Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Where the magic generally doesn't happen

Jennifer Fulwiler, whom I greatly admire, has put a call up on her Conversion Diary blog asking people to post about their writing space. She's calling this "a photo tour for nerds" so obviously I'm in. I was just at a dissertation writing methods workshop/panel/thing last night so it's on my mind. Let's do this.

Here is the general scene: I opened the drapes (sort of) in an attempt to make it less grim. Obviously, this is my bedroom. Yes, that's a shower curtain on the table/desk. It's... kind of a thing in this house. Look, I'm not renting the room long enough to be able to do anything about the furniture, and I'm probably lucky to have a desk/table to stack all my junk on -- I mean, write. About the only permanent features of this space are a lip balm (because I hate having to get up and hunt for one) and my Filofax planner. The planner is cluttered up with all kind of little checkboxes for marking off what I've done each day, as well as my main to-do list for the week. Jennifer's readers would probably also be interested to know that at the front I have a plastic pocket with this prayercard in it:

Along with a quote from St Francis de Sales: Do not fear what may happen tomorrow: the same everlasting Father who cares for you today will take care of you today and every day. He will either shield you from suffering or will give you unfailing strength to bear it. On the back side of this pocket I have my list of goals for 2012 ("more salad, less dessert" "write and present new paper" etc). I don't have a permanent working space to decorate with inspirational pictures, so this little space is kind of a portable version of that. Aside from the planner and the lip balm, this table is generally a swirl of papers and miscellaneous crap: notes that need some sort of double-checking or copying, scraps of paper with book or archive reference numbers to follow up on, and all those brochures and flyers one acquires through the week that somehow don't deserve to be kept but also don't quite deserve to be thrown away. (I'm sure if I look at this one more time, I'll have the money to attend this conference and it won't conflict with that other thing I signed up for!)

I don't usually last very long sitting at the desk/table, though. The wooden chair is too hard to be able to sit with one leg crossed beneath me, and there isn't enough clearance to cross my legs under the table/desk. So generally after about half an hour (at most) I end up here:

Sitting cross-legged on the bed. (No, not on the sofa, that would be too obvious.) I am an inveterate bed-sitter. I can't help it. Sooner or later I find myself doing everything sitting on the bed. You may be able to tell that this duvet is really lumpy, which makes it difficult to spread all my papers around me; it's a definite downside. But not an enormous problem at this point, since I'm not doing all that much writing yet.

Really, this is where the writing is taking place at the moment:

The green accordion folder (SHAPED LIKE A BOOK! one of my classmates bought this for me after I made a huge, embarrassing deal out of hers) has a manila filing folder for each chapter of the dissertation, as well as some printed-out source lists, a copy of the proposal, etc. The purple "pocket wallet" (as it calls itself) is currently holding two manila folders representing the chapters I'm working on presently. The idea is, I take notes on little A5 sheets of letter paper (just a cheap pad of "writing paper" from CVS or Ryman's or what have you) and then stick them into the relevant chapter folder. This way, if a source is mostly useful for chapter four, but has some little tidbit for chapter six, everything will get included or at least considered. At least, that's how it should work; I get sloppy on a fairly regular basis which is very bad, very bad, must do better.

In conclusion, something for the Arrested Development fans, and a few of the most useful tips from last night's workshop:

- Get as many other people to read your work as possible in order to gain distance from it.
- Don't be precious; the work will change so don't hesitate or agonize over cutting things that need to be cut. Set them aside for future articles or projects.
- It's going well if you're making selections, and it's not going well if you're trying to wedge everything in.
- It's ok to have "bad" writing days; spending a few days filing or reading may seem like procrastination and time wasting, but you'll find that it helps your mind sort things out.
- If you're tearing your hair out trying to write something, you're probably not ready to write it. Stop and go back to your sources.
- When you come across a good introduction in a book, photocopy it and study it.
- Expedite your thinking by writing review pieces of what you've done and its context every week or two.
- To get started on a chapter, think about it strategically: what does it need to do?
- The PhD is your job, it's not your life (although it's inevitably all-consuming in the last two to six months).

