Flat Flattery

Review #39

Book: Scones and Sensibility by Lindsay Eland

Audience: C

Genre: Fiction

Rating: bookbookbook

Earlier this year I read Miss Eland’s Summer of Sundays and loved it. So when I saw that she had another book called Scones and Sensibility, the Janeite in me was immediately intrigued and eagerly anticipated reading it. Perhaps my expectations were too high, but this book, while possessing good points, ultimately fell flat to this lover of both Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne Shirley and just about everything written by Miss Austen.

Polly Madassa is hardly your average soon-to-be middle schooler. First of all, she helps out the family business by delivering the confections created by her baker parents. Secondly, she has fallen passionately in love with the Anne of Green Gables stories as well as the recently read Pride and Prejudice. Taking the ladies of these stories as her heroines, Polly tries to speak and act like both Anne Shirley and Elizabeth Bennet, and is determined to add more romance to the world by finding true love for her older sister Clementine, her best friend’s single father, and a lonely middle-aged spinster. Of course, the course of true love does not run smoothly, whether it is your life or the lives you are trying to improve, so Polly’s matchmaking attempts do not always provide her desired results.

I felt like I should have loved this book. A protagonist who loves Pride and Prejudice as well as the red-haired girl from Prince Edward Island? Could that describe me any better? Yet love it I did not. This was chiefly because I did not love Polly herself. I am sad to say I found her to be annoying and not quite believable.

Polly is full of enthusiasm for all things P&P, and likes to see herself as Elizabeth, but she is actually more akin to Anne. She is Anne-like, but she is no Anne Shirley. Polly talks in a way that is in imitation of Anne. This was one of the most annoying things about her.  Anne was overly romantic, true, but her dramatic way of expressing herself was organic—an inherent part of her. Not so with Polly. Polly comes up with names for places (à la Anne) and talks about her “bosom friend” and “dearest sister,” but it is all contrived and sounds it. What I can’t decide is if this was intentional on Miss Eland’s part. Did she want Polly to come off as a bad imitation of Anne, or is she trying to show how ridiculous it is to pretend to be someone you are not? If the latter, then she made her point a bit too subtly for the reader: if I (an adult) have to guess at the author’s intent and message, then the target audience will miss it certain sure.

The other annoying thing about Polly is her pig-headedness. This was a trait neither Anne nor Elizabeth possessed. True, Elizabeth let her personal feelings color her judgment, but she didn’t interfere with anyone else’s life when doing so. She also realized her mistake toward the middle of the book and spent the remainder of her story readjusting her opinions. Polly’s epiphany comes at the very end of the novel, and up to that point she plows through people and situations, only keeping to her agenda regardless of the feelings and opinions of others.  I realize this is to make the dénouement more dramatic, but it only served to have me dislike the main character.

Not to mention that it also weakened Polly’s credibility. I know there are extremely selfish people in the world, and I know that there are people who are convinced that they alone know what is best for those they care about. But Polly takes things so far that she presents as unbelievable. Everyone tells her, both directly and indirectly, to butt out, but she blithely ignores them all. I just find it hard to believe that when so many people tell a person she is wrong, over and over again, that she is so dense that she just doesn’t get it. Polly may be hard-headed, but she is not stupid. She should have gotten the point much sooner than she did. Perhaps not in all her matchmaking schemes, but at least in some of them.

On a side note, the book itself suffers some credibility in having so young a girl enjoy and have that good an understanding of Miss Austen’s work. Most people first encounter Miss Austen in high school. Polly’s a few years from that. Also, the episodes with the police and the poisoned dinner just don’t ring true. Both seem quite unlikely to really happen.

Miss Eland is obviously a big fan of Miss Montgomery’s and Miss Austen’s work, as obviously am I. I think she wanted to pay homage to these phenomenal ladies who came before her. However, creating a modern-day Anne obsessed with Elizabeth and acting like Emma (Woodhouse, from Miss Austen’s Emma) who is barely in middle school just doesn’t work. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but these good intentions fall flat. Miss Austen and Miss Montgomery deserve better, and Miss Eland is capable of concocting a better tribute.

