Stuff and Nonsense: March 2011


"Blossom by blossom the spring begins."

Crocus Sieberi Tricolor
For winter's rains and ruins are over,
And all the season of snows and sins;
The days dividing lover and lover,
The light that loses, the night that wins;
And time remembered is grief forgotten,
And frosts are slain and flowers begotten,
And in green underwood and cover
Blossom by blossom the spring begins. 
from "Atalanta in Calydon" by Algernon Charles Swinburne


The Squirrel-Cage by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

"Don't you remember what Emerson says -- Melton's always quoting it -- 'Most of our expense is for conformity to men's ideas? It's for cake that the average man runs debt.' He must have everything that anyone else has, whether he wants it or not. A house ever so much bigger finer than he needs, with ever so many more things it than belong there. He must keep his wife idle and card-playing because other men's wives are. He must have his children do what everyone else's children do, whether it's bad for their characters or not. Ah! the children! That's the worst of it all! To bring them up so that these complications will be essentials of life to them! To teach them that health and peace of mind are not too high a price for a woman to pay for what is called social distinction, and that a man must -- if he can get it in no other way -- pay his self respect and the life of his individuality for what is called success --"

He broke off to say gloomily: "The devil of it is that we don't decide anything. We just slide along thinking of something else. If people would only give, just once in their lives, the same amount of serious reflection to what they want to get out of life that they give to the question of what they want to get out of a two weeks' vacation, there aren't many folks -- yes, even here in Endbury that seems so harmless to you because it's so familiar -- who wouldn't be horrified at the aimless procession of their busy days and the trivial false standards they subscribe to with their blood and sweat."

From The Squirrel-Cage by Dorothy Canfield Fisher
I've slowly been reading my way through Dorothy Canfield Fisher's novels this winter. A committed educational reformer and social activist, Canfield Fisher wrote with a deep, clear morality I find very appealing. Indeed, I find her novels to be so beautifully crafted and thought-provoking that I cannot believe they are not more widely read!

If you're interested in reading her novels, the young adult novel Understood Betsy is an excellent place to start. I also strongly recommend the coming-of-age novel The Bent Twig. While it's quite a lot longer and deals with darker topics, there's no doubting Betsy and Sylvia are sisters of a kind.


Marshmallows for Breakfast by Dorothy Koomson

Returning to England after a long stay in Australia, Kendra Tamale hopes her new flat is the perfect place to rebuild her life -- a quiet, tranquil, solitary place where she could spend time licking her wounds and getting herself back together. Alas, it seems her landlord's children have other plans! The children, Jaxon and Summer, keep coming to Kendra for help and attention. Soon she is drawn, unwillingly but necessarily, into their lives and their parents' relationship drama.

While the novel looks fluffy, it tackles some pretty dark and serious issues -- abuse, infertility, adultery, separation, alcoholism. Koomson approaches them with great sensitively and intelligence and I found myself pretty much cheering at the end. A less skilled writer might have gone for an obliviously happy ending, but Kooomson went with the one that was best for her characters. It's the right ending even if it lacks Romance.

My only complaint lies not with the novel, but with its American cover art. Kendra is black and the woman on the cover (what can be seen of her, anyway) is the same color as the (white) child next to her. Race isn't an issue in the novel, but the whitewashing of the cover has made it one for me because I can't understand why the publisher would have done this. It's essentially the same cover as the UK edition -- just whiter. Wtf?

Cover art aside, I thought Marshmallows for Breakfast made an excellent afternoon's read and I look forward to reading Koomson's recent novel, The Ice Cream Girls.

Marshmallows for Breakfast by Dorothy Koomson (Bantam Dell, 2009)


Gothic Challenge: Little Vampire Women

The March family are impoverished, humanitarian vampires living in New England during the Civil War. Mr. March, a chaplain in the Union Army is away from home, and Mrs. March does her best to contrive a happy home for her four daughters and send them down a life-path which will turn them into "little vampire women."

I must admit that while I have watched several film versions of Little Women, I have never managed to read the novel in its entirety. However, when I saw the cover of Little Vampire Women with its pale, blood-covered young women, I immediately thought that this might be a version of Little Women I could stand to read. Surely it would avoid the mawkish qualities that drove me from the original novel?

Well, yes, and no. Yes, there's lots of blood, vampire defender training, and slaying of vampire hunters, but there's also plenty of sweet rhapsody over the perfection of "Dear Marmee," Beth's possession of Mr Laurence, Meg's courtship and marriage to Mr Brook, and a million other things that most girlish readers would enjoy. But I didn't. Much of the novel felt as Little Women had felt when I tried to read it all those years ago -- preachy and kind of smarmy in its sweetness.

I feel I should mention that Little Women is the only Alcott novel I don't get on with. Little Men was one of my favorite childhood reads and I adored her semi-autobiographical novel, Work: A Story of Experience, when I read it last April.

Little Vampire Women by Louisa May Alcott and Lynn Messina (HarperTeen, 2010)


The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore

"Little shoe-eyes, always there."

Miss Judith Hearne is a woman of a certain age living in 1950s Belfast. She has fallen rather far from her "proper" social circle and has neither the money nor the looks to get back up. She also lacks useful or necessary skills suiting to the working class environment she finds herself in and clearly knows this but does not see what she can do about it.

Judith lives a life of quiet despair and desperation. Always feeling watched by others -- especially God and her dead aunt -- she longs to live a life full of goodness, but cannot quite attain it. Which is entirely her fault, of course. She is full of sin, after all. Full of "sinful evil thoughts, sins of intent. Denying God." Is it any wonder then that she has a (she thinks) secret love for drink? Or, when the best hopes she has for her future are utterly crushed and she is left humiliated, she goes a bit cream crackers?

Moore's skill with language and the deftness with which he manipulates his characters made The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne a real pleasure to read. Yes, the subject he writes about are rather terrible ones and there was little about Judith that didn't make me cringe, but it was also all so real.

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore (Little, Brown and Company, 1955)