That last point, I think, pretty much sums up grad school. It's not a big deal, EXCEPT FOR HOW IT CONSUMES YOUR LIFE.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Why, whenever I'm down, I just imagine that I'm a wildly popular and somehow rich book blogger!

It has been an exhausting week, dear reader. I wouldn't have thought so, except that I'm exhausted and have been for several days now. That's a pretty good indicator, I think. I've had a lot of things on my calendar for the evenings lately, which is good, but does tend to cut into my sleeping time somewhat. But I point the finger in particular at Bad Shoes. With some warmer weather at the end of last week I decided to wear flats, one pair of which turned out to be absolute torture devices (the other was just badly cushioned); and then you know how it goes; between timing and tube fares it wasn't practical to go home and switch. Wearing Bad Shoes plus doing a lot of walking (I'm always doing a lot of walking) results in using some new and exciting muscles which results in being very tired out at the end of the day. (PS, I am crazy in love with these shoes. FYI.)

What's this blog about? Books? Right-o.

One of the tricky things about reading actual paper books is that it becomes harder for me to come back and write a post weeks later without the little electronic "clippings" folder. I suppose one way to solve this would be to write the posts up promptly -- HA HA HA. Another solution would be to use a pencil to mark passages in the book, but despite my high school English teacher scandalously requiring us to mark up our books, I'm still not comfortable with it. Plus, it would mean fishing my pencil out of my bag, which isn't easy. At least these days I'm generally carrying a pencil (due to pens being banned in most reading rooms).

Then again, not having that list of little quotes you thought were funny or significant at the time can help focus things. Yes, that's right, I just used the word "focus" to describe this blog. I do what I want.

Trickier to photograph than I anticipated. The bookmark shows the pattern of the endpapers.
 Here it is, Persephone book number one. Well, actually it's #29, but it's the first one I've read of the three I bought whenever that was I bought them. The Making of a Marchioness was written by Frances Hodgson Burnett and first published in 1901. I think it was before I started this blog that I read The Secret Garden and A Little Princess (or however those articles go). In fact, I'm fairly sure it was before the blog because I live-blogged watching the Shirley Temple A Little Princess on Alice's facebook wall and it ran to something like 200 posts and it was glorious.

Burnett wrote The Making of a Marchioness for adults, in contrast to her more famous children's books, but the main character has the sort of preternatural innocent goodness that seems to be the gold standard in the other books. At least here there's no annoying scene where everyone is baffled by the concept of using your imagination. I can't quite put my finger on what is so distinctive about Burnett's idea of Human Goodness, except to say that it's not especially Christian. It seems to exist independent of any particular beliefs about the world (which is probably the point) and, pace the little brat in The Secret Garden developing into it, it seems like a mindset you have to be born with.

Anyway, Emily Fox-Seton, the main character, has this kind of congenital goodness, being a very sensible and capable gentlewoman-spinster who is completely, genuinely in awe at how good people are to her and how good life is, even as people treat her terribly and her life is objectively fairly awful. She's not just looking at the bright side, she is actually incapable of noticing a dark side. Surprisingly, Emily is not a completely awful, obnoxious character.

The plot sees a rich bachelor marry her, out of his admiration for her odd unselfishness and desire to get the hordes of eligible girls to stop throwing themselves at him. This leads to Emily being targeted by jealous rivals, blah blah blah. Somehow the two develop actual love for one another while being separated, which I gather constitutes the central plot from Burnett's perspective. There's a fair amount of deathly illness, including an extremely dangerous childbirth that I would have swooned over as a teen. Did this feature in the Anne of Green Gables series, Gilbert wracked with emotion as Anne appears to be dying after giving birth? I think it must have; anyway, I thought that kind of thing was the Height of Romance when I was young and stupid. Maybe other people, without this strange background, would find this scene in Marchioness less hokey; but I could hardly believe it was being written with a straight face. Everything, you'll be glad to know, works out in the end.

