil complains that “Every thought she has is impregnated with Fred’s ideas. It comes of marrying too young. Page, you are not to marry till you’re thirty” (108). Nonetheless, Alison is staying with her parents temporarily after three years in Panama with Fred, her engineer-husband, and at the end of the summer the young family go off to Canada. Even if Alison doesn’t work outside the home, it’s pretty clear that she’s contributing a lot to her family’s well-being, and that when her children are older she will, like her mother, put her talents to work in the community.

The large family is close-knit and imaginative. One of the charming set-pieces is the play that they write and perform to celebrate their mother’s birthday, a spoof of their family life in which they work in all the characteristic activities and sayings of the family members, and Alison’s five-year-old plays her great-grandmother to great effect.

“What I need is scope,” Page says early on (42), and she eventually gets it. Or makes it. She’s not really impressed by the eligible boy who wasted his time at Princeton on extra-curriculars instead of studying at least enough to stay in school. She forgets a date with him when she has the opportunity to get paid for a water-color, and this leads her to tell him they’re seeing too much of each other. She clearly identifies as an artist, not as a girlfriend or muse.

I didn’t notice the period elements when I was in middle school, but I enjoyed them now. It’s the US before the second world war, before Eisenhower’s highways, when a mountain guest house provided candles to go to bed by, when the younger members of a family turned out of their rooms and slept on cots on a sleeping porch in order to make room for guests, because putting them up at a hotel just wouldn’t be hospitable.

I’d like to know what SophyLou thinks of this one.

Children’s book review: Friday’s Tunnel

I sometimes lurk on the Chron fora, and I’ve enjoyed the thread on children’s books. There were a couple of posts this month that caught my eye, both because of the poster’s name, Glendower, and because of the books described. Glendower! It must be a different Glendower. Mine is sweet and handsome but I swear he’s illiterate. He doesn’t even sleep on books very often, though he enjoys the tunnels behind them on the shelves.

Anyway, the forum’s Glendower reported on a book called Friday’s Tunnel, by John Verney, that sounded familiar . . . and yet not. I found it in the library, and I think it is the one I remember, but like Glendower, I remembered it very differently. I think I also later confused it with a children’s book that my father started writing (but never finished, sadly) about a tunnel under the elementary school that my brothers and I all attended.

Reading Verney’s book as an adult, I suffered from feminist outrage as well as the usual odd time-warping sense that happens when I re-visit books I haven’t read in decades. The narrator, a 13-year-old girl named February, describes her mother as “tall and thin and easily the most beautiful woman I know and not very strong because of having so many children [six, and another on the way]. Dr. Henry says they have overtaxed her strength and that’s one reason why Daddy won’t let her drive the car” (26).

If Daddy is so worried about Mummy’s strength, he had better find his way to the drugstore. Chemist. Whatever. He ought to know where babies come from, at his age, and if he doesn’t, I’d be willing to explain to him. With a pair of scissors.

And when February makes breakfast for the gang one morning when Mummy’s back has seized up, she reflects, “Shouldn’t be surprised if I made a jolly good housewife myself—if anyone ever asked me” (212-3). Is this all she can think of to do with herself? Is this all John Verney can think of for a girl to do?

The book was published in 1959. I can put up with quite a lot of outdated reactionary hogwash in an old book if the story, characters, and setting are appealing. But I agree with the forum’s Glendower that the plot was confusing. Worse than that, as February was galloping about on her pony, I realized that she is one of those privileged snobby horsy girls: “I thought . . . of how lucky Friday and I are the others were to be living in the country and to have parents like ours, and of a girl at school called Helen Ponton whom I always tease because she’s so fat and stupid and awful and whose parents were killed last year in an air-crash and who has no brothers and sisters or proper home but spends every hols with a maiden aunt in a bed-sitting-room in Leamington Spa” (46).

