August 09, 2007

Maria Thompson Daviess, various novels

Now these were good fluff, if one can get over the obligatory appearance of a loyal old black servant in various genteelly poor Tenessee families. The author, and the characters, are never unkind to the servant, never enjoy themselves mocking the servant; I choose to take one pie-in-the-sky statement that if the family had money, they would all go to college and the cook would earn a degree in Home Economics as serious. (Quite possible.)

It's harder for me to say why the fluff is so well-constructed. It isn't all well reasoned; the French duelling disguised-as-a-boy heroine in The Daredevil doesn't live up to her training, and I don't think the political plot much holds together, either. I would say the emotional reasoning is coherent, or that the characters are distinct and consistent (and peculiar and likeable). When characters are described as sweet and optimistic, they really are. The religious concerns are caused by and reflected in real behavior. The worries of the girl heroines, even when silly, are taken seriously because they're serious to the character; Phyllis is especially like that.

One steady trait, which sets them a little apart from both suffering-virtue Victoriana and from modern Mary Sue idealizations, is that the rich, kindly, spirited, good-looking heroine is recognized as a natural heroine by most of her peers. I suppose this is one of the things that makes them emotionally consistent. Certainly it's more fun to read than most idealized suffering, and it makes a lot more sense than perfect heroines who everyone dislikes for no reason (the Menolly disease). There's still plenty of trouble for a young headstrong person to get into.

The weirdest of the ones I read is The Golden Bird, which is a brave romance of chicken-raising, with a Methodist Dionysius in it. The dashing heroine discovers that the family fortunes are almost gone; she spends the remainder on a small mail-order flock of champion layers, and retreats to a shabby rural property; and the vaguely The Egg and I amusements of urbanite-learning-ruralism are leavened by a romance with a strange hero with funny-shaped hair who comes dancing out of the woods in homemade clothes. She calls him Pan, and is smitten by his resemblance to her champion rooster. Really, the pleasure in it is that the main character throws herself into everything, whitewashing or Gallus guy or anything, with happy allusions to any of her strengths;

Talk about Mordkin and Pavlova! To stand up and drive a team hitched to a jolt-wagon over boulders and roots requires leg muscles!

I also wonder if the peculiar Pan is a reference to, or memory of, Johnny Appleseed; the recent The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan sets him up as a harbinger of desire as well as horticulture.

The Elected Mother: A Story of Women's Equal Rights is a cheerful short story of work-life balance, and alliance between the genders and the generations. Tennessee remembers her as an adopted daughter and a devoted suffragist; I should think she was effective.

Project Gutenberg's collection of Maria Thompson Daviess' books

Google Books has The Elected Mother: A Story of Woman's Equal Rights

Posted by clew at 10:12 PM

The Mummy and Miss Nitocris, George Griffith

This is a too routine and smug to be really enjoyable fluff, but some themes are amusing, especially for a 1906(?) novel.

The difficulty is that the parts are too disparate, and the highflown lectures by the protagonists stop the action and display the patched seams between the parts, attempting to combine the science of the day with plot-advancing nonsense. There are elderly and combative mathematicians, one of whom gains the ability to travel in 'the fourth dimension', but the author gets too confused about what an axiom is to let the character rumpus in any disbelief-allowing way. The 'fourth dimension' is sometimes timelike; the Mummy of the title is a prior life of the rich, degreed Miss Nitocris; the Mummy committed murder-suicide to avoid an evil arranged marriage, and in 1906 all the characters are trotting through their parts again. Miss Nitocris ascribes romance simultaneously to 'affinities' between souls who always have been engaged, and to Natural Selection that improves the race. I can't even think how that would work. Monads in the gonads, I guess.

The evil guy is reincarnated as a Russian tyrant, and there's an American heiress who has a bachelor's degree and can drive, which is clearly quite dashing for the time; but it all bogs down in these annoying sludges of badly-digested classist/racist pop scientism.

Project Gutenberg etext #19231

Posted by clew at 09:48 PM

August 08, 2007

The UnDutchables, Colin White and Laurie Boucke

This has gone into enough editions that I can believe it is popular in the Netherlands. I can't believe it's popular anywhere else, except among very dated English Europhobes, and I'm surprised it should be popular in the Netherlands either. It's not just that I find it unfunny, and not useful in explaining the national peculiarities of the Dutch; it's that so little of it is specific. Entire chapters could be pulled from your lower-grade email forwarding list and renamed to describe the annoying little quirks of anywhere. (The one on driving is especially inane, but complaints that clothing shops play loud music and you might have your wallet stolen at a street market are also typical.)

If it is, in fact, popular in the Netherlands, I can only assume that it has the charms that the bad email does, shared with newspaper horoscopes; plenty of people like being talked about, even insultingly and by rote.

Perhaps I want some good Dutch novels. I very much liked the country, in my one short visit; I liked the sense of design, cultural and physical, that allowed seemingly disparate things to trot along side by side. Some of this is the necessity of crowding, of course, but it didn't feel like -- for instance -- Japan. I can't say what it did feel like, except that I didn't think knowledge of the formal rules would explain the society to me. A novel about the formation of some important aspect of the current Dutch way might help; or one about not fitting in even though brought up Dutch; or I suppose one about moving there as an adult. Any recommendations? Or do I stick with Simon Schama?

Find in a Library: The UnDutchables

Posted by clew at 05:53 PM
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