As you may be able to tell, I was a little dissatisfied with this book. Mostly, I was confused by the lack of character development displayed by Emily. The Persephone afterword quotes Burnett saying, in effect, how taken she was with Emily as this great new character. I think I remember reading that the part up to the wedding was originally published separately from the part about Emily's married life, and not only can I see that, it makes this into a case of "good story, not so good sequel". The second part felt almost fan-fictiony, in that it sort of spins out the main character, introduces an evil threat which is eventually thwarted, and the only major bit of character development is that the heroine's husband falls more in love with her. It's obvious by the end that as far as Burnett is concerned, there's nothing wrong with Emily; and where normally the world would force her to change, Burnett can't stand to let that happen so she sort of shuffles things around a bit so it doesn't have to. Eh, what can I say, I have a hard time taking Emily as an ideal.

Nevertheless, quite a good read. I should maybe note that I've never been terribly happy with any of Burnett's books I've read, so it was probably inevitable I would take issue with this one! The book is full of very sharp observations about marriage and single life at the end of the nineteenth century, and hey, let's not pretend like we don't all love some cheesy romantic drama now and then.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A woman, a book, a shop - Persephone

Is it just me or are there more beautiful editions of books in the UK than in the states? It's probably just me, but still, every time I walk into a book store I see at least four or five lust-inducing examples of the craft. And so, even though I really, truly, cannot fit any additional things into my suitcase, I am building up quite the little stacks of books I've bought.

I remembered/discovered that Persephone Books has their headquarters-shop here in London, and in quite a familiar part of town, too, so I wandered over one Saturday and wandered out £30 poorer but three books richer. I will post about the books themselves in due course, but this is a shallow post about surface appearances.

Visually, Persephone Books are "all carefully designed with a clear typeface, a dove-grey jacket, a 'fabric' endpaper and bookmark," to quote from the website. I'll admit that the first time I saw one, I was not impressed. Why can't the pretty fabric be on the outside?! It seems that the publishers decided against this because it would be "messy"; as any bookshelf containing books from many different publishers and editions will be "messy", this reasoning doesn't really go far with me. Nevertheless, after visiting the lovely little shop I am completely in love with this design. Seeing them all stacked up in their uniform covers, with the hint of riotous color just waiting to be revealed... swoon. It's very feminine, even more so than if the books were covered in floral print or something equally cliche. And of course the fabric-print endpapers are beautiful. 

I love the inclusion of a bookmark, too; it makes all the difference. A bookmark stuck into each book is a direct invitation to read the book. As much as I love pretty editions, they can sometimes lean into ornamental territory. The bookmark is wildly enticing.

Somehow my new admiration for these books tugged a whole lot of random things into line, and now I have a genius idea: I want to dress like a Persephone book. You heard. I want to buy fun, colorful printed fabrics and sew little sleeveless blouses and wear them with a grey skirt and cardigan. I've been a more-colors-the-better sort of dresser for the last six years or so, going so far as to ban black and grey from my wardrobe entirely. But now I have a sudden desire for a new direction.

Yes, that's more or less the thing.
As I say, I am actually reading the books I bought, so you will be hearing more about them as I get to them; but now (hopefully) you won't have to read any more gushing about their physical appearance!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Mysteries and tote bags bring the drama

Republishing formerly-popular books seems to have become a Thing, and I am 110% on board with it (as you'll see from the many posts I make in the next few months about books like this). It's historically interesting to read something written in another era, and doubly so if the book was popular when first published; plus there's that added dash of intrigue if the book has since gone out of print.

And supposing we were to add foreignness to this already-irresistible equation? Ooh la la.