Not a Nutter for this Nutter

Review #38

Book: The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson

Audience: G-U

Genre: Historical Fiction

Rating: book

For the past several years, I have encouraged the students at my school to participate in the Black-Eyed Susan program. This is a children’s choice award determined by Maryland students in grades K through 12. My spin on it involves the students evaluating the books they read in the program, rating each one from one to five petals of a black-eyed Susan flower. I tell the kids they can give half-petals, but the lowest rating is still one whole petal. I may change that this year. If ever a book deserved a less than one rating, it would be this one.

I didn’t realize, when I bought the book, that the events are based on a real occurrence—the Pendle witch trials of Lancashire, England in the early 1600s. I discovered this fact only when I read the introduction (yes, I usually do read the introduction). Ever the librarian, I had to research the topic and was aghast as I continued to read the book. The author admits to taking liberties with people and events. Which is a good thing, because the liberties she takes are enormous. So much so, that I have to wonder, why use the real event as a backdrop? Why not be inspired by the Pendle trials but place it in a fictional setting with fictional characters? Then I just would have thought that the story was awful, rather than thinking so along with having no respect for an author who shows no respect for her source material.

King James I was well known for his hatred and fear of papists and lumped them together with practitioners of witchcraft—essentially looking upon them as one and the same. Subjects loyal to him expressed the same views, so when a group of poor, illiterate, odd women (with a few men) were discovered participating in a questionable ritual they were of course rounded up as witches. Torturing some led to them testifying against others, chief among them was a young child, Jennet, who for food gladly gave up as many of the accused as she could, several of which were her own family members.  She seemed unfazed that her testimony sentenced them all to death. One noblewoman, Alice Nutter, was inexplicably accused with the others and suffered the same fate.

Miss Winterson chose to tell her version of Alice’s story.

Miss Winterson has Alice studying Alchemy some years earlier with John Dee (an actual person). During the course of their work the two of them, along with two other Alchemy students, Edward Kelley and Elizabeth Southern, (also real people) engage in an orgy. This results in a continued romantic relationship between Alice and Elizabeth. Later Elizabeth sells her soul to the devil and becomes a witch, known locally in Pendle as Demdike (a colloquial word for a witch, essentially meaning “damned woman”).  Elizabeth and Alice drift apart but eventually engage in one more encounter which results in Alice being drawn into Elizabeth’s coven. Alice resists the practicing of witchcraft, leaves Elizabeth, and pursues her own life and happens to be at the above-mentioned ritual (incidentally and not participating in it) when the authorities break it up and arrest the actual participants.

Alice recounts her past with Elizabeth Southern while in bed with a priest. The magistrate in charge of the case, while questioning Alice, feels a sexual attraction between himself and Alice. (Remarkably, with all the sex going on, there are no real sex scenes—things tend to be mentioned rather than described or acted out) I can only assume that Miss Winterson chose to make Alice a slut because in entertainment, sex sells. Still, it’s a pretty cheap shot to cheapen someone’s reputation when she can’t fight back (since she was childless, Alice also has no direct descendants to challenge this portrayal).

While I object to the maligning of Alice Nutter’s character, I think what I object mostly to is the mix of fantasy and reality in fictionalizing what was an actual event. Of course, perhaps Miss Winterson doesn’t see this as mixing fantasy and reality. I personally don’t believe that 13 woman dancing and chanting around a cauldron can conjure up a corporeal form of the devil. I don’t believe that people can converse face to face with the devil, marry him, and sell their souls to him. I don’t believe that practitioners of witchcraft actually have anything to do with the devil. Maybe Miss Winterson does.

