Minute Marginalia

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Classics Challenge #5

I started two other books -- Oliver Twist and Phineas Redux -- and decided the first was too grim and the second too late in Trollope's writing (and too focused on men in politics) for a February read. John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps (available online at Project Gutenberg) was another title on my list, and reached to the top after a friend who teaches detective fiction graciously responded to my questions about Buchan's literary significance. He explained that Buchan moved the spy/suspense story toward greater realism in style and structure (as contrasted with someone like E. Philips Oppenheim) and was among the first to introduce such conventions as the hero pursuing a malefactor while himself being pursued by police. According to my friend Randy, 39 Steps is also "the book that establishes how one can truly disguise oneself, by BECOMING another person. No false whiskers or putty noses." The blurb on the library's edition of The Thirty-Nine Steps also claims that "During the First World War, [Buchan] became recognized as a great writer, both for his History of the War and his romances, including Thirty-Nine Steps . . . His writing showed superb narrative skill combined with knowledge of facts and background."

All of that leaves me feeling I should have taken much more from my reading of this novel. It was mildly entertaining, and, if I hadn't known there were supposed to be multiple plot twists, it probably would have been more suspenseful than it was.

Thanks to Randy's comments, I was more aware of the use of disguise and noticed that Buchan does employ it for multiple characters and also discusses the accompanying mindset. In the excerpted scene below, the protagonist, Hannay, adopts the role of a surveyor; Buchan includes a detailed description of the physical and mental changes involved, illustrating Hannay's gradual change in understanding of the concept (a change mirrored in the way later characters employ disguise).

I borrowed [the old surveyor's] spectacles and filthy old hat; stripped off coat, waistcoat, and collar, and gave him them to carry home; borrowed, too, the foul stump of a clay pipe as an extra property. . . .

Then I set to work to dress for the part. I opened the collar of my shirt--it was a vulgar blue-and-white check such as ploughmen wear--and revealed a neck as brown as any tinker's. I rolled up my sleeves, and there was a forearm which might have been a blacksmith's, sunburnt and rough with old scars. I got my boots and trouser-legs all white from the dust of the road, and hitched up my trousers, tying them with string below the knee. Then I set to work on my face. With a handful of dust I made a water-mark round my neck, the place where Mr Turnbull's Sunday ablutions might be expected to stop. I rubbed a good deal of dirt also into the sunburn of my cheeks. A roadman's eyes would no doubt be a little inflamed, so I contrived to get some dust in both of mine, and by dint of vigorous rubbing produced a bleary effect. . . .

My boots did not satisfy me, but by dint of kicking among the stones I reduced them to the granite-like surface which marks a roadman's foot-gear. Then I bit and scraped my finger-nails till the edges were all cracked and uneven. The men I was matched against would miss no detail. I broke one of the bootlaces and retied it in a clumsy knot, and loosed the other so that my thick grey socks bulged over the uppers. Still no sign of anything on the road. The motor I had observed half an our ago must have gone home.

My toilet complete, I took up the barrow and began my journeys to and from the quarry a hundred yards off.

I remember an old scout in Rhodesia, who had done many queer things in his day, once telling me that the secret of playing a part was to think yourself into it. You could never keep it up, he said, unless you could manage to convince yourself that you were it. So I shut off all other thoughts and switched them on to the road-
mending. I thought of the little white cottage as my home, I recalled the years I had spent herding on Leithen Water, I made my mind dwell lovingly on sleep in a box-bed and a bottle of cheap whisky. . . .

Earlier in the story, Hannay paid more attention to exteriors when constructing his disguises; later, the book will move toward the other extreme.

Much of the plot left me thinking I should be watching it as a Matt Damon movie: dramatic chases alternate with brief interludes in hiding at various quaint or ununsual locales, interspersed with the occasional explosion, unexpected corpse, or violent confrontation. Although the novel seems quite plot-driven, this page has an interesting set of questions examining the hero and ideologies in the work.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Classics challenge #2, 3, and 4 -- postscript

(Supplement to the previous post about my three most recent titles for the 2007 Winter Classics Challenge . . .)

Jill at Individual Take has written one of her wonderfully comprehensive entries for Mary Barton, with summary, extract, commentary, and links; her other reflections on the work and its author are here (gender issues and the canon) and here (initial responses to the early chapters). She has also just added her insights on Scarlet Pimpernel in its various permutations, again with relevant links. As always, her comments are well worth reading.