I bought The Mystery of a Hansom Cab by Fergus Hume at Daunt Books, which is almost always included on lists of interesting London bookstores. Located in the rather trendy Marylebone area, it's old and gorgeous and so on -- I don't want to steal other people's pictures, but if you Google Image search it, you'll see what I mean.

Daunt totebags are very popular at the British Library. I like to imagine that the readers putting their things in the lockers are composing catty little monologues worthy of a fashion week runway show audience. What, did she buy that Daunt tote this morning? That's right, bitch, I bought mine in '95, get a good look. A British Library tote at the British Library? Well aren't you just a delicate creative soul. Ooh, the beach umbrella Strand tote - that's a bold choice. Personally, I carry the Pride & Prejudice tote from Out of Print, a Christmas gift from my BFF. Thank you Laura! I feel like I can hold my own amongst the lit types now.
Haters to the left.
Aside from being pretty and whatnot, Daunt bills itself as a "travel" bookshop, and probably 60-70% of the store is arranged by countries, with travel guides, maps, essay collections, and fiction shelved together. Yes, it's pretty darn cool, and it makes you want to read lots of things from countries you don't usually read things from. The Mystery of a Hansom Cab is an 1886 Australian mystery novel set in Melbourne. Yes please.

The book is the sort of thing that makes me think, "ah, so this is why the Sherlock Holmes stories are such classics." It's not that it's bad, it's just that it's not particularly great. I know there's always a fair amount of angst about "the canon" and what gets called a classic and so, and certainly I'd never say that The Classics are the only books worth reading or anything like that -- if for no other reason than that people ought to read whatever they particularly like -- but at the same time, some books definitely stand the test of time better than others.

The Mystery of a Hansom Cab is one of those books that features a lot of Victorian angst. Why yes, I do have a good example:
But when Frettlby turned to go to the door, Madge, who had her eyes fixed on the doctor's face, saw how grave it was.
     "There is danger," she said, touching his arm as they paused, for a moment, at the door.
     "No! No!" he answered hastily.
     "Yes, there is," she persisted. "Tell me the worst, it is best for me to know."
     The doctor looked at her in some doubt for a few moments, and then placed his hand on her shoulder. "My dear young lady," he said gravely, "I will tell you what I have not dared to tell your father."
     "What?" she asked in a low voice, her face growing pale.
     "His heart is affected."
     "And there is great danger?"
     "Yes, great danger. In the event of any sudden shock--" he hesitated.
     "Yes -"
     "He would probably drop down dead."

The plot is plot is pretty contrived and the ending is fairly ridiculous -- moral of the story, kids: as long as secrets stay secret, everyone is much happier -- but it's entertaining enough. You know how people sometimes use the word "workmanlike" as kind of a diss for artistic things (I think they do anyway)? I kept thinking that the writing in this book was pretty workmanlike. The characters and the plot points clicked along but there wasn't an enormous amount of feeling to it. Lots of very convenient coincidences, people collapsing and throwing themselves at other peoples' feet as the story demands, that kind of thing. Again, it sort of shines a light on why, of all the Victorian detective fiction, Sherlock Holmes has endured. (Which reminds me that another curious feature of the story is that there are two detectives, one in the first and one in the second half of the case, and they aren't actually all that central. Is the star detective a development in the genre?)