Poor Helen. I don’t care that at the end of the book, February urges a rich childless couple to adopt Helen Ponton. I expect if I, or February, were suddenly deprived of parents, we’d also be fat (eating our feelings) and stupid (grief will do that to you) and probably awful (ditto). I want to read about Helen. In particular, I want to read about Helen putting all her weight behind a punch to February’s stuck-up teasing nose.

A house organized around writing

I thought I remembered a single sentence or paragraph in A. S. Byatt’s The Shadow of the Sun that summed up the way Henry Severell’s house is organized around his writing routine. But it’s more diffuse than that, a series of descriptions and references that I somehow fused in my head.

The descriptions of Henry’s study are lovely:

The study, for a study, was very large, and full of light, which flooded in through a large french window which opened onto the terrace at the back. It had nothing of the dark leather and silver and tobacco comfort of the gentleman’s study, no steel cabinets, on the other hand, no deliberate austerity, not even the threadbare untidiness of the don’s room, with paper everywhere, and stones collected on odd beaches and brought home because they were interesting. If it had any character, it was that of the outgrown schoolroom—books, on shelves, all round the walls, not glassed in, a huge, square ugly desk in light wood, a wooden armchair, and a desk chair. There was a typewriter on the desk, and a jug of flowers, arranged by Caroline, on one of the book-cases. There was a large fireplace, and a sage green carpet, slightly silky, and nothing else remarkable but space—clear, uninhabited, sunlit space. The study was the centre of the house, and round what went on in it everything else was ordered . . . . (4-5)

He went downstairs and into the hall, where he opened the curtains to let in the grey light, too weak yet to reach the corners . . . . In his study was the flask of coffee Caroline always put out for him, and a bowl of chrysanthemums, on whose crisp, clawed points light and colour were already stirring . . . . He settled then at his desk, with his coffee, in the quiet house. He went through notebooks, settling his mind: he had never been able to cure himself of indiscriminate jottings, but it had taken him much longer to learn to read what he had jotted and he now made a point of it. (168-70)

Although Byatt describes Caroline cooking, rolling pastry, going about her household tasks, the concern for menus is Henry’s:

He disliked large meals. They slowed him. . . . He struggled with the menu to find something he could eat comfortably without impeding his next morning’s work . . . . He ordered a bottle of wine and remembered that as an undergraduate he had dreamed of literary fame to be rewarded by dinners in such a restaurant, with such a beautiful woman. He smiled to himself, for here he was, neither bored nor blasé, nor disillusioned he hoped, but merely concerned exclusively with the connection between his stomach and his working routine. (186)

I have not read this book in some time, and as I looked for my non-existent single quotation, I remembered how much I dislike it. Not one of the characters is likeable. Caroline the self-sacrificing comes closest; even as she devotes herself to her husband, house, and children, she protects a fantasy life in which she is an opera singer, and when Henry wants to talk to her, she makes him keep silent until she finishes singing an aria. Then she deals with him. I have to admire that corner of self that she has preserved. But at what a cost! The others are appalling. Henry is selfish. Oliver Canning is worse. And Anna Severell, Henry’s daughter, is exasperating. I think Byatt intended all of these effects, and the book is beautifully written, but I find it very hard to read a book whose characters I dislike.

But the introduction to the 1991 reissue clarifies many of the problems Byatt faced as she wrote this her first book, and it contains this terribly sad sentence: “No woman of my generation would have expected any putative husband to consider her work prospects when making his own decisions” (viii). She wanted work, she wanted love—as who does not?—and good cooking, too. Someone has to run the well-ordered house. How can the writer and the housekeeper be the same person?

A. S. Byatt. The Shadow of the Sun. New York: Harcourt, Brace. 1991.

It’s in English!

I ordered one more document from the National Archives to help bolster the MMP-1. Well, really I ordered it because I am nosy. I’m not sure it will add anything to my argument, but I’m curious about what one person thought she was doing, and what other people had to say about it.

