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60 Second Review: Dust

The genre of fiction broadly title Young Adult has changed tremendously since I was one of its target readers. It’s edgier, more realistic even when fantastic, and a lot bleaker. Dystopian novels existed, but few were geared specifically at the 10-16 age range.

The change is, despite some arguments to the contrary (here and here), for the better.

Arthur Slade’s award-winning Dust is one of those great new YA stories. At first I hesitated to call it a novel; surely, I thought, this is a novella. Then I realised that I was comparing its length to novels written for adults and adjusted my paradigm accordingly.

In the end, though, what it’s called doesn’t matter. It’s a good story. Even the synopsis pulls you in:

Imagine a depression-era town where it hasn’t rained for years. A pale rainmaker with other-worldly eyes brings rain to the countryside and mesmerizes the townspeople, but the children begin to disappear one by one. Only young Robert Steelgate is able to resist the rainmaker’s spell and begin the struggle to discover what has happened to his missing brother and the other children.

As good as the hook is, the catch is even better. Dust grabs you from the beginning and keeps your attention all the way through. That said, this is not a story filled with action and adventure in the traditional sense. Rather it’s the building suspense, the anticipation, the not knowing what’s going to happen on the next page, that keeps you reading — and the climactic scene, when it comes, is all the more visceral and heartbreaking for it.

The physical landscape also has its role. Slade’s evocative use of the Canadian prairie, a place he knows very well, makes the scenes come alive in a way that’s missing in a lot of fiction today. He believes in “show, not tell”; when Robert observes that the tumbleweeds aren’t tumbling, even people who have never seen the prairie understand what’s going on.

The characterisations in Dust are first-rate, too. Robert’s evolution from not-quite-child to budding young adult is very well done indeed. Given that the tale is told from his point of view, it’s inevitable that there are things we do not know, question that remain unanswered, about the other characters. But that’s okay, because through Robert we learn all we really need to know; Slade could have given us more insight into the other characters, but this story would’ve been the less for it.

This novel is magical realism at its best, turning the humdrum, everyday world around us on its ear — and sometimes into something else. Stephen King and Ray Bradbury can be proud.

[Bookish Note: 60 Second Reviews are not written in 60 seconds; they’re not really designed to be read in 60 seconds either, although they probably could be. They are called so because they short and to the point. It’s all about getting down to brass tacks, really.]

Money, Culture and Burney’s ‘Evelina’

Frances Burney d’Arblay
(Portrait by Edward Francis Burney)

Prompted in large part by @GeorgiannaGossip‘s fabulous group read of Frances Burney’s epistolary novel Evelina, the Bookish Miss is revisiting one of her favorite novels and looking at it in a new way.

Evelina is an often overlooked landmark work. It was one of the first recognizably modern novels, written by a woman, immensely popular in its own time and precedes Jane Austen’s novels by decades.

It’s also a very good read. Even the eighteenth century grammar and rhetoric are easy to adjust to, and its epistolary format makes it good for reading in small bites.

One thing I find fascinating is that, throughout the story, money and culture are constantly in conflict. History reminds us that for a member of the upper class (often called the “ton”) to concern her or himself with money was a serious social faux pas; so was the allocation of a “use value” to any object or idea considered cultured. Burney knew this, she understood this. However, a great deal of her novel deals with incidents where her characters, willingly or not, have to deal with money or the idea that something can have a quantifiable value. This violation of unspoken rules and etiquette, the “social determinants of taste,” often contributes to social confusion for Evelina.

What’s most fascinating is that while Burney exposes the utter hypocrisy of the ton, they gobbled up her book. Of course, there are just as many characters for the ton to ridicule as there are upper class fools for the middling classes to revile. Taken in its entirety, Evelina demonstrates the ambiguous and ambivalent relationship that eighteenth century Britons had with actual money.

One of the interesting things I noticed in my umpteeth reread of Evelina is that there seems to be a “buffer zone” between the ton and the rest of society. It appears to be an unspoken idea that there are areas money should not intrude on. This zone keeps people safe; no one but you and your accountant knows how much money you actually have. Anyone could spend lavishly during a season in London, but as to how they lived afterwards … well, that’s their business. Accordingly, when money matters do intrude it causes great embarrassment amongst the characters.