Yeah, yeah, yeah, but I didn't buy it because I thought it was going to be the most thrilling mystery I'd ever read: I bought it because I was intrigued by its being Australian. For the most part the local color doesn't come in until the second half of the book, but it's there in spades. If nothing else, the solution to the mystery hinges on a contrast between the wild old days of the colony and the more respectable contemporary society. But there are little digressions that stress the "John Bull" character of the Australians and also discuss the backwardness of the weather and so on. And there's a foray (of course) into Melbourne's equivalent of Seven Dials:
If there is one thing which the Melbourne folk love more than another, it is music, their fondness for which is only equalled by their admiration for horse racing. Any street band which plays at all decently may be sure of a good audience, and a substantial remuneration for their playing. Some writer has described Melboune as Glasgow, with the sky of Alexandria, and certainly the beautiful climate of Australia, so Italian in its brightness, must have a great effect on the nature of such an adaptable race as the Anglo-Saxon.
     In spite of the dismal prognostications of Marcus Clarke regarding the future Australian, which he describes as being 'a tall, coarse, strong-jawed, greedy, pushing, talented man, excelling in swimming and horsemanship,' it is more likely that he will be a cultured, indolent individual, with an intense appreciation of the arts and sciences, and a dislike to hard work and utilitarian principles. Climatic influence should be taken into account with regard to the future Australian, and our posterity will be no more like us than the luxurious Venetians resembled their hardy forefathers, who first started to build on those lonely sandy islands of the Adriatic.
     This was the conclusion Mr Calton arrived at as he followed his guide through the crowded streets, and saw with what deep interest the crowd listened to the rhythmic strains of Strauss and the sparkling melodies of Offenbach. The brilliantly lit street, with the never ceasing stream of people pouring along; the shrill cries of the street Arabs, the rattle of vehicles, and the fitful strains of music, all made up a scene which fascinated him, and he could have gone on wandering all night, watching the myriad phases of human character constantly passing beneath his eyes.
I am assuming that this book has featured in some kind of academic work, although my quick JSTOR search didn't turn anything up.

Anyway, on the whole, even though I did not discover a new favorite piece of fiction, this book was quite entertaining, intentionally and unintentionally.

Monday, February 13, 2012

A Thing I Bought That I LOVE

I love Mindy Kaling, and I want to be her friend, but I have to admit that I've really been a terrible friend so far, so I guess being strangers is for the best. When I first heard about her book I was SUPER EXCITED and memorized the release date and added it to my wish list. And then it came out and I dragged my heels, not wanting to buy a hardback and not wanting to spend $12.99 on an ebook. (Considering I've bought about five £12 books since arriving in London, this is pretty hard to defend.) Finally I bought it and read it and loved it, and then I've waited weeks before writing up a blog post. You're just going to take my word that I bought and read this book with much love and excitement, because I am aware that my actions don't back that up at all.

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? isn't just a book for people interested in Kaling's comedy and showbiz career; it's actually a great "girl" book. It's hard to capture this; it's emphatically not "about being a girl" much less a girl in any particular circumstances, and yet it is very much about the life experiences and choices and desires of someone who is a girl. Argh, look. I like reading about women who are happy, and Kaling comes across as really very happy. I loved her candidness about loving her parents and wanting to get married. Kaling does not come from a broken home, or even all that traumatic of a childhood. To me at least, this makes her stories feel particularly fresh and positive. Which isn't saying anything against people who don't fit that profile! I just thought it was really refreshing to read something so un-cynical.

When I say the book is smart, I mean to say that Kaling is an excellent writer. It's clear that she's being very open about the things she wants to be open about, without giving things away that she doesn't want to give away. For instance, as she has described the book herself... somewhere... it's not a memoir but rather a series of comedic essays about various aspects of (her) life. She talks about sex and dating and so on but doesn't actually blab about her love life. The book is very entertaining and satisfying, and there is no doubt that every bit of it was chosen and planned and crafted. That's some mad talent.*

And of course it's funny. It's very funny. It was a bright and cheerful light in the midst of my flat-hunting. Things like this:
Sports movies had brainwashed me into the belief that when the chips are down the most, that is when success is the most inevitable.
Right?! The stories are really well told, the pictures have hilarious captions, the humorous lists are appropriately humorous -- it's good stuff.

Possibly the best way I can summarize this book is by saying that I would recommend it to people who didn't know or care who Mindy Kaling is. Even if you've never seen the US The Office and are unfamiliar with comic actors on US television shows, you will enjoy the vast majority of this book because it's just generally a really fun read. And completely worth the $12.99 for the ebook. In fact I will probably buy the hardback when I get back to the states.