The truth is I would not necessarily have a problem with a story containing all these things if it were a work of pure fiction. But these were real people, guilty only of being poor and different, swept up in an hysteria that cost them their lives. Don’t they deserve better?

Alice Nutter certainly does. A woman who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, she was executed as a witch. Well, in actuality. In Miss Winterson’s book, as Alice stands on the scaffold, waiting her turn for the noose, she raises her hand to summon her falcon. The bird obligingly swoops in and bites Alice, severing her jugular vein.

Sorry if I spoiled the ending for you. But then, can anyone really spoil such a lousy book?

The Great Fitzgerald

Review #37

Book: Careless People by Sarah Churchwell

Audience: G-U

Genre: Nonfiction


When I was a kid I remember reading The Great Brain series by John Fitzgerald, who fictionalized the exploits of his older brother Tom, the eponymous character of the series. Now I’m thinking that another Fitzgerald might be worthy of the sobriquet.

On September 20, 1922, F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda completed their rail journey from Minnesota to New York City. Riding high on the success of Scott’s novel This Side of Paradise, the Fitzgeralds were young, beautiful, well-off, in love, and ready to reap the benefits of all the above. Scott was also bent on continuing his writing career, penning novels and short stories about what he knew best: how to have fun in the Jazz Age.

Unbeknownst to the Fitzgeralds when they arrived, a grisly double murder had occurred four days earlier, just across the river in nearby New Brunswick, NJ. There minister Edward Hall and church choir member Eleanor Mills were found dead in a field just outside town, their bodies staged in an intimate embrace. The resulting circus of an investigation and subsequent trial would dominate newspaper headlines off and on for the next four years, elements of which would be echoed in Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, The Great Gatsby.

Miss Churchwell documents the Fitzgeralds’ life in New York from September 1922 to May 1924 (when they left for Europe so Scott could complete his novel with fewer distractions) with painstaking detail, recalling numerous parties, country weekends, and speakeasy visits with friends such as Edmund Wilson, Ring Lardner, Burton Rascoe, Ernest Boyd, John Dos Passos, and Clarence Mackay among many others. She is able to provide such a level of detail due to the fact that many of these people are writers—most of them kept journals and scrapbooks about themselves, and Miss Churchwell avails herself of these primary sources. She also uses newspaper accounts, police reports and trial transcripts to chronicle the spectacle surrounding the Hall-Mills murders.

In general writers write about what they know. I’m starting to wonder if there was ever a writer more influenced by his own life than Fitzgerald. While his works are not necessarily autobiographical, certainly the people (including himself) and situations in his life can be seen in his works—particularly in This Side of Paradise, The Great Gatsby, and Tender is the Night. Miss Churchwell presents convincing arguments to support her claim that aspects of the New Brunswick deaths have parallels to the Myrtle Wilson, George Wilson, and Jay Gatsby deaths of Fitzgerald’s novel. Again, since Fitzgerald followed the case in the papers he was writing about what he knew.

In actuality, this book was mostly about Gatsby itself—what inspired it and Fitzgerald’s writing process as well as an analysis of the novel. I found myself in awe of both Fitzgerald’s talent and the actual work that went into the writing. In reading Fitzgerald’s letters and comments to others we learn about what he was trying to do in Gatsby. Every character and place was deliberately named to evoke meaning either as a reference to an actual place or person or some kind of character trait.  Colors are deliberately chosen (e.g. the green light from the Buchanans’ home, Daisy’s golden hair) as symbols. Characters’ speech patterns as well as what they say (and what they don’t) reveal much about the characters themselves. And on and on. The thought that went into crafting all these elements as well as telling the story of Jay Gatsby and his love for Daisy Buchanan just astounds me. I “read” The Great Gatsby as a junior in high school, and apart from the “color” element and the final outcome I don’t remember much.  I am now eager to truly read it and this time have a better understanding of Fitzgerald’s genius.

