Wednesday, May 31, 2006

See Below

I've been thinking about the comments made below, and thank you by the way for contributing. I've figured out which horse I'm going to back, so to speak. The argument against Little Women is that it's too didactic and morally simplistic. I think that's a valid point, although if I recall correctly, the same criticism could apply to The Scarlet Letter. National Velvet is, I think, stylistically a lot more interesting than people give it credit for, but I don't know how influential it is or what novels influenced Enid Bagnold, so I'm not on sure argumentative ground there.

I'm going to argue on behalf of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, though. I was driving around today and thinking of our discussion, and I recalled the final essays I had my students write in our great American novels class, in which I asked "what are the qualifications for a great American novel?" Their answers were pretty varied, but some of them were:
  • It stands the test of time.
  • It is about the American Dream.
  • It offers a slice of Americana at a particular historical point, bringing that time period to life.
  • It is about sex and alcohol. (This guy went on to argue that The Sun Also Rises was the great American novel. Heh.)
  • It deals with issues of race.
  • It is well written.
  • It is on the syllabus of a class called "Great American Novels." (That one is of course begging the question.)
Obviously these are just opinions of what makes a great American novel. But A Tree Grows in Brooklyn succeeds in all these points. It's a bildungsroman in the tradition of Look Homeward, Angel and An American Tragedy, to name two recent examples. Its strong points are that it brings to life a particular historical time and place, and also that it is about the American Dream--in this case, Irish immigrants trying to achieve success in America. Although it's a facetious qualification, it does talk about sex and alcohol openly (Francie's sexual awakening is honest and touching, and of course Johnny Nolan is a tragic alcoholic). It deals with issues of race; that is, racism against immigrants, and Irish immigrants in particular. It is definitely well written and does indeed stand the test of time. I think it's worthy for all those reasons.

Where it falls short, I think, is that it isn't as far as I know stylistically groundbreaking or particularly influential. I suppose I could do research on that issue, but again, I think it's begging the question in the first place. The canon doesn't feature many books about young girls, or books by women. (Remember that the Modern Library list doesn't even include To Kill a Mockingbird.) Books seem to get extra points if they're about slavery, the South, or war. But in many ways, I think A Tree Grows in Brooklyn explores New York the way that To Kill a Mockingbird explores Mississippi, and Scout Finch and Francie Nolan have more in common than not. So why is one in the canon (sort of) and the other is dismissed as children's literature? I'm not arguing that they're exactly on par, since Mockingbird truly is one of the greatest books ever written, but I would argue that they are at least comparable.

Anyway, so there's my argument. If nothing else, reading Look Homeward Angel (so far on page 300 and not seeing any point to it yet) has at least led me to ponder these other novels in, for me, interesting ways. Let me know what you think.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Children's Lit or Classics? You Decide!

I'm reading Look Homeward, Angel which so far is a pretentious snoozefest, but I'll get to that when I post about it. Crafting an explanation of why I hate it is the only thing keeping me going at this point. But as I was reading it, some minor detail reminded me of National Velvet by Enid Bagnold, which has a simplicity and truth to it that in my mind makes it a far better book. So why don't I see it on any booklists? Is it because it's a "children's" book? Is it because it's by a woman? Is it because it's by a woman that it's considered a children's book? Two more books came to mind immediately that fit this category: Little Women and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. All books that are supposedly aimed towards "children" but which are truthful, incredibly well written, charming, and stand the test of time. So... what the hell?

Another book I would put on the "best books" list is In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden. It's definitely not a kids' book, but it stands up against any of the canonical classics, in my mind. I don't know if it's because it's too obscure (Demi Moore is the only person I know of who knows Rumer Godden, as she named a child after her) or because of the subject matter (it's about nuns) so I'm not all up in arms about this one, but it also came to mind as one of my favorite books when I was a kid, and one that I still think stands up to a critical reading today.

Anyway, I'd like to see a much better list of "top 100 books by women," because this one contains some real clunkers, and none of the four books I've mentioned are on it, despite the fact that they are all better than Fried Green Tomatoes and Patience and Sarah. Although now that I take a second look at that list, there are a lot of good books on there. (Rebecca, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Mrs. Dalloway....) Hmm.

Anyway, what do you think? Are National Velvet, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and Little Women all off the list because they really are children's books? If so, what makes them children's books? Do you think they really are appreciably weaker than the books in the canon? If so, why? Is the language too simple? Are the themes they tackle not lofty enough? Are there any "children's books" by men that have been treated in this dismissive way? I personally feel each of these books has enriched my life in a real, permanent way, and I'd include them all on my personal list of must-read classics, which I look forward to creating in twenty years when I finally finish this damn reading project.