Take the opera scene. Branghton Sr. pays for the opera passes, but complains of the price and even goes as far as to haggle with the doorkeeper. When his daughters remark on his ignorance in the matter, the prices having been listed in the newspaper, he responds by telling them “the price of stocks is enough for me to see after; and I took it for granted it was the same thing here as at the playhouse.” As a businessman, he automatically looks for the usefulness of whatever he pays for. Indeed, he compares the opera to the plays he and his family regularly attend at Drury Lane and comes away from the experience upset, believing he has been “tricked out of his money with so little trouble.”

The reader comes away from this scene feeling sympathy for the embarrassed heroine, who has to put up with someone so “uncultured” he cannot grasp the concept of art for art’s sake. However, the scene not only shows how a member of the elite is mortified at the lack of appreciation for the opera, but how a middling class merchant is upset that the culture he helps finance does not give him his money’s worth.

The “buffer zone” is also crossed when the issue of debts and IOUs are broached. Because finances are not mentioned by polite society the very idea of commenting on one’s “arrangements” is considered vulgar and uncouth. Thus when Evelina first encounters Mr. Macartney she is somewhat shocked to hear her cousins, the Branghtons, openly discussing him and his finances. He is referred to by Miss Branghton as a “poor Scotch poet … [who will] never pay for his lodging.” Her comments are much less nationalistic prejudice as they are economic. A poet can be considered a writer and, as a writer, a producer. For the Branghtons, Mr. Macartney being a poet is not the problem, nor is it his nationality (although that surely plays into their stereotypes). The problem with Mr. Macartney, from the point of view of the Branghtons, is that he does not make money as a poet. Evelina and the ton see poetry for its aesthetic qualities and recognize that it as a product of social consciousness, but members of the middling classes realize that art, especially literature, is an industry. This is epitomized by Branghton Sr., who sees poetry and literature as something produced by writers and publishers and sold for profit.

Unfortunately for Macartney, he has no publisher and so makes no profit. Evelina, who pities his plight and is charmed by the aesthetics of his work, lends him money. Later, when he repays his debt (after using her as the subject of a poem without her prior knowledge), he causes something of a stir. That he chooses to conduct the transaction at an unsuitable time, in a public and inconvenient place, leaves Evelina open to public scrutiny.

However, even the unwritten rules of social expectation and conduct have exceptions. Bad news about monetary situations often got around, legitimately or not, but eighteenth century Britain’s greatest exception to their unwritten rules of monetary conduct was the marriage market. Commenting on the size (or lack thereof) of a young woman’s dowry was considered perfectly acceptable. What would appear to be an instance where the buffer zone is crossed turns out to be normal and a topic for conversation, even in polite circles. Indeed, when all of Evelina’s troubles are resolved and her marriage to Lord Orville is arranged, Mrs. Selwyn quite easily and unapologetically tells her that her father has given her a dowry in the amount of L30,000. This news is not so much shocking to the heroine as it perplexing; the causal mention of finances in everyday, if occasional, conversation goes unnoticed.

This double standard is very confusing and somewhat hypocritical, but can be understood. Evelina inhabits a world almost completely ruled by the elite of society — they create the rules and boundaries, including buffer zone between themselves and the middling and working classes whose work supports them. Burney’s genius is in satirizing her society by subtly (and not-so-subtly) pointing out its faults, vices and hypocrisies. The buffer zone, while a source of constant attack and embarrassment for the characters, allows the reader to see the fascinating dichotomies of eighteenth-century Britain.

All quotes taken from the 1992 Penguin Books edition of Evelina.

19th Century Working Women (as told by Rebecca Harding Davis)

In the young and industrializing United States, the effects of Republican Motherhood and what Jeanne Boydston termed the “pastoralization of housework” led to a new ideology among the emerging idle middle class. Broadly, this class saw itself as prosperous and virtuous; it saw the working classes, and working women in particular, as promiscuous at best and wicked at worst. Rebecca Harding Davis, herself a member of the middle class, used fiction to attempt to combat this stereotype and create empathy between the classes by introducing a working woman named Deborah in Life in the Iron-Mills. However, while Davis’ portrayal of Deborah was a short-term success, it ultimately failed because it reinforced the existing gender system.