Sadly, a common characteristic of geniuses can be self-absorption. To an extent this is understandable; geniuses are, by definition, not like other people and their devotion to greatness must have a cost. Understanding it, however, doesn’t excuse it or make it right. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald were both examples of the careless people in this book’s title. They thought only of themselves and their own pleasure with little or no regard to anyone who might have gotten hurt along the way—including themselves. Like the characters in Gatsby, the Fitzgeralds left damaged people in their wake. That is not to say that they were inherently bad. Like all of us, they were a mix of positive and negative. If Zelda trashed a friend’s house during a party, she was a loving mother to her daughter. If Scott spent more time drunk than sober, he was truly loved Zelda and was devoted (if not faithful) to her during the many years of her mental illness. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted them as friends, but I can appreciate the contributions they made.

So F. Scott Fitzgerald, careless person, was also an uncommon genius who was never appreciated in his lifetime. His life was short, but he left his great, indelible mark. Cheers!

I Don’t Get It

Review #36

Book: Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo

Audience: C

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: bookbookbook

Ten years ago, Kate DiCamillo won the Newbery Medal for A Tale of Despereaux, a story about a chivalrous mouse in love with the human Princess Pea. I read the book in my Children’s Literature class in library school and was utterly impervious to its charms that won over the Newbery committee. In fact, I consider it one of my least favorite books of all time. This year, Miss DiCamillo was again the recipient of the prestigious award, this time for Flora and Ulysses, a tale of a squirrel who survives consumption by a powerful vacuum cleaner, emerges with superpowers, and becomes the friend and protector of the graphic-novel-obsessed human Flora. I have to confess, the appeal of Miss DiCamillo’s work still eludes me.

As in Despereaux, Miss DiCamillo populates this story with several eccentric characters. However, unlike the mouse story, I actually liked some of these characters: Flora, her dad, her friend William Spiver, and Ulysses were all interesting (I didn’t like Flora’s mom, but then the reader isn’t supposed to). But however pleasing I found them, I discovered that I really didn’t care about them or what happened to them. As a character-driven reader, this was a problem for me.

Another problem was what I’ll call the “weird factor.” Some of the characters and situations were just off-center enough to be called weird; William Spiver, who deals with his mother banishing him from his home by pretending to be blind; Ulysses, a squirrel who writes poetry; Dr. Meescham, the PhD who immediately accepts the idea that Ulysses is a squirrel with superpowers; Flora bringing Ulysses into a donut shop and not expecting that people will find it unusual; Flora applying what she reads in the adventures of Incandesto, her favorite graphic novel superhero, to all situations she finds herself in. And it goes on.

For some authors, the weirdness of their novels just works—it all becomes part of a cohesive whole so the individual weird things don’t really seem so strange after all. These authors create a world that may look normal and unassuming, but in actuality is where oddities and the fantastic are expected and welcomed. Roald Dahl immediately comes to mind as a master of this. I’m sure some would say the same of Miss DiCamillo, but the worlds she creates, in both Flora and Despereaux, just don’t work for me.

Underneath all the weird there is a sweet story going on here. Flora has turned to her beloved Incandesto because of her parents’ dysfunctional divorce. While not acrimonious, the divorce was cold; Flora’s parents have no interaction with each other even when things concern their only daughter. Because of Flora’s friendship with Ulysses, her mother begins to wake up and pay attention to Flora, and she experiences a touching renewing of her relationship with her father. My issue is that there is so much weird going on that I had to delve a bit too much to find the sweet.

Miss DiCamillo is a very popular author. Indeed, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane is often hard to find on my library shelves, and the students are big fans of Despereaux, The Magician’s Elephant, and Because of Winn-Dixie (the only one of Miss DiCamillo’s books I unreservedly enjoy, and not coincidentally one with no weird at all) as well. She is also critically acclaimed, as she is a multiple award-winner, and not just of the Newbery Medal. Most readers find her characters delightful and her plots intriguing and full of whimsy. As for me, I just don’t get it.