* I really didn't want to play Showbiz Book Showdown with this one and Tina Fey's Bossypants, but this is the area where I really felt Bossypants fell down. It was a good book, don't get me wrong, but I finished it thinking, "so you can be great at writing TV but not so great at writing books, interesting."

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Something old, something new

Books are obviously proprietary (probably using this word wrong); authors have rights over their text, and publishers have rights over their editions. We all know about copyright and royalties and so forth, and yet it's pretty easy, for me anyway, to slip out of thinking of a book as the property of a corporation. Most formally, at some point the book will almost certainly go into the public domain, but once a book starts to become "a classic" I expect to see it published by different houses and made available in different forms. I guess at the most basic level the activity of reading and the form of a book seem so obviously part of our common property that a particular individual or company having ownership of some sliver of the enterprise seems inherently short-lived.

I am subjecting you to that paragraph because this post is not so much about a book as it is about the format of the book, which is apparently a copyrighted format. What am I talking about? Mansfield Park in "Flipback" format. Here is a picture of it in my hand in my bedroom, because I forgot to take a picture of it on the train platform:

Just imagine I'm waiting for a train. Next to the bed.

The main features of the Flipback are:
  • The text is rotated 90ยบ to the ... right? ... so that the spine runs parallel, between lines of text
  • The text is printed in a modern, sans-serif, easy-to-read typeface
  • The paper is thin
  • The bound part of the book is only glued to the back cover, and the spine and front covers are hinged on
Generally, the idea is that the entire content of a book has been compressed into a pocket-sized thing without losing any readability. Except for interference from wind, this compact layout does, actually, make it pretty easy to hold the book and read with one hand. Like the Kindle, it's sort of stripped out some of the distractions of white space and so on, so that the actual words on the page are the main focus. And after all the space-saving, it actually is pocket sized. It's adorable and tactile and functional, and I liked it. I've seen these in several stores over here (Waterstones, the British Library shop, and the indie store at Kew) so it seems like maybe they'll catch on. The thin paper is the only slightly worrisome feature, but in practice I didn't tear any pages or even cause any egregious creasing, so I guess I can't whine too much about it. After a week or so of being carried around in my coat pocket and read on windy train platforms, my copy is in darn good shape.

Tangent: You know that 1950s Leave it to Beaver-type trope about little boys always having their pockets full of all kinds of random things? That's so me. Give me a pocket and I will have it crammed full of keys, transit pass, tissues/handkerchief, lipbalm, coin purse, gloves and/or hat, and tiny book before I'm halfway down the street.

Unfortunately for Flipback, their list of published books doesn't currently include anything I'm really all that interested to read, and their "classics" series only includes Austen. While I have enjoyed all my Austen multilection, I don't know that I'm willing to spend £10 for the privilege of reading another. (No, I'm not willing to spend that much on more Jane. Sorry, Miss Austen, but I already own all your books multiple times over, and you're dead so it's not like it helps you any.) The format seems like a worthy thing, though, and I hope it does well enough to have more titles added to the list.

Oh, and what is there to say about Mansfield Park? This is a long overdue multilection on my part; I remember as I finished it the last/first time having a feeling like I was passing over something interesting. Certainly the book is less "fun" than the others. Fanny isn't the most engaging heroine, and the plotting is less than thrilling -- for example most of the dramatic events of the ending take place "off stage". (Plotting? More like plodding, amirite? Sorry.) But I still found it interesting and rewarding. First of all, because the book has a great deal to say, quite explicitly, about Austen's views on religion, and secondly (and relatedly) because the book is so much focused on good conduct and propriety. Even if you don't agree with Austen that this action or that attitude is the best, it's still a pleasure to enter into and consider what a thoughtful woman of her time thought these things looked like. Overall, on this read, I thought the book was much more about a family and family dynamics than about the romantic couples; the marriages and pairings are the tests that the children undergo in becoming adults. Anyhow, multilection continues to be one of my more brilliant discoveries, the end.