It hadn’t previously been scanned. This is a good thing because it means I get a high-quality photograph instead of a low-quality scan from microfilm. Even so, when I first opened it I groaned, because the document has some wrinkles that will make parts of it hard to read, and of course it has those long lines that make lines hard to track across the page.

But when I zoomed in on the writing, it was in English, not Latin. That is going to make it so much easier to decipher. Not only that, it’s in a noticeably more modern hand than the IPM from the previous century. Between those two changes, I’ll be able to read it far more quickly than I expected, although I think I will still have to transcribe it because (due to long lines) if it’s blown up to a size I can read, it doesn’t fit on my monitor.

I feel like a bad medievalist because I am so happy to get to read this thing in English instead of Latin legalese. I am convinced that Real Scholars (TM), like for instance Jon Jarrett, don’t mind reading in abbreviated Latin. For the moment, however, I am content to be a Fake Scholar. I play a medievalist on the Internet. 😉

When old boyfriends convert

I’ve been looking at some of Flavia’s old posts about teaching (there are great bits in the comments, as well), and also ran across this one, in which she expresses her “horror” that her “first boyfriend–last seen as a smart, hilarious Jew with interests in politics, foreign affairs, and baseball, a guy who was fluent in Mandarin by age 21 and spent most of his college years living abroad–is now an insurance agent in Omaha, a Creationist, and an actual Jew for Jesus.”

Not that I dated the actual same guy, but I was once engaged to a man for whom I fully expected to convert to Judaism, and when through idle web-stalking I discovered that he is now an Episcopalian (not in Omaha), I was shocked. I was going to be the convert; what was up with him turning to Christianity? But I found it hard to articulate why this bothered me, and doubted that anyone else would understand it. Now it seems that Flavia would get it, and in fact, already got it.

How many of us have someone in our past who made some sort of huge change like that? Or are you the one who changed?

Getting the right words

I am still (again, forever . . . ) working on the MMP-1. I have begun to wonder if it would have been simpler to write this article as a book. Cat knows I have written enough words for a book. The problem is getting the right words, in the right order. Another problem is trying to work out, at this late date, what the forest is, when for some time now (like, since I started on this project) I have been focusing on trees.

I love trees. I love their leaves and the leaves’ capillaries, their bark, their mossy growths, the spores in the moss that grows on their bark.

Forest? Is there a forest in here?

Well, damn, who knew?

I will now suspend the metaphor in favor of practicalities, because this might possibly be of some help to some other struggling writer, somewhere. I thought I had a workable introduction, and went on to revise the body of the paper (we will gloss over the current mess in what should be the last body section). But when I ran the intro past my writing group, they had questions. Their questions sent me back to analyze introductory paragraphs in the journal to which I plan to send this version of the paper. I had already looked at whole introductions, to get a sense of what they should look like, but this week I read about a dozen first paragraphs. I listed not what they said, but what the function of each sentence was.

Of course there were variations. Writers are not machines, nor are editors, and a tendency to publish essays of a somewhat similar structure does not mean that there is One True Way For This Journal and any writer who does not conform to this format will be consigned to Outer Darkness.

Nonetheless, there was a pattern, one which seemed fairly pronounced in a couple of essays that are close to the kind of thing I think I’m doing. (Whether I’m really doing what I think I’m doing is yet another question at which I refuse even to squint right now.) So today, after figuring out which forest I’m working in, and how my individual tree relates to it, and what clumps of forest have previously been studied, I wrote a 300-word introductory paragraph.

I still have to figure out what goes in the second paragraph, before my actual thesis. I want to lead with the thesis (did I take too many journalism classes in college?), but I just don’t think it’s going to work for this paper, and this journal. I really want to get on with the middle parts of the paper, except for dreading that swampy bit in the last section where I’m not sure what’s tree roots and what’s snakes, but I expect strengthening the introduction will help in general and even, possibly, with the swamp.