Ya-Yas In Bloom (by Rebecca Wells)

Yeah. So I've read the other two Ya-Ya books several times each, despite the fact that they are somewhat annoying, so now I'm committed. This third installment had a lot of negative reviews, so I didn't buy it or anything, just read it. And I have to say that I enjoyed it quite a bit, probably more than Little Altars Everywhere (the first one).

The big problem I had is that the "villains" at the very end of the book are hateful fat ladies, and the Ya-Yas are deliberately set up as a contrast in their being eternally gorgeous and thin. Yes, my same old soapbox, but it still irritates me. I still waited for that one character who's allowed to be less than perfectly thin and yet still gorgeous and divine. Well, not in this book, anyway. And in addition, there's also the general twee nature of the series as a whole. But I consider this installment perfectly acceptable and entertaining, and I even hope there will be a next one, because I admit I'm invested in the characters and what happens to them.

Also, unlike in the horrible, horrible Sisterhood movie, nobody yells "Ya-Ya!" at any point as if it is a cheer of some sort. Thank god.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

For Whom The Bell Tolls (by Ernest Hemingway)

I flew out of town at the last minute on Saturday and in the process I forgot to grab anything to read. Fortunately, O'Hare has a bookstore with a fairly extensive selection, and I grabbed something off my reading list and took a chance. I had an interesting conversation with Ian about the book, in which he explained the Spanish Civil War and also explained that people make fun of the sex scene in the book. I'm glad he explained it when he did, because I would have been really confused at the difference between the guerillas and the "Republicans" who are their communist allies. And probably would have had no clue how the anarcho-syndicalists fit into the whole picture.

Surprisingly to me, I really liked it. I didn't enjoy A Farewell To Arms so I thought this was going to be another war book I wouldn't like, but it was suspenseful, specific, and kept my interest. I also enjoyed the love story in spite of the usual penisy Hemingway stuff. I did roll my eyes at the whole Maria character ("oh let me service you and your penisy needs") but on the other hand, I got into the story to the point where I just went along for the ride. I'm going to go read the Spark Notes now, but to sum up, I liked it and am glad I read it.

"The fascists attacked and made our decision for us. We fight to live. But I would like to have it so that I could tie a handkerchief to that bush back there and come in the daylight and take the eggs and put them under a hen and be able to see the chicks of the partridge in my own courtyard. I would like such small and regular things." (Page 367)

Thursday, May 11, 2006

The Girls' Guide To Hunting And Fishing (Melissa Bank)

I was expecting this to be a crappy chick lit book, but it really isn't. It is a fast and compelling read, and I really enjoyed it. There are two chapters in it that seem quite random and disconnected from the rest of the book, and I didn't quite understand what they were doing in there, but... oh, I just realized that it's a short story collection, isn't it? I still don't see the point of having two stories in there sort of sticking out like a sore thumb when the rest are so beautifully unified. Anyway, liked it a lot. Extremely well written, I thought. And this is the most insipid post ever. I'll try again later.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Light in August (by William Faulkner)

I enjoyed this novel when I first started it, because I was interested in Lena’s story, but by the end I was struggling to finish it, as I do with Faulkner. Unfortunately, I just cannot get into his work. Everyone’s psychic, everything’s foreordained, everything’s tragic and racially motivated and blah blah. The usual. And his language is poetic in a way that I respect but quite frankly don’t enjoy. I always feel sort of like a failure for not liking Faulkner more than I do. Chapter twenty is amazing, though, I’ll give you that. And I did like the ending.

friend: how's your hangover?
me: I have a feeling this headache's going to last all day
friend: aw.
me: William Faulkner is making my head hurt
friend: he does that. it's his "thing."
me: "someday, there will be a woman named Mo. she will read my books. I will make her suffer."
friend: yep. that's in one of his "author's notes"
me: wow. the sentence I just read was "All right. You say you suffer. All right."
friend: hah! good timing, bill.
me: if the next page is like "hey, Mo, how's the headache?" I'm going to check myself into rehab.
friend: good plan.

“...Lena Grove walked into the door behind him, her face already shaped with serene anticipatory smiling, her mouth already shaped upon a name. He hears her and turns and sees her face fade like the dying agitation of a dropped pebble in a spring.” (Page 50)