Deborah is presented as the victimized working woman instead of the depraved and promiscuous slut. Both stereotypes are middle class creations, but Davis chose one over the other to criticize class inequalities and prejudice toward immigrants. Accordingly, Deborah is described as a new immigrant worn beyond her years, a hunchback and loyal and caring to a fault. Davis knew that in order for a middle class woman to empathize with her character, said character had to be the exact opposite of what the reader expected. Deborah is thus shown in a positive light — while the other women who work at the mills go off to party and drink, Deborah goes home to tend to her family, returning to the mills to deliver dinner to her brother. This similarity allowed middle class readers to view Deborah as human, creating a sense of empathy for those who are oppressed only by a capitalist system and not through any cause of nature.

Most Western ideological systems exist only by binary oppositions and the nineteenth-century gender system was no exception. In order to prove domestic bliss as a wife and mother was the ideal, the system needed something to define itself against. Under this ideology, women were, as Boydston wrote, “ill-equipped to venture into the world of nineteenth-century business”; if wives and mothers who kept to their houses were the ideal, then women who worked outside of the home were somehow abnormal. They were even considered not to be women because they displayed traits more commonly reserved for men, the “breadwinners” who dwelt in the duplicitous and cunning outside world. Women who sought employment outside the home were symbolic threats to this concept of manhood and male authority.

Reality however, as Davis knew, was very different; through Deborah, she presents a woman who had theoretical possibility to be any woman. Despite this, however, Deborah lives up to this idealized standard; she is the “victimized heroine” injected with a shot of harsh reality, a way for her to pacify her middle class readers while still managing to convey her message about class inequality. Davis exacerbates this implicit claim by redeeming Deborah in the end, showing her audience that all the working woman lacks to be live up to the middle class standard of womanhood is material goods. By humanizing Deborah, and by extension working women in general, she sets up the middle class standard as the norm.

Was this Davis’ intention? Possibly. Davis may have redeemed Deborah as form of polite and discreet mockery. It seems more likely, though, that Deborah’s redemption is another aspect added to create empathy — and in this Davis succeeded.

However, Davis was a middle class woman representing a working class woman; her representation was slightly off kilter from the ways in which working class women presented themselves. Fanny Fern was much more straightforward, her style blunt and succinct. She is angry, not philosophical. Nor does she merely want to invoke pity. Instead, Fern wanted to force the “rose colored glasses of ideology” from the faces of the middle class. These women, she argued, are laborers and they are still women.

Fern refused to draw a line between womanhood and labor. Instead, she and others posited that the “romance of labor” was a fiction and the girls of Lowell Mills, who received so much attention, were not so much laborers in hard industry but country girls of New England. Middle class society did not wish to see reality and so created a fiction that worked within their ideology. It was easier to see working women as women who could not or would not keep to their homes, instead of women working to support themselves or their families.

To give Davis her due, she did strip away the fiction to show the true horror and horrendous necessity of factory life. Unfortunately, she maintained the romance of labor via her ending. Any working woman would have known that intervention by a kindly Quaker was unlikely; within the realm of possibility, but highly improbable. Davis’ happy ending is not realistic, but it did appeal to her readers. Deborah’s constant and selfless suffering is rewarded with an elevation, via material goods, to the middle class through the intervention of a well-meaning middle class woman. It may have been a cry to the public to act, to alleviate the conditions of people working in the mills, but it ultimately reinforced middle class hegemony.

Erotica and Anaïs Nin

Anaïs Nin c. 1920s
(Wikimedia Commons)

“It is one thing to include eroticism in a novel or story and quite another to focus one’s whole attention on it.” — Anaïs Nin

Romance novels are the guilty pleasures of many women and, the Bookish Miss suspects, a few men. In fact, according to one report, the number of those novels being read is going up thanks to e-readers like Kindle and Nook.

Not that there’s anything wrong with this, mind you. Several scholars and writers, Eloisa James in particular, have made excellent arguments as to why romance novels remain not only popular but important — and those points are excellently made. However, it is one thing to read stories that encompass the erotic in and of itself (whether or not actual sexual acts are involved), and another to read something where the entire plot hinges on, or is designed to facilitate, erotic acts.

Anaïs Nin knew this. Much of her erotica reflects her subtle manipulation of what the reader expects, giving pieces of the story but not the whole, because her purpose was to create an atmosphere in which any character could operate. This is what titillates the reader of erotica — the peek into the life of a character who, in some respects, could be anyone. Thus the reader becomes the voyeur, subsumed in a maze conflicting feelings that ends with a certain vicarious form of emotional release.