PS, just in case: this post was not sponsored or solicited in any way. Are you kidding me? No.

Monday, February 6, 2012

I apologize for this post in advance

It's odd when you think you've gone into something with no expectations, only to find that your expectations were basically correct. I feel like that sentence doesn't make any sense, but let's just keep moving. I've got a backlog of posts to write, and if I don't keep going I'll just get overwhelmed.

For once Google fails to turn up my edition, but this is close
I bought this on a whim at a charity shop for 75p (if only all my whims were 75p): a well-worn paperback that's clearly been sold at least two or three times before. "PD James," I thought. "She's a famous lady." That PD James is a woman is the only thing I knew about her. If you had pressed me to articulate some of the other associations I had I would say murder mysteries and high church Christianity. Both of which are in evidence here.

The story has to do with an adopted girl, Philippa, who finds out her birth parents committed a horrific crime, and a man who is seeking revenge for that crime. I thought the story was compact and compelling; and the writing was just right for the story. Philippa's coldness and heartlessness was an interesting character choice for a protagonist. The various secrets are revealed in good time, and there is an epilogue to give you an idea of what the characters do after the main story has played out. The biographical note highlight's James' career in various bureaucratic roles, and her understanding of (and opinions on) the law and British social services really added a lot. I was also pleasantly surprised to find the story playing out in some familiar parts of London. Overall, it was a really satisfying, good book.

Mostly what I learned here was the difference between a "crime" novel and a "mystery" novel. Unsurprisingly, the crime novel deals with a crime as it is planned and carried out (I surmise), whereas the mystery novel deals with a mystery being investigated and unraveled. Shocking, I know; I guess I'd never really thought about there being a difference.

This post feels really leaden, so here's the first picture that came up when I searched for Innocent Blood:
Whatever this is, it didn't happen in this book.
I liked this book, I really did, and if I were in a used bookstore looking for something interesting to read I would totally buy another PD James book. And yet somehow this book was so exactly as good as I thought it would be, and so many of her books sound exactly like the kind of thing I'd like, that I feel somehow less compelled to go out and read them. It's like, eHarmony would totally match us up, but I'm not feeling the chemistry right now. It's not the books, it's me. I just have some things to work through right now, I guess, and even though I really thought I was ready for this, and we've had such a good time, and you're so great, seriously, I just don't feel like I have the energy to put into this right now. I'm so sorry. Maybe someday, like in a couple of months, if we're both still available...?

Can you tell it's late here? I think it's going to be a late start for me tomorrow.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Go on, cue up the Beyonce

One of the sub-sub-topics on one of my minor exams had to do with marital status as an analytic category in women's history, and one of my classmates must have known about that (probably I was venting loudly about it in the hallway at some point) because he sent me the information for this book in November. He kindly introduced it as something I would have already read; in fact I'd never heard of it. I read the introduction and the first chapter on the Ebrary software at our library, and was immediately drawn in. If you've ever had to endure Ebrary (or eBrary or whatever), you'll know it must have been good for me to read essentially two chapters rather than reading two pages and smashing my fist through the screen. Seriously, you know how Blackboard seems to have been designed in a world where Angelfire is cutting edge? Ebrary is worse, somehow.

(Before I move on, I want to register a complaint about the Kindle version: namely that it sucks. The chapters aren't marked, so you can't toggle forward, and whenever I click "previous page" it beams me back about five pages for some reason. Granted, my Kindle is starting to get slightly elderly and has started to do weird things, but I'm blaming this on the actual book. Which, FYI, cost me $10. Less than cool.)