Maybe I lacked some useful training in writing when I was in college or grad school. Maybe other people know to analyze other essays, or even, simply, know how to write an introduction, without needing to look at other essays’ structures. But I don’t just know, and I have found it very helpful to look carefully at the structure of published essays. Including, apparently, my own (I thought I’d written before about studying other people’s, but my own reverse outline is the first thing I found).

I am definitely going to use this first-paragraph-analysis as a writing lesson in my lit classes. I’ll model it first, with an essay we’re all reading, and get student input on what they think the function of each sentence is. For undergrads, I’ll then form groups of three or four, each with a different first paragraph, from essays selected to be appropriate for undergrad readers. I’m thinking several essays from the same journal (exploring that question of House Style), and at least one by one of those authors that appeared in a different journal (exploring the question of personal style). For grads, I’ll probably let them pick their own essays and present the first paragraph and their analysis of it to the class, and we’ll see where discussion goes.

W/r/t the MMP-1, I really hope I’m modelling optimistic persistence that will eventually be rewarded, and not either quixotic fixation on a dead horse, or else sheer bloody-minded stupidity. This has gone on for so long, through so many drafts, outlines, chunks of free-writing, notes, annotated bibliography, etc., etc., that I question my sanity. No, that’s just a moment’s discouragement. I have published the MMP-3 and the Companion Piece, and have an R&R on MMP-2. This is determined resilience, this is. I will get out of the swamp. I will escape the trees’ clutches (and the snakes). I will wind up on the hill above the treeline with a fantastic view of the forest.

And then I will see the essay I should have written.

Oh well. Onward and upward.

et encore: Nice

2015-09-13 15.25.08

At this rate I should have taken more pictures of the pleurants from the tombs of Jean Sans Peur and Philippe le Hardi.

J’offre mes condoléances les plus sincères aux Niçois.

As you might expect

I shall tactfully refrain from naming the author or title of the book (published by a highly reputed university press) in which I found the following sentence:

“One might argue that romances, like novellas, were the kind of prose fiction that was closest in interest and narrative type to romances.”

One might argue that; but why would one bother? It’s tautological.

Maybe one or more adjectives is missing, or something else went wrong in the editing process. In the context of the paragraph, it seems like a different kind of statement is needed at this point. I can imagine highlighting and moving the wrong chunk of text.

Note to self as well as others: this is why actual proof-reading by human eyes (and, preferably, voice) is necessary. Do not rely on electronic checkers of spelling and grammar.

Sabra update

Awhile back, Basement Cat announced Sabra’s departure. Despite all my efforts (safe space, slow introductions, play therapy/joint military exercises, treats, Feliway, and so on), Sabra really really really wanted to be an only cat, and (a) that is just not happening in this house, and (b) her presence was stressing out BC so that he was attacking our other cats, including the poor old Grammarian who had enough other problems. We took Sabra to a no-kill shelter, hoping she would soon be someone else’s beloved special kitty.

Well, she has finally been adopted. The path there was not smooth, sad to say. I did tell them about her desires, but she was first adopted by people who already had a cat. Sabra’s response to that was to think outside the box, if you get my drift, and so they brought her back to the shelter. Then there were some weeks of re-evaluation. Eventually the shelter people decided she just needed to be an only cat (yes, duh, we know!). Then there was more waiting till there was a suitable spot for her on the adoption floor. Poor girl. I hope she now has great people who appreciate her properly. She is so beautiful and such a charmer, so long as other cats are not involved.

In a weird way, I find all this reassuring. We had no trouble with her over litter-box usage, so clearly we were doing something right despite her inability to settle in with our other cats. And I do have a lot of experience integrating cats into the household, so I rather feel that if it couldn’t happen here, it wouldn’t happen anywhere (although Basement Cat and his anxieties do present a special challenge). We probably did better with her than many people would have been able to. This may even throw some light on why she was out on her own in the first place; she might have been thrown out, or left of her own accord, when a new cat, dog, or infant joined the family.

I never thought I’d have to surrender an animal, but apparently it can happen even to the crazy cat people of the world. Please support your local no-kill shelter. They help all of us.