Nin specialized in stories that deal in some way with the sexual awakening of a woman. Men do appear in these stories, even as the narrator in a few cases, but ultimately the limelight rests on a female character. In The Woman on the Dunes, for example, a sexually frustrated man finds release with a nameless stranger — but her recollection of an erotic experience in the past dwarfs the immediate encounter. Time and again, it is the story of women and their relationships with other women and men that predominate; the atmosphere and point of view are usually so well developed that few readers miss the lack of a well-defined male character.

Nin’s characters also run the gamut of female sexuality and experience. From the violently confused Lina in Lina, to the frigid Dorothy in Two Sisters, who finds pleasure only when it does not harm her sister, to the careless and promiscuous whore Bijou in The Queen, Nin’s female characters embody their sexuality even when trying to reject it. And perhaps that is one of Nin’s messages — even more important than the implied belief that only women can truly know women, Nin shows that these women can never dismiss their sexuality because it is rooted in their bodies.

Some academics and feminists find the idea of female sexuality being rooted in physicality troubling; others, liberating. So what does that mean for the reader?

For some, nothing, they enjoy the story and go on with life without contemplating why it resonates. Others take away the idea that sexuality is natural no matter who your partner may be, that problems happen and innocence irrevocably passes away to become a bittersweet memory.

On the other hand, because Nin’s characters are often shown as being mired in their bodies, as objects of sexual attraction, some take away the idea that she objectifies women. That said, the very depth granted to her female characters, and denied the male characters, would in a sense appear to objectify the men. Because it is usually a man who awakens a woman’s sexual and erotic feelings in Nin’s stories, readers could walk away assuming that men are ones with the power to do so.

However, turning this idea on its head is the way Nin’s female characters relate to men later on. The heroine of A Model, who first experiences erotic pleasure with a girlfriend while still in early adolescence, is sexually awakened by three men she later regards as “children” — which would oppose the idea that men have some sort of (unspoken) power. Men may awaken women, and may be considered adequate lovers, but a constant undercurrent throughout Nin’s stories is that men never fully understand a woman’s sexual and erotic needs once she becomes aware of her own desire.

Perhaps Nin meant to reaffirm the mystique of woman, while at the same time giving women a sense of personal superiority — that they are something that men can never really know.

For me personally, none of these things really come to mind. As I read the tales she wove, I’m struck by the depth of emotion and feeling that she conveys in so little space. Her work is sensuous in the full meaning of the word; she is not only erotic but tactile, you feel as if you are present in the story. Nin’s stories do more than tell the tale, they make the reader feel the sand beneath a character’s feet, smell the incense, see the wind blowing through the trees, taste the sweet wine and hear the sounds of an ecstatic lover.

This, then, is what makes Nin’s erotica singularly erotic. Despite her brevity she does not skimp on the details — and her stories are all the more intense for it.

the BBC’s top 100 books

About a month ago, The Written Nerd posted a list of the BBC’s Top 100 books. The instructions are as follows:

Copy this into your NOTES. Bold those books you’ve read in their entirety, italicize the ones you started but didn’t finish or read an excerpt. Tag other book nerds. Tag me as well so I can see your responses …

The Bookish Miss just couldn’t resist seeing how she stacked up, especially since her friend Elizabeth, over at Travels With Books, did it too.

1. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen

2. The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien

3. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte

4. Harry Potter series – JK Rowling (all)

5. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

6. The Bible

7. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte

8. Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell

9. His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman

10. Great Expectations – Charles Dickens

11. Little Women – Louisa M Alcott

12. Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy

13. Catch 22 – Joseph Heller

14. Complete Works of Shakespeare

15. Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier

16. The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien

17. Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks

18. Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger

19. The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger

20. Middlemarch – George Eliot

21. Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell

22. The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald

23. Bleak House – Charles Dickens

24. War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

25. The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

26. Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh

27. Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

28. Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck

29. Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

30. The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame

31. Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy

32. David Copperfield – Charles Dickens

33. Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis

34. Emma – Jane Austen

35. Persuasion – Jane Austen

36. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – CS Lewis

37. The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini

38. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Berniere (this one is actually on my current to-read list!)

39. Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden

40. Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne

41. Animal Farm – George Orwell

42. The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown (wish I hadn’t!)

43. One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

44. A Prayer for Owen Meaney – John Irving

45. The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins

46. Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery

47. Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy

48. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

49. Lord of the Flies – William Golding

50. Atonement – Ian McEwan

51. Life of Pi – Yann Martel

52. Dune – Frank Herbert

53. Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons

54. Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen

55. A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth

56. The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon

57. A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens

58. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

59. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon

60. Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

61. Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck

62. Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

63. The Secret History – Donna Tartt

64. The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold

65. Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas

66. On The Road – Jack Kerouac

67. Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy

68. Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding

69. Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie

70. Moby Dick – Herman Melville

71. Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens

72. Dracula – Bram Stoker

73. The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett

74. Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson

75. Ulysses – James Joyce

76. The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

77. Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome

78. Germinal – Emile Zola

79. Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray

80. Possession – AS Byatt

81. A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens

82. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell

83. The Color Purple – Alice Walker

84. The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro

85. Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert

86. A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry

87. Charlotte’s Web – EB White

88. The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Albom

89. Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

90. The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton

91. Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad

92. The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery

93. The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks

94. Watership Down – Richard Adams

95. A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole

96. A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute

97. The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas

98. Hamlet – William Shakespeare

99. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl

100. Les Miserables – Victor Hugo

Not too shabby, if I do say so myself.

This list includes some of the greatest books in the English (or any other) language — and if you haven’t read them, you should. Unfortunately, it also includes Dan Brown, who I wouldn’t even trust to write, let alone proofread, a menu.

However, I was surprised to see that nothing by Eudora Welty or Toni Morrison made the list. Welty I can sort of understand since she specialized in short stories (although her novel, The Optimist’s Daughter, won a Pulitzer in 1973), but I’ve always considered Morrison to be one of the best writers of the twentieth century. Morrison’s work, especially Song of Solomon and Beloved, rank right up there with others on this list. Both she and Welty are stupendous writers; their characters are real, and they deal with themes that stretch far beyond their stories’ plots. Both make the reader feel like they are part of the story.

Not sure why they didn’t make the cut and Dan Brown did, but I, personally, think both should have. For that matter, where are Katherine Anne Porter, Guy de Maupassant, Mary Shelley, O. Henry and Edgar Allan Poe?

What other books were left off? Are there books you think shouldn’t have made the list?

60 second book review: “Borderlands”

Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera is, perhaps obviously, about borders — of language, culture, sexuality, gender, class, spirituality, race, belief, religion, history, literature, family, ethics and morality. In other words, lots of fun stuff. This book is incredibly relevant to the way we live in the new millennium, not just with respect to race, class and culture, but to sex, gender and belief as well. Investors and analysts and politicians talk a lot about globalization and the global economy, but what they seem to ignore is that we are many people with many beliefs. We are not so much a global society as a border society, and those borders are not limited to the physical and geographical. Anzaldúa realizes this; in fact, I would say that Borderlands/La Frontera, while about living along the U.S./Mexico border, is about everything but that. It’s about what happens when cultures and beliefs collide, when capitalism and racism combine to disenfranchise those the dominant race considers Other. It’s also explains how even among the Other one can be even more Other, to the extent of seeming monstrous.

“The struggle has always been inner, and is played out in the outer terrains … nothing happens in the real world unless it first happens in the images in our heads,” she writes. We constantly live with divided loyalties, just as we may live with multiple oppressions, and Anzaldúa knows this. Her entire point is to exult in these borders — because it is when we are conscious of these borders that we connect with other people.

Even her language bears this out; she writes mainly in English (the language of the dominant group, the language she learned from childhood that was “correct”), but adds bits in Castilian, Tex-Mex and Nahuatl. This has the effect of marginalizing readers, making them feel Other, but more than that it allows Anzaldúa to rejoice in the way her world has many borders. It that allows her to claim — whether with “permission” or not — pieces of each culture. By doing so, by embracing and exulting in the smoky, hazy, ambiguous borders, she is creating culture and religion and belief and gender and sex … and inviting us to do the same.

[Bookish Note: 60 second reviews are not written in 60 seconds; they’re not really designed to be read in 60 seconds either, although they probably could be. They are so called because they short and to the point. It’s all about getting down to brass tacks, really. Oh, and just to be safe, no one sent me this book, it was bought with my own hard-earned cash.]