I have a couple of historian's quibbles, which I suppose boil down to saying I would have done things differently. The author doesn't ignore class, but I thought at several points it could have been handled more explicitly. For instance, her descriptions of prewar expectations are pretty much limited to the debutante experience. The experience of different classes are there and acknowledged for the most part, but they're woven together, presumably because the author thinks the similarities are more important than the differences; a point I might take issue with, or if I agreed, it's a point I would be arguing as a new circumstance of the 1920s.

Which leads directly into my second criticism, which is that the presentation of change over time is also a little flat. The changes in the importance/perception/experience of marital status of the 1920s, however much directly caused by the First World War, were nevertheless part of longer shifts in the way people thought about sex, religion, family, etc. The book has a tendency to paint a sort of "before and after" picture that glosses over the particular development of ideas and trends. In many cases, being more specific would have helped her point (at least for me). Ironically, the "before and after" tactic actually muddles the changes in a lot of cases since her evidence doesn't always fit that sort of stark contrast. It's hard for me to describe this, but I felt on the whole that I was mentally supplying or clarifying a lot of the context.

And one very specific nitpick: there's a whole chapter about single women's attitude toward motherhood, which makes much reference to Victorian and Boer War-era notions about women as breeders, but manages to completely ignore the enormous attention paid to the children of dead soldiers in the 1920s! That's quite an oversight. And now that I think about it, there's no explicit mention of eugenic ideas either, even when she's talking about those ideas in relation to the Boer War. Basically what I'm saying is, this chapter completely drops the ball.

To be honest -- I'm only halfway through the book. It's starting to drag, it's felt repetitive for a while now (although this could easily just be me; clearly I have issues), and although Kindle assures me I'm right in the middle it's... daunting to imagine that. By far, the book's best asset is its source base; the author has pulled together an amazing range of first-hand accounts, many from very lowly women whose lives, trust me on this, are often hard to uncover. I'm dying to get to the bibliography. Curse you Kindle!

It's the anecdotes that are worthwhile. For the single woman (or at least, for me) it's interesting and even a little heartening to realize that people are people, and that many of the struggles single women (I) face today are things that women lived through back then. Many of the emotions experienced and strategies pursued are things that seem very relatable and even familiar today. Of course, loads of important things have changed, but the core drama of these women's lives is perfectly recognizable. Even if you read the book and think, "she's crazy pathetic, I don't identify with this at all," well, the book would really shed light on the various advantages of the present. (And stop judging me!) The book is full of really fascinating people, and in more than one case I wanted to find and read the whole biography being cited.

So by all means, obtain and then consume this book.* I would recommend getting it in paperback, which would make it easier to skim -- and check the bibliography. But I feel compelled to note that it fails more than it succeeds to really say anything about the interwar period or the way "singleness" developed as a result of the First World War. Then again, I haven't finished it, so take that as you will.

* Trying to change up my vocabulary.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Multilection: the newest thing in text consumption!

So! Following on from my successful experience re-reading The Lord of the Rings, I have now also revisited Jane Austen's Persuasion. Actually, what happened was, I charged up my Kindle a few days before my flight, but when I got off the plane at Heathrow and took a seat to wait for my hotel shuttle, said Kindle was dead. I cannot tell you how displeased this made me. Luckily however I travel with a ridiculous number of gadgets and so was able to use the Kindle app on my iPad, where I found a languishing copy of Persuasion. (And now the Kindle has mysteriously stayed charged up despite every-other-day reading for the last couple of weeks. Hm.)

It's amazing, this business of reading something again that you've already read in the past! Who would have thought you could learn so much! For instance, did you know that Captain Wentworth's moody friend is called Captain Benwick and not Bentick? In all honesty, I'm still reading it as -tick in my mind. And none of the swoon-factor of Wentworth's letter (you know what I'm talking about) is lost by having read it before. Incredible!

I'm so thrilled with this completely new thing that I've just discovered that I've decided to give it a name:
(from multus, many, and lego, I read; of course). Yes indeed, I am really something to have discovered this thing and shared it with you, and I look forward to receiving your praise and admiration now.