Since I knew Jill would cover those works so well, I didn't worry about supplementary information for Elizabeth Gaskell or Baroness Orczy. A Bell for Adano does merit a couple of links, however. This is what appears to be a graduate student's study for a library science course in bibliography; it links to the original cover image and includes excerpts from contemporary reviews about 3/4 down the page, followed by discussion of the novel's reception over time and a critical essay. Among other things, I learned that John Hershey had written an article for LIFE magazine ("AMGOT at Work: An American Major brings some American democracy to his job of administering a small Sicilian town," August 23, 1943) which served as the genesis of the novel.

Finally, over at Dolce Bellezza, another blogger recently discovered A Bell for Adano, found it "one of the loveliest books [she's] ever read," and comments on its appeal for her.

Friday, February 09, 2007

2007 TBR Challenge #1: Love, Ruby Lavender

Sadly, the cover illustration (by the very talented Marla Frazee, whose Roller Coaster should be considered a must-see picture book) is probably the best part of this novel. It's not a bad story (and, indeed, received a starred review in SLJ and was listed as an ALA Notable), but it's also not an outstanding one; readable, yet a trifle forced in spots.

The book is about Coping with Death -- Ruby Lavender's grandfather died a year ago, and the effects are still evident in Ruby's world, especially when her grandmother, a constant in Ruby's life, decides to leave their small Mississippi town and stay with relatives in Hawaii indefinitely. In her absence, Ruby makes a new friend, cares for three chickens that she and her grandmother saved from slaughter after the sale of an egg ranch, waits for their eggs to hatch, and continues her quarrel with another girl whose father died the same time as Ruby's grandfather (the latter a technique used to allow author Deborah Wiles to keep bringing up the death and adding a bit more information about the circumstances each time). Letters between Ruby and her grandmother -- set off in a different font -- appear at the beginning and end of numerous chapters, providing additional commentary on situations in the story. Ultimately, of course, Ruby and her antagonist reach a truce of sorts and Ruby also finds peace regarding her grandfather's death.

The story has a few creative touches -- I enjoyed the chickens with their distinctive personalities -- and recognition of the important issue of taking on unnecessary guilt when a loved one dies. The characters seemed a little underdeveloped, however, sometimes designed to advance the plot rather than stand as fleshed-out personalities in their own right, and the story seemed occasionally to want to teach rather than to portray life or entertain. As this excerpt illustrates, the prose is easy to follow, fairly streamlined, but not up to the quality of Rylant or MacLachlan:

The back meadow shimmered with sound. Ruby and Miss Eula walked through the flowering meadow grass, holding hands in the last wash of daylight, listening to the zizz, zizz, zizz of life around them. The moon was beginning to rise, a crescent moon, the color of old teeth.

(I still can't figure out why Wiles chose that last comparison, especially for the final image in a paragraph designed to establish the scene as pleasant and relaxing, but do like the flow of "holding hands in the last wash of daylight.")

My copy is a paperback that demonstrates just how much marketing is now involved with children's books. Not only does it contain a "Grandmother-Granddaughter Reading Group Guide," a list of book-related activities ("Ruby drew a map of [her hometown] . . . Draw a map of your own town"), but it also has an interview with the book's author conducted by its fictitious narrator Ruby Lavender, along with the first chapter of Wiles's "next hilarious and heartfelt coming-of-age novel."

Classics Challenge, #2, 3, and 4

Elizabeth Gaskell - Mary Barton
Baroness Orczy - Scarlet Pimpernel
John Hershey - A Bell for Adano (substitution for Oliver Twist)

Random thoughts: I hadn't planned on writing about these three books as a group -- or, for that matter, even reading Adano for the classics challenge. A chance reference to it in a crossword puzzle reminded me that my mother's copy was on the bookshelves. Glancing at the foreword, I was intrigued by the following:

You see, the theories about administering occupied territories all turned out to be just theories, and in fact the thing which determined whether we Americans would be successful in that toughest of all jobs was nothing more or less than the quality of the men who did the administering. . . .

America is the international country. . . . That is where we are lucky. No other country has such a fund of men who speak the languages of the lands we must invade, who understand the ways and have listened to their parents sing the folk songs and have tasted the wine of the land on the palate of their memories....

Hershey seemed to touch on so many timely issues that I wanted to try the novel, to see how the issue of US military in occupied territory in WWII would be presented (though it's not a subject I'm going to discuss in the entry).

Thinking back, it seems as if all three books deal, in some fashion, with power and authority figures, and with their potential for good or ill. Although all three use outside narrators, each positions the reader in a slightly different relationship to those in power. Mary Barton generally aligns us with Mary's perspective and that of the working class characters surrounding her; Bell's narrator is clearly sympathetic towards Major Joppolo, the Italian immigrant and former government clerk who is now in charge of overseeing affairs (in more ways than one) in the occupied town of Adano on the Italian coast. Pimpernel frequently shifts perspective early in the novel, but stays with Lady Marguerite for much of the later chapters, generally favoring whichever angle allows inflating the tension and elevating the Scarlet Pimpernel and his dazzling achievements. Like many other literary superluminaries (Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe), the Pimpernel is almost always seen through others' admiring eyes, further magnifying his exploits and skill.

In all three novels, the antagonists also represent a larger force -- Chauvelin, the French revolutionary government; John and Harry Carson, the mill owners and manufacturers who band together to make decisions affecting their workers' lives and welfare; General Marvin, military bureaucracy. Their position allows them to wield sufficient power to damage or destroy -- and occasionally end -- the lives of others, including those who should instead be receiving their protection. At some point, each of these men seems to respond out of ego and/or vindictiveness -- exacerbated by an inability to see their victims as people instead of as obstructions. Each novel has a different resolution: Gaskell's Mary Barton brings Carson to some recognition of the sufferings of his workers and a happy (and romantic) ending for the title character; Hershey -- the other novelist writing about a contemporaneous situation and social problems -- opts for the reverse: General Marvin triumphs, and Joppolo ends up en route to Algiers, although the acquisition of the title object at least implies some hope for Adano's future; Chauvelin is ignominiously defeated by the audacious and ever-resourceful Pimpernel.

Two of the novels are written by women, and although at first glance Mary Barton and The Scarlet Pimpernel may seem wildly dissimilar -- one highlighting the plight of the working poor, the other proclaiming that noblemen are, indeed, noble men, and that all that satin and lace merely disguises brilliant minds and dashing young men who live for daring rescues -- there are also some striking similarities. Gaskell and Orczy season their plots with romances, and with somewhat similar ones, at that. In the course of both novels, a woman comes to the realization that she does, indeed, love the man who is devoted to her -- but this discovery occurs under circumstances that prevent her from declaring or demonstrating her love. To complicate matters further, the woman manages (because of her relationship with another man) to place her beloved in jeopardy, then races frantically against time in order to save his life, finding her goal impeded by weather and the complications of travel on water. Unexpected delays heighten her fears until, after witnessing her beloved's trial (literal or metaphorical), she reveals the intensity of her love; the man is saved, the woman swoons, and romance begins (or resumes).

Adano, written by a man, takes a much more prosaic approach to gender relationships and love. There are no scenes where men burn with undying passion as in the following from Pimpernel (which also serves as an example of Orczy's style, since it seems only fair to include an excerpt from her work):

She looked divinely pretty as she stood there in the moonlight, with the fur-cloak sliding off her beautiful shoulders, the gold embroidery on her dress shimmering around her, her childlike blue eyes turned up fully at him.

He stood for a moment, rigid and still, but for the clenching of his hand against the stone balustrade of the terrace.

. . . His whole attitude was one of intense longing -- a veritable prayer for that confidence, which her foolish pride withheld from him. . . .

. . . Had she but turned back then, and looked out once more on to the rose-lit garden, she would have seen that which would have made her own sufferings seem but light and easy to bear -- a strong man, overwhelmed with his own passion and his own despair. Pride had given way at last, obstinacy was gone: the will was powerless. He was but a man madly, blindly, passionately in love, and as soon as her light footsteps had died away within the house, he knelt down upon the terrace steps, and in the very madness of his love he kissed one by one the places where her small foot had trodden, and the stone balustrade there, where her tiny hand had rested last.

(And isn't that a romantic note on which to end?)